Standing in the bow of our sailboat, I stare at the murky waters of Lake Michigan. It has been weeks since torrential rains overwhelmed antiquated sewage systems, spilling billions of gallons of raw sewage into this lake; since swollen rivers and creeks flushed phosphorus-rich soil, fertilizers, debris, and other contaminants into these waters. I have seen this filthy shade of brown define Lake Michigan before. Never for this long. Never stretching for so many miles in all directions.
I feel the lake struggling to purge itself of such massive harm, to reclaim its natural, silvery-blue hue and again be a mirror on which glittering rays of light dance with breathtaking beauty. I can almost hear the lake’s desperate plea for help.
It is a cry I have heard before.
I remember standing on the roadside, tiny beads of sweat forming under my armpits as the South African sun blazed overhead. Before me, a black, wrought iron fence enclosed a two-story motel exquisitely landscaped with brilliant bouquets of hot pink, orange, and snow white blossoms. I stood on the opposite side of the street, feet glued to the rocky soil and thought of my three friends from Australia and New Zealand. We had spent several months exploring Botswana, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), the Mozambique border, Swaziland, and the eastern coast of South Africa in a crotchety old van that just exhaled its last breath. We made it to the coastal city of Durban before our funds, like the van, gave out. Our job searches were not going well. My friends were at market, bartering for food with the few remaining coins in our possession.
“You can’t go with us,” Kent said emphatically. “With your American accent, they’ll jack the prices up.”
My job was to get the water.
Taking a deep breath, I crossed the road, empty plastic jug in hand. My job, always, was finding water.
“You’re from the United States,” my friends told me. “If you get caught, you’ll have the best chance.”
My twenty-two year old heart was beating so hard, so fast, I feared someone would notice as I slowly opened the gate, stepped into the gardens and walked towards the door of the plush motel. Wearing faded bib overalls, my cleanest T-shirt, and a red and white bandana tied as a headband around my long blonde hair, I tiptoed past the busy receptionist and down the nearest hallway. Seeing a door marked “Women,” I scurried inside and quickly filled the container with water. Hastily retracing my steps, I entered the sweet-smelling gardens and felt relief pore from every gland of my body.
“I didn’t see you at breakfast this morning,” an elderly woman appeared from the shadows of the building.
“Oh,” I exclaimed, startled. There was silence as I scrambled to respond. “I’m not much of a breakfast eater.”
“But this is Sunday,” she continued, friendly but probing. “They don’t serve lunch here and only a small supper in the evening.”
“I know,” I could feel my cheeks flushing. “I’m not a big eater. But thank you.”
“I’ll look forward to seeing you this evening,” she smiled.
Fighting an urge to sprint across the road, I turned and attempted a casual stroll around the side of the motel as if the door to my room was just around the corner.
Was it wrong to take the water?
I trudged along the dusty road to our campsite swirling in guilt. My conscience accused me of stealing, of violating values ingrained since childhood. But was it fair that water was a luxury? Easily available to those with money? Doesn’t everyone need water? Have a right to water? Did I not have a responsibility to survive?
I could feel sweat dripping from my hairline, rolling down the back of my neck. I was weary, hungry, frustrated at my inability to find a job in an environment where white women were not supposed to work. Above all, I was thirsty. As I felt the stifling heat of the afternoon sun draining the energy from my body, I longed for a glass of ice cold water.
As nightfall approached, I had no choice but to return to the only motel within walking distance. We were out of water. This time, I was trembling. Please God, don’t let anyone notice me, I prayed silently as my hand grasped the gate’s latch. My tennis shoes, powdered with road dust, heals worn, edges tattered, were a stark contrast to the manicured gardens. I slipped into the motel and back out, unobserved. But as I turned to leave, I saw a black silhouette shaped by the fading sun on the building’s peach-colored walls.
I gasped, could see being handcuffed and pushed into a filthy vehicle, driven to a sweltering jail. Without money for a lawyer, few options existed. I would be detained in a windowless prison cell for months. Best case, they’d put me on a plane and send me home, shame becoming my life’s companion.
Paralyzed, unable to breathe, I waited for the uniformed men to emerge.
“Here,” she said gently, stepping towards me and taking hold of my sweaty hand. “Here, take this. I am a mother. I know what you are going through.” In the palm of my wet, sticky hand, she placed a handful of Rands, the South African equivalent to dollars.
This woman, a stranger, felt my unspoken anguish and extended a hand to help. As I chokingly whispered a thank you, I promised myself someday I would do the same. Someday I would hear another's silent cry of despair and be there to assist.
Gazing at the sullied waters of Lake Michigan, I know that day has come.
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