Skvazniak

Last summer, in the August heat, I was on a bus with two other volunteers on our way to visit our friend in Novaazovsk. People were packed into this bus like sardines in a can, many standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the aisle way.

The three of us occupied most of the rear bench seat. The temperature outside was somewhere near 40 degrees, putting the temperature on the bus somewhere near an unbearable 43 degrees. The trip would take about five hours.

The minimal free-flowing air on the bus came from a ceiling vent positioned near the front. It felt like our only lifeline. Leaning toward the center of the bus, into the airstream of that vent, was all I could do to keep from inhaling what felt like everyone else’s exhalations.

An hour into the trip, the vent was shut, my lifeline closed. Hot, moist, stagnant air. I felt panicky, overwhelmed with a feeling similar to that of being trapped under a dense pillow. Slow suffocation.

I wasn’t sure during the bus ride, when the woman closed the overhead vent, why someone would choose to cut off the only fresh air supply to a bus full of sweaty, overheated people.

Later, I told the story to a Ukrainian friend of mine. What she said to me made very little sense to this American.

“A cross breeze can make you ill,” she said. “It’s called skvazniak.” It might be an old Ukrainian superstition, but a lot of people believe it can make you sick and lead to death.”

Death? I was shocked. Letting your hair blow in the wind while driving down the highway is what many Americans live for. I looked forward to doing that very thing each summer while cruising Oregon’s Highway 101, tracing the curves of the Pacific coastline, chasing the sun.

I guess that doesn’t cross over into this culture.

***

In the same vein as skvazniak is the idea that drinking cold water will make you ill.

In America, we prefer our drinks cold, often times with ice in them. Iced tea, iced lemonade and iced coffee are just a few examples.

In my time in Ukraine, I can recall seeing ice just once (the kind used in drinks, not the stuff that forms on the streets in winter, which there is plenty of) and it was when I was at the apartment of another American volunteer. Her parents had sent an ice cube tray to her as a gift.

***

To my surprise, as miserable as it was, I didn’t die on that bus. In fact, no one did – not from heatstroke, or skvazniak.

I’m not a doctor, so I can’t prove whether gusts of wind can cause illness, just like I can’t prove that when that woman closed the vent on the bus she saved my life. All I know is that I haven’t died from driving in my car with the windows down yet. Perhaps I just have a strong immune system.



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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.