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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Shocking Revelations

            Ever since arriving in Paraguay I have had several epiphanies concerning my lack of vocational abilities in maintaining a home or physical structure. My ineptitude in this regard can be explained in any number of ways, but for simplicity sake I'll concede that the primary reason is that I can get anything I ever needed fixed or replaced by picking up the telephone. Car broken? Take it to Jiffy lube. Yard in disarray? Call a landscaping company. Power went out? Get a hold of the electric company, and so on and so forth. What amazes me is that the convenience that exists in the states is something that I greatly took for granted before I moved to Paraguay. To be fair to myself, how could I have expected the challenges associated with house upkeep having never lived alone or in my own house? Not ever having needed those skills with any degree of regularity allowed me to prioritize other things like sports and television. Growing up in America in the time period I did greatly shaped what skills I fostered during my upbringing and educational development. Paraguay, however, is very much a developing country that I have on numerous occasions compared to America in the 1930s-50s with regards to the necessity of being handy. The main reasons I draw that comparison is because of the rudimentary handyman skills that most Paraguayan men possess far exceed the handyman skills I have. This necessity translates into Paraguayans living almost completely self-sufficiently.
            What I mean by self -sufficient is not that they most families live in a completely sustainable situation where they are not dependent on anyone for their survival. I am more referring to how all Paraguayans, particularly ones in countryside, are able to do everything from grow a good portion of there food, to building a house from the ground up. Common knowledge includes, but is not limited to plumbing, electrical wiring, carpentry, construction, animal husbandry, and agriculture. When you start a family here it is the norm, rather than the exception, to build your house, or at least expand it as your family grows, maintain a garden or small field, keep a variety of animals, install modern plumbing, and last but not least wire your own house. I could write anecdotes about all of these subjects, but since I moved into my house a year ago it has been my ongoing battle with trying to stay on the electrical grid that has been the catalyst of my frustration regarding my lack of trade skills.
My Circuit Breaker
            For the volunteers who have lived around me this ongoing saga is old news, but for those of you back home hopefully the following will provide a glimpse into the life of yours truly. In previous entries, I have discussed my house and how it came to be. Aside from the four walls, two windows, two doors, and an electrical connection to the main line, my house had virtually nothing. The months of March-April, 2012 an uphill battled ensued getting my house up to a standard of living that I considered acceptable. This included building a bathroom and putting lights on the inside and outside of the house. The majority of the electrical work was done for free by my host father and community contact Julio. In addition to being the Area Director of 7 schools he also has a field where he grows corn, a multitude of farm animals, and extensive experience in construction developed during his youth. What I brought to the table were principally naiveté, perplexed looks, and dumb questions. I had to pester Julio relentlessly for a month to have him help get my electricity, and house in working order. After over a month of waiting to finish everything, I got fed up and moved into my house, without power, where I lived for close to a week. It wasn't until after I returned from a week long training secession that I found my house was fully wired, and my front porch light was finally shining brightly illuminating my front lawn for the first time.
            I was elated, and thought that I would be on easy street for the rest of my service with regards to electricity. I had a water pump that filled a tank above my house that provided me running water, multiple outlets, and plenty of lighting. Little did I know that my house was connected to the main power line on the street by two metal hooks that hung precariously eight meters in the air. I quickly learned that if there were any disturbances in the line from a bird landing on them to the wind blowing gently that I would lose power to my whole house, and suffer the night in utter darkness. To make matters worse it was after daylight savings so it would begin to get dark around 5 in the afternoon. Seemingly everyday I would have to go ask a neighbor or Julio to fix my power. This entailed getting long stick of bamboo to move the metal hooks into the precise place where the electrical connection could be established. I quickly caught on to this trick and soon found myself fixing the problem independently. While highly inconvenient, I trudged forward until one day when the cable fried causing one of the metal hook to fall to the ground. My heart sank because, as mentioned, I know nothing about electricity. In a move that would cause any professional electrician's jaw to drop, I reattached the cable with a neighbor by reforming the metal hook, attaching it to a slit at the end of a bamboo pool, and hooking it to the necessary cable. The effect was something on par with Fourth of July fireworks celebration, but after the initial sparking I was once again joined the ranks of the electrified, not literally. When that happened again a month later I decided that enough was enough and I would look for a more permanent solution to my ongoing problem.
            In every instance when my power has gone out I have had a conversation with most my neighbors that goes something like this:

Neighbor: Your powers out.
Me: Sure is. I have no idea why?
Neighbor: Sucks.
Me: Yep.
Neighbor: You should talk to so and so I don't know.
Me: Where does he live?
Neighbor: Over there.
Me. Thanks.
Neighbor: No Problem

Now I'll concede that I am embellishing this a bit, but my interactions with my neighbors almost always happens this way. It also always happens when I am standing underneath my power line looking perplexed. Invariably someone will come along to help me, but it is only after a few days of me inquiring around. At the recommendation of Kristin, the volunteer who lived in the community next to mine at the time, I enlisted the help of squat, round-faced man named Blascito who is the go to "electrician" in her community that is 1 KM from my house.  Not only did he fix my problem the day I asked him about it, but he also used an old rickety ladder, that he had elongated by 2 meters, and permanently, or so I thought, fixed my power for a nominal fee. He had taken the two long hanging wires and secured them to the main power line. In doing so I never again needed to go out and fix my power with a long stick when it was disconnected by a minor change in the weather.
            That fairy tale ending, while life changing at that moment, would not withstand the test of time. The next series of problems occurred in the New Year, and started with my archenemies the cow. Having spent a marvelous two-weeks in beautiful Uruguay I returned to my derelict shake to discover that cows had ripped off my electrical connection to my house. Thankfully this was an easy fix, but a fix all the same that required the usual herculean effort to resolve. Thankfully it was the summer, and Julio was able to come over and resolve the problem immediately after some coxing. Next was the infamous plug, water pump, and light bulb explosions of February. Within 24 hours of each other I burnt out the main light in my kitchen, which normally would be an easy fix except that the bulb is located in the middle of the room about 9 feet in air just out of my reach in my tallest chair. A frayed wire giving way causing the one plug in my kitchen area to go up like a sparkler followed that situation. That forced me to cook my meals in my bedroom next my bed, which while opportune was hardly ideal. Then my water pump, never a good-looking one to start with, burnt out leaving me with no water. Similar to the cow situation it was the summer meaning that Julio had time to help me slowly but surly resolve these problems that included installing brand new water pump that worked like a dream.
The Main Line
            Now when I say worked like I dream I mean that last week it was stolen while I was away from my house. Someone around me likely saw me install it, and rightfully thought it would be a nice payday to swipe that when Thomas wasn't around. Sure enough when I got back my heart sank as I knew that I would have to temporarily relay on the good ole' fashion bucket and rope method to supply my water until I can put in a new pump, but that isn't even half the story. Within one hour of realizing my pump was stolen, my electrical connection burnt out leaving me powerless for four days. This time, Julio had resumed his job at the school meaning that I was up you know what creek without a paddle. I spent those four days in a somber mood to say the least.
            After a day, I was able to get Julio to come over to my house. He spent 15-minutes fiddling around the mess that makes up my poor mans circuit breaker before concluding he didn't know what the problem was and left without giving me advice. I was dumbfounded by his indifference towards my situation, and began having PST flashbacks from this time last year when he was erratically meandering over to my house to help me put the home, which he helped me find in the first place under the pretext of being there to help me out when I needed it, together. I then spent all of Friday wandering aimlessly around my neighborhood looking for people who could help my situation. That entailed borrowing a wobbly ladder weighing close to a metric ton from one neighbor, and being told the community electrical guy wasn't around because Sunday was the Presidential Election and nobody had time to help. To make matters worse, my two neighbors who usually help me when I have a problem with my house, so about every week, weren’t around. I then went to talk Blascito again hoping that the reliability he demonstrated last year would again shine through for long enough to get my situation resolved. I biked over to his house, and after blithering away in my stupendously average Guarani he told me he would come by at 3.
            From the moment he biked up to my house I could tell that the problem was far graver than I had thought. He informed me immediately that my main cables looked liked they had spent a period of time on the sun, and that I would need to buy about 22 meters of 4 mm electrical cable to fix it. The problem, however, was that the aforementioned wobbly ladder, despite having already been extended already, couldn't reach the height of the wires. He said that he would need to find some type of climbing spike to even attempt to fix the problem. Not having mountaineering gear handy, Blas went to find out if he could borrow some from a friend. As he was leaving my neighbor Alfredo, like the sauce, rolls up to tell me that he can fox it no problem as long as I buy the wire. It being four o'clock on the Friday before the national elections were to occur and with daylight dwindling I jumped on my bike and booked it to the closest hardware store in the center of O'Leary. As I Flintstoned braked from about 300 meters before the hardware store, my bike currently doesn't possess brakes, I realized that I had set a personal record for the 2 KM distance from my house to the center of town. I quickly bought the needed wire a booked it home with plenty of time to fix the power. To avoid the height problem of my previous power situation Alfredo connected the wires to the electric poll that the school uses. Alfredo heroically fixed my power even though I almost killed him through my use of a crappy ladder that broke halfway up as he was climbing to make the final connections. In spite of all that we fixed the ladder, and more importantly my power that has been working, knock on wood, ever since.
            I am sure that more problems will present themselves in my remaining eight months in Paraguay. I realize this entry makes it seem like I have learned nothing, and to be honest that isn't too far from the truth. I have, however, experienced my own brief moment of redress when I successfully was able to rewire my back porch light last November. Having triumphantly reattached the burnt wiring, my chest swelled with pride as I flipped the switch to see the light bulb illuminate my backyard as I stood there with a smug smile on face. I have to say, though, boasting about an accomplishment of that nature to Paraguayans is far from satisfactory given their general knowledge of how to wire something. In my incessantly ramblings about my accomplishment within 3 days of finally fixing a problem on my own the bulb jettisoned from its mount and shattered all over the ground. I guess next time I'll hide my hubris.

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