Migrants in the cold

So it Go

For many Caribbean people, North America has been a Godsend.  Many of us have made great lives for ourselves up there, and have rightfully developed an allegiance to their new homeland.  The plaudits are deserved, but what we often fail to acknowledge is that North America is not the continuous bed of roses it is frequently depicted as, and for many of us one of the burdens to overcome is the season of winter, now ending up there, when the biting cold descends.

20130407daveLiving in it, we learn to adapt, and sometimes, if we become involved in winter sports, the snowy season can have its enjoyable times, but the length of the winter, and especially the biting below-zero weather, can be a grind.  It’s a bit of an exaggeration, but a Trini in New York reflected the Caribbean view when he told me, “This place have 8 months of winter and 4 months of bad weather.”

Everyday things that one takes for granted in the tropics can become times of trauma in a wintry climate.  I remember one night in Toronto, after Tradewinds had finished at We Place, driving up the Don Valley Parkway and suddenly realizing I was very low on gas.

I took the next exit onto Don Mills Road where there was an all-night service station, but my car cut out about a quarter mile short.

It was one of those clear winter nights, with no snow or a scrap of ice around, but the temperature was some 15 degrees below zero, with the wind cutting through whatever you wore. I had no gloves.

I set off walking, head down in the wind. I tried to wave down passing cars, but nobody stopped. No heaven-sent taxi came by.  I was part icicle by the time I got to the gas station. With my gas in a container, I asked a couple of drivers in the station for a lift back to my car. Again, nada.  On the return walk, of course, the hand holding the can without gloves was soon freezing; I had to stop and switch hands, putting the cold one in my pocket.

By the time I got to the car, both hands were like ice, and the cold was hurting my ears.  I had to sit in the car for a few minutes, out of the wind, before I could tackle putting the gas in the tank. With the engine started, I sat in front of the heater shivering and loosing some Lombard Street cusswords at the drivers who had left me to freeze.

Of course, there are wonderful things about winter, including freshly-fallen snow; cross-country ski trails in the woods; neighbourhoods draped in white in the moonlight; and (always important to me) the amusing episodes.

One such involved a spirited Guyanese woman who was part of my life for a while.  She had been on a trip to Winnipeg (known as one of the coldest cities in Canada) and she told me.  “I have never been so cold in my life. Between the open spaces, and the low temperature, and the prairie winds, you get so cold it’s hard to breathe.” And then she delivered this down home gem. “When I go out from a warm building into that, my heart does start to stop.”

Another heart-stopping moment involves one of the Tradewinds guys who was entertaining a young lady late one evening – or she was entertaining him; take your pick – when the door buzzer in her apartment sounded.  “That’s my husband coming home early,” said the entertainer to the entertainer, as she hurriedly bundled him out onto the apartment balcony, sliding the glass door shut and closing the drapes.

It was a bitter cold night, and your boy couldn’t jump to the ground – there he was, 8 storeys up, half frozen with cold and the other half with fright.  He stayed in his perch for half an hour, shivering with his shoes in his hands, until he figured the husband was asleep, and then tiptoed out of the apartment, shoes held in front of him like an offering.  I asked him what he was thinking out there on the balcony; he said, “Boy, what an idiotic way to die.”

My first experience with winter was on my migration trip to Canada in the late 1950s. Stepping off the plane at Toronto’s Malton airport, there were no jetways back then; you descended the stairs and walked to the terminal in the open – 100 yards or so. Straight out of Guyana, I was clueless about winter clothes (family was meeting me with an appropriate coat) so there I am in my pride and joy gabardine suit made for the tropics. What do I know?

I’m from West Dem, folks. In a matter of seconds there is this strange sensation I’ve never felt before, taking hold of my entire body like a wave. What’s happening to me? It takes a few seconds to register – Jesus, this is winter. It was December; 32 degrees. I had lived all my life in the tropics; who knew? I took off running.

The other passengers, in winter garb, stared at me as if I had flipped. I ran faster. Inside the terminal I stood in a corner, arms wrapped tight. In my gabardine, I felt naked; I probably looked it, too.

Twenty five years after that, living in the Cayman Islands, I would usually avoid Canada in the winter, but one January I accompanied my wife on a business trip to Toronto.  As we check into the hotel, the temperature is in the low forties, not bad.

The next morning she’s off to an early meeting, I have a leisurely breakfast, and then decide I’ll go out for a walk.  I didn’t check the temperature; big mistake.  In Canada the thermometer can change, up or down, 30 degrees overnight, and the wind (that’s the killer) can go from zero miles-per-hour to 35.

As it turned out, both of those shifts had happened.  I walked out the front door of the hotel in a winter coat, but I was also wearing a light pair of trousers.  The difference didn’t hit me at first, but as I moved away from the building and the wind, as they say in Cayman, took me, I felt exactly as if I was naked from the waist down.

I swear to you that I actually looked down to see if I had forgotten my pants. I was right back at Malton, 25 years prior, in my flimsy gabardine suit.

I turned on my heel, made a bee line straight back to the hotel, and stayed indoors all day.  Canada is a wonderful country, and I have many fond memories of the place, but they really need to turn on the heat.