Friday, October 15, 2010

Water Barrels - from the prairies to the tropics, lifelong practices in appreciation and conservation

First Realizations.....lessons learned in childhood

My mother held up the mason jar that had been sterilized, inspecting it closely to make sure it was perfect. Her brows were furrowed in concentration as she did this. As she talked with her father I heard the words lab and alkaline being bandied about.

Like just about every farm in our district we had a well, a very deep one, housed in a little red building, the interior immaculate. No farm detritus contained in there, just shiny buckets and tightly coiled hoses. We children were always told to stay out the well house but for me staring down into that perfect deep and shimmering pool it was a magical portal to another kingdom promising of adventures to come. For my mother however that well was the bane of her existence.

Mother trudged out to the well house with her jar and when she returned minutes later the jar had been filled and sealed with a colorful wrap. She dutifully wrote down the date and placed the jar into a carton festooned with very official-looking words like "Norquay Water Labs Test Samples". When my grandfather departed later that day the box with the jar went with him.

I didn't give the jar much more thought as there were more important things on my youthful mind like going out on my bicycle to explore the prairie world around me. Water? What was the problem? We had a well. What could possibly be wrong with that magic nectar? We had a creek and a small slough and in some springs we had too much water that would flash flood our yard when the snows in the escarpment mere miles west of us would rapidly melt bringing with the melt a deluge.

Two weeks later the phone rings - one long ring followed by two very short ones - our dedicated party line ring. Mom answered in her very official Good Morning voice and within a minute her brows again were furrowed. I could see her nodding her head up and down for yes and then several times sideways for an emphatic no and then she said Thank You Very Much and ended the conversation. She sat down at the kitchen table, heaved a big sigh and poured herself a cup of tea from the china pot that never seemed to go empty and said "R----" we have alkaline water....only she said it like "alkalye" so it took me awhile to find the right word in the family dictionary.

The lab had recommended that we do not use our well water for drinking or cooking. Yes, we could occasionally partake of a glass but to continue imbibing it was not good. Salts, while necessary for our survival, can also be deadly. It seemed that in the case of our well, we had a little bit too much of a good thing.

Good enough for the chickens but not good enough for us. We had to get our water for consumption trucked in after that day. Stored in several barrels in the basement it was to be my task as a child to bring up buckets of water daily for our cooking and drinking. It was a task that stuck with me and those memories of conservation and practical uses came in quite handy when many years later I would find myself in a similar situation, several times over, thousands of kilometres away.

Wet Season, Dry Season...Honduras, Jamaica, Belize and Mexico

There was a neatly lettered, encased in plastic-wrap sign over the communal sink at the hotel where I lived. It stated as such that no taps were to be left running, toilets only flushed with seawater and that showers should be limited to five minutes or less as the hotel relied solely on rain water stored away during the rainy season, which at this time was winding down quickly.

We were coming into the dry which would last for at least six months and even though our cisterns were full and on some days, overflowing when a late-season squall would come roaring in conservation of this precious resource was maintained and enforced. Those of us who were living on Isla Utila, part of the Bay Islands chain in Honduras - a mecca for folks pursuing diving careers, we knew the drill all too well being that many of us had already lived in other places in the tropics that were slavish to the wet/dry seasons. We had to be, what would seem to some, tyrannical in our approaches to wanton waste.

Yes, there were some lucky folks on our island who had wells with beautiful, sweet water and they were indeed the lucky ones but even they did not waste what they had for these old timers knew the vagaries of the skies and in the evenings sitting over beers would regale us newcomers with stories of deprivation during their childhood.

I took my stewardship duties seriously as the one long-term resident of our hotel. Most of the guests who would only be there for a week or two had no problems adjusting to these rules but on occasion the Duena or myself would be in the awkward position of having to correct a guest and in doing so incur their wrath. Hate to say it but the paradigm of Urban versus Rural would be an all-too-common theme in my subsequent observations regarding conservation habits.

One could always tell apart those who had an appreciation for our situation from those who just did not give a shit. One morning I heard one the guests go into the breezeway to use the sink to wash up and brush his teeth. I could hear him cursing about the bucket that we used to draw seawater for the flushing of the one communal toilet that was not hooked up to the cistern supply. The latter invectives being hurled did not trouble me but what he did next bothered me to no end.

He turned on the tap and I started a mental count. I could hear him brushing his teeth but what I did not hear was the sound of the flow of water being interrupted for brush cleaning. This dude was leaving the tap running while he was brushing. Why do people do this? When my count got up to almost thirty I got up from chair where I had been reading, walked over to the sink and turned off the tap, subsequently pointing at the sign which was in English, Spanish, German and French.

He stopped his brushing, forcefully spat out his toothpaste and asked me why I turned off the tap. I went on to explain why and he interrupted me saying I am paying to stay here and I will use as much water as I want to!!! I was shocked at his arrogant attitude and not just because he was paying the princely sum of around six bucks a day to stay here but because he felt it was his right to do as he wished without a care for those of us who months later would obsessively measuring what water was left in those cisterns.

The Duena, hearing the heated discussion, came upstairs, looked this man right in the eye and said I have the right to ask you to leave. The look of shock that registered on his face was priceless and no matter how strongly he pleaded it fell on deaf ears. Within the hour he was gone and our household was peaceful.

Thankfully I did not run into this stroppy character too many times and like most tourists he was gone shortly thereafter leaving the rest of us to deal with those day to day rituals that were far from mundane.

Oaxaca.....beach camping and water barrels...

Prior to living out in the islands I got my first foreign lesson in water scarcity when I was camped out (in my Westphalia) in the fishing village of San Agustine, in the very arid state of Oaxaca, Mexico. At that time it was a sleepy, quiet place, perfect for someone like me who was more or less, self-contained.

I had a ten-gallon capacity in water tank, more than sufficient for my meager needs but how to stay clean? Yes, there I was right on the gorgeous, rugged Pacific Coast but how to get the salt off of me? Where I had parked and set up camp was perfect. Agosto, the gentleman whose land I was staying on had just that year built a cabana for bathing. I was in heaven. For the incredible sum of one whole dollar a day I could dip a bucket into the barrel, bathe and rinse out my clothing. Primitive yes, but I did not care. I would learn some valuable skills here that I would be able to apply years later when living in Jamaica and Belize.

Agosto gave me the conservation lecture over beers and I immediately understood. All one had to do was look up into the hillsides where the only green was that of the succulents and cacti that dotted and dominated the landscape. This was not the tropics of the rainforest.

Near the bathing cabana was a small cabin whose resident, a retired police officer from Seattle, was already a veteran of conservation. We got along famously and once in awhile he would lament our water shortage, having lived in a region that is dominated by rain, but he agreed that by slowing down our lives, parsing out and recycling our water, we were forced to appreciate a situation that millions if not a couple of billion folks elsewhere had to contend with everyday, for years on end, not on their journeys like us. We had that option of returning to civilization with its abundance and sense of entitlement.

Cop Richard, as I came call him, helped me string a line to allow the sea air to "cleanse" my whites. I would only wash when absolutely necessary and when I "bathed" it was standing over a large tub that I had bought so I could capture the washing water to use later to water our veggie plants near the cabana.

We had a good system going and we could stretch out that water barrel's contents for days.....until that is, two more hippie van groups showed up. This encounter was to be for me very telling regarding that sense of entitlement that many travelers have, an almost elite and arrogant care-not attitude. I find it disgusting.

The cabana was not for bathroom duties. In fact we had no bathroom except the wide open sea. I had an army-issue folding shovel, more buckets and of course my own waste paper. I had no problems with venturing into the sea, my front yard at the time, to take a piss. The only time it got dodgy was when the rip tides were in full-force. As to ahhhh, bowel evacuations that is where the shovel, bucket, bleach and asswipe came in handy. Richard kept a chamber pot in his cabin and I would take my bucket into the cabana for my privacy. After using it I would go out for a walk, dig a hole, dutifully bury my waste and then return to camp to clean out my bucket, rationing of course my water use and making good with the bleach.

When these other campers showed up us gringos, at Agosto's insistence for his English was spotty at best, were in charge of educating the new arrivals. Within less than one day the barrel was depleted and the cabana stinking of piss. We were livid as was Agosto, who was also insulted by the sheer stupidity of these "pinchay cabrones". He was in a tough position as he sold cold beers, made wonderful seafood out of his beachside stand, did some fishing other words he could not afford to toss away these six travelers but ask them to leave he did.

My respect for Agosto's integrity tripled that day and I promised him that I would make sure that I would consume as much beer as I could so he would not be broke.....well, the laughter that erupted from him....precious. As to my liver? Well, that story is still evolving....hahaha.

Catching the rains in Jamaica.....

Jamaica, always being advertised as the perfect island paradise, abundant supplies of clean, fresh water and having a fecundity that is the envy of the Caribbean. Yes, that may be the case but it is not so everywhere.

Perched up in the hills overlooking the sea about ten kilometres outside of Negril were homes ranging from tidy little cottages to the sprawling estates of the mega-rich but there was one thing all those dwellings had in common - cisterns. The very rich of course had no issues with water but those of us who had smaller cisterns were always aware and governed our usage accordingly.

Westmoreland Parish is one of the driest regions of Jamaica and your average tourist who visits the famed seven mile beach of Negril never has to worry about how much water that twenty minute shower uses. The average tourist would never go into the impoverished Negril neighbourhood of Red Earth where squatter's shacks were plentiful and water hauled by the bucket out of rusty barrels. Bathing was done in big old tubs or by using a gravity shower whereby water was hauled up to a container above the shower where the user could pull a string and water would be come out of a calcified and rusty shower head.

My friend Miss Jan's home was thankfully not of the rustic variety and was one of those beautiful homes perched on an escarpment with the priceless seaview. Unfortunately though this location was problematic in that the clouds, swollen with rain, rarely dumped down on us....such are the vagaries of the winds and climate.

We had been rationing for weeks, waiting for rainy season to begin. The cistern was almost empty and we had been forced to drive into town to get water for drinking and as to our bathing routines well, we had an interesting system for that as there were several beach side hotels where we were known so we were granted pool and shower privileges. We were grateful for this kind gesture.

One day, on one of those torrid days when one finds themselves lolling about, tired from the heat and conserving their energies, the skies darkened and we heard the not-too-distant rumble of thunder. We didn't pay it much attention having been "teased" like this several times in just the past week. We did not stir. And then it happened - one humongous burst of thunder the crackle of lightning so close that our power got knocked out. Immediately the deluge came and we women moved fast.....Jan barking out orders to grab whatever plastic tubs and get them under the drain spouts that collected precious rain water.

She had gone to open up the lids of the cisterns so that we could transfer the precious cargo.....yes, the cisterns were fed off of the roof but why waste what was coming down? It was a rather comical affair as her porch was a polished cement and therefore not given to having lots of traction at the best of times. I must have fallen on my ass at least a dozen times with these damned buckets but continuing catching and filling I did. This deluge went on for an hour and at the end of it all the cisterns had been replenished to half of their volume.

Over beers, soaked through we laughed and celebrated our ingenuity. It is a memory that I cherish to this day and one that I could appreciate and that was to be repeated just a few years later at my own little cabin in Belize.

Bakabush and the Rotoplas....a rain celebration after deprivation in Belize

It was those experiences in Mexico, Honduras and Jamaica that enabled me to apply sound stewardship of my own water resources and had in many ways brought me back full circle to my formative years and that damned salty water well.

My elevated cabin although in the part of Belize that received around 55 inches of rain during the wet season was close enough to the sea to render the ground water unusable even for watering plants. I did not even like showering with this water, so slimy and smelly it was so when we first designed our water system I told my then-husband that we needed to build a platform on the upper deck by which to capture the water from the roof so it could feed into the barrel and then allow for gravity to carry it into the kitchen and bathroom. We had an additional ground tank that caught the rainwater as well that had an electric pump hooked up to it so the upper barrel could be filled but that second barrel came more than a year later so for the longest time I made do with a 450 litre container.

I had all sorts of tricks at my employ. Like those camping times in Mexico I made excellent use of laundry lines so my towels and linens would always stay fresh. My gravity fed shower water was never wasted either as I stood in a tub whilst showering, saving the grey water for my fruit trees. Little things like saving my drained pasta water for cleaning out my pots and pans.....we never think about things like that in urban society as we have it all, hot water too, at the flip of a tap.

For me, living in what many of my neighbours felt to be very primitive conditions, I was happy and did not mind adhering to these practical routines. The dry season that year had dragged out and many of the more well-heeled foreign residents faced empty cisterns and were on waiting lists for water to be hauled to them. One never knew where this water came from but one day I made the discovery and I was none too pleased when I caught the water man pumping his cargo out of a stagnant canal where folks tossed their garbage and sometimes animal carcasses. Disgusting to say the least. To say that I felt a bit of schadenfreude when telling some of these snooty bastards where their water came from? Oh well, one cannot always be nice.

I was down to probably my last twenty or thirty litres.....the barrel had been invaded by frogs and geckos seeking comfort from the searing, dry other words, it was a skanky, slimy mess and I had to empty it and bleach it out. I had no choice. I was worried though what I would do for household water once cleaning out the barrel as there was no rain in the immediate forecast.

A few hours later, cold beer in hand, relaxing in my hammock I heard the rumble. I got up to see the clouds quickly rolling in, the skies darkening and the temperature plummeting. A smile came across my face as the first drops hit the roof. I whooped and cheered as the sound of the rain hitting the tin roof sounded like a freight train rumbling through my home. It was so loud that I could not hear the music nor did I care.

I grabbed the cell and hurriedly dialed my husband in Canada and yelled out my joy. Yes, he could hear the rains. I stripped down and stood outside on my deck not giving a care in the world as to who may have driven by and maybe seen me. I was ecstatic. Now I knew how desert dwellers felt when the rains came.

For the next few months I had too much water, the barrel was never empty but the lesson remained and even after I installed the second barrel I never lost sight of how I had to respect the wet and dry seasons and adjust accordingly my usage of water.

Ending thoughts.....

Now that I find myself back here where I grew up, in the land of 100,000 lakes - the remnants of glacial retreat and probably one of the largest watersheds on the planet, I still have what some consider water saving eccentricities. I use my grey bath water for plants, I capture rain water in the summer for my garden and in the winter I leave my hot bath water in the cast iron tub so it can give off needed moisture and extra heat. I only run the dishwasher when it is totally full and no, I do not leave the taps running when I brush my teeth.

Maybe if we all took the time out to just for one week, change some of our habits, I wonder how much water we could save? I regret never measuring empirically what my daily usage was in those far-off locales but I can safely say that it was nowhere near what the average North American uses in one day - the contents of my Rotoplas or rather around 450


Shaun M. Wheeler said...

Excellent post, my dear.

I'd like to say that I'm surprised at some people's distinct lack of respect for the situations of others. One thing that should be mandatory in every travel guide and map would be to print the old saying "When in Rome, do as the Romans"... the locals are obviously doing things a certain way for a reason!

DriveGoddess said...

Goes without saying.....I used to tell new expats more or less the same thing that it was they who had to adapt....those who chose to do so wound up having success whereas the others? Some left and those who stayed wound up becoming bitter and suspicious.....helluva way to spend one's retirement.