Extremes of Weather – and Human Adaptability

It was the year 1976, in mid-January. I was shortly to leave for Dublin to begin my specialist studies in surgery. At that time I was Resident Medical Officer to Dr Steven Keating, Orthopaedic Surgeon at the SSR National Hospital, himself a Dubliner who had chosen to spend his career in warmer climes, starting in India (Bangalore) during World War II, later the Gulf and ultimately Seychelles. A senior colleague, subsequently big brother and mentor, who had also studied in Dublin, contacted his former landlord in Rathfarnham, South Dublin, and fixed up my lodging arrangements.

In the days preceding my departure, Steven (for we had become very good friends during that one crucial year I spent working with him), kept telling me things about Ireland and Dublin in particular. I still remember the solid piece of advice that he gave me, knowing that I was making a stop in New Delhi on my way to Dublin: buy yourself one of those monkey-caps they sell in India – you know the type that you can pull over your head down to your neck, and cover your face such that only the tip of your nose sticks out so you can breathe! Because when you wake up and start out coming from under your thick blanket in Dublin, you want only your nose outside for a while before you pull yourself out of bed!

I reached Dublin on a cold grrrr!, gloomy afternoon towards the end of January, weighed down by the uncomfortably heavy black coat that big brother had used before (oh yes, so many things we took along with us there were passed on by big brother and his wife!), relieved to see my cousin who was studying at the Royal College of Surgeons waiting for me.

To this day, grey skies bother me. I have a picture taken from the window of my flat on the first floor that overlooked the hospital car park at the Pinderfields General Hospital in West Yorkshire where I worked. It was a bleak, utterly wintry afternoon and it had snowed the previous night. The roads were lined with slushy brown ice, and one can imagine the bleakness of the scene that presented itself before my eyes.

Just taking a quick look at that picture is enough to bring me back to those days and that dreary afternoon, and I shudder! As soon as we were done, we had decided, we would head back! And yet my destiny returned me to good old Curepipe – but of course the grey of Curepipe, which does not really last, is altogether different…

Luckily, as I was nearing the end of my stay in Dublin, at end-May/June, warmer days were already upon us, some days were in fact quite hot as I remember. And I also remember looking through the window of the hall of the RCS that faced Stephen’s Green on some of those hot days, and finding Dublin lassies sunning themselves in their bikinis which, I learnt, they wore to work specifically for the purpose. Poor things, how they must have been pining for those warm rays of the Sun to come!

And then we came over to London, to the summer of 1976, the likes of which England had not had for 40 years it was said. It was scorching for those who had never been used to this intensity of heat, and white skin is particularly sensitive to the sun’s rays, specially the ultra-violet rays. Because the English houses were geared for winter, with double-glazing of the windows and wall-to-wall carpets, that summer was really an intolerable one for them.

I do not remember whether there were health warnings, about heatstroke and dehydration, or even if there were any deaths reported. The excitement of being in London, more than comfortably taken complete care of by doting relatives, overrode all other considerations. Besides, since I had cleared my first surgical examination in Dublin at first shot, we were out to enjoy, and enjoy we did.

Because for us that was glorious weather: even if hot at times, and dry. Like the Delhi summer which is also hot and dry – but which, having ‘disadapted’ since coming back to Mauritius, I now find very oppressive. I have been in Delhi when the temperature was 47 degrees Celsius, and felt the tar sticking to the soles of my shoes as I walked. In that same heat, people used to – they still do – sit under a tree, prepare tea on an open fire, and drink it boiling hot, garam chai, in small earthenware cups! How on earth do they do that, gosh! – but they do!

But the hottest temperature to which I have been exposed is 55 degrees Celsius. That was in 1992, at the American Station in the Namib desert, which we a group of Commonweatlh Fellows were visiting on our way to Swakopmund out West on the Atlantic coast. I do not remember it as particularly bad, though.

I think the coldest I have been through was in Dublin. Now imagine the Eskimos, or the Lapps and the Scandinavians. Or the inhabitants of the Mongolian wilds, and the Siberians. But this is the human being: his body has learnt to adapt, through various means and devices. Like drinking warm Tibetan tongba in Darjeeling – a lightly alcoholic drink made from fermented mustard seeds, to which a Japanese friend I met there introduced me.

Now I read that England is going through another hot summer, with the temperature around 30-32 degrees. I am wont to say ‘come on guys, stop joking!’ But no, that range is dead serious for them, as it was a few years ago in France, with nearly 20,000 elderly people dying due to dehydration among others, it was reckoned. So besides sunning themselves and spending much time in the swimming pools, the people in England have been warned to take all the precautions to protect themselves from potential heatstrokes and dehydration especially.

In fact, health authorities have warned that what with climate change extreme summer heat is set to become the norm – and that they have to get better at preparing for it. Good advice that they need to abide by in the future.

Garam chai anyone?


* Published in print edition on 19 July  2013

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