Opinion: Lifehacks from India on how to stay cool (without air conditioning) – NPR | Hot Mobile Press

How to STAY COOL without air conditioning: Tips from Indian heatwave researcher Gulrez Shah Azhar.  Get a swamp cooler.  Take a nap during the hottest hours of the day.  Hang damp curtains to cool the air.  Hydrate with water and juice.  Wear a wet scarf around your neck.

In Uttar Pradesh, India, where I grew up, temperatures can reach 120 degrees in May and June. But very few people have access to air conditioning.

With a per capita income of about $1,000 a year, many people in this part of the country cannot afford to buy air conditioning or the utility bills that come with it.

So how do people keep their cool?

It’s a question people are asking as the world faces unprecedented heat waves, including in the US Pacific Northwest and Europe, where many are without air conditioning. Severe heat has already claimed thousands of lives this summer.

But people in India and other countries in the Global South have long since found ways to cope with the terrible heat. And so I want to share some cool tips that I learned from my upbringing and the elders in Uttar Pradesh. Some of the advice is exactly what you’d think – like staying hydrated and staying out of the sun – but others might surprise you.

I know that each of these tips may seem trivial on its own. But as a heatwave researcher, I can tell you that taken together they can really help the body cool down. The key is to be aware of the power of heat — and be prepared to avoid its ill effects.

And remember, if you see signs of heat stroke — like a fever, headache, nausea, confusion, or weakness — call an ambulance and get medical help as soon as possible. Use ice packs while waiting to be treated at the hospital. Seriously, don’t hesitate. Heat stroke can be deadly.

Here are some tried and tested tips from India on how to stay cool without air conditioning. (Also: we want to hear from you! Scroll to the bottom of this story to find out how you can share tips from your culture on coping with the heat.)

Drink lots of fluids – it doesn’t have to be water!

Volunteers distribute free cold drinks to commuters on a hot day in Amritsar, India, June 29.

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In India there are all sorts of wonderful drinks that people can prepare at home or pick up from a street market vendor. In addition to water, we quench our thirst with fruity drinks such as sugar cane juice, coconut water, called a sparkling raw mango juice aam ka pana and one called apple juice Bel ka Sharbat. We also like milk-based cooling drinks lassi, a yoghurt drink popular in summer, and buttermilk. The key is to drink plenty of fluids to replenish the electrolytes lost through sweat and keep your body hydrated.

Find a cool place to chill.

Find the coolest parts of the building you live in and make that your sleeping or hanging space. As heat rises, the lower floors in a multi-story home are cooler. Porches are shaded and airy. Block out the sunlight with heavy curtains during the day. Turn on any fans you have. And don’t be afraid to rearrange the furniture in your quest for cool. In Uttar Pradesh we moved our beds closer and closer to the windows so we could catch a breeze while we slept.

If it gets incredibly stuffy inside, go outside and lie in a hammock. Air created by swinging helps cool the body. As a kid, I remember mango orchards being the best for hanging out as the dense foliage there provided maximum shade coverage.

Use water creatively.

A boy jumps into Dal Lake to cool off on a hot summer day in Srinagar, India, July 18.

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A boy jumps into Dal Lake to cool off on a hot summer day in Srinagar, India, July 18.

Tauseef Mustafa/AFP via Getty Images

In India we have a number of devices to manage heat without air conditioning. This includes khus — Grass curtains hung over doors and windows and were splashed with water. The curtains turn the dry wind outside into a fragrant, cool, damp breeze blowing into the house. And the ubiquitous swamp cooler. Also known as an evaporative cooler, this electrical device directs room air over water-saturated cushions, causing the air to cool and then being blown back into the room. These devices are cheaper than air conditioners and use less energy. You can even make one yourself.

Even if you don’t have it khus Curtains or a swamp cooler, you can find other ways to use water to regulate your body temperature. Take a cold bath or shower. Or take a light towel, called a gamchha in Hindi, moisten it and wear it around your neck or on your head like a scarf. This wet robe is still ubiquitous among men in the backcountry and small towns today.

You can also play with water. When I was a kid in India, I used to have water balloon fights with neighborhood kids. Or we would fill a tub with water and splash it on each other in the backyard.

Take a break.

During the hottest hours of the day, try not to burn off energy or exhaust yourself by going outside, exercising, or standing outside, as the scorching sunlight and hot air will make you hotter. Instead, do what I did in Uttar Pradesh: chill at home or take an afternoon siesta. If you have to work and have a flexible schedule, try to complete your chores during the cooler hours of the day. Farmers in my state, for example, schedule early morning and late evening work. And the markets close on the hot afternoons but stay open late into the night.

Wear airy and light-colored clothing.

Choose airy cotton fabrics that don’t retain body heat and colors like white, yellow and light blue that reflect light off the body. Darker colors absorb heat much faster and heat up our body. In Uttar Pradesh, many people wear a light-colored dress kurtaa loose, collarless shirt and pajamaslightweight trousers with a drawstring.

The air conditioning is great…until the power goes out

In 2010 my family in Uttar Pradesh finally got air conditioning. They say it’s great for keeping cool and they wear it all day in the summer. But their reliance on air conditioning makes their willingness to tolerate heat even more difficult when the power goes out – which is a common occurrence in India. So they’re going back to the age-old practices I just shared here to brave the heat.

It’s your turn: Share tips from your culture on how to deal with heat

Did you grow up in a hot country with no air conditioning? How did you deal with the heat? Email us at goatsandsoda@npr.org with the subject line “Heat Hacks” and we can publish your story on NPR.org. Please provide your name and location. The closing date for entries is Wednesday 10 August.

Gulrez Shah Azhar is an Aspen New Voices grantee from Seattle researching the health effects of heat. Previously, he was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, and an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Public Health.

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