Regardless of the many stories I have about the living conditions in rural Alaska, Alaskan natives and their communities are beautiful. Being with them was an extremely rewarding experience for me not only learning how to be a better teacher, but simply a better human. Despite their help on many profound levels, my honey bucket journey rests with me and me alone.
For a long time, living in rural Alaskan Native villages meant that you had to live a honey bucket lifestyle. It use to be that outside of the school, most teacher housing didn’t come with modern plumbing. I’ve heard that many villages have since changed, but I lived out there in 2001 and at that time, it was common for both villagers and teachers to be living with a honey bucket. Due to the permafrost and cost, modern plumbing was just something on the horizon, but yet, far, far away.
No big deal, right? I camp. I backpack. I shit in the woods. I have lived with some of the messiest and dirtiest people, and enjoyed it. Prior to this experience, I was the only female and cleaner in a hostel full of men-what could be dirtier than that? I know how to live like a down-to-earth woman who doesn’t need a lot of the items that Americans are use to, nevermind my addictions to lotion and foot massages. Of all of the things that I worried about when it came to relocating to rural Alaska, the honey bucket was not at the top of the list. While a toilet might seem like an item that shouldn’t be considered excessive, much of the world does live without them so it isn’t truly a stretch to find these places. It was just odd to consider a section of America like a foreign country, but it was exactly that. Getting off the small plane for the first time, I felt that common wave of culture shock wash over me, and for a moment, as I looked up the boardwalk that led to the school a couple of miles away, I was convinced that I was no longer in the states. And in a way, I wasn’t.
My house did have a bathroom, equipped with a pipe that led from the sink to the outside ground, and a hole in the shower floor that went right onto Mother Earth beneath me. During cold days, if I happened to be taking a shower, I could feel the wind shoot up through that hole, and race along my bare skin, reminding me of my extremely dry skin, leading me to crave my lotions. Right next to the shower, I had a nice “covered” honey bucket casing, and if I lifted the entire lid, I could simply pull the bucket out, which was your basic utility type, and carry it to the disposal area. No problem.
Only that there was a problem. The problem really didn’t boil down to my comfort level of having to deal with my honey bucket regularly; the problem was more about the transporting of the waste to the disposal site, and of course, I hadn’t considered that issue. I spent a long time learning how to carry my bucket to the disposal area, and by that I mean learning how to carry without spilling. Not on the ground and not on me. Many of those spilling episodes have been locked in a vault, never to be shared, except for maybe the token one, until now. Now, I’m willing to admit that I spilled it more often than I balanced it. I left a trail more often than I carried it successfully.
Even worse, it took me awhile to learn this simple fact: carrying it half full way beats carrying it full. And yet, my procrastination would continue to allow me to fail at the other hard truth: carrying anything in the wind, as far as exposed liquid materials goes, sucks. And maybe, just maybe, carrying human waste in the wind is at the top of that list. Still, I’d procrastinate because of the cold: I would do what I needed to avoid feeling those blistering temps across my bum, especially in the middle of the night. I’d procrastinate because of the wind, and quite frankly, because I didn’t want to endure the 2 minutes of vomit-gut-wrenching-pungent funk that wafted out of and around the disposal site. It was something else, and regardless of what I tried, it won each and every time.
Even so, it wasn’t an Olympic challenge getting the bucket there-in fact, I could kind of see the disposal area from my house. All I had to do was walk several yards and I was there, but you must understand that there were no roads in the village, just board walks covered with snow, and often, ice. It was easy to scramble around on the boardwalk. Once you got to the human waste dump, there was a small trail leading to them. I’d climb up one of the small ladders that led to one of the openings, and dump my bucket. With practiced skills, I eventually did it as fast as possible to reduce the amount of time I had to be anywhere near the disposal site because honestly, it is still the worse place I’ve ever seen or been to in my life. Humans are dirty, dirty creatures, especially when no one is watching.
Due to my very clumsy style of walking up here in the winter to begin with, I was already at a disadvantage. I never did buy the proper pair of shoes for this chore, but when you combined my walking with balancing a honey bucket, and then threw in some wind, you have quite a hot mess on your hands-literally. Sometimes, the wind was kind, and it would just give me a light spray of liquid, kind of like the mist you get from being near the ocean. Other times, I’d lose the bucket all together. I’m not sure how many times I spilled it, but with each time, I’d look around to see if anyone was watching, and to my knowledge, I never got busted.
As a classroom teacher in the village, the last thing I needed was to be up in front of my students with one of them telling stories about me spilling my honey bucket. They already thought I was ‘usivi’ or ‘crazy’ (not sure of Yupik spelling), due to my loud demeanor and infatuation with my new husky Lia, that I got while living there. My honey bucket journeys were my little secret. We grew together in other important ways and they still had plenty of dirt on me to laugh and laugh.
Eventually, my honey bucket cascades leveled out and I was able to carry it quite successfully, figuring out when and how, using the weather as my guide. It’s funny how almost all lessons in life end up being really, really important, even if the formula involves shit and a bucket. The metaphor is always there.