Sunday, September 11, 2011

Adventures in Bathing


(Adventures in PNG Series, Vol. 2)

The other day, the water turned on in the shower, and in short order we heard my husband singing “The Hallelujah Chorus” in a loud, exaggerated vibrato.

What is he doing?!” my daughter asked me, stifling a giggle.

I smiled.  “That means the water is cold.”

There are many reasons one might take a cold shower here, the two most likely being:
1. Lack of sun the day before, and
2. Too many showers taken before yours.

We, like many people in the world, have solar-heated water.  Lots of homes here, including ours, have an electrical backup heater, but it is quite expensive to run it, so most people do so rarely.  Some homes are fortunate enough to have water pipes routed through their fireplaces or wood stoves.  If the would-be bather is enterprising enough, he or she can start a fire that will heat the water in these pipes before it is delivered to the shower.  Enterprising or not, we are not so fortunate.

So, when the previous day has been particularly cloudy, or a child has taken a 30-45 minute shower the night before (ahem), we have a choice.  Pay for the hot water, or chill out – literally – by taking a slightly-higher-than-room-temperature-if-you’re-lucky shower.

When we were at POC two years ago, hot water was available via bucket showers (top left picture above).  Course participants were tasked with the twice-a-day chore of starting a fire in an outdoor stove.  Pipes passed through that stove and delivered hot water to spickets inside the men’s and women’s bathrooms.  One would fill a portable bucket with water from these spickets, lower the rope-suspended bucket in the shower stall, and pour in the hot water.  Raise the bucket back up and voila – a hot shower!  The flow was controlled by turning a wide shower-head/nozzle on the bottom of the bucket.  It was wise to close the nozzle while soaping up, lest you run out of water before you were rinsed clean.

If you did run out, or if you chose (like I did most of the time) to have a cold shower, there was a regular shower head emerging from the wall of the stall.  One turn of the knob, and from it would flow a glacial-brisk, refreshing shower that actually felt really nice on a typical, tropical Madang afternoon.  (Not such a good idea in the morning.)

In the villages, bathing takes place in the river.  On day one of our six-week village living experience, our village “brother” took Paul and Evan to the men’s bathing hole at the river.  Some girls took Andie and me to another part of the river, downstream from the men.  This was culturally intentional, as men would not want to be defiled by having women bathe upstream from them.  I suppose the women who must bathe upstream in a different village are of no consequence.  Maybe they assumed the contaminants were diluted by the time they reached this particular bathing hole.  Maybe the men never even gave the possibility a thought, but as we were on the coast, logic dictates that surely hundreds of women in dozens of villages do, in fact, bathe upstream from these men.

The other place to bathe was at the mauswara – the mouth of the river where it empties into the ocean.  Because the other bathing hole had an interesting set of complications (a steep, muddy bank to climb in and out of the river, and a 15-20 minute walk back to the house after you were finished – just lomg enough to get good and sweaty again), I preferred to bathe at the mauswara.

For a few days, anyway.

It was at that point that I discovered something very important: the mauswara was the place where I was literally being eaten alive by sand flies.  After about a week in the village, I had more than 300 sand fly bites. 

We counted.

For the next five weeks, I gave myself sponge baths outside our hut, wearing my tankini top and board shorts, of course.  I never set foot at the mauswara again.  Of course, that didn’t mean I never got a sand fly bite again.  They had gotten a taste of something sweet and spread the word to all their friends.  I was a certified smorgasbord of culinary goodness for the entire insect community.

Just as an aside, ocean swims supplied most of the kids’ “bathing” experiences.  :)

The truly frustrating part of living, doing laundry, and bathing the village way is that one never feels completely clean.  Who am I kidding … one never gets completely clean!  Seriously.  I cannot emphasize this enough.  It was probably my number one complaint during our time out there … just this constant gritty, grimy, grody feeling.  Dirt and sweat are a way of life.  The only real respite was the occasional downpour of rain.  On more than one occasion, I got up in the middle of the night to go outside (in my tankini top and board shorts) in order to stand under the gush of rain water coming off the thatched-grass roof.  I even took my shampoo.

It was the closest to a real shower … the closest to CLEAN … I ever felt. 

It was marvelous.

PNG is the first place that I have scrubbed my feet with a stiff brush nearly every day.  Even here in the highlands, unless you wear sneakers all the time (I almost always wear sandals) dirty feet are inevitable.  This pales in comparison to the unpleasant, yet constant, grime of village life, but it is reality.  And no matter how much I scrub, I can never get my feet completely, living-in-the-US-and-walking-on-plush-carpets clean.
Here in the highlands, living in our western-style house, we are still bathing in river water.  The only differences are 1) it’s not iron-smelting-factory hot outside, 2) the water has at least the potential to be warm, and 3) it comes in the form of indoor plumbing.

But, as I said, we rely on the warming presence of the sun, and during rainy season in particular, it doesn’t always make a significant appearance.

In addition to that, there is a constant struggle between wanting your children (and your spouse, for that matter) to be presentably, reasonably clean, and wanting your own hot shower.  I do get my share that are cold.

But I haven’t gotten a single sand fly bite. 

And for that (in addition to many other things) I am grateful.

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