Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Bucket baths and other delights

Who'd have guessed 40 years ago that the bathing arrangements I had as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana would have any bearing on that humdrum, yet so important, part of my daily routine today?

While the new finish on the tile in our shower cures, we have had to reconsider our bath tub, a rather large but seldom used appliance that takes up space beneath the window in our bathroom. (I suddenly realize that statement makes no sense unless you know the layout of the room: our shower is a self-contained little room, not part of a bath tub. The tub itself is a separate entity, sitting on its own platform. It has jacuzzi jets and is really made to lay back and relax in, not necessarily bathe.) We are so out of the habit of using the tub that when the tile guy told us we had to stay out of the shower for three days, we were momentarily taken aback. "But how will we bathe?" I asked. Suddenly an old skill recalled itself to me, like riding a bicycle. Bucket baths. Steve never thought of it and still doesn't know how to do it. He was living the cushy life on a Navy carrier in Viet Nam while I was taking bucket baths. Tsk. The things you can miss out on!

The thing about "taking a bath" the way it was done for the millenia before modern showers were invented is that I never understood how you can possibly get clean doing it. The water gets progressively soapier and dirtier the longer you stay in it. By the time you get around to cleaning the last bit --your hair, for instance--that water has seen much better days. A shower, on the other hand, provides a steady stream of clean water that washes soap and dirt down the drain.

Enter the bucket bath. In its most basic form, it consists of a bar of soap, a bucket of water (unheated in Ghana) and a large container with a handle--in Ghana I used a huge plastic coffee mug. You begin by filling your cup from the bucket and then pouring the water over yourself for a thorough soaking. Then lather up with the soap--use an applicator such as a cloth or sponge if you want--(we grew our own loufas in Ghana)--and then soak again to wash the soap off. Repeat with shampoo if you're using it on your hair. (In Ghana, I didn't. I had some springy hair back then!) You become very adept at using the water efficiently. By the time I was through my Peace Corps training and got a house with a proper shower, I was a bucket bath efficiency expert. I actually had water left over in the bottom of the bucket. Now, in this hour of need, the bucket isn't necessary, but I'm using the same principle. I have a one-quart pyrex measure that I hold under the faucet of the tub, and proceed as described. And the water is warm!

Compared to a bucket bath, of course, a shower is a luxury, hot, cold, or in-between. Once I got into my own house in Ghana, though, I learned of another luxury: the self-contained shower room. The shower and toilet occupied the same enclosed space in the house (I had no tub), but the Ghanaian sense of cleanliness and propriety dictated a separation of the two, thus creating a small self-contained room-within-a-room for the shower. And the shower head in Ghana was a revelation: an old-fashioned oversize flat disk that hung from the ceiling directly overhead instead of from the wall. It was like standing in fresh rain falling directly down on you, one of the favorite parts of my day. Both of these features, the separate room and the overhead shower, are in the bathroom we designed for ourselves here and will be in our new house.

We'll be back in the shower on Friday and my old bucket bath skills will be put to rest again. Our shower design has always been a conscious memorial of mine to my days in Ghana. Until Friday, my bucket baths will be, too. Thanks to the Peace Corps for one more coping skill!


Jeff said...

Hah! Reminds me of when we used to bathe either one of our kids in the sink when they were infants. Used a large plastic cup to douse 'em and when it came time to rinse their little heads, I used to hold them underneatth he faucet. Maybe that's why #1 son has thinning hair bad.
Back in our apartment in Queens, we had a separate stall shower. The pan underneath the tile had rotted and had to be replaced - that meant the shower couldn't be used for several days. Undaunted I found this rubber hose attachment with a sprinkler head that usually is used in a kitchen sink (an appliance that seems to dominate our history). I managed to hook it up to the spout in our separate bath tub. Of course since it was so short, you had to twist yourself around like Gumby in order to clean all the proper parts. By the time the few days were over, my air was knotted, my back was sore, and several parts of my body were still sticky with soap.
Best laid plans, etc...

Ralph said...

I had forgotten about those rubber attachments, Jeff. They came in handy, didn't they???

Kat said...

My water was turned off so often during the dry season I always kept buckets in the shower room, but I had a different last step. I used what was left in the bucket to flush the toilet.

My water was always cold, even the water from the shower. The dry season, though, always meant the first bit of water would be hot from the sun, and I'd hurry to wash my hair.

Ralph said...

Kat, even in Kumasi, where I had that great shower, we were so far out of town that pressure was virtually non-existent during high-use hours. I knew, though, if I waited long enough I'd get pressure, so I never had to resort to buckets again after training.

My water was always cold, too, and I didn't have the advantage of above-ground pipes to take advantage of the sun. Michele and some others had small kerosene water heaters but I didn't. I got used to it....all things considered I certaily had nothing to complain about in the water department.