Mengistu’s Jacuzzi By Tej Rae

Travel Essay: I live in a neighborhood where every big house comes with at least one jacuzzi, but no one has water to fill it. White enamel, curved edges, dotted with black spigots. A miniature swimming pool, for three or four adults, with seats carved into the bottom. On the side, an electronic panel of options for how hard you want the pulse. The separation of electricity and water, like the separation of church and state in Ethiopia, is not one of the assumptions of bathroom construction. Careful where you dip your toes.  

“We never use them,” said the Swedish woman who showed me her jacuzzi when I was house-hunting in May.

I arrived with my husband and two children in September. We are house-hunting, but even our rented, furnished apartment comes with one. We don’t use ours either.

The city supply of water is cut on a regular basis. If your reserve tank is empty, you get water delivered by truck, at about 300 dollars a pop. At that price, even the US Ambassador isn’t using his jacuzzi –– though maybe the one from Qatar does. On the rare occasion that you would have enough water, the heaters that hang on the wall could never heat enough. The power goes off daily.

I asked the rental agent, Hagos, a sweet, elderly man who is showing us all these jacuzzi-filled houses. Why have a big bath you can never fill?

He shrugged. It was like asking me why Americans snack so much. There are many long-standing cultural and economic forces at work that lead to such phenomena.

It’s just something we do, Hagos said. People like the way they look.

It’s not like there was once plentiful water and now there’s not. Ethiopians went from feudalism under the Emperor to Marxism under Mengistu to what they have now, a democratic-leaning tribal federalism, all without significant gains in infrastructure. For the past year, they have a leader who is spooning out hope like their own Obama –– but there’s still no steady supply of water.

We wash our vegetables in bleach because they’ve been watered with sewage.

The internet is turned off when the President feels that is in order.

There are no emissions standards for the mostly diesel-fueled cars, many built before the 70s –– a toxic combination of exorbitant car taxes and overpopulation that chokes the city daily.

To live here is to be reminded, with each guava soaked in bleach, what human resourcefulness looks like.

I think about those jacuzzis all the time, I confess to Hagos. If only the bathtubs were smaller, people would use them.

Then I remembered about crème brulée. I am lactose intolerant, and the decadent custard with its hard sugar crust is the one desert that makes me so ill I have to go to bed soon after eating it; the combination of heavy cream, egg yolks deadly to my stomach. But ask me what my favorite dessert is, and it’s always the one I can’t have.

Ira Glass once did a show on this. Hospitals around the world are full of people who can’t digest wheat but just downed a whole pizza.

I have only been in Ethiopia for two weeks, and I am sure that sooner or later, I will find someone who can unravel the jacuzzi fetish for me. The Italians left behind macchiatos, spaghetti, and maybe the oversized bathtub completes the set. But I’m not sure I need the real answer. The bathtub that can never be filled is a receptacle for aspiration itself, biding its time.

Some houses have four.

BIO: Tej Rae is a freelance writer currently based in Rome, working on her third novel. After teaching high school English for 15 years, she transitioned to journalism and fiction. Her publishing credits include The Washington Post, BBC Focus on Africa magazine, The National newspaper in UAE, YogaLife Middle East, The Wheelhouse Review, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Eunoia Review, Romeing, Spittoon, and Fiction365, among others.


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