A Tale of Two Showers
Updated: May 30, 2019
I was about 15 years younger when the first shower occurred. I was in Huautla de Jimenez, a tiny, remote town of indigenous (mostly Mazatec) people situated at about 10,000 feet of elevation, far removed in the northernmost stretches of the state of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. To arrive in Huautla from the state’s capital city, where I lived at the time, required first an overnight ride in a second-class bus over harrowing mountain passes -- then a shorter final voyage in the back of a pick-up truck. Driven by a local resident, the bed of the truck was filled with standing passengers like myself, holding on to a metal rail. It is truly a remote place.
Huautla is unspeakably beautiful. Although most of the state of Oaxaca is more or less a semi-arid, high desert environment, Huautla is so high up in the mountains that its climate is described as a “cloud forest”. Different from a rain forest, there is little actual rain – but much of the time, the entire community is enveloped in clouds which provide moisture for the lush foliage found at this elevation. Epiphytes – tiny, nearly rootless, parasitic plants that make their homes high above the ground, clinging to the side of larger trees or power lines – take their sustenance directly from the moist air.
To a newcomer like me, Huautla seemed like the Garden of Eden. On hikes, locals would pick wild-growing guava fruit directly from the trees we passed. There were caves with walls lined by naturally occurring lapis lazuli stone; there were waterfalls and aging rope bridges that crossed over flowing streams, tumbling down the mountainside. There was no need to carry food or water; these sustentive nutrients were everywhere. I marveled that if my people had originated here, I would never have left either.
The Mazatec have lived in Huautla dating back a millennium before the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico, and for most of them, Spanish is their second language. Spanish is also my second language; and at the time of my first visit to Huautla, I was barely proficient, definitely not yet fluent. I’m not very hung-up on personal hygiene . . . but after about five days of hiking around, sleeping in an open-air concrete-block structure under a tin roof with the clouds breathing in and out over my moist body, I started to worry about my odor being offensive to my hosts. But I wasn’t really sure how to ask if I could bathe, when I was surrounded by clean people, yet hadn’t really seen how bathing was done. I didn’t want to be an imposition, but I also didn’t want to stink.
My English-speaking, and much more Spanish-fluent travel companion did the asking for me, without me realizing. I was sitting in our hosts’ home, watching them stoke the fire in their kitchen to boil a huge pot of water, when my friend let me know that the pot of hot water was for me! I was a bit mortified that they were putting so much effort (and using so much firewood!) just to provide me with warm water, but I was also amazingly relieved. I had to admit that for days, I had been chilled to the bone in the cool, moist air, and the thought of warming up was beyond tantalizing.
What happened next was astonishing, and happened very fast. The boiling water was mixed with some cool, to become the perfect temperature. The women of the family ushered me, along with the steaming bucket, into the family’s outhouse structure. They motioned for me to strip my clothes. They thrust a towel at me, and ripped the curtain open two or three more times with no warning to deliver me other necessary supplies – soap, a clean rag (washcloth) – then once more, to ask if I was ok and whether I had everything I needed. I gave them the “thumbs up”. Then, I was deliciously alone with a steaming bucket of bath water on the ground in front of me.
Fifteen years later, I still think of that bath as one of the most luxurious experiences I had while living in Mexico. The water soothed my skin, and eased my chill. I scrubbed and scrubbed – it remained hot. I dunked my whole head in that bucket, and hot lather from my hair poured over my freezing feet. Twenty minutes later I was clean, dry, refreshed, and warm. And I was infinitely grateful to all the labor and resources that went into providing me with this gift, given so generously on the part of our new friends. It was the most delicious bath I’ve ever had. Later that evening, we all went dancing in the town of Huautla, and I felt like a pampered and honored guest instead of the dirty hippie that I had been earlier that day. It was all so, so unforgettable.
Fast forward to the last week of March, 2019. I went camping, sans husband, for eight days in Zion National Park with my two boys (aged almost-two and six); there are no showers in the park. We were much warmer than Huautla had been – it was full-on springtime, and we’d been wearing shorts and T-shirts every afternoon – but we were a trio of gritty, dusty, dirt-balls! The park had advertised that paid showers were available at the Zion Mountain School (an outdoors outfitter store), plus one other location, in the tiny town of Springdale just outside the park entrance. By our fifth day there, I could smell us all. Though we had no neighbors, I wanted to wash. I had packed up our toiletries and headed into town to try to bathe our dirty crew.
The first shower location turned out to be closed due to construction, so we headed to the Zion Mountain School. We arrived around five o’clock in the afternoon with only an hour left to shower before the shop closed. And let me tell you: the line of people waiting was no joke. There were 4 shower booths, about the size of old-time telephone booths, and about 12 people waiting to shower ahead of us. Within each booth, there was a token-operated machine that would turn the water on for 7 minutes per token; each token cost $2.50. “I don’t suppose this water is going to be warm,” I mused. And there was a general consensus response from the crowd – “yeah, . . . no.”
But, not easily discouraged, I purchased two tokens, grabbed our family’s bag of snacks and a couple of matchbox cars as well as our toiletries, and sat my boys down in the gravel parking lot where everyone was congregated. We were ready to eat and wait. Our neighbors in line were quite gracious. They let us cut in line to go sooner so the boys weren’t running wild in the parking lot; then they ceded us the biggest booth, when we didn’t fit in our first booth and the first booth’s coin-operated machine broke down. Finally, we were ready to shower.
My younger son, never one to miss an opportunity to be a water baby, ran right in to the freezing water. My older son refused, and I let him stand in the dry part of the booth while we washed. Who am I if I can’t raise a dirty hippie after my own heart? I gingerly got in – it was COOOOOLD. But I got used to it after the first two minutes . . . then gradually, I began to realize how rich it felt on my gritty, sunburned skin. I scrubbed. I washed my hair. I thrilled to note the delicious goose-bumps that formed all over my scalp. After a few more minutes (we had paid for 14 minutes of water), I was mentally transported back to my decadent shower experience in Huautla. ¡Que lujo! (What luxury!) I leaned into the feeling, and I showered a little longer in the frigid water.
By the time we returned to our campsite, I felt so clean, so refreshed, so . . . content. And grateful. I was grateful beyond words to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary. I had let myself be shocked into being truly present -- and having my life made richer for it -- in a moment I could have chosen to view as an annoyance or an inconvenience. This is why I seek out the rugged and the remote: so I can refresh my soul in moments like these.
Sometimes I worry I’ve lost this ability. I fall into a mindset of scarcity regarding time – I feel panicked about not keeping up, not getting things done, about running out of time. There is NEVER enough time. And then a shower like this freezing experience in rural Utah reminds me that I am, deep down inside, still the same person I was in Huautla 15 years ago. It was a time when strangers burning through their firewood to make me a pot of boiling water was the most luxurious extravagance I could imagine, and I accepted it with gratitude and honor as the gift it was.
I have been profoundly blessed, and so here is my blessing for our world: May we all find moments like this. Moments that sparkle amidst the dust and the drudgery. Moments that feel luxurious and decadent in a setting of rugged simplicity. Moments that wake us up to the ways we are most alive, surrounded by the wonders of the world that are here all the time – if only we can learn to recognize them. May your ordinary days be filled with astonishing discoveries that are nothing short of extraordinary. May you tell your own Tale of Two Showers, to wake up others to the riches of life, as you live.