Freezing showers: Stories from an energy conscious country
I remember the good ol’ days, the 20-minute scalding showers that left my skin red and the mirrors steamed, the lack of environmental consciousness and the freedom to not care.
Only a few months ago my showers were torturous; after a teasing two minutes of lukewarm, the water turned painfully frigid and I was left completely covered in goose bumps, rinsing my hair as I hopped about shivering. It was clear to me that I wasn’t in Kansas (or more realistically, St. Louis) anymore.
Actually, I wasn’t in St. Louis, I wasn’t even in the United States. From early January until only a few months ago, I was a temporary resident of Santiago, Chile. I learned more about the world than I had ever imagined possible when I first boarded the plane leaving St. Louis, but the showers were a daily reminder of a really important reality: we waste. We, as Americans, as the middle and upper class, as the lucky recipients of a first-class American education, and especially as students of Washington University, waste.
I know that probably half of the Student Life articles published have some sort of environmental thread: to use metal silverware, recycle cans, turn off lights, and it seems nothing can spur us into being more environmentally aware. I don’t want to be redundant, but I’d like to give you a picture of another world, a world that tries so hard to emulate ours that they dream about being able to waste the way we do. And it isn’t even Africa.
Every morning I got up, and if I was daring enough, I’d brave the shower, knowing full well what was going to happen. Before I got in, I had to turn on the hot water valve in the kitchen and wait for a little bit of water to heat up. Despite that, unfortunately, here was never enough warm water; I even switched to 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner to try to make myself go faster. I’d dance about in the shower trying to avoid its freezing burn anywhere it wasn’t necessary and assuring God that I would be really, really good if he gave me one minute more of warmth. Sometimes I’d work myself into such a sorry fit that I would cry. To heat water costs money, and my Chilean family just decided that their money would be put to other uses.
My kitchen was another example of modest conservation. As in most modern kitchens these days the room was equipped with a microwave and radio, but the constant red or green florescent lights providing the time were never there because my family, like many other families, only plugged in those devices when they needed them. It takes energy to run those clocks whether or not the microwave is being used. It made me think about my own kitchen, where there are three clocks attached to the oven, radio, and microwave, all sporting the same time and therefore proving the other two useless. But we leave them on anyway.
In the last few months of my stay in Chile, winter set in, exacerbating my shower problem and also teaching me another valuable difference between my U.S. home and my Chilean home. In the winter in my U.S. home, I can walk around in jeans and a T-shirt whenever I want. The thermostat is never more than a five-minute walk away and the comfortable 68 degrees my family keeps it at make my wardrobe options vast. On a typical winter afternoon in my Chilean apartment, I wore a long sleeve t-shirt, heavy sweatshirt, and a thick blanket wrapped around my shoulders, as well as warm sweatpants occasionally accompanied by leggings underneath. There was one space heater for the living room, which was used sparingly. Usually I was cold, and I spent a lot of time in my bed under my covers doing whatever work could be done in a curled up position.
These were sacrifices my family in Chile made in order to have three TVs in their home, a car, and two computers. They were far from a struggling family, but they were conscientious—not because they wanted to be but because it was too expensive not to be.
I returned home this summer with open eyes to the disgusting waste my own family produces—long luxurious showers, car rides to friends’ homes less than one mile away, and the thought of returning to a much more sickening Wash. U., where energy is consumed as if it were free and lights are left on 24 hours a day.
I’ve also come to see how much I waste on my own—water and electricity, and sometimes my own laziness inhibits me from going the extra few steps to recycle instead of just tossing my plastic bottles into the trash. But Chile has put my lifestyle into perspective and I know I can survive on less. This year I am going to try harder, and although I know I am not ready to sacrifice my hot showers on cold days, I am prepared to be more aware and live a little greener.