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Cold wake-up call

“I’m a popsicle!” Britani shouts cheerfully at me from the doorway to their portion of the home. Britani will turn three in a few weeks. She’s wrapped up in a towel and her hair is still dripping, slicked back as one of her sisters tugs a comb through it aggressively. Her teeth are chattering while she laughs in a high-pitched giggle.

“Why are you a popsicle?” I ask.

“Because I just took a bath!” she breaks into giggles. “I’m freezing!” Britani hates taking baths unless the water is warmed up for her. Today she has to bathe and get dressed up, though, because she is going to the clinic with her mom. She is full of bubbly giggles and laughter, talking with exaggerated expressions that strike me as unbearably cute, but have no effect on the rest of her family. Before I leave for work, she asks me to take a photo of her all dressed up and ready to go out. She adorns her outfit with a white washcloth tucked into her jeans to add a stylish flourish.

The reason she’s a popsicle, of course, is because the water is frigid, poured in bowlfuls from a large, 55-gallon blue plastic drum. The drum resides next to the toilet and is filled every morning by a hose connected to one of the spigots in the front of the home. This huge drum (estañon?) is filled each morning, sometimes more than once a day, and used for bathing and flushing the toilet. No one explained these processes to me, which were different in the home than in other places I’d lived. Flushing the toilet is done by scooping a bowlful of water, holding it high above the toilet, and expertly slinging it into the bowl so the gravity creates pressure in the tube and carries the toilet water underground and into the large cement pipe a few meters away, which dumps it straight into the river a couple dozen meters from the house. The cement pipes were just recently installed – about a year ago, and everyone’s waste water is carried to the river through the pipes. Water used for cooking, cleaning, and bathing passes through the home in an uncovered trench and out into the street, where it joins greywater from other homes in another uncovered dirt trench on its way to the river.

There are opposing perspectives on bathing with hot water, I discovered to my surprise. Something I always understood as a healthy, perfectly harmless indulgence is purportedly harmful to my health. Even the more educated host family with whom I previously lived believed bathing with hot water was bad for one’s body, and to my dismay, would go for months on end without repairing the “widow-maker” contraption for heating water at the shower-head. I finally caved and repaired it myself when I was having guests come, so they wouldn’t suffer cold-water showers. However, it was because of my North American guests that the shower water heater torched itself, I was told, because they leave the hot water running while they shower. In contrast, even the more affluent family I lived with used the shower in short bursts – once at the beginning to wet oneself, after which you lather up with soap, and then you turn the shower on briefly again to rinse off. I suspect, sometimes, that the supposed negative health impact described to me from hot water was a rationalization for not having hot water, and not being able to repair it. The more educated family I lived with never repaired anything in their home, and I can’t figure out if it was because they didn’t know how to do anything remotely practical regarding home repairs, or if they just didn’t care because it was a rental and they were waiting for the landlord to fix it.

In La Carpio, however, I was only blessed with a hot-water bucket-bath once, when I was sick and the weather was particularly cold. Gramma Vicki heated me up a pot of water on the stove, so I could mix it with the cold water from the huge drum and not shiver violently with discomfort from the daily bathing ritual.

Britani is dressed up for another visit to the clinic today so that her mom can request some sort of food supplement that is given for children living in poverty. They give out a nutritious vitamin-milk supplement that Britani is supposed to eat more of to get her weight up. Britani actually suffers from painful hernias up near her intestinal area. Her mom was having problems getting her scheduled for surgery because surgery required the presence or permission of a legal guardian…with proper documentation. This obstacle was a recent addition made to the medical process that sounds like it may have been adopted from my passport country’s policies on immigration and social services. Britani’s mom, Daniela, had no such documentation, and not because she was here illegally but because the process of getting the I.D. card was too expensive. To me, having a legal I.D. and more reliable access to the health care system would be a huge advantage for this mother of six, so in one of my very few concessions to give money directly, I gave her the money to get her I.D. card. This attempt at being helpful was a huge failure, however, because even with the proper guardianship, Britani was too far underweight to be scheduled for surgery, and so continues to live with the painful hernias that prevent her from running around or being too active. Daniela would lose the I.D. card during a visit to the clinic a few months later, which she cried and scorned herself angrily for doing. She has yet been able to replace it.

Shortly after this incident, when Daniela was still trying to get Britani better treatment, I was inflicted by one of the typical conversations one has with legal citizens of a country bemoaning the woes of having illegal immigrants taking all of the paying citizens’ health services. I tried to interject the plight of Daniela and Britani into the conversation, but I was too angry to explain the situation clearly, and arguing was a useless exercise anyways. If kids like Britani have to grow up with their lungs clogged from nearby sand extraction plants, inhaling chemicals treating the country’s garbage a few hundred meters away, receiving the city’s filth via the river flowing by their house, and attend clinics that can’t possibly provide the appropriate level of care necessary for so many people in such a small area, then the very least us outsiders can do is happily pay our health care taxes and enjoy the benefit of helping out the kids of hard-working immigrants.

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