“Sweat” by Tom Bentley, California

Travel July 14, 2011 02:42

by Tom Bentley, California

The original author of the old saw about death and taxes never sat down at the equator. If he had, he would have instantly added “sweat” to his timeless twosome. I lived on the small Micronesian island of Kosrae for a year, and I had a constant companion: whether a silky sheen of perspiration or dripping rivulets of body water, sweat was never far from my side. Or my arms and legs either.

The propinquity of the equator means that islanders don’t worry about weather prediction. It’s pretty much between 80 and 90 degrees there year-round, with matching humidity. Never having lived in a tropical climate, my first contact with the air astonished me. It had a presence: thick, heavy and enveloping. And it seemed to get even hotter on some evenings after the sun went down—high humidity is a warm-breathed beast.

Exercising in this climate ramps up your body’s evaporation engine: I rode (streaming all the while) my bike for a half an hour many early mornings, and when I dismounted, the flow really began. And continued. And continued. For every minute of riding, there was a minute of post-ride sweating. More surprising yet was performing some seemingly aerobic-neutral action—for instance, washing the dishes—and finding myself coated anew.

Unsurprisingly, it’s sheer madness to work in the direct sun—I had to fix our water catchment at high noon, and the sun reflecting off the tin roof boiled my brain in moments. Tiny frustrations in the project were greatly magnified in high heat; temper flares with temperature. The beast within, always close to the (hot) surface, would curse even the Dalai Lama if he handed me the wrong wrench.

When you’re flowing freely, it’s a joy to apply a counter-coating—like air conditioning— to your skin. I kept the home-office computers air-conditioned, so to that room I stole away when I was in a heat swoon, to bathe in the remarkable crispness of air-conditioned air. But just step from that cool source back to tropical air and the sweating begins anew. You realize that air-conditioning must be applied and reapplied, like sunblock, to be effective.

But there were some advantages: I learned—stumblingly—to move more slowly, as is the Kosraean way. And even though it seemed you spent half your day drinking water, you didn’t spend the other half in the bathroom, because you plumbed through your skin. Also, my joints felt good and loose there. As the ageless pitcher Satchel Paige said, “Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.” Kosrae was a good place to jangle, and to be juicy.

Reassuringly, just outside our door there’s that old standby, the ocean. In Kosrae, its waters are a frosty 85 degrees. I melted, tasted my own salt waters drip down my lips, and returned them to my warm mother, the sea. After a year, I began to get comfortable being part of the Great Cycle of Sweat. Go with the flow.

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