Monday, 25 January 2010

There isn’t much point in writing about hot weather. Old friend Ryszard Kapuscinski did it better than anyone. Try this, about trying to sleep on a tropical night in Accra:

It is too stuffy. Damp, sticky air fills the room. But then, it’s not air. It’s wet cotton. Inhale, and it’s like swallowing a ball of cotton dipped in warm water. It’s unbearable. It nauseates, it prostrates, it unhinges. The mosquitoes sting, the monkeys scream. Your body is sticky with sweat, repulsive to touch. Time stands still. Sleep will not come. At six in the morning, the same invariable six in the morning all year round, the sun rises. Its rays increase the dead steam-bath closeness. You should get up. But you don’t have the strength. You don’t tie your shoes because the effort is bending over is too much. You feel worn out like an old pair of slippers. You feel used up, toothless, baggy. You are tormented by undefined longings, nostalgias, dusky pessimisms. You wait for the day to pass, the night to pass, for all of it, damn it all to hell, to finally pass.

Recife in high summer is a bit like this, minus the monkeys. Particularly if you’re coming back from the frozen north. At first it is a blessing – waiting on the tarmac at Guarulhos Airport for my connection home (home!) the sun hits my face for the first time in what feels like months and I feel instantly, gloriously revived. Winter clothes are shed and the body feels pounds lighter and more supple – I feel as though I could almost fly the 2000kms or so to Pernambuco simply by leaping into the air and flapping my arms.

But that’s São Paulo, where it doesn’t often get all that hot and where it rains enough to create breaks in the heat. Recife is different. Recife in January and February and March is pure, unadulterated heat – heat so thick you might touch it, so thick you have to push your way through it. In the morning things are better, particularly very early. There is a breeze off the sea and the clouds scud happily over the coastal plain. From up on the Alto Da Sé things already look ominous over downtown Recife - oddly, the weather often seems to be nicer, or at least lighter, in Olinda, than it does down in Boa Vista and Recife Antigo and Derby, where great piles of black clouds trap the heat in. By afternoon the same clouds are over Olinda, as thick as clotted blood, and by night walking around is much like Ryszard puts it – like lying in a hot tent and zipping up your sleeping bag up over your head and lying there and very slowly breathing in and out..

But however hot it is, and despite my heat-induced menopausal swollen ankles, it’s better than the cold. I should know – I’ve just suffered five weeks of it, and no amount of nice cups of tea make it any better. The endless grey-black skies, stretching for miles, right up to the foreboding bulk of the Mournes, sap the spirit, making it hard to believe that a person could in any way be happy here. The wind chills you to your bones, making even simple pleasures like a stroll or a drink or a cigarette out of doors an agonising torture. Blasted and beaten down by all this climatic brutality, the streets are empty – people scurry from car to house to shop to work with no time to talk or smile or exchange a greeting. Instead scowls and scrunched up faces are the standard defence against the biting cold. It’s hard to describe and easy to underestimate how the weather affects our moods and our personalities. Perhaps a good example, and always remembering that national stereotyping is an ugly ally, is that sitting in the Esquina Do Sol bar down the road, under the stars and the palm trees, feeling the warm air on my face, I watch a hugely fat and somewhat scantily clad woman clamber to her feet and dance (carnaval is coming and the sap is rising), and I can’t help but imagine the stonily silent Finns supping on their lonely vodkas, small talk emphatically eschewed, pondering their journeys home through frozen, empty streets.

Perhaps it’s best to leave the last words to Ryszard, with a few ripe observations on a hot night’s finest bed pal – a drink.

In the tropics, drinking is obligatory. In Europe, the first thing two people say when they meet is “Hello. What’s new?” When people greet each other in the tropics, they say “What would you like to drink?” They frequently drink during the daytime, but in the evening the drinking is mandatory, the drinking is premeditated. After all, it is the evening that shades into night, and it is the night that lies in wait for anyone reckless enough to have spurned alcohol. The tropical night is a hardened ally of all the world’s makers of whiskey, cognac, liqueurs, schnapps and beers, and the person who denies them their sales is assailed by the night’s ultimate weapon: sleeplessness. Insomnia is always wearing, but in the tropics it is killing. A person punished all day by the sun, by a thirst that can’t be satisfied, maltreated and weakened, has to sleep.

Finally, thanks again to The Friend From A Small Caribbean Island, now re-christened Antonio Conselheiro, on account of his fine work in leading a band of baseball playing pilgrims across the drylands of the nordeste. It was Antonio who put me on to Ryszard Kapuscinski in the first place, even though, ironically and probably wisely, he refuses to let nary a drop of whiskey, cognac, liqueur, schnapps or beer pass his lips. He’s probably a better man for it.

1 comment:

PercyAyer said...