Gasfiterfobia & How the ark almost made it to the 19th floor

Unfinished plumbingWe all have our monsters in the closet. Things that make us shudder. The stuff of phobias. Maybe yours is a fear of flying (aviophobia), or of snakes (herpetophobia) or even a fear of foreigners (xenophobia), although I hope not. I confess my fear is a Chile-based phobia–which makes it a fobia–and I had to invent its name, although anyone who has lived here any length of time will not only recognize it, but probably share it.

I suffer from gasfiterfobiaThat’s right–a fear of gásfiters, which is Chilean for plumbers, which you may have learned as plomeros, which may or not be scary, but in Chile, anything related to gasfitería (plumbing) and cañería (pipes) is definitely fear-worthy.

Crooked pipes

What do you mean it’s crooked? (Where the sink should be)

Perhaps phobia is the wrong word, because by definition, a phobia is irrational–and I assure you that there is nothing irrational about that all-out alert and run-for-the-hills feeling that comes with the realization that someone is going to have to mess with your pipes. It’s a learned response, and I swear that if you don’t learn the first time–or the second–by the third time you have to re-plaster, re-paint, and mop up after one of these “professional” visits, you will definitely be convinced.

My first experience with plumbing disasters in Chile came in 1993, during what I like to refer to as “The Flood on the 19th Floor.” But it didn’t stop there. Over the years I have had everything from black-bean belching clogged drains turn into 2-story repair jobs that include re-plastering the ceiling, to rogue roto-rooters that take out a staircase, to bathtubs that mysteriously spew crud while we’re on vacation. Eeuw. I could probably devote an entire blog (or many posts in this one) to gásfiterly woes. But for now, my favorite story (perhaps because it is the most distant) about how Noah and his ark nearly made it to the 19th floor.

My daughter and I lived on the 19th floor in one of those 1970s high-rises in Providencia (Santiago) back in 1993. Shortly after we moved in I complained that the tub faucet leaked, so the landlord–who turned out to be an army captain–sent over one of his guys–who turned out to be an army private–to fix the problem. I TOLD the cap’n that they were going to turn off the water in the building that day–but it wasn’t the first (or last) time that a Chilean man didn’t listen to a gringa.

So the guy comes and starts fiddling with the pipes. Tinkers here, tinkers there, and suddenly–no water. “Nothing more I can do here, señora,” and off he goes. The hours tick-tock away and by 9 PM there was still no water–and no signs of it returning any time soon, so my daughter and I headed over to C’s place (husband now, fiancée at the time) for the night.

9 AM next morning my suegra (C’s mother) calls. Trouble at my place. Since my suegro (C’s father) had co-signed on my lease, the building administrator had their number and called to say the apartment below mine was flooded with water from my apartment. The poor woman below me had woken up at 6 AM, drenched in her bed, with water pouring through her ceiling.

She called the building staff. They called me (wasn’t home). Knocked on my door (still wasn’t home). Called the police, who did the same (still wasn’t home) and then left because without a key, there wasn’t much of anything they could do. So the poor woman waited. And waited. And waited, until the administrator  arrived a few hours later and figured out how to contact me.

What a mess. The soldier-private-plumber-guy had left the job half done, the faucet full open, and the hot water turned on (hefty bill that was!). The building’s water had come back on about 10 PM and mine ran all night, overflowing the bathtub and out into the rest of the apartment. My daughter’s stuff-strewn room was the low point, and the surreal image of kid things swirling in 6 inches of water will be ever etched in my mind. We started bailing.

The janitor-guy came to help. The building’s plumber showed up to cluck and shake his head. The guy and I bailed some more. And then… standing there with my pants rolled up to my knees, ankle-deep in water and marveling at just how much water floating books can absorb, I heard music. Guitar music. Live–from MY living room.

It was a tango. I ripped out of the room to behold the unbelievable. My apartment was flooded. I was bailing hundreds of liters of water by the cupful, the woman below was drowning in my wayward bathtub water–and my husband-to-be was playing the guitar and the GASFITER WAS SINGING A TANGO!

They stopped pretty darned quick. Can’t think of much that could inspire a desperate gringa’s rath faster than a tango during a 19th-story flood–and to their dubious credit,  they did pick up on that, and the guitar got stashed pretty tout suite and the gásfiter beat feet.

End of chapter 1 of the Gringa Gasfiterfobia-logue…
They tell me there gasfiterfobia has no cure.

I wanted the owners to pay for the damage to the apartment below mine, and they refused. The landlady said it was my fault  (1) for not sleeping in my own apartment that night, and (2) for leaving the faucet turned on, and (3) leaving the shower curtain open!

We never did come eye-to-eye on (1) paying rent gives me the right–but NOT the obligation–to sleep in that apartment, (2) I had no reason to imagine that the faux-plumber had left the faucet on and I really, don’t know which way is on or off unless water comes out, so why would I touch it?, and (3) OK, call me indecent and slothful… but pl-ee–ee-ee–zz!

Got a gásfiter story of your own? Feel free to dump share it here!


31 responses to “Gasfiterfobia & How the ark almost made it to the 19th floor

  1. Ha! My girlfriend and I had almost the EXACT same experience at our 2nd floor apartment in Bellas Artes. The gasfiter didnt finish the toilet job, the water went off… valves were left open and residents went to work! There was an office below our apartment that after the catastrophe had to pick up and move out. I felt horrible, ashamed that I lived above the flood. It’s always nice to be on top of a flood.

    Por cierto, hay un refrán que dice “más pesado que maletín de gasfiter”

  2. @Nico–Not too surprised to hear my story is not unique! Now here’s a question–did anyone compensate the office below? My guess is no. It always seems to be someone else’s problem. I wanted the landlord to pay to repaint the downstairs neighbor’s apartment, but his wife said it was my fault…ooh! I’m going to go back and add that part to the story!

  3. I don’t know where I was for the tango part of the story, but I have absolutely no problems seeing your face, the relatively slow dawning on C’s face that you were NOT happy and the “poor” gasfiter completely clueless for a few seconds more!!
    And, you’re right, the story is much funnier when filtered through the lens of time!!

  4. Hey there K-O-M (Kid-o-mine)! Wow! Perfect illustration of how family stories work on memories! You don’t remember the tango because you were in school–but you remember the rest so vividly because this story has been told and retold with such detail over the years that it has become part of your own memories! That and the fact that we were probably still bailing when you got home (and I’m sure I wore “that look” for days!)
    Do you remember how your almanac ballooned up? That thing must have sponged up a gallon of water. I just recently threw it out!

  5. My one and only experience with a gásfiter is not a horror story. One Friday night around 9:00pm, I noticed that my bathroom floor was wet. I thought that I must have splashed some water from the tub, but after I’d wiped it up, it was soon wet again.

    Nosing around, I discovered that the small plastic pipeline between the wall and the toilet tank was misting out a fine spray. I tried turning the knob on the wall to cut off the water supply, but it wouldn’t budge.

    I phoned my usually-attentive landlord who, on a Friday night, was suddenly incommunicado. So, I got dressed and trudged down to the concierge desk. The man there offered to come up and turn off my main water supply.

    Inconvenient as this was, I had him do it because the whole floor would have been flooded by morning and I was concerned that the little plastic pipe might burst completely, flooding the whole place.

    All weekend long, I had to bother the concierge to turn my water on and off until finally Sunday morning, one of the maid/handyman-type people, Cecilia, came up, wrench in hand and asked, “¿Qué es el problema”?

    When I told her, she immediately said that she’d call the gásfiter. I thought I’d made a mistake in my mediocre Spanish because I didn’t need anyone to fix the GAS!

    Within 30 minutes, he arrived. The gásfiter. After locating extra tubing in the bodega downstairs, he was finished with the job in about 10 minutes. There was no mess and I never saw a bill.

    When I finally heard from my landlord, it was to apologize that I’d had a problem.

  6. OMG Thorny Rose! Don’t EVER Move! You definitely struck the jackpot!

  7. I’ve never had anything on that level…but I did have the water filtrtation issues after 27F with our store..the people above insited they weren’t the source and wouldn’t budge. We had to drill in from below to prove them wrong and then bother with formal letters to pay for it. Then I had a prolonged calefont experiene. It was a little loose. Called some maestros to refasten it, which the did. Two days later stops working. Doesn’t take a genious to figure out something stinks. Wanted to take it to their “lab” to analyze the problem and charge me 40 luka if I didn’t accept their price. Got another maestro. He recommended a new calefont. Bought it. Not the right kind. Had to buy another one, another maestro. Had to be custom ordered. In the end nearly a month with no hot water. And with a baby so heating water in the boiler to give baths. I share your fears.

  8. Oh Colin- Yikes, calefonts (for those who don’t know, that’s how we heat water here). I have a whole love-hate relationship with them! Sometimes I think I should just go live at a hot springs so I can have all the hot water I want without having to deal with pipes!!

  9. Con tanto tiempo viviendo aquí ya estarás acostumbrada o conocerás del “gran maestro chasquillas” que hay dentro de los Chilenos.Ese maestro que arregla de todo, pero hace la mitad bien. Y siempre que llega a una casa y mira lo que tiene que arreglar se manda la siguiente frase (esto luego de fruncir el ceño) : Hummm!!!! hay que entrarle a picar señora!!! Saludos y que tengas un lindo fin de semana!!! bye!!!

  10. Uuuu Nano! Créame–conozco demasiado bien esa frase famosa! Los maestros son tema que da para mucho también! Sacan pica entrando a picar!
    que tengas un excelente finde también!

  11. Oh my that sounds horrible! I have to say though I laughed out loud at the image of C playing the tango and the gasfiter singing. That is so something he would do! Hilarious. Now, I mean, I’m sure it was NOT funny for you at the time!

  12. Yeah… the kind of thing that seems pretty funny from the OUTSIDE! I wasn’t laughing much at the time though!!

  13. Very funny, tragic-comic stories most of them about Chilean gasfiters. It is a real wonder that most of Chile is not regularly flooded! Unlike other countries, in Chile any ‘maestro’ who owns a couple wrenches can call himself a gasfiter.
    In England they go through several years of schooling and apprenticeship. Canada and the U.S. have similar requirements, but not in Chile.
    I’ve been away for many years and things may have changed, even though I seriously doubt it. Hopefully I am totally wrong, but based on these stories it seems like gasfitters in Chile still do things pretty much ‘a la Chilena’.

  14. Hi John- tragicomic is definitely the right expression. I know there ARE training programs here, but there does not seem to be any requirement to pass any kind of certification program. Not for plumbing, or carpentry or electricity–which is the scariest of all. Wiring is generally enough to make anyone shudder. For some really good (as in shocking–oops, accidental pun!) examples, see “Soluciones Chilenas” section of Enrique Fernández’s blog “Pensemos Chile”

  15. Margaret – Thank you for the heads up about that blog. Looks very interesting. I will take a closer look when I can allow myself some time off.

  16. I’m mistrustful of all workmen pretty much always, in most countries, and particularly here. I will say though, that unfortunately, that extends to the guys who delivered my new stove and I wasn’t paying attention to when they told me to clean the wax out of the stove jets and ran all over the city looking for a tool I didn’t need. Maybe I should have some real gasfiter problems so I can see the folly of my ways. Or maybe that wouldn’t work.

    Still laughing at the bailing and the tango though!

  17. Eileen- yes, and then there’s the whole trusting the maestros thing. People let total strangers into their homes, prepare them lunch, leave it on the table with a big bottle of soda, and then head off to work. I’ve even done it myself, which just takes me WAY out of my comfort zone–but it’s often the only way to get anything repaired… sigh…

  18. Are most people trusting or perhaps naive? Here in Canada, home owners let their real estate agents do an ‘Open House’ and let anyone who calls herself a buyer in. Often times, some of these so-called buyers are thieves, literally taking inventory of the homes so they can come back later and ‘clean up the house’.

  19. Interesting point John-and I really don’t know the answer. Would love to know what others think?

  20. Marg.
    No compensation for the downstairs office… i got plenty of dirty looks and maybe even some light threats… I obviously blamed the gasfiter and the system itself. I think it was a bufete de abogados, they took off and nobody moved in for at least a year later. vos velo!

  21. Nico- too bad that this is often the case!!

  22. My father owns an apartment in Concepcion. He lives in California. I could write a book on the adventures that meet those who dare to contract Chilean carpenters/plumbers/electricians/ etc while living far away from the property in question. The Chilean construction industry is an interesting beast. Could be its own blog…too much rich material.

  23. The house I live in was “designed” by my dad and built by “maestros”. They didn’t do too bad a job, as long as we don’t need to find any wiring, and don’t mind the kitchen lights turning on with the living room lights!

    Of course we had to draw the line when we started to feel an electric current in the shower taps; only when we were in the shower, (that whole water with electricity thing!) Had to get a maestro in to look at it. He couldn’t figure out how it was happening, so just rewired the light and fan and cut the old wires. It worked, and we are thinking of rewiring the whole house before we get any more surprises.

    Your story is great, I love the tango bit! I can see my husband doing something similar. He was the last to feel the electricity in the taps, he thought I was crazy. Obviously some people are more “conductive”!

  24. Hi, Margaret. Could you believe that I found a link named “Gasfitería”? Those guys can´t be serious!

  25. Hi Raúl–I just googled gasfitería and found quite a bit–in Perú too!

  26. Juan Carlos Bodoque

    Believe it or not: After years and years of suffering a bad case of gasfiterfobia, I finally found a Chilean, Professional Plumber. (yeah, with capital letters)

    He enters, he fixes stuff, we gladly pay, he leaves, stuff stays fixed, years pass, stuff still stays fixed.

    He always has all the tools he needs (yeah, unbelievable!!!) and carries a lot of spare parts in his truck, so he can install them right away, without the “nooooo… este repuesto vamo’ a tener que ir a comprarlo, y parece que ya no lo hacen” typical of the maestro chasquilla.

    It’s not the cheapest of all, but he is really a guy you can trust in, and that is priceless in this country. Having any plumbering issue at home is not a nightmare anymore. There’s still hope, people!


  27. Wow! Good for you!! You’ll have to “cuidarlo como hueso santo”–take good care of him and don’t let him go!! We finally found someone who seems to be quite good and reliable (fingers crossed).
    Someone could really make an excellent business of having all sorts of pro-type plumbers, carpenters, handyguys, etc. so that all you had to do was call a number, explain the service you need, and know you’re going to get someone qualified and honest to come do the work on time and more or less within budget!
    Any takers out there? I swear I’ll help promote the business!

  28. Juan Carlos Bodoque

    Well, at the end I guess it all comes down to how used are we chileans to the cheap labour you spoke about on some other post (the cheap shoe repair shop example). People tend to cheap out when it comes to hire a repairsman of any kind, and hence few people get interested in doing such jobs “professionally” because of the low income you’d get. But as we say: “lo barato cuesta caro” (although most of us Chileans don’t seem to fully realize that)

    Maybe people need to change their mindset about this subject, and start valuing a pro work properly. As I told previously; I GLADLY pay for my plumber’s service, because: a.- he actually FIXES stuff, and b.- I feel that I’m supporting a good worker with great work ethics. Paying a bit more is totally worth it.

    I also have a great computer-electronics tech, very honest and competent, but he’s a french guy living in Santiago, so I guess it doesn’t count as the rare “Good Chilean Repairsman” species. 😉

    BTW, if anyone is in desperate need of any of the aforementioned repairsmen in Santiago, licorman “at” hotmail “dot” com. I can share their contacts.

  29. @Juan Carlos- I agree, good repair people are under-appreciated–we all want them, but few are willing to pay for their services. Come to think of that, this tends to run across the board. Everyone wants BBB (bueno, bonito, barato)–especially the barato part.
    Like you, I’m willing to pay for good service… and I’m absolutely serious about supporting someone who can offer good repair services at fair prices (and that means fair to the worker too!)

  30. I suggest you to get in Sodimac, the name and phone of a “maestro” you need. Sodimac have in their stores, a list of qualified “maestros” of different specialities. I tried one and was good. More expensive than a “maestro chasquilla” but more safe.

  31. Wow! REALLY??? I never knew that–and this is the best news I’ve had all week! Thanks for the dato!

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