Thursday morning I took the kids to the beach while Erin worked. I gave them and myself an extended outdoor shower with the water that was now finally working, thanks to Jaime's midnight piping repair.
A few hours later Robert came upstairs and said they had no water. I felt guilty, thinking we must have drained the tank with our showers. We went back behind the house to check the tank.
The ground around the pump was all wet. Jaime's midnight piping repair had blown apart. The repair appeared to have involved a plastic shopping bag. Jaime may have been a good contractor, but a plumber he was not.
All of the water in the tank had been pumped out onto the ground before the low level float switch turned the pump off. The much maligned pump was laying on its side, not running. It had finally given up the ghost.
I unplugged the pump and emailed a photo to the owner.
"La agua es bueno?" I asked, grammatically incorrectly.
Our neighbors had said it was the only water they drank. Still, there's something about getting drinking water for your children from an unmarked pipe sticking out of the ground at the side of the road in a Central American country that gives you pause.
Oliver and I were standing at the roadside where we had seen cars stopped on our first day here. There was a small truck filling up a water tank from a large outlet on the pipe, and another car filling up containers in the trunk from a cut off garden hose attached to a spigot on the pipe.
The man filling the containers stopped to answer me.
"Si, si, la agua es muy buena!"
He said it was "potable" (the same word as in English) and enthusiastically communicated in a combination of Spanish words and hand gestures that it was a deep well with a "pompa" (a word I knew well by now), and that it was "chlorificado."
In the back of his car he had a few five-gallon water bottles, several one-gallon water bottles, 32-ounce water bottles, two-liter Coke bottles, and a gallon milk carton, all to be filled with well water. How absurd, I thought, to live here and do this all the time, yet he's resorted to filling Coke bottles, milk cartons, and every other random container he could scrounge up. Why not just get one more five-gallon bottle?
Seeing my single five-gallon water bottle in one hand and four-year-old son in the other, he crimped his hose to stop the flow and offered it to me. I had Oliver hold the top of the bottle while I filled it, then handed the hose back and said gracias.
Until then, we had been exchanging four five-gallon bottles at the grocery store for our drinking, dish, and hand-washing water. It was $3.50 for each refill. Our toilet tank took four gallons to refill after each flush when the water wasn't working. We needed a lot more water on the cheap.
Thus, the well. It would be fine for toilet water. It would be even better if we could drink it. But could we?
Only one way to find out. When we got home, I poured a tall glass and steeled my stomach for combat.
"Bienvenidos a Panama!" I called down from our porch.
The homeowner had just arrived from the United States. We were his first renters in this newly renovated unit, so he had scheduled this trip to the property during our stay. We had been corresponding regularly about the water problems and a few other things, and he shared our exasperation as he was trying to resolve them remotely from the U.S.
I went down to meet him. He walked slowly up the driveway, looking like a dog who'd been beat.
He didn't greet me, just said flatly, "No more problems with the pump?"
"Oh," I said, not able to restrain myself from smiling, "you didn't get my email."
He opened my email on his phone, saw the photo, shook his head, turned around, and left.
He came back later with a friend to work on the pump. We ran into him that night as we were leaving a local restaurant where a group of expats gathered on Friday nights.
"The pump's fixed," he said, "but I've heard that with Carnavales starting tonight, the city may shut off the water supply."
Carnavales lasted five days. We had three friends arriving the next day to stay with us for the week. Six people sharing one non-functioning toilet, with no shower or laundry machine.
There would be no triumphant flushing of the toilet tonight. And to think, the power outages hadn't even started yet.
I cleaned up the kitchen before we went to bed. The kids had finished a gallon milk container which I crushed up and threw in the garbage can.
Then I pulled it back out. It was a gallon. It had a handle. It had a wide mouth with a screw top.
I put my lips onto the mouth and blew to reinflate it to its original shape. I put it with our other empty bottles to take to the well.