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Photo by Celia Mitchell (2015/16 Semester Photo Contest Entry), Indonesia Semester.

Fish in the Mandi

Oh God! There’s a fish in the mandi.

That was the first thought that crossed my mind as I entered the shower area of my then-new home here in Kotagede, ushered by my Ibu (mom) who was showing me around for the first time. I wasn’t scared, nor was I grossed out. But it was weird that I would now be scooping water out of this creature’s giant fishbowl to shower. I was caught off guard.

For the first few weeks, the seemingly simple task of showering required my concentration as I tried to understand and predict the behavior of the approximately 25cm (9.8”) fish. Each time my hand touched the water, the fish would swim swiftly towards it and try to enter the bucket. Although I knew it wasn’t going to bite me, I felt uncomfortable whenever its fins touched my skin. I managed to avoid contact by scooping out water every time the fish swam at the bottom, or at the opposite end of the mandi. This strategic plan meant there was some waiting involved before every scoop, so showering took me a while.

For some time, my mind was preoccupied with the question of why the fish was so eager to approach my hand and to enter the bucket. Was this simply an entertaining game, or did it see the bucket as a means of escape from an otherwise monotonous life? Since fish therapy is not a thing yet, and I am not in a position to provide consolation and revert possible suicidal tendencies, I have chosen to assume the former. Maybe out of sympathy, possibly because I just got used to the presence, I now enjoy the company and no longer mind when its fins touch my skin. It’s fine.

At some point, I almost accidentally killed it when I dropped some detergent in the water as I was doing my laundry. Even though I knew I could buy another fish at the market for less that $1, I panicked at the thought that I’d poisoned my little pal. I then realized it was more than a fish to me, and felt the need for it to be acknowledged as a family member. My family laughed when I first proposed this, but it now has a name! We call it Psari, which literally means “fish” in Greek (chose not to assign a gender). Psari made it through the nearly fatal incident and to this day it is my loyal shower companion (although I am aware Psari watches other people shower, too).

Here in Indonesia there are countless fish-in-the-mandi, both literally and metaphorically. There is always a new situation that baffles you at first. You don’t know how to deal with it, so you resort to the option (however inefficient) that makes you feel most comfortable. Eventually, without even realizing, you get used to things. It’s at that tricky point that you might make a mistake… drop some detergent, say something inappropriate. But it will all be fine in the end, and trusting that this will be the case gets you through the discomfort. And you are then more prepared for the next fish-in-the-mandi!