Water: such a precious commodity, and more than a commodity, the very substance of life. Without it, we shrivel and die. Vegetation struggles to survive, the desert shifts its boundaries outwards, and a high tide of sand rises to engulf the cultivated land.
In Oaxaca, Mexico, the Atoyac, the Green River, often runs dry. When it does, women kneel on the sand and pebbles and dig little holes into which the water seeps. They wait for the holes to fill and use little cups to pour that water into their buckets. These water holes are also used to wash their clothes and they hang them out on the riverbank bushes to dry beneath a burning sun.
Twice I have been in Oaxaca when the rains have not arrived. I have seen the reservoirs sink lower and lower as the sun laps up the precious liquid and no rain falls. Oaxaca, with or without rain, is a land of dry toilets, chemical toilets, chemicals to put in the tap water when you wash and peel fruit and vegetables. You drink only bottled water. It is sold to the households in forty litre bottles and hawked round the street by boys on tricycles who cry out their wares.
In Oaxaca, almost every house has its own supply of water. The flat roof, azotea, catches the rain when it falls and channels it into large internal cisternas that trap the water and keep it cool. Water to waste is a luxury that few can afford and most water is recycled when possible in one way or another.
The rules are strict: drink nothing direct from the tap; do not clean your teeth in tap water; beware of ice cream and ice cubes; drink only water delivered from trusted hands. In addition: eat food only from establishments with running water and a reputation for safety. Avoid street vendors, especially the little ladies in the street who cook over open fires and and change their babies’ nappies only to return to their cooking with unwashed hands … There are so many things you learn if you want to be safe and streetwise. Above all, close your nose to the delights of those wonderful street side cooking smells.
Water seeks its final solution as it slips from cupped hands.
Does it remember when the earth was without form
and darkness was upon the face of the deep?
The waters under heaven were gathered into one place
and the firmament appeared.
Light was divided from darkness
and with the beginning of light came The Word,
and words, and the world …
… the world of water in which I was carried
until the waters broke
and the life sustaining substance drained away
throwing me from dark to light.
The valley’s parched throat longs for water,
born free, yet everywhere imprisoned:
in chains, in bottles, in tins, in jars, in frozen cubes,
its captive essence staring out with grief filled eyes.
A young boy on a tricycle bears a dozen prison cells,
each with forty captives: forty fresh clean litres of water.
“¡Peragua!” he calls. “¡Super Agua!”
He holds out his hand for money
and invites me to pay a ransom,
to set these prisoners free.
Real water yearns to be released,
to be set free from its captivity,
to trickle out of the corner of your mouth,
to drip from your chin,
to seek sanctuary in the ground.
Real water slips through your hair
and leaves you squeaky clean.
It is a mirage of palm trees upon burning sand.
It is the hot sun dragging its blood red tongue across the sky
and panting for water like a great big thirsty dog.
Every afternoon, in the rainy season, as regular as clockwork, the clouds build up and by five o’clock, the rain comes tumbling down. Nothing can describe the welcome smell of cool rain on dry dust and hot sand, the sound of raindrops pittering through the trees to splash on dry leaves, or the hiss of water on hot cobbles.
When the rain doesn’t come, then the Oaxacans who believe in the ancient traditions resort to sympathetic magic. They ask the brujos for help and the witch doctors bring out their rain sticks. Sympathetic magic: the sound of the sun-dried cactus thorns falling through the hollow rain stick imitates the sound of the rain falling on the rain forest leaves. The clouds gather in sympathy and, sooner or later, the skies fill up with clouds, and down comes the rain.
The bruja turns her rain stick upside down.
Rain drops patter one by one,
then fall , then faster and faster
until her bamboo sky fills
with the welcome sound of rushing water.
An autumnal whirl of sun-dried cactus
beats against its wooden prison walls.
As we look heavenwards, clouds gather,
rain falls in a wisdom of pearls,
cast from dark skies.
The scales fall from my eyes
and land on the marimbas,
dry beneath the arches
where wild music sounds,
like this rainstorm
by the bruja‘s magic hand.
(bruja: witch, witch doctor)