A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Giving Thanks for Water

At Thanksgiving, remembering the night the well ran dry

By Margaret Campbell
(Photos courtesy of Dan Church Aid)

My husband, Jan, and I recently returned from a year in India, working for human rights in a remote and rural town. We’re often asked, “So, how was India?” How in the world would you summarize such a year within a listener’s attention span? I usually say “It was life-changing.”

We became “weekday vegetarians” – I never cared to visit the “meat department” in our town’s market as it put the business of death and decay too much on my front page, so we cooked and ate vegetarian for a year.

The first thing I did when we landed in Chicago was order the biggest hamburger I could find, but when I saw a six-minute TED talk on becoming a weekday vegetarian, it struck me as so sensible that I managed to talk Jan into trying it. Truth be told, it’s harder than portrayed. Vegetarian food requires more shopping, chopping and careful preparation than sliding a slab of flesh onto a hot pan. But my shopping cart is a riot of color and form and you wouldn’t believe how little I spend. My husband aced his annual physical, we feel good about making less of a dent in the planet, and I dare anyone to rival my black bean soup.

We’re less wasteful – Living next to an impromptu dump and without any garbage pickup services made us conscious of how much trash we created. We bring home market bags as souvenirs from places we visit so we never need consider “paper or plastic.” We invested in a seltzer maker that turns juice and tap water into delicious sparkling beverages without creating cans and bottles. We got our compost bin going again. Our trash guys probably love us for our scantily filled barrel, yet we don’t feel like we gave anything up.

We read more world news and listen to more world music. One of the benefits I did not expect from this experience was how much I learned about countries other than the one we were placed in because of all the other volunteers we met and worked with. Formerly I could not have located the Philippines on a world map and I thought that Guyana was in Africa. Who knew how interesting Canada is?

The night the well ran dry

Does anyone remember that word “grok”? Robert Heinlein coined it to mean understanding “so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed.”

The most significant way we changed was how we came to understand what a disastrous course we’re on with the natural world. I was powerfully impressed by Tom Friedman’s Hot, Flat and Crowded, and Jared Diamond’s Collapse, but I grokked their message the night the well ran dry.

We had a comfortable apartment in India with a spacious balcony, but our travails with water were never ending. A typical middle class Indian bathroom comes with running water (cold), a sink and sometimes a shower, but inevitably a bucket for bathing with a cute little sibling container that parks on the rim for pouring water over your head.

Filling the bucket was another matter entirely. The way you get running water is from a big tank on the roof that’s filled from a well in the yard by switching on an electric pump and remembering to switch it off before it overflows and the neighbors shout at you. Wasting water is no joke. As long as you have electricity, things generally work according to plan, but power is intermittent at best in most of India and if you didn’t remember to pump when you had the chance you’d be going into the office without a bath. Where we lived, the current was often too weak to sustain pumping and, counter-intuitively, tended to make the many sensitive circuit breakers and switches associated with the pump fail. If it hadn’t rained recently you’d better pump early because there wouldn’t be enough for your building. All of which frequently happened to us.

As a last resort I took my buckets down the lane to the public well to fill. It’s tough pumping water by hand and carrying it home, but I felt virtuous and identified with the native women who carry all the water for their families, sometimes from the village well, sometimes from a stream nearby or miles away.

The night the public well ran dry, I hit bottom. All the resourceful, good-natured, “let’s go camping!” spirit of adventure drained out of me. Nothing in my experience as an American had prepared me for simply not having any water at all. I realized that I could go to the market and buy bottled water, but that my friends among the native women could not. What will happen if the wells run dry for everyone?

I live in a rainy climate now, on beautiful Cape Cod, so I don’t have to worry about water. In fact, I can even drink what comes out of the tap. But I never want to forget what I experienced in India and I hope I can help others to understand. If you’re interested, think about going overseas yourself. Our placement agency, VSO, is always looking for skilled professionals. (If you live in the United States, go to CUSO-VSO) If you want a slide show about my experiences in India, shoot me an email.

And if you need anything to be grateful for this Thanksgiving, consider the humble glass of water.