The Ambiguous Tan/Dirt Line

Clean. Not a particularly indecisive word. And yet, my definition of it has been drastically altered. It’s not like this transformation occurred immediately. It was more of a subconscious adaption to the alternate way of living.

Don’t get me wrong, there are times I visibly suffer with the transition. This usually occurs when I debate things like the pros and cons of a drop toilet verse a water-seal. A drop requires nothing for a flush. It goes in the hole and it stays there. A water-seal involves dumping a bucket of water into the toilet to cause a flush. This entails precise aim and is most definitely a learned skill. Dump that water too quickly or in the wrong direction and you will cause a spray upwards that may or may not land on you.

Washing dishes is no easy feat either. Sometimes, the dish water will have been sitting in the sun all day and have traces of papaya, island cabbage, banana, and various other foods swimming around in it. The smell is the equivalent of a bag of garbage that has been sitting in a trash can for two weeks. When you’ve finished washing your dish down with the towel that hasn’t seen a good scrub brush in years, you then move to rinse it in a bowl of rinse water roughly the color of clay. I change the water as often as I can get away with. Though the clean water I change it with comes from a garbage can that collects rain water as it falls from a gutter. There are many times when I am sure my mug was cleaner before I washed it.

Every time I get sick, I remind myself of all of this and find pride in the fact that I am not sick every second of every day that I am here. But all other times, these things fall into the background. It’s amazing what you can accept when you have to. Funnier still is that my host mother truly believes- and truly is- doing the best that she can to keep her family healthy.

In the United States, our standards have become so high that we are able to nitpick the best dishwasher soap without even contemplating that we have a dishwasher to even put it in. We have become almost exaggeratingly picky. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing. Clean is good. A call from moms to companies to improve the quality of their soaps is good. I’m simply astounded by the difference of the norms in our respective cultures. The difference in what it means to keep your kids healthy.

Last week some fellow vols and I went to a blocking ceremony. I’ll go into detail about this at another time, but basically this is when a man decides to take a woman as his wife and essentially “blocks” her. Meaning almost that he puts her on hold. No other man can now marry her, regardless of her own opinion on the matter.

Anyway, there was a big feast provided by the mans family (in which lap-lap and a pig were roasted using hot rocks and being buried under the ground). We were sitting down eating off giant leaves that we had picked from a nearby tree when fellow Vol, Kat, dropped a piece of food on the mat we were sitting on. She picked it up and declared “three second rule”. I looked up at her, smiled, and politely reminded her that we were currently eating off of leaves.

To demonstrate just how drastically my perceptions have deferred, I’ve put together the following before and after scale. 1 being a clean day, 10 being a particularly dirty day.

Clean in the US:

1. Took a scalding hot shower

2. Took a scalding hot shower

3. Took a scalding hot shower

4. Took a scalding hot shower

5. Took a scalding hot shower

6. Took a scalding hot shower

7. Took a scalding hot shower

8. Took a scalding hot shower

9. Was sneezed on by my cousin, Elizabeth

10. Hot water heater broke, took a cold shower

Clean in Vanuatu:

1. Feet are relatively clean, ambiguous tan/dirt line on feet is almost distinguishably a tan line

2. Actually shaved today

3. Let all the local children play with my hair

4. Accidently rubbed heads with lice laden children

5. Used dish water swimming in at least 3 days worth of filth

6. Worked in the family garden all day

7. Woke up to find a mouse had eaten through my bag to snack on a mango

8. Saw Marie sneeze in the rinse bowl 3 times consecutively

9. There was a dead lizard in the bathing water that morning

10. Ambiguous tan/dirt line on feet is black and clearly a dirt line