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Losing Our Way Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing. --------------------------------------------------------- Arundhati Roy (Indian author, advocate, activist)

A Hot Shower (ive)

ECUADOR | Friday, 27 February 2009 | Views [2219] | Comments [1]

A Hot Shower

A Hot Shower

“Ivan! Their shower is hot! Like really hot!” We're at a hotel in Quito, Ecuador. Miral has finished up in the baño compartido (bathroom shared with the rest of the guests on that floor) and is delivering very exciting news. I'd experienced a lot of very cold showers in South America. At the first hostel in Bogota, when we still understood so little Spanish, the clerk showed us one bathroom in the hall, then said, “mas caliente (hotter),” and motioned for us to follow him to another bathroom down another hall. We later found out the water in the “mas caliente” shower was almost luke warm at its best and not hot by a longshot. Also noticeable was that the shower had no, well, shower. It was just a shower head in the middle of the bathroom. There was a drain for the water at the other end of the bathroom. It did have a shower curtain you could pull closed to give you some feeling of being in a shower rather than showering in an entire bathroom. The showers in Cartagena and Santa Marta did not – so taking a shower also meant completely soaking the bathroom sink, the toilet, the roll of toilet paper, the toothpaste and toothbrush, and anything else that happened to be in the bathroom at the time. And not one of these showers ever got warmer than luke warm, and even that was a rarity. Basically, three weeks of cold showers. So to now find out that this shower in Quito-- this one with a real shower stall with a sliding door and everything - was providing hot water was like hearing that I'd won the lottery.

I love hot showers. Really hot showers. In the US, I take excessively long hot showers. I love the feeling of hot water. Sometimes I will gradually inch the heat up as I shower so I never habituate and lose the feeling that I am in a really hot shower. Sometimes I turn the temperature up really high just to see how hot of a shower I can really tolerate. I have known for a long time that I have a bit of an addiction to long hot showers. I think that's why it really resonated with me when Pema Chodron (a Buddhist teacher I love) used hot showers as an example when speaking of one way to begin to transform our selfish attachments into care for others. She said that we should realize when we are taking a hot shower that we are lucky because many (probably most) people in the world never get to take hot showers. She also said that rather than feel guilty about our good fortune, we should enjoy the hot shower to its fullest while holding in our heart the consistent sentiment, “May every other person on this earth someday experience something as comforting as this hot shower.” She explained that when we experience difficult situations we should think, “I hope that by going through this, no other being in the world but me has to experience this,” but when we experience pleasure we should think, “I hope every other being on the world can someday experience this.” This practice can turn our hearts away from our usual selfishness and toward selflessness. As I shower in Quito I think, “I hope every other being in the world can someday experience this.”

In its almost constant uneasiness, international travel is a magnifying glass on things that bring some relieving comfort – like hot showers. As much as it is invigorating, it is also draining moving from town to town, constantly having to learn how things are done in each place you land, and constantly struggling to communicate about even basic issues. In Silvia, Colombia, after we found these cool cabanas to stay at, it took us about 30 minutes of walking around the area wide-eyed and talking to neighbors who had no information about how to obtain rooms before a woman suddenly danced into the street almost singing to us that she ran the cabanas and had vacancies. This was followed not long after by a 15 minute effort to buy some facial soap from a drug store salesman. (We later realized the confusion was due to me repeatedly using the word “sopa” by mistake to ask for the soap; “sopa” is soup!) Other times it's simply tripping on a sidewalk because of an American expectation that sidewalks will be level. Or figuring out how to use dish washing soap that is in solid form. Every day is filled with these moments of confusion. They keep you very awake, which is great – but it is because nothing seems easy.

When ease and comfort do arise on the road, the contrast with the vigilance is really noticeable. Many of the things that bring ease and comfort are simply things that are the way you expect them to be. We are drinking mainly water as we travel – filtered through our amazing anti-bacterial, anti-viral gravity filter (made by Sawyer – check this thing out, its great). Several times I have found myself, after a long day of navigating one thing or the other, putting my water bottle down and going to one of the many Bodegas on the street and asking for a Sprite. I don't drink that much soda as an adult, but I loved Sprite as a kid. The Sprite in South America is similar (although not exactly the same) as the Sprite in the US – and it comes in the familiar green bottle – so that sipping one somehow gives enough of a sense of “normal life” that it is very comforting. One of the other volunteers here at La Hesperia said that she almost bought Nature Valley Granola Bars the other day – not because she particularly likes them – but she was just so excited to see these familiar snacks in Ecuador. After our long and tiring bus journey from Santa Marta, Colombia, to Quito, Ecuador, when Miral and I were feeling extremely weary, we bypassed the ceviche stands and shops with local delicacies like humitas and empenadas de verde, to get some good ol' American looking pizza. (Don't worry – we hit the ceviche, empanadas, and humitas hard in the days that followed!) Sometimes you just need something that's familiar. It's also striking how many comforting items are food. In fact, many of the mealtime conversations among the volunteers here at La Hesperia are about foods from “home” (which is the US, Canada, Britain, South Africa, or Switzerland, depending on the volunteer in question) that can't be obtained in Ecuador and how badly the person referencing that food wishes they could get some.

So, in addition to its uniquely pervasive unease, what makes traveling different than regular life is that there are also fewer comforting escape options available. You can't just hop in the car to grab that creamy and energizing triple 16 oz. soy latte from your favorite espresso joint to get you through the afternoon. This is actually great, because it provides a really rich opportunity to sit with, confront, and befriend the uneasiness without all that avoidance and self-soothing. Buddhists teach that experience is inherently groundless in its impermanence and all of our preferred escape options (which can be attachments to certain experiences or responding with time-tested and uncreative habitual patterns) provide nothing more than a false sense of comfort, deluding us into believing that that which is fluid is really solid. This, in turn, causes terrible suffering because we feel like we need to grasp more and more of what is comforting and do a better and better job of pushing away what is uncomfortable to finally achieve the best solid situation. This creates a constant struggle with our lives, which are actually unfolding quite naturally if we could just get out of the way. From a Buddhist perspective, real peace comes from comfort – even joy – in life as it really is, in its unpredictable groundlessness, in a situation in which we never know when comfort or discomfort is about to occur. From this we can discover that each moment is actually pregnant with poignantly infinite possibility. So, purposely stepping into 'pressure-cooker' situations that bring uneasiness with no escape is a wise thing to do – to train in the experience of finding comfort in the most disarming of places. Like the practice of Tibetan yogis and yoginis who sit and meditate in the charnel grounds where corpses are undergoing “sky burial” at the hands (or beaks) of vultures, contemplating that their bodies will also someday be corpses to cultivate peace with the ultimate discomfort of death.

It may not qualify as a charnel ground, but in some ways, my volunteer time at La Hesperia has provided a bit of a “pressure cooker” of contemplation-worthy discomfort. Don't get me wrong -- I love it here. There are so many things to love about this moisture-drenched 2012 acres of Andean cloud forest reaching 6693 feet above sea level that is part-biological station/part sustainable farm/ part reforestation effort and 100% the life-dream of Alexandria and Juan Pablo who own and run it. First of all, it is stunningly alive here in extremes that range from blazing heat with oppressive humidity to pounding downpours with 5-minute-long thunderclaps, all of which bathe in moisture odd and gigantic trees and plants whose forms I have never before seen, let alone know names for. Each morning I wake at sun-up to an orchestra of exotic bird-chirps and swing open shudders that face out into nearby hills veiled in gorgeous white clouds that softly waft in and out. And forget the birds, the insects here are incredible – from hairy tarantulas to giant chrome-colored beetles to fluorescent blue flies to the most astounding variety of butterflies one could ever imagine (we even saw one albino butterfly, which still has Miral completely freaked out!). You never know when a visit from a bizarre creature will occur. I have to admit that it isn't my favorite thing in the world to fall asleep to a giant black widow-looking spider crawling on the wall near the bed or a huge praying mantis walking up the mosquito netting – but I feel like this may be the insect world getting its revenge for our endless assault on its 'mosquitoes' (biting black flies) and 'zancudos' (what we call mosquitoes), be it by deet or by hands slapped to skin. Anyway, we also get occasional evening visits from a bat who likes to help relieve us of the insect issue. There are other animals, too. We saw an armadillo on one walk and spotted some monkeys scurrying away on another. Some of the other volunteers saw more monkeys that threw sticks at them! And then there are the farm animals – chickens, cows, horses, and mules. I really love being around so many animal beings. And I have gotten to do so many things here I'd never done before – milking cows, taking down a chicken coop, shoveling manure (okay, not everything here is perfection!), delivering milk using a mule, building gardens, making food items like cheese, yogurt, and pasta, clearing huge fields with machetes (lots of clearing fields with machetes! We all have unique calluses from machetes!), and my favorite, planting trees in the hills for reforestation. There have been a few pretty relaxing days, but many of the days we have worked to that level of exhaustion where food is more needed than desired and sleep disturbance is an impossibility. It's been good, hard work in a beautiful setting.

So what about this has been a uncomfortable? Of the 14 or so volunteers rotating in and out of here during our time at La Hesperia, Miral and I are some of the only people who are not in or just out of college. I knew when we were looking at volunteer sites that there was a decent chance we'd be the oldest volunteers at some of them. But actually being in the constant presence of early 20-somethings has been quite the little experiment. It's one thing to try to remember what it was like to be twenty and have all of those memories artificially infused with all of the wisdom that's been gained since then. “I was pretty much the same at 20, just a little more naïve.” It's much more jarring and real to enter into a world of college age kids for weeks at a time!

Most in my face, I had forgotten how much thinking at that age revolves around drinking. I mean, those who know me know that I have never grown out of my enjoyment of a good night of beer consumption. But I had forgotten the uniquely college-age obsession with the newly discovered world of mega-quantity drinking. So here we are in this incredibly beautiful and exotic once-in-a-lifetime Cloud Forest – and the kids who were here during our first two weeks literally spent 98% of their time figuring out how to obtain the local Cristal cane rum, walking down the hill (half-hour down, half-hour up) to the little food stand or bussing it to nearby Tandapi to obtain the Cristal, and then consuming the Cristal playing drinking games (the same games I played at their age) into the wee hours. They attended breakfast in somber headachey, dismay. They sometimes slept their precious Ecuadorian day away recovering or, better still, by returning to the drinks during lunch break or while working. For different reasons, before we even realized the situation we were entering, Miral and I each made decisions to not drink any alcohol during the month here. So, each night, they turned the social area of La Casa de Voluntarios into a dorm party, yelling and screaming, breaking things, and doing things that they can enjoy talking about how much they regret doing the next day. We, instead, were spending our evenings reading, writing, talking, or studying Spanish. I remember what a buzzkill the non-drinkers were when we were in party mode at that age. So, to no one's surprise, our decision to abstain reinforced us old fogeys as outsiders in their little society.

Another interesting thing about being around so many people this age is being immersed in the, frankly, selfish expectations of older adolescence. Yes, this is a unique group of kids who have decided to travel a long way to give of their time to a cause they believe in, which suggests better developed empathy and compassion than the average kid, for sure. But, still, they are older adolescents. I don't think life has yet taught many of them much about disappointment, hurt, or sacrifice. Most of these kids are on their first big adventure away from home and few have spent more than a few years out of their parents' comfy roosts. It's not that they lack the capacity for generosity, but they are used to being taken care of and having things the way they want them. From job assignments to taking food portions at meals, it is rare for anyone to ask, “Does anyone mind if I...” before doing it, and it is common for everyone else to mutter under their breath, “I can't believe she just...” One example. A breakfast staple for us here is oats. When one of the other volunteers noticed there were only enough oats for one person, she went to the kitchen to get more. So far so good. But when she was told there were no more oats, she returned to the table, announced there were no more oats, and poured the available oats into her bowl and ate them. She didn't ask if anyone was really craving oats – or if anyone had not had oats in a few days – or even say that she was particularly craving the oats and hoped no one minded if she took them. She just took them. This is no monumental situation on its own– but so many situations unfold this way around here and the sum total of it creates an overwhelmingly self-focused atmosphere.

Still, spending a month with rum-pounding, selfish twenty-somethings has its benefits. For one, they can be as exuberant about anything as they are about drinking. I had never imagined that taking a machete to a field of weeds and shrubs and small trees could be as fun as it was made by two eighteen-year-olds who swung and hacked and sliced and joked and laughed with every ounce of energy in their bodies. I have found that a potential downside to the equanimity that develops out of the ups and downs and twists and turns and responsibilities of life can be the increasing difficulty with which I can muster that child-like glee about simple things. It felt good to be immersed in that again. Maybe that's why so many people have children. And watching them all these few weeks, they also remind me of what's I've gained from having lived these last twenty years, the blind spots that have been shed, and the wider perspectives that have been gained. I loved being in my early twenties – but as I swim in that mindset for four weeks, man, I had no idea how much I had to learn. Growing up is good.

And their extremes also make me contemplate the subtler ways that the twenty-something still resides in me. What are the ways that that I still use alcohol for bonding with friends? What are the other things I use besides my true self to connect with people? What do I still do just to have a little thrill and an interesting story to tell? What do I still do just to gain the acceptance of the people around me? In what ways do I still push away others who don't share my interests and perspective? What are the ways that I still act to meet my own needs without considering the needs of those around me? Do I act less selfishly out of a truly generous heart or mere social expectation? For all of the maturity I feel I have gained since my twenties, how much blind-spot shedding, perspective widening, and growing up do I still have before me? Here, I have had the time and space to dig at these questions as with a garden trowel, sometimes digging with the two handed digger we use to plant trees – and occasionally I have needed a machete to clear things out and let new light in. But mostly the exploration of these questions has been like milking the cows – no matter the rhythm I get going, double-fisted and all, I only seem to pull a narrow stream – and, still, in the end, it seems to add up to a little something that can be used.

But most of all my experience here makes me want to spend more time asking the 50, 60, and 70 year olds in my life what they have learned about life since they were 40 – and what makes them chuckle and shake their heads when they watch me live.




I love hot showers!!!! I couldn't live without a hot shower. I probably wouln't even shower if there was cold water. Have fun on your journey!!!

  Aaron Mar 16, 2009 1:57 AM

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