The Great Freeze

P. Ravi Shankar shuttles through winters from Everest to New York to Kerala to Aruba in the Caribbean

My friend and colleague was turning blue. The cold wind hit me with the force of a sledgehammer. We both had on all the warm clothes we could bring. I had on me a woollen blazer, a full sleeve sweater, my shirt, a half sleeve sweater, and underneath it a thermal. The freezing wind cut through these layers like the proverbial knife through butter. I was beginning to lose sensation on my nose and extremities. We were in freezing weather for less than a minute crossing the road to where the car was parked. We were inadequately dressed for a February morning in New York city. A nor’easter had hit a day before and the temperature was below minus 24 degrees Celsius. The news channels mentioned it was the coldest day in over two decades. Luckily for us, the car was heated, and the seats could also be warmed. We slowly thawed after the flash freeze.  

We had flown from sunny Aruba (Dutch Caribbean) the previous day. Miami had perfect weather, but New York was freezing. Manhattan is full of skyscrapers. There is no direct rail line from the airport to Manhattan. New York has a decent public transport infrastructure but no airport metro. The city’s infrastructure does need some serious investment on upgrade and maintenance. The hotel room was warm and toasty. Outside, it was snowing. I saw the homeless on the freezing sidewalks trying to shelter from the bitter cold. Poverty amid opulent wealth.

I have mostly lived in warm places where your major concern is staying cool in the humid heat. In Kerala, in the south of India, a mundu or a lungi wrapped around the waist was the common male attire. The mercury in most areas never goes below 20 degrees Celsius. In New York during winter, the major concern was staying warm. Suddenly, common English expressions began to make sense. Warm welcome, warm greetings make sense when you are coming in from a freezing weather. When you are all hot and sweaty, the warmth seems unwelcome. Also, the European style of dressing was designed to minimise heat loss. Socks, hats, gloves, coats, tie, scarf. The buildings all had double doors to keep out the cold and keep in the warmth. Central heating kept the inside warm.

Keeping warm is expensive. I did some rough calculation and worked out that I would have to spend USD 1500 on winter clothing and over USD 250 monthly on heating bills. The tempo and rhythm of life changes in the northern latitudes with the change of seasons. Winters mean short days and time spent mostly indoors. The wily COVID virus is capitalising fully on this human behaviour. Summers translate to warm temperatures and long days. With global climate change, the highs in summer and the lows in winter are becoming extreme.  

On another occasion I was strolling by the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago enjoying the early morning view. There were gardens and walking paths by the shoreline. Suddenly a cold wind blew across the lake from Canada. Despite all the winter clothing I donned, I was frozen. In cold weather, it is important to have a waterproof and wind proof outer shell. These are expensive however, and as occasional visitors to cold climates, we were unwilling to invest in such clothing. Upstate New York is even colder than New York city, and Rochester is said to be among the snowiest cities in America.

New York city is relatively well-prepared for snowy weather with double doors, central heating, winter clothing and snow ploughs. So is Chicago. Some of the southern cities in the US also experience snowy weather due to climate change and are not prepared for occasional winter storms. The plains of northern India experience cold weather from December to March. A thick layer of smog blankets the plains. Trains and planes are delayed, and driving could become hazardous. Air pollution rises and the air becomes dangerous to breathe. The sun succeeds in clearing the fog only after ten in the morning. Kathmandu in Nepal also experience fog and increased pollution during winter. Pokhara is a Nepalese city without fog in winters. I have often wondered why. With beautiful views of the Annapurna range, winter mornings in Pokhara are occasions to be savoured. In these places there is no central heating. Quilts are widely used. I enjoy the quilt which slowly warms you up using your own body heat.

In the mountains of Nepal, external heating devices are common. In the Everest region, there is the yak dung burning cast iron stove in dining rooms. In the Annapurna region north of Pokhara, wood burning stoves are common. In Thak Khola, charcoal burning stoves under the table are used. The bedrooms, however, are unheated and freezing. I had stayed in Lobuche in the Everest region, at around 4900 m for over a month for a research project and the nights were freezing. The water bottle used to freeze. If you wanted something to not freeze, you kept it beside you on the bed inside the quilt.

Watching snow fall is relaxing. The snowflakes glide down and blanket the trees and the ground in white. The cold reduces a bit. Rain is more noisy and violent and often accompanied by thunder and lightning. Walking on snow is difficult. Soon the snow melts during the day and refreezes again at night and turns into ice. Ice is extremely slippery and dangerous to walk on. Snow is a rare treat for persons from tropical climates. However, living in snow covered regions is challenging.

Near the equator the climate is constant throughout the year. The rains cool down the atmosphere, but the hours of sunlight do not vary much. Life is not influenced by the seasons. The further north or south you go from the equator, seasons begin to colour your life. Summer brings long days, sometimes extreme heat and more time spent outdoors. Winter brings longer nights, snow, and more time indoors. In both New York and Chicago, in winter, the trees were totally bare, bereft of leaves. I could not believe they were still alive. With the coming of spring the green twigs would sprout again and the cycle of life resumes. The writing of poets and authors from temperate countries about the dreariness of winter and the warmth of spring and summer began to make sense to me — a person from and living in the tropics.      



Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.





Observations at the Airport

By J.O. Haselhoef

Chicago O’Hare Airport

Chicago O’Hare’s international terminal offers street theatre.

I arrived recently at Terminal 5 to meet a friend, coming from Kathmandu, Nepal, via Abu Dhabi, UAE. Henry sent numerous texts once he landed as to where I might meet him and his luggage. He encouraged me to wait in the quiet of my car till he arrived. True, it was our nation’s busiest airport and often chaotic. But I refused. It was the drama of the arrivals gate that fuelled my 90-minute drive — not souvenirs that he brought back from his time in Kathmandu, Nepal.

The entertainment started immediately. Two middle-aged women from India, dressed in hot-pink saris, walked toward me and tried to exit through the automatic door to their left at Chicago O’Hare’s Terminal Five. Those doors would have been correct in India. But at this American airport’s international arrivals gate, it was the wrong door. It was my entrance, not their exit. I feared my step would trigger the glass portal to swing into their faces; I took a step back. They saw my look of fear and sensed their mistake. They, too, stepped back. We stood on either side of the glass, in a standoff. What should happen next? A porter, watching the narrative unfold, ran to their help and guided them to the right side of the hallway and the proper exit door. As we passed one another, we looked and smiled.

I found Henry’s arrival gate inside. The passengers on the connecting flight from Abu Dhabi began their travel two or three days before, perhaps in a mountainous village or maybe an apartment in a city of 20 million. They came not just from Nepal but India, the Middle East, and all of Africa.

The flight brought many ethnicities, cultures and religions together as they walked the lengthy concourse from the plane, passed through immigration, and gathered their belongings at baggage claim.

Families and friends waited. We served as a kind of reward for the travellers, standing patiently, excitedly, behind two sets of restricting ropes and a gap of 20 feet. Many of our impromptu group pushed towards the front to get a better first view of a loved one’s face — not unlike my father with his brother.           

There was room to move behind the group of us waiting. A young woman, who wore a Muslim headscarf, pushed a baby carriage in a small circle. She kept her eyes focused on the baggage area. Her arms went up in a double wave when she saw the person she waited for. She clutched the handles and cried. A few moments later, she walked with more vigour while she pushed the pram. 

 A passenger claimed the first bag from the flight and walked toward the rope barrier. His family rushed into the exit way to embrace him and clogged the entrance funnel.

A small man negotiated his way through that tight exit sleeve. A tall woman grabbed him and they shared a passionate kiss. They turned to go and caught me staring at their togetherness. They smiled. Guilty, I smiled too.                 

I looked back to the woman with the baby carriage. Her traveller had not yet joined her. She stopped moving in a small circle and rocked the carriage in one place instead. I moved closer and asked how old the infant was. “Three weeks,” she told me. “His father has never seen him.” She told me he had not been in the U.S. for two years.

That didn’t make sense. “What about nine months ago?” I asked.

 “Oh!” She giggled. “Yes! I went to Jordan to see him.” The couple flew to the U.S. where she was a citizen, but he was not. Officials stopped him in Chicago and sent him back to Jordan.

This time, he went through immigration in Abu Dhabi, so they knew there would not be difficulties. “He will get through this time,” she said.

 We stood together, waiting, discussing baby names, immigration processes, when the child began to cry. “He’s hungry,” she said as she changed the angle of the pacifier and rocked him faster. “But I doubt I have time to nurse him.” 

Just then, she saw her husband leave the baggage area and start through the funnel. Politely, she excused herself and wished me well. Again, I couldn’t help myself as I watched this moment of intimacy. Like with my father and his brother, the moment was full of joy.

Finally, I saw Henry head in my direction. He wheeled one large roller bag with his right hand and, with his left, carried a duffel bag. He grimaced as he tried to manipulate his way around a family reuniting in the middle of the narrow walkway. He looked tired, dark circles lay below his eyes. After our hug, we walked the distance to the car lot and he complained to me about his long-haul flight. He started with the frustrating behaviours of his seatmates — the women talking incessantly followed by the man across the aisle snoring loudly. He continued about a child kicking his seat in the row behind him. He described the difficulties flying without a common language.  And he ended with, “The airline served the worst curry!”

I expected him to be positive, given all the thumbs up he had posted on Facebook during his visit, but 48 hours without sleep and 14 hours in one seat interrupted that flow. He was tired and intolerant. 

He flew more than 7,000 miles. I drove only 60. We both spent time with the same passengers. Oddly, mine was the savoury souvenir.


 J.O. Haselhoef is a social artist who writes and travels. Her work appears in Swamp Ape Review, Re-Creating Our Common Chord, Evening Street Press, and Fiction Southeast. Her book, GIVE & TAKE, Doing Our Damnedest NOT to be a Charity in Haiti was published in 2015. She is online at