He Said/She Said: Water, Water Everywhere and Not a Drop To Drink

She said:

The sun comes up at 6am every morning in Ecuador, give or take a few seconds, and sets again at 6pm, give or take. This goes on every day of every year, I suppose as it has forever. The first morning in Ecuador I awoke to music playing somewhere in the distance.

There’s a school at the end of the second dirt road down the mountain from our house and we could hear the children’s laughter on the playground, the announcements in the morning, the band practice in the afternoon and at times, music. It was one of the sweetest, most vulnerable things about the country.

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The people of Ecuador live a simple life. They watched as the rest of us discovered their little corner of the world. Sometimes they were fascinated with us and why we wanted to live there. Other times they seemed a little aggravated that we had decided to occupy their space.

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Our first few weeks were spent exploring. But, there was also work being done on the house. The workers might show up at 7am unannounced and other times they’d show up three days late. We quickly learned mañana did not mean tomorrow – it means some date in the future.

It rained a little while every day… a little every hour. The sun could shine bright for a few minutes and the next time you looked outside it was raining. The yard had not been landscaped, which left us with mud everywhere.

We saw lots of rainbows from the back door of our house.
We saw lots of rainbows from the back door of our house.

Driving was an adventure. Traffic signals were more of a suggestion than a rule. Left turns on red were perfectly acceptable but turning right on red could get you killed. Traffic circles, and there were tons of them, were extreme examples of controlled chaos.

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One day I ordered chicken soup for lunch and discovered the chicken’s entire foot in the bottom of the bowl. I did not scream. The soup was actually very tasty.

We had several neighbors – not next door but scattered all along the roads coming up the mountain. Most neighbors were locals and one family was from the States. We saw children walking up and down the dirt roads to go to school. There was an older lady that farmed and sold her vegetables and flowers at the market. Sometimes she walked up and down the mountain with the vegetables in a large basket tied to her back. I had a hard time walking up and down the mountain carrying nothing.

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A llama lived in our neighborhood. Horses, cows and sheep roamed freely all day.

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A neighbor walked his Great Dane past our house every morning. We released our four dogs out the back door one morning at the same moment he was walking past and they all met each other at the front.

Dudley, the fearless fool that he is, attacked the Great Dane…. and lost. We found the vet that day and Dudley came home with four stitches. We asked the architect to make the installation of the fence around the property a priority.

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Our house had a tankless water heater, which was heated by a propane tank that sat just outside the caretaker’s house. A truck would drive through the neighborhood once a week honking his horn and, if you could drop what you were doing and run outside fast enough, he would refill the tank for $2.50. The first morning we jumped in the shower and it was cold we decided we needed back-up tanks. We bought three more.

Unfortunately, the propane only heated the water...if there was water. Quite often the water got blocked as it made its way down the mountain. We learned there was a single source at the top of the mountain that supplied water to the entire neighborhood. The mud would clog up the channels and then houses here and there would randomly lose water. We had been without water for three days when I decided to go for a long run.

My stomach had also been upset for a few days. My husband warned me of the bacterial infections that are common but I hadn’t put two and two together and still thought it was something I had eaten (like chicken soup with a chicken foot?).

We were buying gallons of water at the store every day using it to drink and to flush the toilets. I began to find it necessary to decide between drinking the water or saving it for flushing the toilet.

Since the containers were still being held in customs and we had no appliances, we went out for coffee every morning. At the coffee shop, I went upstairs to the restroom while my husband ordered coffee. I felt tingly, weak. As I reached for the doorknob, I said to myself, “This is not good.”

My cheek hit the metal railing when I fell. A man sitting upstairs spoke English and reached me first. My husband said it was obvious someone had fallen hard and he ran up the stairs. He was holding my hand, gently slapping my face saying, “Wake up, wake up.” Wherever I was felt so good, so very peaceful.

I heard him talking in the distance and finally I opened my eyes and said to him,  “I don’t want to wake up.” I returned to a peaceful unconsciousness. I spent six hours in the hospital that day from severe dehydration and a bacterial infection.

He said:

Our water came from a natural spring at about 11,000 feet in the Cajas Mountains. I found this out one night when our neighbor asked if I could help him get his water running again.

He assumed the blockage was at the source of the natural spring some 1200 feet up the mountain. He had recruited his caretaker and the caretaker’s cousins to lead us up the mountain and help clear the blockage – but he didn’t want to go up there with these guys by himself.

The rumor was that all of them had tarnished reputations – thugs and thief’s. Reluctantly I agreed to help.

I had an entrenching tool so I grabbed it, opened it to the pick position and off we went. We drove as far as the road would take us and then started hiking. The caretaker assured us he knew where he was going.

All the thugs had shovels and machetes so I stayed at the back of the group. There was no way I was letting one of these characters get behind me. After about an hour of hiking straight up, we came to a stone aqueduct where the water was flowing clear. A few more minutes and we could hear the rush of water – we had found the source.

I stood in the middle of a pristine land overlooking a beautiful, although very remote valley below.

Several stone troughs had been created to direct water in multiple directions from the source to our neighborhood below. We all went to work to find the aqueduct that was blocked and free the flow of water back down to my neighbor’s house.

Finally, all the aqueducts were cleared and we headed down the mountain. By this time It was getting dark and I wasn’t real happy about walking back down in the dark much less with a group of thugs carrying shovels and machetes. The walk back was much slower but we made it with no problems, thankfully.

The delivery of certain necessities, such as water, can be fairly primitive in the remote areas of Ecuador. Once we got water to the house, it still needed to purified. And, after only a few weeks of living there we realized the aqueducts regularly got clogged and we would loose water for days at a time.

We decided to build a filtration plant and a cistern on our property so we would have a few day’s reserve of clean water. It wasn’t a big building – more of a three sided hut with a tin roof. Inside were twin stainless steel tanks, one holding pebbles and sand in the other. From there the water flowed into a particulate filter and finally a charcoal filter. This flow removed foreign materials and parasites from the water rendering it “potable”.

Once filtered, the water went into the underground cistern that held 500 gallons of pure water ready for use. It took about four weeks on Ecuadorian time to get the system put together. Nothing in Ecuador seemed to happen fast.

There were still times we exhausted the supply of water in the cistern before the blockage was cleared, but for the most part water was no longer our biggest concern.

He Said/She Said: “Gloria, how much more money will it take?!”

She said…

I stood in the street peering into the cavernous darkness of the second container. One of the roofers from down the street spoke English and had agreed to help finish loading the container.

There were no packing materials so I rushed to Lowe’s and bought every variety on the shelf: boxes, bubble wrap, shrink-wrap, tape. There were bags of rope and although I couldn’t imagine why it might be needed, I bought it.

The guys came over around 8pm. I had been throwing things into boxes, scribbling something on the outside to serve as inventory and taping them as fast as I could move.

We had paid extra for a crate to be built for the antler chandelier that would go in our new family room, but this had not been done before the calamity started. It was the last thing to be packed.

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We all debated it for a minute – the roofers in Spanish, my neighbor, the driver and I in English. One of the roofers jumped in and wrapped it in bubble wrap and then shrink wrapped it a gazillion times. We all nodded approval. It took four of them to walk it to the container. We situated it on a big bed of bubble wrap and tied it to the sides of the container with the rope.

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It was a little after midnight. I was holding what was left of the rope. The driver standing beside me, waiting. He was such a good man. I threw the rope into the blackness of the container as far as I could. He handed me an extra roll of bubble wrap and I threw it in too. We laughed and he closed the doors. He set the seal and told me to check the doors in Ecuador. They should still be sealed shut when it reached my house.

By the time I arrived in Ecuador with the dogs, the containers had already been in customs for weeks. My husband was quite sure they would be delivered to the house just one week later.

imageI had sent a suitcase with him months ago with enough clothes to get me through a few days until we could get unpacked. He found outdoor furniture and had moved it into the family room so we had somewhere to sit. Then he bought an air mattress, pillows and sheets for sleeping, towels and a bath mat. Staying at a hotel wasn’t an option with the four dogs and I wouldn’t consider boarding them.

We brought our own appliances but they were in the containers, of course, so we went out to eat for every meal.

Every three or four days we dropped our clothes off at the laundromat on the way in to town. My clothes were beginning to look like they had been chewed up but they were clean.

We waited for word that the containers had been cleared by customs. There was a penalty fee for every day they sat in customs and this was threatening to overwhelm me. Every day I asked my husband, “Isn’t there something we can do?!”

He called the attorney. She said she would call the broker the next day. She would sue her. She knew somebody that knew somebody…or she had gone to school with somebody… that could help.

He called Gloria, the broker in Quito. One night he was begging her to release the containers. I heard him say, “Gloria, I have already given you more money!” I couldn’t breathe. My heart was racing, my head spinning.

I took the phone out of his hand mid-sentence. “What more do you want from us? All of our belongings, my son’s baby pictures, the music box my parents gave me as a child…our very life is being held hostage in those containers! What more do you want from us?!” I started to cry and handed the phone back to my husband. Still, the containers would not be released.

He said…

The New York Agent contracted with a Broker/Freight Expeditor in Quito to coördinate entry of our containers into Ecuador. We had already applied for our Residency Visa but the containers had arrived so quickly, the Visa had not come through. Without this stamp on my passport, our household belongings would be claimed commercial rather than personal and taxed as much as 60% of their determined value. This was when I jumped on a plane for Ecuador.

Our attorney agreed to fly with me to Quito for a meeting with Gloria, the Broker. We would also visit Immigration and Customs to get my Visa approved and have the containers released duty-free. We met with Gloria on a Sunday.

She was a whirling dervish. Maybe 5 feet tall, looked like a sweet little grandma, talked like a sailor. She had been in this business for 50 years and seemed to know everything there was to know.

She made it very clear she had not been paid by our New York Agent and there was little she could do until she was paid. I knew why she hadn’t been paid. I had refused to make the final payment to the Agent because the packers had walked off the job and left Marcia to finish packing and loading the second container. Obviously, they kept their portion and didn’t pay Gloria. I assured Gloria I would pay her directly and we went to Customs where they demanded I surrender my passport.

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My passport would be the assurance that if the Visa was not approved, I wouldn’t leave the country without paying those 60% taxes. Before I left, Gloria and I agreed on her fee and she committed to getting our containers through customs no matter what. She told us she had insiders that would help.

Gloria’s fee was still less than what I would have paid the New York Agent so everything seemed ok. The attorney wasn’t quite so sure everything was ok.

On the flight back to Cuenca, she told me she had never met anyone quite like Gloria. She said, “I will make sure she lives up to her agreement.” This would prove to be as big a job as she feared.

There were delays. Halfway through the process changes were made to the immigration laws. Months went by. Gloria was getting anxious. She wanted to be paid.

Our attorney’s sister was a friend of the wife of the new Director of Immigration so a meeting was arranged. I had only intended to be in Ecuador for a few weeks and had only packed casual clothes. I bought a pair of slacks, a white shirt and a tie. We put together a list of friends and associates from the states and every person I had met in Ecuador to use as references for this guy. I even called in some favors from a few Ecuadorian officials that I had done business with in the past. We went to the meeting. He showed up in jeans and a t-shirt.

Nice guy but he said there was nothing he could do for us. “You’ve done everything right but the rules have changed and you’re caught in the middle,” he said. “I can’t change the rules for you a week after the new rules have gone into effect.” Gloria took advantage of these changes. She wanted more money.

Meanwhile we were being charged $125/day per container in overage fees for every day the containers sat on the dock past two weeks. We were long past two weeks.

Finally, Gloria called and said the containers had been scheduled for inspection. We were allowed to be present for the inspection but Gloria emphatically insisted we shouldn’t. We were nervous.

The second container inventory wasn’t complete. If things didn’t match up to their satisfaction, they could confiscate – but, it was all about money. There would be more fees.

We had heard they would randomly open boxes, compare that box to the inventory and move on. Worst case was that they would unload the entire container onto the dock, inspect everything and reload. We waited for Gloria’s call.