Saturday, January 15, 2011

Reflections on a Bucket Bath

Like anyone with a sensitive conscience, I've often felt guilty about not doing anything, positively, for the poor or suffering, and dreamed of doing more. Avoiding active sin is one thing, but getting it together to motivate myself to engage in positive works of virtue or charity, works of mercy corporal and (besides in fickle bursts of dedication) something that always comes back to nag at me when I think of my relatively luxuriant lifestyle. A bee in my proverbial bonnet.

Certainly, charity starts at home, and there are many things I could do even within my regular life to help. Living simply. Doing good and reaching out to the children in my own job as a teacher starting next year. Dedicating my time within the community through after-school programs and tutoring and other local volunteer activities (there are many in need even in the First World). Volunteering in the local church and working to make things better, liturgically and otherwise. "Ministering" informally to people I meet through being a good example, acting authentically rather than trying to hide my own weaknesses, sharing my love of Christ, and being a supportive and caring friend. Praying and fasting for all. Working through advocacy and voting to reform the system structurally. Donating a large portion of my salary to charitable causes. Perhaps all this would even be the most "efficient" way to do the most good in terms of absolute cold calculations.

Then again, I feel like there is something to be said for those who go into the realms of squalor in other parts of the world to help full-time in a hands-on personal way, even if this is not the most "efficient" way economically. That there is something morally salutary about such volunteerism both for the soul of that volunteer and the moral fiber they have to build up in making such a commitment with its accompanying sacrifices, as well as for those who get the human touch on the other end, building up bonds of friendship and peace across the world.

I read a book early last year called Monique and the Mango Rains: Two Years with a Midwife in Mali about the experiences of a young Peace Corps volunteer and a village health official (Catholic, coincidentally) and was somewhat inspired. Oh, I'm not saying I'd join the Peace Corps itself necessarily, a specifically Catholic alternative might be preferred (especially since a major thread in the book was giving women birth control pills, and behind their husbands' back at that; not that I don't appreciate the circumstances some of these women find themselves in.) But reading about the good such people are doing always humbles me.

Last night I saw a special on the Peace Corps again. It was actually rather negative; apparently a lot of women have been raped or attacked and the Peace Corps has tried to hush it up, hasn't been particularly helpful, gave minimal counseling resources when they returned, tried to show the women how it was "their fault" for "breaking the rules" even when many expressed anxiety about their situations and asked to be removed before their attacks. Not a very nice picture was painted of the Peace Corps, it was shown as a bureaucracy trying to protect its own image (and don't they all?) Ironically, though, it got me interested again; I'm not a woman, after all. Male victims of such things seem rarer (and I could always sneak a taser over somehow, maybe.)

Whatever I'd decide, I certainly wouldn't be heading off right away. I need to finish my Masters and teaching certification program by this summer, and work at least a couple years to get some experience, pay off some student loans, and save up a little money. I'd also like to get into really good shape before heading off on such an adventure in the Third World.

But, there's a few other things. For one, heading off totally alone does frighten me. Sure, one can get hand-crank generators and satellite cards for communications, but the Peace Corps doesn't assign anyone with friends; only husband-wife pairs are allowed to request being kept together. Perhaps a Catholic alternative, some religious order or charitable organization, would be more obliging in this regard. Still, who's to say I could find a willing companion, and even this anxiety I think I could get over, especially in a couple years time. When I need to be, I can be very independent.

This may sound extremely fussy but, really, the thing that for a long while was keeping me back from truly considering such ideas (or even just things like camping trips, lol) was the question of bathing and hygiene. I need to bathe every day or I just don't feel right. I get very physically uncomfortable, and after even just a few days I'd go crazy, I think. Laugh all you want, it's the effects of modern conditioning.

However, after this special last night, I did some research and found out that bathing is possible and looked into how exactly bathing does happen among volunteers in such situations. Apparently out of a bucket of water, possibly heated in a fire, with a small cup. So I decided to try it today, with some recommendations from a friend who has apparently taken bucket baths for a Lenten discipline before. Here are my initial practical thoughts about the experience:

1) Overall, I was quite pleased. It's awkward at first, but I could definitely get used to it. It certainly is satisfactory enough that, if I at least had a bucket bath like this available reasonably often, I would be comfortable and wouldn't go crazy. I did feel clean afterward and what took longer in time certainly saved a lot, I'm sure, on water and heating costs. I may well make a habit of practicing this in order to get used to it, as a little sacrifice, or at least alternating every other day with a regular shower.

2) During the initial wetting of my body, before soaping up, a lot of water just runs off and can be aimed back into the bucket rather than wasting it. I limited myself to the one bucket and am sure that, with practice, I'd learn to use the limited water much more efficiently. Except for the shampoo, it might even be possible to rinse over the bucket instead of losing all that water, though I don't exactly like the idea of rinsing with "dirty" water. But perhaps I could get the soap off that way first, and save just a bit of totally clean water in another small bucket for a final "clean rinse."

3) I wasn't cold. My dad was worried I would be in the winter (even though the house is heated!), but with the water warm (out in the field, this would have to be done over a fire or on a camp-stove, I assume) it wasn't bad at all. The evaporative effect made things a little chilly, I think, but it was totally tolerable.

4) As I expected, when it came to the hair, I felt like it would definitely be easier if I had had a buzz-cut (and I do assume I would keep my hair buzzed if I went on such a trip, if only so it would be low-maintenance like this). I would have needed to spend a lot less of the water wetting and rinsing the hair if it were buzzed, and at that point might even be able to tolerate just using soap for the top of my head rather than shampoo.

5) I was a bit paranoid that, without water pressure, the soap wouldn't rinse off. That I'd be left feeling like there was a film all over me, or suds in my hair, or like the dirt and oil and dead-skin really hadn't been washed off. In reality, it turned out fine, though I think the power of suggestion has left me feeling a bit worried, especially around the nooks and crannies. It would probably have been better and used less water if I had scrubbed with a wash-cloth or sponge or loofa more for the initial rinsing and, likely, if I used a plain soap rather than the thick Dove moisturizing bar I'm used to...

6) The last thing left, then, in conquering the practical limitations my obsessions about hygiene place on the question of shaving. I simply refuse to grow a full beard (though, because I'm lazy, I often let 3 or 4 days worth of stubble grow in before shaving). I'd like to find a good battery-powered dry shaver to cut down on the time and effort I put into shaving on the days I do, but I suspect one doesn't exist that would satisfy me. I'm sure something could be figured out, though, maybe a good straight razor (though not for weird traddie reasons!)


Robert said...

I've yet to do it, but couple of my coworkers just use wet wipes. After a lunch time run (they're crazy motivated and the school's gym is right down the hall) and cool down they use 4-5 wet wipes to clean themselves. For the bucket bathing I'd suggest a rag for the wetting process. Just remember you only need to get your skin wet. The majority (90-95%) of your gallon should be used for rinsing. If you're looking for some high class bucket bathing then you need to find a low stool to sit on (perhaps something only 3-4 inches high) this will save your legs a lot of squatting while in the tub.

Mark of the Vineyard said...

Japs are sort of into "bucket baths": they bathe before entering the tub.

Back when I came back to the Church I was involved in the local Jesuit volunteer program for college students. We were supposed to be sent to Africa or East Timor after formation.
I eventually gave up because the more time went on, the less I could see myself living for a year with Jesuits and people who identified with their spirituality. A stopped frequenting the Jesuits altogether because at times it felt as though we were practicing different Faiths.

Anonymous said...

Two things involving cold water:

1. Cold showers / bucket baths get pretty bearable pretty quickly.

2. Cold shaving isn't that bad either.

(#1 especially applies in warm climates)

A Sinner said...

Yes, I realized that it's pretty hot in Africa and that I probably wouldn't need to heat the water. For one, in the heat, I might enjoy it being cold. Two, it might already be lukewarm just from the air temperature or the sun.