Monday, August 07, 2006

The Trouble with Tinacos

If you've been reading this blog for any period of time, you know that I have lived in Mexico before. Throughout my many experiences here, I have learned a number of valuable lessons about getting by and getting along, and the events of the last few days remind me that even here in San Miguel (SMA), you are likely to face some of the common household challenges that you would in any other place in Mexico.

The most important thing you'll ever encounter in a Mexican house is a tinaco. A tinaco is a large (~450 gallon) water tank is on the roof of every Mexican home; every evening the local municipal water is pumped to the tinacos of houses. The tinaco provides the household water supply for an entire day, and its contents can make the difference between loving and hating life in Mexico.

As I wrote last Thursday, we ran out of water in the morning. This is not terribly uncommon, as Mexican water supplies are not overly reliable and pumping capacities are not always consistent. I am renting a small house here, and I carefully selected it from several others, I paid more to rent this house than I had paid for other places in the past. Then I was working in migrant communities and I paid about $30 per month. When we ran out of water I was annoyed, but with a rent that low you can expect problems.

Bathrooms and plumbing are typically the least functional part of Mexican houses. Based on my previous experiences, when I arrived I asked my realtor about our water supply and where I could find a ladder to check the tinaco each morning. My realtor assured me that I would never have to climb onto my roof to check my tinaco. Well, she was wrong.

There are several telltale signs that a tinaco is running dry. When someone in the house flushes the toilet, for instance, the sound of the water running into the tank after the flush will be different. This isn't something that one normally notices (we hear it every day, after all), but when the water is low, it will slowly drip, drip, drip into the tank. If you ever hear this sound, you should check one of your taps. Typically, you'll get a few sputters and a slow drizzle of water. This is when you know you can kiss your morning shower goodbye.

There are several reasons why a tinaco will run dry. The most common is a lack of water from the common water source. At the moment, however, SMA's common water supply is low, but not yet being rationed. Another is a broken toilet. If the flapper goes bad and the shut-off valve does not close after a flush it can drain a tinaco within an hour. In our case, there the was a leak somewhere between the city water pipes and the tinaco.

I went to talk to the man who takes care of maintenance in the building, who I'll identify as Sr. Lopez. When I told him on Thursday we had no water, he assured me he would take care of the problem. After about a half hour, the water supply seemed fine and we all were able to shower, pack, and then take off for a visit to Textitlán. Before we left I asked Sr. Lopez if the water problem was fixed, and he assured me that it was.

When we got back to the house on Saturday, however, it was clear that we still had a problem, but this time there was no water at all. I spoke to Mr. Lopez again, who cheerfully explained that he found a small leak in the water pipe that runs to my house, and he had turned off the water while we were gone, and once again assured me that he would take care of the problem. He did open the water valve a bit so that we had enough water to wash the dishes and flush the toilets, but Sunday we still had no water.

At this point, I faced a dilemma. When I'm working in the field I don't like to raise a fuss about things that are inconvenient. Americans in Mexico are often described as demanding and impatient, and getting a reputation for being either can only delay or derail a project. At the same time, I'm in a town that caters to tourists and I paid a fairly high rent. After two days without water, I decided that I needed to insist that problem be corrected. Living in a house without water is not inconvenient, it's unacceptable.

If the problem had been from a water shortage or municipal problem, my response would have been different. We made it through with some improvisations: I found an outside faucet with a hose and used it to fill my washing machine so I could launder the mountain of dirty clothes that was piling up around the house. Ken and my sister carried buckets of water inside from the same faucet and heated it on the stove bathing. When we did have even a little water, we conserved as much as possible.

Although the situation was annoying, I had been through this before and knew how to respond. I'm relieved that the pipe outside was replaced today, but the episode reminded me that there will always be ups and downs living in Mexico, even in a high rent district.

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