The quest for water is a central part of life in a desert town. Oaxaca is the desert. It is a beautiful city. Colorful, full of arts—both traditional and contemporary, a healthy bit of colonial architecture, lots of outdoor events and festivals, and enough cabs in the streets to make a New Yorker feel at home.
I love Oaxaca. When my daughter and I first arrived, we spent a week wandering around doing exactly nothing. We dropped into places that seemed interesting, ate, hung out and when it started getting dark, we went home. It’s a good place for wandering and discovering and just being. I have heard complaints of conservatism and boredom, but as a mom of a two-year-old, I just require beauty, safety, and relative quiet. I have that here. Partiers may be disappointed and prefer some other towns. Also, there is no beach here, so that kind of relaxing is out. But, we’ve been happy here.
Housing hasn’t been the easiest thing to settle. We spent our first month in a guest house type thing. A hotel-like room with two double beds for two adults and one kid. It was more than a little tight. Luckily we connected with some great people who sussed out some new accommodations for us. We didn’t know how good we had it in the guest house.
Apparently all of Oaxaca has been in a serious water crisis. We were sheltered from it in Casa Xoximilco. The owners, though pains-in-the-butt about many things, had all the amenities in order. We never ran out of water… and we only ran out of hot water briefly. The bathrooms were attractive, the toilets were clean and they flushed, the bathroom did not stink. In our new apartment, however, it was another story.
Our new place was huge. Ridiculously high ceiling, exposed brick walls, cement floors, little balconies with window doors, tons of light and space. Two bedrooms, huge living and dining room, and a tiny bathroom. A nasty bathroom. A stinky bathroom. We weren’t in there 24 hours before the mini-catastrophes began. A scorpion in my friend’s bedroom! When I was bathing my daughter, I leaned back on the toilet to take a rest and the tank separated from the base and water started dripping onto the floor. But the worst of it was when I went to take my bath the night we moved in, there was no water. O.k. fine. The next morning, my friend showered and the next night, no water for me! We went on like this for a week, either or both of us without the ability to shower.
The landlords got tired of seeing our faces. The first four days, they said the lack of water was due to a leaking toilet. They called in a toilet technician and had him fix it. Then the next three days of no water they blamed on the family downstairs. They had their relatives in town and so they were using more water than usual, just be patient. In this heat?!?
A few times when they sent water down to us, we tried to use it immediately. I took a shower, then drew some water for my daughter’s bath. Only because her little tub is clear did I know the water was dirty. Not a little yellow, but muddy brown! With dirt residue when I poured it out of the tub. I told the landlords, they gave me a look, like what now! They said I had to wait for the water to settle, the water they get from the water trucks have dirt in them. I asked them for some water to bathe my daughter, they begrudgingly gave it. Throughout our personal water crisis, the landlord’s help were all over the building watering plants, washing clothes, and washing the ironwork grill and stone floor of the courtyard. They weren’t having a water crisis, we were! And it seemed that they didn’t have enough compassion to just give us a clean bucket of water every now and then so we could wash our dishes, or better yet, our butts.
Of course, anytime you’re having a problem of this magnitude, maybe it’s personal. Maybe we’re just not adjusted to life in a desert town. The landlords sure tried to make it seem that way. Everyone we talked to around town told us there was a water problem in the city, but no water for a week sounded extreme. I asked for a discount on the rent, I talked to the folks in neighboring apartments. Turns out our neighbor, a much shier person solved her problem by taking a shower every other day and not flushing at night.
We stopped flushing our urine. Stinky! And started turning off the water as we brushed our teeth, washed our hands, and washed the dishes. We were conserving water. Then I went away for the weekend. I went south and east to the town of Juchitan. I threw up on the bus ride (having not been advised of what the curves in the road can do to a tummy), got to the house in the middle of the night, used the bathroom and got in bed. Now I am lying in a foreign house hearing the toilet run, run, running. In the States, if a toilet runs, it means you need to jiggle the handle to plop the plug in place. A tiny part in the back of my brain asked, should you do something about the running toilet? When I began to drift off to sleep, the toilet was still running. I got up and jiggled the handle, nothing happened. I looked for a valve so I could turn off the water, I found nothing. I went back to bed. In the morning, the toilet was no longer running. Good, problem solved, I thought. Ummm, no. All of the water from the house’s storage system ran straight down the drain through the toilet. The next day was a little girl’s three year old bday party. No water to cook with, the guests had no water to flush with and it was the foriegner’s fault. Water!
When I returned to Oaxaca there was no water again. The landlord blamed my friend, saying she had too many guests that day. What does that have to do with anything? I asked. Didn’t they use the bathroom? he asked. We had it out then and there. I told him how ridiculous he was being by suggesting we couldn’t have guests and that our guests couldn’t use the toilet. I reminded him we were paying a lot for Oaxaca and it is his responsibility to make sure we have water. I asked him if it was really possible for two guests using the toilet to make the water disappear. He said it was possible, but not normal.
Since that fight, we had water every day, but we decided to leave because they lacked compassion. When I asked them for a bucket of water to flush the toilet as I had just gotten off the road, they said they only had one bucket and they were saving it in case they ran out of water because there was no more water in the cistern. I’m thinking, but you do have water now and we don’t, so give us the bleeping bucket of water. They gave us the water.
Before moving, we decided to vacation in Mazunte, a beach on the pacific coast. We got the keys to a friend’s eco-hut. We were looking forward to relaxing, until they told us about the dry latrines. (A bowl in the front with a tiny hole for urine. After urinating you pour water down that hole. And a big hole in the back that opens into a deep space where the excrement goes. You cover up your bowel movement with ashes and sawdust.) And then he said what we had come to hear so often, water is precious please conserve it. The dry latrines turned out to be fine, and quite an adventure, but not stinky or disgusting. They were right in line with the palm leaf roof and spacious porch on the side of the mountain and amazing view of the sea. When bathing, we wet our bodies, turned off the water, soaped up, turned on the water, rinsed off, turned off the water. We washed our hair the exact same way. There wouldn’t be any more water coming if we ran out. On the last day we saw a water truck come up the hill and fill up the neighbor’s cistern. When they were finished filling up the water, they turned off the water, but water kept flowing through the hose. When they finally started putting the hose back on the truck, water was still flowing. I watched it run into the dirt and grass and thought about how much human-use water goes onto the dirt or cement every time water is delivered somewhere. At another place, water was flowing off the roof while the people in the house came out to fill up buckets from an outside faucet. A broken pipe? Lots of water going to waste.
When we returned to Oaxaca, there was a rain storm. I didn’t take it as a good omen then, but I do now. As we were driving home, we noticed hail stones in the rain! The next day we left the apartment of the stingy, greedy landlords and moved to a new place. The first day we turned on the faucet, there was no water. But the new landlady, while giving me a speech about caring for the water walked me over to the cistern to show me how low it was, then she showed me how to turn on the machine to send water up to our apartment. Then she went back in her house and finally we were at peace with a woman who wanted to share her water.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam