That blue ceramic jug: daily drinking water for 12 people. Miraflor, Nicaragua, 2016

Showered in Awareness

For years, I’ve thought about Anthony Bourdain when I shower. 100% truth. In an interview years ago, he extoled at length the virtues of a cold shower. Really. His preference was against hot showers, favoring the startle of a cold blast of water, then gradually finishing to maybe lukewarm. But never hot. And, except famously in Japan, said his showers were efficient and effective, in part due to being relatively cold. Don’t get me wrong: he was a huge fan of good indoor plumbing (see: Japan), ranking it right up at the top of his travel list. But yes, cold water. Scientific studies bear out the benefits of a brisk shower: boosting your immune system, lessening anxiety and depression, increasing mental alertness, great for hair and skin. Of all the things he could talk about — food, cooking, travel, risk, writing, people, cultures, conflict, badassery, addiction, solidarity — this is what resonated with me, and what continues to be reinforced over time. Or every morning in the shower.

It’s best I don’t talk at length about bathtubs. Unnecessary, wasteful, probably hazardous, especially to an aging population. Whenever I talk about tearing out the tub in our house and replacing it with a walk-in shower, other voices weigh in about resale value and attraction for families. Only in America. Of course I’ve heard a bath described as a ‘tepid soup of your own filth’, which I may agree with. Even worse if it’s a public space. There is a reason folks with compromised immune systems are advised against hot tubs and whirlpools and water parks, and even pedicures.

I’ve not traveled all that far or wide, but enough to know water is an issue. Don’t even. It IS an issue here; you just may not hear about as much if you are on the coast or the Great Lakes basin or along the route cut by the Mississippi River. If you hear about riparian rights or aquifers running dry or snowpack or runoff, you are hearing about water. If you eat food, you should care about all of the above.

Growing up, we took legendary family road trips, camping along the way. In the summers of the early 1970’s, it was frequently hot and dry, and our trusty Chevy Impala station wagon of course had no A/C, so concrete-walled campground showers were a welcome way to end a day spent on sticky vinyl car seats. One memorable stop in the desert of New Mexico included a sign in the campground bathroom to put the lid down on the toilet after use so snakes didn’t crawl in to cool off. And once, during a water shortage in Florida that converted camp showers to coin-operated, we even picked up hitchhikers due to their creative sign declaring “WE SHOWERED TODAY”. How could we, sighed my mom. How could we not, laughed my dad.

Visiting and working in Nicaragua permanently changed my perceptions on water. It was hot, it was dry, it hadn’t rained (except high in the mountains) for over six months, and no rain was on the horizon for another few months. We couldn’t drink the water unless it was boiled and cooled. Temps broke 100 in the daytime, 90’s at night. No running water or electricity. We hydrated with watermelon, rationed our drinking water, drank coffee or warm ginger ale. When we had water, we thought about it; when we didn’t have it, we thought about it more. How thirsty am I? — and made our water bottle last all day. There were barrels of water behind homes, some of it rainwater, some not. You dipped a bowl in the barrel and poured it on your skin to rinse off: showering. We left the village and went up to Miraflor to learn about coffee-growing. That first morning in Miraflor, hearing rain on the tin roof, was a small joyful miracle. It lasted a few minutes, each day at dawn, and became the best sound to wake to. Some mornings we sat on the porch during the rain, letting it wash over us. It was tangible renewal: body, mind, spirit, earth, basins, rivulets, streams.

You do not have to travel that far to be changed by water, or lack of it. For a few summers, I lead service projects with teens in eastern Kentucky, most notably after the MacGoffin County Tornado in 2012 (you can look it up). We mostly did home repairs in neighboring counties after that destruction. Working in Morgan and Menifee counties, and later in Breathitt County, we were entirely off the grid. Off, like buy a flip-phone with Mountain Rural service and a paging plan, because we had nothing and needed to communicate from our work sites. Once, midweek, we left the rural work sites for the hardware store in West Liberty, KY, and everyone’s personal cell phones chirped madly as a week’s worth of texts and emails were received. So here’s the thing about working with these constraints: lack of resources. Most homes were trailer homes, plunked onto someone’s land, without an address, tapped into someone else’s electric service, maybe dug septic but maybe not, maybe on pumped water but maybe not. Many trailers had rain barrels, and that water was used to water the gardens, which were a primary food source. Off the grid means off the grid. And it’s hard to get assistance, what with no address. It’s easy to be lost off the grid like that.

It was oppressively hot those summers. We carried our own water into work sites each day, and rationed it all day. We worked under trailer homes, installing vapor barriers then building knee-walls to attach underpinning that had been ripped away during the tornado. You want underpinning, because you don’t want untoward critters under your house. We had it okay, because we worked under the trailers, in shade, where our teammates were reroofing, or replacing missing stairs and wheelchair ramps so homeowners could get safely back into their trailers. At the end of the day, we’d all come from our work sites, in Zag or Twentysix or Ezel, and drive out Pretty Ridge Road to Cave Run Lake, where we could swim. We were told on day one that there were snakes in Cave Run Lake. We discovered that we did not care, and swam anyway. Back at the school where we stayed, we had running water but no showers. A temporary outdoor shower was built in the parking lot — really, 2’x4’s with gray plastic sheeting, and a hose clamped to the top, attached to a plastic water tank that had been trucked in. You could see the water level drop as each person showered. Pressure to move quickly was enormous, so as not to run anyone out of water. It is way different if you can SEE your total resource, and recognize this is a shared commodity.

If we are bonded to places we’ve traveled, perhaps it is really a bond of awareness. People are connected, resources are finite, water is vital to everyone, everywhere. I once had a student from a plains state who came to campus on a visit, and stood on the beach at the edge of Lake Michigan, kind of in awe. When asked why, he said, “I’ve never seen a lake where you can’t see where it ends.” I think about that now: we can’t always see where it ends, but it ends. And it is our responsibility to be stewards of awareness, and against waste. Maybe my brisk quick showers don’t balance out the folks who stand hosing down their damn driveway, but I am no worse for the wear, and may even be better for it. We get to pick the legacy we leave, so we can start with committing to a quick cold shower.

Toenailing a knee-wall for underpinning installation. Morgan County, KY, summer 2012
Completed knee-wall all around the entire foundation. Also, note the vapor barrier above, held in place by chicken wire. Shout out to ASP (Appalachian Service Project): top-notch organization doing big work.
Coming into San Francisco Libre, Nicaragua — dry river bed after months without rain.

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