On the corner there is a hydrant which, at night, turns into the water supply for hundreds of families in the area. Even the watercarriers come to it, with their 55 gallon tanks on rickety old carts that clatter as they roll by. People wait for the thin stream to fill their containers and then return home, with help from their children to push the wagon with the precious liquid. Every two days these inhabitants of Central Havana make the water run, tired of waiting for the pipes in their bathrooms and kitchens to bring them something other than noise and cockroaches. They live in dilapidated tenements in the old mansions with ornamented walls and mold in the ceilings. It doesn’t matter what the state of the housing is, or whether it’s the rainy season or a drought, the problem lies under the ground, in the water mains that are as old and worn out as their grandparents.
Many of the residents who rent rooms to foreigners have installed motors known as “water thiefs.” At night they turn them on and they pump the water that should supply the nearby houses into their own water tanks; it’s the only way to guarantee that the tourist guests can take a shower. If a break in the water main is announced, then they pay someone to lug several buckets from the nearest street, or buy the contents of a water truck for the equivalent of a monthly salary. Access to drinking water has been, for many years in numerous Havana neighborhoods, a question of purchasing power. Those who have more can open the tap and let it run while they wash their hands; those who have less rinse their mouths with the contents of a jar.
I still remember how annoyed my grandmother was when I told her I couldn’t take it anymore, having to use the bathroom when there was nothing to flush with. Then we had to pull up the bucket on a rope from the floor below, helped by a pulley installed years before on the balcony. This up-and-down ritual has continued to multiply until it has become standard practice for thousands of families. In their busy daily routine they set aside a time to look for water, load it and carry it, knowing that they cannot trust what comes out of the taps.
The creak of the wheels has a different sound, when the tanks are full versus empty. On some street in my city – right now – a pair of arms is hauling a loaded cart home. The dirty dishes, the rice to be cooked, the clothes in the laundry, are waiting for her.