I’m Canadian. I’m used to bone-aching winters. My blood is thicker than the blood of people of other nationalities. I have words for winter clothing that are only understood in my country. I embrace the cold, the snow, and the challenge of living in a climate that many would run from. At least I thought I did.
Winter crept up on me. At first, it was just a little cold in the mornings. But getting out of bed is always a miserable experience, I told myself. The warm bundling of blankets can’t last forever. Nothing is permanent…not even warmth. So I chalked it up to good ol’ fashion morning reluctance to wake.
The days were absolutely gorgeous. The sun shone more brightly than I think I had previously seen it shine in Khaling, with not a single cloud in the sky to hide its radiance. Its rich blue sparkled and blinded me on my walk to and from school every day. I would find myself standing on top of the stairs in front of the school, looking out over the school’s football field, the town, the valley, and the vast expanse of mountains in the distance, left in awe by the heavenly view. It wasn’t cold as long as the sun was sharing its warmth. But when the sun grew tired and ducked below the mountains to gather its rest, the cold advanced on Khaling and left us all retreating for our homes.
The problem here is that homes are not heated. Many people here rely on bukaris, wood-burning stoves that act both as heaters and as stoves. The school staff room was home to a bukari, and I admit that I really enjoyed the heat that it generated, but I generally avoided being in the staff room when the bukari was being used because it not only generated a surprising amount of heat, but also a disgusting amount of smoke. I would often walk into the staff room to find a group of people gathered around the bukari in a thick haze of smoke. Upon entering the room my eyes would instantly burn and tear, but others seemed unfazed. I’m sure the smoke inhalation experienced by the crowd could not have been far off from that of a person pulled from a burning house. My lungs stung and a lump formed in the back of my throat. I decided the warmth was not worth it.
The other option for warming one’s home is electric heaters. I actually have two heaters in my house. One is a rod-heater, a little box with a coil that glows a mesmerizing fluorescent orange when switched on. The rod-heater is a great little treat when the toes start to go numb. When placed in front of the heater those little piggies could quickly become a delicious grilled pork dinner. The problem with this heater, however, is that it fails to radiate the heat and warm a room. If you are right in front of it, you’re doing great. If you’re more than a foot or two away from it, you really don’t feel its effects.
So I also have a panel heater, which is essentially a portable radiator. This gem is slow and steady, and trust me, it wins the race. Standing directly beside it will gently warm your bones, blood, or whatever needs to be thawed, but its true value lies in its ability to warm a room. Turn on the panel heater, close the door, and return one hour later to experience a comfortable warmth filling the air.
So there are possible sources of warmth, but they also become costly if used all the time. My electric bill for November was more than ten times what it was in October (granted, it went from one dollar to twelve dollars). It may not sound like much, but it’s all relative. So I compromised by using the panel heater for an hour before bed and wearing jackets and hats inside the house the rest of the time. If it’s still too cold I will obviously use a heater, and I find that is happening more and more often, but right now I’m coping with the compromise.
What is absolutely impossible to cope with (and to really express) is my daily chores. Washing dishes is torturous. I sometimes feel as if I might as well be holding ice cubes as I scrub away at the pots and pans. It burns and tingles like pins are pricking at my skin. After less than thirty seconds my fingers are bright pink and the rest of my hand is left looking jaundice in relation. The only solution (or at least partial solution) is to have a bowl of lukewarm water readily available to dip my hands in after each and every plate. This bowl, of course, must be refilled with boiling water on a regular basis, as the water cools almost instantly in the cold air that fills my kitchen.
So washing dishes is awful. But even worse than that is doing laundry. Remember, I do my laundry in a giant bucket of water. Well, now it is a giant bucket of ice water. And the water splashes here and there, inevitably soaking the clothes you’re wearing at the time. Not even the lukewarm bowl of water will help you this time, as your whole arm turns scarlet in the icy bucket. The only solution is to go fast and take breaks to recharge in the sunlight as frequently as possible. The winter has essentially made a miserable task unbearable.
And yet, I can’t help but laugh at the cold a lot of the time. Just as I have found other parts of this experience ridiculous, I also find the cold to be. I mean, imagine going to the bathroom and losing track of where the toilet is because the steam rising up from where your pee hits the frosty porcelain hides the toilet from your view. People in the west often hate on the squatter toilet, but I’m telling you, touching your cheeks to a toilet seat in this kind of cold is not something I would want to try even once. When winter hit I finally understood the logic behind the squatter toilet.
So what to do? Well I could keep bundling myself in layer upon layer of warm clothes; or I could run my heaters 24-hours a day and just take the financial hit; or I could subject my lungs to physical trauma comparable to that of a fire victim; or I could chop of my hands, thus avoiding the burden of doing laundry and the dishes.
Well I’ve come up with an even better solution. I call it “Operation Jump Ship.” To hell with the cold. I came here to experience new things. The cold is old news. I’m familiar with it, and I quite frankly don’t need it right now. What I need is some warmth to recharge my battery for next year. I will admit that by now I’m running on empty. Work has drained me emotionally and daily life has drained me physically. I’m giving myself a vacation – I think I deserve one – and luckily one of the world’s hottest countries is my next-door neighbour. So I’m off to India. I don’t have much of a plan. I will see some of the sights, I will explore some of the cities, I will relax on some of the beaches, and I will visit some friends. And more than anything else, I will stay warm.