When I lived in Ecuador, my roommate and I used to haul enormous six-liter bottles of purified water home from the corner store several times per month. Although we had some gringo friends who drank the tap water and suffered no intestinal consequences whatsoever, we also had Ecuadorian friends who wouldn't go near any H2O that hadn't been duly boiled. My roommate and I brushed our teeth with the tap water and used it to cook but, terrified of the legendary wrath of microscopic equatorial swimmers, played it safe and rarely ever guzzled it down.
After spending 14 months worrying about the sufficiency of my stock of clean drinking water, I was tremendously relieved to arrive in Santiago, where the water that comes out of the tap--at least in my experience--is as harmless as that of the Lethe (although I don't think it makes you forget past misdeeds, unfortunately).
That all changed yesterday, when it rained and my faucets went dry.
What? you may wonder. Isn't there supposed to be more water when it rains? Yes--and that's exactly the problem.
It seems illogical, right? Just weeks ago, officials were worried that the drought afflicting vast expanses of Chilean territory might jeopardize some people's access to potable water. Then, it rains, and thousands of Santiago residents--my roommates and me included--are left without the liquid of life. What gives?
I think the best way to explain is to flash back to Washington, DC, where I went to college. During each of the three winters I spent there, it snowed several times. Sometimes it snowed a lot. Snowfall, therefore, was far from anomalous. Regardless, every time white flakes began to sprinkle from the sky, the city spiraled into four-alarm panic. Nobody plowed. Nobody shoveled. Schools closed. We rejoiced.
Santiago appears to have a similar relationship with rain. This coming winter will be my third in this city. Each year, it has rained cats, dogs, buckets and everything in between. Each year, walking to the bus stop has become an obstacle course that has pitted me against puddles, water sprinkling from gutters and waves sprayed by passing vehicles. It's only May, and I've already started to hear the Mario Brothers theme music in my head as I walk.
Santiago, like Washington, is a city that is hopelessly inept when it comes to dealing with winter precipitation. This became obvious yesterday, when it rained and chaos ensued. I'm not exactly sure what happened to cause the water outage, but all the theories I've heard have had to do with rain somehow stirring up/causing the contamination of a large portion of the city's water supply. Whole districts of Santiago have been left as dry as the Atacama desert--except, of course, for the massive pools of water flooding their streets. But you can't exactly drink out of those.
Here in Santiago Centro, the outages appear to have been more selective. And, wouldn't you know it: They selected my building. So it was that I found myself lugging an enormous bottle of purified water home from the corner store this afternoon, just as in days gone by.
Deep down, I know I should stop my whining. The outage provided me with an excellent excuse not to wash my dishes. The water came back on--with very low pressure, granted--this afternoon. When one considers that a study by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean shows that 37 percent of children in 15 of the region's countries have substandard access to potable water, my few waterless hours constituted an incredibly minor inconvenience.
And, of course, there is a positive side to all of this. The rain cleansed the air of the smog that had been suffocating the city for several weeks, and I now have a spectacular view of the snow-capped Andes from my bedroom window.
I will climb into bed tonight hoping that my tennis shoes, which sit in soggy vigil by the front door, will be dry by morning. Not that it really matters. This weekend's forecast: rain.