Too hot to handle

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 March, 2006, 12:00am

Live here long enough and you will develop a sense of when March arrives. Here's a hint: it's about the time your skin starts blistering from the heat. March marks summer's onset, which means from then until June, people will be obsessed with one thing - staying cool.

Now, I have no doubt that it can get very hot in other Asian countries. But I haven't heard of any other place where, a century ago, an American doctor experimented and found the heat strong enough to convert the sugar in certain strawberries into formaldehyde. That's probably the stuff you feel sloshing around in your head when you venture into the Manila afternoon.

How hot does it get? Years ago, the government declared March Fire Prevention Month because statistics showed most conflagrations occurred during that month. I've always imagined that was because buildings spontaneously burst into flames. At any rate, stay in the sun long enough and you'd certainly feel pretty combustible yourself. Summer is the season for sunstroke, sunburn and bungang araw - heat rash.

There probably won't be any coup attempts in the next few weeks, not with everybody feeling lethargic and gasping for breath. Noon isn't as bad as mid-afternoon, when things get so overpowering that you won't just wonder if you will make it through the day: you'll wonder if you can make it across the street.

Actually, the temperature rarely climbs higher than 40 degrees Celsius. What makes the climate so unbearable is the combination of heat and humidity. This gives you three choices: broil, baste or poach. Electric fans usually just move sodden masses of warm air around the room, and air conditioners have to be set at maximum cool.

Summer proved so unbearable to the country's colonial masters that eventually the Spaniards fled from their walled city into the suburbs. For their part, the Americans fled all the way to the mountain provinces hundreds of kilometres north. There they developed Baguio, the highland city that has since been stereotyped as the country's 'summer capital'.

Those stuck in the lowlands have several ways to cope with the broil. One is to go to the beach: there are dozens of fantastic ones around the country. Of course, this isn't always practical, especially if, like me, you're stuck working in Manila. There's always going to the mall and bingeing on halo-halo - a mixture of fruits, syrup and milk mixed with shaved ice, or a frosty beer.

If you're desperate enough, the truly low-cost way to cool off would be to jump into the severely polluted waters of Manila Bay. Some people actually do this, emerging as hideous mutants fit only to run for Congress. I'm kidding of course. It must be the heat.