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.

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