muriel j smith 120Water! How we take it for granted. How we waste it! How we don’t even give it a thought! It’s a passionately different story in Cuba!

With very little infrastructure being repaired or maintained for the more than half a century since Cuba has been under Castro rule, it’s understandable that terra cotta pipes are broken and any water flowing through them for city water supplies is contaminated with anything that’s above ground. Couple that with the fact Cuba is experiencing a severe drought and the flow of water through Havana’s city system is manually changed every so often to ensure everybody gets some sometime, it’s easy to see it’s a luxury to have running water.

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Yet, somehow, the Cuban people accommodate all of this and are fastidiously clean. They simply patiently wait until they have a necessary supply for whatever purpose they need water and think nothing of it.

There are mixed opinions on whether tap water is safe for tourists to drink, but I personally didn’t see the need to challenge the theory. While the casa in which we stayed in the heart of downtown Havana was clean and water flowed freely through the pipes, I opted for bottled water at a CUC, or about 87 cents, a bottle. On the other hand, I brushed my teeth rinsing with tap water, drank hot water every morning as is my custom, and drank other beverages with ice with no untoward results from anything.

It was watching some of the procedures and practices that come about because of the water shortage that captivated me one morning.

Shortly after sunrise one day, the casa owner was receiving a new water tank, a bright blue, multi-gallon container that had to be hauled up to the roof of our three-story home. The procedure involved two men up on the roof, and two men down on the street, their vehicle blocking all traffic in both directions as the tank was lifted from the truck and placed on the ground. The grounds men then tied huge ropes around the tank, created a pulley, and the roof men then began hauling up their treasure. It took an hour or so, what with the bumping into the overhangs, the heavy discussion on precisely how to wrap the rope around the tank to make it most secure, and the various attempts to get the tank past all the ornamentation on the building.

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Obviously, a heavy tank when empty, when it was settled on the roof, it would be filled with a hose from a water truck, perhaps supplemented by rainfall, and attached to the system for a flow through the pipes to the sparkling clean sinks, showers, toilets and spigots in the kitchen and private bathrooms in the rooms below.

Once the tank was in place and traffic could flow once again, it wasn’t long before a water truck came down the road, traffic again was halted, and a water supply was near at hand. This time, a local man with a 55-gallon drum on the back of his wagon, carried three ten gallon buckets, themselves appearing to have missed any scrubbing or cleaning in their years of service. The gentleman dutifully turned on the spout at the rear of the water truck, filled his buckets, then carried them, two at a time, to the larger drum, making several trips back and forth until he had the water supply for which he paid. The water truck left, water was flowing down the gutters on both sides of the street from leaks in the system, and cleaning people appeared, both men and women of all ages. Armed with straw brooms, the workers took advantage of the water flowing down the gutters to clean the street and pick up any trash. The gentleman with the 55-gallon drum then went door to door throughout the neighborhood selling his precious commodity by the gallon.

On another day, Pavel Valsdes, the host of our five days ambassador program under Cuba Educational Travel, introduced us to the splendor he is creating through enthusiastic leadership on the block where he lives with his wife, Sondra and children Fabio and Sophie. Under Pavel’s planning, guidance, and leadership, the entire block of families turns out to clean their streets, scrub their buildings, plant a garden, and in general, create a refreshing appearance in a poverty-stricken area of crumbling buildings and poor infrastructure. Sometimes, the wall painting is done at night. It seems the government turns the water on and off in different areas to have enough to spread around. So, scrubbing exterior walls to ready them for brilliant paint colors must wait until the water is turned on so residents can grab their buckets and rags and brushes and get to work. Pavel is in the process of creating a vegetable garden on a walled-in vacant lot and has created a little brook running through it to ensure a supply of water for plant growth.  Sometimes, they say, there is running water only once in five days, and then only for a few hours at a time, just enough for residents to fill water tanks and personal reservoirs on their roofs.

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Of course, residents can, and often do, opt to pay illegal water vendors to transport water from houses that have running waters, to those that do not.   

NEXT: Music and dance                             

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Muriel J. Smith

Muriel J Smith

Muriel J Smith an award-winning journalist, former newspaper editor, book author and historian, Her newest venture is her blog, in...