Friday, October 22, 2004

Don't Drink the Water

Everyone knows the the water in foreign countries is undrinkable. Only purified, sterilized, and chlorinated American water is fit for Westerns. Right?

So we are told by the embassies and travel agencies/companies. And indeed, many local peoples in lesser-developed countries don't thrink their own water directly from the tap. Certainly the family I lived with in Ukraine didn't. They knew that the offering from the tap was not safe and boiled and refrigerated the water as a rule.

While I may hitchhike across continents, I am quite cautious about water. I decided to go against official U.S. Embasy advice and brush my teeth with Egyptian tap water, but one of my first purchases upon ariving here was a bottle of water. Thoughts of danger don't faze me while accepting rides from strangers in Ghana, but the image of that dirty water coursing through my body was enough to fork over $.20 daily for a bottle of water (believe it or not, I can LIVE off of $.20 a day here, so that is quite a sacrifice for just one item). I can't quite explain my total acceptance of the water warning--I just DID. I would never DREAM of cloroxing my vegetables before eating them, as most expats do--my water paranoia did not stretch that far. Yet I would have willingly gone thirsty if nothing but tap water was available.

I spent my summer living in an expat section of Cairo with a state-of-the-art grocery and deli just down the street. Bottled water was readily available and a daily purchase. When I met Gheda and my first forey into Imbeba, I arrived thirsty. When offered water, I was quickly appeased by their reply of "yes" to my question--"Is this water clean?" I was certain it wasn't from the store--these folks don't have the money for expensive purified water--but I assumed it was boiled and chilled. I drank it thirstly and accepted another glass.

I didn't question their water from that point on. When I moved in with them I accepted each offer of water--many glasses a day. I was curious about the boiling/chilling processes--I'd actually never seen them do it but I knew all about how it is done. What a lot of work, I thought.

One day, after gratefully accepting a glass of water, it occured to me to ask again. "Where is this water from?" I asked. "From the refrigerator!" was the giggled reply (everything I say/do amuses them greatly). "Well, BEFORE that, where does it come from?" More giggles. "From the faucet, of course!" Long pause. I thought about this. Was it possible that they had a filter on their faucet? Or had some special water tank outside that was refilled from time to time with purified water? Curious. I didn't think that was likely--they are so poor. There had to be SOME explanation--the water must come from some local well, or something. So I tried again. "Okay, so where did the water from the faucet come from?" This about put them on the floor in hysterics. "FROM THE NILE, OF COURSE!" My mouth went dry. My throat closed up. My body grew chill. From the...Nile? One of the most polluted rivers in the world? I sat down and contemplated this...I wondered just how long I had to live before my body collapsed in on itself due to Nile water syndrome.

Now, I could continue this story with my explanation to Gheda and her sisters that the Nile water is polluted and not one westerner in Egypt willing drinks the tap water--hence my state of shock. I DID explain this to them. But what's more interesting is their reaction to this explation. I think they were more shocked than I to find out that WE find their water to be polluted. My assertion that the water contains "things" (how do you say amboebas in Arabic?) that can make you really sick did NOT satisfy them. "If that's true," the countered, "then why in the world aren't WE sick?" I tried to explain the concept of developed tolerance. They are USED to it. And their health suffers incrementally because of it. Again, no effect. They just laughed. They said "our brother, who lives in Kuwait, is repeatedly told by OUR embassy not to drink the water THERE! Everyone knows that Nile water is the best in the Middle East."

Their stunned reaction to what I had always taken for granted gave me pause. What other things do we totally take for granted about each other--that may or may not be true? And how do we know the are or aren't true? I have been drinking the tap water for over a month now and haven't been in better health. Yes, it is easily provable that that purification system (okay, so I found out now that the water doesn't just come STRAIGHT from the nile, thank heaven) isn't to the same "standard" as the U.S. sytem. It is also known fact that the pipes through which the water run are NOT "safe" by U.S. standards. These are facts--the standard is different. But here I am, alive and well, are so are they. My irrational fear that a drop of Egyptian water would kill me was obviously unfounded.

Now, my intent is not to convince you to drink the water from the tap in Egypt. You take your chances. There IS room for error, as the standard is different, and is much more likely to drink an unwanted guest here than it is in America. My point it something different. My point is that we all think a lot of things--especially about people different different from ourselves. How much of it is true? And does it even matter if it IS true if it keeps us from sitting down and enjoying a relationship with them?

Something to think about. Go grab a glass of water and contemplate it. I'd be happy to hear your thoughts--post a reply!

No comments: