El Mar Dulce, Water, Bernard The Plumber, God & Vancouver RainSunday, February 14, 2016
On January 21, 10 days before we moved to our new Kitsilano home our basement flooded. With that awful occurrence almost in distant memory I have been reflecting on how water and I have shared 73 years.
I have no memory of that first splash of water at my christening sometime in the end of 1942 in Buenos Aires. I know that my godmother Inesita O’Reilly and Alejandro Ariosa, my grandparents must have held me.
I may have been around 6 when from my vantage point inside a tub of hot water I watched my mother hold a little glass cup (I remember it was green) into her eyes. My guess is that she was removing her eyes one at a time and washing them clean. Soon after I turned on the valve on a strange contraption in the bathroom and water shot up to the ceiling. I received a whipping with a Filipino slipper (chinela) from my mother.
By age 8 I was aware of the seasons in Buenos Aires and I looked forward to the winds from the Pampas called the Pampero. The wind would bring rain and immediately I could smell that special fragrance of wet earth. When it really poured our giant brown poodle, Moro would run back and forth in the patio and slide and splash.
In the Buenos Aires summers that came in January (and there was no school) I was sent to the “camp”. My favourite one was an estancia owned by a family called the Piñeiros. When I returned I brought with me a lovely tero or South American plover. It stood guard in our garden with two sharp spikes on the inside of its wings. But during a storm Moro ran after my tero and broke its wings. I cried and cried until my grandmother Lolita told me that every time I cried I would lose one eyelash and if I persisted I would find myself with none.
Buenos Aires is known for its persistent rain. A garúa is a steady drizzle and when the sky breaks loose we call it a chaparrón.
One summer my mother, my first cousin Wenceslao, my uncle Tony and his wife Sarita traveled up the Paraná River in a stern paddle steamer. The Paraná which comes from Brazil is deep chocolate brown. It is full of rich silt which is deposited in the pampas in floods and by the time it reaches the River Plate the delta it has formed is rich land for fruit and vegetables. But going up the Paraná to Goya in the Province of Corrientes was and exciting thing in itself. We could see yacarés (the Guaraní name of alligators. When we arrived at Goya we went in a Studebaker truck to Wency’s aunt’s estancia, Santa Teresita which was by the Río Corrientes. It took a gaucho on horseback one day to cross the estancia. We had pleasant swims in the Río Corrientes but only after a man on horseback would splash around the river bank. We were told this scared off the pirañas as they did not like the smell of horses. Of special memory was the lowering of a watermelon into the cold water of a well as Wency and I had our siesta during the afternoon of sweltering heat.
Rain in Buenos Aires, particularly in the winter can be depressing. For me this was the case in the winter of 1966 when my Argentine girlfriend, Susana, dumped me for a violinist of the Teatro Colón Symphony. For days I listened to Miles Davis Kind of Blue as it seemed I enjoyed really being depressed. Somehow Davis’s jazz soothed me into oblivion.
When my 24 month stint as a conscript ended I boarded an Argentine Merchant Marine ship, Rio Aguapey. For almost three months we stopped at every port in Brazil, ports in Puerto Rico, New Orleans, Houston and finally my home in Veracruz. All those days I watched and studied the colour of the sea. When we crossed the equator I was tied to a yard arm and soaked with sea water. When it rained it was curious to me that the rain was sweet. The first explorers to what was to be Argentina in the 16th century called the River Plate Mar Dulce (or sweet sea).
In 1953 my mother made an exploratory trip to Mexico City (we moved there in 1954). She described the city as being one surrounded by mountains and two volcanoes. Summer coincided with the rainy season (winter in Mexico City is without rain and the mountains turn ochre). She described the rain as being punctual around 4 in the afternoon and two hours later the sun would come out.
By the time my Canadian wife Rosemary and two daughters Ale and Hilary left for Vancouver in 1975 rain in Mexico City had no season or schedule. My friend poet, novelist and environmentalist Homero Aridjis says that Mexico City has only one season and he calls it the pollution season. By the late 80s birds would fall from the sky. Rain would mix with the hydrogen sulfide in the air and precipitate as sulfurous acid some of which would further convert into sulfuric acid. Car paint unless properly protected with constant waxing would fade. The persistent drizzle that sometimes happens in Mexico City is called chipi-chipi. Since I can remember the Mexican man prefers to get wet and not carry and umbrella. The umbrella is seen as a dandy-type-of-thing that does not go well with the macho complex.
We stopped to visit friends in Seattle on our way to Vancouver in our Arctic blue VW Beetle. We were told that it rained 366 days of the year in Vancouver. I thought this was a strange joke.
In Vancouver I soon learned that I could wash my b+w negative and hang them to dry and that they would be free of spots. Ditto when I washed our car. In Mexico cars are wiped down after a car wash. I believe that Vancouver tap water is one of the best anywhere - there are never any problems with shampoo and good tea is better here than with London's terrible water.
To this day I cannot get used to Vancouver rain. In many ways it alienates me but I do understand that it helps keep our city clean. I have memory of dust storms coming from the dry Texcoco Lake bed. Shanty towns without running water would result in fecal matter being present in what we thought were clean neighbourhoods.
When my family and friends from abroad ask me about Vancouver I tell them we have three outstanding features at a premium in most of the rest of the world. They are air, space and water.
When that basement flooded and my daughter Ale and I were sloshing around saving stuff from my darkroom I knew there was only one solution. We called a plumber (his name was Bernard). When I saw him I told him that he was only second to God in importance at that moment. I told him he would not part the Red Sea like Moses (with God’s help) but that he would turn off the valve between the city and our house. The flooding stopped.
For 10 days we had no water even to brush our teeth. Our neighbour kindly passed a hose to our side and we used it to fill buckets which I carted upstairs so we could flush toilets. It was hell.
Even now in this new house I marvel every time I open the kitchen sink tap or run my bath. Best of all, the tub here does not leak and I can even run water up to my neck. I am presently enjoying water in very much the Romans of the Roman Empire enjoyed. I had forgotten all that in those last 10 days in Athlone.
Now if only this rain would stop!
Rain is something that undoubtedly happens in the past
Rain is something that undoubtedly happens in the past