Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Myth-busting and Tips for Cooling Down in a Tropical Climate

We think we know what it takes to cool ourselves off in a tropical climate, but the truth for most expats and travelers from parts of the globe that have more than one season a year, is that we have no clue. And why should we? We've grown up learning about how to deal with four seasons and the challenges of getting through cold and grey winters where you really begin to question if the sun is a figment of your imagination. So when we move thousands of miles across the ocean, to an island like Sri Lanka with a romantic notion of tropical days and warm balmy nights, the truth of it all really sets in within a few days.

We don't have the local knowledge that would truly help in this kind of climate. And we don't necessarily go in search of finding it out either. If you're like me, you drink a little more water and go swimming to cool off. But then I started to wonder what the locals do. I mean they don't look like they drink a lot of water, nor are they a nation of swimmers or beach-lovers. If they're at the beach, more often than not, it's because their livelihood requires it, or they enjoy the water by being near it, but not in it.

As the years have gone by and the island has experienced some increasingly hot weather with plenty of dry spells and delayed monsoons, I've become more interested in learning about how locals cool down. It goes without saying I've been lucky to have people share their knowledge with me, and I'm about to share what I know with you. Hopefully, you'll find it useful to acclimatizing to the tropical heat.


Turn off that air conditioning or fan

When we arrive in a tropical climate we automatically turn to air conditioning as the go-to solution (for affluent Sri Lankans this might also be case). But the majority of Sri Lankans can't afford air-conditioning so they turn to other solutions. The not-so-good-thing about air conditioning and electric fans is that they can dehydrate (or dry out) the body. Although the body may seem cooler, unless we continually hydrate, the body can in fact be in greater stress as water is leeched through the skin. And water is the essential ingredient for regulating blood flow in our body. As such, you'll find that locals tend to live without the excessive use of electric fans and air conditioning, and they have acclimatized to the heat and humidity. Sweating is not a bad thing for the body as it helps to release excess heat. If we spend too much time under fans or in air conditioning we also remove the body's capacity to sweat it out.

I have expat friends in Colombo who are in air conditioning all day at work, drive to and from work in their air conditioned cars and come home and turn the air conditioning on. It's no wonder they never feel as if they can acclimatize to the weather. And I can only hazard a guess at their soaring power bills.

It was hard at the beginning for me, but in the past few years I've gotten used to using less fans and no air conditioning. I can't help being in air conditioning in offices and buildings, but I can balance that out with cooling things.And at home, it's mostly an air conditioning free zone.

Drink room temperature or hot drinks

We often believe that it's good to drink ice cold drinks in hot weather, particularly tropical weather. However this isn't necessarily true. In fact, room temperature drinks are probably better than the cold or iced version because it helps to aid hydration. Cold drinks apparently cause the blood vessels surrounding the stomach to shrink, which slows absorption. And if the drink is icy cold it may shut down the body's ability to sweat so that extra heat is actually being stored in the body rather than released.  There is some research that indicates hot drinks are probably better in hotter climates as they triggers a sweat response which is the key mechanism the body uses to cool down.

Have cold showers

Coming from countries where we are used to having hot showers, cold showers certainly take some getting used to. For the majority of Sri Lankans hot water showers are unheard of. It is only in more affluent households that you would find hot water systems or solar hot water systems installed. Essentially, tropical climate equals only cold showers are necessary. For the most part, in urban centers, cold is the equivalent of the temperature of your water tank or what's coming out of the pipe. But if you've ever tried a middle of the day shower, you'll be shocked to find it like a hot shower despite you running the cold water. Yes, the sun will heat up your water tank.

But if you're bathing from the river, waterfall or well, as is the case for many villagers, it can be a great deal cooler. This is especially refreshing and possibly even rejuvenating on the body.

If you live in the hill country or up country then you might consider having a lukewarm water shower or bath rather than a cold one, but it's still the same premise that you don't need piping hot showers in a tropical climate.

I was speaking to an Ayurvedic doctor last year and one of the clearest things he said to me about some of the ailments in Sri Lanka at present was the increasing number of locals taking hot showers. He was adamant that hot showers are not something that works for this tropical climate and sends the wrong messages to the internal system.

What to consume that's cooling

According to local knowledge, there are a few distinct drinks, fruits and foods that are consumed that are classed as "cooling".

Thembili or King Coconut is the king of cooling drinks as it contains simple sugars, electrolytes (primarily potassium and sodium), bio-active enzymes, minerals (such as  iron, calcium, manganese, magnesium and zinc) and vitamins (B-complex and C) to replenish and re-hydrate the body. In ayurveda it is used as a remedy for kidney, urinary, intestinal and skin disorders.

I tend to have one after exercise and during the day if I feel dehydrated. If I'm traveling, thembili is generally my drink of preference to combat de-hydration or fatigue. It immediately wakes up my system and gives me a much-needed boost.

Anamalu bananas are considered the most cooling of the numerous varieties of bananas in Sri Lanka. It is a cavendish variety that remains green even when ripe. Sometimes it can be mistaken for Ambun bananas but you can tell the difference when you open up the banana hand. Anamalu should open up and the bananas will spread out, unlike Ambun where the bananas will hold together.

You will find that locals won't give Anamalu to their young children as they consider it might be too cooling for them. I generally eat these bananas more than the other varieties for their cooling effect. I tend to like them when they are still a bit firm and have a pleasant, but not too sweet taste.

Sago has a well-known high cooling effect on the body. It's often served locally as a kenda or drink that is sweetened with fresh coconut milk. Once in awhile I have this and it costs something like Rs.60. The other way it is served is like a dessert or pudding. It can be made in a thicker form similar to a jelly, or a bit more watery like a custard. There are various recipes for making this and nuts, raisins and spices are usually added to add more flavor.

Barley is also a well-known cooling food. Usually, it is boiled in water and made as a drink that can be served hot or at room temperature. I quite like adding some rampe or pandan leaves when boiling barley as it gives a very nice flavor. You can add sugar or syrup to sweeten to your taste.

Mung beans are a great cooling option as they are help to clear heat and toxins from the body. They are high in fibre, low in calories and a rich source of nutrients. I find they are a wonder breakfast option - simply soak overnight in water, boil them up in the morning with a pinch of salt, then serve with fresh scraped coconut and some lunu miris or onion chilli sambol. Alternatively you can make a mung bean kenda or porridge. I also quite enjoy a simple mung bean soup. There are also plenty of mung bean local desserts, but I tend to refrain if they've been deep-fried and I'm trying to cool down, like the mung kavum.

Cucumber is considered cooling and is a common accompaniment to local meals. Quite often you'll see it served as a salad with red onions, green chillies, salt and pepper to go with the meal. Or if it's a main dish, it is often served in a light coconut curry. There are many varieties of pipinya or cucumbers and some have a little more sweetness, while others have a little more sourness.

Watermelon is a wonderfully cooling food as well as being highly alkaline. Due to its high fiber and water content, watermelon is a mild diuretic and a great source of beta-carotene, lycopene and vitamin C. It's definitely a super-food for me.

Cooling teas are quite common in Sri Lanka. Belimal or bael flower tea is an ancient herbal drink that is made from wild beli flowers and buds that have been sun dried and boiled in water. It is said to regulate the digestive system with a cooling effect on the body. Polpala is a very cooling tea made from a medicinal plant and it is recommended that it should only be taken once a week. Both drinks also aid other ailments in Ayurveda and due to their cooling effect are usually drunk during the day. When you tavel around Sri Lanka, you can often find belimal served along the roadside. I quite enjoy a cuppa with a bit of jaggery to sweeten.

Kithul Piti or Kithul Flour is a starch that is extracted from the pith of the kithul palm. It has a very strong gel-forming ability when water is added. But the main thing is that it has a very cooling effect when consumed. Locals generally make a thick kithul piti kenda using water, coconut milk, kithul treacle and a pinch of salt. I find adding more kithul treacle when eating makes it go down better. It is also used to make thalapa or pudding, and desserts like dodol and kavum. I have to admit that foods made from kithul flour are not my favorites, but (and this is a big but) I've found that it's noticeably cooling when consumed.

This is definitely not an exhaustive list, and there are certainly other items to consume that have a cooling effect on the body, but if you include some of them into your daily diet you may find it easier to bear with the deep heat over the coming months.

Please feel free to comment and post if you have any other useful local tips...

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