Sometimes I find myself apologizing to the water if I run the tap too long while brushing my teeth. Living in the desert, it makes sense to have conversations with water. I have also expressed gratitude to it. When it rains, I often walk out into it. I remember all too well the long drought in the nineties. I was living in Sydney then. On summer evenings, dark clouds would gather from the west, teasing us with humidity and then move on, leaving me worried that my son would grow up rarely experiencing rain. I can often be heard singing that Van Morrison song when stepping under the shower "Oh, the water! O-oh the water! And it sto-oned me to my soul". At times even washing hands can bring on the song.
While showers are splendid, there’s a special place in the heart of this desert-dwelling water lover for hot springs. In 2006, I attended a conference at Rotorua, New Zealand. In that stinky place with its hot pools and boiling mud, our star-studded crew of Indigenous doctors from around the Pacific bonded. I got used to the sulphurous smell of the town within a few days—the silky warm water more than compensated for it. Often a milky turquoise colour, the water bubbled and steamed. Piped into modest backyard concrete ponds, it was delicious to soak in. People cooked with the heat, too, with steamers and ovens built into special outdoor places. The food the Maori people cook in earth ovens remains the most delicious I’ve ever eaten.
My first experience of thermal waters was in 1989 in Bali, where I joyously put my head under soft warm water pouring out of the mouth of a beautifully weathered stone-carved Balinese beast at Banjar. Claudia and I have also visited hot springs on the other side of the world, near her hometown in the Black Forest in Europe. The doctor prescribed water therapy at the local hot springs for Claudia’s frail parents, and we have taken them many times to Bad Liebenzell where an indulgent array of fountains and spouts pummel you with forceful warm water fresh out of the earth. The water is the same temperature all year. It leaves your hair silky and doesn’t sting your eyes when you dip your head under. (The latter is not the done thing, by the way. The silver-haired gents and matrons at the hot spring prefer to keep their hair dry while squinting their faces very seriously against the splashes.)
In summer — I have only been there once in summer — they have a Duft Insel (literally, fragrance island) by the pool. It is a circular arrangement of warmed concrete, with astrological signs decorating the segments (to make it more spiritual, I suppose). A stainless steel cylinder in the centre of the island wafts perfumes over your head as you lie on your towel on the warm stone. There is an appropriate time between the perfumes to allow recovery, while you inhale the gentle freshness of the surrounding greenery and nearby lavender. In fact, the spa at Liebenzell has ensured plenty of personal space throughout. Seats and standing spaces are spaced almost a metre apart. It’s not like Australia, where any kind of public spa seems to involve putting your shoulders up in your ears and clenching your thighs to avoid more contact with your neighbour than you’d like.
In Oahu, Hawai’i, a taxi driver told us about the way the thermal energy of the lava-heated island is used to power houses and offices now. How marvelous that the heat of the earth can be harnessed beyond baths and ovens. Of course, it can also be dangerous.
On Tanna island in Vanuatu, I once saw a live volcano spitting balls of molten lava. Our guide told us how to stay safe. If a ball of lava is coming towards you, you focus on it and watch its trajectory, then move sideways, that is, not down the mountain or into the volcano, so that you can avoid it. I have missed catching so many balls in my life that I figured I’d be fine. On television last week I heard about a volcanic lake in the Congo rainforest where gases suffocated over 1700 people overnight in a shocking natural disaster in 1986.
Remember that Japanese man who spoke to water and then photographed the crystals, positing that the feelings he projected onto the water changed it? To be honest, I thought he was a bit fruity when I first heard about it. All the same, the concept is intriguing. It will take a lot more than sweet talk for the earth and its waters to recover from all the harm we have done. But for now, I will continue my apologies to my tap water, wishing it well on its journey to grey water and back to the sky. Perhaps my blessing will afford me a few more hot spring baths.