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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Personifying Pumps

Top of the well
            I have never lived in a place where I had to use a well. Of course I remember reading books in school that talked about the well and what happened to the farming family when it ran dry, but those stories and references were just that. I had a concept of what it meant to get water from a well and the amount of work associated with getting enough water to survive, but I didn't have a real sense of what the process entailed. Growing up, the water was always in the faucet and I didn't pay the bills, so to me water was an ever-plentiful resource that was always available whenever I needed it. I didn't view it as a commodity at all until I got a taste of what life was like with and without one.
            When I first arrived in O'Leary on that sweltering day in December, I distinctly remember taking a shower. I didn't take another one for 2.5 months after that first day. Why you ask? Because we were in the midst of a pretty severe drought, and there was no water. Julio and Iris, my host parents in O'Leary, happened to be on the municipal water supply system, but where they live is on the extreme end of the supply chain meaning that their water would be the first to stop flowing so as to meet the demand of increased usage in the center of town. For me never having lived in a home where running water wasn't readily available, it was a bit of a transition. The water would run from about 1-5 am during those first few months. That meant the toilet tank would have one flush in the morning for the 6 of us in the house. When there was no water I couldn't flush the toilet at all. After a couple of weeks I swallowed my pride and asked Mathias, my host brother, how to the flush the toilet? He looked at me with befuddlement and told me all I needed to do was fill up a bucket and pour it in the bowl after I had done my business. I felt pretty stupid after that, but it was just one of many things I was unaccustomed to. For that family the water going out happened all the time, and I am sure installing a modern bathroom for the family was pretty big deal that didn't happen that long ago. As time went on, I got used to life without a lot water, but the drought kept getting worse.
Metal Bars
            The house I lived in with Julio and his family is right next to the house of his brother and mother. In addition to the 6 people living in Julio's house there were another 8 living next door. The families shared a tap that was in between the two houses. At first, there was water throughout the day. It was a pain to carry big buckets of water for cooking, laundry, toilet flushing, and bucket baths, but there was no other option. As time went on that consistent source water started to diminish its yield. Eventually by the beginning of February there was only a light trickle that stopped flowing by 10 am. It only rained once in my first 2 months in O'Leary. The heat was intolerable, and it quickly became obvious that this wasn't a normal summer. By the middle of February, Julio and Jorge, his brother, decided enough was enough, and built a water tank to supply the two houses with consistent running water. Basically they built a tall tower out of bricks, put a several hundred liter tank on top of the tower, attached piping, and put an electric pump in the well the families shared to force the water into the tank. They were hardly the first people in the community to do this, but I could tell it was a bit of a financial strain to pull it off. For my remaining time there however, we were liquid.
            When the prospect of living on my own came up a few months later, I was told they could put in a water tank for me. The house I was going to move into, didn't have a connection to municipal water, and left me with a choice. Do I spend the money to put in running water, or do I fix up the well so I can pull up water myself? The cost difference was pretty significant, but I decided to go with the pump. Four pumps later I sit hear telling you that maybe I should of not gone the cheaper route. Little did I know at that time how much those pumps would impact my life and teach me more about perseverance than I could've ever expected.
Tank on top of my house about 20 yards from the well
            Each pump I have had in my house can be readily compared to cars and careers of professional athletes. Pump number 1 would of been a beat up jalopy. This Frankenstinian pump was the brainchild of Professor Julio, my contact and host dad. He took two rusty functioning parts from two old pumps that had broken, and fused them together to create an abomination that would cause the villagers in Mary Shelley's novel to book it to the hills. The pumped worked, but at a maddeningly slow pace, and often times wouldn't pump water at all. Julio installed that initial pump, and told me that he can only be turned on early in the morning or late at night. I asked why, and he responded," because it needs a lot of energy to work, and your electrical connection is weak." Since Julio was the electrician behind my predicament, I didn't understand why my electrical situation couldn't be improved. Until I realized that he indolently connected my power because he had other more important stuff to do. Frankenstein served his purpose well. He wasn't overly expensive, at about half the price of a new pump, but it also worked half as well. Somehow he lasted nine months before exploding. He was of like that aging athlete who was still in the fight trying to have one last chance for glory after a career riddled in injuries. When Frank died I decided I needed a new first round draft pick that would make an impact immediately and last me for the long run. That is when I bought Auger.
            Auger was like that mid-life crisis Ferrari. He was shiny, was seemingly the solution to all my problems, and ran smoother than a slip and slide covered in vegetable oil. Julio helped me install him, and from day one we were in love. Powerful, consistent, and fast he could fill my tank in 8 minutes 27 seconds flat without breaking a sweat. Life was good with Auger. His name derives from the brand of the pump. The only problem with Auger was that he was expensive, and I unwisely didn't take out insurance. In mid-April I returned from being away for a few days, and flipped on the switch to see if Auger was working his magic. I heard absolutely nothing, and ran outside only to discover that he was gone. I let out an enraged wail with a fury that I didn't know I possessed, and realized that he was gone forever. He was like that promising rookie who had a career ending injury half way through the season. It took me a long time to get over him, but after two months of pulling buckets of water by hand I gotten fed up and decided it was time to move on.
            Luck was just around the corner. A fellow Peace Corps Volunteer heard my of plight, and mentioned he had a pump, never before used, that he was willing to sell for cheap. He was like the test-drive sedan, functional, but never fully tested. His name was CJ Bomba because like Auger that was the name typed in bold lettering on the box. CJ had to wait around my house for a while as I provided extra security for him. This involved getting one of my friends to come over and help me install a metal cage top for my well, so the pump couldn't be so easily taken. I had learned my lesson from Auger, and was taking extensive precautions with CJ. My friend and I built the metal top by placing the metal cage it on the top layer of the existing bricks that made up the highest part of the well. We then cemented a new layer on top, and we were in business. We then took CJ out and put him in the well, and locked the cage. CJ worked well enough, but would time and again not pump water. I thought it was similar to the problem Frank had, but couldn't understand his inconsistency. Over time he stopped working all together. I thought it had to do with my electrical connection, but that wasn't the case. Turns out he was broken, and needed a replacement part. It was a cheap fix, but I needed some help putting him back in the well. Julio is as elusive as Bigfoot whenever I need his help, so one day I got tired of waiting decided to do it myself. I wired CJ, connected him to the tubing, and lowered him into the well. Having little to no experience in installing the pumps myself I was skeptical that I would get it to work. I held my breath as I flipped the switch on and sure enough I heard the sweet sound of water flowing into my tank. I literally jumped in the air with a fist raised in triumph when I heard that sweet sound water flowing out of the tube. The only problem was I had to reattach my tubing to my water tank, which I had taken down at the onset of CJ's problems. The next day I borrowed a rickety ladder, and put the tube back in the tank. I managed to break one the ladder rungs on the way down, but thankfully avoided injury. I was beaming with pride at my self-reliance. I was so smug about my accomplishments that I went about telling everyone how I installed CJ myself without help. The Paraguayans I talked to munificently praised me, but I knew full well that they thought I was an idiot for not knowing how to do it in the first place. Shortly after installing the tubing, however, I realized that water wasn't flowing. I had leave that day for a meeting, but figured it was the electricity again and left without a second thought that the problem might be more complicated.
Vantage point from below
            Vanity is a deadly sin for a reason, and I should've additionally built up a hell of a lot of bad Karma in the process of my gloating because upon my return from my meeting the day after I installed the pump, I realized I had not properly attached the bracing to hold the pump nozzle snugly into the tube that led to the tank. When the pump was on, the vibrations caused CJ to wriggle himself out of the tube. That explained why I could hear it working, but the water wasn't flowing. In an act of desperation I attempted to pull CJ to salvation using the extension cord attached to him, but the cord didn't hold, and he fell to his death at the bottom of a watery grave. I have to say that moment was one of the few times in my life that I felt like things were happening in slow motion. I rattled off a string of four letter words that would cause my mother to faint. Knowing that CJ was gone forever I decided my only option was to get over him quickly by buying an affordable model that would last for a couple of months, and that is where we are today.
            Learning the harsh lessons from CJ humbled me significantly when installing Hiper, again named for what it said on his packaging. He may not be the fastest, or the best but he serves his purpose and I made sure I put him in the well correctly. Personifying these pumps is really the best way to describe the tragedy that befell them. One broke, one was stolen, and one sank to the bottom. In each instance I learned something about pumps that I didn't know before. In each instance I made effort to rectify the mistakes I had made with their predecessor. I am not totally sure what this says about my Peace Corps service, but I think that the process of resolving the problems with the pumps is a nice representation of the day-to-day challenges that pop up out of nowhere. It is easy to point to language, cultural differences, and food as the things that are most difficult to deal with, but there are so many other unexpected challenges that often times prove to be the biggest learning experiences. Things like getting your haircut, flushing a toilet, buying tools or specific materials, and transportation are just a few examples of those unexpected challenges. The situations I have had with my pumps have easily been one of the biggest tests I've faced. Do I wish that I never had to deal with these pumps in the fist place? You better believe it, but the fact remains that it happened and I have a lot of stories to tell that I'm sure will be funny to me someday. Maybe.

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