Here is a picture of a bathroom.
A picture of a bathroom is – possibly – not what you expected to see on my blog.
I can’t see it with your eyes, but I assume that you are seeing a relatively normal, perhaps slightly quirky bathroom that needs a trash can.
Now, let me tell you what I see when I look at that picture.
I see luxury.
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This is the bathroom my roommates and I used when we were working in Haiti in June of last year. The three of us spent five blisteringly hot days and five brutally humid nights in a large open bedroom at the back of a church rectory. The rest of our team was scattered throughout the building, sharing an assortment of odd, cobbled-together bedrooms and bathrooms, a large communal dining room, and a wide veranda overlooking the tall palm trees lining the pockmarked dirt road through the village and the mountains beyond.
And it was luxurious.
See that shower tap? It would commonly be used in a garden in North America. It would mostly be decorative, but also functional. But it was a tap, and water flowed from it in an anemic but consistent stream.
See that shower curtain? It’s an actual curtain. Like you would find in someone’s living room. It repelled 0% water, but it did keep the water from flooding the floor of the entire bathroom.
See that toilet? My god, it’s a TOILET. And for four out of the five days we were there, it FLUSHED. Like, when you pushed the level the whole system worked and the tank drained and the bowl drained and then refilled.
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I think what I’m getting at is that I caught myself taking these things for granted here at home.
It’s so very very easy to do.
When I come home to my apartment, I unlock a door, and feel reasonably sure that no one else has been in there, rifling through my belongings. I flip a switch, and the lights come on in the hallway. I have a bathroom with a toilet that works 100% of the time, a sink that works 100% of the time, and a shower that works 100% of the time AND provides very hot water.
I take for granted that when I put the trash in the dumpster, someone comes and takes it away. I take for granted that I can turn on the kitchen sink and drink straight from the tap without worrying about contracting shigella or cholera.
I take for granted that when it snows like this, piling up outside my window, that someone will come along and plow the well-paved streets clear.
This paragraph could go on for a book. There is so much about my life here that I simply accept as the status quo.
And for much of the world, our status quo is, quite simply, unimaginable and unobtainable.
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This little bathroom in Haiti allowed me to time-travel.
As I stood under a thin, tepid stream of water in the shower, washing off the layers of sweat, grime, and sunscreen, I was thrown violently back in time to the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone. There was no shower in the boarding house where we all lived. When I returned from the Ebola Treatment Unit after a day shift, I took my two plastic buckets to the pump in the front yard. And the house staff hand-pumped water for me.
And then I stood in my bathroom, scooped the water out of the bucket with a little plastic cup, and dumped it over my head. The tepid water immediately brought my overheated skin away from its perpetually incipient hyperthemia.
It was the very best part of my day.
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The toilet in Sierra Leone had to be flushed by pouring a bucket of water into the bowl, but I was more than OK with that, as I was glad there was a toilet. Back then, it felt like a luxury to be able to flush the toilet paper down with everything else in there.
I time-traveled back to my work in Guatemala, my first ‘overseas’ assignment, and repetitious memories of automatically tossing toilet paper into the bowl, then catching myself, swearing out loud, and reaching back into the bowl to fish it out again.
(The underground pipes in some earthquake-prone areas of the world will break and shift with the movement of the earth. Toilet paper gets caught on the broken and cracked pipes, plugging them up and ruining the system.
(The garbage bag hanging on the wall in the bathroom in Haiti is full of toilet paper. Same procedure as Guatemala).
And – back in Haiti – as I tucked toilet paper into a plastic garbage bag, knowing it would be burned with all the other trash in the backyard after we left, I time-traveled back 18 months and to the other side of the world, to Nepal and a small campsite on a fallow cornfield, overlooking a wildly remote Sherpa valley.
In most rural places I’d travelled so far in Nepal, I’d become accustomed to the “Hindu toilet,” or, as my parents acerbically named them after visiting Turkey, a “squatty potty.” But there, on the hill above the small village of the lead Sherpa guide for our trek, I watched as his sons dug a hole in the ground. They then laid two pieces of wood along either side of the hole. And placed a narrow tent, tall-enough to stand in, above the hole.
THAT was to be my toilet for three days and four nights.
And I will tell you this with absolute sincerity:
Those three days — trekking the valley, meeting the people of the village, eating open-fire-cooked vegetarian dinners by headlamp under an endless freezing sky, and yes, pooping in a hole in the ground in the middle of the night — were perhaps the happiest and most peaceful days of my adult life.
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I had a point here, and it’s getting away from me.
The other thing you have to realize about the Haitian bathroom is that in order for the shower to run and the toilet to flush and the sink to dribble (we washed our hands there, then sanitized them), the huge rubber water holding tank in the backyard had to be filled. And because it was June and hot as Hades, the water had to be trucked in. And for water to be trucked in, it took HOURS over a truly terrible road that was only 15km long.
And after you learned this, you realized that the truck had come only for you, for your team. No one at the rectory used the indoor toilets. They were an unnecessary extravagance, a pain in the ass to run and subject to not infrequent issues. (We bucket-flushed the toilets on several occasions.)
And after you realized that you were the cause of an unnecessary and extravagant burden you felt…..? Ashamed? Grateful? Undeserving?
Volunteering to serve in an underserved country does not automatically make you deserving of any-damn-thing at all.
How do I parse this?
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I guess I parse it as luxury, and let myself be grateful.
I look around this apartment here tonight, home, one bedroom, appallingly more room than a single human needs, full of luxuries beyond measure: electricity, water, heat, a fridge, a stove, an oven, a dishwasher, a washer, a dryer, wireless internet, warm clothes on a cold night.
And I think of those late afternoon showers in Haiti.
Turn on the tap. Get hair wet. Turn off the tap. Soap up. Turn on the tap. Rinse. Turn off the tap.
Stand there in the heat and humidity, watching as the water evaporates from your skin, enjoying being cool for the very first time since the shower yesterday afternoon.
Look up at the tap.
Turn it on for ten more seconds.
And soak in the gratitude.
Wonderful! Thanks for writing.
I’ve always enjoyed the luxuries you write about, but the times when I’ve had those and little else, have been the happiest.