Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Summer Switch

Back home in the great white north, for all of the jokes on TV and in movies, there really are four seasons, and not just winter and winter with some sun. In each of those four seasons, there are a variety of activities to keep yourself or your family occupied. Skiing and skating in winter, camping in the fall, swimming and traveling in the summer, and planting gardens and fixing up the house in the spring. No matter what time of the year, there are myriad activities and options available. It was something the really surprised my new in-laws when they visited my wife and I. We took them on a road trip from Toronto to Quebec City, and later, a trip through the Niagara Peninsula. On both trips we were able to stop somewhere, pick fresh fruit off the trees, picnic in shady glades, go swimming, take long walks, and in general enjoy all the nature around us. Having just come back from Japan, I enjoyed this immensely, but not as much as my in-laws, who had just arrived from Dubai, and had not been around nature like this for a very long time.

During their stay with us that summer, my in-laws would go outside every day, go for walks, wherever, and take the bus and subway to nowhere in particular. The grass, the trees, the clean and easy mass transit were all quite a novelty for them, and one they enjoyed immensely. They even talked about how wonderful it was to just open a tap, and have clear, cold water running out of it. And you could drink it too! Without having to boil it on the stove first.

I thought this behavior was odd at the time. I mean, the bus? The subway? The TTC? Grass? Trees? Tap water? Nice, sure, but not really anything to write home about. But after having lived in Dubai myself for closing in on three years, I completely understand how they felt then.

Summer hit hard for the first time this weekend. It was 44C, but thankfully with only 24% humidity. In short order we'll be hitting 50C with close to 100% humidity.

Back home when we get to minus 30C plus windchill, it is something to brag about. It seems so harsh, and unendurable, and were I homeless or without proper clothing, it would be. But that's not the case for us in Canada, so as hard as we want to make winter sound, it really isn't that hard to deal with. Add a layer of clothes, maybe, and turn up the thermostat in you have to, but with the insane insulation factor of most Canadian homes what it is, oft times a room temperature (20C) is just fine.

Out in Dubai, 20C is often the lowest setting on the air conditioner. And insulation? What's that? When the summer hits, you can't just take off a layer of clothes, you have to find a way to get cool, and for pretty much everyone that means one of two things: find an air conditioned place, or, as any French Canadian resident of Florida can tell you, leave.

This is not to say that Dubai is not a nice place during the winter, because it is. But the problem here is that there are only two seasons - winter and summer. Winter is wonderful. Cool breezes (warm by Canadian standards), a relative lack of humidity, and relatively clear skies. Comfortable, relaxing, and calm. But then comes the summer switch, and where it was once okay to go for a stroll outside any time of the day, the same excursion needs to be meticulously planned, with the quickest route mapped out in advance, and executed only after sundown.

Sound silly? Perhaps, to most. To the guy who stands by a burning shawarma grill in the heat of the summer and yet does not break a sweat? Or the delivery men who rides a bike and then runs my order up to my flat, yet appears at my door without the slightest bead of perspiration dotting their brow? Absolutely. But for me, a fellow born just shy of the arctic circle, taken to wearing shorts until the thermostat falls below double digit minuses, it is a different story.

In the summer, my wife will often send me out to get milk, or odds and ends needed around the house. I'll walk outside, across a parking lot to the Lulu's Supermarket, and then back across the parking lot and home. That journey, a round trip that's all of ten minutes long, then necessitates a good half hour under a fan with the AC on before I cool down enough not to sweat through a new set of clean clothes I'll later put on. (And don't get my wife started on the subject of summer's one of the reasons I had to shell out a small fortune for a new space age front load washer.)

At times family back home will call me while I'm doing the "cool down," and tell me to just go and have a cold shower. If only. Here, in the land that cold forgot, there is no such thing as a cold shower. There is no cold water here in the summer. The cold water tanks, which are kept on the roofs of buildings, exposed directly to the summer sun, heat up half way to boiling in the day, which means that turning on the cold water tap for a shower around noon is a recipe for third degree burns. If your hot water tank is large enough, and you have kept the power off, then you can get cool-ish water from there, but only a very limited quantity, and since the hot water tanks are fed by the cold water tanks, in the summer that means you can kiss any real chance of cold water goodbye. Until late at night, when the "cold" water becomes bearably warm, enough that you can shower without dabbing a general anesthetic on your skin beforehand.

With two small kids, travel is not as fun as singles seem to think it is, so for my crew here in Dubai, summer is a chance to get to know one another better. We spend day ofter day together throughout the entire holiday. And it's great. But it's also probably why, when the fall comes and school starts once more, their smiles are so wide, and their waves so enthusiastic as I leave to go to work again.

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