“Carrying pails of water for others defined Isabel’s daily life from the time she was four years old. Each morning, she grasped her little sister Luisa’s tiny hand as she slung the two plastic pails around her other wrist. The two of them descended the treacherous path to the world below. It would be hours and many miles before they reached the bottom of this impossible incline, where they filled their pails at the edge of the muddy riverbank. Exhausted, they rested for a short time and stuffed their mouths hungrily with the corn tortillas their mother had cooked for them at dawn. They couldn’t rest long because the second half of the uphill journey took much longer, especially with the extra burden of hauling pails full of water. The two girls sighed as they traversed the steep, ancestral path back home to an isolated village high atop the Bolivian Andes.
But today’s routine promised a welcome surprise, for Isabel found a pencil on the ground. It had been lost by one of those fortunate few who went to school and drew mysterious signs in books with these magical sticks.
Overcome with delight, Isabel accidentally tripped and spilled one of the pails of precious cargo, the liquid gold that would have bathed her siblings, quenched her family’s thirst and added a special ingredient to some meagre potatoes for dinner that night. The parched earth sucked up the moist contents within seconds.
Too intoxicated to care, Isabel stared at her treasure and imagined how she could preserve images with this tool. Perhaps she would trace the outlines of the soaring eagle that followed her like a guardian angel every afternoon. Maybe she could capture the shadow of her grandfather’s loving hands as he stroked her hair each night. Instead of making designs with her feet in the dirt, now she could keep her drawings and retrieve them at a moment’s notice. Best of all, she might even learn how to write her name in that special code just like the fortunate few did in school each day. Isabel sang all the way home as Luisa followed in amusement.
When the sisters arrived in the doorway of the family’s mud hut, their mother shrieked in horror when she discovered only one pail of water instead of two. Isabel explained her mishap but giggled with joy when she handed her mother the sliver of lead encased in wood. Isabel’s heart pounded as she gazed at that tiny sliver of hope which held such infinite possibilities.
Filled with rage, her mother snapped the pencil into little pieces and scattered Isabel’s broken dreams across the floor. In that very moment, Isabel understood how her life, like that of her mother and all her grandmothers before her, would be measured by a pail of water.”
-Nancy J. Haws, Bolivia
From Water Stories, edited by Sascha de Graaf