Sunday, April 8, 2007

Life off the grid

Tom left bright and early on Friday morning, heading to Spanish Lookout to get the part for the generator. He got there about 8:30, and found that everything in Spanish Lookout was closed for Good Friday. Tom was really glad that we’ve been doing a lot of business in Spanish Lookout over the past couple of months, and that doing business in Belize is such an informal, contact-based, friendly effort. Although the store where he had to get the part was closed, he had talked to the manager a number of times, and knew that the manager lived within a quarter mile of the store. He saw a farmer herding cows into a pasture across the road from the store, asked where Dennis lived, and was pointed to the house next to the pasture. Tom went and knocked on the door, and was trying to explain to Dennis’s wife who he was and what he needed, and when Dennis heard Tom’s voice he came to the door. Not only did he have no problem opening the store to get the part, he and his wife invited Tom in for breakfast and to meet their two children. They also invited him to stay in town to accompany them to their church’s pot luck lunch, but Tom declined since he had to get home to fix the generator.

While we’d normally be fine without the generator for the weekend, we needed the power because the pipe water had been shut off for the past few days, and with the holiday weekend nobody had any idea when the water would return. We keep 1000 gallons in reserve in one of our tanks, but in order to get it to the 200 gallon tank on the tower to gravity feed it everywhere else, we need the generator to run the pump to get the water from the ground tank to the tower tank. And, because we had water and our tanks were basically full when the pipe flow stopped, we had all the reserve water for the entire neighborhood. So, while the 200 gallons on the tower could last us for a week or more without even going overboard on water conservation, it wasn’t enough that we could share it with the families next door unless the generator was working.

That concept caused an interesting discussion with Honduran Marta’s family. Because Marta’s husband is working in the US, they come up our driveway fairly frequently – like at least daily – asking for assistance of some sort – a ride to somewhere, help with a construction or home repair project, homework help for the kids, fruit from one of our trees, and sometimes even more unreasonable (in our minds at least) requests such as asking Tom’s parents to sponsor their husband/father in the US. Not surprisingly, they were the first of the families next door to come asking for water. Friday morning, before Tom returned and before I knew if we would get the generator working for the weekend, Thelma and a couple of the younger kids came with two 5-gallon buckets, which we filled. Thelma asked if they could come back for more. I asked how much they needed, and she said as much as we would give them. I explained that I would fill their buckets up one more time, but that I couldn’t give them any more because we weren’t sure if we could get water out of the big tank, and because I wanted to keep enough water on hand that we could share it with the other families if they needed it. She tried to tell me that the other families wouldn’t need it, which I knew wasn’t true because Ofelia and Iris had told me the night before that even though they’d collected rainwater, their rainwater tanks had been dry before the rain and we hadn’t had enough rain to come anywhere close to filling the tanks. I thought she understood my position, until she returned with her mother and an additional sister – so two additional buckets – to be filled. Those of you who know me know that games like that just piss me off, so I had no trouble telling both Marta and Thelma that I would fill two of their buckets, for a total of four, but that was it. I was even more annoyed later in the afternoon when I was near their side of our property line, and I saw that they had used the water to do laundry. I wasn’t doing laundry until the water was back on in the pipe. Our other neighbors weren’t doing laundry until the water was back on in the pipe. I realized that they probably would have taken every drop of water in the tank, lived just like they live when water conservation isn’t an issue, and watched us and the rest of the neighbors – whose land they live on – make do indefinitely without any water. Tom and I have tried to help them since we’ve been here, but after this incident we’ve realized that although they’re in a difficult position with their head of household indefinitely out of the country, they put themselves in that position, they lived for almost a year in that position before Tom and I appeared on the scene, and while they may need help with some things, we’re being used. So, as of Friday, we’re no longer a [free] taxi service, alternative grocery/produce market, handy man shop, and reference library. We’re not sure how long it will take for the daily requests to dry up when the answer is always “no,” and we’re waiting to see how they might try to convince us they need help. When we were having trouble with the truck, the taxi service slowed down, and even then we noticed that if we said no a couple of times, suddenly the health and comfort of year-old Eduard would be the issue because they know we’re suckers for the kids. So, we’ll see. And, regarding the water, the other three families took a total of four buckets of water – and obviously didn’t do their laundry.

Tom made it home to fix the generator, but Selwyn had already started doing jobs that didn’t require electricity. Each cabin has 12 posts underneath it, and each of those posts needs to be capped with zinc to prevent the termites from crawling up to the cabin from the ground. Tom and Selwyn had capped all the posts on the first cabin, but hadn’t done anything with the second cabin in their effort to get us moved into the first cabin. But, thanks to a broken generator, five of the twelve posts are now capped. Once the generator was fired up again, they were able to saw, and also managed to get one of the kitchen walls up on the first cabin. Lots of progress!

We had made plans to go on an outing on Saturday with the family next door. We had been undecided about where we were going, but Marta II and Olmi wanted to go to Caracol. They hadn’t been to Caracol in about seven years and they wanted to see what’s been done to it. Their family is Mayan, and Caracol is the partially restored ruin of an ancient Mayan city, the largest in Belize. The trip involved packing a picnic lunch, so all the women, including me, spent Friday afternoon getting the picnic for Saturday put together. We all made…rice and beans. It’s funny, because I promised Tom when we moved here that rice and beans wouldn’t become our dietary staple, even though it is for everybody who lives here, and even though I’ve always liked it. But, somehow, we’ve slipped into always having a container or rice and beans either on the stove or in the fridge, and if filler is needed for any meal, or if we just can’t decide what we want for any given meal, out comes the rice and beans. Dry rice and beans can be purchased anywhere, and I literally mean everywhere, from houses where they have the rice and beans they’ve picked from their fields drying on blankets in the back yard, to the pharmacy, to the ag and hardware stores, to liquor stores, and of course at the market and in grocery stores. It’s cheap and nutritious, it’s easy to make a big pot of it, it goes with everything for every meal, it’s good hot, cold, or reheated, and it travels well. Of course, if you do it the right way and use the recipe that starts with “First you pick a coconut,” it can take a while to make, but because one coconut provides enough coconut milk to make a huge cauldron of it, it’s worth the time. And, you can use the shortcut and use the coconut powder, although the novelty of starting with a coconut right off the tree still makes it more fun for me to make it the right way.

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