Plenty of times in my life I’ve had a similar reaction. Scalding water gushes out of a sink, or the shower suddenly turns ten degrees hotter with no warning. But this was not one of those cases. The water was not painful. It was just hot. Maybe even just warm. But I had become so used to washing dishes in cold water I was startled. I was so used to the possibility of warm water coming out of a faucet being entirely beyond comprehension that I had a physical reaction.
And it got me thinking…..
Now, before I go any further I want to remind all the dear readers that I am truly, utterly, madly in love with Bolivia. I don’t necessarily agree with all the politicians or politics. I don’t even necessarily agree with labor union tactics, or all the artistic expressions of Bolivians. In fact, I tend to critique the overly-romanticizing gaze many in the North Atlantic cast on Bolivian revolutions and protest and the like. But I love so many of the people, I love the thin air, I love the sun, and gazing up at Illimani, and buying Viva phone credit, and salteñas for breakfast, and even the long ride back from El Alto after a long day of having my body repeatedly thrown onto blanket-covered wood palates.
But I don’t love the water in the Bolivia.
Point 1-Sinks. Only cold water comes out. This is all well and good, but when your hands are freezing from just the general cold that permeates daily life in the shade (and most sinks, being indoors, are in the shade), it’s a new level of annoyance. And since it is quite cold in the shade, and it seems that most water tanks are kept in the shade, when I say cold I do not mean room temperature, I mean a few degrees above actually freezing. Now, you can always boil water for washing dishes, doing laundry, etc., but that is not always particularly convenient. Though at least water boils at a lower temperature at such high altitudes.
Point 2-Drinking water. Don’t do it. I brush my teeth with it, and rinse glasses (see above), and use plain old tap water for most daily activities. But I’ve also had enough cases of parasites and vomiting or diarrhea from unknown causes that I stay away from drinking the stuff. And Agua Vital by the 2 liter is cheap enough. But if you find yourself parched late at night without a bottle. Or worse, if you’re sick and go through your supply and feel too weak to walk uphill to the tienda to get more, knowing better than to drink tap water can be truly excruciating.
Point 3-Showers. I have had good showers in Bolivia. Ekko hostel has some very nice gas-heated showers and I love them. Most of the places I have showered in Bolivia, however, have electric showerheads, which come in a variety of qualities. The good ones are good. Nice hot water comes out and lasts at least 5 minutes so you can actually wash everything you’d like to. But even these never seem to be powerful enough to heat the whole bathroom, so you’re still left stepping out from behind the curtain to a chill-inducing tile room. And then there are the bad ones. The electrocute you when you turn them off. Or sometimes start spewing sparks. Sometimes they only get luke-warm. Sometimes they just decide not to produce any warm water at all. And that might actually be preferable to the ones that purposefully trick you with about twenty seconds of warm water—just enough time to lather the shampoo in your hair—before they go cold for good. And others tease you with two-second alterations between pleasantly hot and scream-inducing cold. Oh, Bolivian showers, I do not miss you.
In February, I had the first of several flu-like experiences of last year. While chatting online with my friend Kate in New York, I complained: “If only I could just take a good, long, hot shower, I feel like it would clear out all the mucus in my head and I’d feel so much better.” She responded. “Do it! Better yet, fill up the tub with hot water and take a nice long hot bath!” I laughed to myself. My shower at the time did not even have a defining border. It was simply a shower head hung over the drain in the center of the bathroom floor. Oh a nice long hot bath. Sounds nice….
I realize these are complaints one could have about more than half of the places on this big earth. And these water issues won’t keep me from going back. But they sure do make me appreciate the water in the US. But the real point is, that the body adapts so quickly. When I pulled my hands back from the sink, it was not a mindful experience of water, but an embodied, conditioned response. And its only a small example of the ways that our conditions of existence, whether they be life-long, or temporary, impart themselves on our techniques of the body.