Blessings in a Bucket

The smell of cow dung sucker-punched me with my first steps out onto the dirt path with my grandmother. It was pungent enough to mask my own odor caused by the hot and humid summer in India. My family's cow, supposedly a peaceful creature, stared at me menacingly, as though she wanted to trample me in an effort to protect her calf, since I was a stranger intruding on her home turf. After making eye contact with her for several seconds, I averted my gaze as I approached the door of the outhouse. The metal bucket of water that my grandmother was carrying swished around while occasionally splashing onto the ground under the strain of her feeble arm. She set the bucket down and gave me the bar of soap and lantern while she opened the door. The steam emanating from the water served as a reminder that this wasn't meant to be an enjoyable activity–just simply one whose sole purpose was to clean. I looked down at the bucket of water and saw a plastic cup bobbing up and down, seemingly wanting to escape its hot watery haven while constantly getting sucked back in.

Once my grandmother was done fiddling with the door and opened it, she turned around and smiled while gesturing at me to go inside. I walked into the bathroom with the illumination of my lantern allowing me to see in the otherwise pitch-dark concrete interior. I had to set the lantern down in a corner, so it would be outside of my splash zone, thus leaving me vulnerable to the encroaching darkness. Once I stepped away to place my bucket in the middle of the bathroom, the aroma of gasoline was quickly replaced with the stench of human fecal matter. I peered around the bathroom's central water reservoir to see a spotty brown porcelain hole. Chunks of human stool clung to the sides of the chute, having resisted the urge to unite with water that was previously poured on them, a process that normally would have resulted in their slow dissolution in the sewer that awaited below. Despite having seen and smelled the toilet on numerous occasions, it still made me a bit nauseous.

Now wanting to get back into the comfort of my potentially air-conditioned room (assuming the power hadn't gone out), I stripped off everything but my flip-flops. I reached into the bucket to grab the cup and poured some water on myself, being careful to only use enough to get me wet so that I could lather on soap. The shampoo and soap stuck to me, requiring a delicate choreography of pouring water and harsh scrubbing to fully remove. After several minutes of what might as well have been part of a native Odissi dance, in my finale, or moksha, I grabbed the entire bucket and dumped the remaining water on myself to fully cleanse my soul. But I felt hot–hotter than I did prior to showering. After drying myself with a towel, I had a lingering sense of clamminess. And the smell–especially that of the nearby toilet–returned with a vengeance. And despite not wanting to have my grandmother wait longer than necessary for me, I couldn't rush to put on my clothing because I would run the risk of getting it wet and dirty from touching the ground, so this too required its own unique coordination.

Once finished, I picked up my used clothing and bucket before reaching out to grab the lantern. Its soft orange light glimmered intensely in the ripples of the puddle, mere inches away from meeting its wet demise. I picked it up and opened the door to be met by my grandmother in the faint glow of the night. She took everything I was holding as though she were somehow indebted to me, and reducing my burden was her way of making up for it. After stepping away from the outhouse, the outside air almost smelled fresh. Regardless, as a generally pampered child from the United States, I was desperate to get back inside the house.

I reminisced over this memory in my bathroom in Iowa City while letting my showerhead spray me with its warm pressurized water in my shower stall. The shower wasn't only a means for me to clean myself but also a method of relaxing and giving myself time to think and reflect on anything and everything. I showered at my own leisurely pace as I listened and danced to Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars's "Uptown Funk" and basked in the luster of my white shower walls, all while I transitioned from my shampoo to conditioner to body wash, easily blowing through 15-20 gallons of water without the fear of ever running out. Once I turned the water off, I was able to truly take in the sweet and crisp scents of "green apples," the "ocean," and "spring" as labeled by my cleaning products, which were purely soothing for my nose. As I opened the shower door, the steam escaped with me, and my foggy mirror embraced me, highlighting the beads of water trickling down my now glistening hair and skin. After drying myself, I flipped a switch to turn the light off, and I stepped out of my bathroom in just my towel to be greeted by my cool and recently remodeled air-conditioned apartment. The contrasting temperature prickled the hairs on my arm and intimated the sensation of a brisk fall morning walk. When I got to my bedroom, my feet were met with the new carpet that was soft enough to make it feel like I was walking on a cloud. It was such a refreshing experience that I couldn't wait for the next chance I'd have to do it again.