mexico


Okay, I confess, a crappy month at work and the cynic in me takes the wheel (and drives around bitching about the traffic).  But today is a new month and I was thinking more about Randy Pausch and his list of childhood dreams (all but one accomplished) and my list which just pointed out that I’m a frustrated artist trapped in the corporate world.  But there are things that I wanted to do as a child that I have accomplished, though not in the same straight-line way as Randy.

For instance, I loved reading National Geographic and wanted to travel in the wilderness and live the outdoor life.  I also wanted to be a psychologist.  When I was 30, I spent a year doing wilderness expeditions with disruptive adolescents.  It was one of the most amazing times of my life and a perfect combination of those two childhood dreams.  We spent 3 weeks in the high-desert of south-central Idaho with each group of kids, teaching them how to live off the land, make fire without matches, navigate with topographical maps, and be self-sufficient, while leading them through a brief curriculum designed to stimulate their self-analysis.  It’s amazing the effect such training has on the self-esteem of a bored and rebellious teenager.  Or on the self-esteem of a bored and frustrated 30 year old.  Knowing that I can walk into the wilds and make fire, find food, and live an interesting life – when most people would panic or focus on complaining – gives me a rare insight into my inner strength and resourcefulness.

I also wanted to be Perry Mason.  His style of investigative advocay just thrilled me.  I worked at my first law firm when I was 19 and got a taste of the real lawyering world.  I even completed a year of law school.  But by then I knew the downside of lawyering – lawfirm politics, long associate hours, high production stress, no recognition for anyone but the partners (ohmygosh, I just realized that the corporate world is my nightmare version of the legal world) – and I decided not to complete my law degree.  Then in 1995, I was introduced to the King County CASA organization and became a guardian ad litem for abused and neglected children.  I did child advocacy work for six years and helped to change many lives for the better.  I specialized in the federal Indian Child Welfare Act and gave workshops across the US on advocating for Indian children and working with Indian families on parenting issues.  I learned even more about my own half-breed heritage and I met people that enriched my life. 

I also wanted to be a translator at the United Nations.  I love languages and how they intersect and evolve around one another.  Of course, I wanted to speak French – it had such a sexy air about it, but when language classes came up in school, my mother said, “You live in California, nobody here speaks French.  Spanish will be useful.”  (But she said it in a way that sounded like “Spanish or nothing.”)  So I, of course, said, “Then it will be nothing.”  And wouldn’t you know that at 41 I became fluent in Spanish without ever having taken formal schooling – and now I live in Mexico and speak Spanish every day.  It’s not quite the United Nations, but I never wanted to live in New York City because of the traffic and rude people (ohmygosh, I just realized that Mexico City is my nightmare version of NYC).  And, yes, my mother was right – Spanish turned out to be very useful for me.

So, there are four childhood dreams that I can mark with a * if not an X.  Maybe I will get to do something with my artwork someday.

Too much going on to write about today, but here’s a prose piece I wrote last year that tells the whole story . . .

Liftoff

There is dog shit in the gravel yard. I am surprised that I even have a dog to leave me these small gifts, a spunky, throw-away pawned off on my husband by an old friend.

Tomorrow, Miguel will tear off pieces of plastic bag and collect the digestive offerings with hospital care. They go into a small, lidded trash bin, also plastic-lined, which will later be neatly tied and, to prevent punctures, placed gingerly into the 32 gallon garbage can we brought from The North.

When the boy walks down the street ringing a bell, Miguel will roll the can out and pay 10 pesos to the brown man walking behind the unmarked, open box waste truck who will hand it up and in to the king of that unthinkable hill, then return it to my husband, empty as a plundered vault.

But for now I watch the flies settling, probing, taking a short walking tour, practicing liftoff and landing on this canine wasteland.

Across the street our neighbor precisely fills a folding metal table with chicken, flayed, filleted, and whole, proud of the convenience and variety he provides the neighborhood cooks. He moves in ritual, white alb, bloody vestment, swipes the knife, wipes his fingers, pulls the next yellow corpse from the boxes stacked precisely on the sidewalk.

The amateur butcher’s wife calls him inside. He untucks the greasy towel from his apron front, smoothes it across the processed parts, centers the knife just so on the chopping block, turns to answer matrimony’s call. The pilots in my yard liftoff.

Today I celebrate my 50th Solar Return – the day when the sun returns to the same astrological degree and minute as the moment of my birth. This is distinct from the calendar date of my birth.

Last month I synchronistically reconnected with a most beloved friend and colleague who is an astrologer that practices Astro*Carto*Graphy. In the late 1980s I was his editor for a monthly column called “Earth Harvest” in the print journal Welcome to Planet Earth. The process of creating that body of work was some of the most vivid and enlivening time of my life.

Out of the blue in April we were reconnected after a lapse of almost 8 years and, surprise, he just happened to have another writing project in the works, this time a book collaboration with another astrologer on the interaction between Astro*Carto*Graphy and the esoteric YOD pattern. I am thrilled to be in this world again, but working with Wayne always presents a challenge beyond the words we do together.

I whine to Wayne about my “Life” and “Work” and all he does is remind me, like my father often did, that I have choices. Choices not just about what I do, but how I do it, and the perspective I take. And then he takes it a step further and reminds me that within my life I have a mathematically powered framework in motion and that this framework has certain activation points – moments in time when I can choose to push, or push back.

My Solar Return is one of those times.

Wayne suggested that I use the moment of my Solar Return to set the framework for my next cycle. And so he set me to an impossible task. What do I want for this next cycle? What have I ever wanted in life that I stood up and said “I want this!”? How do I define and frame that which I cannot, have never been able to, acknowledge?

Ah, the astrologer says, and points at the problem:
You have your natal Sun, signature of the lifeforce in you, constrained by square with Pluto – that archetypal signature of ‘complete transformation’. Translation – what you create with your lifeforce has a great potential to effect transformation in all those it reaches – for good or ill. My observation over the years is that you have a tough demeanor protecting tremendous compassion and vulnerability. You were always very careful when it comes to your own self expression. That’s not to say you weren’t brave. You were. You were easily exposed.

Well, what the hell am I supposed to do about that? It’s not like I can move a planet. No, but planets move on their own and re-relate themselves, and with Astro*Carto*Graphy, different places present different faces. Wayne points me to:
[T]he New England states of eastern Pennsylvania, eastern New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, and western Maine. In all of these states you get Taurus Ascendants with your Sun (creative expression) in the 1st House of action, assertion, courage, identity, image, your face to the world. You can submit work to places based in these states. You can use resources from these states. You can form alliances with people born in these states. You can visit and find out for yourself. Even Montreal, Canada looks good.

But what about old Pluto, I ask, and he continues:
Pluto still squares to the Sun in this position but a look at Saturn (now in the first degree of Virgo) and Pluto, now in the first degree of Capricorn) points to an approaching season of mitigation to your Sun that will last a decade.

A decade! Now we’re back to the framing problem. What is it that I want?

Sunday was not a good day for me. It started on Saturday with a fateful viewing of Under the Tuscan Sun with my sister-in-law. She’s getting ready for a trip to Italy with her Catholic Young Workers group and someone suggested the movie. I was transported by the beauty and the green and the clean. Intelligent people talking about interesting things beyond the price of tortillas and where to buy good chicharron (fried pig skins). I took Eurail from Paris to Rome in March 1988 and have wanted to return to the Italian Alps ever since a brief stop at a border town for immigration to pass through showed me quaint streets, charming architecture, and handsome men. That flame was fanned anew by the addition of the Tuscan countryside to my imagination.

Then Sunday came and we took the mothers and daughters of the family to our favorite quaint little Mexican town – Tepozotlan. It’s famous for its church, but we go for the artisans on the plaza and the lime ice. When Miguel and I go alone, I make him take the highway. It’s a quick 20-30 minutes transport to enjoyable surroundings. Almost as good as snapping your fingers or wiggling your nose. Unfortunately, Miguel’s mother doesn’t like the highway, so we take the back roads. After two hours in Tuscany, what is usually just scenery becomes an interminable hour of traffic, road bumps, garbage, wrought iron fences enclosing more garbage, and hillsides so dry you expect spontaneous combustion.

On the plaza I arrive at an unusual vendor’s table. No chotch. No carved cactus. No huichol beadwork. No miniature pottery fountains. No Oaxacan cotton dresses. Small watercolors, signed by a very not-Mexican name, something Scandanavian with two dots over the O. I look up and see a white woman with short blonde hair. In English I ask her if this is her work and she responds to me in English. But we are both so disaccustomed to it we immediately slip into Spanish. She has a very good accent. Not a tourist. So I ask and it turns out she’s been here 30 years. Her Mexican husband died, but she stayed.

“After all this time, Germany is not mine anymore either,” Ursula says. I remember her name because of my favorite author, Ursula Le Guin. “We are not comfortable here or there,” she includes me in this “we.” She smiles slightly and nods. Knowingly.

She is right, of course, and my head spins and fills. How far do you go for love? And what kind of love? Partner love? Family love? Whose family? Love for a child? Whose child? Love of a country? Whose country? Where do you draw the line of love? If you come here because you don’t want your partner’s child to suffer his absence, like you did as a child, who are you doing it for? Her? Him? You? Your long-dead father?

If you love beauty, would you live in ugliness for your beloved? If you could create your own corner of beauty, would that be enough? If everything about the place offended your sensibilities, how long would you, could you, last? Would it be love if your partner didn’t notice your distress? Would it be love if your partner noticed, but did nothing? And if your partner acknowledged your distress but was as powerless as you, would that be enough?

And what is more important
That he be with his family?
That he be with his daughter?
Even in a place that is dirty and cruel?
Or that you live surrounded by beauty?
By peace?
In balance with the earth?

And if you rescue a starving cat,
or a ridiculous dog that adores you,
or both,
Does it make a difference?

I went to bed early and passed Monday in a funk, the pressure of framing something good from this conundrum too big for me to think about anything else.

But then this morning I arise at an unearthly early hour to prepare for that appointed moment of framing. The smell of gardenias weaves through my darkened kitchen. At my desk I notice two more blooms unfurling on my Lily of the Nile. Slipping over the edge of the pot, a long solitary stem ends in a four-leaf clover. This is the third time such a wonder has sprouted from this pot – June, December, and now May – it is becoming a regular six month cycle. It is the Divine finger pointing directly at me. Repeatedly.

“You,” it says, “what do you want?”

And I confess to myself that all I really want is to be creative and to be supported by the Universe in that endeavor. Like this abundance of flowers that now inhabits my home, I want to allow my nature to open forth from within me and express itself in beauty. So I open my mouth, state my desire to the listening sky, see that it is true, and plant that Seed.

I turn back to the clock and the appointed moment is past.

They won’t list my blog on BlogHer – yet – seems I don’t post often enough for them, but that’s changing.  In the meantime, I wish they’d do a check every once in awhile on the blogs they do have listed – I tried several and they all came back “Page Not Found.”  What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, y’know.

Last week we took four days and went to Michoacan for a wedding.  Miguel’s friend from childhood – the youngest in his family and the last to marry at 33.  They actually got married in December, in a civil service just for the family, and then they lived apart in different cities until the church wedding this weekend.

In a couple of weeks they’ll move back to the husband’s family home where the widowed father and several of the older brothers live (married and single).  According to Miguel’s mother and sister, Alejandro, Miguel’s friend, has been the bane of the daughters-in-law since adolescence.  The report is, he sits down at the kitchen table points at the woman and says, “You, serve my father and serve me.  Hurry up, we’re hungry.” 

Of the three married couples living in the family home, one died (shot by her suspicious husband who then shot himself and only ended up crippled), one left (divorced by her suspicious husband who kept the kids), and one that stayed and stood up to her husband, “Put your brother in his place or I’m outta here.”  Okay, she said it in Spanish, but with the same chutzpah.  She and I get along great.

So, now we’re all wondering what’s going to happen to Alejandro’s new wife.  She’s young, about 28, a psychologist who wants to set up her own clinic here in the big city.  She’s lived with her mother in a small rural town all her life and I don’t even think she knows how to cook.  Will she have to pay for her husband’s past arrogance?

The middle brother married a powerhouse.  She moved him out of the family home and it’s made for wonderful relations.  She and her sisters and all their husbands and kids travel everywhere together and the rest of Alejandro’s family just tags along.  There are about 30 of us when we travel together.

The wedding was in La Barca, Jalisco.  About five to six hours drive on the toll highways from the northwest edge of Mexico City, depending on who’s driving.  It’s a prosperous agricultural town spread out along the river that divides Jalisco from Michoacan.  They have beautiful flat roads and lots of bicyclists and even closed down the main road to host a bicycle race on Sunday.  It was the first time I’ve seen cyclists in helmets and riding gear since I got to Mexico.

Thirty minutes down the road from La Barca is Ixtlan de los Hervores, Michoacan.  Miguel’s father is from there.  Since we got to town two days before the wedding, we went straight to the geyser at Ixtlan the first afternoon to relax in the tepid pools and de-stress from the drive.  I won’t talk about hygiene – despite being old and run down, the geyser pools are relatively clean and you really don’t want the details.  Miguel’s family goes to Ixtlan every October as one of their pilgrimage trips.  The saint in Ixtlan is St. Francis of Assisi.  That’s for another story.

Next door to Ixtlan is Salitre, Michoacan.  The powerhouse bride and all of her sisters are from Salitre.  After the geyser, we went to visit in Salitre.  More beautifully flat roads.  (Are you getting the impression that where we live on the edge of Mexico City bike riding is akin to an extreme sport with rutted, broken pavement, hills so steep some cars can’t make it, and traffic that moves at the speed of loud?)  The pavement in Salitre is new.  Miguel thinks it is, anyway, but he hasn’t been there for 20 years.  The central plaza was also declared new, but a glance will tell you that the trees – currently painted the color of the Mexican flag, red and white trunks with leafy tops precisely trimmed to look like giant green cubes – have at least 15 years growth.  This time distortion probably has something to do with him not seeing me as 50 so I didn’t bother to point out the disparity between the growth and his definition of “new.”

We sat on the main plaza with some locals for a bit, watching a basketball game.  I commented to Miguel that it was all women playing – and such a broad age range of ages (late teens to early 40’s).

He said, “Don’t you notice anything strange about the people watching?”

There were no young men.  Except for our group, everyone on the plaza was either female, boys under 12, or men bent over walkers and canes.  And one loud, fat guy about 40.

“Their husbands are all in the North.”

Where we live is City.  There are jobs to be found.  It’s worthwhile to set up a taco stand in front of your house.  The local street markets are full of entrepreneurs selling everything from housewares to temporary tattoos.  Even the old lady that sells gelatin desserts in plastic cups door to door makes enough to get by.  But here in “the Provinces” the small towns can’t generate enough income to provide their families the basic necessities.  The men go in search of work and the women stay home and shoot hoops.

The saddest part is the small number that return home.  Miguel and Alejandro are the exceptions.  Of Miguel’s circle of friends and family that have gone north, only he, Alé and Adrian have come home voluntarily to make their life in Mexico.  Even the ones that are legal Resident Aliens or have become U.S. citizens, like Miguel, rarely come home to visit their families.  They’re all waiting to put together a big pile of money and come back and start a business – but that never happens.  Life in the U.S. is about working and paying bills and taxes – no matter where you start from.  So, 5, 10, 15 years pass and you end up with a car, maybe, and money sent home on a regular basis, but never enough to go home yourself, and people are always waiting in line at Western Union to pick up what little you can send back every pay day. Yes, Western Union . . . it’s one of the hottest businesse in Mexico.

I wonder why the men in Salitre have to go all the way to the U.S. to find work when thirty minutes down the road the local Ford dealer is selling a lot of 2008 king-cab 4-door Lobos at $35k USD each.

The reality of it is that life will be a struggle wherever you choose to live it, if the struggle is what you’re focused on.  Take me, for example.  I have a good life here in Mexico – a loving husband, a comfortable home, welcoming in-laws, a good job that pays U.S. dollars – but what keeps me up at night is the struggle I have at work.  Change I’m accustomed to.  I’ve lived in almost as many different places as the number of years I’ve been alive.  I just have an inherent mistrust of new people who come in and start criticizing and changing things before they even bother to inform themselves enough to know what works and what doesn’t and why.  Arrogant change.  Change for the sake of aggrandizing oneself before proving oneself.  I whine to my CTO and he says, “Make them your customers.  Figure out how best to give them what they want without compromising your goals.”

My husband just says, “They must have problems at home, don’t take it personal.”  He says that in response to any weird people we encounter.  And I’ve found it to be the truest interpretation of every people problem I’ve ever had.  Happy people aren’t rude or arrogant or aggressive.  They don’t need to be, no matter how stressful life may get.  And people who have problems at home usually live under such a black cloud that they can’t escape it.  No matter where they go.

Excerpted from my BlogHer post at the request of folks who want to find everything on my blog without having to link around.  I agreed, but just this time . . .

I was really depressed until January this year because of all the things I missed about Seattle, but apart from the environmental changes, my own changes really caught me off guard.  I’m married to a gorgeous, adoring 35 year old Aztec . . . and I’ll be 50 this year.  I thought I was prepared for that . . . how wrong I was.

I never thought I’d miss my hairdresser the way I do.  I yearn to go to that place with sparkling stainless steel, burnished tile floors, padded hydraulic chairs, hot water pouring over my scalp as I lean back in a curved ceramic basin.  I miss that time under the dryer with warm air caressing the edges of my face, current fashion magazines to browse, water with lemon on the side table. 

I miss my hair.

When Miguel and I met I had waist length sable hair.  Two years later a systemic staph infection turned my hair 80% white from the crown forward.  I started coloring my hair.  By 2006 I had finally gotten it to where I liked it – dark streaks scattered across the white just enough so I didn’t look washed out.  I loved my look. 

Conceding the fact that I have never been to a hair salon in a tourist area of Mexico, I will make the broad declaration that in Mexico even the best hairdressers aren’t talented enough to accomplish that kind of magic.  They’ve also never heard of foiling, so highlights are still done by ripping strands of your hair through a plastic cap with a metal crochet hook.  There are no health inspectors, either, so the majority of the salons give me the willies.  It’s not so much that the floors aren’t swept clean after every cut, or that the rinse water is sloshed over my head with a bowl dipped in a 5 gallon bucket of water warmed by throwing an electrical appliance into it.  It’s the brushes.  Assorted brushes.  Jammed into a plastic jug.  With other people’s hair still in them.  Almost as bad, they don’t take appointments.  You have to just go and wait until they get to you.  You can’t even pay to get an appointment.

The first time the highlights came out okay, but the second time not so much.  I decided to forget the highlights and do my own dye job from a box.  I went to the local equivalent of Fred Meyer and bought a box of Preference by L’Oreal.  I even recognized the picture of the model on the box of Dark Brown Permanent color.  This was known territory.  An hour later my hair was black.  Pitch black.  It was so black that at the street party we went to that night the adolescent Goth Girls all decided to hang out with me to show their moms that Goth isn’t so corrupting after all.  See, Mom, this old lady does it, why can’t I?  I crawled back to the salon on Monday.

The hairdresser’s eyes went wide when I walked in.  The highlights were gone. “Yes, well, you were busy when I came by on Friday and I got impatient, and, well . . .”

The stylist just smiled politely, sat me down and stripped my hair.  After two hours of chemical assault on my lungs I came out with dark brown hair.  Two days later I came out of the shower and my hair was black again.  I don’t know what happened.  It certainly wasn’t on purpose.  I went back to the salon and just pointed at my head.  Another strip and re-dye job and my lungs were as fried as my hair.

I waited until I couldn’t stand the roots anymore and I found another salon.  This one across the street from our house tacked onto the front of a neighbor’s house.  Señora Juanita and her one-person salon with a matching plastic jar of hairy brushes.  Her daughter does manicures on the weekend.  My hair came out dark brown and I was happy.  The second time, not so much. 

I thought I’d give the box another shot.  This time a different brand.  Maybe it was a quality control issue.  And Light Brown.  Yeah, light brown.  An hour later and my hair was black again.  I decided I could live with black.  In fact, by this time I’d been looking around and noticed that in Mexico you have three choices of hair color if you don’t want to be a bleached blonde – black, blacker and red.  Yep, I could live with black.

But then – surprise – my roots came back.  I felt old with those white roots.  My husband and his sister told me I was crazy.  “It just looks like you have a really wide part in your hair.  Like more of your scalp is showing.”  Well, that was just what I wanted to hear.

My sister-in-law sent me to her hairdresser.  Nice lady.  Cleaner in-home salon.  Same jar of brushes.  Now I have to bend over a cement sink on the patio for the rinse water.  She wanted to make me a blonde.  After the strip and re-color my hair is now a golden copper colored.  Not quite the red that my mother always colored her hair, and that I swore I would never do to myself.  But now even that is seeming like a good idea because this copper color has definitely got to go. 

It’s a good thing I work over the Internet.

Update since original publication:  I couldn’t stand the red hair even after a week.  My mother-in-law came back Sunday morning and said the salon was open (unusual for a Sunday).  I ran right over.  An hour later I came out Light Golden Brown.  Whatever.  It’s not red, so I’m happy.  Let’s see if she can repeat the performance in a month.  I’ll keep you posted.

After almost two years at this, I’ve finally been convinced to step into the Real World of Blogging and have signed up with BlogHer. You can see my debut post here. In retrospect it’s got no great opening hook line, and starts with a recap of why I’m in Mexico, but has a strong finish with my ongoing bad hair adventures. But it’s a start. So if you’d like to know why I now have red hair, click on over to BlogHer.

For those of you who know me as a writer, I’ve received some interest on doing a book on age-gap relationships. So I thought I’d use the BlogHer forum for those posts and this blog for updates on life in Mexico. We’ll see how it works out. At a minimum, I’ll be posting much more frequently here.

For those of you who clicked over from BlogHer, surf around. Here are some of the topics I’ve covered so far on this site:
Building Your Own Home in Mexico
Feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe
September Flash Flooding
Vacation in Chiapas – Palenque and Bonampak
Road Hazards
Visiting the Virgin of Juquila
Healthcare Hurdles
Mexican Household Economics
Visiting El Cristo Milagroso
Stolen Elections and Neighborhood Life
The Effect of Moose Horns Crossing the Border
Seattle to Mexico by RV

Almost two months since my last post. Credit my absence to 60 hour work weeks, unreasonable demands with no reward, and moving from a 347 sq.ft. two-room-no-kitchen rental to our very own self-designed 1,200+ sq.ft. third story apartment built atop my sister-in-law’s house. We’ve been here a month now and I finally got a stove and refrigerator last Tuesday. Okay, it’s still no real kitchen in the northern sense of the word, my cabinets are stainless steel racks from Costco with two giant IKEA bed canopy leaves sprouting from the corner posts, and my sink is a rustic wood cabinet on wheels – the one we had on the patio at the rental place – but I can cook indoors so it counts as a kitchen in my book.

 

Building on many levels

 

We call it a flat as a joke.  The first two storeys of the building were built in patchwork sections with varying roof height and pitch, bit by bit as my sister-in-law could afford to add on.  The only parts of our apartment actually on the same level are my bedroom and the adjoining closet, built over the first-phase construction, and the kitchen/dining room/patio, built over the fourth-phase construction.  These two sections are separated by a living room that is one or two steps up depending on which direction you’re approaching from.  My office is off the juncture of the living room and kitchen and is a half-step height in between the two, built over the third-phase construction.

 

A side effect of the up-and-down floor heights is that we also have varying ceiling heights, from 7.5 feet in the bedroom to 12 feet in the dining room, which we topped with a 4-sided pyramid hipped roof with clerestory windows on three sides.  The neighborhood joke was – is it a church or an observatory?  We just wanted some variation to the typical box-on-box construction.  So we topped the interior stairwell to the roof with a duplicate roofed structure about 7 feet higher than the dining room roof.  It looks so cool from the main road – and it makes a great landmark for the pizza delivery guys.

El Santuario

 

 

But the church joke got me thinking.  There are patron saints for everything here – taxi drivers and truckers (St. Christopher), people who have survived mortal accidents (La Santa Muerte/St. Death), lost causes (St. Jude), accountants (St. Matthew), so I suggested to Miguel that we top the dining room roof with a mirrored disco ball and call it the Santuario del Santo Sonidero – the Sanctuary of Saint DJ.  It would be a new saint.  Recognizable accessories would be headphones and microphone.  Miguel didn’t think the older members of the neighborhood would understand, though he agreed the idea would probably catch on – every young man under 20 wants to grow up and be a Sonidero, and a party just isn’t a party unless a Sonidero is present.  (Miguel became a Sonidero at 12, after spending 5 years working with a local Sonidero who was also the neighborhood butcher, and he’s been doing it for 23 years now.)

 

Okay, back to the apartment.  We have a total of two solid interior walls – one between the interior stairwell and the bedroom wing and one between the bedroom and bathroom.  Miguel also built a frame and sheetrock wall to separate the bathroom and closet, but those kind of walls don’t count as solid in Mexico where everything is brick or cement.

 

The look on the cement mason’s face when I said that I didn’t want the plumbing built into the cement floors was priceless.  On upper-floor construction like ours, the usual process is to lay the PVC pipes on top of the floor, then build forms around the area, then fill the forms with tezontli – the red lava rocks we use in the garden – because it weighs less than solid cement, then pour cement over the tezontli to seal in the plumbing and create a raised floor for the bathroom.  In my imagination I saw broken or badly sealed sewage pipes leaking into the tezontli and . . . well, you can take it from there.  I insisted that Miguel build a wood framed platform topped with plywood and vinyl flooring so that repairs would not require a jack hammer to look for the problem.  Having seen the ongoing plumbing disaster in my sister-in-law’s downstairs bathroom (because the tile layer somehow drove nails through various places in the cold water pipes in the walls – what the tile layer was doing with nails is beyond all of us), and having spent six years in Seattle with me, Miguel totally understood my logic and supported me despite the entire community thinking we are both loco.  So, our pipes are encased in sheetrocked walls and plywood platforms and I am content that any disasters will be easy to notice, easy to locate and easy to fix.  It helps me sleep at night.

 

The master bathroom is open on one side to the hall and a balcony, with the toilet given privacy by a structure that reminds me of a shower stall with blue translucent walls (no comment from me, it was Miguel’s idea).  In fact, we have only one exterior wall – north corner to east corner – that doesn’t have windows in it, because the house is built to the property line and the neighbor on that side might actually build up to our height someday.  The rest of the exterior walls are almost entirely waist to ceiling windows or sliding glass doors that look out over a few distant green foothills and adjacent neighbors who are less likely to make it to three storeys.  My budget for curtains was scandalous, especially in comparison to the cost of construction.

 

Our building is in an undocumented area.  There are no governmental deeds for the properties yet.  I know, that sounds weird.  In Mexico there is a law that if someone moves on to an undeveloped piece of property, puts up some construction – even just a tarpaper shack – and pays a utility bill for five years, then the owner loses all rights to the property.  So, if you own property that you don’t live on, you have to build something on it or watch it like a hawk to make sure that someone doesn’t move in, and if they do, you’ve got to get the police to throw them out right away.

 

Where we live used to be a hacienda.  At some point in time, the last heir died intestate and the land went ownerless.  Folks started moving in and carving out narrow streets and building shacks.  In 1999, we loaned Miguel’s sister $5,000 to buy a lot 8 meters by 16 meters, about 26 feet by 52 feet.  (The lot alone would now cost about $25,000.)  She bought it from an old fellow that had several lots in the area for sale, and the only proof of purchase that she has – like all of her neighbors – are the monthly payment receipts, a certified handwritten description of the property by the seller, and a municipal registration that she owns the unsurveyed property.  The municipal government was supposed to start “regularizing” the neighborhood this December, but so far, nothing formal has been done yet.

 

When we started building the apartment, the neighborhood president called the local municipal authorities and threatened to stop construction.  Not because there was any legal standing to do so, just because he is pissed off that he didn’t get the piece of land that we have back when it became available 8 years ago. (Though he did have his wife break into the property back then, before there was construction on it, on the day the property recorders were going through.  She pretended to be the owner and got a document in her name – and my sister-in-law had to go and fight to get the documentation corrected.)  So the municipal agents came by and told us they were going to stop the construction and my other sister-in-law said that she was just renting the storefront and that they’d have to come back to talk to the owner (Miguel’s oldest sister that works away from home).  That was on a Friday.  So we hurried the masons to put the roof on the front section over the weekend.  With the roof in place, the authorities couldn’t stop construction – which they do by putting a yellow tape around the rebar on the street side of the property.  If the tape is put on, you can’t remove it or build over it without serious penalties.  But if the roof is already on, there is no rebar exposed to tape.  And the agents can’t enter the property unless you invite them, which of course you never do.  So all construction is either built well back from the street and the property fenced in front, or, if you build out to the street, you start from the front, get the supporting beams up and the roof on first and then build toward the back of the lot.  All of this in order to avoid the spite of someone with a miniscule amount of power, a little bit of money, and a big grudge.

 

So, because the property is not surveyed and formally registered, there are no building permits required for our area.  Of course, up the street where the land is surveyed and deeded, the construction contractor just brings an old permit from a past job and hangs it on the worksite and no one ever actually comes to inspect it.  Anyway, between the lack of permitting and the lack of professional licensing, construction is inexpensive, with the added benefit that the contractors are always willing to take weekly payments because no one ever has enough money to pay all at once and you can’t get loans on undocumented property.  So from August to February we paid the cement mason $8,000 pesos a week, and paid on account with the building supply shop (after eight years of construction, my sister-in-law has good credit with the local supply shop) and from January through May we’ll pay the window-maker $2,000 pesos a week.  The plumber is Miguel’s daughter’s uncle, and the electrician is Miguel’s brother and his friend who also lays tile and does plumbing on the side, and they all have payment arrangements with Miguel.  (As an aside, it’s really important to have friends and family that you trust in the construction business – not because they do better work, but because if you hire a stranger you can never be sure they won’t send someone to rob you later.)

 

The whole house, masonry, windows, electrical, plumbing, and ironwork for the stairs to the roof and the balconies, will total out at about $35,000 USD.  And that will include $14,500 pesos for windows in my sister-in-law’s windowless two year old second floor apartment that I insisted on paying for because she has saved us at least double that by managing our contractors (the cement mason and window-maker thought the apartment was for her when they negotiated their prices) and buying supplies (can you believe there’s a high season and a low season for buying rebar and we saved about $800 USD by buying a ton and a half at once instead of as-needed during construction).  She agreed only after I allowed that she could pay me back half the cost of her windows.

 

But doesn’t it just kinda give you the willies – no permits, no licenses, no inspectors?  It does me, but, when in Rome . . .  I do know, though, that my sister-in-law laid enough rebar in the foundation to support a three-storey building because we made fun of her when she did it back in 2001.  And when we designed our flat, she insisted we keep all of the internal support posts in line with (and connected to) where they were from the floors below, plus the bearing wall in the bedroom wing because of the long span of the room and the weight of the water tank on the roof above the bathroom.  She may be a secretary at a small private school, but she’s a great construction project manager.

 

Of course, the houses around us are not quite as strictly constructed – joined brick corners on second and third storeys instead of rebar cast cement posts.  That kind of thing.  It’s easy to tell how much rebar is in a house because everyone leaves the rebar sticking up above the roofline so that they can “hook on” more rebar when they build the next storey.  The first time I travelled in Mexico with Miguel and saw all the rebar poking out of occupied buildings I asked him why is all that metal sticking up everywhere.  He said, “Those are people’s dreams.  They dream that someday they’ll have enough money to build on another storey.  As long as the rebar is there, they have a dream to reach for.”

 

Four is the minimum number of rebar rods for a support post.  My sister-in-law started with eight rods in the first floor, six in the second, and – surprise – we had four left for the third storey.  She recently confessed to me that the rebar in the foundation and the posts had a purpose – her dream has always been to have all her family living in the same house because they never had a house as kids.

 

In Mexico some dreams do come true.

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