It didn't get bad until the third day when we finally had running water. But it all began at the airport.
The rental car company (#screwyouAlamo) added on a "mandatory" (in Panama) liability insurance that doubled our rental cost. We would have told them to screw and gone to a competitor, but we assumed they would all charge the same thing, we had two antsy kids, and we had a five hour drive ahead of us as the sun was sinking. We took the keys, bought hot dogs and chips, drove the wrong way out of the parking lot, and set off through Panama City.
After a brief stop at a convenience store for breakfast granola bars, water, and beer (just the essentials), we headed west past the coastal skyline of the modern city. We gave Oliver a five minute tutorial on the significance of the Panama Canal (in his words, it connects the Atlantic and Specific Oceans) before racing over it high on a cable-stayed bridge into the setting sun.
It was easy to follow the directions to our rental unit, with helpful landmarks like "the huge cross with Jesus hanging from it." Each pueblo we passed through lit up the dark road late into the night, as locals spilled outdoors to covered porches, open-air restaurants, and roadside watermelon stands for their Saturday night socialization.
We arrived at the house at ten o'clock, with the sound of the Specific Ocean at our backs, invisible in the darkness. We hurried our travel-weary kids into bed, unloaded the car, and started getting ourselves ready.
"Tim, the toilet's not flushing."
"Are you sure? Try it again."
"No, it's not doing anything."
I turned on the kitchen faucet. It made a sucking sound. The water was going the wrong way.
"We have no water," I told her through the bathroom door.
"Maybe that's why someone left this bottle of urine behind the toilet," she replied.
I went outside to investigate. I could see a large water tank behind the house, but it looked like it was only accessible from the lower level apartment. I'd look more closely in the morning. I dumped two jugs of drinking water left by the owner into the toilet tank, flushed it, and went to bed.
I woke before the kids to the songs of strange birds outside. Daylight filtered through the thin curtains over the small window above the bed. I sat up and looked out.
The perfect orange circle of the sun hung above the horizon in a hazy cloudless sky. Dark chocolate sand stretched a long way out to rocky outcroppings where white-capped waves crashed. Palm trees resisted the strong morning breezes, and a squadron of pelicans and frigatebirds rose above them into the wind.
Thankfully we had made another stop the night before for cereal, milk, bread, and of course, eggs. After a lovely breakfast on the breezy sunlit porch overlooking the ocean on two sides, I set myself to the task at hand - getting last night's excrement to flush.
I found a valve near the street where water came in to fill the tank behind the house. It was open. I followed the line to a hose, which had running water from the street. I squeezed behind the back stair to follow the pipe to the tank.
The valve for the pipe feeding the tank was open. I opened the top of the tank and looked in. It was full. There was a pump next to the tank that wasn't running. The power cord was plugged into an orange extension cord leading up to our back porch.
I went back upstairs and plugged the cord in. The pump turned on and I heard the toilet tank just inside the back doorway start to fill with water.
I knew it was a simple fix!
We triumphantly flushed the toilets and headed into town about twenty minutes away for our next most essential need after water - internet (there was wifi at the house but we hadn't gotten the password).
I had mapped out the location of the cell phone store from the company's website, but when we arrived it was clear that there had never been a cell phone store there. We drove through town and parked on the street in front of some shops with beach toys we wanted for the kids. We got out and looked across the street. There was the cell phone store.
Cell phone plans are difficult to understand in your own language, and the salespeople spoke no English, but somehow we managed to get new sim cards up and running in our phones.
We made a mad dash through a grocery store as they were closing, bought a watermelon from a roadside stand, and headed home for lunch. On the rural road out of town we noticed some cars stopped at the side of the road, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
"Maybe they're getting water?" Erin guessed.
"Oh good," I joked, "If our water stops working again we'll know which pipe on the side of the road to get it from."
"Our water stopped working again," Erin said when we got home.
"Are you sure? Try it again."
"I'm getting nothing out of the faucet."
I looked at the outlet on the back porch. The pump was plugged in. I went downstairs behind the house. The pump was running. I looked in the tank. It was empty. I figured there was a leak or open faucet somewhere that drained the tank while we were gone.
I joggled the float valve up and down. There was no water coming into the tank from the street.
I went back upstairs and unplugged the cord so the pump wouldn't burn out. I checked the valve near the street. It was open. I turned the hose on. It was dry. There was no water coming to the property from the street.
Erin pulled out her phone to email the owner. Even though our sim cards were working, neither of us had checked our email since leaving Florida two days earlier.
She had gotten an email from the owner the night before telling us to plug the pump in as needed, but to unplug it when not in use. His contractors had told him that there was a leak somewhere that could drain the tank, which could then burn out the pump if left running.
Perhaps Internet was a more essential need than water.
None of this explained the bigger problem, which was that there was no water coming in from the street. An English speaking neighbor told us the town shuts off the water during the day. The tank wouldn't refill until later that night.
It hadn't refilled by the time we went to bed. For the second night in a row, we couldn't flush the toilet.