Water is life, life in water can be death. A lesson learned too well in a Himalayan summer.
So naive was I my first time abroad. A suitcase half packed with bare necessities, lacking in resources I was unaware of needing. My first night in Delhi, I learned the importance of water. If only three hours a day was permitted for water use, for showers, flushing toilets, brushing teeth, then it was within reason of preservation, usurp power from greedy water lovers. Never is a fruit so tasteful, refreshing, as a ripe mango so juicy with water from its flesh.
We were told bottled or filtered water only. Take precautions. I heeded this request, but still failed drastically. I brushed my teeth in the tap water, swished it in my mouth without second thoughts. From the beginning I could have started the downfall.
In Dharamsala, the monsoon rains were just beginning. Rainfall that would consume morning hours, flooding foot paths, creating rivers that weaved their way through around homes and rocks, rushing to an end I never saw. But with each rain came a deluge, undoubtedly one could have kayaked down the mountains if crafty enough. Sometimes paths would have to be rebuilt, too many rocks caught in the waters, taxis would be unable to drive through, other routes on foot required. And though the rains are needed, welcomed, they spread disease, bacteria, washing away what is unclean to another abode.
With the rainy season was another dilemma, the water source or caretaker of the town water had changed. How so, I’m not sure, but soon even the people of Dharamsala filled health clinics and chemists shops. Sickness was flourishing and it was a matter of time before it struck foreign bellies.
The first day in Dharamsala, the volunteers were divided into groups to race around the town, to see if we could make our way. The two distinguishing elements of this place were the bazaar and the water pump. If you found yourself by either of these two places, you would realize your location and be able to know the route home. The walk to the water pump was about ten minutes, a pebbled path that eventually leads to uneven stone steps and down a small steep hill. There is the life source of the people, a small metal pump, and never did I see it neglected. Whether child, woman, or man, water was being fetched, pumped into buckets before being carried away. And the downhill walk from our flat was so much more vigorous on the path back because in its paradoxical existence turned uphill. I thought of the women, of my several students, each day they walked this path, pumped water and hauled it back to wash cheap tin plates, their clothes, their bodies. How quick I am to forget the easiness of my ventures at home, a several feet walk to a kitchen and faucet with filtered tap water. And even with their friends and family falling ill from the water, it was the only choice, and no one could live without. So even the sick took in the treacherous drink that had turned their insides sour.
In these thoughts, a rush of memories about water fill my mind. Meena squatting on her front step washing plates, smiling up at me. Investigating bottled water seals to see if vendors were attempting to sell us tap water. Jaye over a water filled bucket washing her underwear, crying, her salty tears more sanitary than what came out of the faucets. The murky floods that made the steep steps to our flats into waterfalls. The flushing toilets that my students weren’t fortunate enough to have in their homes like I. Vegetables for our raw salad washed in cold tap water. The lid of our filtered water cannister being rinsed in tap water by a member of the cleaning staff before placing the lid back. I almost wanted to shout at her, fool, what have you done, how it is surely tainted in this heat, you wish the sickness upon us all! But mostly, I remember the bucket showers.
This element of life for me seemed so gruesome to many of my friends. A bucket filled of water to wash with. Never did it go to waste. A scooper as an assistant, slowly pouring water over limbs, naked in a pink tiled bathroom and black painted cement floor. Closing eyes, holding breath, when pouring water over my face, slowly, no water to waste. How quick the soap would begin to dry on the skin, how the feet, the toes never seemed to get clean. Water collecting, sitting beneath the feet, arousing what had gone unseen on the floor now lifted and drowning. Yes, the feet never got clean. Dirty when cleaned. What was left went down the floor drain, how wasteful, careless estimate of the amount needed. Then a rubber bladed sweeper to drag across the floor, pool the water towards the drain, and watch it leave. My flatmate, Jaye, in attempts to make the bucket shower a more glamorous experience said one day that it could, in an odd way, be like an Herbal Essence commercial sans the orgasmic sounds. Who knew a bucket shower could be so sexy.
Between bucket showers and monsoon rains, water made itself present and known. It giveth and taketh, indeed. One afternoon, several of us returned from McLeodganj, and at the taxi stand, the deluge poured from the sky. Figuring it would pass in ten minutes, we waited in a small shop with a hodgepodge of goods from U.S. soda in small glass bottles, Western looking baby dolls, chips and sweets. But we were also stuck inside with several men. Who knew such a small place could feel all the more small and awkward. We would have been fine had the staring ceased. But Jaye and Hailey are blond and blue eyed, so exotic in this land, the men can never help but stare. And with several pairs of dark colored eyes fixated on us, the uneasiness mounted. We knew little Hindi, and with stalker eyed men speaking low in a tongue we can’t decipher, it is easy to go from mild discomfort to threatened. After fifteen minutes, the rains had yet to cease.
Finally, Hailey and another couldn’t stand it, purchased an umbrella and took off in the rain towards our flat. The waters were heavy, gaining power. It wasn’t more than ten more minutes that Jaye and I decided to follow. Monsoon rains brought more comfort than staring eyes, and with the ratio of men per women increased, we preferred the horrendous weather. I soon questioned that logic not even twenty feet from the shop door. Jaye and I under a small black umbrella, walking slow, with a massive downpour and winds.
The power of the summer rains is difficult to explain. Trees are forced almost sideways, ready to break at the hip. People stay indoors until the weather’s rage has subdued, but not us, not these stupid foreign girls. Water is rushing, quick and forceful, racing down step paths, flooding basins left out to collect this precious gift from the gods. It’s up to mid shin, and I’m beginning to think how easy with one swift torrent for Jaye or me to be swept back, falling backwards into the waters and finding it difficult not to wash away. This became a real concern at one impasse, the path forked, but the connector was eroded down, thin and weak from all the storms. If either of us slipped, we would be carried down stone steps for at least fifteen feet, likely not stopping until colliding with the wall of a house. We debated crossing. Hoping the rains would lessen. But the sky said otherwise and we knew.
We decided slow steps, firm, put weight into each step. And as we began to walk, I looked down to notice a shiny silver ring in the waters, unmoved thanks to larger rocks around it. I’m not sure why it caught my eye, but when I noticed it, I thought it strangely looked like the ring Hailey had purchased just an hour ago at the McLeodganj bazaar. I picked it up and began to walk, and as soon as I did, water rushed between my right foot and flip flop and whisked it away. My reaction was to grab it, but I stopped, realizing if I did what would happen. And I watched my black Croc flip flop float upon monsoon waters, zigzagging above the stone steps that led to lower Dharamsala homes and the local bazaar. Those damn waters.
Walking with one foot bare upon pebbles, dirt, and rocks, is not pleasant. And each little pang of pain upon my sole made me want to curse the gods, curse Dharamsala, curse each little bastard rock that attempted to impale my naked foot. Not far from the flat, an elevated home had several people sitting on the porch being voyeur to the storm. Even with all the water noise, we could hear them laughing. Of course at us, the stupid Western women taking a stroll in the monsoon. Not just a mild chuckle, but hearty belly laughter, smiles wide, never before had I seen Indians laugh so hard in my time there. Hysterical, yes, one umbrella, a shoeless Western whore, and two women soaked like alley mutts. Quite the live show.
Back at the flat, Hailey was on the porch waiting. I held up my thumb with a silver ring and asked if it belonged to her. Her face was shocked, then turned to elation. It had fallen in the water on the way home; she thought it gone forever. I suppose I exchanged my flip flop for the ring, the water gods couldn’t leave with nothing. Had only I known a replacement sacrifice would be required! But it made her smile, and Hailey smiles like a child opening twenty gifts. Just the odds of finding a lost ring in rushing monsoon rains still shocks me a bit today, what luck, whether good or bad, perhaps neutral.
And this is water in India. It too embraces paradox. Sustains life and takes life or at least brings it to its knees. Such power in an element, and how powerless we become without it or consumed, overtaken by it. Even now I thirst, but what a luxury for me to sit in a bed and just reach over to my side table for my cold bottled water. How I forget about the struggle for so many. I think of my students. If they still walk that path daily to the water pump and back. Burden their arms, hands and backs with the heavy weight of water. So careful in its use so another trip isn’t required. Trusting it without knowing if it will keep them well or give sickness. Yes, water is life, and life within water can be death, or for some, rebirth.