Despite the fact that water completely surrounds Vieques, it’s still plagued by water shortages.
Okay, maybe not that bad, but you get my drift.
The island’s drinking water is supplied by a large pipeline from the big island seven miles away. Water for other purposes such as sewage comes from reservoirs that catch and store the island’s plentiful though sporadic rainfall.
All well and good. But unfortunately both sources go on the blink regularly without the slightest warning.
Once when I was washing my hair the showerhead hiccupped and belched and then petered to a weak dribble before stopping completely.
I toweled myself off, threw on shorts and a T-shirt and ran around the house desperately trying to eke out a cup or two of water from another source, any source—bathroom sink, kitchen sink, balcony hose—to rinse out the shampoo.
But everything was bone dry. And within minutes my hair was stiff and gray.
I stomped into the bathroom every so often to see if the water had come on again.
Such times make you appreciate the elegant simplicity of a baseball cap.
There it stayed until the water came back on with an urgent, wheezing belch four hours later.
I mentioned this little episode to Jane the next time we spoke.
“It happens all the time,” she said nonchalantly. “The water supply is notoriously undependable here. Sometimes it goes off for days.”
“Not really,” I said. “Days?” I couldn’t imagine.
“Yep, this is the Wild West.” I was quickly learning that this was one of her favorite characterizations of Vieques, one that, in the present context, conjured up sexy images of unwashed cowboys.
The reality, of course, was considerably less titillating (think greasy hair and sweaty pits).
“Is there anything we can do about it?”
“Sure, you can get a cistern.”
I’d heard of them but wasn’t quite sure how they worked. “Which involves…”
“Buying a big huge plastic vat and having it installed on your roof.”
“The roof! Why not the sideyard?”
“It’s called gravity, sweetheart. You want the water to be higher than you.”
“But what about those concrete pylons in the sideyard when we bought the house? Didn’t somebody say they were built to support a cistern?”
“They may have been, but it wouldn’t have worked. And anyway you had them removed.”
She had me there. “But isn’t it dangerous to have a huge tank of water on top of your house? What if the roof collapsed?”
“If you happened to be standing underneath it, you’d probably die. Or at least need a very big Band-Aid.”
Jane was obviously in one of her Ironic Moods. I decided not to play along.
“Where does the water come from?”
She laughed. “The sky. It’s called rain.”
Okay, I suppose I deserved that one. “So it collects in the cistern over time? Doesn’t it get stagnant?”
Without warning her tone shifted from sarcastic to expository. “If everything’s working properly, a motor circulates fresh water through the system every so often. So it doesn’t get too stale.”
This wasn’t very consoling. “So where do we begin?”
“With me, as usual.”
“You’ll get us some prices?”
Although cisterns consist of little more than a large plastic tank attached to a very simple pump, we weren’t particularly surprised to learn that they’re absurdly expensive in Vieques.
In fact, when Jane told us the price there was a slightly satisfying “I knew it” element to the whole thing. But the fact remained that we were being forced to shell out a lot of money for an expense we’d never anticipated.
This was threatening to become a pattern.
We chose a mid-price model. As Jane had foretold, it was large and black and, to my eye, singularly unattractive.
Oh, and there were two of them.
Almost worse, the bright red switch needed to activate them was positioned halfway up the most prominent wall in the house (the large back wall of the great room).
I tried to hide my distaste for these enormous black money-gobblers but eventually it came tumbling out. During a walk in the hills above our house a few weeks after the cisterns’ installation I stopped dead in my tracks, transfixed by their hideousness.
“What have we done to our poor house?” I wailed.
Unperturbed, Michael replied, “We’ve made sure our guests don’t get caught with a head full of shampoo and no way to rinse it off.”
“And anyway,” he went on less convincingly, “they’re really not so ugly. Anyone’s who’s anyone on Vieques has a cistern.”
“So you’re saying they’re a status symbol?”
He hesitated, but only for a moment. “Absolutely,” he said with conviction.
On what planet? I wanted to ask.
But I didn’t.
And I must admit, the very next time the water petered out while I was in the shower and Michael triumphantly restored the flow with one flip of a switch, I began to see the cisterns’ true beauty.
Never once have I complained about them since.