I quietly close the door behind me, blocking out the sounds of a successful dinner-party, and take a few deep breaths. There’s the promise of rain in the air – not the cloying, drippy kind of rain Costa Ricans call “cat’s hair”, but proper rain, the kind that dances above car roofs and tears branches off trees. The temperature’s dropping fast. After nearly a year in the tropics, it’s a shock.
My body convulses.
Holy shit, what is this? Should I call for help?
Ah yes. I remember now. It’s called ‘shivering’ – and I’ve forgotten how much I love it.
Working at the fringes of the travel industry for the last seven years has taught me that most of us Brits are obsessed with heat. It’s supposed to be about package holidays to coastal destinations so you can lie on the beach all day, grilling yourself a deep, painful Chili Red, drinking cocktails, shrieking when you find a loved one has written “WANKER” on your back using suncream, and pecking at a novel that looked good at the airport but turns out to be a kind of visual chewing-gum, which you’ll leave by the hotel pool so you won’t be the only one who feels tricked into reading it.
This is the stereotype. But I’d love to know how many of us actually start out wanting those things, as opposed to being persuaded over time that we should want them.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to heat myself up, to see if I can take it.
I grew up in Cyprus, thanks to my dad’s role as a United Nations aircraft engineer, and as an adult I’ve spent months here and there in hot places (particularly Cyprus again in 2006, and Greece in 2007).
But basically, I’ve lived like a Stark for most of my life.
Twenty years in East Yorkshire, a decade in York, grey skies, shivering on the shoreline, shivering on the beach, shivering in the woods. My first serious piece of travel writing ends with the line “breathe in the cold“. The signs were always there – but over time, I learned to ignore them, because what kind of idiot would enjoy being cold?
I’d convinced myself that the cold is something to get away from.
Now, I’m not so sure.
As I wrote about here, the human body is remarkably resistant to cold. It only takes a few extra degrees of internal temperature for the human body to shut down and start cooking you in your skin. In comparison, getting cold is survivalist luxury – you’ve got 9 whole degrees before you’re in real trouble.
Cold is also more manageable. It’s an agent of change that kicks your ass. When you’re chilly, you put something on. When you’re hot, you take something off – until you reach the limits of decency or biology, at which point you’re screwed. If you’re in the outdoors, getting cold is a sign you’re not doing enough, you’re lazy, you’re soft. You smack your gloved hands together, rub your face furiously, walk faster, or huff and puff your way through some exercises.
Cold makes you do more with your day – not comfortably, perhaps, but certainly productively.
Cold cracks a whip, where heat says “nah, just take the day off, man”.
Last year, in a beautiful but non-air-conditioned wood cabin in the hills of Portugal, I was stupid enough to get heat exhaustion. The temperature climbed to 39 Celsius, deep-roasting the air going into my lungs, and I quickly became so dehydrated that my health fell apart: a week-long headache, dizziness, no ability to concentrate on anything.
Since then, I’ve had recurrences, like my body’s thermostat is stuck. It’s therefore ironic that I’ve spent this year virtually on the equator – but this part of Costa Rica (the San Jose valley) is relatively cool, and our house is smack in the middle of one of the area’s chilliest micro-climates at ground level.
When we take day trips (say, when I’m renewing my tourist visa), I realise how hot it really is here. The Panama side of the country is uncomfortable. The beach is only bearable because of the swimming. Nicaragua was agony. And after a year, I really miss feeling truly cold. Now it seems I’ve even forgotten what shivering feels like. How messed up is that?
Very, says a quietly frustrated voice inside me.
I know there are limits. Sometimes, being cold really sucks. My friend Flora‘s boiler broke a month ago and remained stubbornly unfixed, and she lives in London. A month in the UK’s deep winter without any central heating is a great big sack of nopes. I probably don’t even know what real cold is. A Canadian might be able to tell me. Or maybe someone up Mount Washington.
But when it comes to the outside, to the open air, to a day’s walking and a night under the stars, bring me the cold. I know how to fix it – just stamp your feet, rub your hands and dig your thermals out your backpack. I love the crunch-squeak of snow, watching my breath huff into the air, and feeling my nerve endings yell until I rub life back into them. Cold is just a way of feeling lots of things.
So I’ll stand out here for a bit longer, thanks.
Yes, I’m shivering a bit. No, I’m totally fine. Yes, I know this is a bit weird. (What’s that? “Do all Brits love the cold?” Hm, I don’t think so – but you never know, deep down.)
Oh, and close the door, will you? All the heat’s coming out.
UPDATE: Another blogger responds….
Images: Mike Sowden, Unsplash