Disclaimer: The following are personal accounts of my travels the last month and represent my own opinion based on experiences and observation. By no means do I suggest that hygiene is unimportant nor unnecessary. The references to the history of bathing were garnered from websites and though surely there is far more information out there, the anecdotes shared offer a glimpse into a fascinating realm of life we most often never think about.
Indian Summer day’s spent in the backyard of our home on Pratt Boulevard in Chicago or after the age of 9, climbing through genip trees with my friend, Andy Adams, I would easily return home coated in sweat, dirt and disgust, never pondering whether a bath was necessary nor desired.
My mother (in a heavy Viennese accent) would always utter in sheer disgust:
Direct translations — “PIG-DOG!”
I was often called a Schweinehund.
Playing was my job.
Bathing, only a notion in the inconsequential rhythms of childhood.
Which brings us to today.
The last month — more specific, the past 43 days in Ethiopia while on assignment for National Geographic — my mother’s voice resonate incessantly in the internal dialogue any time a rare reflection exposed me:
“Look at you, covered in dirt! Look at your clothes! Stink to high-heaven! John, go take a bath — you’re a SCHWEINHUND!!”
Photography and Bathing
On many photo assignments, we often don’t have daily access to bath. Having covered more hard news and wars than my heart cares to recall, such deeply emotional events end up being periods of time where survival is principal. Food and water, secondary. Shelter measured by floorspace. Bathing, occasional.
For my naturalist colleagues at National Geographic, brilliant photographers like Michael “Nick” Nichols, Tim Laman, Steve Winter, Paul Nicklen, Christian Ziegler and so many others, bathing must also be inconsequential — these photographers live for weeks in the bush or on floating icecaps to enlighten all of us to care and sustain the natural world around us. Accessibility to use a bar of soap is surely equivalent to that of hygiene opportunities while documenting conflict; It will happen when it happens.
In reality, animals will repel from photographers if cloaked in a bouquet of chemicals so why bother.
A sniper couldn’t sniff the stench of Irish Spring (a brand of American soap) from a few meters away, let along care. You’re only in their sites, hoping they have poor aim.
More distinct, conflict photography thrusts in motion waves of endorphins, allowing to overcome your dearth of cleanliness — days (and nights) are connected to getting home alive.
I’ve gone long periods without bathing while covering revolutions and war, rarely perceiving my filth, torn clothing nor repugnant stench.
Keeping distracted via the power of opiate receptors hasn’t worked on this assignment for National Geographic in the Horn of Africa when it comes to bathing.
This story is not a fast breaking news event or a story occurring in a city or town. It’s a continuous journey where my task is to present a narrative based upon a span of time that is 59,850 years older than photography. Throughout this fascinating process, I’ve walked over 50 miles (80 kilometers) through deserts and ancient lava fields, driven over 7,000 miles (11,260 k) on nonexistent roads, doing both in an ever present cacophony of heat and dust.
Abundantly sweating is the norm.
Expanses of time to mull limitless potent — and nonsense — abound.
None of this is difficult. Rather, it simply goes with the job.
Exposed over the previous 43 days in this rather unique wandering (where the nearest hotel or even water is hundreds of miles away), an entirely experimental process occurred which inspired this story, a tale of truth wrapped around human existence, history, a forgotten reality and yes, a bit of photojournalism.
I hope you will be enthralled, as I have, to realize that at times, we all stand before the mirror of our ancestors, our great grandmothers and grandfathers of roughly 2,500 generations past, when they walked 60,000 years ago out of the Afar region of what is today, Ethiopia — not carrying a bar of soap.
Traveling overland since early January in the remotest, most inaccessible regions of Ethiopia — the spectacular Lower Rift Valley of Africa — has been an character altering experience.
More specific, this nonstop journey has taken place in a region of The Rift known as Afar. This area is populated mostly by pastoralist nomads.
Afar could be viewed as a nation uniquely its own. Afari’s have a completely different language, incomprehensible to their Ethiopian sisters and brothers. Entirely different customs and history.
Due to invisible lines which most often segregate rather than unite — borders — a vast majority of the Afar people (well over 1.5 million) call home an extensive portion of an already extremely diverse nation called Ethiopia (formerly known as Abyssinia). Afar is roughly the size of the U.S. state of both North and South Dakota. Maybe larger. And the Afar diaspora stretches well beyond only Ethiopia, spreading deep into both Eritrea and Djibouti.
A key element lacking in this part of the world is the one item which no human can live without.
As astounding as this landscape has been, existence is mixed with a heaping toll of suffering for the inhabitance of Afar due to water scarcity.
An Afari elder recently told me something dreadful which began 20-30 years ago (think climate change) — rain no longer falls.
In one village, Sudumta, I stumbled upon over 50 men, heads bowed to the ground towards a dried riverbed. Coincidence or sheer divine intervention, the exposed floor of the river and their prostration of reverence was in the direct trajectory of Mecca.
They were praying for rain.
Not a drop of water had fallen from cloudless skies in well over a year.
Desperation and God is all that was left.
What little water does exist in this part of the Lower Rift comes from holes, 10 ft (3 meters) deep, levels of liquid is so negligible, a thin pan is deftly scrapped across wet dirt, daubing mouthful-amounts of silt-brown liquid into a slightly larger container — a repurposed jerry can that once contained cooking oil.
This modest amount of liquid is their only drinking water.
Using such scant recourses for bathing would be inconceivable.
Let me preface a earnest dose of reality — I DO like to bath!
Long gone are the days when Andy (my across the street neighbor in the Bahamas) and I could play till soiled beyond recognition.
Knowing such water scarcity was the tragic norm in this part of Ethiopia, we did carry our own jerry can’s of water upon the roof of the LandCruiser, used (and only enough) for cooking.
Transporting enough water for 3-4 people to bath — Yonas Abiye (Ethiopian translator), Melesse (driver), Habibi and Indris (Afar guides) and myself — would require a small tanker in tow. Completely impractical.
What additional water we did carry was bottle water and those too were often in short supply.
Bathing quickly became crossed off any known To Do list for days.
When bathing water was available, it primarily manifested at grimy hotels frequented by truck drivers which incessantly ply the main artery that links Ethiopia to the outside world: The Port of Djibouti. Such brilliance liquid access occurred three or four times in the last month.
As disgusting to those of us living in the developed world might take the next phase in this narrative, you will be astonished to know that our bodies were never designed to be bathed as often as we do today.
Here begins an experiment, one which wasn’t by choice, rather a natural evolution brought upon by environmental changes (lack of rain):
Day 1: Fresh clothing. Hair and skin are clean. You feel nearly buoyant.
Day 2: Clothing has received a few stains — gravity is not my friend when eating — and though no longer as buoyant, a sweaty shirt, trousers, and yes, the same underwear, don’t seem all that dreadful to keep using, knowing even if you did change clothing, within minutes you’d be covered in Afar dust, so why bother.
Day 3: Only by day three do you begin to sense (from our developed nation mindset) that physical needs might be going awry. Disgust manifests, yet you keep a forward presents, knowing once again that donning anything clean would not solve the problem due to daily dust storms and relentless heat (I don’t travel with more than 3 changes of clothing and a few extra underwear).
Day 4 and 5: One’s will becomes tested. Clothing by this time is completely covered in grim, dirt, food stains. Perspiration causes your outerwear (and inner) to conform to your torsos. Frustration turns to giddiness in this state of disrepair. I began considering the only remaining clean clothing as precious items to conserve — they were all I have left.
Day 6-10: Here began the unique part of this unorthodox, unplanned, process of human understanding — once I reached day 7, 8 and definitely day 10, the notion or more so, the need for a bath evaporates – both from my consciousness and torso. It’s not that you become unreceptive to your hygiene condition — thank goodness there were few mirrors where I’ve been the last month. Rather, a natural occurrence happened — my body began to self-clean. The sweating pores of my skin — and I will stress again, continual sweating pores — began to push out, then off, most of the grim build up. Yes, clothing at this point is reaching a state of ruin, however my skin no longer smelled. Only the clothing did. Airing shirts/trousers/underwear on a tree limb each night for donning a slightly less soiled t-shirt and shorts to sleep in, the following morning my skin smelled fine. The hanging clothing, fused stiff on the tree, is what repulsed.
Day 11 and 12: Just shy of two weeks, or 12 days to be exact, I became completely one with my new self. My shirt and trousers from REI were now defiled by the harsh conditions of the Afar region, appearing as shop rags in a garage rather than material to be worn by a human. Yet astonishingly enough, my skin was relatively clean and didn’t smell. By some natural process that clearly we’ve forgotten we possess, the rancid notion of filth wasn’t so much about me — sure, I didn’t smell like a Lancôme counter in a department store — but rather, the outerwear. We seemed, by my unscientific study of self, to have build-in self-cleaning systems, which clearly evolved from millennia’s of basic environmental conditioning. No question, there was surface layers of dirt, but large areas of skin that were coated in dust and grime a day or two early would be no longer visible, likely caused by natural body sweat because I never had access to water nor ever pulled out a towel.
When I did finally bathe on or around day 12 (there have been two-cycles of 12 day non-bathing travel), it felt exhilarating yet at the same time, offsetting.
Which made me wonder; Were we humans actual bathers 60,000 years ago when walking out of Africa?
Did we bathe 10,000 years ago?
2,000 years past?
Did my great grandmother and great grandfather bathe in the late 1800′s?
Now ensconced in the first (somewhat) legitimate hotel in well over a month — the mildly renovated, Hotel Dar es Salam, located in the heart of Djibouti City, Djibouti — I had to do the research.
For those of you who have a clean-self fetish, brace yourself —
We humans rarely ever bathed until just 100 or so years ago.
Here with a brief overview on the history of human bathing:
10,000 – 60,000 years ago — From the origins of our collective beginnings in Africa (yes, we are all African), very little information exist from this era regarding bathing. An article in the New Scientist has shown that Neanderthals may have learned how to sail or float across seas far sooner than humans, however the chances of Neanderthals caring about bathing would likely be nil. After walking and driving through much of our collective humanities original existence the last 40+ days, water 60 millenniums ago was nowhere near as scarce as it is today in Afar, Ethiopia, However observing the landscapes (from a relatively decent knowledge of geology), I could surmise fairly accurately that potable (drinkable) water was not abundant here at anytime in the last 1-2 millions years. There is evidence that fresh water existed but most are now dried lake beds. What was odd is how Afar people today do not actually live next to water sources. There are a few lakes (one very large and very close to where we began this walk in the small village of Herto Bouri), but no one seems to live next nor near to them. Such a practice of living so far from water might mirror our relatives of 60,000 year-old who also may have chosen to live away from large bodies of water (unable to swim?), seeking potable water either by only walking great distances or finding water in shallow wells and streams. Today, most of the nomadic Afari’s choose to live 1-3 miles (1.6-4.8 kilometers) walk away from the nearest water source. Is this due to disputes with neighbors over water rights, making sure no one group of people have greater access to precious water over another? I could never get a meaning answer from the countless Afari’s I asked on this topic. This lack of access to water is an misfortune and suffrage for millions around the world. My friend, Lynn Johnson, produced a powerful essay on water slavery for National Geographic a few years back titled, Burden of Thirst, illustrating just how difficult it is to gain access to water throughout much of Africa and elsewhere on earth — a labor that is borne on the women. Surely such access to water 60,000 years ago wasn’t much better. In fact, lack of water may have even led to our collective walk out of this region for greater liquid assets.
5,000-10,000 years ago — By this time, soap hadn’t even been invented nor considered. Once again, the historical record is scarce this far back. A meaningful hypothesis would indicate not much had changed in the realm of hygiene nor passion for cleanliness between say 5,000-60,000 years ago. Maybe for the extreme elite, bathing was taking place, but for the masses, likely nonexistent. Survival was of far greater importance.
2,000-5,000 years ago — It wasn’t until almost 5,000 years go (or around 2,800 BC) that soap was invented in ancient Babylon. However, by 2,800 BC, our ancestors would have already reproduced nearly 2,000 time. Whether one believes in evolution, creationism, etc (this is not a story on such a topic so let’s not debate this here!), the reality is this; Producing that many offspring would allow our skin to develop/evolve to a point of never needing such an item as soap, let alone regular bathing. Another significant aspect of migration to keep in mind is this — humans didn’t all walk out of Africa and straight to Babylon. We wandered in all directions, creating specific cultural communities in other parts of Africa, onward to Europe, Asia then into the America’s, reaching the tip of present day Argentina about 17,000 years ago. In China, the first signs of bathing began only 3,000 years ago. Ancient Greeks — the most prolific bathers during this time — where one of the first to create bathing centers, the oldest discovered in a palace complex at Knossos, Crete. The Romans also seemed to have switched on to bathing around this period of time. Why and what caused this sudden interest — only within very specific locations across the planet — still seems a mystery. One thing of for certain, until this era, humans (us), didn’t give a darn about personal cleanliness.
800-2,000 years ago — Here is when things get interesting. By the fall of the Roman Empire (which began around 470 AD), bathing went out of fashion. There were ritualistic/spiritual bathing within nearly all religions during this time: Mikveh’s in Judaism, Baptism or the act of becoming cleansed/purified, blessed in Christianity, ablutions in Islam (the act of washing feet, hands, face/head) before prayers, etc, all these and more were indeed taking place around this period (the earliest in Judaism). However regular bathing was far from the norm. During the Medieval era (476-1460 AD), it’s a common myth that we didn’t bath. We DID, if you had money. The rest of us only bathed 1-4 times per year, max.
100-800 years ago — Before the great plagues in Europe (especially the Black Plague between 1348 and 1350), few in Europe, except the wealthy, bathed. But when the Black Death hit, there was some consensus that maybe this plague — which killed roughly 75 million Europeans — might be caused by the lack personal hygiene practiced at that time. Suddenly people (those who could afford it) began to bath. Ironically, cleanliness was not the reasons for the onset of the bubonic plague — it was flea-ridden rats that spread death. After this tragic period, pretty much the entire European region returned to non-bathing. On a positive note, the most cleanliest culture at the time (around the 1,400′s) was in Mesoamerica. People there at that time, both the elite and the commoners, bathed each afternoon. Why they caught on to such levels of hygiene while few other societies did not, I do not know.
Here’s a few bits of interesting trivia from this era I didn’t know till doing my post non-bathing research:
How often did Queen Elizabeth I bathe in the 1600′s? About once every few weeks.
How often did European peasants (the vast majority of our relatives at that time were peasants) between say 1200 till 1800 change their clothing? Rarely, maybe a handful of times per year.
How often the people bathe in the United States between say 1700-1850′s? Rarely, especially in colder regions such as where I now leave, New England.
Poverty was likely a key factor as to why our ancestors never bathed. The costs for such luxuries as soap were simply far out of reach.
Depressingly, the weight of poverty even today (2 billion humans live on just over $2 USD per day) continues to hinder access to soap or regular bathing.
If you’ve ever traveled to developing world, you will have tragically come across children, even adults, wearing your long discarded sport jerseys or a t-shit with the words “Al’s Auto Parts” meandering around a market. Chances are it’s in tattered condition, never changed nor washed for years.
In the developed world — where we have everything times infinity and we’re still not happy — we’ve become rabid bathers, driven especially by the marketing campaigns from the billion-dollar industry of cleansing products, all telling us we’re less human, less gorgeous, less a person until we look like someone in 30 second commercials and fashion magazines.
As wonderful as it feels after a bath, in many way’s it’s not healthy for our skin.
Our ragging desire — and the hundreds of dollars each year we spend on self-cleaning products — only really manifested with the arrival of indoor plumbing, or in the last 100 or so years.
The forgotten astonishment of being able to turn a knob and the near miracle of water pours — hot or cold — is, in the sense of time, a strand of hair in sense of calendar years.
Astonishing indeed, yet taken so extremely for granted.
At this moment, we’re wasting water at an alarming rate. Not by drinking it all up.
Rather, we’re wasting extreme levels of precious water via the need for more swimming pools (take out the chlorine, it’s your personal Roman bath), our desire for green grass in places where vegetation was never meant to grow and yes, by incredible water usage for bathing — on average we use 7 gallons (26.5 liters) of water per minute when taking a shower using a regular fixture.
28-36 gallons (98-136 liters) for a bath.
40-55 gallons (151-208 liters) to run a conventional cloth washing machine.
Not saying we need to revert back to Medieval bathing practices!
The point that I discovered via self analysis, our environment and culture observation (most Afar people today still only bath once a year) is this — maybe those 15 min showers some of us take could be cut back to 2 minutes.
And if you skip a day without bathing, we’ll be fine.
All that anti-bacterial soap and whatnot, use if you wish, however our bodies need bacteria in order to learn how to fend off common diseases. We’ve gone berserk in the last two-decades turning our homes into mini-sterile hospitals — thanks in part to the multi-billion dollar cleaning industry for convincing us we all must be living in sterile bubbles. And to think we fell for it.
Astounding as it may seem, by natural development, it appears our bodies (not our clothing) were design in many way to be self-cleansing.
Strange, I know. But just experienced it.
It was indeed mighty hot in Afar for the month I photographed in this extremely unique and remote part of our world.
From 9am till 4pm, the air and land was a searing skillet of heat. No shade except for the thorny wayone (Procopis) bush or a shadow cast by a large rock, natures sundial. There was no relenting till evening and even then the wind blew desert dust everywhere.
During this time, I felt I’d become in a small way, Afari. My new Afar friends skin didn’t smell any different than my own, seeking comfort in the conformity. Yes, their clothing was a bit dirty but oddly enough, nowhere near as dirty as mine.
Most important, they were extremely proud with what few things they had. These are pastoralist, whose wealth and success is not measured by what type of car they drive, designer clothing they wear or latest gizmo that’s all the rage (most could care less about my MacBook Pro or even cameras. Only the iPhone struck their fancy because the screen was so bright, it could be used as a flashlight at night).
Value and self worth is based upon their livestock, which provide food and drunk (milk), the two main sustainments of life.
Does this mean the Afar’s do not want a better life?
OF COURSE THEY DO!
Every human being seems naturally wired to seek improvements and a better life. The different has always been in having opportunity, a clean environment, education and freedom to choose.
For the Afar, such opportunities — most especially the environment — seems stacked against them.
Don’t let my kids read this story!
Like all children, the notion of being told to go take a bath is simply not in their lexicon till reaching the age where that hot guy or cute girl in the third row in science class begins to catch their fancy.
No longer traveling or sleeping in the desert regions of Afar, out in the open under a staggering ceiling of stars, using a tent or in a truckers hotel with an alleged bathing stall that resembles an abandoned outhouse, it’s still incredibly hot here in Djibouti City.
My days now are spent wandering the streets with my wonderful new friend, Abdul, who is my driver/translator.
Like in Afar, we’re avoiding the heat (translated into Photolingo: bad light), working a few mornings but heavily in the afternoons and well into the late evening when the vibrancy of the city is on display. There’s even air-conditioning in my simple windowless room at the Hotel Dar es Salam — although I can stay in basically any hotel in the city, I despise wasting even NG’s funds on characterless hotels costing hundreds of dollars a night just to rest my head for 6-8 hrs.
There’s even a communal shower down the hall, and can you believe it…it rains hot water.
Even a sit-down toilet.
Life is good.
Only thing missing is my family, whom I miss dearly.
By the way, yesterday was my wife, Anastasia, and our 20th wedding anniversary.
HAPPY ANNIVERSARY — and I promise you that in a few weeks time I’ll returned to the Berkshires all showered, in a clean pair of clothing!
All my best,