I was thrilled to move onto a sailboat in February 2013. Every time I walked down the metal ramp to the dock, I felt a chill of excitement–I could barely believe that I lived on the ocean. The tight quarters appealed to me, since as a field biologist I had lived in the back of my truck for many years, and I felt cozy in my 33-foot home.
But this morning I woke up on the wrong side of the boat. My left shoulder ached from sleeping sideways on the old foam in the v-berth. I opened the bathroom door and was flooded with the irritatingly familiar stench of rotting sea creatures in marine plumbing, and I peed in the five-gallon bucket that has temporarily replaced the old pump toilet, or “head” as it’s called on a boat.
My mood darkened when I walked ashore and discovered every bathroom filled (most likely with weekend cruisers and rowdies, I harrumphed.) It wasn’t until a skype call with a friend and colleague conducting research in Nepal that I began to emerge from my ill-humored quest for better plumbing.
My friend in Nepal, Sharada, regaled me with stories of motorcycle rides through a country where only twenty percent of the roads are paved, and the largest city, Kathmandu, tolerates a daily ten-hour power blackout. Despite these potential hardships, he has encountered only the most open, friendly, and happy people everywhere he goes.
Sharada’s research examines wastewater treatment practices and perceptions. As he talked about people who struggle to deal with raw sewage amid severe flooding caused by, among many things, deforestation and exotic species (such as Eucalyptus) on the slopes of the Himalaya, I thought of my annoyance with my bucket toilet and my short walk to a clean, flushing toilet.
As I pondered my five-gallon bucket, I considered the good fortune I have to live in a country with the infrastructure intact for flushing toilets and clean drinking water. This backbone of waste management keeps the water in which my home floats, the San Francisco Bay, clean and safe enough for me to swim and paddle in everyday. My floating bathroom only requires that I learn more about boat plumbing and install simple hoses and a new toilet; Nepal’s plumbing requires national political collaboration and massive investment in sanitation and infrastructure.
With that in mind, I’m grateful for the simplicity of my small bathroom project, but also for friends like Sharada, who see the beauty in simplicity, no matter where it lies. They remind me of the patience and good humor required for any project, from fixing toilets to building and rebuilding a country’s basic infrastructure.