Monday, February 7, 2011

Ice in the Desert

It’s been a weird week in El Paso. The University has been closed since last Tuesday, and it remains closed today. Many people here are without water or electricity, and there is such a severe shortage of the former that government offices are closed and malls are forced to close early. Laundromats and carwashes have been forced shut, because there are “mandatory water restrictions,” including a ban on taking showers, washing dishes, and doing laundry.

It’s kind of weird, kind of (dare I say Kafkaesque?). It’s strange to walk around the deserted UTEP campus, empty of people like an abandoned Tibetan city or a lifeless landscape after the bomb.

It all started last Tuesday when subfreezing temperatures washed through El Paso like legions of evil spirits. It was actually only one degree Fahrenheit at the lowest, but with the wind-chill factor reported that it felt like, at its worse, below 17, although for most days it lingered around below 7 degrees.

It is the coldest winter I have ever experienced, and I lived in rural Minnesota, where every family had a snowmobile in the garage and where they measured snow in terms of feet. I’ve travelled twice through Poland during the worst of winter, walking the streets of Warsaw at night, sliding along frozen puddles and covering up my face from the red sting of cold.

But El Paso, our little city in the desert, was the coldest I have ever—and many people have ever—experienced for three days last week. Water pipes froze and busted.

Accidents on the freeways and the streets were so numerous emergency services were unable to respond to all of them. Cars slid all over the roads like clowns in the ice follies or got stuck in gutters and driveways.

The battery on our car froze, so for two days I was trapped inside the building, unable to go to the grocery store, but even if I were able to start the car, I wouldn’t have been able to pull it away from the curb, because it was surrounded by snow banks on all sides.

El Paso was so unprepared for this that even now the city is suffering. It’s “illegal” to take a shower or wash dishes, and water pipes in the city’s infrastructure burst and the water has been contaminated, so we’re advised to boil all water before we use it. Yesterday at a grocery store near our house, I saw that most of the bottled water on the shelves was gone, and some man with ear muffs was piling what was left in his shopping cart, as if he were preparing for the end of times.

It’s been a strange week.

What is the correspondence for water?

What could all this mean?

Birds are falling from the sky in Arkansas.

The desert has been covered with a sheet of ice.

What’s happening?

Two weeks ago I was in Buenos Aires, one of the hottest summers I remember having there. The summer before, Sasha and I were there, and we loved the weather and were impressed by how much porteños complained about the heat.

This year it was so hot by ten o’clock in the morning that I couldn’t stand being outside unless I was underneath some three-hundred-year-old tree in some park somewhere in the city.

I went from extreme heat to extreme cold, but here’s the cool thing:

It’s nice to be home.

Home is always warm, no matter how cold it is outside.

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