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The other night I was sitting outside one of my local cafés, one that used to have slices of cake and such for a little over a dollar, but the prices of which have recently gone up to the scandalous price of nearly $1.50 (900 pesos!), enjoying the cool evening breeze with a friend. We’d just eaten some apple kuchen, the word itself a tip of the hat to the giant German presence in the south of Chile. Who knows if the kuchen was authentic, I’ve only ever been in the Frankfurt airport in Germany and mainly I was amazed by how incredibly thorough the modifications were to the wheelchair-accessible bathroom, which even had a trapezey-looking thing above the toilet to use to lift ones’ self onto the toilet, if the rails on the side don’t work for you. Anyway, kuchen.

The café closed early, so my friend and I sat outside, and chatted in the plaza outside, which like many plazas in Santiago, has a little fountain. Someone came up and filled up a 1.5 liter bottle with water from the fountain. Clearly not to drink. To bathe himself? It seemed unlikely. Dogs run around in the fountains in the summer, and there’s just got to be a better way to get clean. He disappeared, then came back, twice more, to fill up the bottle. Ultimately we decided his car had overheated and he needed the water for the radiator. Or maybe it was a bus. That’s a lot of water.

And the evening wore on, and the temperature dropped, we wrapped our sweaters around us a little tighter, and two more gents arrived. These with not bottles, but bidones, the 5-liter jugs that water is also sold in. These they lined up around the fountain, like fans waiting to get in to a concert. One guy’s job was to uncap the bidones and line them up, while the other busied himself buying beer at the corner botillería.

How were they going to fill what were more than 30 jugs of water? Surely they weren’t going to use the same technique as the water-bottle guy, lying the bottles sideways in the water. No, indeed. A joint compound bucket was produced, and it was scooped along the bottom of the fountain, and inverted over each bidón, in turn, using the top half of a 1.5-liter bottle (of a drink called Japi Cola, which I’ve never seen for sale in stores) as a funnel. One by one, the men filled the jugs, and periodically checked on the temperature of their just-purchased beer, which was cooling in the very same fountain.

My friend and I knew immediately that these guys were helping themselves to water for their business. They must be the carwash guys (or their helpers) who mop off your car for you while it’s parked downtown (for a price).

I suppose it harkens back to when public wells ruled the day. I guess it’s as good a place as any to take water from. The municipality maintains the fountains, and if these guys didn’t have work they’d surely be a drain on society. For now, they steal water, and sell you their services, you get a clean car, and the guy in charge of the fountain on the corner of Catedrál and San Martín asks himself at least once a week, “Qué chucha pasó con el agua?” (Where the h… did the water go?)