If I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, if I try to define and to summarize it, it is nothing but water slipping through my fingers.Albert Camus, An Absurd Reasoning
As someone that loves the water, I wish for a body that knows how to float. Sadly, no. Even in the salty Thai seas, in a competition between the head of an axe and my big legs it’s a beautiful dance of synchronized sinking.
Thai new year is joyous, playful, fun and uninhibited. On Koh Pha-Ngan Songkran is celebrated with copious amounts of water thrown at any and every passerby—whether on foot, by car or (most often) on scooter. Some trucks even travel around loaded with watergun-laden revelers hunting for their next target. Eventually I couldn’t help but get in on the action.
Water is everywhere here. Nepal is, after Brazil, one of the world’s top water-producing nations. It flows in streams and rivers, divides the valleys and cuts the ridges to their base in the mountains. Three of the world’s great rivers begin here, bringing life to billions downstream. Walk a few hundred yards in the foothills and you’ll find water splashing merrily from a tap or stream.
Except I can’t drink it. For all the water in the world, if it’s not safe to drink, it might as well be charcoal—at least to me. I’ve got the lucky gift of a westernized gut, acclimatized to thorough dash-ation of my water: chlorination, flouridation, ionization, sterilization. Without these technological intestinal appendages, what is a source of life to a village is a source of sickness to me.
I’ve not been so strongly affected by the water crisis until this trip. I’m about to get a baptism in it.
I’ve become habituated to the kinds of travel that easily provide my basic needs, even in far-flung places. What’s different is that this time I’m on my own. Without a support team, I’m up a creek without a water filter.
My attention has to turn to water. Not optional, I have to search it out within a few hours or there will be consequences. When found, I have to evaluate it for safety. I have to conserve it, purify it, plan time to search for it, and prepare for carrying it with me.
It’s that absence of the usual crutches that I’m surprised by, and hopeful for on this trip. I don’t have the cultural common ground to be able to share my needs through language. I don’t have the crutch of infrastructure, unthinkingly dispensing what I need. Here, a total stranger, I don’t have friends and family I can rely on to take care of me for something as simple as a glass of water.
I’m hopeful that this experience has some cleansing power. To know what it feels like to lack something so crucial. To have to choose daily between simple, crucial needs. Instead of being wholly focused on the rhythms of the task at hand, my thoughts have to share space with the basics of survival.