If he didn’t deserve the name, it wouldn’t be his name. This is how he got the name.
Setting: Earthquake-ravaged Pisco, Peru circa July 2008.
The mission: To build earthquake-resistant sanitation units which included a toilet, shower, and large sink for the less-fortunate residents of Pisco. The unit had been designed, and prototypes had been built. However, documentation containing information on how to construct such units was scarce. The deadline for completion was approaching and plumbing needed to occur on a fast and efficient basis.
Enter: one British and one American voluntario. Mike (aka Mixto) and I had been given the task of organizing a list of all of the materials needed to plumb a sanitation unit. We had a drawing of the unit with no parts labeled, a list in Spanish that may or may not be parts that were bought for previous units, and no experience plumbing.
All of the ECP stories are from my unforgettable time spent volunteering in Pisco, Peru with the organization Burners Without Borders. I received an e-mail from one of the main organizers updating us past volunteers on Pisco. If you’re looking for future vacation ideas, I can tell you the 6 weeks I spent volunteering in Peru were 6 weeks that changed my life significantly.
Below is the message from our organizer, Jimmy and the accompanying letter from Harold, the new Director of Pisco Sin Fronteras. Harold is a local tour guide turned community volunteer after the earthquake of 2007. He’s an amazing person not afraid to give completely of himself for the benefit of others.
Hello Pisco Volunteers,
Burners without Borders is off to a great start in 2009. We are confident our impact this year will surpass the amazing accomplishments of 2008.
With all the wonderful accomplishments of last year, the formation of Pisco Sin Fronteras (PSF) is allowing volunteerism to continue in Pisco. One of the largest voids seen in disaster assistance is local long-term reconstruction assistance. PSF was formed from our energy and our efforts. Let’s show our support and keep that Burner energy alive in Pisco!
Harold and the PSF crew have been busy, Harold’s written a letter that we have to pass along. Efforts like this just prove this community is unstoppable.
It was a Wednesday night, and I was getting nervous about leading the “Intercambio” cultural exchange with the local kids. Earlier in the day, at the 8 AM organizational meeting, I had raised my hand to volunteer to PM (project manage) Intercambio that night. Now, 5 minutes before I was supposed to be out there, I realized that I knew so little Spanish and was so unprepared that I was about to make a fool of myself in front of genuinely good kids.
So when I raised my hand to lead Intercambio, Jimmy (our de facto leader at the time), asked “what are you going to do?”
“Teach them how to play baseball hopefully.”
“Oh! You’re the baseball coach. I was wondering when you were going to get here! We should get a game organized at a field somewhere once you teach them how to play!”
Just in case anyone was wondering, the ECP plumbed for a volunteer organization. Yes, the sink, showers, toilets, and pipes we installed were ‘por los ninos’ or ‘for the children’ as we liked to say. This being the case, our first day of on-the-job training consisted mostly of bargaining with shop owners to see who could give us the best price on all of the supplies we would need for each of 10 sanitation units.
Prof Plumb had already laid the groundwork, and had narrowed it down to two or three shops. One of the shops was where we would buy the sink and toilet, and the second would be where we would buy the necessary pipes, glue, sandpaper, etc. Well, this second shop with the best prices ended up being run by a guy that Prof Plumb humorously referred to as “Grumpy.”
Naming Luis, the shop owner, Grumpy is about as fair as naming any droopy-faced bulldog Grumpy. It was no assault on his character, or even his common disposition as Grumpy did not act grumpy, but simply an honest description of the man’s most common facial expression. If he was happy to see you, you’d have to look deep into his eyes to know, because his face sure did not show his pleasure. However grumpy Grumpy looked, he had the best prices around and thus became our go-to plumbing supply shop in Pisco.
While heading to the store, Prof Plumb had explained what to expect from Grumpy – no smiles, no crap, and no inflated prices. As soon as we turned the corner into the store, Mixto and I looked at each other as Prof Plumb commented “told you.”
To Mixto though, Grumpy wasn’t simply a plumbing supplier. He wasn’t just another shop owner in Pisco. No, to Mixto, Grumpy was a challenge. No sooner than Mixto had met the man, he laid out the challenge. If we were going to be developing a relationship with this man, returning to his store on what would be a daily basis, then Mixto was determined to be on good relations with him right from the beginning.
“I’m going to make him smile before I leave today, and I’m hugging him before I leave Peru.”
I laughed at Mixto’s British humor: as dead pan as they come. See, this was the first day Mixto and I plumbed together. This was the beginning of ECP. I hadn’t yet spent half a day with the guy. How was I supposed to know he was serious? I’ll tell you how – because he was in a plumbing supply store buying supplies for a sanitation unit he didn’t know how to build with an Irishman soon to be knighted “Professor Plumb” and an American who would soon wear a piece of plumbing pipe around his neck for a period time much longer than any normal person. I should’ve known he was serious, because I should’ve known he was a plumber. No, when he said he was going to make Grumpy smile before we left his shop that first day, he wasn’t lying. I don’t think Mixto has ever told a lie in his life, and if he has, it wasn’t to me.
Having read that last line, and with the knowledge that the author is both a) writing this story in the past tense, and b) a plumber himself, you know what happened before we left that shop, and yes – you know what happened before Mixto left Peru. I don’t know how he did it, but somehow Mixto got Grumpy to smile that first day, and had Grumpy wrapping his arms around him within a week. Why did Mixto take it upon him to achieve these seemingly unlikely, and unimportant goals? Maybe for the fun of it. Maybe it was for the challenge. Or maybe, he did it for the same reason Mixto did anything. It was for the children.
Bottle of Rum: $10, Bottle of Coke: $4, Four Ice-cream bars: $2, ECP Plumbers Driving around in a Tuk-tuk for Hours Doing Rum and Coke Dentist Chairs: Priceless
There’s a plumber legend that states a plumber can only respond to any question with one of three answers: “yes”, “hell yes”, and “let’s talk about it.” This legend has been attributed to many sources, yet no one knows exactly from where this little plumber philosophy arose. We do know one story that epitomizes this philosophy and we shall retell that story here. It’s about a boy named Ravi, two plumbers, a tuk-tuk and a good idea.
On what seemed like a typical plumber’s day, a few typical Eager Catholic Plumber decisions turned into… well, a typical Eager Catholic Plumber Day. Typical plumbers plumb from 9-5. When Eager Catholic Plumbers get the call from BaseCamp about their ride home being ready at 5:00, ECP’ers inform BaseCamp that no ride is necessary. See, typical ECP’ers don’t stop plumbing at 5:00; they plumb until they run out of light, which is exactly what Mixto and I did on this day.
That evening, gazing out of the window of our tuk-tuk on the way back to BaseCamp after a healthy day of plumbing, I see another tuk-tuk headed straight at us! Our driver swerves to the left when he notices this, but at the last second the other driver swerved to the right to narrowly avoid collision. Then I notice the driver of the other tuk-tuk laughing, looking at our driver. I look at our driver, and when he sees the other guy, he looks relieved and laughs, then swerves toward the other driver in a returned jest.
Recognizing these two drivers’ apparent disregard for formality, and safety while trasporting passengers, I am immediately struck with a funny idea. My lack of inhibition during this split second of genius prevents me from thinking twice before mentioning an off-the-wall idea around Mixto. See, Mixto, if nothing else, is pure plumber. He could be completely paying attention elsewhere, not hear a single word mentioned, yet recognize that a question was asked, and he’ll respond “yes.” No matter the question, irrelevant of how ridiculous, off-hand, or inconvenient such a response might entail, the answer will be “yes,” or “hell yes.”
Well, I didn’t think twice when I said, “Mixto, you know what we should do? We should rent this tuk-tuk out all night and just drive around playing chicken! This driver is nuts, and I like that!” As soon as I said this, I knew what were doing that night. I knew what was going to happen, and though at first I feared the consequences of what had just come out of my mouth, I realized when he responded “hell yes!” that we were plumbers for a reason, and that this night was going to go down in history. We immediately negotiated a good price with the driver, and were on our way. Next step – pick up Ravi.
Ravi was apparently leaving Pisco soon and had arranged a going away dinner at a nice Chinese restaurant in town, Ken Chai. Apparently Mixto and I were supposed to meet Ravi at BaseCamp 30 mins earlier in order to join him and several others for dinner at Ken Chai. However, beacuse we had stayed late to plumb, we were late. I knew none of this, as all plans had been made through Mixto. Now, I’m wondering why Mixto had gone through all the trouble of negotiating a price with the tuk-tuk driver to be his passengers for an hour when he knew all along that we were supposed to be eating dinner with Ravi. “Not to worry” he said, “Ravi won’t leave without us, and we’ll just take this tuk-tuk to the restaurant.”
When we arrive at BaseCamp, sure enough, the place is empty. We walk into the 14 bed dormroom where Ravi sleeps and find him sitting by himself on his bed.
“Where were you guys?!”
“Plumbing. Where did you think we were? We’ve got a great idea, and you’re coming with us.”
“Did you foget that we’re going to the Ken Chai? The others already left.”
Ravi was, by far, the most well-liked volunteer in Peru. If his teeth weren’t showing through an ear-to-ear smile, it was because he was sleeping. His laugh was notorious and often heard in the middle of a conversation with no apparent provocation or raison d’être. Thus, naturally, a large number of volunteers had forgone a free dinner in order to celebrate Ravi.
Ravi, however, was a plumber. He had sent every single one of these friends to the restaurant without him, in order to a) make them happy (they had worked up quite a hunger), and b) wait for/ ride with Mixto and I to the restaurant. Ravi had told the others that he would arrive at Ken Chai soon, as he was sure Mixto and I would be home soon. Mixto and I, however, had just rented a tuk-tuk for an hour, who was waiting outside for us, and we had it in mind that Ravi was coming with us.
Here Ravi was: the kindest, most considerate of all people, who sent his guests on to begin dinner without him at his OWN GOING AWAY PARTY! He had patiently waited by himself in an empty dormroom for his two trouble-making plumber friends. Now, after already being 30 minutes late, these plumbers were telling him that he was to ditch his own going away party that had already begun and join them in some “idea” they had? His response to this nonsense:
“I don’t even know what you’re talking about, but yes, I’m in.”
“Alright!” “Hell yes! That’s what I’m talking about, Ravi! You’re going to love this!”
“Can I borrow your phone?”
“I need to call the others and tell them I’m going to be late.”
Ha haa! That is the plumber spirit right there. We hadn’t even told Ravi what the plan was yet, but he was already ditching his own going away party to join in. He was totally confused, because Mixto and I were running around putting away our plumbing tools and washing our hands because we had a tuk-tuk waiting outside for us. When we told Ravi we had rented a tuk-tuk for an hour, he didn’t believe us. When we went outside and he saw the tuk-tuk waiting, he laughed and didn’t think twice about getting in.
Thirty seconds later we were at a convenience store purchasing a bottle of rum, a bottle of Coke, and four ice-cream bars. We shared all three with the driver as we cruised around Pisco eating ice-cream, getting drunk, and taking turns driving. The driver was unbelieveably cool and that night probably had the most fun at work ever.
At the end of our hour, the driver took us to Ken Chai, but upon asking the waitress where the gringos were, we found out that we had missed them by 10 minutes. So what did we do? We invited the tuk-tuk driver to dinner and the four of us sat down to a drunk, delicious and memorable going away dinner for Ravi. At some point, Mixto had gotten up during the meal, walked to a grocery store, purchased a fresh bottle of rum, and returned without us noticing!
Was it a good night? Yes.
Does Ravi’s response epitomize the plumber philosophy? Hell yes.
Honestly, we thought it was just another day of plumbing. The term “honestly” is used rhetorically here – we’re plumbers, which means we can’t lie. Wow, there’s so much to tell you. Let me see if I can break it down into manageable pieces (a codo, a tubo, and a mixto). Mixto is Mike, Tubo is Shawn (me), and the Codo is Ravi (well actually he’s a 1 inch to half inch reduccion, but let’s not get lost in details).
Mixto is a man, arguably ‘the’ man, yet so much more that the three letter word does not do him justice. Mixto is honesty. It all started the day he, Ravi, and I first tried to install a sink onto our first Sanitation unit without Connor (our mentor, aka “Professor Plumb”). To install this sink, we must drill holes in the concrete wall for the bolts. Naturally the holes in the wall must line up with the holes in the sink, so there is a bit of plumber eyeing involved (plumber eyeing – to use one’s plumber eye in order to measure something’s distance or relative position).
Ravi holds the sink to the wall, I mark the holes where the drilling will be done, and Mixto makes sure the sink is level so the water actually flows down the drain instead of building up on one side of the sink basin. The first hole is marked and drilled. Hold the sink up again, place a bolt in the first hole, and mark the second hole making sure that the sink is level. This is arguably one of the most important steps, because if you mark incorrectly, you may drill a hole that a) does not line up with the hole in the sink, b) is not level, c) forces you to drill a new first hole because a) or b) is true but only by just enough that you can’t redo hole #2 without completely effing it up (to ef something up is to ruin it beyond repair).
Naturally, before I mark Hole #2, I ask Mixto if it is level. He says, “hold on… okay… now it is.” Ravi then points out that the level is not stable, it is wobbling. Mike presses one end of the level down and the other end tilts up. He does the same thing with the other side. Let me add that the three of us are in tight quarters with Ravi holding the sink, me on my knees under the sink, and Mixto leaning around Ravi while not stepping on me trying to line up the level. Mike moves the level various places, while Ravi adjusts the height of the sink by millimeters each time trying to get it just right. Eager to mark the hole, I ask if it is level. Mixto replies that it is. I ask for confirmation. He again confirms, “yes it is level”. I stretch my neck up just enough to see the level resting on the sink, confirm that the bubble is in the middle. I mark the hole.
Ravi is happy to be relieved of the weight of the giant sink basin. Mixto is excited that more destruction to concrete is eminent. He eagerly hands me the Hammer Drill. I look at the mark I made on the concrete – plumber eye it with the first hole and notice my brow furrow. I look at Mixto. “Are you sure that’s level?”
He replies, “Can I be honest with you?”
“Mike, I only ever want you to be honest with me.”
Here begins the story of Honesty. From this point on, plumbers cannot lie. Mixto loves this response so much that the option of not being honest is completely stricken from the essence of all plumbers. The phrase, “I can’t lie, I’m a plumber” is born. From now on, all interactions, all responses, opinions, feelings, and actions of and between plumbers are honest. Poker is useless. Lying impossible. Truth, knowledge and fun – inevitable.
With the beginning of Honesty comes the punch line of our first sink installation. Mike responds to my inquiry, “okay, so the sink was level according to the level, but the level had a nut under it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, the sink was level when there was a nut under one end of the level.”
“Why was there a nut under one end of the level?”
“Because I put it there to make it level.”
The three of us break out laughing realizing the absurdity of the situation.
“So the sink’s NOT level?”
“Yes, probably not.”
“So we have to do it again?”
“That would probably be a good idea, yeah.”
“God I love you!”
“I love you too. Let’s get this sink installed!”
“Okay, tell me when it’s level for real this time.”
It was Tuesday the 15th at about 8:15 am at our regular morning organizational meeting. Forty plus volunteers are sitting in an outdoor area of a place known as Base Camp, where at least half of the volunteers have slept the previous night in two dorm rooms. The de facto leader, Jimmy, a close-to-30, thin-framed, scraggly-bearded mix between a hippie and a guy who used to write grant proposals for a non-profit in America, is leading the meeting. He calls on Conor who has an announcement to make. Conor is a 26-year old Irish computer-science engineer who quit his job to travel South America for a year. When he found Burners Without Borders in Pisco, Peru back in January, he planned to stay with them for 2 weeks to do some volunteering. Seven months later Jimmy is calling on Conor to speak at the meeting.
Conor stands up to address the group with a nervous sort of bouncy twitching, looks around without making any eye-contact and simply says, “Yeah, so I’m leaving in a week and we need a couple people to be plumbers. So if anybody wants to come with me today and learn how to plumb the Shitters, then just meet me after the meeting.” And he promptly, sits back down. Jimmy, takes the reins again and moves the meeting forward. And with that, the seed for the ECP is planted.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Mike and I approach Conor and let him know that we’re interested in plumbing though we have no experience. He quickly informs us that it’s not a problem; he’ll teach us. With that, we’re in. In about half an hour, Mike, Conor, and I are in a tuk-tuk heading to the market to buy plumbing materials for a Shitter.
We’re at the first shop to purchase materials bargaining with a Peruvian man behind a caged glass widow. Trying to get the best deal possible, Conor and Mike are bargaining as much as they can on every item. Amused by the whole banter, I notice a bumper sticker on the caged window that reads in Spanish “Aqui Somos Catolicos” which translates to “Here We Are Catholics.” The rest of the sticker reads, “and we do not change our religion, please do not insist. Do not waste our time or your time.” This sticker makes me laugh, so I say to the guys, “Tell him we’re Catholic; maybe that’ll help,” and point to the sticker. Without hesitation, Mike laughs then with a straight face looks at the guy and says “Somos catolicos,” and then asks for a much cheaper price on a toilet. And so begins the brotherhood known as the Eager Catholic Plumbers.
The story goes that before you can become an ECP, you must answer two questions and two questions only. The only possible answers are ‘yes,’ ‘no’ and one ‘hell yeah.’ The questions are, “Are you eager?” and “Are you Catholic?” If answered correctly then you may be an Eager Catholic Plumber. Yes, there are only two questions, and no, neither of the questions have anything to do with plumbing. Because if you’re eager, and you’re Catholic, then you’re an Eager Catholic Plumber.
Upon entering our first plumbing site, I ask Conor to share with us his knowledge of plumbing. I’m genuinely excited about learning a possibly useful skill. Conor replies, “I can teach you everything I know about plumbing in 5 minutes.” Sure enough, he sits us down, and in no more than 4 minutes his explanation of plumbing is complete. Mike and I realize that the Bible has yet to be written – we are being taught how to plumb by a non-plumbing Irishman, who learned how to plumb from a non-plumbing Englishman who watched a man plumb once. Wow – this is going to be fun!
The following 4 days were filled with hilarity as a scatter-brained Irishman who spends more time buying plumbing parts at the market than actually plumbing attempts to train an Englishman and American with no plumbing experience how to magically get city water into a tank, down through a maze of hand-connected pipes, into a shower, a toilet and a sink in three different rooms of a concrete structure and successfully drained out through three pipes combined into a single drainage pipe connected to city sewage pipes which may or may not be anywhere near the the concrete structure, or in working order. Yes, the picture to your right shows seven people staring a pipe that isn’t at the correct downward angle. That’s Mike on the right with a hammer in his hand. Can you guess what he wants to do with the pipe that we spent half a day installing? Yes, Mike was always ready to break pipes.
Despite our collective lack of knowledge on the topic of plumbing, however, I am proud to announce that we dumped a bucket of water into the tank on a toilet we plumbed, flushed it and watched a couple gallons of water go exactly where we wanted them to go, namely into the bowl, down the hole and successful through the plethora of pipes we had constructed and connected around a faulty sewage box and on into the city’s sewer. What an amazing feeling to look at something you built, having little or no idea of what you’re doing, if you’re doing it right, or if it’s going to work and yet to see it work exactly as you hoped.