Tuesday, July 13, 2010

In which I rent a room from Maruja la Bruja, crazy landlady #240

I will tell you all about Michelle McMichael, the worst landlady I have ever had, but first I need to tell you about other landlords* so you can have some context and understand that I am not exaggerating when I call her the Numero Uno Mas Mala.

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Chile, I lived in four different homes. The first was during my three-month training in Santiago. I lived with a poor family who gave me their daughters' bedroom, which had no door, so they strung a sheet across the opening. A sheet door does give one a place to undress in privacy, but does nothing to keep the noise from two little girls who did not go to bed until midnight out of the bedroom.

The house was unheated, which you would think would not be an issue, but that is only if you know nothing about geography. Santiago is in the mountains - remember, altitude more than latitude (longitude?) determines temperature, which means it does get cold.

The family also did not have a toilet seat on the toilet, something I saw over and over again in South America, which makes me wonder if the toilet was installed that way or if there is a secondary market for toilet seats and if so, what is it? How are they used?

My second living situation was when I moved to Temuco, a city of 250,000. There was a Mercedes dealership and there were ox-driven carts clogging the streets. I moved into a house with Mary, a Scottish college student spending a year abroad, and Louise, an American woman doing some kind of fellowship.

My bedroom was the tiny alcove upstairs without a door. No bed. I put a sleeping bag on the floor and both my head and my feet almost touched the walls when I was lying down.

Mary and I got along great, but Louise was a different story. The bathroom was an interior room and no matter how you positioned the shower head, the shower sprayed outside the curtain. The floor was always wet after one of us showered and there was no easy way to get the moisture out of the room. (Remember, interior room, no external windows.)

I kept a rag in the bathroom to wipe the floor after I bathed, but Louise would use her bath towel on the floor and then leave it in the bathroom instead of hanging it outside to dry.

1. It is disgusting to dry yourself with a cloth that has wiped the bathroom floor. 2. A towel left inside a damp room does not dry.
3. A dirty, wet towel starts to stink very soon.
4. Left wet, linoleum tiles will detach from the floor and Louise will try to make the tenant who has been in the house for only one month instead of the entire year previously as Louise has been split the repair cost. The one-month tenant will refuse.

Louise also had some nasty personal habits. She would sit at the dinner table and pick her toenails, then she would use her hands to eat, sometimes out of a communal bowl. It didn't take very long for me to stop eating meals with her, although really, she was an effective weight control method.

Mary and I decided we didn't want to live with Louise, so we sought another dwelling. I put a "room wanted" ad up at the grocery store. Within a day or two, a spry old lady appeared at my office. She had rooms. Come now! See them immediately! As rental property was difficult to encounter, I did as she commanded.

She had a big house not far from my office where she and her husband lived alone. Mary and I could have the upstairs all to ourselves and would use the downstairs bathroom. We could use the kitchen and put food in the refrigerator, which was stored in the dining room. It seemed like a good deal.

The Problems

The shower, #1
Every time one of us used the shower, the power went out in the house. How is this, you ask? Many showers in South America are heated by what is called a calefont, which is a small box that attaches to the wall and consists of a long pipe, doubled over on itself, passing over gas-powered flames. The water goes through the pipe and is heated as needed.

This is a fabulous system, far superior to a basment space consuming water heater that keeps 20 gallons of water hot just in case you need it. I wish I could have a calefont here. You never run out of hot water, unless you run out of gas, which usually happens while you are in the middle of your shower and have shampoo in your hair. Then you have to get out of the shower, call the gas guy, wait for him to come and replace the tank, and then re-commence your shower. But if you are careful about your gas, you do just fine and you spend less money heating water.

The other shower-heating method is an electrical heater that attaches to the shower head.

This is the kind that can kill you. Think about it: electricity and water. That is usually not a good combination.

That is the system Maruja had in her shower. Poorly installed and a drain on the house's antiquated electrical system. While Mary showered, I would stand at the fuse box. When the heater blew the fuse, I would switch it back on. She did the same for me.

We decided that we were not willing to risk death to be clean and threatened Maruja that we would move out and take our rent with us if she did not install a better heating system. She was in no hurry to do so, which meant that I took sponge baths for a few weeks. I would heat two huge kettles of water on Maruja's tiny stove and then carry them into the bathroom to complete my toilette.

I did not shave my legs.

The shower, #2
I made the mistake of thinking that because I was a renter with equal access to the bathroom that I could leave my shower things in the bathroom.

I was wrong.

I would leave my razor on the corner of the tub. It got dull very quickly. But why?

Then one day I noticed bristly white hairs in the razor.

My legs do not have bristly white hairs, nor does any other part of my body.

Using my superior detective skills, I concluded that Maruja's husband, Pablo, had been using my razor. I marched into the kitchen, brandishing the razor with the evidence. Maruja and her husband sat at the table.

"You've been using my razor," I accused Pablo.

"No, no!" he protested, holding his hands up.

"Look at this hair! It's not mine!"

Maruja stood behind Pablo, making a circle with her finger next to her temple and mouthing, "Yes, he did it, he's crazy" then smiling at him when he turned around.

"Don't use it any more, please," I snapped.

Then I made the stupid mistake of leaving the razor in the shower again only to find more white bristles in it. That's when I threw that blade away and started carrying everything back upstairs once I had bathed.

The fleas or maybe they were bedbugs
Shortly after we moved in, Mary and I noticed little red bites on our ankles. And on every other part of our bodies. We were being bitten in our sleep.

There were fleas/bedbugs in our rooms.

I went to the hardware store for poison. The clerk admonished me as he handed me the bottle that this was very dangerous! Note the skull and crossbones!

Great. I could be bitten to death or poisoned to death.

Marjua, incidentally, denied the existence of fleas in her house.

The poison did the trick, but we had poison dust floating around for several weeks. I will probably get some weird flea poison cancer in a few years.

The other tenants
When we moved in, Mary and I were the only tenants. It was our understanding that we were renting the furnished upstairs, which had three bedrooms.

One day I came home to discover a Woody Allenish-looking (that is not at all a compliment) guy in the third bedroom.

Maruja had rented the room to him.

Remember, one bathroom, Mary, Maruja, Pablo, and me.

Now another renter.

Who stayed up late at night playing music, smoking, and telling me that if ever "got lonely in the night," I could "just knock on the wall."

Mary left for six months in Brazil. Back to two renters. Yes, one of them was very strange, but only two.

Then Maruja rented out Mary's room to a married couple. Who fought all the time about his Other Woman. I know because I could hear everything through the thin walls.

I came home to find a carpenter building a wall between the dining room and the living room. Marjua rented the living room out to another married couple.

Let's do the math on this:

One bathroom.
Six tenants.
Two landlords.

The three male tenants got up before I did. They shaved. And left their whiskers in the bathroom sink. They peed. On the toilet seat. They left the shower dirty.

You guys know how I am about sharing a shower with someone I either don't know or don't like.

I would betray my country if tortured by having to use a dirty shower.

Unless the shower has been cleaned, it grosses me out to use a shower after someone else who is not

1. My husband
2. Another relative
3. A good friend

The other tenants did not meet any of these criteria, which meant that every morning, in addition to bathing myself before work, I had to clean the tub and the sink.

The toilet broke.

Maruja wouldn't call a plumber because it was too expensive.

To flush it, you had to fill a bucket from the bathtub tap and pour the water down the toilet. We all know how to do this. We've all been in that situation.

And we all know that the Polite, Civilized Thing to Do is to flush our own toilet.

Yet I would find other people's pee in the toilet.

That was when I moved out.

Unfortunately, my new situation was not much better. I'll tell you about it later.

* Think about that term: "land lord." So feudal. So obvious where all the power is. With God as my witness, I will never rent again.


  1. Now for my real comments. Ohhhh, gross!!! I thank my lucky stars that I am a proud and hard-working home owner who will never again have to live in squalor with weird flatmates with disgusting habits, and also cockroaches. It's a 20s thing. YOu are very clever to make an actual story out of it all! In Aus we call that heating system "instantaneous" hot water - instead of sitting around in a cistern losing heat and wasting energy, the water is heated in a very small tank as it comes through the pipes; it can be either electric or gas. Nice!!!

  2. Michaela, when our water goes out, I want to replace it with instantanous hot water. It makes so much more sense.


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