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Erin Michelle Threlfall Headshot

Fellow Foreigners

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Cupped in anticipation of receiving a precious gift, she placed her palms beneath the faucet and waited. Nothing arrived. Looking around, she searched for a way to unlock the secret to flowing water. As she moved her arms, she was showered in an unexpected, abundant stream. A stream that stopped as soon as she reached to use it. Confused. Frustrated. She tried it all again. Tapping the faucet didn't work; moving the handle to the right only shot out gooey pink substance. Catching on to what was happening, I waved my hand in front of the sensor and helped her keep the water going.

Left hand poised beneath right to catch any overflow, her enlarged rounded eyes and slowly emerging smirk gave her away: this was her first journey out of Africa. Specially tailored gown of finest West African cloth, freshly plaited hair, cascade of beads, well polished, market-bought-hand-woven-carry-on... She must have been preparing for months. Planning what she might wear on her first journey, determined to show the world that she is a woman of finery, a world traveler who hails from the mother land. And still, it was her thrill of ample water flow from a magical source that gave her away. It was the grace with which she caught the first drops of water, the gentle rock of the wrist that guided the stream downwards towards the other cupped and waiting vessel. It was her gorgeous hand washing ritual, made complicated by unexpected bathroom facility developments, that made me see her as a woman just starting a new adventure.

This exquisite hand washing dance, intended only to preserve a precious commodity, remains one of my favorite pieces of choreography in my knowledge of West African movement. Seeing it in a highly automated, comparatively sophisticated bathroom in the airport at Doha, Qatar threw me off kilter enough to make me pause and reflect on a time when I was enchanted by all that was new. Laughing at my younger self, I recall the challenge I faced when, upon asking for the bathroom facilities to wash my hands, I was given my first small blue bucket of water drawn from the wells on the Liberian Refugee Camp in Ghana, West Africa. This small container would be my only bucket of bathing water for the entire day. From this, I had to keep my sweaty, dusty body clean, my long hair rinsed, and my overly grasped hands sanitized. I am certain my eyes were round with wonder, mouth arriving at a twist of awe and amusement:

"Where am I???" "You want me to bathe my entire body with that?" "What have I gotten myself into???"

Amused by my inability to wash my hands without ample water waste, the locals were honored to teach the Obruni how to make this precious bucket stretch throughout a day. Feeling like a small child learning independence, I was taught how to catch the water from one hand in the next, how to pour the water on my head so that it may benefit the rest of my needing-to-be-washed body. In the beginning, I barely managed to wash my arms and face, but in a short amount of time, that small bucket started to seem excessive, indulgent even. Soon enough, I too owned the ability to wash my hands with gentle grace.

Many bucket baths and foreign countries later, I am now something of a seasoned traveler. Because of the familiarity of being a constant foreigner, I fear I may be losing the ability to see the little things that make new lands and new experiences so rewarding and exciting. The simple hand washing ritual, taken on by a woman just beginning her world adventures, reminded me of who I was when I started out: a young woman convinced she knew how to navigate the world. A young woman about to have her world turned upside down...

Grateful for the opportunity to be reminded of all that I have seen and experienced, and of those who have helped me navigate new terrain along the way, I put my rushing and "just get to the gate" attitude aside long enough to show a fellow traveler how to take advantage of modern hand washing contraptions, and then how to use the escalator. I know that look she gave in return: the relieved one that said my willingness to pause and connect with her meant more than the actual shared lesson did. I know that look because I have given it more times than I can count.

In time, she will have mastered these strange flowing water givers and moving stairs, and will probably even loose the hand washing dance that gave her away; she will learn to blend as much as one can in a land not their own. At one point, though, I am sure she will be reminded of who she was when it all began, and will have the opportunity to help another just starting out on their own adventure. It's what travelers do, even when the rush of the airport encourages them to do otherwise.