Let me take you through a typical day chez Elèna in my comfortable New York home. I wake up with the alarm and unplug my phone from where is has been charging, turn on my overhead light and clunk into the bathroom (as you may have guessed so far, I'm not a morning person). In the bathroom I stare at my ugly morning mug for a few minutes before plucking my electric toothbrush from its stand, turning on the faucet and proceeding to numbly brush my teeth. Then it's shower time.
Getting into the shower is nothing short of a religious experience for me. I stand underneath the warm spray for a good 15 minutes sometimes, often having to turn the faucet to cold to force myself out. All of the grime goes down the drain into an abyss that I, as a modern city dweller, don't have to care about ever.
Now for my favorite part off the morning: Coffee. Maybe this week it's from Honduras, or Ethiopia. That roast from Brazil was sub par, so the next time I go to Trader Joe's I'll have to choose from on of the many other selections. Preground? Never, it diminishes the freshness. Turn on the stove, retrieve fresh, cold milk from the refrigerator, a sprinkle of cinammon and voilà, I'm in Pairs.
Breakfast: Eggs? Toast? Fruit? The options are endless, I'll just raid the fridge for whatever exotic delicacy my mother has brought home from Zabars. After I finish my plate I can dump the remains into the trash can and take the trash downstairs so that it can be delivered where? Don't know, don't care.
Laundry: I drag my laundry bin to the kitchen and complete the magical ritual: Laundry in the machine, soap, lid, dial, done. Takes me about 30 seconds. Where does the water come from and where does it go? Don't know, don't care.
Wow, all that coffee made me have to pee! Off to the toilet. Zoom flush! Where does it go? Don't know, don't care.
Lunch time. How about a salad and pasta? No olive oil? No problem! A quick trip to west side market will fix that. Ohh, pomegranates ... Those aren't in season in April, are they? They're going in the salad anyway! I'll make a little extra pasta and stick it in the fridge for tomorrow, or maybe a few days from now.
I think by now you get the idea. I and millions like me pass through our days with a beautiful sense of worldly cleanliness. Our waste goes down the drain, our garbage goes far far away where we don't have to see it ever again, and where that came from there is always more. Our houses are sealed, our air conditioners are on, our phones are plugged in and we float through our days handing off the cost of being human to more and more remote and abstract places. We don't have to know, we don't have to care.
All this may make you think, like I did, that being human in today's world doesn't cost too much. But it does. In fact it costs a whole lot more than I realized. My house currently has no electricity and no running water. I have no refrigerator, no fan to combat the 100+ degree heat and no flushing toilet or shower to wash away the day's nastiness. I have no sink to wash my dishes and no machine to clean my laundry. Every ounce of water I consume I carry. (Okay, well, I try to carry, but every time anyone sees me headed to the well they take my buckets away from me and resume the responsibility themselves.) It takes three young women with three 15 liter buckets three trips each back and forth from the well (where the process of pumping water is really quite labor intensive) to my house to fill my two 60 liter bariques full of water that I use for dishes, bathing, drinking, flushing the toilet and doing laundry. This means that I literally have to deal with my own shit. The barikes last me about 3 days, and that is with heavy conservation of every drop. That puts me at about 40 liters a day. As the girls leave the center this week for Easter vacation, I am dreading the work of pumping and carrying every single bucket myslef. Every drop of water is part of what I cost this earth as a human being.
Having no power also means I engage in another type of conservation: energy conservation. If I want to charge something I have only to walk over to the church (which usually has power) and I can plug in one device at a time and leave it there while I go about my day. The logistics of this wayward march where I cart my heathen self and all my superfluous worldly possessions to the massive Catholic house of worship to be recharged under the watchful eye of Jesus means that I have to be very vigilant about the power I do use. Especially when the nuns travel for days at a time. My computer rarely gets turned on. My phone goes off when it isn't being used. I am strict about charging my solar lights, rotating their positions every three hours for maximum sunlight. I only use my devices when the moment truly calls for it. Every electron now has value to me. Every ounce of current is part of what it costs this earth to have me here.
This brings me to my next point: food. There are only a few absolute rules in Burkina: 1) You don't wipe with your right hand and 2) You don't waste food. I don't have to tell you that Americans are really bad at #2. Not wasting food is made hugely more manageable of course with a refrigerator and containers that seal so you can seal away anything you don't eat and buy groceries for a whole week. Sadly, sealing containers and an ice box are two things I lack in this country. I use what is called a canary to keep water and food cool, a kind of large ceramic jar that actually leaks everywhere when I put water in it because the clay is so porous the water soaks through. (This also means I loose about 2 precious liters of drinking water a day). My food spoils swiftly and faithfully in this heat despite my best efforts, which means I have to cook exactly the right amount for each meal. My market has a steady supply of about four vegetables: eggplant, onions, cabbage, tomatoes and... Garlic. If you look hard you can sometimes find squash and miscellaneous leaves off of some tree that are as close as I've gotten here to spinach. The rate at which my food spoils sends me to the market nearly every day. Lucky for me it isn't too far. But because of the effort it takes to retrieve and store food, every tomato I drop, every grain of rice that gets stuck to the bottom of the pan, every clove of garlic that I burn takes on new meaning for me. That tomato, that grain of rice, that clove of garlic- all of it adds to the pile of what it costs the good earth to provide for me as a human being. It doesn't matter how burned that rice is. I'm eating it.
Most vexingly, what is to be done about trash? Try this at home: remove all the your trash cans from your house and notice, each day, just how much trash you generate. Having no where to put it makes your human cost in waste starkly apparent. And I won't lie folks, it's a little scary. I have two trash cans in my house, one in each room, and I am constantly fighting to keep insects out of them both. Every couple of days I collect my waste, bag it up, however disgusting, and walk it over to the large bin where everything gets incinerated, adding, no doubt, to holes in the ozone. Every harmful particle that gets created when the hair that has collected in my drain goes up in flames-all of that is part of what it costs the ozone to have me inhabit this earth.
Being here I have been smacked in the face by all my inefficiencies, all the things I take for granted, all of the skills I never learned because there was a machine for it ( you should see the Burkinabe laugh when I try to wash my own laundry. Suddenly every spec of dust I get out of my tee shirt is a huge victory). How about you? What is your human cost? How much water, electricity and waste does it take to sustain your existence on earth? I imagine that, like me, you won't like the answer.
The compound on which I live is looking into getting electricity and maybe even running water soon. That will make things much easier for me, of course, but also cause me to forget what it costs to be human. For now at least, I'm glad I'm learning.