Thoughts on the Global Fluctuations of Access to the Elemental

by Ekua on January 28, 2012 in general travel,musings

Water is often on my mind when I travel. I’m not talking about beaches and waterfalls and pretty lakes, but about water in the everyday practical sense. Essentially, water is always more of an issue abroad than it is when I am at home in San Francisco.

There’s the fact that in so many places around the world, you cannot drink water from the tap. In Ghana, if we want to drink tap water, we have to boil it and then put it through a water filter. On other trips, my reusable water bottle that I fill up with tap water when I’m at home has to be replaced by day after day of bottled water from corner stores.

The hostel I stay at in Oaxaca, a city that has issues with water shortages, limits the time hot water is available to two hours in the morning and two hours at night to curb water usage. In Bolivia, so many of the low budget places I stayed at claimed to have 24 hour hot water but often really only had a trickle of lukewarm water that quickly went cold. As I was there in the middle of their winter in some of the highest altitude destinations in the world, this meant that I often skipped the cold showers because it wasn’t worth it.

When I was recently in Namibia, I stayed at a homestay for a couple nights and there was no hot water coming from the taps and the shower head didn’t work. To take warm showers, we boiled hot water and combined it with cold water in bucket and used that to rinse off.

Even in Western Europe, where clean and heated water is widely available, water comes to mind because of the prevalence of dual flush toilets. It demonstrates that there is generally more thought put into the wastefulness of using fresh water to flush waste down the toilet than where I live.

More and more, when I come home, I think about how the way we consume water in the U.S. differs from many other places around the world. It’s a kind of availability and usage that is largely taken for granted. And this is the case even where I live, a state that’s at a constant risk for drought.

As I write this, I am drinking a glass of fresh water from the tap made even tastier and cleaner by putting it through a filter. I have to walk only a few steps to refill my glass. I take a warm shower daily with plenty of water pressure and without having to wait very long for the water to heat up.

But last Friday, for a short period of time, this was not the case. I had come home from work, relaxed a little bit, and wanted to take a quick shower before meeting up with a friend later in the evening. In the bathroom, I turned on the shower and moments later, the water stopped.

I tried the sink faucet and just a little water came out before it stopped as well. I was frustrated. But couldn’t continue to be irritated as I thought about how the problem was likely to be very temporary and the whole issue I was facing could be stamped with the hashtag, #firstworldproblems. If I was in another part of the world, I’d have given up on the idea of taking a shower a lot more quickly.

It wasn’t too long until the water partially came back on. And it kept running through my mind how in some places, even the quick shower I took could be seen as something frivolous, even with just the tiny stream of water that was coming out. How crazy is it that on a global scale, something as fundamental as access to clean water can be considered a luxury?

This is the thing about travel, if you allow yourself to travel to certain places in a certain way, you will often be confronted with your position of privilege, even if you think you are doing things on the cheap. Perhaps especially if you are doing things cheaply. And it can make returning to your first world home more uncomfortable when things that once seemed commonplace now challenge you to acknowledge your prior ignorant bliss.

Maybe that’s reason enough for some people to avoid travel, but personally, I feel that I should take the opportunity to see the reality of the world when it presents itself. I want what I see to make me hold myself more accountable. I want it to push me to make changes in whatever little ways I can. And I know that the different realities of the world are always there, whether or not they’re right in front of me.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Jonathan Look, Jr. January 29, 2012 at 6:42 pm

Nice article. Travel does make us mindful of the relative affluence so many of us take for granted.

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Ekua January 30, 2012 at 9:10 pm

Thanks, Jonathan. I think that even when people are traveling, they don’t always acknowledge (or they ignore) how unbalanced the world is. I think travel becomes so much more purposeful when people pay attention to and process what they’re really seeing when they’re on the road.

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InsideJourneys January 30, 2012 at 6:50 am

We do take a lot for granted, especially water.
Even here in Jamaica, where we’re surrounded by water and have over 50 rivers, we’ve had water lock off. To avoid that, many homeowners have tanks that catch rain water so they switch on the tanks when the water’s gone. I always wonder about the people who have no tanks…

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Ekua January 30, 2012 at 8:43 pm

Yeah, this kind thing comes to mind when I think about how I’ve stayed at places that were very basic and barebones by American standards, but if there was an emergency, we had backup for water and electricity whereas the average resident might not.

Are there water issues in Jamaica because the water is not safe to drink or is there another reason why they have shortages? That’s good to hear that some people have systems in place to catch rainwater, though. I hear about that kind of thing happening with new “green” buildings here, but it’s hard to get the masses in the US to make changes until the problem is tangible.

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Herbster January 30, 2012 at 1:26 pm

As usual, enjoyed your post. Wondering how sick have you ever been due to suspect water. I now carry a steripen, should lessen the dependence on bottled, which may also be suspect IMHO.

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Ekua January 30, 2012 at 8:48 pm

Yeah, I’ll never forget that scene from Slumdog Millionaire where the boys were refilling plastic bottles with tap water to sell. I can’t actually remember a time when I’ve been really sick from water. I got a little sick when I visited Mexico for the very first time in my teens, just south of the border in Baja. I’ve also had some issues in Ghana and other places, but nothing like the days of illness that I’ve seen happen to other travelers. I’m not that careful, I will try a lot of food and drink, but I do have some basic rules that I follow to try to minimize my chances of getting sick.

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Marsha January 30, 2012 at 2:53 pm

Ekua…one of the things I really appreciate about you is your sensitivity to the worlds in which you find yourself. Brava!

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Ekua January 30, 2012 at 8:52 pm

Thanks, Marsha. I’ve been blessed and cursed with a keen desire to observe and analyze my surroundings. Not every trip I take is an epic journey, but I do think it’s important to travel with purpose and learn something about yourself or the world in the process.

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Karen March 23, 2012 at 4:15 am

Really interesting read, Ekua. This is something that has been on my mind recently — not least because of World Water Day yesterday and spending a few days in Egypt (drinking only bottled water – so much plastic!) and the Western Desert last month.

The other day I watched as a girl at my gym let the tap run for at least 10 minutes while she created some elaborate hairstyle. I was on the verge of saying something, but the argument in my head was that, around the world, many people don’t even have water for basics, let alone the luxury of leaving running, and running, and running. I couldn’t phrase it in a way that I felt she could really relate to herself so I just fumed to myself. I think there is maybe another privilege at play there; that of the traveller who returns home from abroad trying to convince people to care about something that doesn’t have a lot to do with their lives … I don’t know. It’s difficult!

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Ekua March 23, 2012 at 2:44 pm

I think travel is part of the same privilege that enables people to put so many resources into and elaborate hairdo and place such a high value on it… but it has more potential to be productive in the larger scheme of things (lots of emphasis on the word “potential”). Travel definitely can create a rift between the traveler who has certain types of experiences and those who don’t leave or travel in away that shelters them from the difficult realities of life in other places. At first, this frustrated me to no end, but I think I’ve kinda gotten used to it now. I still share my thoughts, but realize that changing minds and getting people to think about their impact beyond their small worlds is difficult and can take time. For example, one day I saw a family of tourists trying to feed wild sea animals on the Central California Coast. I explained why they shouldn’t do that. They looked at me like I was ruining their fun, but they stopped. Also, I think raising these issues through honest blogging is important to me. I write to express myself and hope that others enjoy it, but I also blog to convey opinions in calm and collected way that can hopefully encourage people to think about things differently.

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