Friday, March 11, 2011

Jumping into Murky Waters

I sat on the edge and stared downward, my legs tightly closed together because every person in the water seemed to be attached to the wall, and I didn’t want anyone looking up my swimsuit.

“Its okay,” he said, “I am lifeguard.”

I didn’t know how to explain that my resistance to going into that water had nothing to do with an inability to swim. In fact, I was a good swimmer. I had been a rather slow participant on my local swim team for eight years, beginning at the tender age of four.

But his assumption was valid. The ‘Olympic size pool’, as was advertised, seemed so very empty in comparison to the cordoned off leg in the L-shaped trough. Separated by bars and painted blue instead of green, so that the water shown slightly more clearly, I did not dare venture into the shallow end. It was packed. As in you could not possibly have moved without touching someone. And this was all because no one seemed to know how to swim. A few people ventured into the green, murky depths, but most in the green zone, as I referred to it, clung safely to the edge.

No, my reasons for not entering had nothing to do with my inability to swim. It had everything to do with the fact that it was a swimming pool, and I couldn’t see the bottom. It was murky, almost like lake water, and when I finally entered, the expected leaves, sticks, and hair floated around as I did. I watched people jump off the diving boards. Clearly on a diving team somewhere, one young man did a smooth flip or two off the high board and entered seamlessly. 

Almost all the men wore the exact same swimsuit. Black or dark blue, with two red or yellow lines down the sides, and more along the lines of boxer briefs than board shorts. A few men clearly were in their underwear. I noticed that none of the swimsuits did a particularly good job at hiding their junk. How awkward.

People showered a lot. There were three or four stand-alone showers around the pool, and they were never empty. A trench ran around the pool and collected soapy water as people washed hastily both before and after they swam. People milled about the sides of the enclosure on straw mats, chairs, and blankets, and most looked like they were there for the day. I guess you had to be, when this place was basically out in the bush (okay, so when you got closer there was a village of sorts, but driving there was literally just open savannah). People licked at ice creams, which despite the lack of the beautiful creaminess of Hagaan Daaz, was refreshing and perfect in its artificiality.

Everybody had fun. When we walked over to the spring, I imagined hot submersion and couldn’t contemplate wanting to get in. Along the way were what seemed hundreds of monkeys, a river wash, and a little tin shack about four feet by four feet that I wondered what could have ever fit in. We finally got there and separated, as one part was for women and one for men.

The scene struck me more like a Moroccan bath, but with running water. Three incredibly hot, crystal clear streams flew out of pipes overhead, and the stairs that led down were concrete, and led into a murky, soapy water about calf height. I was surprised at the heat, and somewhat fascinated by the scene. 

Women surrounded me, many with bare breast, washing themselves and each other, sitting on the concrete ledge across from the stream, using a glove to exfoliate. They stood beneath the hot stream only briefly, and more often put just a bit of their body underneath, or used their hands to splash the water on themselves. My feet turned bright red. Later, Melaku would take a picture and we would laugh at the fact that it looked like I was wearing socks because my feet and lower calves were the color of boiled lobster. Right then, it felt like they were cooking. 

But I moved under the stream. I liked the feel of it pounding on me, and I liked putting my hair underneath and washing my face with it. It felt cleansing. I had been told that people believed that the spring this came from was considered holy, and that Ethiopians traveled from all around to bathe in the water and heal themselves. Even as I looked, a mother sat on the stairs with a limp child in her arms. Maybe he was sleeping, but as I stared at him, something about the lack of expression, the open mouth, the stillness as his mother brushed water tenderly over his face, made me think he was very ill. Or maybe it was just my preconception. 

I chatted with a girl in a lime green polka-dotted bikini and found out she had lived in Las Vegas. Random. I stuck my head under the rush a few times, lathered up, washed, and generally enjoyed the fascinating scene around me.

When I left I was in a good mood. A few coffees later, and one crazy ride in a truck that had been offered to us for free, I sat contentedly and watched men eat raw beef chunks, that specialty of Ethiopia that I could hardly bring myself to look at, let alone stick in my mouth. And then we were on the bus, watching the hills roll by, the huts get smaller and less permanent, and the sun disappear behind mountains and trees with flat looking heads. 

I didn’t know what the rest of this journey would bring for me. But I knew with crystal clarity as I rode the bus and watched the world fly by that somehow here, the unfamiliar had become simply normal to me. Each scene before my eyes was a postcard, or some brochure cover I would’ve drooled at back home, but now everything felt strikingly normal.

And I knew it wasn’t because the sights before me weren't spectacular. It had nothing to do with the fact that this postcard wasn’t fascinating. I felt the true spirit of travel flow through me in the realization that it was simply that my world now was full of the unfamiliar, and so it became comfortable. Or maybe not comfortable, but familiar. In fact I often was incredibly familiar with being uncomfortable. 

I often find that I critique my entire process, and that I have very high expectations about how I should travel to be good at it. I have a clear image in my mind of what I think a ‘good’ traveler is, and since I've always thought that this must be my ‘thing’ (what else would it be?), I hate when I don’t live up to that ideal. It makes me feel like I'm not as good at this as I seem to think, like maybe I can't actually handle the world around me as well as I've always thought. But as I watch the sun go down over open desert and rounded huts, I know that this is what it means to truly be a traveler; it doesn’t mean perfection. It doesn’t mean that I never desire a Starbucks coffee, or a nice comfortable bed in a hotel room with running hot water and wifi. It doesn’t mean that I don’t have the occasional harsh judgment of the craziness around me. It means that I come through it; I get back on the bus, and ride by to watch the sun set in familiar, chaotic calm. 

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