Sunday, 15 April 2012

The Amazing Race 20, Episode 8

Ngorongoro Conservation Area (Tanzania) - Karatu (Tanzania) - Mto Wa Mbu (Tanzania) - Lake Manyara (Tanzania)

[Queen of Sheba’s Pool, Axum, Ethiopia]

This week the teams on The Amazing Race 20 got a taste of something that’s a daily necessity for at least a billion people around the world: waiting in line to fill water jugs at the communal tap, then carting or carrying the water home.

As we saw on the race, the availability of “tap water” doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a tap in every home. And in much of the world, those who have access to pumped well water at a tap within walking or hand-cart distance are the fortunate ones. The race was in small towns in Tanzania this week, but there as in most of Africa, any place along a paved road, or within sight of one (in some countries in Africa, any road passable by four-wheeled motor vehicles) is by definition privileged relative to most rural locations. Even in Tanzania’s capital, three-fourths of the homes have no piped water, and rely on door-to-door water vendors.

Obtaining water, including both waiting and carrying time, consumes an astonishing portion of the time and labor of people in much of the world.

Axum, for example, is by Ethiopian standards a wealthy, privileged, and cosmopolitan although remote town. It’s on a motorable gravel road, has an airport with a paved runway and daily scheduled flights to the capital, and is a major destination for both foreign tourists and domestic Ethiopian Christian religious pilgrims who believe that the Biblical Ark of the Covenant is kept at one of Axum’s churches in the care of a special order of monks.

Many people in Axum, however, rely for drinking water on an open, untreated rainwater catch-basin called the Queen of Sheba’s Pool, pictured at the top of this article. Looking down from the hill above, we watched a constant procession of townspeople, mostly women and children, coming to dip water from the pool into plastic jugs of every size, to be carried home on their heads, slung across pack animals, or in a few cases on wheeled donkey-carts. From dawn to dusk, there was almost always a line of people waiting for their turn to get to the pool.

These elementary school students in Axum, down the road from the pool, invited us to meet their English teacher, who asked if we would be willing to come back the next day to their class to give them practice talking with native speakers of English.

Would we ever! It’s always a privilege and pleasure to find out how local students, and their teachers, see the world. I’ve gone out of my way to find such opportunities from Indonesia and Vietnam to Turkey and Argentina. Don’t be afraid to knock on schoolhouse doors to offer your services as a volunteer. Many public schools and private English-languages academies alike welcome English-speaking volunteers if, as is common, none of their teachers are themselves native speakers of English.

We asked the students what they usually did after school. “We help our families get water,” they said, describing a chore that could take an hour or two even for those who live close by.

So what, if anything, is the lesson in this for travellers?

From clean water to clean clothes (remember the episode at the dhobi ghat in India on The Amazing Race a few seasons ago?), things travellers take for granted may have required vastly more labor to provide than we are likely to realize. That makes it important to consider and respect the amount of effort it may have taken to fulfill our requests or offer us goods and services.

When we haggle over snacks and drinks — even just a glass of water — by the side of the road, we may be dealing with someone who waited an hour or two in line at the tap, then carried a jug of water on their head for several miles to be able to offer refreshments at a place where tourists like us, or other travellers, would pay for them.

A request for something that seems inconsequential to us, and that we may have asked for without thinking about whether we really “need” it, may turn out to have sent our hosts on an hours-long errand, or depleted their stores of something — like water — scarce and for them expensive. That doesn’t mean starving, dehydrating, or otherwise depriving yourself, but it does mean trying to be attentive to what will be required for your hosts to fulfill your requests, in both time and money. Don’t shower three times a day, for example, if the water arrives by oxcart and has to be bought by the bucketful, or carried home by the hotelier’s children after school in the time they might otherwise have spent on schoolwork.

The other question the racers’ task raises is what to do when the water that is available isn’t safe to drink without a high risk of traveller’s diarrhea or worse?

One possibility is bottled water, which is available (for a price) in most places. Aside from the problematic politics of water privatization epitomized by bottled water — I highly recommend the documentary film Thirst about the anti-water-privatization movement in Cochabamba, Bolivia, as food (drink?) for thought on this issue — bottled water can be expensive, can’t be counted on to be safe to drink, and isn’t always available.

Sooner or later you”ll find yourself somewhere bottled water isn”t available. If you don’t have some way to purify or treat contaminated water, you”ll drink whatever water is available, and you”ll get sick. Or you”ll drink no water at all, and soon get dangerously dehydrated. You can”t trust bottled water from street vendors: in places where a bottle of purified water sells for a significant fraction of a day”s wages, local entrepreneurs will go to great lengths to make used bottles refilled with impure water look new and freshly sealed. You”ll probably be able to tell you”ve been conned as soon as you take your first drink, but by then it”s too late.

Boiling water is an effective way to render almost any water drinkable, but isn”t always practical when you are travelling. If you do plan on boiling your drinking water, make sure you have suitable water bottles. The type of plastic used for most bottles in which water is sold will shrink, crumple, and leak if filled with boiling water. Nalgene bottles will hold boiling water without leakage or damage, but aren”t always easy to find while you are travelling. Bring boilable water bottles with you, preferably with at least 2 liters (2 quarts) capacity per person.

Where you can’t boil your drinking water, you need some means of chemical or mechanical water purification. For the last several years, I’ve been using this odd-seeming mixed oxidant water purifier:

The “MIOX” purifier has its faults. It’s expensive (about US$150), a bit complicated to use (not insanely so, but you have to think about what you are doing and follow directions carefully), and requires special though long-lasting camera batteries. You mix some common salt into a capful of water, push the button on the device, and in a few seconds it produces enough of a bleach-like mixture, through electrolysis of the salt water, to render a large container of water safely drinkable.

On the plus side, it”s a fraction of the size and weight of a water filter like the ones I used to travel with, and has worked reliably for me. When you”re not travelling, you can keep it with your home emergency supplies. The MIOX water purifier was originally designed for military field use in Afghanistan and Iraq, but a civilian version has been available at REI under the MSR brand name. I can’t find it in the current REI catalog, and some stores list it as recently discontinued, but other stores still show some in stock, so get one wherever you can find it.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 15 April 2012, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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