Saturday, July 13, 2013

Ethiopia: The Nightmare Drain

The drain on my bathtub had been slowing for weeks, but honestly, I didn't really care.  Standing in a bit of water while I showered wasn't enough of an inconvenience to spur me into action.

Then one morning, the problem migrated to my sink.  As I was shaving, the water clouded with shaving cream and tiny bits of hair refused to go down the drain.

Inspiration struck, and I turned on the hot water as high as it would go.  I thought maybe I could melt whatever was obstructing the pipe.  While this approach was awesome in theory, in reality it sucked.  The sink still wouldn't empty, and now it was nearly filled to the top with murky water.

After I briefly toyed with the idea of permanently moving my grooming operations to the guest bathroom, I decided that I should stop avoiding the drainage problem in my master bathroom and try to fix it.

The first thing I needed was a plunger, so I threw on some clothes and headed for the shops close to my house.  This was my first ever shopping run on a Saturday morning at 8 AM in Ethiopia, so I wasn't sure what to expect.  Much to my relief, everything was open.

I ducked into a small plumbing supply store, and they were unable to help.  Thankfully, though, half a block further down the road, a small supermarket had just what I needed.  Hanging on a hook over some papayas, there were three plungers (or toilet pumps as the store listed them), and in three fetching colors to boot.  Bypassing the lime green and hot pink models, I bought the red one for a very reasonable 70 birr (about $3.90).  And I picked up some milk since I was already at the store.

Then I headed home for a showdown with my drain.

With renewed optimism, I launched a full-out assault on my sink.  Chug, chug, chug...gurgle... chug, chug, chug...gurgle... chug, chug, chug...whoosh!  The water disappeared down the drain.

"That wrapped up nicely," I thought to myself.

Then I turned around, and, Houston, we had a problem.

Sure the water had gone down the sink, but it was now bubbling up in my tub, and worse yet, through the drain in the middle of the floor.

This was an unexpected turn of events.

I decided to move to Plan B (or was it Plan A?) and I relocated to the guest bathroom for the remainder of the day.

I had things to do with my Saturday that didn't involve sewage, so it wasn't until around 6 PM that I returned to the problem.

By now, the water had receded from the sink, tub, and floor, and other than a small rust-colored water mark, the floor looked dry and normal.

I ran the water a bit in the sink as a test, and sure enough, it started to ooze from the floor drain again.  I would need to up the ante.  Yes, friends, it was Drano time!

Before I walked out my gate on my way to the store, I briefly talked to my guard about the situation.

"You can find drain opener in all the shops," he assured me.

As I set out on my quest, I had my doubts.

I headed for Meskel Flower Road using my muddy neighborhood lanes, and at a particularly swampy intersection, I ran into one of the guys from one of my neighborhood pubs.

"Wow!" he exclaimed, "you're walking the streets just like a habesha!"  (A habesha is an Ethiopian.)

This guy was impressed that I was walking in the mud, and I in turn was surprised that this raised my street cred.  That was a nice bonus, I suppose, but my reason for walking the muddy local streets was convenience.  The alternate route, that would have avoided most of the puddles, was much longer.

On a street corner a few minutes from my house, two young ladies had opened a French fry stand.  Basically, they had a fryer on a wooden table that was powered by an extension cord that dangled over a fence and disappeared into a corrugated metal shack some 15 meters away.  Two birr (about 11 cents) bought a small paper cone of fresh fries.

This fry stand had been around for a few weeks, but I hadn't tried it yet.  Finally, I was in the mood to give it a go.

I paid my 2 birr and received a cone full of fries.  Often times, these cones are made from newspaper, but on this occasion, I had a cone fashioned from what appeared to be someone's homework.  I thought that the homework cone was a nice touch, but unfortunately the fries were terrible.  I have eaten street fries all over the city, and this was the worst batch yet.  They were greasy, crunchy, and cold.  Clearly my order of fries had been sitting around for a while.

Although they weren't very appetizing, I still gnawed on my fries as I walked down the street.

Then I began the search for drain opener in earnest.

First up was Inga Supermarket.  I couldn't see anything useful on the shelves, and the clerk had no clue what I was talking about.

Next was Target Supermarket which turned out to be another dead end.

Continuing down Bole Road, I hit New York Supermarket.  For a specialty product like drain opener, you can't just walk into most stores and ask for it.  No, you have to tell a story.  And so I told my story in all its glory - of water in the sink and water in the floor and blocked pipes and plungering.  The story was action packed and full of gesturing.  As I told my tale at New York Supermarket, there were six clerks surrounding me, taking it all in, and nodding along knowingly.  After the exciting finish, they chatted a bit in Amharic, and a young lady ran off.  She returned a few seconds later with a bottle of all-purpose bathroom cleaner.  Doh!  This crowd clearly needed an encore performance.  I acted out for them how it would be when I poured the chemicals in the sink and the water flowed down, and one guy lit up.  We had a winner!  The clerk trotted over to the shelves.

"I know which one you need," he told me, "but it's finished."  In other words, it was sold out.


Five minutes later, I reached Ethio Supermarket.  Things played out there almost exactly as they had at New York Supermarket.  After much confusion, there was understanding.  Then the staff realized their stock was depleted.

I continued trucking down the road.

I had high hopes as I entered Shoa Supermarket because they have one of the better selections in town.

I headed directly for the cleaning aisle, and there it was, on the right side of the bottom shelf: Speed drain opener.  It was a thing of beauty.

I took one of the little red bottles and headed for the cash registers.  At only 40 birr ($2.20) the Speed was worth every penny.

With my mission accomplished, I started the journey back home.  I was about 40 minutes away.

At around the halfway point, I stopped for a snack.  During the rainy season (June through September) corn comes into season, and all along the roadsides, women can be found roasting corn on the cob on small charcoal grills.

I ordered one and paid my 5 birr (28 cents), and then I had to wait.  The woman with whom I was dealing did not have any corn ready to go, so I had to cool my jets for about 5 minutes while she stoked the coals with a small fan and charred one up for me.

Once my corn was ready, I took a seat in the dining area - a patch of dirt with three cinder-block "stools".  There were already 2 ladies sitting there, so I got the last space available.

As soon as I sat down, the ladies struck up a conversation.

"You like baqolo?" one asked me.

Granted it wasn't nearly as sweet and delicious as U.S. corn, but it was still pretty tasty.

"Of course I like baqolo," I answered.  "It's one of my favorites."

The ladies were duly impressed, and they questioned me about my appreciation of other Ethiopian foods.  Then they moved on to the basic questions about my life.

When they learned that I was American and working at the U.S. Embassy, they were keen to tell me that they worked for an American NGO based in Seattle and that they were currently working under a contract with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

They rattled off the names of their CDC contacts at the Embassy, but all the people they mentioned were Ethiopian.  In the case of CDC, I only know a few of the American officers and a very few of the local staff.

When I told the ladies that I wasn't familiar with the people they had named, they both looked at me like I was a fraud - like I was only pretending to work at the Embassy.

I explained that a good many people work inside the Embassy and that it would be very difficult for any one person to know everyone.  They seemed to accept this, and we moved on to other matters.

The ladies had just finished a full day of continuing education for their jobs.

"Since we work during the week," one explained, "we have to go to class on Saturdays."

"Even worse," the other continued, "we will be back doing the same thing on Sunday."

I had to agree with them.  Attending training over the weekend sounded like a real drag.

The ladies had a dinner date in 20 minutes, and they were waiting for a third friend to join them. At one point in the conversation, they asked me where I lived.  When I told them, they were shocked that I was walking where I was.  I was only 20 minutes from my house, however, so it's not like I was on the other side of town.  The ladies were still concerned, though, so they encouraged me to take a taxi home.  Naturally, I disregarded their advice.

"Well," one told me, "when our friend arrives, we will walk part of the way with you."

I didn't really need an escort, but I didn't mind the company either.

We chatted for a few more minutes, and sure enough, their friend arrived as anticipated.

Whereas the first two ladies were dressed in professional business attire, the third one arrived wearing a short, tight dress in a leopard print.  The dress was fuzzy like velvet.

As soon as the leopard lady arrived, the other two ladies hopped up from their cinder blocks and walked away.

"Have a good night!" they told me as they pranced off down the road.

Some escorts they turned out to be!

With my escorts gone and my corn picked clean, I chucked the cob in the nearby heap of rubbish and finished walking home.

The instructions for the Speed were pretty straight forward:

  1. Pour 1 cup of cold water down the drain.
  2. Add 2 tablespoons of Speed.
  3. Pour 1 cup of boiling water over the Speed.
  4. Wait 30 minutes.
  5. Flush the drain with cold water.
No problem!

I poured a cup of cold water down the tub drain and added the Speed.  Then I washed it down with the boiling water, and it started to foam and smoke.  Excellent!

Then I waited 30 minutes and flushed the drain with water, and it seemed like the clog had indeed been cleared.

I wasn't out of the woods just yet, though.

After a few moments of running the water, the floor again started to flood.  And there was something unusual about the water that was gushing forth.  It was squirming to be precise.  The drain was belching out water that was saturated with little worms - larval insects of some sort.  I had assumed that the drain was clogged with hair or soap scum deposits, but apparently something had built a nest and blocked the pipe.

I often feel like my life is a movie, and on this occasion, I felt like I was in a freakin' horror show.  For an extra ghoulish touch, my floor was also dotted with a few small pools of blood from where I had cut my foot the day before.  The blood had already dried, but when the water passed over it, it started to diffuse and delicately flow like watercolor paint.

I stared at my floor full of worms and blood-streaked water for a second, and then it dawned on me that perhaps I should stop running the water.  I turned off the tap and built a retaining wall around the flood with some dirty clothes.

Once I had corralled the water, much to my surprise it started flowing down the drain.  The Speed had worked after all!  It had sufficiently weakened the obstruction, and the water had finally managed to flush the pipe clean.

Unfortunately, as the water retreated, it left most of the worms high and dry on my floor.  They were thrashing around like dying worms are wont to do, and I knew what I had to do:  I went to the bar and knocked back some beers.

Then bright and early the next morning, round about 11 AM, I woke up and mopped up the remnants.