Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Day's Hard Work

According to a newswire story just a few days ago, Mexico's unemployment rate had "spiked" to 5 percent in January 2009. That is still almost three percentage points lower than the latest national jobless figures for the United States. Indeed, in some specific U.S. markets like Oregon, unemployment approaches 10 percent.

More incredibly, two years ago one chamber of commerce-sounding source on the Internet trumpeted that the state of Guanajuato, where we live and are building our house, had one of the lowest unemployment rates in all of Mexico.

Don't tell any of that to the dozens of men, a few teenagers among them, who keep showing up at our construction site every day looking for work. They'd find such statistics both laughable and infuriating, increasingly so as the economies of Mexico and the U.S. continue to deteriorate, and more illegal immigrants return home after their jobs disappear.

Early morning January 19 Stew and I went to the land to water the trees we had planted and found approximately 15 men and their bicycles leaning against the fence. At first we ignored them--were they waiting for someone else?--but then we realized there was no one else there.

I finally approached one who explained that they were looking for chamba, Mexican slang for a "gig" or any type of work.

Who had sent them? It seems that two or three weeks before I had mentioned to another guy working at a nearby construction site that we planned to break ground on January 19. The word spread and those 15 guys evidently circled the date on their calendars.

I had to send them away, apologetically explaining that the project had been delayed for two weeks. They punctually came back when we finally started.

We are on the fourth week of construction, and as many as a dozen men from the neighboring hamlet of La Biznaga now work on our project. The maestro or foreman, does the hiring.

The crew includes a velador, or watchman, in his early 20s, who spends nights and weekends on the site, and sleeps on a wooden platform inside a tar paper bodega or storage shed. He brings along a team of five mutts, including two four-month-old puppies, which are hardly vicious though they bark nervously at anything or anyone not to their liking.

The velador stands guard at the bodega.

One of his guard puppies

Aside from a pile of blankets, minimal cooking utensils and a transistor radio, there are hardly any signs of human habitation in the bodega, much less creature comforts, even though at this time of year the temperature can still drop to the low 30s.

I don't know what the mild-mannered velador or his canine crew would do if someone indeed tried to walk off with some tools or a bag of cement, other than make noise to try scare away the intruder.

The work at our site can be very tough, though our architect uses a surprising number of power tools. At many, if not most, work sites around San Miguel the only tools seem to be picks, shovels, sweat and muscle.

Cement, that central ingredient of construction around here, where wood is very scarce, is typically mixed by hand in small mounds and lugged to its destination in five-gallon plastic buckets. Pouring a concrete roof requires a makeshift wooden ramp for the workers walking up and down with the buckets full of cement on their shoulders.

Hundreds of buckets. Each one must weigh, I imagine, at least 50 pounds. Lift the bucket off the ground, swing it artfully on the air so that it lands on your shoulder and then go up the ramp. And down the ramp. Eight hours a day in the blazing sun.

Or busting up rocks down to usable size with a sledgehammer and chisel. Digging holes in desert soil almost as hard as rock. Moving all the pieces around the site.

Working on the cistern that will hold rainwater.

Of course, tough manual labor, usually for very little money, is part of the human condition. Hot-tarring roofs in Chicago in mid-July must feel like a preview of hell, even if the workers at least get paid $25 or so an hour (probably not nowadays, with the half-dead economy, especially the construction sector).

Yet it is almost painful to watch this closely, particularly when it's all becoming part of your home. Looking down into the pit that will become our cistern for collecting rain water, where a half-dozen guys labor, it can look a bit like a Mayan public works project.

Our crew is surprisingly mechanized: Gasoline-powered ground compactors; backhoes with special attachments to chisel through the rock; a miniature steam roller to further pack the ground; plus cement trucks with snorkels that will pour the floors and the roofs.

The energy of the workers reminds us daily of the unfair stereotype of the lazy Mexican, immortalized in cheap lawn ornaments depicting a guy hunched over his knees, napping, under a huge sombrero. These guys are anything but nappers.

Instead, when lunchtime rolls around most of them hop over to an open field next door for a blood-pumping round of soccer. Along with the construction tools, the bodega hides five or six soccer balls.

If I had to work as hard as them I wouldn't have the strength left to lift a soccer ball, much less kick it around for an hour, while running.

As if to snap me out from my morbid musings about hard labor, Stew one day wondered out loud how much money our modest construction budget brings to La Biznaga. Probably more than any one single source has for a long time.

La Biznaga couldn't have more than a few hundred residents. There is no design whatsoever to the town, which lies at the end of a path so rutted that it must become impassable during the rainy season. The small houses are sprinkled about as if they had fallen out of the sky randomly, like a meteor shower. The only signs of planning or forethought are a small dam and reservoir which seem to have fallen into disrepair, and a brightly painted, one-room school building perched on a high rocky point, like a monument.

On one side of the town there is a tiny church that couldn't hold more than 25 people, though I have never seen the inside.

There are no signs of economic activity in La Biznaga, except an occasional flatbed truck selling household odds and ends or people walking to the main road to catch a bus, presumably to a job in San Miguel, about 20 minutes away. A government vehicle also comes around monthly, to distribute what I have been told is some sort of financial stipend for the elderly.

The closest La Biznaga comes to a hubbub or any public excitement are soccer games at an open field to the left of the main entrance to town. It can attract close to a hundred people, mostly men, who grow louder as the game goes on and the beer flows.

When it's Stew's turn to comment about the poverty, I remind him about my travels through Haiti, Honduras and Nicaragua. Grim as it is, La Biznaga at least has water, electricity, a school and a nearby road with regular bus service. Not so bad for the Third World.

La Biznaga is a totally different world from what we are used to in the U.S. yet in some respects not that far away. Some of the men speak some form of English, which reveals they've spent some time working Up North. Filemón, a very shy, 30-something laborer working on another house construction project, recently mentioned he had worked in the U.S., which explains his English. Others won't volunteer that much except it's easy to tell when you are speaking English and someone is attentively following the conversation.

The states of Guanajuato and neighboring Michoacan are two of Mexico's highest exporters of workers to the U.S. Fifteen years ago, when I was still working for a newspaper, I visited a couple of backwater towns in Michoacan and remarked about the overwhelming presence of women and children in the population. Someone politely explained that the majority of the men had gone to the U.S. to work, many of them in the Chicago area.

There are no hard figures--current, reliable government data are rare in Mexico--but today you often hear about the plight of workers who are flocking back to Mexico because their chambas in the U.S. have vanished. There have also been reports of a dramatic drop in remittances from the U.S., one of Mexico's chief sources of foreign exchange, either because workers have less money to send or are no longer employed.

One ominous sign of this return movement of workers came last week when an American was forced to surrender his vehicle at gunpoint by a young Mexican guy who spoke perfect English. He was apprehended shortly; a shiny, late-model Lexus SUV with Texas plates proved too conspicuous for a getaway vehicle. It's not clear yet, but bets are the carjacker had returned recently from the States and was financially desperate enough to pull such an idiotic stunt.

Also squeezing the locals is the plummeting value of the peso, down by approximately 50 percent against the dollar during the past six months, as the global economic crisis spreads. Although some locally produced goods are not affected, the prices of many items in grocery stores have risen dramatically.

So hard labor and all, construction of our house may be prove a small boost to the Biznaga economy after all.

Rain won't come for at least another four months, but the cacti already are flowering.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Off the ground

It looked and felt like an apparition. After almost three years of watching our house plans stumble over endless obstacles and delays--architects, legal problems, squabbling neighbors, plus the occasional waffling and changes of mind on our part--on February 10 we actually broke ground.

We showed up at the land early in the morning and a brand-new, orange backhoe was scratching the ground, while a crew of about six men scampered about marking the ground with chalk lines, pounding wooden posts and then connecting them with string as if they were spiders constructing a web. Shortly afterward, the first of a dozen dump trucks filled with tepetate, a dense type of dirt used to pave rural roads around here, appeared and started dumping its load by the gate.

There's maestro or construction foreman at the project. He's in his mid-30s, and alternates between a shy smile and gentle affect and giving brisk directions and changes to the rest of the crew. He keeps unfurling a copy of the plans that, on this very first day of construction, already is crumpled and covered with dirt.

Shortly afterward the architect arrived, a lanky guy in his 40s, with a multi-ethnic background that allows him to speak perfect English.

Also at the site we found an assistant architech wearing a giant floppy Mexican hat that looked like one of those creations tourists buy at the airport in Acapulco or Puerto Vallarta on the way home, but without the fancy sequins and decorations. He kept one hand on to the hat to keep it from blowing away.

(One thing gringos discover shortly after moving to San Miguel is that wearing a hat is not merely a fashion statement. The city's lower latitude combined with the high altitude, make the sun particularly scorching. Local dermatologists have secure lifetime income streams treating fair-skinned expats for skin cancers and other problems caused by sunburns.)

I don't know what we expected. More planning, discussion and cogitation? Unforeseen problems and delays? My first reaction was to say, "Hey, wait a minute, shouldn't we discuss this a little more? We're moving too fast!"

But instead the workers purposefully paced around the backhoe, looking like Martians who had just descended from their spaceship and were settling in for a long stay.

The initial surprise quickly gave way to exhilaration--it's actually happening!--as we saw the chalk markings on the ground align with the spectacular views of the countryside beyond, and we could begin to see, not just imagine, how beautiful this house will be.

Of course, there's always something to worry about. When we saw the chalk marks on the ground--living/dining room, study, bedroom, etc.--the house seemed to have turned into a munchkin chalet. The living/dining room looked particularly tiny, and the bedroom also not big enough to accommodate two cots. The garage, on the other hand, seemed big enough for a B-52.

While looking at the plans, before breaking ground, we had double- and triple-checked the measurements to be sure they were adequate. Neither Stew nor I can readily visualize what 600 sq. ft. looks like, so we had to compare the measurements in the plans with the size of the rooms in the house where live now. Do we want bigger or smaller than what we have now?

Adding to the confusion was our unfamiliarity with the metric system, which meant all the measurements on the plans had to be converted to linear and square feet, and back again.

The architect also had warned us to be sure that the plans reflected what we wanted. It's easy to move an electrical outlet or a window, but foundations--the matter at hand--were a different story.

Changes of mind would be costly and time-consuming.

We remembered the story of two guys who were building a house at a subdivision outside of San Miguel and who realized, after the builder already had started to pour the foundations, that the main bedroom wasn't big enough to accommodate their bed, a behemoth known as a "California King Size Bed." So it came down to a choice between ditching the bed or redoing some of the foundations. The bed won but at a cost, we're sure, of quite a few bucks.

The day after breaking ground, we came back with our own tape measure and plans. The maestro, noticing our concern, patiently went through all the measurements for every room. Werner explained that it's a common optical illusion for owners to suddenly feel every room and closet is way too small. He reassured us that our house was no Gatsby mansion, but that every room was "generous" in size.

Everything seems fine, except the land itself. The 7.5 acres, as far as we know, had never been farmed or disturbed, except for livestock munching on every blade of vegetation down to its final inch. The only plants not touched by animals were cacti, mostly of the prickly pear variety, and gnarled huizaches and small mesquites who had managed to survive on this rocky, almost moon-like terrain.

To see the backhoe going back and forth, digging trenches and otherwise scarring the land somehow was, initially, upsetting. Then Stew reminded me that the ground was seriously eroded and it would be far better off under our management.

I asked the maestro to tell the backhoe operator to avoid mashing or uprooting plants unnecessarily, and to dig up and put aside those that are on the way for replanting later on. We went out of town for a week; we're eager to see how far construction got in that time.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

It's Not Easy, or Inexpensive, Being Green

Building in the country will force us to revisit assumptions and calculations about how much we are willing to pay for a so-called green or sustainable home.

Hey man, using photovoltaic cells or wind turbines to generate your own electricity sounds awesomely cool and progressive, doesn't it?

Maybe so, but when you get an estimate of $25,000 or more to install a medium-capacity system, your enthusiasm turns into a 10-second pause, followed by a "hmmm."

In the case of Rancho Santa Clara, electric generation is only part of the expense. We need to build a very large cistern for rain collection to back up spotty water service from a community well; satellite TV service (there's no cable) and satellite Internet service (there are no land-line phones). The last two are not exactly energy savers but the result of living off-grid.

To that add a solar water heater; costlier plumbing fixtures such as dual-flush toilets to save water; two on-demand water heaters at each end of the house to back up the solar system; and state-of-the-art appliances to conserve electricity, propane and scarce water.

Should we install double-glazed windows, which cost twice as much as regular wrought iron windows commonly used in Mexico, in order to save heating fuel? A considerably more expensive baseboard heating system instead of the fumey and highly inefficient fake fireplace logs used in most homes?

At this point, I'd like to paraphrase the late Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen's quip about federal spending: "A thousand here and a thousand there, and pretty soon you're talking real money." (Dirksen was talking billions of dollars.)

Your private crusade to reduce your home's "carbon footprint" suddenly gets expensive, perhaps alarmingly so. Something's got to go.

Indeed, a top-of-the-head estimate suggests that all this energy-saving whiz-bang may add as much as 25 percent to the cost of building Rancho Santa Clara.

On second thought, better make that a 20-second pause and a double "hmmm."

Except for a few items, most notably solar panels for electricity and a rainwater catchment setup, most of these decisions are yet to be made. But we've tried to develop a system for dealing with these options somewhat rationally, using three considerations.

First, is it necessary?

Second, is it cost effective, that is, is the investment likely to pay off within, say, ten years?

The final vector is admittedly the fuzziest. I'll call it "eco-virtue", that warm feeling you get from doing your share to combat (pick one or all) global warming, vanishing rain forests, depletion of natural resources or other looming environmental calamity. You do it because you feel you should.

Generating our own electricity and collecting rainwater easily qualify as necessities. There's no electric service to the ranch and we have no faith that the community well system is going to supply us with water in the long term. Baseboard heating also may qualify: Both Stew and I are allergic to the gas fumes from the ventless gas fireplaces used here.

A solar water heating system, on the other hand, doesn't really qualify as essential. We could do just fine with a cheapo propane water heater and forget solar and/or the two on-demand water heating units.

But depending on the cost of the unit, solar water heating may pass the payback test. We've heard of solar water heating rigs going for as little as $3,000 or as much as $8,000. We now probably pay around $30 a month for propane for water heating--it's hard to segregate the exact cost--or $360 a year.

If we spend $4,000 for a solar system it likely would pay for itself in ten years, especially since the price of propane in Mexico will continue to increase yearly. There's also a possibility (we've heard different stories) that a solar water heater could feed into a baseboard hot water system, saving a bit more propane and money.

Any system based on solar energy is a no-brainer in San Miguel, where a full day without sunshine is rare.

Things getting iffier regarding a decision to install double-glazed windows and doors. The standard in San Miguel are custom-made wrought iron units that are usually drafty and let in the dust during the dry season. The green choice clearly is double-glazed windows but they are twice as expensive as the conventional wrought iron models, or as much as $20,000 for a house full of them, according to a guesstimate by the architect.

Are we going to save $10,000 in heating costs over ten years? Doubtful. But there's the comfort factor of airtight windows during the winter plus no maintenance. How much is that worth? We'll find out in a few months and decide.

Then there's eco-virtue, that satisfying, even a tad smug, feeling you get from doing your share to protect the environment.

In San Miguel's expat community, the breezes of eco-virtue perhaps blow a little more strongly than in other places.

For one thing, Mexico may be 20 years behind the U.S. in environmental laws and public awareness. Glaring environmental problems such open sewers and mountains of garbage are not distant history but recurrent sights that shock foreigners no matter how long they've lived here.

Among American retirees, many of them of a liberal, even hippie-dippy bent, eco-virtue can become a competitive sport too, as in "my compost pile is bigger than yours" and "I recycle gray water, so why don't you?" Retirement, and all the free time it brings, no doubt facilitates the pursuit of environmental correctness.

At least one "permaculture" community several miles outside of San Miguel, and populated mostly by Americans, has reportedly imploded largely because of the ecological fundamentalism of some of its members and the resulting infighting.

For those not familiar with the term, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines permaculture as "an agricultural system or method that seeks to integrate human activity with natural surroundings so as to create highly efficient self-sustaining ecosystems."

At the permaculture colony we visited, serious debates would flare among the residents over someone's plans to add a second story to their house, bring in a telephone line or an electric connection or even an exterior paint job considered too jarring. What is considered "sustainable"? How many trees must each resident plant? Of what kind? Can the buzz from an overhead electric line harm one's brain? Should composting toilets be mandatory? What's wrong with conventional septic tanks anyway? Who knows? Who decides? Who cares?

In our case, Stew and I have opted for pragmatism: We'll do the most we can but within the strictures of budgets and common sense.

For example, we plan to spend a bit more on a new generation septic system that recycles all the home's gray and black water and turns into water that can be used for landscape irrigation.

That rules out composting toilets--sawdust, pitchfork and all--which we consider disagreeable and downright medieval.

As more houses go up around Rancho Santa Clara, so far all of them built by Americans, a healthy pragmatism is emerging. Two houses were built with conventional red brick and cement; one with a new type of aerated cement blocks; another with recycled field rocks and the new blocks. A young couple from New York has mentioned they'd like to use rammed earth construction.

Our house is likely to use adobe blocks, and so far we are the only ones talking about using solar electric panels. Other homeowners have signed up with Mexico's government-owned electric utility, one saying that solar was just too expensive and complicated.

So be it.

Whatever green features our home eventually includes, just thinking about them has altered how we, two individuals, view our relationship to the environment. Unlike living in a condo or a house in Chicago where the provision of such necessities are taken for granted, at Rancho Santa Clara we have to consider even the most basic elements of nature and survival--the sun, the wind, the ground and particularly water, whether it comes from the sky as rainfall or from a hole in San Miguel's desert ground.