Saturday, June 26, 2010

Cooling Down



"It's sweltering down there. It's a swamp, you know. Hot. Really hot. And muggy too." They all tried to warn me, but I dismissed them as softy Alaskans. Don't they see the blood running through my veins? I'm Vietnamese; I'm genetically predisposed for jungle-like weather. I'll be fine in New Orleans. I'll adjust.

And I will, it just hasn't happened yet.

My days thus far have gone something like this. Despite being a night owl, I'm awoken at around 8:30a.m. by the heat, penetrating through my windows, converting my air-conditionless bedroom into a convection oven. By that time, my dog Milo has left my side to lie on the cool tiles in the bathroom. I wake up, the arches of my feet soar from walking around town the day before (I have no car here). I turn on the fan and air conditioning in the living room, check my email, check my phone, check anything to procrastinate from doing what I need to do, which probably requires me entering the abyss--the abyss of still, damp, heat, characteristic of New Orleans in June.

New Orleans is unlike most hot places I have been to. I knew before moving here that it was going to feel toasty to my Alaska-acclimated body, but California is also hot, where I grew up, and so is Vietnam, where I lived for a year as an adult. And so are South and Central America, where I've spent months at a time as a traveler. But New Orleans is unusually flat and in many parts below sea level. It rarely catches a breeze. And, with the massive Mississippi River on one side, and Lake Ponchartrain on another, the humidity feels like a blanket.

Because I relocated just recently, there is still an abundance of errands I need to do, and random items I need to pick up. So, I do one round of errands per day, walking for about three hours at a time. And then I get home, and take a cold shower, and do some more unpacking and organizing. I'm inexplicably tired. I allow myself a nap, thinking it will be half an hour or so. Instead, I pass out into a coma-like sleep for two or three hours at a time. I wake up again when it is dark. And take another cold shower.

It's not been any easier for Milo-dog. He is restless for exercise, but the heat is debilitating for him too. I take him out for his morning pee and poo walk. In Alaska, Milo could hike three times more than I could, up hills of 2,000 feet elevation gain. But here, in New Orleans, he tugs me back to the house shortly after conducting his personal business, about three blocks from our apartment. Immediately upon our return, he beelines it to the front room, and plops himself directly in front of the air conditioner.

Yesterday, at 9:30am it was a cool 85 degrees, much lower than
it was going to be in another two hours. I extend our morning walk all the way to Audobon Park, 15 minutes away. Upon arrival I turn back immediately, and his tongue is dragging on the floor, dripping. He pulls me to the other side of the street with the type of urgency usually reserved for bathroom breaks. But instead of conducting his personal business, he pulls me to a small bit of shade he has identified under a truck. He conducts a sit-in and moves again only after five minutes of rest. I'm worried about Milo, but also comforted by the fact that the severity of the climate change I'm experiencing is not a product of my imagination, as exemplified by poor Milo's behavior.

This is not the first time my body has had to adjust to extreme temperatures. In Alaska, I learned a lot about my body's cooling and heating system, having moved there from New York City. My dedication to keeping warm increased moreso when I started ice climbing. I wore clothing in layers, and mostly of microfiber material. I slowed down immediately when I detected a sweat coming on, because I knew I could immediately catch a chill. I adopted strategies. And again I must do so now.

So I take cold showers in the daytime, and then I take my nap. And then I wake up to the night. I say to myself, "Okay, it's dark now; that means it's got to be at least five, maybe even ten whole degrees cooler!" And it is. An arctic 80 degrees. Now I can really start my day.

I put in another couple hours at the house, and I take little Milo out, who is much more amiable in these temperatures. It is dark and it is warm, a novelty for us Alaskans who experience darkness only in the cold, unforgiving winter, and virtual 24 hours of daylight or dusk in the evenings during the summer. And it never really gets hot in Alaska. Recently I spoke to an Alaskan friend on the phone who tells me there is a heat wave in Anchorage. A record 72 degrees. Panic is abound up there.

But here in New Orleans, I find the warmth of the night to be mild compared to the day, and comforting. It envelops me and soothes me, not like the offensively scorching temperatures of the day which seem to sabotage any efforts I have of being a normal human being. In the daytime I watch people jogging, tourists sightseeing, construction workers working. How do they do it? What do they know that I don't know? They look so normal, laughing, talking, all under the unforgiving sun.

For now, I resolve to do my sightseeing of the town in the evenings.
So I sit in the streetcar, all the windows open, and look at the mansions on St. Charles street, glowing with grandeur. I feel a breeze as the train car moves through the city. I get off at the last stop, and walk to the French Market. Lured by the activity inside and the aroma of its wares, I make a stop a Cafe Du Monde and munch on three beignets for $2.18.

I saunter through the plaza, and watch a man play songs on a set
of drinking glasses filled with water. I have my fortune told. I chat with a horse carriage driver who tells me of the ghosts living in his house. I meander through the tiny streets near the Cabildo, charmed by all the preserved buildings, many of which have black gas lamps hanging from them. Finally, back at my apartment I end my evening with another cold shower.

I was born a night owl. At the age of eight, I used to read books until 2:00am. In college, my most productive hours were from 1:00am onwards. By necessity, things changed when I entered professional life. Ten o'clock at night became late and I forced myself to sleep by 1:00am, sometimes with the aid of sleeping pills or herbal remedies.

But unemployment and extreme daytime heat have revived my true nighttime nature. Luckily, New Orleans is amenable to my disposition; there is no shortage of sights and sounds to occupy the night owl here.

I know that eventually I will have to get a day job here. And I also know that somehow, my body will adjust to 95 degree heat, and that I will learn to be productive during conventional hours. And maybe I'll even be able to go a day without three cold showers.

But for now, I belong to the warm New Orleans night.


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