Monday, July 7, 2014

Water, Privilege, and Potties [Part 2 of 5]

Just a couple weeks after my study abroad group of thirteen students from across the U.S. arrived in Panama and adjusting to our main homestays in bustling Panama City, we departed the concrete jungle to spend a week really among the trees. Just a few hours on the road westward brought us into the mountains in the small community of Loma Bonita, which translates to “pretty hill,” where we would immerse in a lifestyle far different from what we were raised to see as “the norm.” We were told that “the norm” in much of rural Panama was small homes of cinderblock with little-to-no electricity, outhouses, and who-knows-how-many large insect visitors in your room each night.

My homestay dad showed me an
overlook of the community
Once I was introduced to my homestay parents, it took a 45 minute uphill walk in the dark to arrive at their house. After having dinner and some conversation by flashlight, I asked where I could find the baƱo. A flashlight illuminated a small shack on the edge of the property, and lifting away its door, which was a flat of old lumber propped up against the entrance, revealed a toilet that was basically a whole in the ground with a concrete seat. There was no toilet paper, but I did pack some of my own. “Well,” I thought, “I’ve experienced worse Port-o-Johns in the States.”

Though the focus of this homestay was more about the experiences with our individual 
families, issues of public health were obvious. 

¡La casa! Living quarters on the left, kitchen and eating area on the right.
The students were required to buy advanced filtration water bottles before arriving in the country, for we were warned that the drinking resources during some of our excursions would be unsafe for our digestive systems, pampered by the plumbing we grew up with at home. The bulky filters in most of our water bottles cost us about $50, as they were designed to remove the tiniest of microbes; some of the students had bottles with UV filters that were even costlier. So, for that week, I also had to improvise for the task of brushing my teeth, squeezing out hyper-filtered water to wet my toothbrush. Whatever was in this chunky green bottle was my water supply. When it ran empty, I informed my homestay dad, as I felt it would be too imposing to refill it without asking. He would then show me to the PVC faucet coming out of the ground behind the house, but a few times he walked me to the faucet by the home of the neighbors, who were also in the family. (Perhaps it was when their well was running low...I couldn't be sure).

The hens provided fresh eggs, but the rooster would gladly 
crow even before the sun rose.
Despite trying to be as polite as possible, I couldn’t help feeling like I was saying that their water wasn’t good enough, that I needed special catering. Their tap water didn’t look any different than what I drank at home, but I knew that microscopic killers such as cholera could be flowing through this faucet at anytime, even if the residents of Loma Bonita seemed fine with drinking it most days. This water, whatever risks it may hide, must be their life sustenance, just as every other human requires. Their concrete toilet serves its purpose just as any “porcelain throne” in the US. These amenities are what they have, and it seemed to be enough.

Though one week isn’t enough to say I fully understand this way of living, it was enough to shake me out of my comfort zone, for just seeing images of global poverty in magazines or on the news doesn’t nearly compare to first-hand living experience. It is easy to fall into the mindset of “Wow, this experience made me so thankful for the luxury of [insert simple first-world amenity],” but comparing my experience with this standard of living to the consumerist culture I grew up in made me unsatisfied with mere reflection. I see action as the most desirable route to take, and though the reality that there are millions of people in dozens of countries living with water and sanitation issues, maybe humble cultural exchanges like a homestay in Loma Bonita are a first step.

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