XELA—The Middle Ages were dirty. Really, really dirty. And although we are used to cinematic depictions of mud-spattered peasantry, the knights and ladies, kings, queens and assorted princesses are invariably shown as sparklingly washed, elegantly coiffed and rather snazzily dressed. The truth is somewhat different.
Snazzily dressed or not, it was generally considered unhygienic to bathe in those fabled days of yore. Bathing and exposing those regions most in need of bathing, except by certain sects of heretic freaks, was considered unhealthy, unwise and downright dangerous. Considering the fate of most heretic freaks this was, indeed, the case.
I love the whole romance of chivalry as much as everyone and had all the usual boyish fantasies of knighthood, swordplay, jousting and the winning of fair ladies. In fact I even took fencing classes figuring in some primordial geek part of my brain that expert swordplay ought to impress those girls I was having trouble talking to far more than cretinous pursuits like basketball and soccer. While such logic may well have applied in, say, 1066, it didn’t translate so well to the late 20th century of my boyhood.
As I’ve grown older I’ve realized that, in fact, hygiene is far more important in the game of romance than either swordplay or even more up-to-date sports. I think of the romantic and quasi-erotic dreams I once had of knights and fair maidens and all I can think now is that they and their entire world must have stunk to an order of magnitude unimaginable to modern senses.
I have, on my ongoing quests, traveled to parts of the world where bathing is not only a luxury but often impossible. Here, in Central America, although I relish my opportunities to get clean, I have to agree with our medieval forefathers. Bathing, in particular showering, can be hazardous, even deadly.
First of all there is the water itself. We’ve all heard the old advice not to drink the water south-of-the-border, which is still true enough. But that also means never to let any of the water in your mouth. If this seems simple see what you do during your next shower. While you are there up North all lathered up and singing, imagine the water is full of deadly bacteria, insidious parasites and then imagine them wriggling past your by now tightly shut lips. Next try brushing your teeth with bottled water. Easy enough, huh? Now try getting your toothbrush clean…
Many, if not most of the showers here are cold as well. We tend to picture Central America as endless, steaming jaguar filled jungles or miles of fever coast and while a lot of it is pretty steamy and cold showers are welcome, much of it is mountains. And like a lot of mountains it gets a bit chilly out of the sun. Since the shower is generally a pipe jutting out of a sunless room the shower is, indeed, cold. You get expert at only getting a few square inches of dirty skin at a time under the frigid, unclean water. It is cold and miserable and dank as no house is ever heated or cooled and if the weather is less-than-warm you are taking a cold shower in a cold room, drying off in the cold and putting on dank cold clothes you’ve probably been wearing for a week. Bronchitis ya’ll? Pneumonia anyone? Of course an auxiliary danger to the cold shower is that you won’t shower at all and thus end up with diseases your doctor can’t cure because they haven’t been seen much since 1066.
These, however, are all relatively passive dangers. Now welcome to the world of the Central American hot shower. In what we like to call developed countries the water is heated, usually by natural gas, in a tank. Most of us are vaguely aware that the thing could explode but it’s as never happened to anyone I know and besides, the tank thing is in the basement, not next to you in the bathroom. Here you do sometimes see gas heaters but they are next to you, mounted to the wall right outside the shower. You have to take matches to the shower. You turn a knob and strike a match and gas flows and bursts into life within the square belly of the thing. The water flows through it then over your body. It is rusted and doesn’t look like it should work. In fact it often doesn’t and you are never sure if it is leaking gas or not as you shiver and curse in the frigid water. And this, gentle reader, is another reason out of many why one should never, ever, smoke in the shower.
The gas heaters are in fact quite rare. For true terror, and far more commonly found, one needs experience the electric heaters. While not a scientist I do have rather clear memories of being taught that oil and water do not mix. More importantly I remember quite clearly being instructed that electricity and water do not mix, or rather, that they do but the potential consequences of mixing them are far more dire than the consequences of putting canola and Evian together.
So when you first see wires extending from the wall and running into the shower-head it causes a gut level sense of unease that never really goes away. They work something like this: the water enters the shower-head (as does the electricity). The electricity heats a coil through which the water passes and then falls through holes onto your skin. This device is designed, of course, so the water and electricity never actually meet. While separate, the two are by no means equal and are very, very close together. In my case, since I am writing this, they never have met but the devices (usually of Italian manufacture) don’t appear overly sturdy and while Central Americans have many traits to recommend them, quality control and maintenance are generally not among them.
People often ask me if Central America is dangerous. I can only say it is. It has its revolutions, its bandits, its volcanoes and hurricanes and malaria but it probably will be none of these that get you. It will be a shower. Or a maybe a bus. But probably a shower. How can you kill me. Let me count the ways. Yes, probably the shower.