I have a challenge for you.
Don’t use your faucets, don’t run your dishwasher, and don’t start your washing machine. Take one day out of your life and try to maintain your normal routine without using running water.
Where will you get water? Maybe, you’ll have to drive to the store and pick up a couple gallons. Maybe, you’ll have to melt some snow or boil some water from a nearby water source. Maybe, you’ll have to go to the water tank in the local village and carry water home by the gallons.
Would you be up for it?
Could you do it for more than a day?
Growing up, I didn’t ever feel like I was wanting for anything. When I became more connected with the world, I felt like I never stopped wanting. Every time I live somewhere new and meet new people, I feel humbled. My wanting is nothing compared to some realities.
I’ve lived without dishwashers and washing machines. Learning to wash clothes by hand, made me realize the blessings of machinery and tide pods (before they were edible). Perhaps it was my own laziness, but my clothes never seemed as dirty after a couple wears when I knew that I’d have to wash them by hand.
I’ve lived without internet and ever connected cellphone service. When there were riots in Venezuela following the 2013 election and I couldn’t leave my house for safety reasons, I was never more thankful that back home I had internet at home and didn’t need to walk to the local internet café. (Let’s not forget the thankfulness I felt of returning to the US and finally having access to buy toilet paper, flour, bread, milk, and meat.)
When I moved to South America and asked for a water at the restaurant and they charged me for it, I quickly realized the privilege that people in the US have when it comes to access to clean drinking water. Not only have I never had a parasite from water in the US, I can also go to a restaurant and drink water…for free! Imagine the pandemonium it would cause to have to pay for water at a restaurant in the U.S! I had been spoiled.
Now, here I am, in the northwest arctic of Alaska, on a small island that will soon be underwater due to rising ocean levels and warmer weather’s intense storms and I’m completely humbled again.
Because of the need to relocate, the funding to improve the infrastructure of the village in its current location is practically nonexistent.
There is no running water…with one exception…the school…and in turn, teachers.
Not only do teachers have some of the highest incomes of people on the island (the main place of employment is the school or the nearby mine and many villagers live a subsistence life), but theirs are the only houses that are hooked up to running water. Being a part of the “elite” has me feeling separated from the community and that is an emotionally draining thing for me. I will never be able to understand their hardships and life, even as their neighbor, and that continues to bother me.
The villagers must go to the washateria to get their water, five gallons for a quarter is the going price, I believe. The washateria sits on the middle of the island, not too far from the school or the villagers’ houses, but without a snowmobile, hauling 5 gallon tubs of water across the island in subzero temperatures can be its own challenge.
Imagine having to go out and get all the water you would need that day. Water for dishes, for cooking, for brushing your teeth. Water for washing your body, cleaning your hair, doing your laundry.
I see the signs in my students now that I know where to look. There is a frustration of getting dirty right after the day they’ve taken a bath. There is a need to always wash their hands when they feel the least bit dirty, because at school they just have to turn the faucet. There is the constant desire to fill their water bottles and guzzle it down. Don’t even get me started on their desire to use the flush toilets because they aren’t the typical “honey pots” that they have to take out to the dump (or lazily outside their windows) and empty.
Not only are some students lacking in food and comfort at home, but they also have troubles with water.
I may have had limited access to things while growing up, but I never had to worry about water…and I still don’t…in a way.
Now, that doesn’t mean that I have water galore. Before I took a venture and learned more about the villagers’ lives, I was struggling with my own water consumption.
Living in the village has forced me to change my water consumption habits. I don’t shower every day and I don’t wash my hair every time. I turn off the faucet while brushing my teeth, washing the dishes, and cleaning my hair and body. I don’t flush every time I go to the bathroom, and I don’t do laundry every week. I don’t clean the floors religiously and I don’t always wipe down my tables. I think about how I use water constantly. Do I have to be this conscience about my water usage? Maybe not…but it is one way that I can do my small part in taking care of the community.
You see, the village has limited water. In the fall, before the freeze, the washateria is filled with only so many gallons. That needs to last the entire village from October to May. If the water gets to a certain percentage, the villagers are cut off. The remaining water is for the functioning of the school, which in turn also means the teachers. (If having running water already didn’t make me feel like a crappy person.)
If the remaining amount runs out, then the island is completely out of water.
Because of my profession, I have been blessed with running water and the ability to have longer access to water. I didn’t realize how special that would be. It was something I took for granted everywhere else that I have lived. On an island, surrounded by one form of water or another, water is limited. The hardships that brings, has been one of the most humbling realizations of my life.
Because of my profession, I have the means to travel back to places where I’ll have access to that long hot shower I so desperately miss. Yet another reason to be humbled.