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.

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