A few summers ago I spent a field season studying monkeys on a tiny island in southern Japan. I would stay on the island for up to a week at a time, because it was typhoon season and large waves often prevented transportation to and from the island. With unpredictable weather during a short field season like that, it was better to be stuck on the island where I could still be collecting data. The island was true off the grid living – no running water, no electricity, no other people…just me and the monkeys. I had to pack everything I needed in and out of camp, but there was a semi-structurally sound hut, my tent, and a doorless compost toilet (yes, the monkeys watched me sometimes). So overall, it was a bit more cushy than straight up backpacking. I had solar panels to charge my data collection equipment, and carried in water, so these resources were used sparingly. I spent a fair bit of time contemplating the trade-off between being hygienic and wasteful—to clean something meant using water and/or dirtying a towel, which were limited resources.
I brought in numerous 5-gallon jugs of water to keep at camp, which was for cooking and mostly for a drinking supply, as staying hydrated while hiking through the forest all day in the summer in south Japan took effort and was key to any success. For the first week on the island it rained a lot, and there was a nice little stream near camp that I used to wash myself with a small bowl. At the end of a day chasing monkeys through the forest, I was very sweaty, very muddy, and had used an outrageous amount of mosquito repellent. The evening ‘shower’ was of high value to me. Personal hygiene obviously isn’t the same when you’re in the field, but I got a nice routine that kept me at a comfortable level such that I could crawl into a somewhat clean sleeping bag each night feeling refreshed and minimize the amount of mud I tracked into the hut.
However, come July it got even more hot and sunny, and the stream pretty quickly dried up. I tried bathing in the ocean, which was more refreshing than nothing, but it didn’t leave me feeling very clean given a) the saltwater and b) how much monkey s*** I’d seen on the beach at low tide. I was reluctant to waste my drinking water on a shower, but I learned I could do a semi-satisfactory job with very small amounts of water using a sponge. After days of 90 degree sunny weather, and my water supply getting smaller than I was comfortable with, I was really craving a proper wash.
Finally, there was rain in the forecast. I was so looking forward to getting rained on throughout the day, and was hopeful it would rain hard enough in the evening to shower in the rain, or at least replenish the stream. I made it all day with only hearing distant thunder, and it wasn’t until my nightly attempt to get an internet signal down on the beach that I started feeling raindrops. I sprinted back up to camp and it started raining hard, making perfect condition for a really good rain shower. I stripped naked, got a soapy sponge, and ran into a clearing in the forest. I got really sudsy, expecting to rinse in the downpour, and then the rain stopped. I stood there, wet and soapy, until I was dry and soapy, waiting for the rain that never started again.
Kelly Finn is a 4th year PhD candidate in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group at UC Davis.