When you turn on the faucet, you expect water to be there. You expect the faucet will provide for dinner dishes in the sink, for baths after a hot day of gardening, for quenching that late night thirst. But, for so many around the world, consistent running water is not a given. In our hilltop home in Kandy the availability of water ebbed and flowed with the monsoons. Two tanks alongside of our car port collected rain water. They were surrounded by a large stand of bamboo which Wilson constantly hacked back with his machete leaving behind stunted tubes that within days would sprout again and soon demand his attention once more.
The hill country around Kandy has a monsoon season from around May to August. During these months, you cannot escape the pelting rain which explodes from the sky suddenly and violently. Once or twice each day the clouds open abruptly releasing giant drops which scream to the ground. An umbrella helps some, but the rain also jumps off the ground to beat at your legs, and the air is so thick that you are wet no matter what. Often the torrent ceases suddenly as if the valve in the cloud was shut off by an unseen cloud worker above.
December to April is the dry season, and as the name suggests, rain can be elusive for long periods during these months. So, when the clouds did not appear, we had to keep a close eye on our water tanks. When the level dropped too low, we would begin to ration our usage. Showers would get shorter, gardens would go thirsty and laundry would pile up. If the tank got so low that it was in danger of running dry, my parents would call a local company who would deliver a truck load of water for a fee. Of course when our tank was running dry, others who relied on rain water were likely to be in the same predicament. The bowser man became a very popular fellow. It was not unusual for the driver or his friend to travel from house to house and gauge the desperation of the families for water. Your level of interest was judged by the size of the bribe provided to the driver who would then secure your relative position in the queue accordingly. The larger the gift, the more likely you were to hear the familiar sound of the bowser truck straining up the Sri Pushpadana hill.
As a child, I was exempt from the haggling and under the table dealings with the bowser man. I was not however, spared the water rationing. It was April, the tail end of the dry season and the hottest April our neighbors ever remembered. Our water tank was nearly empty and we had been unable to shower for a week – an inconvenience to be sure, but in the hot dry season also a very uncomfortable way of living. Our family had provided the bowser man with the requisite gift equal to our desperation. Apparently, we, and others in our predicament had been a bit too generous. Feeling suddenly flush with cash, the driver had gone on a multi-day bender and in his celebratory state fueled by coconut arrack, he had forgotten to live up to his end of the bargain. This we discovered through the grapevine. While the adults were left to deal with tracking down the hungover bowser man, Karuna invited me to bathe with her at a nearby well.
People washing at wells was something I had seen every day since arriving on the island. Concrete or stone wells were often found within a few feet of the road. I would watch people pull overflowing buckets of water from the middle of the round or square concrete well openings and dump them over their heads. On long trips, I would often play a game of picking somebody in the crowd of bathers that was pulling up their bucket and imagine a race between them and our van. Would they dump the water over their head before our vehicle passed them? Men, usually bare-chested, wrapped their sarongs around their waist or sometimes flipped up the ends so they were wearing what looked like a short skirt. At times they would tuck the excess fabric between their legs so it resembled an oversized diaper. Women wore sarongs like large beach towels wrapped around their chests or sometimes skirts and tops or full saris. Younger children could be seen running naked around the wells, their wet feet slapping on the stone well surround.
Karuna gave me one of her sarongs to borrow. I stepped into the purple and blue striped cloth cylinder and she helped me to secure it under my armpits with a knot at my chest. I slipped on my flip flops and with soap and shampoo in hand, we walked a short distance along Sri Pushpadana before Karuna showed me the entrance to a small path. Although it was the dry season, there was still a lot of vegetation, and if she had not shown me the small slit in the greenery, I doubt I would have ever known it was there. We followed the narrow sloping dirt path down the steep bank away from the road into the shade of large trees. It was almost dark in the thick vegetation and we had to pick our way over roots and rocks. We heard the laughter of children and splashing of water before we found our way to a clearing where a group of women and three kids were bathing and washing clothes. There were instant welcomes from the women who obviously knew Karuna. I followed Karuna’s lead and kicked off my shoes at the end of the concrete area surrounding the well. On the other side a woman whacked soapy shirts against a rock. Her finished laundry was stretched out on the ground and shrubs nearby making a colorful addition to the greenery.
The roadside bathers always pulled and lifted their buckets above them with such apparent ease that I was surprised at how difficult it was to hoist the water from the well. The rope dug uncomfortably into my hands until Karuna helped me and without hesitation she let loose its contents over my head. The cold was unexpected and the air spontaneously exited my lungs along with an involuntary squeak that was akin to the sound one might imagine if you stepped on a Muppet. Giggles erupted from the children followed closely by the women. “Sitala nae?” (Cold no?) I gasped. Karuna gave me one of her giant smiles. The subsequent buckets were not a shock, making the cold a little less difficult to take. I had not really pondered where the water was coming from, but each dousing also brought with it small rocks and sand. Although the soap and water were getting us clean, we were still left with a slightly gritty feeling. After we washed and chatted with the women we changed into dry sarongs that Karuna had brought and started back up towards home, our still wet feet getting muddy as we walked on the dirt path. By the time we reached home however, our feet had dried in the hot sun and the dirt easily brushed off. The cold though had settled into my bones so that despite the heat of the day, I felt the cool radiating from the inside for quite some time.
The very next day, a dark cloud appeared at about 2pm and we heard the thwack of large rain drops hitting the large banana leaves outside of our living room. Without explanation, my mother darted out of the room and quickly returned with a sarong and soap. She showered with a satisfied smile under the rushing water from the gutters. Just as she squeezed out her dripping sarong, we heard the telltale rumble of the bowser coming up the hill to our house.