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.