Exploding out of a balloon onto my face. Spewing out of the tap into my glass. Rushing out of the showerhead onto my skin. Arching high out of the fountain and meeting my parched lips. On the windshield. In the pool. In a bottle.
But in South Australia, the driest state in the driest nation in the world, water runs for its weight in gold.
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Initially, it caught me off-guard. “This is our drinking water,” said Anne, my surrogate mother for the seven weeks I would spend at an exchange program Down Under. “When it does rain, the rainwater flows down to a collection tank over there, and then we bring it in to fill up our water bottles.”
Well, that’s gross.
But as I reluctantly caved into her bright eyes, ready for the American to try out this Aussie custom, the purity of the water surprised me. In fact, juxtaposed against Aquafina water encased in a mold of plastic, this stuff went down the throat just as nicely. Indeed, every house I visited on my seven-week excursion in Australia had the same set-up: a collection tank, a purifier, and a jug of pristine rainwater.
Such a simple process, yet, try as I might, I could think of no American who had taken the time to catch rainwater, purify it, and have the guts to drink it. Instead, we would much rather collect the water in a spring in Colorado, ship it to a factory for bottling in Kansas, load it onto an 18-wheeler—bound for one of the 5,700 Wal-Mart stores in the United States—stock it on the shelves, purchase a 24-pack of the bottles, wrap it in a plastic bag, bring it home to our refrigerator, and enjoy. That’s efficiency.
These habits had become so fully ingrained in Australian culture that any opposition to so-called “tree-huggers” seemed not only misguided, but impractical. The utter lack of water in South Australia necessitated a very different lifestyle than the one I enjoyed among the deluge of rainfall in the American South.
I remember clearly my first walk down the beach, sitting next to an ocean brimming with salt water. I could see the ocean smirking cruelly at the perpetually parched Australians in dire need of rain. “In the drier spells, the government limits our showers to only 2 or 3 minutes each.” I stopped. Instinctively, my libertarian ideals lashed out at the idea.
“That’s terrible! They don’t have the right!”
But I did not understand. I did not understand that grandiose idealism about what the government should or should not do didn’t matter here. They had to survive, and survive they had. To a greater extent than most Americans will ever understand, Australians had taken what Mother Nature had given them—a scorched desert graced with only the occasional rain—and transformed it into a thriving society that valued conservation and resourcefulness.
In America, we swim. We swim in the waste that we have created because, frankly, we can. We can afford to take showers for fifteen minutes at a time or wash our towels every time we dry ourselves off. But until I walked among the deserts of Australia, I never realized how much that routine of wastefulness had affected my character. Limitless water allowed me to become so highly individualized that I was looking out for my own interests without regard for the other humans around me.
When I turn on the faucet to brush my teeth in Tennessee, I don’t think about how I am affecting a family in Massachusetts.
I just swim.
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