I recently came back from Indonesia, where for four years I could not drink tap water. Here is my reflection on yet another privilege of our rich Western world most people are not aware of.
I have spent more than half of my life in countries where drinking tap water could make you seriously ill. In most countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia I only used it to brush my teeth, and some expat friends thought I was crazy: they used boiled or bottled water even for that.
I have made it a habit to concentrate while brushing my teeth to refrain the instinct to gulp down a nice and refreshing swig of water. It has become so rooted in me, that when I go back to Italy – or any other country where tap water is drinkable – I instinctively take care not to let any drop of water go down my throat.
It takes me a while to get used to drink tap water, and every time I do it, I can’t help but thinking how privileged I am.
There is, of course, the obvious relaxation of not having to be afraid of ingesting amoebas, other unidentified bacteria and dangerous minerals.
Mostly and foremost, though, it makes me become even more aware of the privileges our rich Western world enjoys, and that are absolutely taken for granted by those who have never lived in a country where tap water is dangerous.
Of course, local people drink it. In many cases they have no choice. In some parts of the world they have no running water at home and in some cases they must even walk a couple of kilometres to collect it.
As expats, one of the first things we inquire about when we relocate, is whether tap water is drinkable – and how we can get organised otherwise.
In many places where I have lived in Africa, where big bottles of water were not readably available, we used to boil water for half an hour, let it cool down, and then pour it in a filter where two ceramic candles kept the dirt away. Only at that point could we drink our water.
I can still vividly recall the brownish luscious layer that covered the ceramic candles when I took them off the plastic filter to clean them. I had gotten so used to drinking filtered water, that it always took me a while to trust tap water whenever I went back to Italy.
When we go through things, we learn. Living in a place where running water cannot be drank or is scarce teaches you the value of every single drop you use in your rich world. That changes your whole perspective. It also gets you to understand why people permanently living in these disadvantaged countries seek better life conditions.
I am very grateful to my life abroad in tough countries for teaching me things I would not have understood otherwise. I am privileged to be able to drink tap water now, but I am also privileged to have gone through the experience of learning what it means to live day by day with no healthy and safe running water.