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.