I’ve acquired an entirely different perspective on heat, heating, and getting through the winter.
I have never thought about what winter is like in Nepal. There are places where it’s just warm all winter and everybody goes around as usual. There are others where it’s cold in the winter and they heat maybe even just one room at a time, usually the kitchen.
In Turkey, in the mountains overlooking the Black Sea, they have a hole in the floor that has fire and then coals. They bake bread on the sides of the hole, then put on the tea and cook the food for the day. And then they cover it up with metal and blankets and everyone sits in a circle with their feet pointing to the warm place.
Some way to get warm.
When I stayed in Nepal in the late 70s, I made it through probably December with a thick quilt stuffed with wool and sleeping in the room with the fire pit. I woke up to Maya, my hostess, making me bed tea and Helbadhur, her husband, squatting on the water basin flicking water in all nine mother goddess directions.
Early on this trip– winter 2015– I went out and bought a gas heater, thinking, “Well, that settles it for staying warm.” But I was wrong about that. The heater malfunctioned, the gas shortage became acute and then critical, and everyone else just wore more layers.
I felt like a spoiled Westerner. And indeed was more or less gently reminded that nobody else had heat in their houses, not even the rich. The concept of central heating is a kind of strange fantasy– the people here know we have houses with central heat, but it seems like really such a waste of money to them.
The gas cylinder I paid for cost about 3/4 of a teacher’s salary for a month. Okay, not a full-time teacher, but somebody I know living in a rented apartment with his wife and child.
When Ramesh, my Nepali cohort here, told me that the government shortened the number of hours people work from 10-5 to 10-4, I had a momentary thought – “How the heck do people get anything done around here anyway? If it isn’t a festival or a family obligation, it’s a shortened workweek!” But then when the cold gets truly bone-chilling, who can think straight anyway?
I wonder if the old architecture and the old ways weren’t actually warmer? The animals lived inside the houses, on the ground floor, and the kitchen had an open fire, even if all the fuel they had to burn was shocks of hay.
I’m often surprised at the local festivals, and how they correspond to what people have to live through. During the monsoon, when the water coursed through the back alleys that people used as toilets before the arrival of bathrooms, and flowed into the rivers where they washed their clothes and took their drinking water, people said that the mother goddesses protecting the city had gone away. And then, when the rain stopped and the harvest was in, they celebrate the return of the mother goddesses.
Likewise, in Swasthani Purnima, a monthlong festival through the coldest month, people seem to be deliberately seeking cold, almost challenging it to get to them. They leave their houses, are required to go barefoot, are allowed only very bland rice and vegetables without spices once a day. They take cold baths in the river.
In a procession dedicated the god who oversees this festival, one man dressed only in a loin cloth rolled sideways through the streets, doing penance of some sort, showing his willingness to sacrifice for his need and desire.
So even if you feel you are not quite up to the sacrifice of these devotees, their example is inspirational. If they can brave the cold without shoes and sleeping outside on a concrete floor, surely I can put on another layer, drink a glass of hot water and stop my complaining.
And the days are not really cold. The average daytime temperature during the coldest months is 66. The nights are all above freezing. It’s the nightly lows and the average humidity – above 80% in November, December and January – that make the cold so chilling.
I’ll be happy to get back to my central heating– and hot running water at all hours of the day and night, and pizza, and fast internet that works just about all the time. I need, though, to carry this new awareness with me: that people live through, they accomodate weather, they deal with gas shortages and electricity that stays off 8-10 hours a day. They manage. I stand in awe, really.