Thursday, August 27, 2009

a watercart named desire

When was the last time Arthur Miller and Samuel Coleridge stopped by your house to write a sitcom script for your day?

That is the only answer I can come up for Wednesday's little misadventure.

Expatriates living in Mexico have plenty of water jug stories. I think one of the first tales I heard about La Manzanilla involved a leaking jug and an embarrassed child.

But, for those of you who do not live in the land of jumbo water bottles, let me give you a bit of background.

Once upon a time there were two groups of expatriates living in Mexico.

The first group was the equivalent of mountain men and conquistadors rolled into one. They feared neither man nor beast, and craved adventurous highs so much that they would drink the adrenalin of puma every morning.

Then there was the second group. Not quite as adventurous. Maybe even cautious. The type of people who move from Minnesota to Mexico for a new life, but who are certain that there are sharks living in any body of water larger than a shower stall.

The two groups differed on water. The first group said: "Sure, there are infrastructure problems. But my people have been drinking this water for 40 years without one sick day." The second group responded: "You can never be too careful. This is how Warren Harding died, you know."

The dispute was resolved when all of the people in the first group mysteriously died of amoebic dysentery. We expatriates now honor the second group by using bottled water for drinking and cooking.

But there is a little trick here. We do not saunter down to the well and fetch a pail of water -- all Jack and Jill-like. No. Just like the crazy Empress Carlotta, we have hired hands fetch it for us.

At our casa, it is a young man who drives around in a truck playing a recording of someone imitating a Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan call. You hear the truck, run outside, flag him down, and purchase the water you need.

That sounds a bit easier than it is.

Mexico is filled with all types of sounds. Dogs. Roosters. The ocean. The neighbor's stereo. You learn to tune it out.

But you need to develop a very subtle hearing where you can tune out all of that, while tuning in the calls of the gas man, the bread man, the tamale man, the lime man, the ice man, and, yes, the Tarzan call of the young water man.

On Wednesday, I had used up the second of my water bottles. I needed to get replacements -- soon.

All day, I listened with the laser-like hearing of a presidential candidate. Nothing. Well, lots of sounds. No Tarzan.

So, I decided to take a nap. There I was in the hammock on the patio wearing nothing but my underwear and I hear it. Tarzan is driving slowly down my street.

Experience tells me I have about 30 seconds to catch him.

I jump out of the hammock. Where are the rest of my clothes? Up stairs.

Don't panic. No time to get them. I will hail him and then get them.

Too many seconds wasted worrying about propriety, I dash to the garage gate and flip open the latch.

Or, I try to flip it open. Upon leaving the house that morning, Marta had double locked the gate.

Where are the keys? In my shorts. Where are my shorts? Upstairs. I already knew that.

I have no choice now. I run up the stairs to find my shorts and my keys and a bit of dignity.

I can hear him driving in front of the house. Throwing caution to the wind, I run through the living room and out onto the balcony that overlooks the street. He is turning the corner.

In my best anguished voice, I stood there in my underwear, calling out: "A-G-U-A. A-G-U-A." Sounding like Stanley Kowalski auditioning for a role in the Spanish version of
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Like most sitcoms, I did not get what I was after, but I was appropriately humiliated in the process. (Of course, those of you who know me well know that standing on a public balcony in my underwear would not even rate on my humiliation scale.)

But I do have two empty jugs as evidenced by the photograph at the top of this post.

We will have a new production tomorrow. I was thinking of a novel way to get the truck to stop. Perhaps a remake of Anna Karenina.


Felipe said...

For Pete´s sake, throw the empties in the car and drive to the nearest abarrotes store (should be one nearby), and restock. No big deal.

But wait! Are you licensed to drive? Does the car have a transmission?

You can also walk with one empty to the nearest abarrotes. I have three within a block of my house. Just toss the full bottle over your shoulder, Mexicano-style, and go home. And drink.

Islagringo said...

I don't know whether to feel honored or harangued! But, go ahead and tease. There ARE sharks in every body of water!

I hope you have now learned your lesson that you must always have a spare bottle of water on hand. As soon as you open the second bottle, get the first replaced. Living in the land of hurricanes, I keep 6 on hand at all times!

Geez, I do belong to that second group!

Calypso said...

For a couple finicky vegetarians water in Mexico is an issue. We don't drink tap water in the U.S. either. The difference in price for garaphons between the countries is big news - water price differences a small story.

We have at least 5 garaphons and our guy (current water guy) comes and asks when he thinks we might be in need - saves those embarrassing underwear scenes.

We ozinate all our water before it reaches the point of drink by the way. I said we were finicky.

Steve Cotton said...

Felipe -- The transmission is still transmitting, but I have not yet obtained a license. That deficiency will be resolved in a mere month when I head up to Ore-gawn for two weeks.

And certainly I could buy my water the way I do in The States -- by driving to the store. But I am starting to enjoy the Mexican style of Living the Drama. It is hard to have tales if I restrict myself to the life of a Des Moines shopkeeper.

Larry in Mazatlan said...

We have three "water stores" within three blocks of our house. They even post the results from the monthly state inspection. A garafon from any of them only costs $6. From a truck it runs $17.

One of the things I enjoy about living here are the trucks going down the street, each with a different message blaring from their loudspeakers. Our Gaspasa guy uses the whistle theme from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. We have named him Clint.


Felipe said...

Interesting the price differences. Though I can get it from the corner abarrotes, that is not how it usually happens. Every Friday, I leave the back gate unlocked and the empties on the back patio with money in a cup. It runs 19 pesos per bottle.

A guy comes in, gets the empties, leaves full ones on the patio and locks the gate on his way out. I go out and bring them into the house at my leisure.

Anonymous said...

You should try Leche De Burro. Andrew Zimmerman says it is quite refreshing.

Theresa in Mèrida said...

We have five garafons, partly because of earthquake preparedness which has translated into hurricane preparedness. We get three at a time, so even if we miss the twice weekly water guys, we still have water.
Also we line up the empty garafons where they can be seen but not taken so our guys know if we need water. They will come back. Of course, our water is Crystal, and the guys come Monday's and Thursdays once in the am and once in the pm. Water is up to $20 pesos unless you use the no name water guys. We did that until we got a rusty looking garafon.
We probably get water every 10 days or so.

Canadiangrl said...

Steve, you had me at a water cart named desire! Another great story to add to the collection of Same Life – New Location stories!

Nancy said...


I like to hear a story like this that sounds like you are having fun! Excellent!

We have an efficient setup with our water guys...I put the empty just inside our gate and when they are on the block they check to see, and bring one if needed. I put it out of sight if I'm not home so I'm not responsible for making them carry one and then me not be here. And we put the money on the table nearby so we can grab it when they come.

I think they appreciate no big drama from me! Although they are scared of the dogs!

Suzanne said...

Been there, done that a dozen times - not for water but usually gas in our neighborhood. If you know how to do a good wolf whistle they can hear that even at the end of the street. At one point our gas guys started going about 15 miles per hour down our street - way to fast for ANYONE to get out there and call for gas. I managed to stop him with a whistle through the upstairs screen one day & I asked him if he could go a little slower (he knows he has to take our tanks up 2 sets of stairs to the terraza) because it was too hard to be sitting down upstairs and run all the way down and out the door to catch him. all he could do is shake his head and ask me if I was the one who whistled. I'm a woman so it totally took him by surprise. He said he'd try to remember to go slower. I told him there are lots of people a lot older than me on the street and it would take them even longer. He shook his head & asked me if I could teach him the whistle, which I showed him & he tried & he's been practicing but doesn't quite have it right yet. Pretty soon I expect to hear him do a shrieking whistle as he passes by our house.

As for water - I am about to go get mine tested to see what if anything is in it. Finally. We're about to do a filter of some kind, yet to be decided based on what the water shows because I am sick of carrying 5 gallon garafons of water up the stairs to the living area.

As for walking to the store and back with your garafons - wow, you'd get a good set of muscles if you did that!

Cynthia Johnson and Mike Nickell said...

We kept 2 garafons in Guaymas and I drove to the water place to have them refilled so we could keep our nice, new, clean garafons instead of exchanging them. I always went to the same place and I always had a nice, young man schlep them out to the truck for me. I believe the cost was $7 for each one - cheap!

Anonymous said...

You can always find the humor and you are willing to share. Right now I am happy to just turn on the tap and get drinking water. My adventures lie in the future.

Steve Cotton said...

Islagringo -- Feel honored. I always enjoy it when people pick up on zingers included solely for them. I actually have 4 bottles and start listening when I put the third one up. As of this morning, I have three empty bottles. And we are well into the fourth. Today is the day that the young man needs to slake our thirst.

Calypso -- Our water guy will often pause when he is in front of the house. (He gets a nice tip for bringing the bottles upstairs.)

Larry -- I pay $12.50 a bottle off of the truck. It was $10 until just recently.

Like you, I love the identifying tunes. Our gas guy has an interesting disco riff. When he passes, I do a little dance. He does the same thing at the wheel now when he sees me. Try dancing on the strets of Salem. Next stop: State Hospital.

Felipe -- Our house is locked up tighter than a nunnery. But I tried leaving the empty bottles at the curb with the money in an envelope. When I came home, I found tourist kids, kicking the bottles around in the street as if soccer had discovered a new handicap rule. And the envelope with the money? It was still attached to the bottle.

Anonymous -- Even though burro milk may be sheer nectar of the gods, it will not replace a good glass of water from the garafon.

Theresa -- Jiggs and I go through a garafon probably within two days. I was going to track our usage. A lot of that goes into ice cubes, as well. When my brother was here, we would use a full bottle in a day and a half.

Canadiangirl. Thanks. It was a fun one to write.

Nancy -- The water guy lugs my jugs upstairs. He does that as a courtesy for the home owner, who finds them too heavy to carry. I could do it, but he is one of the few people I can spend a little time with practicing my Spanish. And, of course, it is worth his time because I tip him for carrying the jugs.

Suzanne -- Two things I have never been able to do is to whistle or snap my fingers. Failing in those traditional attention-catching techniques, I have developed a voice that can stop a train -- but, apparently not water trucks. Simply adding to the stereotype that we NOBers are way too loud.

Cynthia -- I recall your posts on your water shopping. $7 is a good price. I suspect I could do the same, but I rather like the luxury of having the water delivered. I don't take my truck out of the garage these days except to drive to Manzanillo. Otherwise, I walk everywhere in town. Carrying a roasted chicken back is easy. Lugging a water bottle would be a chore.

Steve Cotton said...

Anonymous -- There is something to be said for just turning on the tap and getting safe water. Now and then, I forget and start to use the sink water to either get a drink or brush my teeth. The slow flow reminds me that I am not in Oregon anymore.

1st Mate said...

I have a suggestion: buy some underwear that looks like swim shorts, at least from a distance. That's what the Capt does (but don't tell him I told you). Oh, and our water is 10 pesos per jug, but we go to the water store and refill our bottles.

Felipe said...

Steve, you left the bottles and dough out on the street??! You never cease to amaze. The only reason the money was still in the envelope was because the kids did not put 2 and 2 together.

And you tip the guy who carries the water upstairs? I shudder to think what you are handing over.

Señor Calypso amazes too. He did not drink from the tap when he lived in the U.S.? Juanito, how in the world do you live in such an "unsanitary" place as Mexico?

I recall some group doing an independent study of Houston tap water some years back. Turned out that the tap water had less cooties and stuff in it than most designer waters at the Whole Foods Market. Houston tap water is high-quality, and I´ll bet that applies to most city systems in the U.S.

Steve Cotton said...

1st Mate -- I suspect I could go shopping in my underwear and it would not bother me. But that may say just a bit too much -- eh?

Babs said...

Loved the post
! I was laughing out are NOW getting into the swing of things...

Anonymous said...

Imaging you in that balcony,calling for agua with your...(haha)
Thanks for the laugh!
Take care,min

Steve Cotton said...

Felipe -- A neighbor told me to do that. She did it all the time in Chalapa. Obviously, my little tourist town is not Chalapa. I give him $5 (MX) -- the change from my $30 (MX) payment.

Babs -- Glad you enjoyed it.

Min -- And no cover charge.

Constantino said...

I should appreciate my tap water that is nice and cold, direct from the mountain spring 10km up the mountain. We use to have our big tank ozonate it, until my bulb got wiped out by the lightning. Now years later, still no problem.....Maybe I should sell bottled water?

Brenda said...

Here water is 6 pesos a garafon if you take it to be refilled yourself. At the corner store it is 10 pesos and from the water delivery guys it is also 10 pesos.
We were also having trouble catching them as they drive by so fast, so one day we asked them if we could tie a flag to the balcony railing on the days we need water. The guy just laughed and agreed. Yesterday when they saw our flag they stopped and came up with our water. The guy was laughing, he told me that he had watched for the flag everyday and so today he saw it and stopped. He said it was a good idea. lol
We all got a chuckle out of it and now we don't have to worry about missing them when they go by. An easy solution for all.
We have our own jugs from when we used to refill at the store ourselves so what we do is pour the water from their jugs into ours. We use a cut off 2 litre soda bottle for a funnel. Usually we have chat while this is going on and then they take their empty bottles and go on their way. The guys are happy to oblige.

Alan said...

I really enjoyed reading your "blog about briefs, much more than your "legal briefs". Keep up your sense of humor and writing about important things!

Laurie said...

Funny! Great! This is one time I wish you did not live alone. You need a guapa senora to catch the pic of you screaming "Agua" in your underpants. I agree with another writer, buy some long shorts. And you may, indeed, fetch a lonely senora in the process with better shorts!

Anonymous said...

Water is not just water. Santorini should be served with chicken or fish, Ciel with red meat. The locally made cheaper brands are vastly inferior.

Steve Cotton said...

Constantino -- You make me miss my great Oregon water. But I love the ocean even more for almost everything except drinking.

Brenda -- The water guy showed up today. We had a brief chat over a Coke Light. I told him about some delivery ideas. He said he would just slow down and wait in front of my house. He laughed about my story, but he didn't know who Stanley Kowalski is.

Al -- I am having a great time down here. Even if Jiggs were at full health, we could not travel far in the heat. I think I have hit just about the correct activity level -- none. At least, until it cools off in October.

Laurie -- I will have you know my underwear are always suitable for company. In this heat, y'all should be pleased that underwear made an appearance in my little story. I could have given you the Felipe version.

Anonymous -- I have adopted the local folk wisdom that drinking water with a meal is a certain way to develop cramps -- or worse. Ice, on a hot day, of course, will kill you dead. My young water deliverer does not share those folk wisdoms. He downed his ice-laden Diet Coke with no qualms.

Anonymous said...

OK, your opening paragraph was a screamer, had me laughing out loud.


Kim G
Boston, MA
Where, whenever asked in a posh restaurant what water I'd like, I always respond, "Quabbin Reserve.*"

*Quabbin Reservoir, a lovely clear lake in central-western Massachusetts, is where Boston's water comes from.

Steve Cotton said...

Kim -- No higher plaudit could a writer receive than "laughed out loud." "Cried myself into deprression" is a close second.

Anonymous said...

Your story reminded me of a scene from the movie, "No Country for Old Men" where a drug deal "goes wrong". The 'hero' finds a Mexican, dying of gunshot wounds in a bullet-ridden pickup truck, who begs him for "A-G-U-A. A-G-U-A." He is met with the response, "I ain't got no damn agua." Later on, the hero reconsiders the dying man's plight, and returns with the damn agua. Alas, the man is dead.
At least you will have another chance tomorrow. Just remember to unlock the gate and wear your pants. Thanks the laugh.

Lady in Toronto

Islagringo said...

I am amazed at the various prices for water. We get 20 litre garrafons on Isla. 22 pesos each, whether delivered by truck or picked up at the "water store". The water guys are always polite and friendly. The gas guys? Whole 'nother story!

Steve Cotton said...

Lady Toronto -- (I thought a tile would fit you fine.) I got my water yesterday. Gate opened, but still in my underwear. The water guy always chuckles about that because he works in long pants. But he was more than thankful for the glass of Diet Coke -- though I think he would have preferred the sugary type. Most Mexicans I know love their cane sugar Coke.

Islagringo -- I understand the water prices vary greatly here in town -- and by whether you are an expatriate or a local or a tourist. My gas and water guys are a hoot. Of course, they both think I am just a bit odd -- mission accomplished.