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Water in the home

My person being the principle “research instrument” of my study, living and gathering data in La Carpio, I had surprisingly few problems with health. I had occasional problems with clogged sinuses, sore throats, and small annoyances of the like. The family mentioned sickness, however, as one of the main reasons for missing school. “Sickness” they described as rashes that would break out on their skin, and in later conversations, as asthma (although they said asthma wasn’t really a reason they missed school). It is difficult for me to gage, as an outsider, what a reasonable level of comfort inside the home was. The conditions were so far below what I was used to that I could highlight any number of health risks inside the home; however, it would be hard to single out any one factor as acutely hazardous.

In an interview with a family doctor working in a local clinic, she said that problems of obesity and diabetes were common, probably related to the way they prepare their food (mainly by cooking things in oil on a stovetop).

Another study I read and news reports sometimes mention outbreaks of dengue, which are particularly a problem in places like La Carpio where there is a lot of uncovered sitting water. The reason for this is because water is not available 24 hours a day – it is shut off in shifts and rerouted to different parts of the community. I was unaware of it, but regular 24-hour running water was implemented a few months into the time when I lived with my host family (August 2011?). However, we didn’t change our practice of storing water in two blue, plastic, fifty-five gallon drums which we filled each morning, and maintained full throughout the day. Water was not routed to the kitchen, but had to be brought in from buckets from the spigot outside in the “wet” area, next to where the grounding wire for the electricity came through the wall and into our home. The “wet area” was a leaky section in the center of the two living areas that is perpetually damp. It’s where I parked my car, where public water arrived by spigot, and where we would use the toilet or bucket bathe in a small area sectioned off by rusting, corroded sheets of corrugated steel. One spigot was above a cement sink, and sometimes a garden hose was fixed to the spigot to fill the portable washing machine with water a few meters away. It was also used to rinse/wash dishes, and fill buckets to use for cooking. The second spigot was connected to a hose to fill the 55-gallon drum in the bathroom each morning. Water from the drum in the bathroom was used to pour from above to gravity-flush the toilet, or over one’s body in the morning to bathe. Bathing in the morning was a cold, clammy ordeal in which I challenged myself each morning to wash without touching anything in the bathroom area with my skin – not the floor, the walls, nor the toilet. When bathing, the entire bathroom was soaked – the toilet, the floor, the walls, and the soggy waste receptacle for toilet paper. The bathroom was never, ever dry, and it was dark – there was nowhere for light to enter, nor any light installed.

Black water from the toilet went to a thick cement tube outside, mostly underground, and emptied straight into the river about 20 meters away. The gray water from bathing, cooking, and washing all went straight into the uncovered roadside ditch and joined the rest of the street’s water on the way to the river. This stream of gray water ran trickled right in front of our doorstep where kids played and people walked.

A fellow anthropology student visited me toward the end of my 6-months in the home. She was extremely excited about staying in the slum, and ended up being the only foreigner who ever got to stay in the home I was living in. She was elated about the experience of bucket bathing. I remember that feeling, in the first few months, but it quickly became quite an uncomfortable chore. Even after months of living there, however, there were still mornings when the cool rush of water over my body in that cramped, dark space felt so enriching. And once, when I was sick, and the weather was particularly cold, Vicki heated up a small bucket of hot water for me to bathe with, something that is occasionally done for the younger kids as well. I felt like royalty that morning.

The female heads-of-household explained to me once how damaging it is to your body to bathe in hot water. I’ve heard this also from a more formally educated family I lived with previously, from Peru. I always ask for a more detailed physiological explanation of how this harms a person, because this perspective intrigues me. They say it’s bad for your bones. Washing in hot water heats your bones, and then when you step out into the “freezing air” (which I have not yet experienced in Costa Rica), the hot/cold contrast harms you. My Peruvian host brother tried to convince me of this as well, when he complained of skin pain from driving with the window partially open. He explained to me how cold air on your hot skin caused a layer of air inside your body that caused pain. I find these explanations fascinating, as well as the whole hot/cold imbalance thing. I also find them interesting because they are so general and pervasive. They aren’t just a quick myth – that chocolate causes zits – they are long and elaborate, and enter into lots of aspects of life.

I wonder also if they aren’t just an rationalization for not having hot water. When I lived with my Peruvian family, sometimes the heating element in the “widow-maker” (a showerhead that heats the water electrically at its output) would burn out, and nobody would fix it. They explained to me that they never use hot water anyway, which may be true for the parents, and so I decided to wait it out and see how long they would go without hot water. We didn’t have hot water for 6 months, until I finally replaced the heating element (a $2 fix) because some guests were coming to visit from the States and I wanted them to have hot water. Incidentally, it is possible that my guests are the reason for burning out the heating element, because U.S. Americans leave the shower on the whole time they are under it. Supposedly this burns out the heating element. The host families I stayed with rinse themselves briefly, lather up, and then rinse themselves again, quickly, using the water for a total time of less than 5 minutes. I learned to do the same to save water and electricity, unless I was house-sitting.

The only homes I ever stayed in with centralized heating were missionary/foreigner homes, when I would house-sit. I wonder if they realize this is a luxury most families don’t have. As one of my anthropologist heroes (Paul Farmer) has noted, poverty is seen in the kitchen and the bathroom. These are certainly the places where you see the greatest variation in “luxury” and variety. There are those whose water is in buckets. Then those who have running water, not heated. Then those who have water heated at the tap. And finally, those who have centralized heated water. Maybe there’s a more elite tier – a jacuzzi, or bathtub, perhaps. All I know is, that when I house sat for missionaries, a hot shower with running water in a clean bathroom, with a clean toilet that flushed, and a bathroom sink, was a guilty indulgence that literally made my eyes water at how stark the contrast in comfort and cleanliness was.

The month after I left, I was surprised to find on a return visit that they had installed 1/4 plastic pipes to run water into the bathroom – with an actual overhead shower and a way to flush the toilet without pouring water from the drum. The 55-gallon drum was completely removed from the bathroom area! I asked why they hadn’t done it before while I was there, and they said this year (2012), was the year for house repair. Sure enough, to my surprise they have made several minor home improvements so far. Also, I assume, there wasn’t much use in changing the bathroom configuration until they had reliable 24-hour water, which had just arrived a few months after I moved in.

Other than that, I didn’t have any problems drinking the water, or eating food cooked with it, or vegetables. In my mind I had some doubts about how the dishwashing process worked, because oftentimes the kids would use standing water from a bucket in the sink to rinse dishes, but the standing water never looked very clean to me. And I’m not convinced that soaking vegetables in salt water did much to disinfect them, although it did make them taste unbearably salty.

Also, I never had problems with mosquitoes while I was there – in fact, I had fewer problems in La Carpio than I did in my previous home in San Francisco de Dos Rios. It is possible that is because in La Carpio they “fumigate.” I wasn’t ever present when this occurred, but it was described to me by Gramma Vicki and other missionaries. Basically, from time to time (yearly, perhaps?), the fumigation vehicle comes by. People cover food and dishes, everyone exits the house, and a puff of chemicals is shot into the house. Then everyone goes back in and returns to life as usual. I’m not too sure about the health affects of the fumigation, but if mosquito control is the result of this procedure, it was pretty nice payoff.

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