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Last night when I went to bed, I heard a drip! drip! coming from my bathroom.

I have my own bathroom. In Nouakchott, there are basically two types of houses. One is very simple; a cement-floor room that opens onto a courtyard, a communal pit toilet shared by several families, no running water. If you opt for Western-style housing with running water and electricity, you inevitably have more bathrooms than you could have imagined you would need. We have 4 in the house, plus a squatty-potty outside. Our landlord explained that perhaps we’d have guests that we didn’t want in our house, and we could point them to the outdoors toilet. We spent some time imagining how that might work, but put it down to cultural differences—perhaps she has such guests, but we don’t. If you visit, we will let you in the house to use the flush toilet, promise. However, I will say that some Mauritanians are more comfortable with the other kind, and make the trek outside instead of using the flush toilet inside.

Upstairs, I have a bathroom off my bedroom and Ilsa has one off hers, plus there’s one in the hallway for the boys. With Michelle staying in Ilsa’s room and all the kids in with me while Donn’s gone, everybody’s been using my bathroom (and WHY must they always use my towels in spite of repeated lectures about using their OWN towels and WHY can’t they hang them up afterwards instead of leaving them in a damp pile in the middle of my bedroom floor?). So when I heard that drip last night, I thought one of the kids must have left a tap on. Nothing too unusual, right?

Wrong. The hot water heater was dripping. This again is nothing new. About a year ago (I remember the time because all the kids were sleeping in our room, which means it was the hot season) Ilsa walked out one morning and said, “It rained in the night.” And we sleepily thought, “How would she know that?” and got up to find the entire upstairs flooded, plus the water had run down the stairs and flooded the downstairs hall, ruining several precious and irreplaceable works of “art” in the process. (Darn!) It was her water heater that time. It was also interesting to see how uneven our floors are—the water ran from her room out to the landing and trickled into the boys’ room, but didn’t come into our room. We must be on higher ground.

Water heaters hold about 50 liters (I just learned that today!) and are mounted on the wall. We turn them off in June and turn them back on in November or December. The water heater in Ilsa’s bathroom also provides hot water for dishes in the kitchen below, and the water heater in the boys’ bathroom used to provide hot water for the washing machine in the downstairs bathroom until it, too, sprung a leak and Donn simply took it out. Besides, one of the charms of life in the Sahara desert is that you get to experience the power of solar energy—often the water is really really hot just from being in the pipes. I’ve shrunk clothes in water from the cold tap before.

Drip! Drip! Drip! What to do? I was so tired. The water heater is fortunately situated RIGHT above the bidet, so I knew the floor wouldn’t flood. The bulb in the bathroom was burned out and I couldn’t replace it without borrowing a ladder, which I hadn’t done yet, and in the half-light coming through the open door I could see no place where I might just turn it off. I went to bed, only to be awakened at about 1:30 a.m. by the sounds of a splashing flood. What fun. I got up and went out to the garage to turn off the suppressor, which would stop the water coming into the house and prevent the leak from emptying my reservoir, and went back to sleep eventually.

Today I had to get a plumber out. He told me that this kind of water heater is only guaranteed for 2 years, and it’s 2 years old now. Woo-hoo. He emptied it, partly over the floor, and the problem is solved, for now, but not for long. He says we need a new one, that this one is cracked. Yet another thing for Donn to look forward to on his return.

You might never have to deal with this, but I bet you also can’t get a plumber to make a house call on a Saturday morning for $8.

October 2006

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