I’m 53 years old and for the first time in my life, I’m heating water on a stove to take a bath.
The water heater for the apartment is tiny; the old bathtub, big, cast iron and chilly. Sergio helped me fill the biggest pots we have with water, they now crowd the tiny gas stove whose size matches the miniature water heater. Add to that the half size cute fridge and I feel like I’m playing in a grown-up dollhouse kitchen.
We are staying for a month near the city center. The apartment is in a pretty remodeled Art Deco building, built in the 1930s when the Colonia Juarez was the bees knees and home to many upper class Mexicans.
The area suffered heavy damage in the 1985 earthquake; you can still see some of the old abandoned buildings that were too expensive to repair. Now the area is experiencing a renewal and is home to a growing number of trendy restaurants and apartments for young people. This apartment is part of that renewal, and retains a lot of charm - tiled floors (which I love), a small patio, original hardware, rounded doorways, big windows, folding french doors, and a real rarity in Mexico City apartments - a bath tub. I have stayed in dozens of places in Mexico, this is one of 2 bathtubs I have come across in all that time.
Well, make that 3. In reading about Mexico City right before the Spanish came, I learn that water has been on the city agenda for thousands of years. Even though the ancient city was built in the middle of a lake, apparently that water wasn’t great for drinking. The Aztecs built aqueducts to bring water from the mountains. The water flowed through elaborate pipe systems to hundreds of public fountains. Some of the upper classes had running water in their homes.
The famous Aztec king Nezahualcoyotl piped water through elaborate gardens and ended in filling an outdoor bathtub positioned to give the him an incredible view of the countryside, his domain. You can visit the tub today, where the view is still available even though the water is not.
Today in Mexico City, drinking water filtering systems in homes are expensive and rare. Most of the populace buys their drinking water and carts it home; we are no exception. A 5 gallon garrafon costs 35 pesos - about $1.80 - and lasts us about 3 days.
I notice every glass of water in a way I never did living in the US. The garrafon weighs about 45 lbs. This building has no elevator; Sergio carries every ounce we drink from the corner store and lugs it up 3 flights of stairs.
Sergio doesn’t like to waste water, even if its not for drinking. He takes short showers in even shorter bursts, turning off the water to soap up and rinsing off as quickly as possible. Before he gets out, he brushes the excess water from his body in sharp motions with the flat of his hand. I asked him why once. He laughed as he said, "Force of habit - you dry off faster this way if you don’t have a towel, and sometimes there was no towel."
I am a child of U.S. suburbs, to me this all seems as primitive and exotic as the Little House on the Prairie stories I read in my room in a tract house built on a prairie outside of Houston. Laura Ingalls Wilder described the weekly bath routine that started by heating water on the stove and ended with taking turns in a wooden tub in the kitchen.
In our 70’s house growing up, the hot water seemed to flow endlessly; well, as long as my older brother didn’t get the shower first. When that happened, I would give up and go to bed because he would drain the jumbo sized water heater for sure, even though his long showers sent my dad through the roof on a regular basis.
The tub in this apartment reminds me of one in my mom’s childhood home in a small town in Iowa. Her parents lived in the family home of my grandfather, built by his father. By small town standards, it was a big Victorian with fancy details you might expect in a home for the family that owned one of the town’s two lumberyards.
Family lore maintains that the house had the first fully plumbed bathroom in the county. I still remember that bathroom; the size of a small bedroom. The tub was cast iron with claw feet, similar to this one.
There were also two freestanding sinks, one of which often had a glass of water where, much to the shock of my cousins and I, my grandfather’s teeth spent the night. I never saw my Grandpa Buck without his teeth, but I did see his teeth without him.
My Dad grew up in an even smaller Iowa town on a tiny rented farmstead. He is the youngest of 9 children born to loving, strict, and likely fatigued Methodist parents who themselves had married in their teens. They were intelligent and worked harder than most of us today can imagine. There was never much money in the mix. I think their main obstacles in life were a lack of advancing social connections and a surplus of children at all times.
My dad remembers, with his older brother, helping their mom on laundry day, which started with heating water on the stove early in the morning. Indoor plumbing was finally installed in the 1950’s when my father was in high school and all the other kids had moved on.
I’m thinking about my dad’s mother, very far away in time and distance, staring out her kitchen window at the flat Iowa landscape, waiting for water boil.
I can’t relate at all to my grandmother’s life, the reality of raising 9 children in a tiny cold water house. With this bath I’m looking for a shred of common experience with her and countless other women in the world, some in Mexico City today, that raise families without hot running water. But let's face it, one bath from water heated on a stove is more like a tourist experience than a real hardship.
I leave the kitchen to check on the bathroom. The recent remodel did not include running power to the bathroom. I run an extension cord from the bedroom across the hall and put a small space heater in the dry tub to take the chill off of the cast iron.
Sergio has some superstitions about electricity. When he was growing up, it was not a given that wiring was correct, or safe, or that there would always be “luz” (lights) available 24/7. No one left anything plugged in all night (see first point of “safe” wiring). When we were first together, I had to get used to finding everything in the kitchen unplugged in the morning.
True to form, after several minutes I come back into the bathroom to find he has unplugged the heater and relocated it to a safe distance under the sink. I plug it back in to build warmth in the room where air seeps in around a large single pane glass window.
The cleaning lady who works for the people that live here has recently come. She is a very sweet older lady, and her employment seems to be more a form of trickle down economics than an actual cleaning arrangement.
Her first chore each time she arrives is to make herself a coffee. I would, too, if I were her. She brings the bus in from a colonia about 2 hours from here. The lure of a 300 peso ($15) gig once a week makes the trip worth it. I wonder how many children she has raised; I imagine she and my grandmother could swap some stories over that cup of coffee.
However, her customary cafecito doesn’t seem to have inspired much gusto with tub scrubbing. I clean the tub, rinse it out, plug the drain and open the hot water tap all the way. The water spills out nonchalantly for about 4 minutes before it turns tepid.
Sergio brings in the first, and then the second, pan of steaming hot water and empties it into the tub. This gives me about 3 inches of hot water. It is my first hot bath in weeks; I’ve been taking hurried tepid showers to avoid a final chilly rinse as the hot water runs out. I’m also fighting off a cold and the hot water is like steam therapy. Its heaven for about 10 minutes.
Even though I pre-warmed the tub, the tiny heater fan was no match for the cast iron and the metal quickly leeches out the warmth. This first batch of water cools quickly.
I also feel a little silly sitting in this big tub alone, so I call Sergio and say, “How about you bring the rest of the hot water and yourself and join me?”
He says, “Really? "
I say, “Yes, of course, baby.”
This is how he is - cheerfully enabling my high maintenance bath without any promise of participation, his generous willingness to give me my space, even though the concept of needing personal space is foreign to him.
Growing up in Mexico City in the 60s and 70s, he did not have bathtubs, or abundant hot water, or personal space, for that matter. He lived with his dad and they moved frequently, often staying with family. Some houses had a shower, but often he grew up bathing, and later bathing his sons, standing or squatting in a round plastic tub.
One day we were in the Colonia San Felipe, where he lived for a bit as a teenager. We passed some public baths; not fancy, but respectable, where they provide towels, soap and other toiletries. Sergio said, “Look - I used to go those baths sometimes!” He is fastidious about his appearance; I smile as I imagine him as a young man, spending his hard earned pesos on a hot bath on Friday afternoon before heading out for the evening.
Back in this tub, the water heater has recovered enough to contribute another dose of hot water. Between that and the rest of the hot water Sergio brings, the bathroom finally starts to feel warm and a bit steamy.
He joins me, sitting behind me, sponging water over my shoulders, rubbing my back and chatting in Spanish. I’m feeling almost too warm now and start to sweat; a core of tension I’ve been holding on for a few weeks loosens up and dissolves. Its a sweat lodge mini- reaction - there are a few tears in the release, I just let them come, melting into the steam and heat.
My thoughts float like steam - undefined and foggy. I’m reminded how much I value this current lifestyle of few possessions and easy mobility, learning life lessons from new spaces, this time, about the precious resource of water in a city that rests on the ghosts of ancient lakes.
YouTube Video about Tetzcotzingo, The King's Bath (Baños de Nezahualcóyotl)
article about Colonia Juarez revival
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