Friday, March 5, 2010

Tricky Taps or Foxy Faucets

When you wash our hands, do you ever stop to wonder what it would be like if you didn’t know how to use the tap?

In October, 2003, I flew from Cape Town, South Africa to Washington D.C. to attend the Sandy Cove Christian Writers Conference. I looked forward to all I would learn. I’d studied the itinerary, printed out the schedule, and formed cyber-friendships with the other four members of my online writers’ group that would be at the conference. I had two clear goals: to learn from experts, and to establish what sort of writing I should concentrate on, i.e. my niche.

I was confident I’d have no problem understanding the American accent as I have Americans in my home every day—on the television. I also had a fair knowledge of American English, as I wrote quite often for American markets. What I hadn’t anticipated were the gadgets.

After travelling for the best part of two days, I stayed with cyber friends in Washington. I looked forward to a warm shower and bed. That’s when I met my first tap (the American faucet). I pulled, pushed, twisted, all to no avail. How stupid was this? I travelled alone across 1/3 of the globe and then needed help to get water to wash.

The next night, I stayed with another cyber friend. While everyone in the home prepared for bed, I repacked my suitcase. By the time I went to shower, everyone else was asleep. I glared at the shiny protuberances jutting from the tiled wall. How hard could this be? I ended up sponging down at the basin.

At the conference centre, I was introduced to a new set of taps, err faucets. At least this time my American roommate understood how to operate them, and I had a warm shower.

Then I met the coffee machine. After several attempts, I finally got it to produce some steaming, frothy coffee—and watched aghast as it glugged straight down the drain, not finding the paper mug I didn’t know I had to insert. At 3 in the morning, the coke machine proved beyond me. A fellow writer, also working late, came to the rescue, but she knew less than I did. At least I hadn’t fed it several extra dollars. I settled for water—out of the tap.

Throughout the conference, I kept learning. The workshops were wonderful. Other delegates learned from me as I faced their misconceptions about my country. (No, I’m not a missionary, nor am I an ex-patriot living temporarily in the country. South Africa is my home, the birthplace of my husband and three children. And yes, we all have white skin. And no, we don’t carry guns to protect ourselves from wild animals.)

So I achieved my first goal. I learned much from many expert writers. But behind the scenes I learned other lessons: how to get and keep a cup of coffee; how to get coke from the machine; how to switch on light switches that were upside down; how to eat our South African deserts for breakfast; how to control runaway luggage trolleys; how a writing class could turn into a counseling and prayer session for a needy writer; how to drive American taps so that I could emerge from the shower clean but not scalded. Every way I turned I found another story—because I’d also achieved my second goal: I’d found my niche. I’m a story-teller.

Nothing helps you find stories more than looking at old things in new ways. Take a look at these tap pictures, provided by willing writers from across the globe. I was amazed at the variety. A number of the senders included operation instructions for me. (Now if only I’d had those when I needed them.) One Australian writer told me how his one pair of taps has clear labels—in two languages: The one is C for “cold” in English. The hot tap is labeled in French: C for “chaud”. But, he assured me, as long as you remember that the hot is always on your left, you’ll be fine.

Unless, I may add, you’re a South African, where the hot is always on your right.

Now let’s have some fun. Share with us briefly one gadget that has had you foxed when travelling or visiting away from home.

P.S. As you read this, Marian Ueckermann and I will be attending the Florida Christian Writers Conference. I wonder what lessons there will be waiting for us this time?


  1. Thanks for a great post Shirl. I remember being bamboozled by my friend in England's shower, but for the life of me I can't remember what it was.

    As I'm not with you in Florida but still at home in South Africa nursing my broken arm, one thing I can say I've learnt is: Don't stand on a chair with wheels, particularly the day before you are meant to travel!

    12 Stitches down the centre of my wrist will ensure I always remember the Florida Christian Writers Conference LOL!

  2. I had a quite a time with the "bucket shower" in Papua New Guinea, even after receiving instructions on how to operate it. My friend said she was quite pleased with herself when she figured out how it worked, until a gekko fell into her mouth when she turned the bottom as instructed! Oh the joys of foreign places! :)

  3. Right now, I'm at the Florida Christian Writers Conference in the USA and I'm proud to report I haven't yet had a gadget fox me this time round. I've coped with the upside down switches, the strange taps (three different types in my room here alone) and the constantly on air conditioner. Oh yes, and I can pour myself coffee like a pro. This all proves the falsehood in the cliche, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." This old dog has learned plenty over the last few years!

  4. This is great! I find now, after living overseas where things are much simpler, that going back to the States is what confuses me. The checkout lanes without a cashier, credit card machines, pumping gas which we never do ourselves in Africa. I'm sure I could think of more.:-)

  5. Shirl, fun post and great pictures :-) I'm glad you're having a great time in Florida and I'm so sorry Marion couldn't join you.

  6. Ken Rolph (Australia) said . . .

    Differences in the details of daily life are not just traps for travellers. Our assumptions about the way things work creep into our fiction. There was one thing that always used to bother me in movies. When someone wants to attack someone else in a dark place, they would reach up with one hand and unscrew the light bulb. I didn't know there were screw in light bulbs until I was well into adulthood. We always used bayonet fittings everywhere. These are almost impossible to remove with one hand from a hanging fitting. I've had light bulbs shatter in my hand on more than one occasion while trying to remove it one-handed when I was younger. Now I realise that my life is not like that in the movies. I have low expectations and always remove light bulbs with two hands.