Wednesday, December 23, 2009

First impressions

After three days living in our new "green" house here are some first impressions of all the ecological features we incorporated into the design. Naturally these evaluations might change, as we gradually figure out how to work all these gadgets.

Solar Water Heater: Biggest hit by far, helped of course by a string of sunny days. In the morning, even after the water has been sitting overnight in the tank, the water is still so hot you need to mix it with cold to take a shower. Plenty of hot water for two leisurely showers, though we'll have to see what happens after a couple of cloudy days. We have a back-up on-demand water heater but friends say they've never had to use their auxiliary gas heaters. Solar water heating seems like such a no-brainer it's hard to figure why they wouldn't be universally used in the American Sun Belt, from Florida to Arizona.

Solar exposure: We spent quite a bit of time on the siting of the house and size and location of the windows, so we could get the most sun inside during the winter. That has worked fine, particularly in the bedrooms. The house is very bright, warm and cheery.

Bosch "Intelligent" Dishwasher: A mixed review. We picked this model after much research into the energy efficiency of dishwashers. We either missed some fine print or the "Intelligent" model in the U.S. is different from the one sold in Mexico, which is not so Intelligent. It does a terrific job of washing the dishes and it's so quiet you forget it's on. Very easy on water, using only 11 liters for the short cycle. The problem is that it sucks about 1kw-plus of electricity per cyle even in the "Rapido" setting which lasts only 50 minutes. Use any other setting and the cycles go on for two hours and more, including pauses, and the machine uses even more juice.

If you figure our 12 solar panels generate about 10kw on an ideally sunny day, 1.2kw or so for just the dishwasher is quite a bite. Add a 1.5kw refrigerator humming along on and off all day long, and subtract lower power generation during overcast days, and we could be looking at a pair of additional panels down the road.

We've thought about how we could miss such an important factoid about the vaunted Bosch dishwasher. Maybe 1kw or so per wash is not bad for dishwashers. Originally we suspected that an electric water heater in the machine was the culprit, but there's no reason it should go on: Our on-demand water heater--also a Bosch--is only about ten feet from the dishwasher and produces scalding water in minutes.

More manual dishwashing in our future? Maybe so.

GE Front-Loading Washer and Dryer: Great machines, though very odd in their operation. In a front-loader the cleaning action is plop-plop-plop with gravity doing most of the work, as opposed to the wiggle-wiggle-wiggle of top-loaders, where the motor creates most of the friction needed for cleaning. (Front-loaders went out of fashion sometime during the 60s supposedly to save American housewives the trouble of bending over to put in and take out the clothes.)

What's strange about the washing machine are the pauses, almost like it's hemming and hawing during the cycles. It turns one way, pauses, then it goes the other way.

The result is a very frugal operation in both electricity (about 400w?), and water (don't have any specific figures, though it must be half that of a conventional front-loader.) It uses only half as much detergent too, good for economy and the environment since our gray water goes out on a field behind the house (to be hooked up to an irrigation hose later on).

We seldom use the dryer. Instead we air-dry our clothes. Our latest addition is a "collapsible umbrella" clothesline. Don't know what that is? Check out a 1950s sitcom featuring a housewife who not only had to bend over to load the washer but also go outside to hang up the wash in one of these contraptions.

Solar electric: Ugh. Do we have to discuss that? Along with the carpenter--who is exactly two months behind in finishing--our solar electric system has been the biggest headache and disappointment. Both are cases of high expectations and subpar performance.

The installer has been nothing if not solicitious in trying to fix the problem, except that it may center on the two, 900-lb. batteries which had to be installed using a forklift. He doesn't seem too eager to admit they may be defective and haul them away for a recharger or replacement. However, we paid about $6,000 for the pair and are not about to quit complaining.

According to what we've been told, the batteries should be able to go to sleep at sunset and wake up the next day fully or nearly fully charged. Instead our batteries are all charged up by 10 or 11 a.m but then start losing steam when the sun sets and wake up the next day about half-charged. As I've mentioned in previous blogs, the "floating" signal is the sign of a happy, fully-charged battery. Ours float only occasionally and briefly. A monitor allows you to check battery performance for the previous several days. something Stew does along with checking the specific gravity of the battery fluids.

Our main preoccupation with the sytem is that if the batteries can't hold an overnight charge when the sun is shining, a couple of consecutive cloudy days could spell trouble.

Satellite TV: It's supposedly illegal, or at least not very polite, to use satellite dishes to get U.S. television stations in Mexico (even if we pay a monthly fee, which we do). Yet the practice is most prevalent, particularly among nostalgic exiled gringos, who just can't get used to Spanish-language soaps or Mexican variety shows featuring mostly large-breasted, provocatively clad women.

Reception so far if excellent even if we don't watch 90 percent of the stations that come in. But hey, that's the law of gross oversupply and demand for ya.

Rennai heaters: They are supposed to be high-efficiency and all. We've had a non-vented one for a while (model RCE 592ACPA) and it's excellent except for the fumes. So we bought a larger one (ES38 HIgh Efficiency, 38,000 BTUs for the living room) that's vented through the wall. The latter also works fine though it may not be big enough to heat the living/dining room area with its cathedral ceiling (even with a ceiling fan blowing down). We'll see. In the dead of winter it can get down to freezing briefly at night, though the temperatures quickly rise into the 70s by noon.

Refrigerator: We couldn't match U.S. energy efficiency ratings with the models sold down here, so we found a two-door GE model that works fine while soaking about 1.5kw of electricity daily, which is supposed to about average for that type of appliance.

Further complicating the selection was that many (most?) American-brand refrigerators are made in Mexico and sold under different names and brands. We were told to stay away from Mexican-made MABE refrigerators because they were of terrible quality.

But guess what: Our fancy-schmantzy GE is a MABE (the factory is about 50 miles from here) and the two units are identical and made in the same place.

So to GE or to MABE? That was the question and we went for the GE, which was actually cheaper than the MABE.

Internet: There are no land lines here for Internet, cable, telephone or electricity. Cell phones were the only option, though I've heard people talk about satellite phones. They're not very good unless you're in Afghanistan and the Taliban is on your tail.

For the Internet we had two options. One was a Hughes satellite connection, via a TV-like satellite dish. Expensive and erratic, we were warned.

The other was a module, similar to a data stick, that plugs in one of the USB ports of the computers and works through the cell phone lines. The cost is $60 for the unit and about $40 monthly for the service, which you replenish by buying cards.

The results are slow and... capricious. When it's on it's on, when not, you're screwed. Service seems to move much faster in the city than in the boonies.

It works best for e-mail. Downloading the day's edition of the New York Times can take 45 seconds to a minute, unless the connection conks out in the middle and you have to start over again. So we'll probably watch more MSNBC, PBS or BBC America news. It's faster and you don't even have to read any type or press any keys.

Just sit and watch the nattily dressed news readers tell you what's going on and what you should think about it.

Fireplace: Stew and I asked for a ambidextrous fireplace, one that could burn wood or fit a gas-log unit. In addition, and I don't know who came up with the idea, we had lined with 1/8" steel which reflects the heat and glow of the fire back into the room . Really cool idea.

I will post a picture, as soon as we can get the cell phone Internet to upload it. That might take a while.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Clara's love offensive

In a blog a couple of months ago I told the story of an emaciated Doberman we had inherited and named Clara, as in Rancho Santa Clara.

She had been abandoned by her owners in the fields somewhere near our new house. So Clara joined a pack of dogs who followed Luis, our young velador, or watchman, who came to our house late every afternoon and stayed the night. Clara came along and we started feeding her.

Luis was later fired for stealing. On his way out he handed me Clara on a leash and told me she was now mine. His wife didn't want another dog around, Luis explained, and anyway, he was taking off for the U.S. to find work. "It wouldn't be fair to abandon her," he said.

Indeed. Despite her miserable life and sorry appearance Clara retained a cheerfulness and trust of people that was as disarming as it was disconcerting. As I took the leash, Clara just went over and started licking Stew's face, as if that was the next natural thing to do.

We couldn't adopt her and instead took her to the Sociedad Protectora de Animales, the local humane shelter. I'm the shelter's director and I plead guilty to running roughshod over the long list of abandoned dogs waiting to be admitted and getting Clara into the shelter on a Saturday.

She received the usual care: A period of isolation in case she had some contagious disease, and over a few weeks, some vaccines, followed by sterilization--and lots of food. Her body naturally filled in and her dark brown coat started to shine. A dog trainer at the S.P.A. remarked how unusually cheerful and clever she was, even to the point of quickly learning some basic commands.

For all her charm offensive, though, it took about six weeks before she was adopted. I suspect that people who wanted a gentle dog were afraid of adopting a Doberman with a long snout and what seemed like 150 sharp teeth.

Those looking for a menacing-looking junkyard dog were put off by this specimen of a supposedly fierce breed that somehow couldn't stop squirming and licking strangers.

Someone finally adopted her but the odd details left me worried. Clara was adopted by two school teachers and would live at a school in the tiny town of Corralejo, only a couple of miles from our new house.

How could a dog be adopted by a school? Who would take care of her after school hours? Would she become one of those dogs, all too typical in Mexico, who spend their lives on a broiling rooftop barking all day long, sometimes tied to a post by a piece of wire? At the S.P.A., abused dogs, and abused dog tales, are daily fare so my mind was imagining the worst.

The S.P.A. manager tried to reassure me that the two middle-age school teachers seemed like responsible people who even bought some flea medicine and shampoo for Clara. She would live at the school but there was a janitor who stayed there after hours and make sure nothing happened to her.

I waited another month but finally couldn't contain my morbid curiosity. I asked for the phone of one of the teachers who had adopted Clara and that turned out to be upsetting news. The phone number didn't exist.

So Stew and I took off for Corralejo to check on all the public schools to see if one had adopted a dog. The principal of a grammar school said he didn't know about any dog or recognized the name of the teacher. Likewise no one knew anything about Clara at a nearby kindergarten.

By now Stew and I were concocting nightmare scenarios of what had happened to "our" dog. Why would someone give the wrong phone number in the adoption application? There was no school in Corralejo with an adopted Doberman.

I went back to the S.P.A. and someone remembered something about a Telesecundaria in Corralejo de Arriba vs. de Abajo (in effect, Upper versus Lower Corralejo, an odd distinction for such a micron of a town.) Telesecundarias are public schools in Mexico, usually in rural areas, where some of the instruction comes via televised programs from a satellite network.

After an amazingly good lunch at a tiny restaurant--in what must have been Corralejo del Medio, or Middle Corralejo--the owner told us there was in fact a Telesecundaria in Corralejo de Arriba. It was off the road to our house.

This was the place. All the kids, mostly early teenagers, knew about Clara and took us to see her. She kept her name but in typical Mexican fashion it has been turned into "Clarita" or "Little Clara."

There was nothing little about her--she's on the verge of chubbiness, perhaps 60 lbs. She also seems to have grown, her legs no longer so disproportionately long in relation to the rest of her body.

She jumped on Stew and dispensed her usual slobbering. Stew thinks she recognized us, but I doubt it. That's just Clara.

One of the teachers who had adopted her showed me Clara's house, a small concrete bunker that the janitor had created for her. Dog food was plenty, as well as tortillas and other human fare. Clara posed for pictures with some of her school fans but only briefly, before going off to a fenced-in backyard to attend to something apparently more interesting than all this adulation.

The teacher, Lic. Guillermina Torrecilla, a smiling, pudgy woman in her 40s, said "security concerns" had prompted the adoption of Clara. Someone had broken into the school and stolen not the television sets or the satellite dishes--but the copper plumbing off the bathrooms.

As for the wrong phone number, she doesn't understand what happened.

The teacher hopes that Clara's imposing presence and the reputation of the Doberman breed will scare off any other intruders.

"But she is pretty worthless as a guard dog," I whispered, as if I were telling the teacher a confidential bit of news.

Lic. Guillermina laughed out loud. "I know, I know. We can't even get her to bark."

Friday, December 11, 2009

Watt crisis?

One night, about three weeks ago we had our very own Thomas Alva Edison moment. We went to the kitchen, flipped a switch and the ceiling lights went on. Eureka!

Indeed, our $30,000 solar electricity system came alive. Over the next few days the gauges reported more good news: The batteries were "floating," which in solar energy lingo meant they were charged, fat and sassy.

But then the "floating" message failed to show up. The screen registered "snoozing," "sleeping," "absorbing" and various other states of consciousness. But no more "floating."

More ominously, a couple of nights later we noticed a certain flickering in the lights throughout the house.

We called the guy who installed the system and he was out there the next day. Jim is nothing if not responsive. He says sometimes he loses sleep obsessing over some gremlin bugging one of his solar rigs.

He checked the specific gravity of the electrolytes in the batteries, a key signal of their health. The levels were near the "honey, get the candles and the flashlight ready" range.

Moreover, another indicator showed 22 volts in the system when then minimum was supposed to be above 24.

It could be that one of the elements in the system was defective, most logically the batteries. Or perhaps the wiring in the house was somehow faulty and the malfunction was sucking the air out of the batteries.

Or we suspect far more likely, the workers at the site had plugged their radial saws, sanders, compressors and other industrial-strength equipment into the nearest outlet instead of using the gasoline-powered generator, inconveniently located outside the house.

Jim had warned us about the workers tapping into the system out of sheer laziness.

We asked the workers and a consensus rapidly emerged: It was the other guy's fault.

So Jim brought his own gasoline-powered generator and plugged our system into it, in what looked like the solar power equivalent of an IV. It ran for several hours each day, for three or four days.

The vital signs of the batteries crept up, though there still was a difference in the electrolytes between the two batteries, and even among the cells in the batteries.

We ruled out a short circuit. None of the 22 breakers in the entrance panel had tripped. Stew tested the grounding of several outlets and that checked out too.

After several days of ministrations by Jim and his electric generator, yesterday the batteries were floating again. Voltage levels were normal and so were the readings in the battery cells.

Today, the voltage was up to 26 and change and by noon... the batteries were merrily floating.

The most hopeful sign though is that the house is nearly finished, and in two or three days, the occupation army of carpenters, electricians, iron workers and assorted others will finally float away, leaving us to enjoy our brand-new home.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Painting your way out of a job

During the saga of building our house, at what point did we go from, "Golly, we're so excited about moving in!" to "For Chrissake, let's just move in and get this over with!"? We think it was about three weeks ago.

Two couples who'd built houses here have reassured us our exasperation is natural. At one point, when final work on their houses had ground down to an on-and-on-and-on crawl, they just told the maestro, architect or whoever seemed to be in charge, "We're done, get out of here, we'll finish this place on our own, somehow."

They and other friends figure the phenomenon of the last-minute slowdown is simply the result of the Mexican workers' understandable desire to stretch out every gig for as long as possible.

Construction work often is not paid by the project, as in "I'll give you $10 bucks to paint that wall," but weekly, as in "we'll keep paying you to paint--or diddle with--that wall for as long as it takes." Whole-job estimates in San Miguel are often closer to conjecture or wishful thinking than hard figures.

Under the weekly payment system there's no incentive to work quickly and efficiently, for all that's going to do, particularly now with building construction in a deep slump, is leave you out of a job.

But that can't be the whole explanation. In the case of the carpenter we signed what seemed a truly impressive contract specifying completion and payment landmarks. Even with incentives dangling in front of his nose to complete the work and get his money, the guy immediately started missing his own deadlines and is now several weeks behind schedule.

Painting has become a particular aggravation because in high school I worked a couple of summers as a painter and I know the process of changing the color of a wall is no mystery. In fact, it's pretty damn close to unskilled labor, particularly when you're using water-based latex paint, one of the great idiot-defying inventions of the last one hundred years.

Whether you're drunk, uncoordinated or just plain stupid, water-based latex paint seems to magically even itself out when you put it on a surface. It's a modern miracle.

Yet at our new house painting became an arcane process, closer to alchemy than semi-skilled labor. When I occasionally asked what was going on, the painter shook his head with considerable seriousness, as if my questioning might disrupt an ancient ritual inaccessible to gringos anyway.

Rather than getting a color chart--a Mexican company called Comex produces excellent paint in a palette of literally thousands of colors--and selecting a shade of, say, "Sassy Papaya" or "Seductive Chartreuse," our painter insisted on mixing his own shades. Right on the spot.

The way you do it is to buy two, three, four or five quarts or gallons of paint and keep mixing and stirring a little bit of this, a dab of that and a smidgen of something else, and painting square-foot swatches on the wall until you get the "right" shade. For extra-special effect, sometimes a second coat is applied while the first one is still wet, or dabbed on with a rag rather than brushed on.

On our job paint rollers didn't make an appearance until literally the last day, when two guys hastily began applying a afterthought coat of white paint to the inside walls of the garage. On the rest of the house they instead tediously dabbed on the paint with stumpy eight-inch-wide brushes with one-inch-long bristles. Don't know if those brushes are actually made that way, trimmed with scissors or simply worn down to the perfect stubble length after years of use.

Two problems with these one-of-a-kind color schemes. One, all this fiddling seems unnecessarily time-consuming and expensive. We love our house and want it to look nice, but we're not trying to match the precise shade of Marie Antoinette's pantry at Versailles.

Far worse is the second problem: How are you going to match the color a couple of years from now when you need to repaint and the original painter is gone? These guys don't use glass beakers to measure the precise proportions and certainly aren't going to leave you detailed formulas.

It's already happened. A blue-gray wall on the inside of our front patio was splattered with some brown stuff. A quick touch-up would have been no problem except there was no paint left over. Ask the painter? Well, the guy got fired and probably is in no mood to reveal his secret formulas. Ask Comex to match it? Not exactly: Comex doesn't have color-matching scanners, so the only match would be an approximation from one of the printed color swatches.

So you ask yourself: What the heck was wrong with Comex's ready-made "Sleepy Aztec Heaven" or some such shade of blue in the first place? Need a touch up? Just buy another can.

Then comes another local painting tradition: One must water down latex paint, roughly on a ratio of one-to-three, "to ensure proper adhesion" according to our original painter. He's the guy who got fired, though this was no personal brainstorm of his. At least around San Miguel it's part of the drill with local painters.

I should have sensed trouble when the painter, also named Alfredo (maybe that was the start of our problems) explained that it would take four, five--even more!--coats of paint to get proper coverage on our interior walls. Puzzled, I muttered that a good coat of primer and two coats of the final color should do it, no?

"No señor, I can assure you," he explained respectfully, all the while letting on a slightly condescending smile that said instead, "You fuckin' gringo putz!"

Then it became clear. You need five and six coats of paint, because the paint is watered down! I experimented with some leftover paint one weekend and indeed it had the consistency and coverage of whitewash.

What a concept, especially if you want to stretch out a painting job.

Who knows how all these quirks took hold among the local painters. They don't come from the instructions on the label of Comex latex paint. A sly work-stretching trick that became entrenched custom? Perhaps. Watering down the paint to save money, since many paint estimates include materials? Could be.

As a former painter I can vouch that watering down latex paint doesn't save money--you have to apply more coats to achieve the same coverage and the final job peels off and scratches more easily.

Brushes versus rollers? Our painters swear that paint dabbed on with the stubby brushes dries more evenly than that coming from a roller.

That's patent nonsense too. The walls on our study, the guest bathroom and the main bedroom are riddled with brush strokes and white primer filtering through the top coat.

But we're not going to complain about it, much less ask for another coat. That would only call for more paint, water, stumpy brushes and longer hours for the painters. When they finish with the garage, that's it for painting.

Another coat will be applied indeed but by the only guy I can trust right now to do the job right.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Picture Time

A couple of people have asked me to post some pictures of the progress on the house, so here they are. Despite our doubts, the November 15 finishing date might actually happen but we expect a lot of work to remain for several months after we move in.

Although we've had some seriously cloudy weather the reader on the solar electric inverter today announced that the batteries were "floating", which means they are fully charged. I guess you just need light, not necessarily blazing sun, for the panels of photovoltaic cells to generate electricity even if the output is greatly reduced.

And of course, the inverter has to be connected to the electrical grid in the house, which hasn't happened. So for the time being the batteries will continue floating, and the little screens on the inverter blinking, just for the hell of it.

During these final days, details will continue to drive us crazy. Today we discovered that the kitchen sink cabinet, which is supposed to be perfectly centered under the window, is for some reason about four inches off-center to left. Though I've learned to curb my perfectionism this goof is easily noticeable to anyone with a pair of reasonably functioning eyes.

Then we noticed that the electric connections for the under cabinet lights are perfectly located on the wrong wall, the one where there are no cabinets. So now we either have to move the cabinets or the electrical boxes.

The next challenge will be picking paints. We're in Mexico so forget acres of off-white walls or muted shades. Loud reds, purples and greens are all fair game. Yet, what goes with what?

After painting will come the not small matter that we have practically no furniture. That's become an issue because most of the furniture available in San Miguel tends to be dark, massive, baronial stuff. Even more annoying, there is only one major furniture dealer in town and you keep running into the same pieces in people's houses.

So that's two problems really: We don't like the so-called "Colonial San Miguel" look plus we want something different. Mexicanish yet modern.

Did I mention moderately priced? It's become clear to most people that San Miguel is becoming, or may have already become, an overpriced Gringo Gulch. We were shopping in Mexico City recently and were surprised to find that prices, from restaurants to kitchen appliances to furniture, are actually lower there than in San Miguel.

Still, cost of living in San Miguel in general remains substantially lower than in the U.S., plus there's another advantage: The ability of Mexican crafstmen--particularly carpenters and ironworkers--to faithfully reproduce practically anything you show them, and at a fraction of the cost. We gave our ironworker a picture of a gate Stew found in the Internet and the guy came back with a beautiful reproduction.

The same is true for furniture though I'm not sure about the quality of the materials. From experience we know that badly made pieces, with cushions that lose their shape or sag over time are really no bargain at all.

Here are some stories to go with the pictures.

The latest additions to the front of the house are the chimney and the paint job on the wall enclosing the front patio. Since this picture was taken gutters have been installed on the eaves under the clay tiles, and the chimney painted to match the front wall.

The front wall looks somewhat foreboding and massive right now, something we plan to remedy by using climbers and other plantings to soften its appearance. Still missing are the two clerestory windows in front, which have arrived but haven't been installed.

This is a partial view of the front patio, which includes a wall fountain but no plantings so far. Just digging the lousy soil and massive rocks took quite a bit of effort. Now of course we have to get and dump two or three truckloads of good black soil in the hole we've created.

The lattice-like metal roof over the front works quite well to cut some of the sun without darkening the inside of the house. We plan to train some climbers on the metal canopy. My choice would be Angel's Trumpet, which I've seen around here. The nurseryman also suggested we move a Valencia orange tree we had planted outside into the protected patio.

These are the electric batteries hooked up to the photovoltaic electric panels on the roof of the garage. From there, thick (about #4 gauge) wires go into the "inverters" inside, which convert the DC juice into AC, and then to the electric entrance panel with the circuit breakers.

The batteries are about the size of large suitcases but weigh about 900 pounds each. Up close they look like huge car batteries with caps on top for pouring distilled water into the cells. More on that later when we get some instructions from the installer.

I'm still curious whether we may have to resort to a generator during a series of overcast days like we've been having for the past week.

Then there's that wind turbine the installer wanted to sell us and which is still available. A curious phenomenon is that solar and wind seem to complement each other. When it's cloudy, like yesterday, the wind kicks up and vice versa. Wind turbines of course are at their best in stormy weather, when solar is hurting. We need to wait a year to figure this out.

My main objections to the wind turbines are that they are ugly, even the newer, sleeker models, and that they make noise. It's so quiet out there that even the whoosh of the blades may become a pain.

This is Gladys, the good karma dog, taking a rest in the living/dining room area. The wood beams on top were left a natural color, no staining. The patches of color on the walls are samples we're trying out. We think we're going with the red on the one wall, plus a sand-hued color on the rest of the walls.

The texture of fireplace is a slightly rougher than the rest of the walls. I thought it would overwhelm the room but it doesn't. The two square niches have halogen lights, as does the shelf to the right of the firebox. Those spaces are meant to display fine Mexican ceramics or art objects, of which we don't have any. The space to the left is for stacking firewood. A type of Mexican granite is coming for the ledge on top of the mantle.

Another view of the living/dining room, looking toward the kitchen.

Stew, Gladys and Lucy, present at the inaugural lighting of the fireplace. We had the fireplace built so that it can burn wood or artificial propane gas logs. Firewood here is rare and expensive, given that the surroundings are mostly desert. What we are using now are wood scraps left from the construction.

The master bedroom. The bare space on the floor is for a wood inset, sort of a wood carpet in the middle of the tile floor. Stew came up with that idea, a good one.

Master closet, still under construction. The carpenter, who otherwise is doing a good job, initially presented us with an elaborate performance/payment schedule. He's about three weeks behind already and so are the payments.

The pile of rocks at the foot of the terrace is supposed to become a rock garden sometime in the future.

A view of the house, from the road down below.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A parish with no name

Rising shyly above a hill visible from the main bedroom of our new house is a tiny church with no name or date of construction--the neighbors think it must be at least a hundred years old--and where you can attend Mass but only once a month, on the third Saturday to be exact.

Even then the time of the service is más o menos, around three o'clock, depending on when the priest whooshes in on his battered pick-up, goes into the sacristy, throws on the vestments over his civilian pair of jeans and t-shirt, and marches into the sanctuary to face an expectant, standing-room-only crowd.

To be sure, an SRO crowd at this church, which parishioners prefer to call a "temple", means about 25 or 30 people. Temple seems a bit pretentious for a religious venue that in most places would barely qualify as a chapel. The place is so small that before the service the six stumpy pews are rearranged along the side walls to allow a few more people to stand in the middle. The pews are reserved for the elderly and pregnant.

The crowds spill out the front door. There, a small group of young men tries to stand solemnly though their attention clearly drifts along with the clouds overhead. You can hardly blame them. By the time the sounds of the service reach the outside, priestly prayers and the chants of fervent women are all but unintelligible.

Yet these young guys show up regularly as if to belie the stereotype of Catholic services as a gathering of nervous old women. Not only do they come but they put on their best church threads, cowboy boots and hats, with faces scrubbed and hair neatly gelled into place.

There's no room inside for a proper confessional, so the priest does his listening and pardoning after the Mass, sitting on a folding chair under a tree on a far corner of the property. It's also more private al fresco. Think of it, would you want to talk about your misdeeds in a tiny church full of gossipy women?

The 14 Stations of the Cross also have been forced outdoors and transformed into a series of hastily painted crosses on the outside walls and on the stone fence that surrounds the church.

Despite the near-claustrophobic conditions, the church has a tiny choir of three or four girls which livens up the proceedings with easy hymns. The men outside may doff their hats when they sense something important is going on inside but they never seem to join in the singing. Here real men don't sing, at least not religious ditties.

Candles abound and so do flowers though the latter tend to be of the paper or plastic variety, except on special occasions when there are so many arrangements the aroma hits you before you even enter.

The candles would be critical if an evening service were held. Though there are simple light fixtures and some dusty bare bulbs, they don't work. Electric service was cut off a few years ago by the government-owned utility, who doesn't tolerate deadbeat customers even if they are tiny churches filled with desperately poor people.

The only break from the lights-out situation comes once a year when the community, known as La Biznaga or "The Barrel Cactus," throws a raucous party for itself on the church's front yard and cajoles a neighbor into donating some juice via a long garland of extension cords.

Inevitably, the collection basket comes around during the service. Some of the parishioners contribute but just as many pass the basket on rapidly and nervously to the person next to them, as if it were contaminated.

The collection is so meager it's inconceivable, just a few pesos and some centavo coins. On my first visit I tossed a $20 peso bill, about $1.50 dollars, and then realized my attempt at generosity may have struck those around me as pretentious, a rich gringo showing off. On my return visit I brought a couple of more discreet $10 peso coins.

It's a miracle that the place survives. There can't be enough money in the collection plate to pay for gasoline for the priest's pick-up, let alone a stipend for his services or capital improvements like restoring electric service.

The secret is probably Doña Felisa, the woman with the deceptively reticent smile who is also in charge of the community well. She seems to run all aspects of the church, which includes squeezing enough pesos and centavos from the community--plus free labor from the non-singing men--to keep the church building in reasonably good shape.

Two years ago she collected enough money for a roofing job. The white roof now gleams and protects the interior. Then the nave was redecorated with a beautifully detailed paint job, mostly in blues and whites. It's not the Sistine Chapel, but an amazing job of restoration nevertheless by a congregation with, remember, practically no money.

Now Felisa wants to restore the sacristy, a room the size of a walk-in closet off to one side of the altar. Its walls are pockmarked by missing chunks of plaster. Ventilation is a hole through a wall. Religious artifacts, including a crucified Jesus with strangely large breasts, are mixed up haphazardly with plastic flowers and dusty candles. It looks like a religious garage sale.

She's put the touch on me for 30 bags of cement, which cost about $8 dollars apiece, so she can redo the walls of the sacristy. Not only that, but Felisa and a younger woman friend have big plans for redoing the outside walls. And replacing a cross that fell off the steeple God knows how long ago. And fixing the bell, which hangs from a tree branch because the metal pipe that used to hold it rusted off. And installing an entrance gate. And getting the electricity reconnected.

I modestly suggested that the combination of crumbling stones of the outside walls, with weeds growing in the mortar, is what gives the building its beauty and charm.

But I sensed Felisa and her friend don't appreciate the beauty of deteriorated, weedy walls. La Biznaga is too much about ramshackle houses and weeds running amok for these two residents to appreciate the Old World charm of the run-down. Let's smooth out those walls and paint them white.

Felisa's request for 30 bags of cement--each bag should be enough to redo five square meters of wall--seems excessive. I asked some of our gringo neighbors if they would contribute some money and one of them balked, claiming it seemed like an attempted rip off or our Mexicans neighbors thinking gringos are made out of money or too ignorant to tell a bag of cement from a bag of manure. She may have a point.

She also got me thinking about what an interesting, some would say peculiar, bunch of ex-pats have settled around this little church and, in a couple of months, our new home.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Return of the Velador

The departure of Luis, the velador or watchman, at the construction site several weeks ago was disappointing and upsetting. For some reason we felt like we'd been had.

Initially he seemed like a hard-working guy, with a pleasant wife and a lovely baby daughter, all of them living in dire poverty. We tried to help him by giving him some additional work and made other small gestures, like buying gifts for his baby. He seemed interested in my suggestion that perhaps he could stay on as a gardener and handyman after the house was finished.

Then Luis got fired for supposedly stealing some equipment. He denied it but I was never fully convinced, certainly not enough to demand that the architect give him his job back.

Following that came, through the architect, what sounded like a threat to take legal action against us unless we gave him some money. I don't know if he was serious but stories of gringos getting sued by their domestic workers make the rounds periodically in San Miguel.

The severance pay didn't bother us that much. The amount was small, about $100 dollars. He had worked for several months and probably deserved some payout even if he got fired for cause. If someone, maybe the architect, had explained the situation to us we would have just paid him off.

Yet the suspicions of stealing combined with his threat to come after us legally didn't go down well. We took it as a bit of ungratefulness by someone we had tried to help.

Last Saturday, when we were poking around our new house, Luis showed up with one of his dogs and handed me the leash: "If you don't take her I'm going to abandon her, which doesn't seem fair," he declared.

He had no job or money, he said, and couldn't keep the dog. His wife complained about the dog pestering her while she cooked.

The second part was not hard to believe. The animal clearly was starving, suffering from the kind of serious malnutrition that makes bones poke through the skin and the body seem uncoordinated and fragile, as if it were about to come apart. It's the sight that in humans you associate with a concentration camp.

We had seen the dog before when Luis was still working and had brought her some food and a red collar which we had to adjust to the narrowest setting so it wouldn't fall off her scrawny neck.

Even so, if you could look past her pathetic condition she was a beautiful Doberman with a reddish-brown coat, and the svelte body and disproportionately long snout you associate with the breed.

The dog's oddest trait was her disposition. Dobermans have a reputation for meanness and aggression, but this one seemed unable to stop licking any friendly hand or face, or wiggling like a delirious bag of bones. Why would a creature who obviously had been treated so badly be so trusting and cheerful?

In fact it was probably her seemingly congenital sweetness that did her in. Luis, and later a vet who examined her, told us that it's quite common in these parts for people to get Dobermans as guard dogs, banking on their aggresiveness.

This specimen clearly had failed the mean junkyard dog screen test and had been abandoned by her owners. Luis, who always arrived at his velador shift with three or four mutts in tow, said the Doberman had just casually joined his canine conga line one day.

Stew and I started feeding her, and eventually brought buckets of dry food to the construction site for her and Luis' other dogs which didn't seem so well fed either. The Doberman never reached anything near a normal weight but the depressions between her bones appeared to be filling in.

When Luis got fired the Doberman disappeared.

Standing looking at him now, holding the Doberman's leash in my hand, I was speechless. I was grateful Luis hadn't abandoned this starving animal for a second time. That was kind of him. Whatever weight the dog had gained before was gone. She wouldn't have survived another week on her own.

But I also felt manipulated by a guy I now regarded as somewhat creepy if not outright dishonest.

We took the dog, which Stew promptly named "Clara" (as in Rancho Santa Clara) to the Sociedad Protectora de Animales, a humane shelter where we volunteer. She was examined by the vet, got a deworming pill, and joined the 30-odd other dogs awaiting adoption.

Because of her size--she's only about two-thirds the size of a regular Doberman--we assumed she was a puppy. The vet instead calculated her age at about 18 months, old enough to be a fully developed adult. She weighs about 10 kilos or 22 pounds, or half of what would be considered normal.

An unexpected mercy brought by such gross malnutrition is that Clara doesn't seem to have ever had a litter. According to the vet, bitches don't ovulate when their bodies are so distressed. Her front feet also seem uncommonly large and slightly splayed, like those of a Basset Hound, due to a lack of food and proper bone development.

Feeling guilty for leaving Clara there I blurted out to the S.P.A. manager that we would probably take her if she hadn't been adopted by the time we move into the new house, sometime toward December. She probably had never been confined in her life and I felt the adjustment to life in a kennel would be tough, even with a guaranteed two square meals a day.

Not to worry. We went to see her today and Clara's cheerfulness hasn't left her. Several days of steady meals seem to be filling out her body.

Kathi, the woman who handles and trains dogs at the S.P.A., says Clara is smart, gentle and should be a good candidate for a fast adoption.

As for Luis, his parting words as he walked toward the gate of our property were that he was heading to the U.S. to find a job. It was hard to tell by the tone of his voice if he was angry or sad.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Almost Show Time?

During the past month construction speeded up to the point that the architect triumphantly announced, a couple of weeks ago, that the house would be finished...a month ahead of schedule? That would be a landmark event in home construction probably anywhere in the world and certainly in Mexico. If the house in fact is finished by November 15, that would be exactly nine months from groundbreaking to moving in.

As if to underline his point, the architect had the tar paper storage shack, which doubled as a sleeping hut for the night watchman, dismantled. Leftover bags of concrete, wood construction forms, surplus roofing tiles were hauled away overnight. Guys with sledgehammers busted up the island of concrete where they've been mixing cement for months. A backhoe came by and scooped up the debris and made a first pass at leveling off the scarred land around the house.

I'm impressed but not convinced.

Many key components of the house have arrived, and some have even been installed. But these pieces still have to be hooked up to one another to make the house functional. The solar panels are up on the roof, presumably sending electricity to the inverters in the garage, except that the two 900-lb. lead acid batteries have not arrived from Monterrey, Mexico. And even if they arrived tomorrow it'd still be a no-go because the electric panel remains a spaghetti bowl of wires.

Plumbing is not there either. The first piece of the water filter is hanging neatly on a wall of the mechanical room under the kitchen, but the rest of the filters, as well as the pressure tank are still in the garage. Someone took the tank out of the box but that's as far as our water pressurization system got. The solar water heater, a contraption far larger than I expected, hasn't even been taken out of the box and is waiting next to the uncovered pressure tank.

At this point the plumber would tell the electrician: Hey, there's no point hooking up the water pumps and filters until there's electricity. The electrician would then interject: But wait, the solar guy didn't finish his part of the job yet, so what am I supposed to do?

So here we sit, looking not so much at a house but a Tinkertoy set, the pieces scattered all over the living room carpet, waiting for an adult to come put them together.

Of all the pieces, the one I'm most curious about is the solar electricity rig. All 12 panels, each supposed to generate 1 kw a day, now sit on the roof of the garage looking more like receivers silently awaiting the signal for them to start buzzing to arrive from outer space. Their high-tech silicone faces look odd butting up against the old Mexican clay roof tiles covering the other part of the house.

Why am I curious, perhaps even a tad nervous, about whether this is going to work? Photovoltaic panels are a mature technology; it's not as if we're trying to get electricity out of a biomass generator hooked up to the compost pile.

Solar electricity is fairly common around San Miguel and not just in mud huts belonging to die-hard hippies in granny dresses and bib overalls. You see them on the roofs of fairly large homes--some I would guess as big as 5,000 sq. feet--with double-door monster refrigerators, dishwashers and other large electric gizmos inside. Our architect built a Tuscan-style maisonette with two kitchens and 20 photovoltaic panels mounted all over the roof.

The other advantage is San Miguel's climate, which almost guarantees a minimum 320-odd days a year of blasting sunshine. Even during the rainy days, the sun comes out for at least a few hours (it usually rains late in the day and overnight). If we were in Minnesota or Chicago, where the sun disappears for weeks at a time during the winter, I wouldn't be quite so ready to tell the electric company to take their watts and shove them.

So no problema, heh? Well, there are occasional horror stories, or if not quite horrible, at least scary enough for you to mutter: "Shit, I hope that doesn't happen to us."

There's the ongoing case of two women friends who built a house on the other side of town and who keep having electrical outages or brownouts. They've added panels--they're up to 18 for a house that's only about 2,000 sq. feet--and yet the problem persists.

Their system was installed by the same American guy who is working on ours. He blames the failures on our friends' profligate energy use. A refrigerator and a freezer, neither one particularly energy efficient according to the installer, plus a couple of jumbo flat-screen TV sets blabbing away most of the day. In addition, they have some sort of TV recording contraption that is also on all day.

Who knew there was so much television to watch.

The solar installer temporarily replaced the batteries to see if the problem was with the solar system or the batteries, but both checked out. So the issue is either too many watt-sucking gadgets or a gremlin residing deep inside the wiring of the house. We haven't heard if the problem has been finally solved. I hope so.

Even with properly functioning systems, though, living off photovoltaic cells takes some adjusting. An electric oven or water heater, or other gadgets with resistors or coils to generate heat for protracted periods, are out of the picture. Air conditioning, particularly a two-ton central system, also is off-limits.

Some relatively small issues can pose a problem too. Our water filtration system comes with an ultraviolet 60-watt tube. Doesn't sound like much but 60 watts shining idly 24/7 adds up to quite a bit of electricity. We thought of hooking up the light to the water pump so that it would go on only when there's water flowing through the system. Then Stew said a simpler solution would be to put the UV light on a timer that would shut off for 10 hours at night.

We'll discuss those options with the plumber and the electrician as soon as they come back.

A myriad little conservation details suddenly become important. You wash dishes or clothes during the day, when the sun is shining. Halogen bulbs, those intense little buggers that have become a staple of modern decor, are used sparingly if at all. Fluorescent bulbs replace incandescent: Just make sure they are of the warm tone variety so you and your guests don't look like cadavers.

The Christmas tree of little lights blinking all day long--the Internet modem, two computer printers, routers and other computer gadgets--also need to be shut off when not in use. Battery chargers, each with its own warm-to-the-touch transformer, have to be unplugged.

Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Our solar installer is an expert at all these small tricks. His wife calls him the Watt Nazi.

I guess we'll see whether it's all a chronic pain in the neck or just a new lifestyle one gets used to. But before then, theoretically by November 15, we need to have someone come and finish putting this Tinkertoy together.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Construction site justice

On Monday, Stew and I paid a visit to the construction site and noticed that the velador, or watchman, was missing, and so were the blankets on his bed and the few articles that personalized his corner of the tar-paper storage shack where he occasionally spent the night with his wife and four-month-old baby Maria.

The bucket of food that Stew and I keep refilling to feed Luis' entourage of three puppies, two chubby adult mutts and a young skeletal Doberman that had attached himself to his circus parade about a month ago, also was gone.

Instead we found a new velador, a round-faced guy in his 20s who'd brought along his own two tiny puppies and a frightened bitch to nurse them. He prefers sleeping in his 30-some-year-old Pontiac Bonneville jalopy rather than in the storage shed. Nice enough guy, who offered to bring us cacti from his own rancho when he saw us planting some agaves. How much was he charging, I asked. "Just whatever you want to give me señor," he said.

He didn't know why the last velador had disappeared, but quickly reassured us about his own experience in the business as if spending the night in a shack, or in an old car, required some training or apprenticeship.

So we asked Martín, the maestro, or construction foreman, what had happened with Luis. The explanation was vague, at best, but stone-faced Martín has never been very chatty anyway. There was some equipment missing--Martín wouldn't say what exactly--and the logical person to blame was the velador since his job was to watch the site.

Stew asked the architect and the answer was equally fuzzy. Something had turned up missing, and Luis was the only one of about 20 workers who didn't come up with a persuasive alibi. Someone needed to be made an example of, the architect explained, to avert any more thievery.

Besides, he added, Luis wasn't at the site a couple of times. Stew and I always found Luis and his gang on duty, though often he seemed eager to take off for home when we told him we were going to hang around for a couple of hours.

So Luis got fired. A rough and quick kind of construction site justice this is, particularly when a young guy with a wife, a four-month-old baby and a pack of five or six mangy dogs are at the receiving end.

Stew feebly protested to the architect that we liked Luis, had taken pictures of him and his family and bought some gifts for the baby. He seemed like an alright guy. We had even talked to him about staying on after the house was finished, to work as a gardener or "hombre mil usos" or "thousand-use man."

We had asked Luis to water our young trees a couple of times and he had fulfilled his mission with gusto. In fact, I had to tell that he didn't have to drown them every day.

The architect didn't appear moved by Stew's story. "If you want him back, you can have him."

Problem is, we didn't even know where exactly Luis and his family lived, though one Sunday we saw him with his wife and baby waiting for a bus by the entrance of a dirt-poor wreck of a town nearby called Sosnavar.

At this point we didn't know if we'd ever see Luis and his tribe again. Should we look for him in Sosnavar? Is Maria OK? How about that ghostly Doberman puppy we were trying to fatten up? Is she still alive? Is Luis really a thief?

Part of me felt we should try to find him, and least to ask him for his side of the story. Bring more toys for Maria. Maybe we could adopt the Doberman, who according to Luis was probably kicked out by her owners because she wasn't "brava" or fierce enough. Indeed all the Doberman seemed to be able to do was lick you and merrily wiggle her bony rear end with the brutally chopped-off tail.

Or perhaps we should just forget about it. Often life for man or animals can be so unfair and miserable around here that you just begin to accept it on its own terms.

On Friday morning, as we finished up planting more agaves, Luis showed up at the construction site. He said he needed work, that he had been looking all week since he had gotten fired and hadn't found anything. He was wearing a ragged tank top and looked as scrawny as his bedraggled puppies.

I asked him for his version of what happened and his story was as vague, and unconvincing, as all the others. Luis said he didn't know why he had gotten fired, that whatever equipment was missing had been missing for a couple of months.

His wife and girl were fine, and so were the skinny dogs. He grinned nervously and seemed evasive.

The conversation started breaking up and turning awkward and I finally gave him $200 pesos and asked him to water all the trees. That's about $15 dollars. I was going to offer him more but Stew cut in and said that was more than enough. I finally told Luis we'd bring more food for the dogs on Saturday and think about hiring him to do some gardening.

I expected him to grab the wheelbarrow, load up the plastic jugs and start watering the trees right away, in a grateful burst of energy. Instead he casually visited with some of his friends in the construction crew, and finally said he'd come back on Saturday, at around 3 p.m., to do the watering.

If the gate was locked, Luis asked, was it alright if he jumped the fence? I quickly said no, that he should check with the new velador, who'd let him in. Later on I spoke to the maestro and told him to be sure the velador was around on Saturday when Luis came to water the trees.

Suddenly I don't trust this guy, and suspect he indeed stole something.

The architect showed up later and said the missing equipment was an electric tile cutter that was stored under the velador's bed.

I said I felt bad about Luis getting fired, about his wife and baby, but the architect seemed unmoved. His attitude, which had seemed callous before, now seemed sensible and prudent, coming from a guy who's worked with Mexican construction crews for about 15 years.

This is all turning to be too bad for everyone involved--wife, baby and starving animals included.


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Picture Show

Below are some recent pictures of the progress on the house, which has accelerated to warp speed, as the architect now promises delivery by mid-November. That would be a month ahead of schedule or approximately nine months from groundbreaking. "Completion" is a relative term: We're open to moving in even if the whole place isn't finished, as it surely won't be. For one thing we won't have much furniture. We'll see.

(Click on the pictures to enlarge them)

1. This is the front of the house, as you'd drive up to it. The round wall in front, approximately 6' high, will create a warmer micro-climate garden that will allow, I hope, growing tropical or subtropical plants, as a break from the desert landscape that covers the rest of the land. (There's an entrance gate by the garage door; that's another picture.) The antique roof tiles, reportedly from Oaxaca, are also a recent addition. They each weight about 10 pounds are just rest on the roof without any cement or other adhesives.

2. This is a view from the road below, which is not used by anyone and is practically impassable. We spent quite a bit of time positioning the house to maximize the views of the valley below, and making sure that they are protected from other houses to be built. That worked out pretty well, though we're still planting trees around the perimeter of the property to provide further cover.

3. A side view. The rounded silo for the shower originally was to be covered with slate. The architect picked out a really nice greenish/rust slate for the outdoor floors but we decided that to extend that to the silo would have been too much. So it is just being stuccoed, and will be painted to match other stucco outside walls.

4. The Living/Dining Room. The cathedral ceilings are high but the floor space is not quite as huge as it seems. This is the view looking toward the kitchen. We put two clerestory windows over the front doors to break up the wall space, to let additional sunlight during the winter (this is the southern exposure) and also to facilitate ventilation by letting out the hot air during the summer. We'll see how all that works in practice.

5. A screw-up with a happy solution. Though it was never clear how it happened, a screw-up in either design or construction created an ackward space where the cathedral roof was to meet the flat kitchen roof. The architect came up with this skylight idea which turned out to be pretty cool and lets additional sunlight into that corner.

6. Welcome to custom-made land. Doors and windows are not ordered in standard measurements from Home Depot or Pella Windows, but are all custom made, in this case of iron. So you get to pick the design, paint, door locks, sizes and everything that might occur to you. The finished product was of amazingly good quality in both feel and look.

At first we feared the green color might be weird (it might still be to some tastes) but we feel it worked pretty well as a contrast to dark-brown adobe finish of the outside walls. The architect originally lobbied for dark brown or black paint but that would have made the place look like a monolith.

Glass is translucent in the garage but will be clear in all other doors and windows. For security reasons, we thought of making the panes smaller or adding more cross-pieces but after a while the place starts to feel and look like a medium-security prison, so we picked this size.

7. The big bedroom turned out to be quite ample and with terrific views facing east and south.

The house will have ceramic floors, of large tiles in three different sizes arranged in an interesting pattern.

That was another good save by the architect. The house has two wings going off the main living/dining room area. The wings were supposed to go off at exact 45-degree angles, but the kitchen ended up at a 41-degree angle instead.

What's the big deal? you ask, until you start laying out ceramic tiles which would have veered off in a weird direction as you went into the kitchen. If you've ever laid down floor or wall tiles, you know exactly what the problem would be--and it wouldn't be pretty. The architect promises us we're cool with his floor pattern. We'll see.

In the bedroom we are insetting a wood floor area around the bed like an area rug, a great idea from Stew. Wood floors are warmer than tile and this will provide an interesting visual element to break up what could become a sea of ceramic tiles.

8. The view from the shower area, which for some reason remains mostly undone, compared to the rest of the house. The roof over the shower is a skylight with vent holes for the steam.

9. This is the entrance garden which remains mostly undone. The un-stuccoed space on the wall will be a wall fountain, one of those deals where the water trickles over a surface of irregular slate pieces, down to a pool at the bottom.

The architect had specified a much wider fountain, and a wall about four feet taller, both of which we nixed. The fountain would have been way too overwhelming, and the tall wall made space almost claustrophobic, not to mention blocked the view of the mountains.

A late-breaking idea is to put a gas-fueled fire pit at the curving edge of the slate-covered space in front of the entrance doors.

10. "Wanna go in the car?" has become Gladys and Lucy's favorite question. Before you even get to the question mark they're both jumping by the truck doors.


Sunday, August 9, 2009

Back in the U.S. of A.

Contrary to the dictates of reality and common sense we tried to delay the date of occupancy by the buyers of our old house so that it would more or less coincide with the completion date of our new place. The transition from old to new would flow as smoothly as a waltz.

Naturally our control-freak acrobatics didn't work. We soon realized that along with our two dogs and three cats we would have to rent a place to live for at least four months. Friends with experience in home construction in Mexico whisper the delay is more likely to be five or six months.

Luckily we spotted a rental house that was so perfect it was eerie. Too perfect.

Sitting on the back porch the day after the move, I mentioned to Stew how strangely "comfortable" the place felt.

"Yeah, it feels so... familiar," he replied, looking around the place as if searching for the solution to a puzzle.

After a while the answer came to both of us: We had just rented an American house, probably built by an American, using American plans down to the American-made doors and windows, kitchen appliances and cabinetry. Except for the dyspeptic plumbing and electrical system, there's nothing Mexican about this place.

If a helicopter plucked it off its foundations and dropped it on an empty lot in an older, middle-class neighborhood in South Florida no one there would notice any difference.

No wonder this place feels so comfortable and familiar.

Think of the set for the 80s TV show "The Golden Girls" but only on a more modest scale. You're sitting in the glass-enclosed back porch--I think in Florida they'd call it a lanai--waiting for Betty White to emerge from the living room, past the aluminum sliding-glass doors, and tell you some St. Olaf/Norwegian/Minnesota joke that would be god-awful yet hysterical.

The all-American look and feel of the place start with the almost blinding amount of interior light, coming in from windows and skylights everywhere.

Despite lush and sunny interior courtyards, many rooms in traditional Mexican houses tend to be dark and gloomy, where you have to switch the light on even at high noon. On the other hand, Mexican homes feel much warmer and inviting, particularly at night, when this type of American construction turns clammy and uncomfortable as the white ceilings appear to recede a mile over your head.

The unusually large and bright kitchen, open toward the dining and living rooms, is also very un-Mexican. Traditional Mexican homes often have what Americans would consider small, isolated kitchens. Cooking is done by a maid, usually behind a closed door. It's not the participatory event that it tends to be in the U.S., with friends and family loitering and chatting around a breakfast bar or center island while someone does the cooking.

And now, time for a San Miguel real estate agent joke. "Does the kitchen have a dishwasher? Of course it does, it's called Maria!" Ha, ha.

The vintage of the wheat-tone kitchen appliances is circa 1980--including an Amana "Free 'O Frost" refrigerator--and despite a few missing knobs, every piece works perfectly. Most amazing is the oven, which keeps perfect temperature, a vast improvement over Mexican-made stoves that came later and which feature the notorious "Mas o Menos" thermostat.

The oven in the sleek, stainless steel stove at our last place was off by 25 degrees, which had to be converted to Farenheit and then adjusted for San Miguel's altitude in case you were baking something. The results were usually "mas o menos."

The dishwasher, another beater with all-English signage, has only three wash cycles: "Light," "Normal" plus something like "Ready Next Week" for those particularly tough cleaning jobs. Newer machines have "turbidity sensors" connected to a canary-size brain that is supposed to determine how long the cycle should go on, depending on the amount of muck still sloshing around in the wash water. Mas o menos for that, too.

Most noticeably missing in this house is any notion of conservation, be it gas, water or electricity. Everything seems to run according to the former U.S. resource-management strategy of "Let 'er rip, hon! There's more where that came from!"

But even in this all-American creation beats a bit--actually two bits--of Mexico: the electric and plumbing systems. If the plumber and the electrician who rigged up this place tried to set up shop in the U.S. they'd probably be arrested for criminal incompetence.

A pressure pump tried to liven up the flow of water but the wiring is so bad the lights would dim throughout the house whenever it kicked in, which was about every 15 seconds because the pressure sensor is either shot or not set properly. The lights also dimmed whenever you got the notion to run the microwave while the "Free 'O Frost" refrigerator was purring. Refrigerator, pump and microwave running simultaneously? Don't want to go there.

Indeed, the random dimming and brightening of the lights gave the house a certain manic-depressive ambiance.

So Juan the electrician, a beefy guy who learned his trade in Atlanta, came over and checked the entrance panel. He shook his head ominously and diagnosed the problem as someone having done the wiring "with his feet," presumably instead of with his hands which would have turned out much better.

His solution was bizarre as it was effective. He unhooked all the white wires in the panel from the metal grounding bar, twisted them together, wrapped the mess with electrical tape and shoved the whole thing back in the box.

Bingo. Don't ask how that works. I don't want to know. It just does, including the pump.

Such quirks notwithstanding, this house is very comfortable, much more so than our former Mexican-style condo. Stew is right--it's just so damn familiar.

Yet you wonder why someone would go to the trouble and expense of building something so out of place, so foreign in a foreign land.

It's not a purely gringo phenomenon. In Chicago I remember walking through Mexican neighborhoods, filled with traditional brownstones or Victorian buildings, and then finding an oddball little house built by someone who clearly had an image of a Mexican rancho in mind: Spanish tiles on the roof and lots of elaborate iron work on the windows and doors, plus a small shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe in the front yard. This tableau would look particularly striking under a foot of fresh Chicago snow.

In the Polish neighborhoods on the Northwest Side of the city you found typical Chicago bungalows, each with big "picture windows" which gave passersby a peek of the treasures inside, some no doubt brought from the Old Country.

House after house would have some insanely ornate table lamp set smack in the middle of the picture window like a trophy, with crystal baubles and doodads dripping from the lamp shade and the base. If the lamp was lit, you'd also get a glimpse of a living room full of Polish baroque furniture, all neatly covered with clear plastic.

It's a home in a strange land. It may be out of place or even ugly to some, but it's comfortable and familiar to those who live there.

We asked the Mexican owners of our rental if they knew the people who built it. They were Americans alright, but from Las Vegas not Florida.

Las Vegas is a place I've never been to but which after living in this house I feel a bit familiar with.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Ave Maria

Can't tell you a heck of a lot about Luis the velador, or watchman, at the construction site. He's a man of very few words indeed at least when he's talking to his gringo patrones. Questions make him only more fidgety and tongue-tied.

One early morning Stew and I showed up unannounced as Luis and his wife were coming out of the tar-paper shack that doubles as a storage shed and guardhouse, everyone groggy, hair a mess. His wife was carrying a tiny baby. The baby was all gurgles and smiles and had a head of thick, curly, jet-black hair so resplendent it almost looked artificial.

I asked the baby's name, and after an awkward pause--what is he afraid of? I wondered--Luis said "María." How old? About two months old. She was a gorgeous baby and we congratulated the couple.

Stew and I were taken aback and fascinated by the tiny girl, certainly an unexpected overnight guest at the property. We knew that Luis' wife spent the night at the shack occasionally, but couldn't have imagined a newborn staying there too.

A shack is all it is, about 20-by-20 feet, most of it taken up with cement bags, wheelbarrows and construction tools. The tar-paper walls and roof were supplemented with corrugated metal panels above when the rainy season began, though light still filters through numerous holes and so must the rain.

What passes for a bed is an 8-by-10-foot sheet of plywood laid on top of two workhorses improvised from various pieces of scrap lumber. A pile of wool blankets offers some minimal cushion and protection from the cold. Luis' backpack seems to double as a pillow.

By the door of the shack Luis has one of those plastic chairs ubiquitous throughout the known world and in front of that there's a small hole in the ground where he apparently does some cooking using scrap wood for fuel. When we visit, our dogs promptly vacuum up any singed tortilla pieces still lying around.

The security strategy in our property always seemed a little porous. You have Luis, a 20-something that must weigh all of 120 pounds. With a peach-fuzz moustache that'll never amount to much, and a shy smile, Luis is no Pancho Villa either in appearance or attitude.

The second line of defense are his four dogs, all of them mutts. The two adults bark perfunctorily when they see someone they don't recognize. The other two are scrawny puppies that yip only occasionally and from a safe distance. The first pair of puppies Luis had when he started his stint at our property in February were poisoned, he said, so these are new recruits.

Luis doesn't have a gun (that I know of), and it's unclear what he and his motley K-9 squad would do if someone broke through the fence and tried to steal the electric generator at 2 a.m.

I guess it's the presence of a body there that makes all the difference.

Luis' shift is sundown to sunup daily, which seems like an awful lot of time to kill doing basically nothing. There is no electricity and thus no TV or radio. We find him playing games on his cell phone or sitting on the highest point in the property--now the ridge of the roof over the living/dining room--and looking at the landscape through an old pair of binoculars.

About four months ago, Luis didn't show up and a scraggly, older guy I wouldn't normally trust to guard a sandwich took over as velador. Luis' wife was having a baby, the new guy explained, daily, for almost two weeks. Toward the end I kept asking if there were some problems but he assured me there weren't.

Finally, an unusually lively and grinning Luis returned and announced the good news. It was a girl and everyone was OK.

No experts in baby-showering, Stew and I went to the store and bought what we thought were sensible gifts for a new family with probably very close to nothing aside from the new baby. We bought disposable diapers, a tiny bib, a pacifier, and some sort of a flowery outfit that was probably way too big for Maria. She's beautiful and healthy but small.

So I thought of photographs, since the family most likely had no money left for a series of baby pictures. Luis seemed taken aback by my offer. Maria already had had her picture taken at her baptism, he said. I countered there can never be too many pictures of a baby.

So he finally agreed and on a Saturday morning we gathered at Rancho Santa Clara. He wanted the now verdant landscape, the same he gazes at endlessly through his binoculars, as the background of the photo.

He showed up in his usual hip-hop outfit of long shorts sliding halfway down his ass, a striped nylon tee and a baseball cap cocked sideways. I counseled that the cap might create shadows, not wanting to tell him that it really made him look like less than a fully engaged new dad.

Luis never loosened up or cracked a full smile, choosing instead to grin and clumsily hold Maria like you'd hold a bag of groceries. Luis' wife, on the other hand, seemed full of life and joyful with her new role.

I left an envelope with a series of prints at the site with the maestro.

Never heard anything from Luis and finally a week later I asked if he had received the envelope. He had. How did he like them? "They were OK."

I hope María grows into more a yakker than her dad.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Landscaping dreams

Encircled with police-type yellow tape, my gardens right now probably look more like crime scenes. The only thing missing is the chalk outline on the ground of some unknown stiff.

Actually if you look at the gardens up close they are not that bad at all. This morning Stew and I (and Lucy and Gladys, traveling mutts extraordinare) visited the place and indeed the bones of a landscape scheme clearly are starting to emerge.

The three challenges I faced, and which no amount of reading of glossy gardening books seemed to resolve, were rocks, sheer expanse and erosion. Rocks we've talked about before; particularly in the dead of winter they give the land a lunar appearance.

Size also complicated things, sometimes making any gardening vision almost impossible at least for my untrained eye. Where do you start? It's not the 25 by 25 foot backyard we had in Chicago, but seven and a half acres, surrounded by farm fields and mountains. There aren't many trees either to help define boundaries or provide perspective. Even if we could air-drop dozens of 15-foot trees, they'd become specks against such a vast backdrop.

The final problem is erosion. It carries the water and soil toward the lower third of the property, which is almost lush green compared to the top where the house sits and where I'm trying to plant some gardens.

Out of these three problems we came up with what we think is a clever yet obvious solution--terracing. It gives us something to do with the thousands of rocks everywhere, though they seem to be procreating: For every one rock we dig up, three more appear.

I hope these semi-circle terraces of rocks also will help slow down the avalanche of water and dirt rolling down the hill. After a while the terraces may trap some soil where we could grow some wildflowers.

The terraces also created relatively confined spaces with one or two anchor shrubs or cacti which make it easier to mix and match plants, their textures, sizes etc.

We've hired two young guys, Ivan and Félix, who look sometimes to be engaged in some sort of Sisyphean labor, digging up and moving rocks, covering up the holes left behind, making piles, moving the piles, and over again. Their work and sweat are obvious but visible results often elusive.

I asked Felix, about 20 years old and who lives in a nearby rockpile of a village called Sasnovar, where I could get some organ cacti. I warned him I didn't want any "hot" cacti uprooted from someone's land. No problem. He and his tiny, hunched-over mother (grandmother?) went to work on their backyard with a machete and quickly produced 25, six-foot lengths of cacti for $10 pesos or 75 U.S. cents each.

Took the organs to the ranch where I leaned them against a wall. Actually you're supposed to lay them down until the wound dries up, about a week, when they are then ready to be planted.

Buying trees from the local nurseries is frustrating unless you find a knowledgeable and honest person in charge. A local joke is that if you go into a nursery and ask whether a particular shrub takes sun or shade, the usual answer is "¡Sí!" The person you are talking with either doesn't know the cultural requirements or they will tell you whatever you want to hear to sell you the damn thing.

Aside from the 25 organ cacti, we've bought several agaves, including some variegated beauties, plus we have planted several that we had in pots in our current house. (The sale contract stipulates the buyers get all the plants except the cacti and the succulents.) We also have three cypresses, pencil-skinny and tall, rocking merrily in the constant breeze, a níspero tree (called Japanese loquat in the U.S.) and which produces a delicious fruit I used to eat in Cuba as a child (but whose flavor I can't remember). Some ornamental grasses, pennisetum and blue fescue, plus the wild card, thousands of wild flower seeds Stew and I collected last fall and scattered about a month ago. Also three bottle-brush bushes (very common along the highway medians in San Miguel) and a pata de vaca tree (it translates as "cow's foot" though I couldn't find any English name for it). The latter has floppy leaves that indeed look like the outline of a cow's foot though they are generally folded in half.

On my shopping list is an olive tree (they seem to thrive in San Miguel's poor soil) plus some citrus and fruit trees. It gets quite cold in Rancho Santa Clara, dipping as low as 30 degrees in the winter, but the really problematic factor is the constant wind which sucks the moisture out of the soil and the leaves of plants.

Difficult as it may be the next step in my landscaping blitz is to stop. Ivan and Félix will continue gathering rocks, making terraces and planting organ cacti for a few more weeks. But until the house is much closer to finished, the grounds relatively clean--and the sightlines better defined--any more tree-planting will just have to wait.