Sunday, December 1, 2013

Some Like it Cold

After being so long in the tropics, you just naturally feel superior about enjoying our endless summer, but I was reminded back in the states that a lot of people can’t take the heat.
But first a final note on beer available back in Oregon and a sort-of apology for my first beer article. I forgot to mention a beer I tried named Swill. On the label it says, Beer guy, don’t take yourself so seriously. It was a lager flavored with citrus and, well, I have to tell you it lived up to its name, at least to my taste. I wouldn’t buy it again, but I’m sure there are a lot of people like myself who have to try it at least once, so I expect they’ll do alright.
Thinking back on my first article on beer titled, They Don’t Like Good Beer, I have to admit that was pretty arrogant of me. A friend characterized my attitude as harsh or maybe brutal was how he put it. I did try to make clear that there’s no accounting for taste and everybody is different. I mean, you can’t help it if you like swill. It’s just one of those things. Moreover, being a geezer means I have special privileges and can get away with saying and doing things not allowed for you young’uns. We old farts have lots of space to be as ornery, opinionated and cantankerous as we wish. Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, lets move on.
The night before I left Oregon the temperature got down to 40ºF – -4ºC – quite cool for October 9. Except for a few days in mid-September when it was hot and a few more near the end of my trip when it was just warm enough to be friendly, I felt chilled most the time. Still, for a lot of people cold is far preferred over hot. A friend, who said her body temperature was naturally high, told me she got positively ill when the temperature reached up into the 80s – above 27ºC. I told her she could only visit Cambodia at night in December and January. When it got above 90F – 32C – almost everybody was complaining... while I could finally relax. At least I didn’t feel cold. Becoming old and decrepit is also a factor, it just gets harder to deal with the cold as you age; hot is simply a lot easier for us. If it’s really baking you can hit the hammock and make yourself a breeze. Other people here have to have their air-con but still prefer here to coldness. Personally, I don’t care about the heat, I continue on as I would otherwise; I won’t purposely choose to ride my bike or take a walk in the hot mid-day sun, but I also won’t think twice if it needs to be.
Before I go on I need to put in a plug for Fahrenheit, though I know it’s a totally lost cause – only the US and four other small countries around the Caribbean still use it. In all respects other than ambient temperature, the metric system is the only way to go. Sadly, in doing research for this article I was disabused of a notion about Fahrenheit that I’d maintained all my life. Until Wikipedia straightened me out, I was convinced that old man Fahrenheit, who lived in southern Germany, measured the temperature at his home for 5 years and placed the lowest temperature at zero (-18ºC) and the highest at one hundred (38C). It sounded totally plausible but turned out to be completely wrong.
Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit was Dutch. He placed 0º at the freezing point of brine and 100º was body temperature. After some minor fiddling around to match up freezing at 32º and boiling at 212º, body temperature turned out to be 98.6º F. I still think in inches, etc., but only because I’m used to it, not because it makes sense, but I think Fahrenheit is a better scale for everyday temperatures. Zero to 100 makes more sense than -18 to +38 and being a bigger scale allows for more accuracy. 28C could be 81, 82, or 83F since temperatures are rarely quoted in decimals. And if you say 70sF you know it’s cool to warm; whereas if you say 20sC you’d be talking about cool to hot. You’d have to qualify it by saying low 20s, etc. At any rate, here’s a simple conversion: 28C is 82F, 35C is 95F. And don’t mind me if I can’t help thinking in Fahrenheit, I’m just set in my ways.
Back on track, I can’t imagine anyone actually saying they like it hot, especially hot and humid. That includes everyone who’s here to escape the cold. We accept it and deal with it but it isn’t something we love. There may be one exception. Some years ago in Portland I was selling recycled metal at a scrap yard on a hot summer day over 90. One of the funky guys working there was wearing a padded vest so I couldn’t resist asking him why. He said he had a back problem and the only time it didn’t hurt was when he kept it hot. Otherwise, it’s really just a trade-off. I’ll accept the unpleasant hot so I don’t have to deal with the jittery, shivery cold. Besides, the times when it’s almost insufferably torrid here with sweat running out of every pore when you’re not even moving are balanced by the times when it’s a perfect balmy 80 or 82 degrees or so. Add a coolish breeze coming off the river here in Kampot and, well it just doesn’t get any better.
Portland’s climate also has its good points. It doesn’t freeze very often, so you rarely have to bundle up. Summer’s great with only a few really hot days and hardly any rain and except for those few hot days it feels fresh, bright and clean. For that you have to deal with six months of cool, dark, cloudy, misty, rainy, cabin-fever winter. In a cold climate, you generally keep your house cool to minimize the contrast to the outside and to save money and energy. As a result you (I) almost always feel a little chilled and edgy, without being able to fully relax.
In my earlier days I sought out the cold. At 18 I left my family in LA (we had just moved there a year or so earlier from Ohio) and migrated to New York. It seemed that the only thing people in California could talk about was how great it was to live in a warm climate, as if that was the only valid reason for choosing a place to live. It felt so vacuous and intellectually stultifying, especially when added to being in pastel fifteen-suburbs-in-search-of-a-city Los Angeles.
Cold is challenging, it’s brisk, fresh and energizing and if you’re prepared for it, no big deal. I spent years working outdoors in Portland. Even if it’s only 5 to 10C (40 to 50F) you don’t feel it if you’re working and staying active. On this last trip I was out on a day when a big storm came through. It was blustery, sideways-rainy and cold; altogether miserable is the only way to describe it. But also no big deal, if that’s what you’re into. Most people would hide away indoors on such a day, but I also saw people out riding bikes. I walked about 100 meters in the heavy (for Portland) rain and barely felt wet compared to being out in a Kampot downpour for about 5 seconds. At the Oregon coast, those stormy days carry a real punch: it rains a lot more and the winds routinely get up to 70mph – 110kph. It’s great fun…but only for a short time until you are thoroughly soaked and chilled.
Cold, perforce brings innovation and requires energy. There are lots of homeless people in LA where it’s almost always warm and quite a few in Portland where it’s uncomfortable for much of the year but not really cold, but in Saskatoon or Fairbanks, where the temperature easily gets down to -40 (F and C meet at -40) there is no such thing as being homeless, at least not in the winter.
In a cold climate, you must have heat, survival depends on it. In a hot climate you don’t have to have air-conditioning: You’ll certainly be uncomfortable, but you can live without it. You don’t even need four walls, just a roof for the rain and sun and something to keep the wind from howling through.
The following story illustrates the attitudes of some, possibly many rural Cambodians and maybe countryside people in other tropical countries. A do-gooder type set up a little factory in a small village with the idea of providing steady employment and paying the villagers well. He trained them in the work and was going to improve their lives. Everything went well in the beginning, he paid their first salaries, he was proud of himself. But the next day nobody showed up for work. When asked why they didn’t go to work they said that he paid so well, they had enough money to last for a while and that they’d return when they ran out of money.
I’m not sure where I remember that story from; it could well be a myth, but it does reflect an attitude that’s possible in a tropical place where life is naturally easy. Easy in the sense that it doesn’t take a lot to survive, not that rural people don’t have it hard in many other ways. The number of rural Cambodians who spend long hours working in garment factories belies the truth of that story to some extent, but it’s still a plausible scenario. There are, of course, lots of hardworking Cambodians, including many who out in the hot sun, but it’s still somehow easier than it would be to do the same work in freezing conditions.
In contrast, here’s a story from my time living in a hippie commune in southern Oregon. We lived in the mountains in homemade houses. It’s rarely very cold there because it’s relatively close to the Pacific Ocean so has a marine climate. As a result, many houses were not very tightly constructed, you know, plenty of air spaces through the siding and of course no insulation. One fellow spent a lot of time bragging about how great it was to have fresh air coming through to the inside. Besides, he would say, if it’s a little cool inside you can always hang out by the wood stove. Then one of those rare frigid air systems from the interior came barreling through with temperatures of 15F (-9C) and pushing the marine air out to the ocean. You never saw anybody work so diligently and speedily plugging all those fresh air holes… even though the frigid air was only going to last a few days.
Cold demands action while hot is conducive to inaction. Cold puts you on your toes while hot sets you flat on your back or in that idyllic hammock. Cold sets your teeth on edge and numbs your toes, heat brings sweat to your eyes and nose and clothes.
When I finally left New York for good, after bouncing back and forth between there and LA for ten years, I set off for northern California where the hippie commune, back-to-the-land movement was centered, besides I had friends there. I soon discovered that it was too expensive and close to the big city to allow for a truly self-reliant country lifestyle, so I moved further north and away from the city in stages till I landed in southern Oregon. Each stage was an improvement but still not enough for me; I wanted something colder, hardier and more remote where urban influences had less sway and masses of people couldn’t descend on you and hang out forever because the climate was so mild. You can’t lollygag when it’s really cold, you’ve got to get with the program.
From Oregon I made about a dozen exploratory forays out to the cold interior Pacific Northwest, mostly on my thumb. Probably half to two-thirds of the 70,000 miles of hitching I did from 1968 to 1980 was for the purpose of finding that perfect cold-country place. I was out in all weather, including in very cold places, and without money since I was a bona fide penniless hippie and that was the only way I could go. For all that, I never found my frigid fantasy homesite and was fated to live in cool, rainy Oregon for the next 22 years. As it happens, it was the perfect place for me for a lot of reasons and another lesson in going with the flow, which is not so easy when you’re young and trying to make your place in the world. What you really want may not be what you cosmically need and the more you fight against reality the less likely you are to find happiness.
And now for twelve years I’ve been here in forever sweaty Cambodia where the temperature rarely goes below 20C – 68F. There’s a time for everything, but I sure hope that doesn’t include returning to the ‘cold’, even if it’s only ‘cool’ Oregon.
My latest book, A Hitchhiker’s Tao, is based on my extensive thumbing experience and a large part is focused on my cold quest. It’s available only as an ebook and most easily purchased from… Look for Stan Kahn.

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