Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Non-Hurricane

Today we readied ourselves for category Four Hurricane "John", which was predicted to skirt Puerto Vallarta around 1 pm with 78-157 MPH winds and up to 24 inches of rain. So we waited. And we waited. Finally, we got tired of waiting, and around 3 pm, we took a walk down to the beach. The top picture shows what we saw. No people. No big waves. No hurricane. The bay is usually full of "pangas" or small fishing boats. None were in the water. Just a light rain. So we got in the truck and drove downtown. PV's famed Malecon was also pretty deserted - the only other vehicle (to the left) was a "policia transito" or traffic police vehicle. Most of the businesses were boarded or taped. (Plywood is a rare commodity here - where did they get that plywood???)

CNN and MSNBC continued to report that Puerto Vallarta was being "ravaged" by Hurricane John. C'mon guys - get it right! Eventually, these stories disappeared from their web pages as they finally figured out that they were inaccurate.

We were lucky. We did not have to live through our first hurricane this day.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Other Side of the Coin

We had a really good day today. And, we had a really good day yesterday. And the day before. The house is progressing well, as you can see from the pictures. The top picture shows Beto (equivalent of "Bob" in Spanish) mixing cement for the wall - this is the way ALL cement is mixed here except for huge commercial jobs. There is no magic formula - they just add sand, powdered cement, gravel and water , then mix it with a shovel until it is just right. For finer jobs, like the kitchen shelves and counters, they mix it differently, of course (no gravel!) and even sift the sand and cement through a screen. It is pretty amazing.

The second picture is our palette for the inside of the house - gold, coral orange and blue for the kitchen, green and watermelon for the bedroom, aqua for the living room. Lots of beautiful color!

The third picture shows Bernardo putting some finishing touches on the cement countertops. Notice how nice the shelves look! The counters are polished tinted cement - they are really beautiful. When we left today, Herman was getting ready to start the tiling - oh boy!

The bottom picture is one of the plumeria bushes in the yard - aren't they lovely?

We spent the day at the house today, observing the amazing progress. Manuel was laying the tiles on the bathroom floor while we were there, Pedro and Alejandro were finishing the side wall, Herman was getting all the walls ready to paint. Jerry felt a little restless and prowled around, watching and learning about Mexican construction methods - he is not used to standing by and watching someone else work on his house. So he lent a hand here and there, steadying a board that needed to be cut and trimming trees.

I mostly sat in the shade of the big mimosa tree, watching the many birds and butterflies and hoping for a glimpse of the iguanas. It is very quiet here - much different from where we are living in Puerto Vallarta, where there is lots of noise all around us. We have only four houses on our whole street. I can hear children from the next street playing, distant traffic on the carretera a few blocks away, and birds singing. Pedro (just like Jerry) is whistling as he works and Herman likes to sing.

Tomorrow, we plan to paint the bedroom, but the weather may interfere. A Class 4 hurricane (John) is making its way up the western coast of Mexico and will reach the Vallarta area about 1 pm tomorrow. If it doesn't change course, it will be centered about 50 miles offshore, so is likely only to give us lots and lots of rain. But the airport is already closed and the Wednesday cruise ship did not appear today, so it is being taken seriously. We will likely stay put tomorrow until we see what is happening.

We have been doing some real power shopping - Monday we bought a new mattress and bed frame, washer and dryer, refrigerator, bookcase and a cabinet for the kitchen that holds the water bottles. Yesterday, we bought a great floor lamp that is actually a handcrafted tin mask, two beautiful tin mirrors for the bathrooms, a 300 liter propane tank and an equipal dining room table and chairs. To see what that looks like, go to Today, we got faucets for the kitchen and bathrooms, a microwave oven, pretty new dishes and nice trash receptacles for the kitchen and bathroom. Wow - that is some real power shopping, even for me. Jerry is holding up great.

I'll come back and report on the hurricane in a few days.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Living in Mexico - getting it right

Before we began this adventure, we read everything we could get our hands and eyes on to prepare us. Probably the best book we read was “Head for Mexico” by Don Adams. You can buy it on Amazon, and if you have any desires at all to follow in our footsteps, you should get a copy and read it at least five times. Don’s message from the beginning is that “Mexico is not for everyone.” You need to have a sense of adventure. Obviously. You cannot be obsessive-compulsive about neatness, punctuality or living an orderly life. You must be patient. That one bears repeating – YOU MUST BE PATIENT. As he points out continually, there is a vast difference between being a tourist in Mexico and living here full time.

OK – we read it all and said to ourselves and each other, “Of course. We understand that.” But there is no way to understand it until you experience it. Primarily because of the language barrier and the cultural differences, conducting day-to-day business becomes a real challenge. Every day.

For example, we have learned that the previous owner of our house did not seek and receive any building permits to build the house. This means that when Manuel (our contractor) goes to the municipal office to seek permits to build the second story, the clerk will look at the file on our property and say “But there is no house there to build on to.” What would happen next is anyone’s guess. Perhaps we would have to pay the delinquent permit fees (at $120 MXP per square meter, that would be $10,800 MXP, or about a thousand dollars). But wait, there’s more! We might also have to pay fines and penalties of an as-yet-undetermined amount. It also could mean that the rather modest property tax of about $35 per year would be re-assessed for the past ten years and we (as the current owners of the house) would have to pay the difference.

Fortunately, we have a good lawyer (we think). His name is Sergio Santana, and for less than $500, he will prepare a packet for the municipal officials which shows that the house was already built when we bought the property (this requires lots of pictures). He will make several trips to Valle de Banderas, the equivalent of the county seat, and maybe one to the state capitol in Tepic to convince the officials that we do not owe the past penalties or the original fees. How he will do this is too complicated to explain here. Then he will assist in getting the appropriate permits to build the second story.

This is not a catastrophic or even an unusual situation. It happens all the time, and must be taken in stride. But it was unexpected. And it illustrates one of the other points Don Adams makes in his book – expect the unexpected. Always.

These unexpected events, in varying degrees of magnitude, occur just about every day. Jerry and I are both good problem-solvers, but we lack the necessary cultural tools and language skills to make the right choices in many cases. So we rely on new friends to help us. We have been very lucky in that regard.

So why are we here? And why do we stay here? At the end of a long, hot and humid day, when we have made two trips back and forth between Vallarta and Bucerias (40 minutes each way) to get copies of documents or pick up an item that is needed right now, we do get a little weary. The feelings of helplessness or frustration in not being able to express needs or wants can be quite overwhelming, something we could not possibly have appreciated ahead of time. The internet chatter and forums make it look easy, seamless. Big shock for some, upon arrival and believe it or not, many folks move here and are quite indignant that English isn't widely spoken.

But where else can you fall asleep at night to the sound of geckos chirping? Wake up to the bluest sky you ever saw? Paint your house any color you want? Never worry about heating bills? Pick limes, bananas and orchids from your back yard? Experience a smile and a cheerful greeting from everyone you pass on the street? Eat fresh, ripe mangoes every day? Buy the most delicious taco you ever ate from a smiling vendor on the street corner for five pesos (45 cents)? Accompanied by a glass of cold watermelon juice? Experience thunder and lightning so intense that it sets off every car alarm in the neighborhood? Then feel the rush of coolness from the rain showers that make everything fresh again and turn the surrounding jungle (jungle!) an unimaginable variety of green hues? Feel completely safe from gangs, road rage and random gunfire? Receive excellent health care from a caring and compassionate doctor for about a tenth of the price US?

We’re staying right where we are.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

More progress, more pictures

Top picture - the wall is getting a coat of "cal" or whitewash.
Second picture - our talented contractor Manuel, who speaks very good English.
Third & fourth - open shelves being built in the kitchen of (what else?) cement.

Today, Jerry and I spent the day shopping for new ceiling fans (bought three - one for the living room, one for the kitchen and one for the bedroom) and a new kitchen sink. We looked at five places before we found fans that were (1) affordable and (2) that we liked. Choosing a new sink is difficult. Almost all of the sinks here are stainless steel - there are NONE in porcelain and only a few selections in fiberglas/PVC. Double sinks are very rare. The most expensive and attractive choice is copper - crafted by hand in the state of Michoacan. We went to three different places to look at copper sinks today. We found one we like (and can afford - barely), but need to measure to see if it will fit. You can see how beautiful they are at: Of course, we are attempting our fledgling Spanish, but can't communicate very well beyond "How much is that? (Cuanto cuesta?)" Then we have to listen very closely for the answer..."Tres mil y doscientos ochenta" ($3,280 MXP) goes by fast and takes some careful attention. "Does it come in white?" or "Are those lightbulbs easy to replace?" are way beyond us. Next is lighting....

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Work has begun...

Lots of activity at our new house! It's good to have plenty of "before"pictures, but bear in mind that things are changing fast. Our contractor Manuel has hired a full crew to completely re-wire the house (it had ONE circuit and got its electricity from a neighbor by extension cord!), build the wall and rebuild the kitchen...the pictures above also show Jerry with his new fifty peso ($4.45) Mexican haircut - that's upper left. Top right shows a portion of the new wall, along with a stack of bricks for building the rest of the wall. Right under Jerry is Alfredo building my new kitchen counter - everything is built of bricks and concrete, even the kitchen shelves. This kitchen will be beautiful - we have chosen a variety of colorful Talavera tiles. Next is another picture of the wall...note that the concrete bricks have been covered with cement. Then, the wall will be painted. A lovely arched blue iron gate will span the center. On the right is Pedro, the Maestro mason, covering the wall with cement. He uses a very skilled technique where he throws the cement on the wall with a trowel, hardly wasting a drop as he flicks his wrist. Bottom left shows the trench for the wall in the backyard being dug...unfortunately, they encountered the septic drain field, but they seem pretty cheerful. That must be why that lime tree grows such big limes!

We are very busy every day now, buying appliances, toilets and furniture, getting building supplies for Manuel and conferring with him about choices to be made. We actually plan to move in on the 31st of August. The house won't be done, but we will make the best of it...Manuel hopes to have the downstairs ready for us, but will start consturction of the second story after we move in. Some chaos for a month or so, but it will be worth it.

One of the best bonuses this week is our discovery of two beautiful giant green iguanas living in our large mimosa tree. They are about 3 feet long and we could hear their feet slapping on the limbs of the trees as they climbed. Fortunately, they are herbivorous and won't eat the cats. But the cats have certainly never seen anything like them and may be a bit surprised!

Friday, August 04, 2006

Necesitamos hablar espanol....

We have been fortunate to find a Spanish school here in Vallarta that uses a method especially tailored for "mature" learners. Three hours a day, three days week for three weeks - and we just finished our second week. Let's see...I have learned to say "Do you want to play more tennis? (Quiere jugar mas tenis?)" That may not prove to be so useful, but I have also learned to say "I need to think about it a little more ("Necesito pensarlo un poco mas)" and "Can you understand me? (Puede entenderme?)" And especially, "We need to learn more Spanish, (Necesitamos aprender mas espanol)" And don't forget "necesito usar el bano."

The truth is, we are living in a country whose people speak a language that we do not understand - and simply conducting basic business from day to day is a real challenge. Things like opening a bank account, paying the cable bill, buying paint for our new house and getting our truck insured become projects that could be accomplished so much easier if we spoke the language.

Of course, there are some cautions involved here. If you start trying out your Spanish before you really know what you're doing, you could end up saying things like: "Es regalo de queso. (It is a gift of cheese.)" or "Alto! ¡Yo soy plomero! (Stop! I am a plumber!)" A waitress got quite a laugh when I explained that I would order for "mi esposa." (Esposa is "wife" and ESPOSO is "husband.") Oh well, the people we encounter have all been encouraging and patient with our attempts to speak their language, and we have to keep saying that we "hablamos espanol un poco." Hopefully, that will change soon.