Last week was a rather complicated week for our family. As soon as we returned from an emotionally draining visit to Tuol Sleng, Jeff had to start packing—the next day, he was working a full day before catching the evening flight to Bangkok.
As Jeff left Tuesday morning to go to his job, several locally-hired embassy workers arrived here to start theirs—the Periodic Preventive Maintenance for this embassy-leased residence. Every few months, a small swarm of men arrive and spend the day inspecting, cleaning, and repairing various items around the house: the distiller, the generator, the air conditioners, the outdoor light fixtures that fill with dead bugs. The first time they came, I was surprised to walk into my kitchen and find a man sitting under the table, fixing the wobbly leg. Now I think nothing of discovering a man cleaning out the residual debris from the tub’s drain or making sure the kitchen sink drains properly.
So it was no surprise to discover, around 4pm, that a clogged drain had been found and cleared. It was, however, a surprise to discover that the clog had been the only thing keeping the water flow through a damaged pipe slow enough that the ground could absorb the leaked water before its presence became apparent. My housekeeper and I both were very surprised when my daughter pointed out the water in the hall, and even more so because the threshold at the back door is raised enough that no water possibly could come in from outside—it was coming up through the floor and wall.
The workers told me to keep towels down in the hall that night, and the landlord—whose responsibility it is to repair the house itself, including its broken pipes—would come the next morning. From this instruction, I assumed that the pooled water I saw in the hall had accumulated over a longish period of time, and the leak was slow enough not to be a problem overnight. Silly me.
By 6pm, as the driver arrived to take Jeff to the airport, it became apparent that the leak was major. Almost every towel we own was in the dryer, still sopping wet, or in the hall, sopping wet, with water spreading around them. I asked Jeff what would happen if the water made it down the hall and spread into our bedroom—a real possibility—and hit the transformer that we use in there. I believe the phrase he used was “double plus ungood.” Jeff told me to call the man in charge of the relevant embassy office and ask him to send someone immediately. Then he kissed me, said “Welcome to the Foreign Service,” and walked out the door. (Really, what else was he supposed to do? This situation was serious, but not such an emergency that he needed to stay home and deal with it … it was time to pull out my “can do, will do, make do” attitude and make the best of it.)
I got on the phone and made arrangements for someone to come deal with the problem. Unfortunately, the only thing that could be done at that time was to turn off the water to the pipe, which “may” mean that “part” of the house would be without water. Mmm hmm, I knew what that meant.
I quickly bathed Alexa, filled the bath tub with tap water, filled several bottles with distilled water, and washed the dishes, then filled the kitchen sink. Right on time, as I finished my water-hoarding tasks, the embassy worker arrived. He took me around back of the house and showed me how to turn the water to the whole house off and back on. Yep, I thought I knew what “may” and “part” meant. At least he did show me how to turn it on in case I really needed it. I made sure the guard knew how to turn it on as well, in case he needed it for the guards’ bathroom, then went back inside and made the best of it.
The next morning, I used some of my reserves—I’d over-prepared a bit—to make coffee and settled in to wait. It didn’t take long. The owner arrived around the same time as my housekeeper, and she handled all interaction with him, since he and I don’t have any languages in common. She also privately told me of the conversations she overheard between him and the two men he brought with him, warning me that he didn’t appear to know much about plumbing.
Throughout that day, men came and went. Mostly they were outside, on the back porch, but we left the back door unlocked so they could come in and check the water in the bathrooms as necessary. The guard’s hearing was checked as he listened for the gate’s bell from the back of the house, where he watched over these strangers in our domain. My housekeeper forsook all effort at cleaning as she watched over them every time they stepped foot inside the house—the guard isn’t supposed to come in—and simultaneously did me the enormous favor of watching Alexa. (Have I mentioned that Alexa was recovering from a cold, and mine was coming on pretty strong by that point? I was congested, miserable, and exhausted, as I don’t sleep well when Jeff isn’t here.)
By mid-afternoon, the water was turned back on. But not all of it—the leak had been determined to be in the hot water pipe, so we had cold water only. An embassy employee called me to pass along the message that I would have water, but only cold water, until the next day, or maybe the day after. Recognizing the validity of my housekeeper’s doubts about the landlord’s abilities, I resigned myself to at least one more day of cold water only and decided to brave a shower, as I felt fairly disgusting by that point. I shuddered in anticipation of the icy water … only to find that “cold” water in Cambodia isn’t cold at all—it’s very pleasantly lukewarm. My housekeeper laughed at me when I expressed my joy at this discovery; apparently most Cambodians don’t have hot water at all.
The rest of Wednesday was pretty good. I didn’t have hot water, but I didn’t really need it. Lukewarm water was more than enough for someone with a good attitude.
I didn’t sleep well again—Jeff was, after all, still away—and my cold took a turn for the worse, so I slept late enough that I hadn’t had a shower by the time my housekeeper (and the landlord) arrived Thursday morning. I was told that the leak was gone. They hadn’t fixed it, but it was gone. They’d turned the hot water back on, and no water came flooding to the surface, so everything was fine. I doubted that, but decided to go shower anyway. Imagine my surprise when the water, which had been there the day before, had at best half the volume and pressure as usual. I thought it probably would be enough, so I went ahead … only to have the volume decrease by half again partway through. I found out later that my housekeeper had put in a load of laundry.
I again relied heavily on my housekeeper. She communicated the water pressure problem—it was happening throughout the house, not just in the bathroom—to the landlord, supervised access to the house, and gently suggested that I take a nap and let her watch Alexa after she saw me sitting quietly, obviously choosing, with difficulty, to say nothing rather than yell at my precious toddler for behaving like the two-year-old that she is. As I felt even worse Thursday than I had Wednesday, I acquiesced without much argument. Thursday was not a good day, and I was grateful that night to go to bed. I had no idea what, if anything, had been done about the water pressure. Because I wasn’t sure that the not-fixed pipe wouldn’t spring another leak, however, I did arrange with the guard to check the back porch for water during his rounds, so he could turn the water off if necessary … I was still thinking of that transformer in the bedroom.
Friday morning I woke up feeling better, though not anywhere near well. I still had water, so apparently the not-fixed pipe was still fixed enough. I showered and was pleasantly surprised to find hot water in sufficient quantities with sufficient pressure. I had no idea what accounted for the change.
My housekeeper arrived on time. The landlord didn’t come. We discovered that although the water pressure in the bathrooms was fine, the water pressure in the kitchen sink was problematic. This information was passed on to an embassy worker, who arrived sometime after my early-afternoon trip to the supermarket (during which several store employees justifiably looked at me as if I should be locked away to protect the public health). The embassy worker explained that the water pressure should be fine, because they had cleaned a filter that had gotten clogged with dirt from the broken pipe. When my housekeeper explained that most of the water pressure was fine, but not the kitchen sink, his face lit up with understanding. Apparently there’s a second filter on that faucet. He cleaned it, and voila! No more water problems.
We still don’t know exactly where the pipe was (or is) busted or why it suddenly stopped leaking. My best guess is that God was giving me a taste of the annoyances from which He protects me every day … and testing my attitude. However, I must admit that I was not the one who displayed a “can do, will do, make do” attitude throughout those few days—that attitude was displayed best by my housekeeper and by our team of guards, who quietly dealt with as many of the annoyances as they could, sheltering me as much as possible from any inconvenience, leaving fully intact my illusions about my own great attitude.