Friday, December 22, 2006

Living Without Electricity in Panama

The problem with the electricity has continued to worsen. To run the mini fridge, I have to turn the lights off. To run my computer, I shut down the mini fridge. Sometimes as I am working at my computer, particularly at night, the low power alarm sounds and I must roam the house, shutting everything down until I am sitting at my computer in total darkness, the glow of the LCD screen attracting every mosquito, gnat, termite and moth in the house to my location.

Occasionally even that's not enough and I must hurriedly shut my computer down as the alarm on the backup power unit sounds. Sometimes the shut down process is too slow and the power cuts out while the computer is stil running. Not good for the system at all.

The hot water heater consumes too much power so I take cold showers. I have a hand-cranked flashlight and I rely heavily on it at night, rather than turning on the lamps or room lights.

Adam Brunner has arrived with his local crew to address this problem. Adam and his father Bill own Los Nances, a local bed & breakfast on a hill above town. The B&B does not attract many guests, so they also sell local real estate, do construction, and manage repair projects. Bill is an American who has resided in Panama for many decades. His son Adam was born and raised in the Canal Zone, attending Balboa High School and Florida State University's Panama branch. If you ask him where he's from, he'll say Panama, as do most Zonians. He is fluent in both English and Spanish and comes across at first glance like an American, but once you begin conversing with him you discover that in his attitudes about politics, the environment, and life in general, he is more of a Panamanian than a gringo.

His repair team consist of Eric, the apprentice electrician super-athlete with the little bionic dog Clifford, both of whom run ten miles in the mountains every morning before work; a large, experienced electrician whose name I don't know but has bad breath and body odor and is so hairy he looks like he fell into a tub of glue and then rolled around on the floor of a barbershop; and Lazaro, a rotund, born-again bald plumber with a high pitched voice and excitable mannerisms.

The electricians determined a few days ago that there are several problems. Several circuits are shorted, excessive humidity has built up in the circuit box, and most seriously, the house wiring, and the electrical wires coming in from the street, are of insufficient gauge to handle the electrical load. The wires from the street are No.8 guage, really not appropriate for a large house like this. Of course this house was never meant to be lived in full time. William Silen built it as a weekend house and did not even put in phone wiring.

All of the wiring will have to be pulled and replaced. Adam and I went to the city in his pickup truck and bought three spools of No. 2 gauge copper wiring to replace the old stuff. Cost for materials alone was $2,2oo.

By the way, I'm writing this on my laptop and the zero key is dead, hence the little o's in the place of zeros. This laptop is in bad shape, suffering many malfunctions. I believe they are the result of many months of unprotected use in Panama City, when I plugged it directly into the wall socket with no surge protector or voltage regulator to guard it from the constant fluctuations in the electrical current here in Panama. I did not know better at the time.

Adam and I proceeded to the Do-It Center where I purchased a new refrigerator for $8oo. The compressor on the old fridge has been burnt out by those same power fluctuations.

Laura had requested a fridge with an external ice maker and I wanted to accomodate her, since it was her only request, but those models were all over a thousand dollars and were high energy consumers. I was concerned about getting an energy efficient model, to keep our electric bills low and also to minimize the demands on the house electrical system. So, no external ice maker. I also bought a $5o power adaptor made especially for refrigerators, called the Refri-Line.

Salma requested a fridge with external milk dispenser, but I could not find one. Anyway, she already has one, the Mama model. Price: priceless.

The next day Adam's crew proceeded to dig up the old wires and put in the new. However, additional hidden problems surfaced. The subsurface wires ran in odd, multiple directions. A section of the wiring runs beneath the concrete at the side of the house and will be hard to reach. Most disturbingly, Adam discovered that the previous owner, the aforementioned William Silen, had installed a secret box to siphon power illegally from the electric company. As much as half of the house's power had been coming through this box, but the box had shorted out, so the house is no longer getting a sufficient electrical flow. Adam said he would have to tear this out and put in a new circuit box.

Then something unfortunate occurred. Adam had filed a work request with EDEMET, the local power company, notifying them of the work he would by doing. The inspector happened to come by in the afternoon as Adam was discovering all these problems. The inspector spotted the illegal box, and threatened legal action. He is obligated by law to report this to his superiors at EDEMET. I would be fined between $3,ooo and $7,ooo, my meter wall would be knocked down and my electricity would be cut off until the conclusion of the court case, which could take up to ten years. The fact that I did not install the box and did not even know of its existence is irrelevant at the moment. I could try to prove it in court if I wished, but Silen might claim that he knows nothing about it.

I told Adam to try to resolve this problem with the inspector on a one-on-one basis. After some negotiation, Adam paid the inspector $25o, and the man drove away without filing a report. This is what we call, paying an unofficial fine. Adam's team immediately removed the illegal box and its wiring, so that no further evidence of its existence remains.

However, this means that I cannot take action against William Silen to recover the cost of these repairs. Officially this problem never existed, and I cannot make an issue out of it without exposing this payoff and coverup. So I just have to eat the cost of these repairs, bitter though it is. Or maybe I can sue him for the cost of upgrading the wiring, unrelated to the illegal box. He and I will both know what's really up, but neither of us can mention it.

Meanwhile the chubby, fast-talking plumber is hard at work. We have no hot water at the kitchen sink, only cold. The plumber discovered that at some point in the past the hot water hose had been damaged and repaired with cigarrette box tin foil, which of course did not hold.

Many of our faucets drip, and the plumber told me that Silen had used cheap, thin washers that would not last more than six months. There are other problems with similar causes, all having to do with the use of cheap materials and shoddy repairs.

I'm not too happy about this. I have to wonder if Silen ripped us off, if he conned us. He had a story about building this house for himself and his wife, then discovering that he had cancer and therefore had to sell the house to pay his medical bills. His wife in turn acted upset at having to sell the house. But I wonder if that's what it was, an act. I wonder if his plan from the beginning was to build a house with cheap materials, sell it to a gringo and move on with his profit.

No, I just can't see that being true. The house is beautiful, and for the most part is sturdy and well designed. And Silen's wife's upset at selling the house was too genuine. She actually cried. She insisted that she be allowed to remove a large stone with a Virgin Mary statue that stood out in the front yard. She wanted to stage a goodbye party in the house and was upset when the lawyer informed her that the contract had already been signed and the house was no longer hers. For a few months after I bought the house, but when I was still living in the city, she pestered my lawyer because the grass at the house was not being cut, until finally the lawyer began blocking her calls. Clearly the woman was very emotionally attached to the house and planned on spending her retirement years here.

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