Abolissons les tropiques : An Ethnography of Anticipating Sensoria

In February 2020, I was invited to join a team studying snow at the Concordia Ethnography Lab. Less than a month later, COVID-19 kicked in, and I had to start my studies, not in Montreal but San José, Costa Rica, where I was born and raised. Now in Montreal, I continue my exploration of space, place, and north-south power relations in knowledge production. This blog is the second of a series where I engage with seasonality from my embodied experience.

By Melina Campos Ortiz

Des rivières parcourant les corps (Momenta Biennale 2021 @ Occurence Gallery). Photo by Ariana Sefariades

After arriving in Montreal in June, I was quarantined for two weeks in an apartment that felt like a sauna. Canada reached the highest temperatures on record (46 degrees in BC, which were followed by apocalyptic fires), and I couldn’t imagine feeling cold ever again. But despite the heat, Montreal’s winter was always there. 

A summer introduction to winter

When I finally got to know the city I was longing to discover, I encountered winter all around it: the staircase covers stored at the entrance of my sous-sol apartment in the Plateau; the snowplow behind the door at the laundromat on Duluth Street; the photographs of snowy days on Saint Laurent Boulevard; poems about winter in the Leonard Cohen books at Le Mot, a lovely second-hand bookshop on Milton Street.

Winter is also the best ice breaker for a hot summer day:

-“Is this going to be your first winter? 

-Well, technically, no, I lived in the US and the UK before…

-Where in the US?

-Washington DC…

-Yes, this is going to be your first winter!”

It is the favourite topic on which Canadians seem to wish to give tips to newcomers:

-“Save up! Get ready to pay a lot for your hydro bill”.

-“Find a place close to a metro station. In winter, you will appreciate it, trust me.”

-“Have you thought about how to insulate your place for winter?”

-“You have to have a budget for winter clothing. I spent a thousand dollars my first year here.”

-“You will need feathers!”

-“Buy a good coat, even better if it is a Canadian brand. In Montreal, you will need it.”

“Those boots you like are kind of cool, but they won’t do the job. You need something that covers your leg….” 

And so on.

When I finally met my classmate Amrita at the end of August, she asked me (one newcomer to another): have you done any winter shopping? I was embarrassed to tell her that the only shopping I had done was for a summer dress during a street festival in Saint Laurent Boulevard. (“I can always use this in Costa Rica,” I said to myself to justify the end-of-season treat!) But the truth is that I did not want to believe that winter was a possibility, that summer could ever be over. What would I do? 

A winter poem found at Saint Laurent Boulevard. Photo by author.

The people without seasons

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Momenta Biennale exhibition with people from the Centre for Sensory Studies. One of the installations at the Mile End included a whimsical film about a legend associated with the Mekong River in Vietnam. At some point, the French-speaking narrator said: “there are no seasons, no renewal in this part of the world.” The film was so beautiful that this relatively tiny detail was easy to forgive.

But for some reason, I cannot forget it.

In 1982, Eric Wolf wrote about “the people without history” as a critique of the long-held anthropological representation of non-European cultures and peoples as isolated and static entities before the advent of European colonialism. Almost 40 years later, I find myself suspecting that “the Global North” perceives us –“tropical people”– as “the people without seasons.”

Probably the film narrator (like the thousands of tourists that flock to the Caribbean and Southeast Asian beaches to escape the winter), did not spend enough time in that part of the world to understand that in the tropics, “renewal” occurs at a different pace. For instance, in Costa Rica, if we are privileged enough to live far away from a riverbank, renewal happens every afternoon when it stops raining. Or every morning when you wake up, and it is sunny and  you completely forget about how much it rained during the night. Or when the sun finally comes out after three days of non-stop rain as a result of a tormenta tropical. (Or, most importantly, that renewal is not tied to weather change at all). 

We may not have to deal with feathers or insulated boots. Still, we have to adapt and take precautions. We don’t have to plan for months, but for the hours: deciding at what time to run our errands, hang our washing, or harvest our crops. Always carrying a sweater, an extra pair of socks, and never returning a borrowed umbrella. A friend of mine took the precautions to the next level. She used to wear plastic bags on top of her socks and hiking boots to university to ensure her feet stayed dry. My sister and I used to make fun of her. The truth is, the two of us always got sick during the rainy season, and she was always fine. 

There is also a time of the year when it does not rain and orange, yellow, and pink flowers sprout from the porós, corteza amarillas, and robles de sábana trees, the arboreal reminiscence of San José’s coffee plantation past. December to half April we can leave our houses without an umbrella and enjoy the colorful landscape. It is not spring, it is the dry season. It is our summer. Even if it is colder at times and days are slightly shorter. 

In fact, we have more than one summer in Costa Rica: there is also a tiny summer in the middle of the rainy season, at the end of July. We call it Veranillo de San Juan (it coincides with the fête Saint Jean Baptiste, so well known in Québec). A relief in the middle of the year. Another time when we could leave the house without an umbrella or stop wearing plastic bags over one’s socks. A vacation from May and June’s endless rainy afternoons. A space to breathe to get prepared for September and October’s dark days. 

“A la distancia, desde los caminos

que cruzan la meseta

de soles deslumbrados de febreros y marzos, pareciera que una mano

de acuarelista inquieto

nos llenara los montes, las cañadas,

los predios olvidados,

de anaranjadas motas […]”.

Julieta Dobles

Who owns winter?

Winter boots now keep me awake at night. What if I buy the wrong pair? What if I get all winter-related stuff wrong? This fall, each time I said I was feeling cold, my Canadian friends would laugh. “You don’t know what cold is,” they would say. (Would I ever know? Am I allowed to know?)

I wonder, does winter only belong to those who can afford all the winter gear that I see in Saint Catherine Street every time I leave the EV building after work at the Lab? Or the snow boots that appear in every one of my Google searches and all my social media feeds? Does winter only belong to those who know exactly what to wear in every situation and have plans for cross-country skiing during the weekend? What about the Nicaraguan migrants that went to Ottawa to protest, in the cold, against Daniel Ortega’s dictatorial regime just a couple of weeks ago? Are they allowed to express themselves in winter, even if they are not wearing “appropriate” clothing? What about people that cannot afford an expensive coat, a good pair of boots, and a high hydro bill? Are they invited to partake in the Canadian winter?  

My conclusion: I don’t need to feel cold in my body to feel winter’s frigidity. Like most things these days, it seems to me that winter has been co-opted by neoliberalism and settler colonialism. Why am I finding myself just associating winter with shopping? Why am I scared of not being able to comply with Canadian winter and its land-conquering narratives? 

Can winter be anticipated otherwise?

As I rewrite this in one of our wordfactory sessions, it is snowing for the first time. Of all places, I am sitting with Hanine at the Ethnography Lab, the place that opened my interest in snow and seasonality. I feel like crying: I waited so much to see this happening. I wonder how to reclaim this beautiful season, to make it more inclusive, less daunting, more welcoming to newcomers to Canada?

First snow as seen from the Concordia Ethnography Lab. Photo by Author.

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