All’s well in Copoya: Village life in modern Mexico

articles Living, Working, Retiring

Carron Harlan

I have spent the early morning hours of this cool, beautiful summer morning surfing the Internet for international news and letters from friends in distant places. With my laptop clicking and whirring — and my modem giving me the occasional seductive wink — I make final revisions to a manuscript scheduled for publication on “Mexico Connect”. Soon I will e-mail my work by virtually instantaneous transmission to my editor, hundreds of miles away.

While I have been thus occupied, my neighbor too has been working hard. He is a friendly young man, always smiling and greeting me warmly as he politely requests permission to use our well. He has brought his sturdy little gray donkey with him. And as the burro stands with patient resignation, placidly nibbling our thick carpet of fresh green grass, his owner draws bucket after bucket of water from far below. The old iron pulley creaks and complains, but continues its familiar rounds.

I watch discreetly as the man puts each bucketful into one of the two paint (or perhaps lard) pails strapped symmetrically over the back of his burro by means of a homemade wooden rig. I cringe a little as I watch him give his burro a long slow drink from the bucket he then returns to the well. We drink from this well, also!!

Five or six times a week they make the slow trek from our well to their house, perhaps a half mile farther up the mountain along the dusty double path which doubles for an avenida here in Copoya. I can imagine how much his pretty young wife appreciates not having to carry one of those heavy pails home, balanced on her own proud head, as do the older women of the village.

One of the most abundant resources in the lush verdant state of Chiapas is its water. Yet one of the most basic challenges I have had while living here is getting water from its source into my house. I am not referring to the bottled stuff you buy because it is trendy or tastes great with your favorite cocktail. I am talking about the tap water itself. That really, really basic liquid you depend on every day for bathing, washing dishes, flushing the toilet. The stuff which you expect to BE THERE whenever you turn on the faucet.

In this part of Mexico, it often isn’t.

So how does the delivery system work here deep in the heart of Chiapas? When I moved to Tuxtla Gutierrez from the United States with my two teenage daughters, the director of the school where I would be teaching moved us into a large apartment in one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods. Yet rarely did water come out of the taps, nor would the commode work. Even when we had water there was not enough pressure to rinse the shampoo from our hair. Even worse — when I was actually in the shower, all soaped up, suddenly there would be no more water. That was not a pretty picture at all!

My tourist-level Spanish was simply not up to the challenge of handling this kind of problem. Finally, one of the other teachers — who lived in a house also occupied by his landlady — explained to me the details of getting water in the capital city.

For those who can afford “running” water, i.e. water on demand from taps and faucets, it is available from two sources. First it is available occasionally from the city system. On certain days of the week a city worker with a special key opens the water lines in a particular neighborhood. It is then possible to turn on the system installed in the house and fill a large cisterna. This can be a brick and cement affair underground or a large plastic tank holding 1200 liters or more.

A more convenient — and more expensive — alternative to municipal water is to buy from a truck (agua en pipa). For around 80 pesos in the dry season one can buy a minimum order of 3000 liters, which is also pumped into the cisterna.

Once the cistern is filled, an electric pump moves the water up into a smaller holding tank on the roof, from which point it gravity-feeds down into the kitchen or bath whenever a faucet is opened. This does not provide a lot of pressure, but until the hot water runs out you won´t mind too much!

One of the other tenants in the apartment building where we were staying then explained the reason we so frequently did not have water was that the security guard out front was responsible for turning on the pump whenever the holding tank on the roof was empty. He did not get paid extra for “flipping the switch” and therefore would not do it unless someone gave him a propina. Of course, the tenants were not permitted to touch the switch themselves, although we would certainly have been capable.

Just as I was finally beginning to grasp this truly “foreign” approach to water service, my husband arrived from Texas to join us. He immediately moved the family to Copoya, a Zoque Indian village south of Tuxtla Gutierrez. Here, we bought enough black plastic cisternas to hold 3000 liters of water at a time, and installed an electric pump which I can turn on myself, if necessary, to fill the holding tank directly over the bathroom shower.

But here in the village, we aren’t reliant upon municipal water. We have a dependable back-up for our water supply. We have a well.

In the middle of our property a wide, dry river bed winds its way down from the top of the mountain, not far from where we live. The river flows only during the height of the rainy season. In the center of the river bed is a deep well lined with ancient rocks and mossy green plants. Even during the driest time of the year, the well has several feet of water near the bottom. This water trickles continuously from a number of natural fissures deep behind the stone walls. It is always cold, clear, clean, and potable.

For generations this well has been a primary source of water for the people of the village. When we bought our property, formerly “ejido” land, and realized what we had, we immediately assured our neighbors that they would be welcome to continue using the well as they always had. They were skeptical but appreciative.

Having the well on our property has given us many insights into the daily workings of our community. It has enabled us to relate to our neighbors and learn things from them we otherwise might never have known. Also it gives the neighbors a chance to be friendly with the foreigners and assuage some of their natural curiosity about us. After all, there aren’t any other norteamericanos around!

Although we have repeatedly explained that there is no need to ask permission before using the well, everyone still stops at our front door, or reaches inside a window to pull back the curtain, and call out before coming onto the property. It seems the perfect excuse to exchange pleasantries and engage in neighborly chit-chat not found in the basic Spanish section of your favorite tourist guide.

After filling their buckets, they always repeat a word of thanks for the water before returning home. Some of the kids even try out an English “Thank you!” It has become for all of us in this end of the village a comfortable excuse for visiting each other, as real neighbors do.

And although the language is at best uncertain and our cultures have been shaped by distinctly divergent pasts, our communication is clear and understood, filled with heartfelt greetings.


Published or Updated on: July 1, 2000 by Carron Harlan © 2000


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