Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Back in the day...

At one time in my life I lived in a 100-year-old tin-roofed adobe out in the Sonoran desert.

At some point in the house’s history someone had added a lean-to off the back of the house and furnished it with a sink, shower over tub, and a toilet. They even installed a septic tank out behind the house, next to the clothes lines, heaping the excavated dirt and clay over the top of the buried tank into a hillock of soil soft enough to entice a legion of rattlesnakes to make their burrows there.

Someone also thought to add electricity at some point. Very little electricity, I might add…perhaps one outlet per room plus an overhead light fixture. At night the kitchen fixture drew squadrons of desert insects, particularly a flying beetle we called a “June bug” that was rumoured to have a caustic coating on its carapace, so you didn’t want the little buggers to hit you in their mad flight to the light. The ancient screen door was missing its bottom panel, so the dizzy things would fly into the screen and drop to the door stoop, crawl through the opening into the kitchen and again take wing. It was a dangerous proposition to try to eat anything after the sun went down, as it would soon be littered with beetles that had flown too close to the light and subsequently plummeted to your plate.

Living in the house, which was supposed to be furnished, was a study in survival mode living. There was no refrigeration, so once a week we drove 70 miles to the nearest town and bought a huge block of ice to put in the old, dead upright freezer in the kitchen. The motor didn’t work but the insulation and door seals did, so it kept milk and meat cold and sealed other foods…like cereal and pasta…pest free.

There was no kitchen stove, just a two burner hot plate that barely got hot enough to boil water. It was a challenge cooking on that thing but because there was no alternative…and no oven (and this was before microwave ovens were invented)…I had no choice but to adapt and to cope.

The house did have running water…out back a ways there was a huge cistern up on stilts and a pump that sucked hard, mineral-laced water from beneath the desert floor and deposited it in the cistern. From the cistern to the house, perhaps 200 yards, a black neoprene hose was buried beneath the clay soil. The house had no hot water heater, but by late afternoon the water in that black hose had become warm from the sun and provided enough tepid water for a quick shower. It was our only luxury.

The insect life there was varied. A crack in the thick adobe walls admitted red fire ants and we had to spray a moat of insecticide around the bed every night to keep them away. A centipede nearly a foot long was captured in the bathroom one night, and boots were routinely shaken vigorously before donning, lest a scorpion be snoozing inside. Worst, however, were the cockroaches, huge ugly things that infested the kitchen cupboards such that I stored all crockery and pots upside down and kept only canned or jarred goods in them. Everything else was safely behind the seals of the defunct freezer.

Half a mile down the road from our little adobe there was a gas station and tiny general store. Once a day, just before the worst of the heat arrived, I would jump into my lace-up boots and grab my cowboy hat and hike down to the store, buy myself an ice-cold Coke, and walk back to the adobe. Once it got hot, I would lay down on the cool cement floor in the centre room (it was surrounded by other rooms, so no sun penetrated) and try to nap. On my way back to the house one day I spotted a horned toad trying to camouflage himself in the roadside gravel and snatched him up. Within a couple of weeks he and two pals of his were running loose in my house, making serious dents in the cockroach population. I couldn’t tell them apart, so I just called them all “Henry.” They must have liked it there because they could easily have escaped out the bottom of that decrepit kitchen screen, but they stuck around.

Without a hot water heater, not only did we not have hot water for bathing, we didn’t have it for washing dishes, cleaning, or laundry. The feeble little hotplate did its best and was able to muster up something close to hot water for washing dishes, but laundry was a whole other problem.

There was, of course, no washing machine. Which meant I returned to the lessons of my grandmother for washing laundry by hand. I had a small washboard and because the water was so hard, I used dishwashing detergent. You haven’t lived until you’ve washed sheets and blue jeans by hand in a kitchen sink, then stood in a rattlesnake infested dirt yard to hang them out to dry. It’s a very good thing the desert was so hot because often times the clothes would still be dripping rinse water when they went up on the line…you can only wring so much water out with a single pair of hands.

The reason this little slice of paradise comes to mind today is that this evening I found myself heating water in the electric kettle in order to do the dishes…an act very reminiscent of my adventures in an old adobe sans hot water all those years ago. We have decided to tough it out and not replace the burst hot water heater (geyser) until after the first of the year because it would be a waste of money since we are installing solar in January. I just can’t see spending R8000+ (more than $1000 USD) for a hot water heater that will be retired in just a month.

But things are different in South Africa, so the lack of hot water in the main house will not be the kind of train smash it might be in America. Dishwashers and washing machines here draw only cold water and have heating elements inside to warm the water to the proper temperature. Electric kettles are ubiquitous…literally everybody has one…so heating water in the kitchen is quick and easy. Bathing? Well, we have a little flatlet attached to the house that has its own geyser, and it has a small but fully functional bathroom. We can shower and Hubby can shave there until the solar system is installed next month.

But for a moment this evening I was transported back to the olden days, the days of heating water on the stove and using the local lizard life for insect control…did I tell you I have skinks in the garden and geckos in my house?

1 comment:

  1. I do not like deserts, or heat or dryness - and all the things that go with them. The SE US is close with the heat, but it does rain a lot in GA where my daughter lives with fire ants and geckos and monster roaches they call palmetto bugs. Do you think she could use a horned toad? Norine


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