Saturday, August 11, 2007

Sultry Summertime

It’s hot. No, that’s not right – hot is Baghdad in July mid-day sun. It’s stifling and sticky. Muggy. Oppressive. Moist and dank, even.

But it is also sultry. Tropical. Steamy and exotic. But exotic in a way that only southeast Asia can be. Rather than the lazy tropical heat that saps the energy and drives grown working men under shade trees for days at time, the flavor of the spiced heat in Hanoi stirs a latent uneasiness, an itch, a tropical restlessness that drives people out of their stupor into a flood of motorbikes filling the late afternoon and evening streets on weekends like so many loud-mouthed parrots being roosted from their afternoon perches.

The afternoon stirring here seems to take on an intensity of movement, less the party-like atmosphere of second-ring-of-hell Antsohihy that came with the break of heat, and more a desperate search of relief somewhere, anywhere but here. The heat never really breaks here – not until late, late at night, and the evenings become even more oppressive as the humidity descends in visible clouds that hover under streetlamps.

I’ve often thought that Hanoi has a magical glow about it at night. Bright streetlights shining down through hundreds of full-leafed trees give the impression of an eternal full moon on cobblestone walkways that are softened into a state of romantic disintegration and caged birds hung in the trees call out to give the impression of walking on a stone pathway in a tropical rainforest. But the frenzy of the motorbikes swarming like so many oversized mosquitoes drives you to seek out cafés and hiding places far from the edge of a road or on air conditioned balconies, just to escape the jarring reality that is the city refusing to give in to the magic.

I walked out of one of these air conditioned restaurants the other afternoon to be hit with the intense mid-afternoon squalor. It suddenly reminded me so strongly of the cafeteria dishroom with its industrial strength sanitizing dishwasher at my college that I almost thought I had taken a wrong turn and had actually walked into the kitchen at the restaurant rather than out the front door. As I stood there for a moment puzzling over the sensation, I was quickly swept away in the tide of restless people searching for relief from the heat that they would not have the fortune to escape until October.

Every once in a while the intensity of the weather congeals into a tropical thunderstorm that brings momentary torrential rains, but no lasting – or even momentary – relief. All that is left when the resounding booming and blinding flashes cease is a dank reminder of what caused the scene to begin with.

I have the fortune to be able to seek some relief up in the mountains. I will spend a week with my clothes glued to my body and my feet sliding in my moist sandals, but then I will head back up into the mountains where the evenings bring cooler air that both calm and rejuvenate. It’s still balmy enough to walk about without a jacket or even a long-sleeved shirt, but balmy is a welcome adjective after just plain sultry.

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