Wednesday, October 5, 2011

My Kingdom for a Basin Wrench...

Photo from Plumbworld
Today I moved into a new place here in Sungai Penuh.  For the past two weeks, I've been staying with my good friend Agung, sleeping on the floor.  I didn't want to wear out my welcome, so last week I began looking for my own apartment (1).  My only requirement was that there be enough current to operate a small refrigerator so I could keep the caesar dressing and capers I sent myself from Jakarta from spoiling.  Apparently this is a deal-breaker for most places in town, though.  On my second day of looking I chanced upon an American couple here in town.  I asked them if they knew anyone looking to rent out a place.  My new friends told me that they did, but also that they were going to Bandung (2) until January to have a baby, and they suggested I stay at their place to make sure nothing happens while they are gone. They gave me a quick tour of the place, which is located in a relatively quiet part of town with a good view of the town and valley.  Much to my amazement, the place has very fast wi-fi, an actual shower, a sit-down toilet, a HOT WATER HEATER, and a fridge.  In other words, posh.  Especially for Sungai Penuh. 

I was reluctant to accept the offer for about 3 seconds for a couple of reasons.  First, I had just met these people (though I've spent some time with them since and we've really hit it off).  Second, I had already readied myself for a year of squat toilets, cold bak mandi baths, and limited connectivity.  In a weird kind of way I was looking forward to it as sort of a hardening experience.  All of a sudden the comforts of home just dropped out of the sky into my lap.  But then reason, logic, and good sense returned, and I told my new friend that "I'd be stupid not to accept an offer like that".  However, for the week before they left for Bandung I debated whether to tell anyone back home about my new digs for fear of losing my "cred" as a real field researcher. 

More Water Woes

Wouldn't you know that as soon as I move in things start to go wrong.  Less than half a day after my friends left, the feeder pipe for one of the sinks burst.  It's actually quite fortuitous that I was around, or else the leaking water would've flooded the kitchen.  But I was around, and I had to get to work.  I turned off the water at the street (3) and made a plan.  

Changing the feeder pipe on a wash basin requires a special tool called a "basin wrench".  I have one of these back in the US, but it didn't make the list of things to bring to Indonesia.  The picture at the top of the post shows a basin wrench; as you can see it's designed to reach up into confined spaces.  I figured I could find one in one of the stalls in the market.  The first task, though, was to figure out how to describe a basin wrench in Indonesian, because I didn't know the word for it.  One of the best ways to learn how to use a foreign language is to practice describing objects.  In some cases, it's a real challenge.  As you can see from the picture, there are some distinctive characteristics to a basin wrench.

"On this end it has teeth to turn the bolt.  There is a long stem here, and then on this end there is a handle so that you can turn it", I told the merchant in the building goods stall.

"Hmm," he said, and brought me a sink trap.

"No that's a sink trap.  I'm looking for a tool.  That's why I said 'tool'.  Let me try to explain this a different way.  I have a faucet, and a washbasin (4).  Under the washbasin there is a connection to the water pipe, but the space is very tight, so I need a special tool," I elucidated.

He seemed to understand the nature of the problem, and so he disappeared into the back of the stall for a moment.  He came back with a shiny, new socket set.  I was momentarily stunned by the ridiculousness of trying to use a socket set to connect pipes, but I quickly recovered to manually demonstrate how a socket wouldn't work in this particular instance.  Then I tried again.

"Oh.  We don't have those in Sungai Penuh.  You have to go to Padang," he said.

"PADANG?!?!?  That's 7 hours away.  You mean to tell me that there's not one single tool like this in Kerinci valley?"

"Yes.  We don't have those."

"Listen, somebody has to have one.  They would have to to install the sink in the first place.  Why don't you tell me the name of a plumber or handyman, and I'll call him."  I figured that surely a handyman would have the right tool for the job.

Next I went to visit the recommended plumber.  It turned out that he was the proprietor of an air-conditioning repair shop, but he said he'd be happy to come to my adopted home and do the job.  By this time I figured it was probably a better idea to let someone else to the work.  So he showed up to my place about 45 minutes late, which is surprisingly punctual for Sungai Penuh.  He surveyed the situation and went through his tools.  He didn't have a basin wrench.  But by this point I recognized defeat.  He actually had to take the sink off the wall and go after the seating bolt with a pair of pliers.  But he eventually got the job done, and on the bright side I learned a cool trick for applying sealing tape to pipes by watching him.  I paid him 50,000 rupiah (about $5.50) for the labor.  He was quite pleased, because this was the equivalent to about 2 days of work for him.

Don't Do It Yourself

I quickly realized how silly it was in the first place to even contemplate doing the work myself.  Because services in Indonesia are incredibly cheap compared to the US.  To call a plumber for this particular job in the US probably would cost close to $100 (though I certainly would've done it myself there).  Here, though, there is a huge difference between the cost of goods and the cost of services.  What this means practically is that it's much easier to pay someone to do a job than to buy the gear to do it yourself.  In my case, I'd have to buy the basin wrench, which runs about $12-18 in the US.  The price would be almost the same (a bit cheaper for reasons that should become obvious as you read) because much of the cost is tied up in the production of the object.  For example, if you buy a car in Indonesia you pay about the same as you would in the US, but if you have your car fixed it's much cheaper in Indonesia.  This has some interesting implications for understanding the economy and standard of living here (and around the world).  The map below shows nominal (unadjusted) gross domestic product (4) per person around the world.  Find Indonesia on the map.

Nominal GDP per capital according to the IMF; map from Wikipedia

The per-capita gross domestic product of Indonesia in 2009 was about $2900.  If you compare this with the US, at $47,600, you might think that Indonesia is terribly impoverished.  But GDP per capita doesn't take into account the difference in costs of services.  It cost $2.20 to ride the bus in Honolulu; here it costs about a quarter.  To account for this difference, economists have come up with the concept of purchasing power parity (PPP).  The theory behind PPP is fairly complex, but the upshot is that we can compensate for the different prices for services (and some goods) across countries by adjusting them to a universal currency.  The adjusted, purchasing-power-parity income for Indonesia is $4200 (CIA Factbook 2010), whereas for the US it's $47,200.  You can see global PPP rates in the map below. 

Adjusted PPP GDP per capital 2009, Wikipedia

 The PPP numbers give us a better idea about the standard of living in Indonesia; it's not as poor as you might believe just from looking at the nominal GDP numbers.  On the other hand, if we look at countries at the top of the GDP list (like Luxembourg, $110,400; Norway, $88,600) and compare these numbers with the PPP GDP (Luxembourg, $82,600 ; Norway, $54,600) we can see that those countries aren't as rich as they might appear at first.  This is because services are much more expensive in these countries. 

The lesson here is that if you are coming to Sungai Penuh and anticipate the need to fix a feeder pipe, you'd better bring your own basin wrench.   


(1)  A better description would probably be "hut with concrete walls".

(2)  Bandung is a big city on the island of Java.  

(3)  This wouldn't be necessary at Agung's place, because there hasn't been any water there for a week and a half. 

(4)  Washbasins are not as common as you'd think in Sungai Penuh. 

(5)  Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the total value of all goods and services produced in a country; the per-capita number is sometimes used as a crude measure of the relative wealth or economic development of a country.  It's not a very good measure. 


  1. That is why you couldn't find a basin wrench, people just don't need it. It is cheaper to call a plumber to get something fixed than to buy a tool. I think it's interesting that the labor is so cheap, and it does make sense, because of their salary. What about is someone wants to buy a car? Is it pretty much impossible because no one earns that much?

  2. Thanks for the comment. Cars aren't as common here as they are in the US because they are so expensive relative to average income, but there are quite a few of them. The main method of getting around is a motorcycle, though. My friends tell me that lots of folks buy cars on credit, and they get caught in a debt trap because the interest is high.

  3. I'll have to keep in mind to bring a basin wrench when I go to Indonesia. When I saw the prices for the services there, I was really surprised. It's so cheap and I would honestly pay them a little more just for coming all the way to my place, fixing it up, and teaching me some useful tips. But I really do wonder, why is the GDP so much lower in Indonesia, than in the US?

  4. The design of the basin wrench allows the jaws to be swiveled to almost any angle, including reversed or upside-down, to facilitate tightening and removal of the retaining nuts. With the water supply lines reinstalled and the water turned on, the sink can be checked for leaks.