There were no Calgon moments in Liberia.
If you have no idea what a "Calgon moment" is, you are seriously too young and have missed out on a vintage commercial where a hassled woman pleads for soothing bubbles to take away the stress in her life, if only for the length of a bubble bath. There certainly was stress, but there was no place for a bubble bath in my backyard. This little zinc enclosure was the only place I had to bathe. And, I judged my days by how many bucket baths I took. It was very normal to take a couple in one day. On really hot days, I sometimes took three or four baths just to cool down. A really hot day required five trips inside the enclosure. That didn't often happen, but it did on occasion. I even remember some nights when it was so hot my skin would actually sting. I had to take another bucket bath to cool down and then pray I'd fall asleep before the stinging started up again.
You may already think that this would be simply unbearable. But, let me tell you just a little more about my experience. There was no electricity. That meant no fans, certainly no air-conditioning, no refrigeration, no ice and no television. However, in my neighborhood, watching the white man was a huge form of entertainment. There was no concept of privacy. When I lounged around in bed reading, neighbors peeked in the windows to see. If I sat on my front porch with a grapefruit in hand, hungry little children came over to watch me eat. I don't know about you, but my parents always told me to eat my vegetables because starving kids in Africa didn't have enough to eat. At those moments, I always offered them my fried okra (which I still will not eat). However, on my porch in Zwedru, I didn't want to share my grapefruit. I usually did though.
Now, remember the entertainment role I had in the neighborhood and then consider taking a bucket bath. Yes, neighbors also came out of their homes to watch as the white man took a bath. I learned to lather up, wave, and continue lathering. One time, as a visiting guest took a bath, one of the little neighborhood kids wandered into the zinc enclosure. None of them dared do that to me, which was just fine by me. But, this guest inspired no fear, I guess. When she saw the toddler, she squealed, "Oh, you're a mess!" and she gave him a bucket bath, too.
There is one other way to take a bucket bath. In this photo, my friend Joshua's son, Kevin, demonstrated how it was done at his home. I know that I never looked that cute when I took mine.
As long as I'm talking about all things bathroom, I should tell you about my outhouse. I'm convinced it was the worst one in the entire country. All my friends agreed. Anyone who had to use it once made sure they went to the bathroom before coming to my home for their second visit.
My outhouse was a two-seater with individual stalls. One stall was unlocked and open for the entire community. Like I said, there appeared to be no concept of privacy where I lived. People I didn't know were in my yard and outhouse at any and all hours of the day.
My side of the outhouse was locked, but the "luxury" stopped there. I never shut the door completely when I entered my stall. And, I always kept my left hand firmly grasped upon the door jam. I did that because I was never completely certain the floor would support me once I sat down. This little bit of preparation, hopefully, would prevent a seriously unthinkable and so "stinkable" fall into muck worse than the swamp beyond my backyard. That catastrophe never happened, but it was always in the back of my mind and the forefront of my nightmares.
And, there's more. In the rainy season, any visitor in my outhouse had to "dump and jump". The water level was so high during that time of the year that there was a back splash. During the rains, and the rest of the year, the outhouse was also filled with cockroaches. They were mutant, jumbo, African cockroaches -- honestly, there were thousands of them lurking in the deep -- and they could pinch you where you never want a cockroach to pinch you. Like I said, it was the country's worst outhouse. Possibly, the world's worst!
Those outhouse moments were long ago, but this week I have been reminded about the kind of stress that Africa uniquely brings. I've not taken a "Calgon moment" yet, but perhaps one is due. Currently, I'm in the process of getting my visa for the trip to Liberia. My passport was sent to the Liberian embassy in Washington D.C. two weeks ago. It's supposed to take a week. I had plenty of time, or so I thought. No visa has been issued yet, and I'm scheduled to leave in around 24 hours. The US embassy in Liberia has asked for the State Department to intervene. I personally don't see how I can have my passport in my hands before I'm scheduled to go to the airport.* Fortunately for me, I lived in Africa for six years. None of this comes as a surprise. If the flight needs to be rescheduled, then, that's what will have to happen. It'll all work out.
In the mean time, I've had to have a lot of emails and a phone call or two with people in Washington D.C. and Liberia. During one conversation, I was informed that there are people in Zwedru who remember me and anticipate my arrival. That was the best possible kind of news. After 14 years of civil war and then Ebola, I didn't know if anyone I knew was still living in the area or even alive. Obviously, some one (or more than one) is waiting for me. I have a short list of six people whom I especially hope to locate. And then, I was given a name. Dorbor. That's my friend Joshua, the father of baby Kevin. One of the six!
Forget stress! Forget tickets! Forget cockroaches, outhouses and bucket baths! Forget the Liberian embassy and visas! Hey, you can even forget Calgon! I'm on my way back home to Zwedru (eventually) and at least one of my friends is waiting for me.
* Oh me of little faith. There were about eight people in an email loop that circled around Washington D.C. this week. They moved heaven, earth and the Liberian Embassy. My passport with that elusive visa arrived at my doorstep at 8:25 this evening. I'll be able to sleep well tonight and head on out to Africa as planned in the morning. Go back and read my previous blog if you need to know about good kharma.