So this is the story of how we decided to build a spiral shower out of rocks. And then, because I am a construction junkie, exactly how we did it.
When we first came to Vilcabamba, we were guests at the bioreserve Rumihuilcos for a few nights. Rumihuilcos was once featured in the New York Times in the Seventies as part of an article about how people live longer in Vilcabamba. Apparently there are more centegenarians on the hoof here than is average, and one of the possible causes is the idea that the feathery Huilco leaves, like in the name Rumi Huilco, filter the air. Anyway, there was a charming picture of our hosts’ children hanging out the windows of the stilt house where we stayed, just above an outdoor shower built of river stones in a spiral shape. I was struck with the beauty and practicality of the design.
The spiral means that you don’t have to have a door, which would decay without a roof, since you just walk in and disappear from sight, and the river stones are readily available, pretty, and feel nice on your feet. I decided that having a spiral shaped outdoor shower would be very Vilcabamba, and would also free up some bathroom space in our small house. My grandmother had an outdoor shower which was attached to a very cold artesian well, wonderful during the steamy Maryland summers, but the stall was made of wood and usually had a few wasps nests in it, which made showering risky. We wanted a structure that would be more open and easy to clean, so we decided we would build the initial shape with edge-on brick and just sheathe it with flat round stones. I had also seen a shower like that in Africa, with a pattern of pebbles around the drain so you didn’t slip.
Getting Started: Foundation and Plumbing
We started by selecting and leveling the spot, measuring a circle big enough for me to spread my arms. Edgar hammered in a stake, tied a string to it, and traced a shape like a big snail. He must have been great in geometry class. We installed a drain and brought in the hot and cold water lines from the house system. Then he made slip forms out of strips of flexible plywood, and filled them with closely fitted mountain rocks.
Once the rocking in was done, the empiedramiento, he and Francelin mixed rough mortar and filled it, leaving 3/4 inches of space for the stone tiling from the lip of the drain to the cement floor. In screeing the floor level, Edgar somehow managed to achieve a gentle grade down to the drain (regillo) so that not only shower water
but even rain water would all drain perfectly. We ran a two inch PVC pipe from the drain out the bottom of the shower wall, headed in a downhill direction. Later I attached two 45 degree elbows to drop the drain pipe low enough to bury, and ran it out into the garden below the house, using about 20 meters of two inch PVC pipes that I perforated with shallow saw cuts along the bottom. I used up some leftover pipe as well, and zagged around the flowerbeds with 45’s. I dug a 10 inch deep trench which was partially filled with gravel. I found that once some of the gravel was in the trench holding the pipe in place, it was simpler to pour the gravel over the pipe, as it would vibrate itself into the middle of the stones, I then filled the trench by raking in small rocks out of the soil, and then smoothing soil over everything using a leaf rake.
The Brick Wall
Edgar traced the final line for the wall, using a nail on a string tied to a central nail to score the line for the inner showering area, and then using the inside wall as the midpoint. We brought in bricks and he and Francelin built the wall, leaving space for the plumbing. We decided to leave a little porch at the snail’s opening. I began collecting stone; hand sized for the walls and smaller for the floors.
We decided that the bricks could go on edge, which is the thinnest, fastest way to lay them, since we would be cladding the thin brick wall with cement and rocks, and there was no load going on top.
Using the ancient body-measured, builds-itself method, we decided the the wall was high enough when I stood in it and knew the shower head wouldn’t bang into a tall person’s head. It was time to start applying stone.
Cladding the Wall With River Stones
After measuring the total length of the wall, we bought 20 meters of 2 inch plastic hose to use as a handy flexible guide for laying the stone. (Note the mixed measurements which are common in Ecuador. Viente metros, dos pulgadas.) In retrospect, we could have used thinner hose. The flat round river stones I chose were thinner, and we ended up using more cement than we had to. We nailed the hose to the wall along the top and the bottom.
Holding a scree bar against the hoses, we could check the straightness of the wall, ensuring a uniform look, or, as the guys would say, que se queda bonita., which means the same as “so it will turn out nice.” The stones were wetted down and attached to the wall with a 1:1 cement to fine sand
mix. After they were fitted to the wall, they were tapped into level with the others, brushed clean with a paintbrush, and left for about a half and hour before cleaning again. Watching Edgar, I learned to lay the stones out and search for a particular shape that would fit into the space I had. My favorites are the oval blue stones; slate that broke into a regular shape and then was worn oval by fast moving water over the centuries. The slate is so blue. Walking along the river I sometimes find what wore off; balls of gritty, dark blue clay in the sand.
We used a lot of stone, so we ended up making the shower the go-to filler project when we were stuck on another project, waiting on materials, etc. Everywhere I went, my eye was coveting the smooth, bluish stones. If I had a minute, I slung a rice bag over my back and went along the river searching for stones that were just the right size and shape. I added variation with the strange, nodule-like white quartz, the glittery brown granite, and even the odd green rock from the beach. Big flat stones inserted sideways into carefully chiseled slots in the brick made perfect shelves for shampoo, razors, etc.
I learned that certain rocks are called lloronas, like the famous Chavela Vargas ranchera, “weepers.” First I understood it to mean that the stone contains iron oxide and would weep rust onto the wall, and then I understood it to mean a rock that is more porous and retains moisture when the rest of the wall is dry. I wonder if it gives new meaning to the song. Rocks are to these Andean people as snow is to the Inuit.
That’s as far as we got- I’ll finish this chapter when we get going on the shower again!