Naked As a Jaybird

For me the hardest part of African camping was the logistics of one’s toilet. One night we camped on the grounds of a camel farm. The big event of the evening was a talk by the owner of the farm, a man who had spent his life in Africa and who knew camels backwards and forwards. We had gotten back from a day of hot, dusty driving that ended up with a camel walk from the main road into the camp itself. It was a kitchy thing to do, I suppose. Sort of like catching a ride in a Disneyland theme park. But we all did it. By the end, everyone was sweaty, dirty and anxious for a shower, me, especially since my camel had spat on me just before I mounted him. That may have been an expression of opinion. I didn’t much like him either.

I rocked my way back and forth into the camp on top of the camel, the camel spit making a rivulet down my back. I felt a bit like the skipper in John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem, Skipper Ireson’s Ride:

Old Floyd Ireson, for his hard heart,
Tarred and feathered and carried in a cart
By the women of Marblehead!

When we finally lurched into camp, Nancy lept down from her camel and was into the shower before I had my foot out of the stirrup. By the time I had reached our tent, she was done. Nancy was always rushing ahead. She had to get to the next event for the photo-ops it offered. She didn’t want to miss a thing. I was accustomed to this. I didn’t argue. I didn’t even mind.

“I left plenty,” Nancy called over her shoulder as she left, camera in hand, for the pre-dinner campfire where everyone was gathering to hear the owner of the camel ranch talk about—what else?—camels.

The shower was a phone booth affair. The camp staff heated water in a huge cauldron. Our arrival at the campsite was their signal to prime the showers. This they did by filling a canvas sack that hung from the ceiling of the phone booth like a bulbous wasp’s nest. A showerhead at the bottom of the bag was attached to a pull string. When you pulled on the string, hot water streamed out.

“Hurry,” she urged. “You don’t want to miss this.”

I stripped down. Dressed only in my shower clogs, I tip-toed to the shower tent. I gave the pull string a quick jerk to wet myself, careful not to use up the rinse water. I lathered all over. Then I pulled hard on the string. Nothing happened. I pulled harder. Dry as an Arizona arroyo in summer. I shook the bag, tipped it every which way. Not a drop.

I thought to myself, “Maybe the next shower down has some left over.”

Naked as—what else?—a jaybird, I crept down to the shower behind tent number 3. The water was ice cold. Better than nothing. There was barely enough to wet my hair.

I tiptoed down to the next shower. Same story. Ice cold water, hardly any left. Now I was barely twenty yards from the campfire. I had run out of shower tents as well as water.

I skulked back to my tent, wiped myself down, got dressed and managed to get to the campfire in time to hear the camel rancher telling everyone that once a camel he was riding drank 105 liters of water after going without for one full week.

I knew just how that camel felt.

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