The heat is settled in now, has been settled and settling since early April. It’s drier and wetter than last year at turns, but when it’s wetter it’s much wetter and when it’s drier it’s not much drier. The days dawn cool, a low cloud-cover promising protection and blazing off by ten am.
Our office is the best-sheltered place in town. It’s the second floor of an old hotel built into the side of the hill on which the Franciscans first put up the Mission, the Plaza Mayor, and the town. The floors above shade it so the heat of the sun can’t filter down, and the double-doored balconies along one side let the breeze in.
The office makes it so the season creeps up on us—we leave our houses earlier and earlier to catch the foggy pre-dawn and come back to them long after the sun’s gone down. The rest of Jalpan bakes for weeks while we can still hunker at our desks. So when it gets to the office, we know the heat has really come. It seems to seep out from inside you, meet the cushions of your chair and the wood of your desk, rebound onto your thighs and hands and forearms until you are all-over seating and you can’t touch your papers without soaking through. A girl I know down south told me, “The horror here in Oaxaca is the same; we are like gum, we stick to everything.”
It becomes altogether impossible to work because the heat boils up into your brain, and every dropped Skype call, every power outage and internet interruption gets met with a chorus of ¡Madre!: chingada, puta, santísima, tuya. You catch yourself staring into space or reading for hours because the idea of trying to tidy a spreadsheet or fix a slide brings a wave of weary nausea up and over you. My laptop doesn’t know to run its fans and cool itself unless it’s working hard, its Japanese progenitors never imagining its regular use above some centimeters of mercury, and it’s like typing on hot asphalt, frustration building in the fingers and bubbling up until the whole body rebels and you have to get up for another lap around the office, drinking water and chatting with everyone else who can’t but keep idle.
You begin to wonder how any colonial power managed it, remember your Kipling and stories of officers and locals alike going out of their minds with fever and dying in the corridors of the Red Fort. Of the streets and rooftops of Agra lined in the evening with cots because while you couldn’t sleep inside or out, it was unbearable to be away from the promise of open air. And if you remember your Kipling and your history both, you’ll remember the hill stations, the bungalows in the foothills of the Himalaya where Kim walked and where the higher placed of the East India went to drink Darjeeling and escape the murderous heat.
We’re cresting forty centigrade most days now, but the first time we hit the mark, it’s a watershed, like the first day of spring if spring was something you were scared of. Weekends, I’ve no access to even the limited shelter of my office, the home base of my house baking by eleven and unbearable by three in the afternoon. So sometimes, I head for a hill station. Cross town over cracking mud and melting tarmac and take a bus to James and Río Verdito.
There’s almost no relation between the human crush and dust and oppression of the bazaars and backstreets of the Gangetic plain and the open cool of the mountains, and it’s a similar (maybe less dramatic) contrast from the miasmatic oven of my valley to the highlands of James’ country. The landscape changes from our twisted, stunted oaks and bushlike pines to what might be north Pacific forest, emaciated cows becoming herds of sheep and healthy-looking horses.
When the bus hits the cliffside highway that wends around the gorges of the Sierrita, I feel cold air for the first time in months, rushing in the windows with a breath of mountain freshness that does not descend to Jalpan from the peaks that overshadow it. When we make the turn at Lobo up the long, lonely road to Río Verdito, we pass through the lowest clouds and coming up the foliage looks like it might be Michigan in the fall, the bite of midday sun just now signaling these trees the time for change.
I go up to the hill station to work, when the weather down below feels like it’s snapped the drive train in my brain, dried the water from the radiator and left the operation to come to pieces in the glare. James and I make hot coffee in his bungalow because you can still enjoy the steam of it up there, and I force him to talk long into the night with me so I can feel the chill that still descends with evening.
It’s early May now, and the monsoon seem a long way off. If in Europe they always celebrated the solstice in December, feasting the life of the year before the winter claimed it, the fair here after Easter is our analog, toasting the easy climes of winter before the long, deadly stretch until the rains. The feria ended weeks ago, and there’s too much work to do before elections to make it back up to James, so now for us it’s the heat and the wait and the hope that it’ll all be over soon.