Saturday, September 19, 2009

Bucket Baths

There is a scene in my favorite American television series (West Wing) in which two characters are shown going through their normal morning routines. The point of the juxtaposition is to illustrate how Donna (a lowly White House assistant)  is much more organized and together than her former boss, Josh (a high-powered Deputy Chief of Staff). Donna has everything down to a science while Josh oversleeps, then spills the coffee, can't find his shoes, etc. I love Donna, and in general, I would root for her over Josh, but in this particular scene I can hardly sit still.

Here's what she does: since every second counts in her busy morning, she walks into the bathroom and turns on the shower. Ever efficient, while the water is running, she turns on her mini coffee percolator, fixes her toothbrush, turns on the tap in the sink and starts brushing her teeth. Two separate taps are on now, yet she hears something on the television and goes out to the bedroom to listen, leaving the faucets running.

I can't watch this. I fast forward it. 

For most of the time we have lived in India (almost 29 years now), we have not had a shower. 

Hmmm. That sounds pretty bad. 

What I mean is that our bathrooms, in most of our rented houses, did not have showers. So we took "bucket baths." You fill the bucket with water and ladle it out over yourself one cup at a time.

Now we are in our own home and we do have showers, but lately, we have reverted to the old bucket system in an attempt to save water. There is an excellent article from Orion Magazine called "Taking Shorter Showers Doesn't Cut It: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change" and I agree with what it says. It's true that my little gesture is just that - a gesture. Taken to an extreme, it could even contribute to the problem by getting me, and millions of others like me, to believe that personal enlightenment is a substitute for political action. 
And in fact, that is exactly what representatives of corporations and agribusiness have been pushing for years. At one level, taking a bucket bath is no different from finishing what's on your plate because children are starving in India. It is agriculture and industry that use 90% of our water, not individuals, and the child who dutifully cleans his plate is probably obese and about to have an ice cream cone for dessert - not much help to the hungry kid in Rajasthan.

But at another level, the bucket bath keeps the problem of water scarcity front and center in my awareness. As a metaphor for waste, the shower works pretty well: turn it on and let it run while the hot water gets to the temperature you like. Add some cold, then fiddle again with the hot. Finally, having sent several liters down the drain, get in and take your leisurely time, enjoying the warmth and the pressure and staying a lot longer than is strictly necessary for cleanliness (because you're worth it). 

I've been down this road many times and it always makes me feel ensconced and well-off, at one with the world and the cosmos, content and optimistic. Especially when the bathroom is shiny, the shampoo and soap smell delicious and the towels are plush and "thirsty", whose thoughts would turn to scarcity and drought?

A bucket bath alters the equation. First of all, you know how much water you have to use. Oh, you can always add more if you have misjudged, but that's an effort. And besides, we are programmed to manage within what is given (how many of us eat more than two slices of toast for breakfast? Why is two the magic number? Because it is.). 

Second, you are an active participant in the process. You aren't just standing there letting the water stream over you. You have to bend down, ladle the water, stand up, pour it, put the mug down, use the soap, put that down, ladle the water, etc. etc. It's not difficult, but it requires attention. You are connected physically to the water going down the drain. You are aware that each time you fill the mug, there is less in the bucket. You can't delude yourself into believing there is an endless supply and that you are entitled to all of it.

And third, unless you actually do go on filling and re-filling that bucket (which you won't do because it's too chilly to stand there and wait while it fills), you use a lot less water. You realize that less is possible. That realization seeps into your consciousness and affects other parts of your life. You change.

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