My first summer living alone in Miami, I never once turned on the AC. And I most remember that summer by the smell of sweet mango blending with the damp stench of mold. Of course, it took me a while to identify that second smell as actual mold. Growing up in Sweden, the sub-tropical climate was a brand new thing. I was traumatized by the freezing air-conditioners in public spaces when I went to the movies without a long-sleeved shirt, or as I ambled grocery-shopping, haphazardly, in shorts.
So, once home in my own space, I was not going to use that dreadful AC.
I remember specifically how one evening that summer — when it was about 95 degrees and humid as a sweat-stained Brando in Apocalypse Now — I heard someone knock on my door. It was the neighbor, red in the face, dripping of sweat.
“Is your AC not working either?” He panted in-between words. I smiled. I told him, I don’t know if it’s working since I never tried it, and reached out my hand to introduce myself but the guy had already turned and left.
I didn’t really give a shrug back then. But I’d been longing for heat my whole life — I was enjoying it! All the windows were open to the tropical garden outside. The Haitian mango tree by my front door dropped more fruit than I could eat; the little Key West hammock I hung from the tree was so comfortable, and from it I could observe the two possums who sometimes showed up to feast on the mangos.
But there was that other smell too, behind the sweet mango. I couldn’t quite place it at first, and it didn’t bother me that much.
I went home to visit Sweden, and my friends all wondered what happened to my face. Just a little acne, I said, no big deal. We’ve never seen you like that, they responded, and kept asking what had changed in my diet, if I had allergies, hormonal disruptions, etc. It really annoyed me actually. Everyone breaks out every now and then, don’t they?
When I returned to Miami and opened my door, I found that the studio had been colonized. And it wasn’t the possums.
A humongous black mold colony, with its very heart or head-quarter or whatever it’s called, in the closet, from which spores were shooting out along the walls in all directions. I felt my nose fill up with that fine mold dust, coughed, and walk out. I had heard about the toxicity of black mold, and I had a strong urge to leave and never come back.
A few years earlier, when a large brown rat sat on the gas stove of my Chinatown loft in New York, I felt the same way. That time I had left the kitchen — and the rat — thinking there must be a way to terminate my lease so I never would have to walk in there again. But my landlord was a stern Chinese woman who painted her fingernails black; she was never going to let me off the hook. So I turned around, found an umbrella, and somehow directed the rat out on the kitchen windowsill and closed the screen.
In remembrance of that event, I figured, well, this does look harder, but there must be a solution. Just like the monsoons that rain down in summer with baleful streaks, the invasion of mold – otherworldly life-forms that seem very unwelcome in your domain – is another phenomenon you might encounter living in the sub-tropics.
Through Googling, I gathered that black mold isn’t usually the infamously toxic black mold (it’s more likely to be black-colored mold, and while not exactly good for you, it ain’t gonna kill you in a few hours. You’d have to take samples and mail them out for testing to know exactly what they are), but just go ahead and clean it up already. Hallelujah! I threw out half of my belongings and scrubbed the walls clean with bleach.
Around this time, I was introduced to the ancient system of Ayurveda, based on the idea that disease stems from an imbalance of the elements. I did the so-called Dosha-test to find out my own imbalances, and it appeared I had an extreme Pitta excess (Pitta being the fire element). I was advised to avoid heat, spicy food, and critical thought. To take cooling walks in the moonlight, to drink cucumber water, and to practice letting things go instead of analyzing them.
But I did something even more effective — I turned on the AC.
Starting as a necessary evil, it did clear my skin almost immediately. Still, I found myself waking up freezing in the middle of the night, and cursing! Why live in a sub-tropical climate and be cold? I just couldn’t grasp that. Slowly, over the course of two-to-three years I got used to it, and it helps that I inherited a really warm down-comforter from a thoughtful boyfriend.
So now I’m sleeping in a warm bed, under the cold air-stream, away from the outside heat and humidity. Just like a Miami native.
Ewa Josefsson pens the “Goodness” column for SG. She writes from the intersection of ancient wisdom and modern ignorance. She is currently feeling grateful to the inventor of the midday siesta.