Monday, September 19, 2011

Water Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

Water is not dirty, until it is opaque and black, I decided this weekend. And even then, it still has its gardening uses.

Each weekend we practice skills for village living as we cook all our meals over a fire in our hous kuks  (e.g., too thick of biscuits will result in charcoal outsides and doughy interiors). Up until this point, we have been using water from POC’s freshwater supply, but this weekend we purified our own.

Although we live in a rainforest, virtually all the water that is not currently in the clouds is not safe for our consumption—it’s not the ants, leaves, sticks or even muddy brown color that have us worried, but rather a plethora of microscopic organisms that will be sure to keep you up all night in ways you’d rather not experience. During rainy season when the skies open up like clockwork, the deluge of water easily fills all our pots and buckets and washbasins. But, as I’ve mentioned before, right now, we are in the dry season, and we’re rationing water as it is.

So, we resort to other purifying methods. The method of choice is determined by amount needed, time available, preferred taste, and pocketbook depth :) Water filters are great for the long term, but weight restrictions caused most of us at POC to toss that item out of our bags. Aqua tablets work well—but at one tablet per liter, the price soon skyrockets past those rainless clouds. Using the sun to heat clear bottles of water is less labor intensive, but since it requires over six hours of direct sunlight, it isn’t as prompt for morning tea. Thus, most of us resort to either bleaching or boiling our water.

Before you start gagging at the former method, let me assure you it’s really not all that bad. Of course, you must use the right proportions… using twice the amount of bleach to water will certainly make you consider regurgitating most of your breakfast. Take it from me…

A watched pot never boils. It's true.

Once my roommate Jess and I had fixed the concoction, the water was much more palatable, though both of us were rather eager to try something else for our waterbottles and relegate this water to the cooking and dishes and teethbrushing.

Boiling is rather self-explanatory. Water goes in pot. Pot goes on fire. Water boils. Presto! You have clean water. Except, the water needs to boil continuously for a certain length of time based upon altitude. And, inevitably, the wood is still sap-filled, the kindling is sparse, and then that mountaintop breeze which we bless so often, appears and whoosh! The flame is snuffed out and the water that was just so very close to maybe possibly showing a hint of a bubble suddenly cools down to something that could have been drawn from the Arctic Sea. So you start again, and eventually after guarding and feeding and coaxing that precious flame, you have a pot full of boiling water and you can start counting those seven minutes for 1200 feet (not meters) as you frantically try to split more wood to feed the fire to keep the water boiling so you can cook your dinner. Of course, you have to let it cool too—which takes a lot longer when you are thirsty (have you ever tried drinking plain warm water?)

Our trusty clean water bucket. And the bleach.
None of these methods actually taste like spring-drawn water from the Alps—boiled water has a smokey tang flavored with bits of swirling ash, while bleach…well, even diluted you can imagine—so drink flavors, such as Tang, cordial, and powdered milk, along with the ever present tea, coffee, and milo, are staples of the village cupboard. Then there is storage—we all have a large bucket labeled authoritatively Drinking Water Only! But remember, you have to clean the bucket (using clean water) in order to store the clean water and then have clean hands to take the clean dipper to get the clean water out to clean the dishes to begin supper…

As you can imagine, every drop of purified water is precious, and you become very creative in conserving liquid (especially when you remember it all has to be hauled by hand, often from a great distance). Pasta water has a 1000 uses and doing the dishes becomes an art, like some Minimalist composer. After all, just think of how much water you drink in a day, and then imagine yourself living on the equator where you sweat simply sitting still. Now, consider that you’re also going on a hike through the mountains this afternoon…

I better go build that fire.