Friday, January 17, 2014

Water, Water, Everywhere

I lowered my camera into the hole

I stood in the patio of the new house and said to myself, "Well, well, well," then recognized the pun and added, "well."

That's four wells I have found so far on the long-uninhabited downtown Mérida property I bought a month ago.

In Yucatán, this is not unusual. This is a flat, porous land where water does not run off. It filters down; there are no rivers or streams. In a place where people have lived for many hundreds of years and city water utilities have existed for only a few short decades, wells have long been a necessity for human survival.

The Maya drew water from natural caves, cenotes and hand-dug wells, and also collected rainwater. The Spanish continued these same practices, and as Mérida grew, large numbers of wells were excavated.

Most of the older buildings in Yucatán have hand-built stone-lined wells, used to produce fresh water (a practice no longer common in the city), and now used also for runoff and for sewage. These wells are large enough in diameter for a person to descend into. For that reason they can be dangerous, especially where they have been abandoned, have partially collapsed and are hidden by undergrowth and debris.

As the back patio in my new place was slowly cleared of many years' accumulation of brush, weeds, leaves and trash, wells became obvious. One looks something like an old-time storybook water well. It's easy, looking down into its rock-walled cylinder, to see the water about eight meters (26 feet) down. The well straddles the lot line and is shared with a neighboring house. The wall separating the properties goes right over the top, a very common situation around here.

Another well in the patio is identified by a round concrete slab embedded in the ground, with a smaller concrete cap sporting a crude metal lift handle centered in its middle. Once brush was cleared, it was easy to see.

There's a well under this floor
Later, I got curious when I started clearing out a covered outdoor laundry area and saw that the drain tube went straight into the floor, which was finished with colorful, antique pasta tiles. By stomping with my foot, I found a hollow area beneath the floor. Later, I asked about it when talking with an elderly neighbor whose family had owned the house. She confirmed that there is a drainage well under the laundry sink.



That's three wells. The fourth was the most obvious, marked by a large concrete slab, recessed into a low rectangular stone foundation, with a pipe leading into it through a small aperture. A rusty, old-fashioned water pump sits to one side. All this is enclosed within what was a three-sided hut, now roofless. The size and proportions of this one made me think that this could be a noria, a larger, rectangular well, easily large enough to climb down into.

I couldn't see anything by looking into the tiny opening, and it would be dangerous to try to stand on the deteriorated roof over what could be a very deep hole and try to lift the concrete well cap by myself. I concentrated instead on a pile of wood and old doors and windows, weighted down by rocks and concrete blocks, covering the other end of the large slab. After letting scorpions and thousands of ants disperse, I moved one final panel of termite-eaten wood and discovered a round opening leading down into darkness.

Not having anticipated the need for a flashlight, I was unable to see much, so I lowered my camera by its strap into the hole and took a few flash pictures. They don't help much to clarify what's down there, but there definitely is stone construction below ground. However, parts of the cavern look irregular, raising the possibility that the well may have been built where a natural fissure or cenote already existed. There are many cenotes in Mérida, including a small one under the patio of the house I am renting right now. It's a possibility here, too.

Only time and further investigation will tell what I've really got there under the patio.

Meanwhile, I may have detected another large hollow, possibly indicating a cistern, well or cenote under a floor inside the house. More exploration is on the agenda to sort that one out.


Text and photos Copyright 2014 by Marc Olson

23 comments:

  1. You may have discovered the Bat Cave.

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    1. Well if not here, then in another part of the house. I keep finding interesting stuff. More details soon.

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  2. Replies
    1. I am glad you enjoy reading about it. I certainly am fascinated by trying to figure these things out.

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  3. I must admit with all the residential remodels and updates I did over 20 years, luckily I never found wells............that I know of, at least! Happy Adventures my friend.

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    1. Well...you never did one in Yucatan, I guess. Thanks, it is an adventure.

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  4. I love to find hidden things like that on properties. Can you see water in the other wells? I wonder if the water is potable?
    Lots of questions, now there are inexpensive 1/2 horse submersible pumps that you could use for irrigation especially if you are on a metered municipal system.

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    1. Tancho, I've only been able to see the bottom of the one well, so far. The others are capped or blocked in ways that don't permit me to see straight down. I will uncork all of them since I will need to evaluate whether they are safe, and to see which ones might be used. Then I will put new roofs or covers on, where needed, to make sure they are structurally safe. One will already be dedicated for sewage. Since there is no municipal waste system here every house has a sumidero. I would like to inspect and test the others to see which might serve for watering the garden and for the pool. No one drinks well water in Mérida any longer, but in my old house one well had very nice, clear water. As soon as a good well is identified in the new place, I will plumb it and put in a pump.

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  5. I hope you don't find Timmy among the other dead bodies in the well.

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    1. I think Timmy is safe. My brother Tim Olson is in Alaska right now...

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  6. How exciting! Your own, private, man-made cenotes. I love the pasta tile floor of that laundry room. I hope you can preserve it. Looks like it would clean up very nicely.

    Saludos,

    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where we grew up with a big well on our property in California. Sadly, one year a deer fell in and drowned.

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    1. Yes, it is interesting. I am sure I will find more interesting things out about the wells as I work on the place. The laundry is not really a room, just a covered area in a corner of the patio. It won't serve a real purpose that I can think of, has a rotten, termite-eaten roof and the floor over the well vibrates when you walk on it. It will all have to go. But you are right about the tile, and interestingly it's the same pattern as in one of the rooms inside where I want to restore the damaged floor. So the tiles will be carefully taken up and used to replace damaged tiles inside. As you said, they will polish up beautifully.

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  7. wow! What a story! Is there any danger of a sink-hole developing? I am wondering if there is one, very large, cenote underlying your whole property?

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    1. Christine, this town has been here for a long time, and I don't think there has ever been a sinkhole problem. Cenotes are possible, but if it were a big one, I suspect we'd already know about it. I guess I'll find out.

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  8. A grotto swimming pool would be exotic but the practice of using the water table as a cesspool may preclude that fantasy.
    Love the house photos, I'm in Antigua Guatemala, a good parentage of my snaps are of old derelict properties. Linda and I spend half the day peeking through the cracks in the old doors and windows. If there is no meter, we peek.

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    1. Yes, Norm, the city's gourndwater is not terribly clean, however many use water from good wells to fill pools a well as to water plants, and I hope to do that here.

      Peeking into derelict houses and ruins has always been one of my favorite pastimes, wherever I go. Yucatán, as you know, is a particularly rich area for this hobby.

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  9. I see old galvanized plumbing. Will you re plumb with copper or plastic? Will you have to re wire the electric?

    Robert Gill
    Phoenix, AZ

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    1. I will have to re plumb the entire house. I've used plastic here before with good results, and it was a lot more economical than copper the last time I looked. Right now you pump water to a tinaco (cistern) on the roof for pressure (and there's not much), so I will convert to a pressure tank system.

      The wiring is old and very primitive with one outlet per room and lots of bulb-dangling-from-its-wire sorts of things. It will have to be done from the ground up....literally...it's common here to find ungrounded systems, and this is one of those.

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    2. "Ungrounded systems" to be sure. But even one that is supposedly grounded may have a "reverse ground" (as my plug-in diagnostic says.) I myself have had a whole lot of trouble getting a properly grounded plug into one room of mine, and I've been given many explanations. Fortunately, when I remodeled my kitchen, the technicos did do it correctly--plugs all properly grounded, and (if I recall correctly), on separate lines, circuits or whatever.

      I would like to add--you should consider making this series into a book. There are so many lovely old neglected buildings in Mérida, and you just might encourage others to rehabilitate them--a public service. I'm always perplexed, even saddened, when I see such prime locations, e.g., around the Fiesta Americana, with such houses.

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  10. Plastic is the way to go. Nobody breaks into a house to steal plastic pipe. As for looking down the well, I learned from my septic man that a reflecting mirror works a lot better than a flashlight.
    Be careful, and proceed with caution. One never knows what was put down a well. It used to be a good place to hide the silver and china in dangerous and difficult times.

    Robert Gill
    Phoenix, AZ

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    1. Yes, plastic is quicker to install, too. I've even installed and repaired some myself and it worked perfectly. I wouldn't attempt that with copper. Thanks for the idea about the mirror. I will try it out, but I'll let someone else climb down, if it comes to that.

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  11. Please don't send anyone down into the wells to clean them. There is lots of rotting organic matter that produces methane. My life partner died cleaning out an old well here in the Yucatan.

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    1. I'm terribly sorry to hear that story and for your loss. I always am careful, and do not plan to enter any wells myself. If any one of them needs to be cleaned, I will call on professionals here who do that sort of thing. They've got the equipment to do the job safely and correctly.

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