Sunday, January 9, 2011

Living Here: Cold

May, 1994: I was working on a project on the floating ice of the Chukchi Sea, north of Barrow, Alaska, where the temperature was well below zero. My recollection of this "siesta" lying atop a snow machine amidst ice and snow is a memory of feeling quite warm, hot actually. I was resting for a few moments in order to cool down.

December, 2010: I awoke chilled enough some mornings in my Mérida bedroom that I didn't want to get out from beneath the blanket. My nose, sticking out above the covers, felt cold. I knew that when I put my feet down on the hard tile floor it would feel very cold. One of these mornings when I finally got up and checked the thermometer in the patio right outside my bedroom, the temperature was 19 degrees Celsius, or about 66 F.

How is it that a person who grew up in cold climates finds himself chilly at a temperature which a few years in the past may have had him running around barefoot and in shorts? I suppose it has to do with the amazing adaptability of human beings, what we are accustomed to and what we expect.

It's interesting to walk in Mérida centro on a cool evening, comfortably dressed in short sleeves, and notice that many others are wearing sweaters and jackets, with scarves (bufandas, one of my favorite words in Spanish) tightly wrapped around their necks or even over their noses and mouths.

Often a frente frío, cold front, rates big play in the local newspapers, which feature photos of Yucatecans bundled up to face the winter chill. Here is an image of two front-page headlines from Mérida's Diario de Yucatán a couple of weeks ago. The lower headline warns the public, "The cold will be 12C (54F) today."

As I was walking one fresh morning recently I noticed a street sweeper at work along Calle 59, wearing gloves, long pants, and a long-sleeved sweatshirt with hood pulled up over the top of his baseball cap so only his visor and face were exposed. I was moving at an easy pace on the shady side of the street, but not slow enough to keep from getting a little damp under my short-sleeved cotton polo shirt. This guy was exercising hard with his big broom, and appeared to be quite comfortable all bundled up. It's amazing to me that two people can feel and react so differently to the same weather circumstances.

Due to the cold, some schools here in December gave students permission to arrive a half-hour late for morning classes. The early morning temperature was in the range of 10 - 13 degrees Celsius, or about 50 - 55 F. A friend of mine who teaches in an elementary school in Mérida tells me that absenteeism is very high on these days.

Meanwhile, my friend and former neighbor Sally Donaldson posted this picture on her Facebook page, showing the view from my old neighborhood in Juneau. This was a "warm" winter day I think, with the temperature hovering just around freezing, lots of moisture in the air and snow or freezing rain possible at any moment.

Normally when the weather is like this in Juneau, we hope for a stretch of clear days. Then the sun shines and without an insulating layer of low clouds the temperature drops. The roads and walks remain free of ice and snow. The result is that driving and outdoor activities are more pleasant, so people go outdoors to hike, ski and play. That is quite a contrast to scenes of Yucatecans "freezing" amongst the flowers and palm trees at much warmer temperatures.

Why the contrast? It has a lot to do with what we are used to. For those who have always lived in a climate where most of the year their bodies are wrapped in a sweaty envelope of intense heat and high humidity (read earlier post here), a front of cooler, dry air can seem very cold. And there is a psychological element as well. It's winter. It's chilly. Brrrrrrr! Must be time to bundle up.

I am not belittling peoples' reactions to the cold here. There are areas of Yucatán where the winter temperatures sometimes reach almost to freezing. Homes are designed for a hot climate, not cold. The same qualities that make homes comfortable most of the year (airflow, open space, high ceilings) make them drafty and chilly in winter weather. And virtually no homes in Yucatán have heat. Many do not have hot water.

In addition, families of limited means simply don't have the money to devote to sweaters, jackets and blankets, especially with a cool season that is relatively short. Many are doing well if they keep food on the table, keep the lights burning and can provide their children with adequate shoes and clothing. Buying winter clothing is just not feasible.

Personally, although I sometimes marvel at how I have adapted to the Yucatecan heat, the cool weather of December and January doesn't bother me. But I don't swim from November until about March. When visitors from the north show up, they want to jump in the pool or go to the beach. I hang out with them, but generally I don't go in. Although in Alaska I swam in water cold enough to have ice floating in it without feeling particularly distressed, here the unheated pool or ocean in winter feels uncomfortable. And I do find myself grabbing a sweater at times when the temperature is not really what we would consider "sweater weather" up north. I have gotten to the point where I do as the locals do, I guess.

Interestingly, when I travel north into winter weather, I feel fine. It seems I have expanded my comfort range rather than shifted it, but a chilly winter morning still seems a lot colder in Yucatán than in Alaska. Of course how we deal with weather has a lot to do with experience, having appropriate clothing and a variety of other factors. However, I have begun to think that psychology and our expectations have a lot more to do with how we react to weather than we normally give credit for.


  1. What an interesting analysis by one who should know. I suppose you could find two more drastically different climates, but Alaska v. Yucatan? Pretty drastic difference.

    Oddly, because I've only spent about 11 weeks in Yucatan this last year, I am finding that my ability to tolerate cold is greatly diminished. At the same time, my ability to tolerate heat has improved.

    What I can't seem to abide when it is cold is a gray sky. In Yucatan, when it's balmy, a gray sky, a rainy day, is a treat. Here, in winter, it's reason for despair and I want to bury myself under the covers.

    I do feel for the folks unaccustomed to such cold. This has been a tough winter.

  2. Last year when we stayed in Garcia Gineres, Mary went for a swim in the pool at the home where we stayed, the day after we arrived. It was about 72ºF. The neighbors were stunned, and certain she would die of the chills.


  3. It is all relative, in the fall here in Ohio we are cold when it is 55 degrees out but come spring, 55 is t-shirt weather.


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