No water, no lights no gas ... no surprise to Nicaraguans

Having lived in Managua for the last 30 months, I thought I was inured to the trials and tribulations of a third-world revolution in the midst of war and economic chaos. Last week, I learned the limits of my patience. Suddenly, everything that could go wrong - and does, from time to time - went wrong simultaneously. And the practical strains wracking Nicaragua week in, week out, were thrown into painfully sharp relief.

It all started with a mundane traveler's mishap that, to be fair, was not Nicaragua's fault, but which set the tone for the next few days. Returning from a reporting trip to Havana, I left on the Cubana flight to Managua, and my luggage left for another destination that the airline has yet to identify. Luanda, perhaps. Or East Berlin. As I pick through the remains of my ravaged wardrobe, I prefer not to think about it.

Arriving in the capital, I noticed an ominous sign. Every gas station I passed was deserted, hoses coiled around the pumps. This is a peculiarly Nicaraguan form of sign language. It means no hay: ``There is none.''

This happens about four times a year. You discover the country is about to run out of gas when you see cars lining up for hundreds of yards, and you immediately join the line. The next day, some government official explains in the paper that Nicaragua's sole refinery has closed for repairs, or that the refinery has closed because it can't do its repairs for lack of spare parts, or that an oil tanker has been held up on its way from the Soviet Union.

This time, the explanation - offered by Foreign Cooperation Minister Henry Ruiz - was intriguing enough to set the capital abuzz with speculation. The Soviet Union, he told reporters, was unable to meet its obligations, and Managua was turning to Latin American friends for emergency help.

Was Moscow cutting back on its commitment to the Sandinistas, political observers wondered. The mystery deepened the next day, when Mr. Ruiz denied he ever suggested such a thing. For a reporter, this warranted further investigation. But there was a more immediate problem: not only was I out of clothes, I was out of gas.

The next thing I knew, my home was pitched into darkness. Power cuts occur fairly frequently. By now, I can generally remember where I have put the candles. But this was not a normal outage to be fixed within an hour or so. My neighbors had light, and the problem was clearly specific to my house.

Repeated calls over 36 hours to the National Energy Institute brought no relief, until someone on the other end of the phone revealed to me that they were short of transportation for their repair teams.

``No problem,'' I said. ``I'll be right over, and I'll bring the electricians in my own car.'' A worthy cause in which to use the last drops of gas left in my tank.

Only upon arrival at the electricians' depot, on the other side of the city, was I told that the workers cannot ride in private cars because of their union's fears about insurance complications should there be an accident.

``I don't really understand it myself,'' said Cipriano Delgado, the power company's local manager. ``But rules are rules, and I've only got one vehicle available to cover Managua. You'll have to wait.''

The National Energy Institute has a fleet of 12 pickups, Mr. Delgado explained, but 10 of them are off the road because there are no spare parts with which to repair them. And the police impounded another because its license plates were out of date.

That left him with just one unit, to handle emergencies in a city of 1 million people.

When Delgado learned that I was a foreign journalist, he was swift to oblige, and ensured that my lights were back on later that afternoon. But status is to no avail when it comes to the other basic service I was lacking that day: water.

Water cannot be taken for granted here. Two days a week, there is none from early morning to late evening, as the authorities nurse their scarce supplies. Some areas are dry three or four days a week.

The reasons are many and varied, but have little to do with rainfall, so the wet season that is just beginning here promises little relief. There are two key problems, for which no one sees any quick answers. First, there are too many people living in Managua, drawing their water from the Asososca volcanic lagoon, which is the city's sole supply.

Second, Managua's water pipes are old and rusty, allowing thousands of gallons a day to leak out. With frequent drops and leaps in pressure, each time the water is turned off and on, the situation gets worse.

So, twice a week you take bucket-and-bowl showers with the water you have stored, avoid cooking that needs much washing up, and pant through the 100-degree heat until the pipes gurgle on.

Of course, I have it easy. I may have lost my clothes, but I travel in planes. It may be hard to get gas, but I own a car. My lights may go off, but I can get them fixed with some persuasion. I may lack running water, but I can afford to buy buckets. Most Nicaraguans dream of having only such problems.

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