If they are so bloody good, why then, every time it rains, the power fails in town, mobile signals die, satellite TV decoders lose their signals (not normally a source of angst for me but the Twenty20 is on) and, with uncommon irony, there is no utility water for the city dwellers? Why then, unless you stand over them, will bricklayers try and lay bricks as haphazardly as possible on top of non existent foundations, plumbers will bodge joints, mechanics will misdiagnose problems and fuck up machinery of any kind while stealing all your tools and electricians are evidently secret pyromaniacs?
These last couple of weeks have proved a little trying for me. First, the generator suddenly stopped. My generator is designed to be run by idiots. The manufacturer does not say that of course, it describes its product as 'Africanised'. The touchy-feely types assume this means it is built rugged to cope with a harsher environment. Bollocks. The environment is a damn sight harsher in Maine where a generator has to work in minus 50 C to plus 50 rather than a fairly constant and agreeable 25 C. Same goes for mobile phone services. If the system went down every time it rained, UK would have been out of touch with the rest of the world since last summer, except for maybe God's Kingdom of Yorkshire, which has enjoyed fairly benign weather but that would have made no difference as Yorkshiremen are too tight to waste money on mobile phones.
My generator is fitted with all sorts of sensors and a panel of warning lights. If the temperature rises, for example or the oil level falls, with an inbuilt instinct for self preservation, it will shut itself down, emit a warning tone and the relevant warning lamp will light up. Brilliant for fault diagnosis but utterly useless if some oik hurries to the generator and without looking, switches it off with the ignition key (cancelling all warnings) and tries to start it again. Having an ignition key that cannot be removed when the generator is running is an oversight in the manufacturer's Africanisation of the machine. Oh! I hear the Health and Safety types cry out, what happens in an emergency? How does one switch the machine off? Well, look at it from my point of view. By 'emergency', I presume the HSE elves mean some threat to life whereas a machine related emergency to me is some threat to the machine. If the machine detects a problem, a potential threat to its well being, it will shut itself down. Being forced to leave the keys in the machine means that any goon can over ride these sensible safety measures and break an expensive and hard to replace machine. If, on the other hand, a machine rips off the hand of an overly inquisitive African sticking his appendage into it without permission, so what? He shouldn't have been doing it anyway and replacements for him are cheap and plentiful. Besides, the machine has an emergency stop button, a bloody great red thing on the side but I have only shown Alex and Marcia how to use that lest the oiks in my employ start playing with it.
So there I was with a generator that had shut itself down and alarmed. Presumably finding the shrill noise of the alarm annoying, the oik had switched the machine off meaning I lost the essential tool to a quick fault diagnosis, the lights on the alarm panel. So did I risk starting it again? No, of course not. Not straight away anyway. It was obviously very hot, much hotter than normal so I presumed the problem was overheating. That, however, may only have been a symptom of some other, more serious fault. Far better to let the machine cool right down so I could get my head in there and give it a good going over.
I can understand Marcia becoming anxious when there is no power. We have quite a lot invested in frozen produce.
'It's OK, Marcia, I'll hook up the portable generator, that will run the freezers at least.'
'I lent it to the builders,' she told me.
'No problems,' I told Marcia, 'I will nip up to the other site and get it.'
'It's broken,' she said.
'Broken? How? It was brand new?'
'Fique gripado,' she told me.
'Seized?' I was shocked. 'They have not been changing the oil, have they?'
'I don't know,' admitted Marcia.
Well, that was it then, wasn't it? The builders live on site so the only person who would have bought them the oil they needed was Marcia. If she had bought them oil, she would have known the oil changes had been made. I didn't check because I did not know she had lent them the generator in the first place. I just can't get through to anyone around here that these portable gennies are for emergency use only and, since they don't have an oil filter, must have the oil changed after every twenty hours of running. These buggers had been running heavy wood working tools off it for nearly a month, no wonder the bloody thing had seized.
'Well, you'll just have to wait until the big generator has cooled down enough for me to look round it,' I said. I was irritated and in dire need of a cooling off period as well. Marcia is, as the Germans say, in anderen umständen, in other circumstances, a very coy way of saying she is pregnant. In anderen umständen I'd have ripped into her for once again lending out my tools and equipment without telling me but I went back to my gardening instead.
In the meantime, and unbeknown to me, Marcia's favourite Portuguese mechanic passed by the shop and noticed there was no power. This is the same guy who stripped the original 25Kva generator I brought down here from the old house, which only needed a bit of wiring sorted out, a new alternator and starter and the exhaust welding, and is still lying there stripped. This is the guy who the day before Marcia and I were due to attend the smart wedding we had been invited to last year, convinced Marcia it was OK to fix the leaking Jeep radiator, against my humble advice, with some form of putty, a repair that lasted long enough for us to get into the darkest, most hostile suburb of Luanda before the radiator exploded. Don't overlook the fact that the reason the Angolans behave the way they do: crappy workmanship, lousy work ethic, mindless bureaucracy and corruption at every level, is because they were colonised for so long by the Pork and Cheese. Marcia invited him to take a look at the generator.
The keys for the generator were safely stowed in my pocket so Marcia had to come to me to get them.
'It's OK,' she told me all smug like, 'the Portuguese has looked the generator over and the only thing wrong was that it was low on oil.'
'So he's put oil in it, has he?' I asked. I had dipped the oil, it was one of the first things I had done, and although it was low, the level was still within limits so it would not have shut down because of low oil and just being a little down on oil would not cause the machine to overheat.
'Yes,' she said.
'About half a litre.'
I strolled over to the generator and dipped the oil. It was now over full. It is just as bad running an engine with too much oil as too little, you can blow all the oil seals if it is over filled. With the engine cool, I had a good root around. It is hard to get in there and see because of all the safety guards but by jamming your head inside the soundproof canopy and wriggling a bit, you can get a squint at the fan belt. Or you would be able to if it was there. I rooted around some more and found what was left of it wrapped around the crankshaft pulley. I teased it out, placed it to one side and went looking for Sr. God's Gift to Mechanics.
'It's fixed then, is it?' I asked him in Portuguese. Marcia was just serving him a cold beer.
'Esta bem, tudo bem,' he said, 'podes ligar!' he assured me. I suppose in one sense he was correct, the machine was OK and it was safe to start, but I knew it would not run for long.
'OK then, let's go and start it,' I suggested.
As we walked back to the generator I reminded him that it had overheated. Because of low oil, he told me, exuding the sort of arrogant confidence only a Portuguese could.
'But you agree, it did overheat?' I asked him. He agreed.
'So when it stopped, it would have shown an overheat warning light?' And a low oil level light, he said, reminding me of his superiority.
I started the generator. It ran for about ten seconds and then shut down emitting a familiar shriek of protest.
'It shows a charging fault,' I told him, 'look for yourself.' He looked.
'So if we agreed when it first stopped it must have alarmed on over temperature and presumably a charging fault as well, what do you think could cause that?'
He hadn't a clue and started banging on about needing to pull the head off. I told him that it had just been done. He suggested that Andy's team hadn't torqued the head down enough and the head gasket had blown again. If I hadn't been there, Marcia would have let him do exactly that, strip a perfectly serviceable engine down. God knows what else he would have found that needed replacing and how much he would have charged.
I picked up the shredded belt and handed it to Marcia.
'It needs a new fanbelt,' I said, 'I have a spare one, it'll only take about half an hour to fit.'
Two days later, the airconditoning compressor pulley bearing failed on the Jeep. Marcia, who was in town, asked me if it was safe to drive the car home. Now that is a bugger of a question to answer. Without being able to see the problem, how could I make a decision on which the safety of my wife and child might depend? After all, I did not know it was a pulley bearing. All Marcia was telling me was that the engine was making a horrible noise. I asked some sensible questions. What kind of noise? Does the engine stop and start? Good. Was the oil pressure normal? It's zero, what, even if you rev the engine? Yes darling, start the engine and tell me what the oil gauge reads. That's normal. Leave the engine running and look under the bonnet, where is the noise coming from? The big thing with the pipes coming off it.
I don't know if you have ever looked under a bonnet at an American V8 but it is big and there are lots of pipes coming off it. Without being there, this was a very hard game of twenty questions and I could tell Marcia was becoming irritated. Women can detect even a fraction of a rise in octave so I had to keep my voice even and oozing honey. Can you describe the big thing with pipes coming off it for me, honey? You don't know the name of it in English? Well what is it called in Portuguese? Compressor de arcondicionado? I know what that is, darling, just switch the engine off. Is the engine off? Good. Just grab the pulley, the round thing the fan belt goes around on the front of the compressor and try and waggle it, does it move? Yes. Ok, darling, how far are you away from the auto parts stores in Benfica? Not far, good. You need to go to one that sells fan belts, call me when you get there and buy me some phone credit, I have run out, I can't even send messages any more.
I waited and I waited. In the meantime I looked up the length of an aircon pulley bypass belt. All I can say is thank God for chatty Americans. They love their forums. There's forums dedicated to anything and everything out there. The Jeep forum is brilliant. All Marcia had to do was go to the relevant parts store, by a shorter belt the exact specification for which I now had and the car would run safely with the aircon compressor out of the system.
I waited some more. No message from Marcia with my phone credit so I could not phone her to find out what was going on, whether she was Ok. Had I made a misdiagnosis and allowed her to drive that short distance and now something had gone seriously wrong? I was frantic with worry. The boy wasn't around so I walked down to the main road to buy phone credit, they did not have any and neither did every citizen I asked to allow me to make a quick call on their phones, bastards.
Hours later, Marcia arrived home.
'I rang the Portuguese and he said it was safe to drive the car home slowly,' she told me.
'Did he?' I muttered, absolutely furious.
'I stopped off at his place on the way back, that is why I am late, and he says we have to change the pump for a new one. He is coming early in the morning to take it off and then he will go into town and find a new one.'
For a start, you can replace the clutch and bearing for the compressor without having to remove the pump from the system and losing all the refrigerant in the process. It comes in a kit and costs around a hundred bucks. I know enough people in the States who could stick a kit in the DHL for me. Secondly, on this guy's previous form, the car would be off the road for weeks during which time all the expensive components of the air conditioning system would corrode. The sensible solution would be to spend sixty bucks on a bypass belt and run the car until the pulley kit arrived. That job takes less than an hour. I convinced her of this but it still meant a long taxi ride to the parts store she had been so close to only the day before to buy the belt.
A week ago, she rang me to say the car was making a horrible noise again and was it safe to drive home? This time I divined that it only made a noise when it was moving and that it was coming from underneath the front. I was convinced it was a drive shaft bearing but told her to go to a garage and get a mechanic to look at it. She did as she was told this time and I was able to speak to the mechanic. It was a front diff bearing so as long as she took it easy, she could drive home. Yes, he had a replacement kit in stock. 'Buy it,' I told Marcia.
When Marcia got home I asked to see the kit.
'He was a crook,' she told me, 'he insisted on selling me bearings for both sides for $350 but I only need one.' She had brought the Portuguese guy with her which hadn't done much for my already dangerously high blood pressure and then exacerbated it further by continuing, 'he'll strip the bearing and go into town tomorrow to find another one, he says he has a friend with an identical Jeep.'
If it is an identical Jeep the owner of which is selling out for parts, that means it must already be knackered. Swapping out a bearing for a used one is like fitting second hand brake pads or changing engine oil without changing the filter, or washing your hands and then drying them with used toilet paper. Besides, you always swap out bearings in pairs, what's the point of fitting new bearings on one side and ignoring the other? How long would it be before the bearings on that side failed? I was speechless. Marcia was, as I have already mentioned, a little fragile so really no point in me venting my spleen.
'By all means strip out the bearings, on BOTH sides,' I told the Portuguese, 'I'll nip into town tomorrow and buy the kit.'
As it happened, Marcia saved me the trip by giving the money to the driver of the bus that serves the village from the city. The garage was on his route and he kindly stopped off and picked the kit up for us.
Internet access was by now non existent. That did not bother me too much, unless something else broke and I needed information. Then the mobile network started to falter. Again, the only person it really affected was Marcia, she seems to spend most of her time with the phone glued to her head like a Sony Walkman. When the satellite TV signal started to fail, I was really irritated. Normally, I only have the news playing while I go about my business but I really enjoy watching international cricket, not test matches but Twenty20. It wasn't going to happen, I'm afraid, so I hauled my laptop and speakers out to the veranda, set them up to play my favourite tunes and set to work in the garden. Laying bricks to make beds, sawing wood to make window boxes, carting soil in wheelbarrows, all these chores were a delightful diversion as Santana and other old classics played in the background.
Marcia is having a rough time of her pregnancy. If it's going to be anything like her first time, she is in for another couple of months of hell. She spends most of her time either in bed or lying on the sofa. I can see she is faint and weak and know that her irritability is only a symptom of a greater malaise so must be patient. I do all the cooking and washing and try to make life as easy as possible for her. Alex seems to be doing all he can to get on her tits so he is keeping me on my toes. He was sick as well last week. We thought it might be malaria but it turned out to be a tummy bug, we think something he ate at school, but he gave me a few sleepless nights shuffling a washing bowl backwards and forwards between one vomiting patient and another. I hate it when women and children are suffering, especially when there isn't much I can do about it.
The other day I made a beef fricassee and, as I always do, added cream to it. Just the smell of the cream made Marcia ill so now I have to cook within the tiny window of opportunity her transient culinary fancy allows. This really tests my logistics skills. Over the weekend she suddenly decided she wanted something called Miengele.
'He's dead,' I told Marcia having misheard. Besides, he would have been the last doctor I would have sought an appointment with.
Miengele are the spinach like leaves of the Butternut Squash. Thankfully, a quick phone call to Jamie up at the Comuna turned up a basket load. Boiled they are delicious and must be rich in the folic acid and iron Marcia evidently needs. She is eating a lot of bread and also has an evidently insatiable appetite for Funge, a wall paper paste like goo made from manioc flour. Last night she wanted Bacalhão, dried salted cod. This afternoon it was smoked ham rolls, egg custard tarts and white grapes.
As I was typing this, she came up to me, bared her breasts for inspection and said,
'They hurt, and don't you think they are getting bigger?'
I admitted that her nipples were certainly prouder than I had seen them in a while but thought better of telling her that on a diet like hers, her arse would get a lot bigger as well.
Naturally, Alex never fancies anything that Marcia wants, which forces me to cook separately for him. Alex and I are eating a lot of pasta...
It is a quarter after four and Marcia has only just finished her ham sarnies and now wants fried fish and rice pudding. It will be a girl, she has told me. She knows this because of what the baby is making her eat. Obvious, really, only a female would make someone eat all that then force them to spend half the night and most of the following morning throwing it all up again.
There now follow a load of pics to show what I have been up to in my spare time...
|A few weeks ago I acquired a bit of banana tree that had been crudely hacked off.
I placed it in a bucket of water and after a few days, a root appeared.
|A week or so later, there was a profusion of roots...
|So I planted it and protected it with a few building blocks to prevent the goose nibbling
the new leaves or some local trampling on it.
|The local chapter of the Barra de Kwanza Pregnant Wives Hair Braiding Association.
Like the Women's Institute only scarier.
|Andy Mallett visiting to inspect progress on the cottages
(and bring me a slab of Stilton!!!)
|Andy checking the wooden sliding doors
(did I mention he brought me a slab of Stilton?)
|Detail of the steps
(Stilton on lightly toasted fresh bread is divine)
|The offending tap, good Chinese quality casting. It just fell apart when I tried to open it.
Naturally, on a pressurised system, unless I sealed the pipe, the pump would run forever.
|So I dug around in my 'odds and ends' box and came up with a union, the seal from an electrical box
and a one Kwanza coin.
|Rusty speakers and a grimy laptop. Can be pretty dusty around here but that's still no excuse.
Must get round to cleaning it.
At least you can see which keys I commonly use!
|The fig tree doing ever so well. The top of the stem died off as two new stems at the bottom flourished.
Next to the fig tree, a few Italian Grape Tomato seedlings.
|A tray of aubergine seedlings in the foreground. Next a tray of coriander and behind them a mango sapling.
Outside the veranda rail, one of my new balcony boxes in which are growing sage and dill.
|More mango saplings, a bowl with banana seeds growing, more pots with sage and a nice flower.
|More pots and containers with Royal Palms, Avocado, Yellow Blooming Silk Acacia
and another box with Cardamon plants.
|The finished Stalag Luft III just waiting for the arrival of the first batch of prisoners,
Guinea Fowl from Lubango, about 1,300 kms away by road,
nothing more than a quick dash in a country this size.
|The beds closest to the back of the shop. Water melon, Kohlrabi (Celeriac?), aubergine,
Tomatoes, sweet granadilla, giant granadilla, hot peppers.
|Goosie follows me everywhere in the garden.
|The area to the right of the previous shot. Still a lot of cleaning to do in this part of the garden.
|View from the side of the shop to the cottage. This area is clean and smooth how I like it.
As soon as I have all the irrigation dug in, I will start on the lawn.
|View of the front of the shop with the little footbridge from the road.
|'Darling, I think a light bulb has blown...'