Brush your teeth with bottled water.
Bring hand sanitizer (lots).
Don’t touch the dogs.
Don’t touch the cows.
Don’t touch the goats.
Don’t touch the kids.
Don’t touch anyone.
Don’t touch anything.
Don’t drink from a bottle without a straw.
Don’t drink fresh fruit juice.
Don’t eat unpeeled fruit.
Don’t eat vegetables unless they were washed in mineral water.
Don’t eat out unless you know it’s clean.
Don’t eat out.
But above all else, they say, for pete’s sake, just DON’T DRINK THE WATER!!!
With an estimated 18 million foreign visitors visiting India every year, each of us with the fear of the lord(s) instilled in us, fear of the elixir of life itself in particular, the market for bottled water amongst tourists is no small force. Not only is the demand high, but the price is cheap. 10 rupees will get you a bottle of ice-cold mineral water in many major cities (around 25 cents).
Say you stay for a month. It’s hot here. You’ll probably drink at least three bottles a day. That’s at least a hundred (maybe closer to two hundred) bottles being tossed curbside on your behalf. Literally, curbside. Well, in actual fact, there probably isn’t a curb. But there also isn’t a great, if any, mechanism for dealing with waste here, and a significant proportion ends up on the streets, becoming fodder for cows and goats, or floating down the Ganges. Multiply your personal heap by 18 million and you can see the problem. That’s a lot of trash. (Never mind the resources used, the transport, where the water comes from, etc.)
I was sitting with a local man on the ghats in Varanasi, chatting.
“Which country?” “Canada very nice country,” “You like India?” The usual.
When he nonchalantly tossed some trash in the river, my curiosity was peaked. I asked “Why do you throw your garbage in the river?” It is holy, after all. His response, with a shrug, “it moves fast!”
When I tell people his flippant response, they laugh, they shake their heads. How could he think it was ok to trash the river, just because the river will carry the problems downstream? Ridiculous! Right?
After thinking about it for a while, I think it’s an incredible and succinct summary of our own attitudes to our waste. Out of sight: Out. Of. Mind.
With this in mind, I set out on this trip with my little Mountain Equipment Coop water filter, ceramic with a carbon core (and a particulate foam pre-filter). I was ready to fight against the countless bacteria and fecal colliforms (or at least the ones bigger than 0.2 microns) waiting to bring me to my untimely demise. All this, with the hopes that my lean, mean, bacteria filtering machine would save the world in the process.
Seriously though, I am a firm (firm!) believer that every little bit makes a difference. My dad used to always tell me you should leave a place looking better than the way you found it. He was talking mostly about making my bed and cleaning up my dishes, but it applies to everything, everywhere: Little things matter, so make them good.
At the very least, I want to minimize my negative impact here. I’m already guilty of carbon emissions from my intercontinental flight, my untreated sewage being released into the river, rickshaw diesel fumes, and importing peanut butter. I can at least make my mountain of trash smaller.
I. Got. Sick.
Oh, the horrors. It really wasn’t pleasant. The full gamut of our most dreaded symptoms. We westerners grapple to find a reason, to pinpoint the guilty culprit that we can then avoid at all costs.
Was it the rice? The mango? It must have been the tea. What if it was the way the potatoes are fried? Is the kitchen clean? Did I touch a dirty doorknob? My sheets are infested with bacteria, the lunch is poison, and someone coughed lethal germs all over me.
We’re all doomed. I have dysentery, malaria, dengue, and cholera.
In my case, the answer was obvious. It must be the water. The result is pictured (photo of all my water bottles). Ten days of paranoia. I lived on Aquafina and cornflakes.
To my great, though admittedly perverse, relief , I got sick again – even on this diet of knock-off western comforts and fear. Again, it was awful, but it was all the evidence I needed to make the case to myself for my filtered water.
I’m back on it. You can find me in the mornings with my pail of tap water and I’m my little camp filter.
And I’m fine. Great, actually.
I won’t ever know exactly what made me sick, and I’ll probably get sick again. But I don’t want to live my life encased in a bubble, spending my time finding ways to keep the world out. Let it in! And I’ll deal with it as it comes. Especially for the sake of something I really believe it; cutting back the trash (and the corporate grip on our perceptions of safety). It makes me happy.
It’s an attempt, albeit a small one, to leave something a little better than the way I found it.