Monday, November 24, 2008

Pila Etiquette

A few weeks ago, I accompanied Allen on a trip into a remote area of Lempira. While out, we were invited to have lunch with a family, after a church service. Before the meal was served, our host offered us the opportunity to wash our hands, which of course we wanted to do. So, we all headed outside, to the pila. I was glad that, over the course of my years in Honduras, I've learned correct pila etiquette.

A pila, for those who may not know, is a large outdoor sink/water storage tub/washboard. Generally these are made out of concrete. My current pila is an upscale model, covered with tile, and without the washboard. This house also has a built-in connection for hooking up cold and hot water to a washing machine, so you can see it was designed for someone who would NOT be scrubbing clothes on a washboard!

For the non-pila users amongst us, here is a pila tutorial.

First of all, the water storage part of a pila is to be kept full at all times. Every week or so, the pila has to be drained and cleaned, so that the water stays fresh. During parts of the year, when mosquitos are a big problem, the city sends around little bags of chemicals to be placed in the pilas, which kill the mosquito larva. The bags allow a very slow release of the chemicals. I never wash dishes at my pila, but I worry a bit about those who do, when the pesticides are in the water.

Living with piped in city water, it is not hard to keep a pila full. Lots of people seem to just let the water flow in at a slow rate all the time. We've never had a meter on our water in Honduras, we've always just paid a flat rate for water. Perhaps this is the reason that people here don't seem to be concerned about wasting water. Our pilas have all had drains near the top of the water storage area, so they wouldn't overflow onto the ground, if the water was just left running.

In addition to the big tub, a pila will have some sort of flat work surface. Generally, this surface serves as a partial cover over part of the water storage area, and as previously mentioned, there is often a washboard built into this flat surface. This area will have a drain, which will drain the water away from the pila, so that dirty water does not contaminate the stored water.

Sitting somewhere on a pila there will be some sort of container, a bowl or small bucket, for pulling water out of the tub, to use for washing. You would not want to put anything dirty into the pila, of course.

So, to wash your hands at a pila, you would stand in front of the flat work surface. You dip up a bowl of water, and pour some of it over your hands, while holding your hands over the flat surface, so that none of this water goes into the stored pila-water. Then, after soaping your hands, you would use the rest of that water to rinse your hands, again not draining into the tub, but onto the flat surface.

I know, for sure, that if I'd been invited to wash my hands at a pila early in my life in Honduras, I would have plunged my hands into the stored water, soaped them up over the water, and rinsed them in the water, or at least washed them at the tap of water running into the pila, thus totally contaminating the pila. And, I would have silently wondered at the Hondurans, for having such an unsanitary system.

Meanwhile, the pila owner would have likely silently marveled at the ignorance of a gringa who didn't even know how to wash her hands at a pila!

Update: My friend Faith posted pictures of her pila on her blog, and I thought it would be good for you to have pictures to go with my verbal description. Faith's pila is impressively large, a double-washboard model! She also has a hookup for a washing machine beside the pila (since she doesn't have a hot water heater, I think it's a safe bet that she doesn't have a hot water connection to her machine, though).

Faith's Pila

Faith cleaning her pila


Patty said...

I didn't know there was an etiquette! Thank you for enlightening me. Most people not familiar with a pila could make a social no-no and never know what they did wrong. You could post this on HL and help some of our newer members assimilate.

Patty-Trujillo soon

Amrita said...

This is very interesting.In rural India we have pilas but they are not used to store water for cooking.

Our 'pila" is used to water the garden or construction work.
But now we don 't need it as we have a bore well.

Laurie said...

I love your pila post. I have a pila, but it's not working right now. I really miss it, because in my former house in Comayagua it was very useful.

Amrita said...

In India we also have pilas, they are called water tanks and used to store water for outdoor use, ususally where there is scarce supply of water and in rural areas.

Kim - a fellow missionary said...

I wanted to add that our pila also serves as a swimming pool for our 3 year old on really hot days...and there are alot in san pedro!!! ha ha

Jared S. Baumann said...

We have a Pila in our home in Mexico, but it is different than you have described for Honduras. Ours is in the ground and holds approximately 500 gallons of water. The city water supply is very unreliable and has very low water pressure and so this is a storage tank that then supplies the house. Most of the time, the tank stays full, but when the city water supply is interrupted you can run off of your reserve from the pila. It is almost like having an old fashioned cistern in the United States, but instead of being rainwater, it is filled gradually with city water.

Gabriela said...

Oh lord, I'm from the U.S but my family is honduran, so I went to visit some poor family members, but no matter how poor they were, they all had pilas, and they even told me how to use it, and I even got to bathe in it! This brought back so many amazing memories. But now In the US again, I can't help but sigh, because I miss it so much.