Sub-Saharan West Africa is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Lush forests, vibrant cities, stunning rock formations, and more animals than you could ever remember the names of. The weather ranges from cool and dry during the November-March harmattan (a wind that blows in from the Sahara, bringing with it a formidable cloud of rust-colored dust that settles over absolutely everything), to hot and wet during the spring and early fall rainy seasons, to outright outrageously hot at the zenith of summer.
I learned so much while living in that incredible region that I wrote a book on the subject, Melting Ivory. But one of the most important skills I learned as a pasty pale Pacific Northwesterner was how to stay safe and sane in 100+ degree temperatures in a place where the only air conditioning to be found was at the hospital.
So when the thermometer hit 108 here in my Seattle Suburb on the side of a tree-covered mountain last week, triggering unprecedented A/C usage and an ensuing city-wide power outage, I knew the time had come to share my learnings. Clearly, temperatures are rising around the globe, and even places with relatively mild climates are having to learn the art of handling heat waves, often without any sort of supporting infrastructure to help them stay cool.
A/C is not the answer
Don't get me wrong: air conditioning is a remarkable invention. But it ain't cheap, and until our power grids run on 100% renewable energy, by treating the symptom with A/C we are worsening the problem in the long run.
Also, A/C units take a good deal of maintenance, and when not well-maintained they can spread illnesses, exacerbate allergies and asthma, and cause a whole host of other health issues including respiratory problems, headaches, dehydration, skin problems, and even pneumonia.
The good news, though, is that there are ways to stay cool without installing an A/C unit, and even without electricity, should the power go down in your area.
Here are my top tips on keeping cool without having A/C in your home. May they help you stay safe and sane!
1. Get Wet & Wild
There's a reason we humans sweat in the heat. Damp = cool, so the very best way to stay comfy in extreme heat is to get wet and stay that way.
Experiment with a few of these tried and true tricks to get your wet on:
Shower Power: Take a cool shower, and don't towel off. Just let yourself air dry - the slower, the better. In more extreme heat, take a cool shower with your clothes on. That will keep you wetter longer, and as a bonus, it feels delightfully subversive to shower--or run through a sprinkler--fully clothed! Or you can skip the shower altogether and simply wrap yourself in a wet sheet or towel, for the same effect.
Spray Away: One of the most useful tools in extreme heat is a small, hand-held spray bottle full of cold water. Keep it in the fridge or a cooler, and grab it whenever you need a fresh dampening. Spray the water liberally over your head and neck, especially the nape of the neck at your hairline. Repeat as needed.
Ice is Nice: Naturally, cold water is going to be the most effective at cooling you off, and there's no colder water than ice. An ice pack on the back of the neck, or a wet washcloth wrapped around ice cubes and applied to the nape is highly recommended.
Super Soaker: Though a rousing water fight is also highly recommended, I'm referring here to a good old fashioned tub soaking. Sitting in a cool bath, or even just soaking your feet in a kiddie pool or whatever container you've got on hand can help lower your core temperature. This is especially recommended for anyone who is displaying signs of heatstroke: lethargy, mental fog, nausea, headache, flushed skin, rapid breathing and elevated heart rate.
A River Runs Through It: Water in motion stays cooler than stagnant water, so if you're thinking of heading to a body of water to cool off (great idea!), remember that wading in a creek can be just as effective as swimming in a lake. But even if you're stuck at home, turning on a sprinkler, setting up a slip n' slide with a hose, or simply turning the hose on one another or having a water fight in the kitchen can be mighty refreshing, and a whole lot of fun to boot!
Make You Sweat: If you don't have easy access to clean water, or are trying to conserve on water usage, fear not! Your body conveniently produces its own water in the form of sweat. To encourage healthy sweat production, be sure to stay well-hydrated, and replenish your electrolytes by adding a pinch of mineral salts to your drinking water. Spicy foods are another great way to stimulate your sweat glands. There's a reason hot peppers are so popular in Indian, African, S. Asian, Polynesian, and Latin American cuisine. And don't be afraid to move your body! It might feel counter-intuitive, but a little exercise can keep you energized as well as damp.
2. Stay in the Flow
Air flow, that is.
There's nothing better than a cool breeze on a hot day. But if nature isn't cooperating, there are ways to create a breeze of one's own.
Your Biggest Fan: A ceiling fan is the best way to improve airflow, but be warned that it will also push the hot air that collects up at the ceiling downward into the room, so it could make things a little worse before they get better. The best way to counter that effect is to be damp (see above), so that moving air of any temperature will feel fantastic.
Fan Club: If you live in a place that doesn't often experience extreme heat, it's unlikely you already have a built-in fan, so let's talk the kind you're likely to find available for purchase on short notice. A box fan is a very useful tool, but only if used correctly. During the hottest part of the day, you'll want to set it in a window facing outward, so that it's sucking out the hot air from inside. This is especially effective if you create a seal around it with blankets or towels so it gets a good suction going. Then when it cools off outside in the evening, turn it around so that it's pulling the cooler air in and spreading it around. This is especially useful in conjunction with an oscillating fan, which will keep that nice, cool air moving across your skin. For added cooling power, place a bucket of ice in front of the fan. Ahhh, the magic of evaporation!
Screen Saver: During the day, you'll want to keep all the doors and windows closed to keep the cool air in, but at night and in the evenings and early mornings, take advantage of the relatively cool outside air by opening up every available portal. If insects are a concern, and you don't have screens on your windows and doors, try hanging a damp sheet over those openings. This will prevent at least some insect migration, while still allowing for some air flow. Again, this is most effective in conjunction with a fan.
Hand-held: If you don't have access to, or would prefer to avoid using electricity, it's time to go back to basics. Hand-held fans made of straw or paper have been a staple of sultry climes since time immemorial. They work on the same principle: moving air is cool air, especially when it blows across damp skin. And if your arm is getting sore from too much swishing, try a small battery-powered fan you can point directly at the areas that need it most.
3. Have it Made in the Shade
It may seem like simple common sense to block out the sun on hot days, but we often underestimate the power of a well-placed bit of shade.
First thing in the morning, before the sun has a chance to come screaming in your windows, go around closing and covering all windows, doors, and especially skylights, to keep it shady and cool indoors. If you don't have blinds or curtains, a tacked-up sheet or blanket will do. The more cave-like you can keep your indoor area, the cooler it will stay through the heat of the day. Then in the evenings, open it all up again to allow for airflow (see above).
Meanwhile, it's a great idea to set up a shaded outdoor area if you can. The bigger the better. A sheet strung between trees or rigged up on poles will work just fine. When you're blocked from direct sunlight, but have plenty of airflow from all sides, that's going to be your comfiest location in extreme heat.
4. About Time
You may have noticed that the rhythm of life changes in different climates. Those in cool climates tend to be early to bed, early to rise, while those in toastier areas tend to stay up late and adopt an afternoon siesta.
Whatever your natural rhythm, it's a good idea to take your cue from the siesta-takers during a heat wave. The siesta is much more than just a post-lunch nap. It's a way to get some much-needed rest when sleeping at night is challenging, to avoid the most uncomfortable part of the day, and to make sure you have plenty of energy for the most pleasant and productive times: the cool of late evening and very early morning.
In fact, if the heat wave is extreme enough, you'll be better off staying up most of the night, and sleeping through much of the day if your schedule allows.
When I lived in Dakar, for example, I would get up just before sunrise to go for a walk. I used the morning for anything that couldn't be done after-hours (errands, meetings, biz calls, etc.). Then after lunch I would crash out until early evening, napping or lying on the hammock with a good book. In the evening, once the temperature started to fall, I would start work in earnest, typing until the wee hours, at which point I would take another nap, and start all over again at pre-dawn.
The bottom line is: listen to your body as much as possible. If it wants to sleep, let it sleep. If it wants to be awake, get up and do stuff.
If All Else Fails
Sometimes our best efforts at cooling off are simply not enough, and we're still just kinda miserable. Here are some last-ditch options to save your sanity in such cases:
Go Public: Unless you're in the middle of a global pandemic, or live in a place without much public infrastructure, there are usually public spaces available such as libraries, cafes, or grocery stores that are equipped with A/C where you can hang out for a while and cool off.
Flip the Script: The mind-body connection is for real, and mindset is a huge determining factor for whether you will experience heat as unbearable or enjoyable. Try visualization, picturing yourself on a warm beach, or in a hot yoga class, rather than a sweltering apartment. Or try picturing yourself in a cool environment, like a snowy mountain top or a forest in winter. You might be amazed at how powerful your mind can be!
Stay cool, friends!