Plumbing in Uruguay

Resolving a little plumbing issue in the country yesterday set off a cascading series of Uruguayan plumbing memories.

Some involve sheer incompetence, some … well, let’s start with the incompetence. If you’ve been with me a while, you might remember this gem from jack-of-all-trades Nestor (because anyone in Uruguay who sort of knows one trade thinks he knows every trade). The lower patch fills the first hole he made for the horizontal vent pipe above.

Uruguayan plumbing

A few years ago, a newcomer trenchantly reflected on Uruguayan plumbing, “Didn’t we see this in Pompeii?”

Yes, sweetie, just minus the PVC. Let’s trace the wastewater route from our kitchen. 1) First it goes into the 20 liter grasera that we had to buy to replace an 18 liter, perfectly functional, grasera. 2) It goes into another box. 3) It goes to another box. 4) It goes to another box. All of which are prone to clogging, of course, from grease that escapes the grasera..

Uruguayan plumbing

Before we get to box #5, I should point out that boxes 3 and 4 should not exist, but this being an owner-built house, the line went from box #2 to the big unmarked concrete top, to a septic tank not in the original plans. We only discovered this when we had to “regularize” our plans three years ago (a process which maybe will be finalized this year?).

So from there the water goes to box 5, which should have been a right angle turn, to box 6, where the downspout from the upstairs bathroom and pipe from the downstairs one join the party, to box 7 …

Uruguayan plumbing

… where it makes another turn to box 8, and finally to (9) the septic tank.

Uruguayan plumbing

Wherein lie a couple more stories. You’ll notice a dark square in the top of box 8. That is where I filled the hole in it with concrete. When our erstwhile know-everything handyman Martín cleverly used leftover tiles to cover the septic tank, he somewhat less cleverly decided that all it needed was an opening big enough for the “barométrica” (tank pumping) truck’s hose.

Uruguayan plumbing

When we launched into the above-mentioned “regularization,” we had to pay someone else to undo his handiwork, because an inspector had to stick his head in there to confirm that the septic tank was actually connected to the vent pipe in the corner.

Uruguayan plumbing

That may seem ridiculous, but the same Martín cleverly solved friends’ hideously-out-of-code plumbing inspection problem by installing a couple of plumbing boxes in the yard that made sense to the inspector, but weren’t actually connected to each other. Or anything else.

But that’s not my story to tell.


You can’t make this stuff up

You’ll recall that I (charitably, I now think) attributed a botched attempt to buy a mattress on Mercado Libre to retrograde Mercury. I’ll get back to that.*

When we arrived in Uruguay in September 2009, we had bought an unfinished house. By the time we were ready for furnishings, there happened to be a sales-tax-free (at some places) weekend. We took advantage of it to avoid an involuntary 23% donation to the government. Turns out the stove we bought was 50 cm wide, but the opening in the countertop 60 cm. Since we had kitchen cabinets built a little taller than standard, the stove was also a bit short. I may lack the resources (and motivation) to restore an antique car, but I have no problem cranking up the table saw and making a little riser and side shelf for the stove.


However, after over eight years, with paint wearing off the front, and the mechanical connection that pulls out oven shelves when you open the door completely shot, I decided it was time for one that both fit the space, and looked good.** And I found one on Mercado Libre:


So I ordered it, said I’d like to pick it up myself in Montevideo (after the mattress fiasco, I don’t want the wrong product delivered to my door).

The seller sent me instructions how to pay. And asked for my phone number to coordinate delivery.

So I went to the bank, withdrew cash, took it to Abitab and paid.

And they called. I asked if I could pick it up the next day. Since they apparently had to deliver to a third-party warehouse, the woman said she’d call me tomorrow with more info.

She didn’t (BTW this is a common theme in Uruguay), so I sent a reminder email that evening. The next morning, I get a message from them: lamentablemente (also a common theme here) we don’t have this stove, but for USD 30 more we can sell you one similar. Or refund your money.

Incompetence and passive acceptance of mediocrity comprise the warp and weft of many, if not most, economic transactions in Uruguay, at least at the retail level. I’ve had years to get used to this. Even so, I was irate. Rather than tell them to give me my money back and insist that I would never buy something else from pond scum like them, I filed a complaint. Said they were doing false advertising, and should not be allowed on Mercado Libre. Maybe someone at Mercado Libre will read it some day, but in the end the message went straight to the vendor.

Before getting to their response, let’s review:

  1. Vendor offered an item for sale
  2. I ordered it (“bid on it” in their terminology for some reason)
  3. They sent payment instructions and accepted payment
  4. They contacted me to coordinate delivery
  5. Two days later, tell me they don’t have the product but offer to upsell me something else

And so, what is their response?

– It’s a shame the customer has to have this attitude. After all, he never asked us if we actually had the item in stock.

With that, the issue was closed; I couldn’t reply. So I went back to their listing page, and posted that I’m sorry to have caused a problem. I’m not from the Third World, and in other places companies don’t advertise and accept payment for products they don’t have.

Too harsh? You tell me.

More likely – if you live here – you’ll have similar horror stories. Feel free to vent– beyond having a heroic sense of humor, or devolving to subservient acceptance of abuse and mediocrity, what else do you have besides wanting to break things?

* I now tend to think the vendor never had the mattress he advertised, but hoped we’d be the “acceptance of mediocrity” part of the warp and weft and accept whatever he sent us.

** regarding the stove we now have: between our house, casita, and the house in the country, we have three kitchens to furnish and only two stoves, so the replaced stove will fill a personal need.




My friend Burkhard, of German descent from Namibia, moved from a rather remote part of the interior of Uruguay to a place not far from our little country property. And immediately started projects. One of which was buying a Ford Model A.

To restore.

Which meant taking the whole thing apart. No, I mean really apart.

And from three engines that looked like this, creating one with the best parts from each. He substituted adjustable valves – a later innovation (i.e., not original) that apparently saved days of labor.

And then, of course, one has to put the whole thing back together.

Today it had its first public-road debut. Having been a farmer all his life in Africa, he knew about windmills, and had helped with ours on our barely-used chacra (14+ acres/5.6 hectares). He mentioned that it probably needed lubrication, and since I was halfway through mowing the knee-high grass, and he was offering, we arranged to meet there this afternoon.

And there he was!

He also helped me find a plumbing solution for an annoying oversight from our Uruguayan “of course I know everything” contractor Martín, and then putt-putt-putt was on his way home before he had to use the vehicle’s lights, which are humorously (as long as you’re not driving in the dark) dim.

All photos except for the last two are his. I’ll try to do better next time.

Next time – did I mention he also bought a Model T that he will begin restoring in a few weeks?


Finally, a break from dreary weather

To be fair, we have had some episodes of sunshine during the last five or six days, but the overall weather theme has been dreariness. Today we had scattered clouds and bright (but not warm!) sun.

Interestingly, several years ago we were told by a solar guy that with a hot water system in Uruguay, you need to plan your tank capacity for three days without sun, on average the longest you’d need. In the short time since then, several winters have proved that quite inaccurate. We never got a solar hot water system installed – a little complicated on our house – so I don’t pay particular attention, but it seems to me there have been many stretches longer than three days without sunshine.

Anyway, a new sight today, several blocks from the end of the feria:

cany sweet, whatever that means

“Candy sweet.” A ladder up a tree, and further to the left, a gas-powered electrical generator. Since it was chilly, I didn’t hang around to learn more of the nature of the (presumed) business. There will be time, if it becomes a regular feature. More likely, though, is that it will simply go away, maybe after a couple more appearances.

sunset, Atlántida, Uruguay

And a lovely sunset, with a clear sky undimmed by criss-crossing “persistent contrails” (nudge nudge wink wink) that mar the sky almost always and almost everywhere in North America and Europe.


Of paltas and comedrejas

The other night, quite late, I let the dogs out to the back yard and a huge uproar. Grabbing the flashlight, I saw a “dead” comadreja (possum) on the grass. (“Dead:” of course it was gone the next morning.)

By daylight, I noticed something near one of our two very prolific (this year, at least) avocado trees.

Possum damage to avocado harvest

Look to the top left and lower right, and you’ll see what look like mushrooms, or eggs, or – you guessed it – avocado pits.

Today, under the other, which produces larger fruit, I saw more evidence of recent activity.

Possum damage to avocado harvest

That avocado skin in the foreground measures 5 inches (12.7 cm) from end to end – a serious guacamological loss.

The first tree drops fruit; this one doesn’t. Since possums are very adept climbers, I suspect this represents an unauthorized harvest.

Possum damage to avocado harvest

Which is perhaps the reason I have had little scraps of fence wire hanging on the garage wall for so long. I don’t know if this will work, but the critter will have to navigate points of wire at the top, and the boards should make it difficult to get right next to the trunk. We’ll see.

If you’ve spent time in Uruguay, you may have noticed an abundance of parrots. They are quite charming until you plant fruit trees, and you find them taking a few bites out of each pear or fig.

One person told me that there weren’t always so many. It seems that the rapid increase in eucalyptus and pine planting in the past 30-40 years has given parrots very tall trees for build their nests – above the range of possums, who presumably like parrot chicks and eggs in addition to avocados.