When ‘doing nothing’ is frustrating

Earlier, Cristina has been writing about the art of doing nothing. I am not sure we see this exactly the same way, so my recap would be that we are trying to do nothing here, during our month of holidays, in order to relax from the hectic and pressure from work and deadlines – and from the preparations for this sabbatical. We find it actually very difficult to really do nothing. We still have things we would like to do, like visiting nature reservations, going to the beach, blogging, reading, bird-watching and enjoying spending all this time together. And we still have things that need to be done, such as household chores, so that we have time for other ‘do-nothings’. So, we had to settle for a second best understanding of ‘doing nothing’, which is not having to do anything that is somehow externally forced upon us through for example deadlines, other people, or the forces that be.

Now that I am writing these previous sentences, I finally realize what is frustrating me so much lately. I thought I knew, but now I am going to go with this: we ended up in the ironic situation where ‘doing nothing’ is actually forced upon us by the powers that be. In other words, we have to do nothing, whereas I want to do something about the situation.

One single fact

So, what is the situation? Factually speaking, we only know for sure that from time to time in the past ten days the water suddenly stops running for hours or a day. Read carefully: from time to time the water suddenly stops running for hours or a day. Personally, being a Western European, that is completely unknown to me. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want anybody’s pity. I think I know how spoiled I am and I know that millions if not billions of people have no or hardly no access to water at all. They have to live with that, and if they have to, I should not complain having to deal with a lesser version of their problem.

Water next to the fridge

Our version of the problem was more or less like this. The first time it took us by surprise and we did not have a lot of bottled water in the house, except for some liters of cold water in the fridge. So the drinking problem was solved. The dishes could wait, and we could do without a shower. Of course, I was just about to take a shower when the water stopped. One can still wash oneself with only a bit of water, fortunately. That day was the day we went to the veterinarian nearby to get Matilda checked and to do some shopping so we could stock up on bottled water. Then one needs water to clean food but this also does not require a lot.

Water for the toilet

Last but not least, the toilet needs water to flush. It needs a lot, but even when we had some big bottles of water waiting, we did not get it to work. That leaves the garden option. We fortunately have a big garden and the neighbors are too far away to see us doing our business. I can point out that I have had some experience with (and without) using a hole in the ground in the middle of a nature reserve in Botswana and in Madagascar. Even with some urgencies, if you understand what I mean. Still, I was not very comfortable squatting down in the dark just after we had observed some of the creeping type of wildlife surrounding our house. Maybe, at this point, you, my dear reader, are horrified or just appalled, but hopefully you are also laughing out loud by now.

The stories

So that was about the facts of the situation and how we dealt with them in practice. Now, of course, the big question is why did the water stop running. Here I can only refer to stories that came to me from the gardener/house caretaker and Cristina’s translations of those. These stories involve multiple local and distant actors, intermediaries, the design of the water infrastructure, pipes, failing pumps, taps, maintenance & repairs, neighbors who are not paying their bills, the stability of the rocks in the garden, Whatsapp communication and economic considerations. It is a really complex story, with high levels of contingency, a dense network of dependencies and interactions between all actors and artifacts. I have lost touch with my old academic field of ‘science and technology studies’, but I could write a decent Masters’ level thesis about this case.

On top of these complexities, the stories of course never were delivered as complete stories but only in bits and chunks. Moreover, they changed on a event-by-event or day-by-day basis from version A to B to C and back to B. I would not say it is the essence of the stories, but at the core of the version that makes most sense to me, it goes like this:

Even though our host pays his bill to the neighbor up the hill, from whom our house receives the water, a neighbor down the hill has not paid their bills for half a year. The neighbor up the hill then decided to cut the water supply to the neighbor down the hill. Because the piping does not allow to only cut the supply to the non-paying neighbor, some other houses including ours were also cut off. The owners or caretakers of those houses then went to complain and the water was supplied again. Until the neighbor up the hill changed his or her mind again. I believe that the owner of our house has now mentioned a potential legal problem to the neighbor up the hill for not delivering, and now the water is running again. Hopefully that is the end of the endings to our water supply.

The frustrations

Now you know about the few facts, the consequences of those few facts to us, and you know a little bit about the stories. Now, I can finally explain my frustrations. They moved from one place to the next, along with the stories.

First, it was with the inconvenience unexpectedly not having water available. Perhaps that was not yet frustration, but irritation of the spoiled European. Then the water came back and all was fine.

When the cycle started repeating and irritation became more of a frustration. After all, what could be so hard about repairing a broken pipe? Because that was the first story, something broke down and was difficult to repair. If the parts were lacking, how could that happen to a utility company? Costa Rica is a developing country but doing comparatively well, and in any case the utilities and infrastructure are working very well. At that time, I did not know that the water did not come from the utility company, but the neighbor up the hill.

At the next incarnation of the story, I got frustrated with the whole situation of actually not knowing what is going on, people being too cheap to pay their bills, or to invest in their infrastructure, and so on. The idiocy that I perceived in how the network of people and artifacts was really not working.


Then today, the third time without water, I really got quite frustrated with the whole affair. The caretaker and the owner had done what they could – perhaps more than they strictly speaking had to, for which I am truly grateful – and the water came running down the hill again. We just had to wait for the deposit to fill up for everything to work, but after an hour, it did.

Cristina and I had a little talk about my frustration. She argued that I just had to go with it and accept that this is how things go in a developing country. Which is of course true and in part why we are here, having a holiday: to acclimate before beginning with our volunteer work. We did some of that in Alajuela (as you can read about in earlier posts, such as here, here, here, and here ) but that was apparently not the end of it (well, while we are here having holidays, we also had this and this). For sure, I do not find it easy to get used to how things are arranged, or at least how this particular water thing here, is arranged.

A powerless node, forced to do nothing

But after our talk, my mind was still restless. The puzzle was not yet solved. I tried to relax by reading a book, looking at the birds and enjoying a coffee, but it didn’t work. Unsolved puzzles work on me like red cloth on a bull. So, I thought to write it all down. It might help. And it did. I identified my frustration at the end of the first paragraph, and now you hopefully see what I meant there.

My biggest challenge of getting used to how things are arranged in this foreign country and how this thing went down is that I could ‘do nothing’. In terms of actor networks, I am a ‘leaf’ in the network: a node that is connected to only one other node, Cristina, to tell me the stories and allowing me to probe the network with a question or a remark.

In common-sense terms, I could not do a single thing. I could not pay a bill to get the water running, I could not change a thing about the infrastructure, I could not test how the system works of pipes, pump, deposit and taps that are installed in the house. I could not even communicate with the house caretaker, because my Spanish and his English are not at the required levels.

Although I don’t have a diploma to prove it, I think I have the mindset and genes of an engineer. Stuff that does not work has to be fixed or redesigned – to me, it is like solving a puzzle. And if it can not be fixed, it has to be recycled. So, hopefully, you can imagine how restless I became from not being able to do a single thing.

The powers that be forced me to ‘do nothing’, exactly opposite to how Cristina and I had come to understand ‘doing nothing’. Doing nothing suddenly became active and unavoidable. It became having to do something that is nothing, perhaps the toughest form of doing nothing.

All that is left to the me-leaf is to write about it … errr … and to dig a hole. At least that is something. So, I did what I could do: buy a shovel.

One thought on “When ‘doing nothing’ is frustrating

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