¡Ay! ¡Que Frio!

People often think of Guatemala as a tropical land, because aren't all places in Latin America hot? It is true that areas of Guatemala are low-lying palm tree dotted tropics, but that is only on the Caribbean side (which I wrote about in my account of Guatemalan banana country) and a narrow strip along the Pacific ocean. In fact, much of Guatemala, including the entire center of the nation, where most of the country's population is concentrated, is very mountainous.

In this mountainous climate the temperature can actually be very temperate with Guatemala City (at about 5,000 feet of elevation) having spring-like weather year-round. Xela at over 8,000 feet has weather more fall-like weather: day time highs are in 70s and nighttime lows typically in the 40s (though it can get down to freezing during the height of the US winter in December, January, and February). We find this weather to be ideal: warm, but not hot, during the day and good cool sleeping at night.

While we may find Xela weather ideal, Guatemalans have a different idea. Any time you tell anyone in the entire country that you live in Xela, 98% of the time the first words out of their mouths are "Ay! Que frio!" (or Whoa! So cold!).

If the conversation progresses beyond this initial reaction, we often explain to people that the weather in the United States is much colder and that Xela isn't really that cold. Usually we can bring them around to this view once we tell them that snow falls in the US (a very impressive fact to most Guatemalans who have never seen snow except for the movies- though it is likely that we are simultaneously convincing them that we are completely insane: who would live in place where there is snow?!).

If living in Xela brings good insight into the Guatemalan sense of temperature, then having a baby is like a PhD thesis on this topic. Guatemalans, even those in Xela that would seemingly be better temperature adjusted, seem to have the idea that every baby should be dressed in at least 6 layers.

So even when it is 75 degrees, the idea that the baby would be wearing only 1 or 2 layers, even if has long sleeves, is shocking. Thus the first thing that every Guatemalan says when they see Jack is the familiar "¡Ay! ¡Que frio!" This exclamation is often followed by asking "you don't want to cover him with a blanket?" The slightly more restrained people, who are able to omit the former shocked exclamation, go straight to the latter blanket question.

When Jack left the hospital after he was born, the nurses were appalled that we were going to leave the hospital with him dressed in only a long sleeve onesie and a hat, even though it was 85 degrees outside. In fact, one of the nurses chased Meg down the hall to put a blanket over Jack's head to protect him from the cold (then she suggested that he sit in the front seat on Meg's lap rather than in the back in his car seat- not exactly a proper assessment of the relative dangers of the two situations).

Being a pediatrician, which seems to involve examining a lot of babies, Meg has quite a bit of experience in what Guatemalans consider appropriate dress for infants- that is, at least 6 layers of clothing. While a onesie, short sleeve shirt, long sleeve shirt, pants, sweater, jacket, and blanket are some of the clothing options we choose between when dressing our child, Guatemalans don't choose; they just put all those clothes on the baby at once. Then they add a hat, gloves, and another blanket just for good measure and that's when it's 60 degrees out.

In fact, when seeing patients at her clinic, normal baby check-ups routinely take five minutes longer than they should because of all the time it takes to remove all of the baby's clothes before they can be examined. Meg has now learned to ignore the look of horror on the parent's faces when she removes even a few of the layers to try do to a proper exam (in a very warm exam room). It can be especially challenging to get the child's actual weight when they are outfitted this way.

The amount of clothing may also explain why a common complaint by parents is that their baby "has a fever because their skin feels hot". Well, your skin would feel hot too if you were wearing 6 layers on clothing on a warm day. Needless to say when a thermometer is used very few of these children have a temperature above normal.

So for those that think Guatemala is a tropical land, in fact it is often ¡Que Frio!

No comments: