Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Sewage Works (but nothing else does)

Today, I feel like I’m living in some kind of Mad Max, WallE, toxic dystopia.

First of all, our next-door neighbour has taken to burning his plastic rubbish. We had this in Sri Lanka. Welcome to the developing world. People burn their rubbish. What else can they do with it. Goodness knows how many dioxins I’ve inhaled over the past three and a half years.

Our landlord who lives below us, also recently decided he wanted a wood burner in his kitchen. His kitchen doesn’t have a chimney. No matter. Drill a hole in the wall, stick a pipe through & ‘it’s not my problem anymore’. It will just waft up to the tenants' balcony, & seep in through the children’s window.

But this doesn’t bother us so much, partly because when it’s cold, we’re not sitting outside on the balcony when their fire is on, but mostly because it pales into insignificance compared to other issues. We seem to approach things in this way all the time now.

This morning I was playing tennis with an Albanian friend who lives up in the hills overlooking the lake & she said,
“Have you noticed something funny about the lake?” I hadn’t.
It had a white, oily, toxic-looking substance glinting chemically in the sunlight, all round the edge & in patches in the middle too. She thinks maybe it was a chemical put in to control mosquitoes. (One no doubt banned in the States 20 yrs ago. That’s what was used in Sri Lanka)

Then this morning we turned the taps on brown water came out reeking of sewage. I had, in my early morning stupor stuck my hands under it before realising. I felt like Lady Macbeth trying to get the stench out of my hands.

All afternoon, in a bizarre reversal, I’ve been yelling at my children after going to the loo. “Did you remember NOT to wash your hands?”

So no shower after tennis, a day’s washing up piled up, a laundry bag full of washing
& my hair needs a wash. Oh & our typhoid vaccinations are out of date. What very good timing. And it’s not available in Albania. We would have to get it couriered in.

For the past 4 months our rd has become a lake in the rain, & then sewage water started seeping across the courtyard. The builders, building a new apartment block nearby, had, evidently, broken through the sewage pipe. It has taken our landlord 3 mths to fix it. A friend here, who is a construction engineer, said that either the sewage has backed up into the pipes or (as we have a well for our water) the well has been contaminated. (this happened in Sri Lanka during the Tsunami. The wells got contaminated with sea water & were rendered unuseable. So not sure how ours will recover)….
He couldn't understand how the cold water, which should be a totally separate system to the drains/sewer, could have been contaminated by sewage. Having lived here for a yr and a half now, I have to say I am not in the least surprised. Lack of know-how amongst workmen & the way things are built or mended here is quite unbelievable.

As an aside here to give you an idea, once at my son’s school, the Headmaster looked out of the front window to see one of their gas canisters on fire (used for heating. They should have had some valve thing on them to stop flames going back down into the gas bottle, but….it didn’t have this.) Out the back, it was also discovered that day, that someone had tapped into a substation & looped their cable along the back wire mesh perimeter fence which had somehow got exposed & made the fence 'live’. So the children couldn’t assemble on the front forecourt because of imminent danger of an explosion, nor on the back soccer pitch because of the live fence. They had to be huddled on the floor inside at the back of the building in case the gas canister exploded & blew out the windows. The Head walked out with a fire extinguisher thinking, ’This may be the last thing I ever do.’
Fortunately, he lived to tell the tale(& revise his job description). The firemen arrived as he was tackling the flames…. and stood around smoking. I kid you not!

Another example is a trusted Albanian friend of a friend fixed our starter motor (which a mechanic had caused to ‘blow up’) & discovered all sort s botched wiring, loose wires , short circuiting in our steering column. He told my friend that he hadn’t liked to tell me ‘because I was a woman’ but that there could easily have been a spark, which would have caused a fire or bad shock to me (some of these wires were poking out down by my feet near th accelerator)

You just get resigned to things being shoddy, not done properly or downright dangerous. But it still makes you very tired.

Back to the proverbial poo hitting the fan. The sewage may have seeped down into the well. He said it would need pumping out & all the tanks & pipes cleaned with an anti-bacterial chlorinated ‘flush’. I can NEVER see our landlord doing that. It would be very expensive. He has put a sewage pipe in, dug a trench about 6 inches deep so the pipe is not buried, and then concreted over it. He didn’t warn us of this, so the day he did it, I couldn’t get my car out for 24 hours. My husband said I should have just driven over it to ‘prove a point’. Well, leaving footprints in freshly lain concrete is one thing but 12 inch wide 4 WD tyre tracks??

Today our landlord is at least trying to do something about this ‘emergency’ as I see it. But his pipes don’t slope down hill at all, (1 in 40 gradient on the pipes required ‘normally’) and he has left no drain outside in the rd, just blocked it in, so rainwater has nowhere to drain to. I think the sewage will keep backing up.
At least we’re on the 3rd floor so it will be the landlord’s problem before ours, and so a better chance of it being sorted. I am so keen to pass on this helpful information, but I know better than to do so. When I tried to explain to both him & his plumber what the problem with our sink was & why he hadn’t fixed it, his response was, “your problem is you think too much.”

I long sometimes with every fibre of my being for a safe, secure, predictable environment. Sometimes I just want to go home. I keep telling myself;
‘This is what we signed up for, if we want to help the poor & work in development then we should expect this’. But it’s hard to make the words out through my gritted teeth sometimes. Other people, most people in the world, have to put up with this. I know.

The third world doesn’t have a reliable electricity supply, safe water to drink, rubbish collected, dangerous substances safely disposed of, law abiding traffic with safe, well maintained cars, access to good health care, things ‘done by the rules’. And it sucks, it really does.

I know, I know I’m a privileged westerner & I used to take all these things for granted ‘back home’. Not anymore. I know (Ernest before you post another comment) that I’m a wimp & I should just stop whinging. I just didn’t realise how hard I’d find it. Several Albanian friends, & I agree, say that the problem is I am not used to this. I am used to things working, and so it’s more frustrating. I also know how things can be in a developed nation. And boy do I miss them. So I have to adjust downwards. It’s a lot easier to adjust to having clean water, on tap, a regular power supply, a centrally heated home, well-stocked shops, a garden, & a fully functioning sewage system, which stays in its pipes. Now those changes I could accommodate. Oh so easily.


Potty Mummy said...

I think you're perfectly entitled to miss these things: they are what you were used to, after all. (And I honestly don't think I could do without most of them!)

Iota said...

Poor you. This sounds so miserable.

I had to look up "dystopia".

Almost American said...

After several holidays in 'third world' countries, my brother and his wife finally visited the United States. They haven't been back to a third world country since.

Thanks for reminding those of us who don't live there how good we have it. You and your husband are good people for doing what you do!

Astrid said...

Yesterday, everyone in the office was complaining how unreliable the Royal Mail was. "You just don't know what time they are coming". I told them to appreciate the fact that mail is actually delivered at all!
It's good to live some of one's life in the "3rd world" - it puts everything else into perspective ... and makes you appreciate things. Thank you for reminding us. Hang in there!
You will rejoin the "un-real" world again soon and you will miss having "real" problems!

Wife in Hong Kong said...

"Welcome to the developing world. People burn their rubbish."
Or throw it in the sea. After a swim through the plastic bags recently I came out thinking, if I survive that with anything less than swine flu it'll be a miracle.
I can quite see how it gets you down. After all if you know there's an alternative it's hard to get used to the rougher side of Albanian life.

siobhan said...

I have experienced similar feelings where I live in Istanbul. Things have improved here a great deal since I first came here nearly 10 years ago. At least I'm safe from swine flu