Sunday, March 30, 2008

Tropical Summer

It is the end of March, and summer in Thailand is full upon us. Thinking, outside the protection of air-conditioning, is becoming strained. Walking any distance in the full blast of it produces a weak-kneed, shaky effect, and an unbidden hoping to god that one will be spared long enough to make it to one’s destination. Even Thais may be observed to sweat profusely. Soon the temperatures will reach extremes that weather usually reserves for catastrophic events. The pace of life will slow to a crawl; it will actually stop in the rural areas. Summer, full summer, is mercifully the briefest of the three seasons in Thailand. Soon, a month or two, it will start to rain on a regular basis and it will become merely hot. Now we will endure the two months or so when natural reason bursts its bonds and subjects us to hellish, brutal tropical heat at the height of its powers.

In summer, even Thais take on a fairly wilted aspect, and those of us whose blood is of European stock may appear to be in a state of impending organ failure. My family background is of Irish, English and German blood, and nothing in that heritage prepares me in the least for the onslaught. My skin becomes reddish and blotchy, my back is a mask of prickly heat, and I sweat like a person in a horror movie, a person who has been cursed by Gypsy to melt to death. The Germans, in their quest for perfection, have a word for it: verschwitzen (“death by sweating”).

After the usual polite greeting, many Thais will adopt a serious expression and ask, “wron, mai ka?” (“Hot, isn’t it?”) At first, my first Thai summer, I thought that they were just sympathizing with the guest in their country, but I came to realize that it is actually the acknowledgement of a shared adversity. Thais themselves are, naturally, just as uncomfortably hot as anyone, and they can be seen to share this expression of solidarity with each other as well as with guests from more hospitable climes.

The Songkran holiday is a couple of weeks away. This is the traditional Thai New Year, celebrated in addition to world New Year in January and Chinese New Year in February, an orgy of New Years! The celebration of Songkran goes on for several days, it varies from one to five depending on where you are in Thailand. The expression of Songkran is an explosion of flying water; you are encouraged to bless everyone you know or see by dumping water over them. For old people, just wet your fingers and sprinkle their shoulder; for friends with stronger constitutions you should pour a small cup over their shoulder or back; in the full power of it, the drunken hysteria of it, the I-can’t-take-this-heat-anymore desperation of it, it becomes a hurricane of hurled water, from cups or buckets, out of hoses, ice-water if possible, a giddy sharing of relief from the oppressive heat.

Yes, there are three seasons in Thailand: 1) hot (“Winter,” a local joke); 2) hot with rain (the “Rainy Season”); and 3) extremely hot (“Summer”). Given the “lemons” of debilitating heat, Thais have created the “lemonade” of Songkran. In one voice they thumb their collective noses at summer with a cheerful, cooling dousing with water. Thais have been hot for a long, long time, and they have learned a few things about making the best of it. I’m happy to go along, I’ll be as desperate for relief by then as anyone.

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