Yes, we know. It’s been a very long time since we have updated our readers on the progress of our house. Perhaps you can imagine how very tired one gets when one’s house has taken over a year to build… the day in and day out struggle with keeping one step ahead of the workers by buying the right tiles or faucets or whatever. Perhaps you can imagine the pain of writing big checks and handing over large wads of pesos every week for things like fosa septicas, light fixtures or yet more cement blocks. Maybe you can feel our pain when we tell you how tired we were of polvo (dust) and paint drips and little tiny things that needed to be done but hadn’t been done… the endless lists of things that still needed attention before we could be finished.
Frankly, we hesitate to even dredge those memories up enough to even write about them. But we will… for you, our loyal readers. And when we’re done, we hope that we can finally be done. Truly hecho or, as the Mayans like to say, estuvo. Terminados. It all means "finished". And that’s what we want to be with building this house.
They say that building a house is one of the most creative things you can do… it’s like childbirth in a lot of ways. You go through an extended amount of time that is both exciting and painful, and in the end you have created an entity that is something separate from you… that will live on after you, a part of your unique legacy to the world. Really, we couldn’t agree more. However, with childbirth, we remember reading that the woman’s body actually serves up hormones that help her forget the pain, so that childbirth actually looks attractive again after the passing of time. No such assistance is available for the birthing of a house, so you probably won’t see us building another house in THIS lifetime.
This particular legacy of ours, in the end, took almost two years from start to finish. During that time, we spent a lot of money and an inordinate amount of time and attention, creating the house we now (thankfully) are living and working in.
Fin Sin Fin
In our last installment, we thought we were almost done… and were at the ‘endless end’. As it turns out, the construction continued for almost another two months, during which time we moved in anyway (on February 8, just in time for Working Gringa’s mother to arrive on February 10). We lived with people coming to the house every day for months, a process that is finally almost… not… quite… ended. Just the other day, the plumber came by to look at an annoying water hammer problem…
For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of acquainting yourself with this acabado (finish), chicum is an ancient Mayan version of stucco that was used to line chaltuns (cisterns). It was also used ornamentally, because it lasts a very long time. We’ve seen it (we think) on the statues in Ek Balaam and on facade elements at Hacienda Tabi, among other places. We learned about it from the famous architect, Salvador Reyes Rios, who made his name restoring some of the most beautiful haciendas in this area (Hacienda San Jose Cholul, Temozon, Santa Rosa) and used this finish in his restorations. As it turns out, Salvador also built our former house (Casa Panadero) and used chicum for the finish of the plunge pool in the backyard there. That’s where we became familiar with the beauty of chicum. And that’s why we wanted it in our new home.
We hired Rolando (cel phone: 044-999-232-3619), a man who had worked with Salvador Reyes Rios and had learned how to do this ancient Mayan finish. Orlando brought only three other men, and spent most of his time supervising their work. They sifted the regular white cement through a type of cheesecloth and then mixed it with ingredients that are a closely-guarded secret (said to include Coca-Cola and Chaac knows what else). Then they spread the chicum paste onto the prepared cement areas: two benches, the bar (pictured above), the outdoor bathtub and the deck of the swimming pool. When they were done, we waited a week for the chicum to dry thoroughly, and then they sanded it by hand to give it a smooth finish. The chicum color is a light tan with mottling that is enhanced with age. We’re thrilled to have it in our house and only wish we could have afforded to cover more surfaces with it.
A lot of people think we’re crazy (for many reasons…), but we like the traditional cal paint that has been used here in the Yucatan for centuries. It’s all natural, all local and it lets your walls breathe. We know that Comex and others have perfectly beautiful vinilica (latex-based) paints here, but we’re partial to the old style of paint. Walls painted with cal age and change with the humidity and the seasons. They develop stains and spots that give them the same character we saw in the walls of aging palazzos in Venice, Italy, where we were married. We like old walls. So we used cal paint on every wall of our house. This employed Merida’s best painter, Isauro, and his two or three helpers, for about five or six weeks. It will also ensure them recurring employment every few years when the facade or other outside walls need to be updated. That’s okay! We like Isauro, and we love our cal-painted walls, complete with water stains. A real faux finish.
Everyone In the Pool
For the first time in our seven years in Yucatan, we have a pool. A real lap-swimming pool. We chose to put in both a regular pool filter and a saline filter, planning to use the saline filter most of the time in order to have a pool sin chloro (without chlorine). That’s a bit of a misnomer as it turns out, because even a saline pool has a bit of chlorine in it. The saline filter turns the salt (sodium chloride) into chlorine (ah, that’s where they hide the chlorine!) and gives your pool just enough chlorine to be clear, but not enough to turn your hair green and your skin dry.
Well, we learned rather quickly that it doesn’t really work that well here. The Yucatan is too hot to accommodate a saline filter… our pool experiences a lot of evaporation in the heat and sun, and we were needing five to seven 25 kilogram bags of salt each week to keep up with it. Those salt bags aren’t expensive (after all, they make salt here in the Yucatan) but they are heavy, bulky and that’s just a lot of salt, isn’t it? Since we had installed both the saline filter and the normal traditional pool filter, we just stopped using the saline filter and have kept our pool clean with the lowest amount of chlorine we can get by with. Chalk it up to a rather expensive lesson… anyone want to buy a perfectly good saline filter?
We built the pool above the ground, just outside the TV/living room. Half of it is under an overhanging roof, allowing us to enjoy it even if we don’t want to be in the sun. Working Gringo is the tall, dark and handsome pool guy that we’ve hired because keeping a pool beautiful does take attention. He’s out there almost every morning, keeping the pool sparkling blue and beautiful. He says it’s good therapy. And Working Gringa likes watching him, too!
We built a water-wall fountain at the end of the pool for aesthetic purposes. It turns out this fountain, which draws water from the pool, pumps it up and then drops it back into the pool, allows us to circulate the water (and chemicals) even more quickly through the pool. It turns out the top of the water wall, which has about one inch of water in it even when the pump isn’t running, is also the neighborhood’s most popular birdbath. Who knew how much enjoyment we would get out of lying around in the pool, watching the local xcav birds (those noisy black grackles you see everywhere here) and mourning doves splashing and carrying on in their own private spa? It turns out the water wall, besides looking particularly beautiful at night when the water sparkles as it falls down the rajuela (stone chips) wall in the light, also gives off the perfect white noise to cover up any neighborhood noise that we may not want to hear. The pool is a blessing in the heat, and the water-wall fountain completes the picture.
Speaking of rajuela, this is a word we learned because we employed it in a number of different places throughout the house. And if we’d had a few more months, Working Gringa probably could have figured out a few more ways to use it! Rajuela is pieces of limestone, chipped off in cracker-sized slices. The traditional way of using those chips is to embed them in cement, lined up in the same direction so that they form a nice pattern. The wall that the water falls down at the end of our pool is done in rajuela. So is the column of the outdoor shower next to the pool. And the arch above the fountain in the courtyard that houses our Virgen of Guadalupe statue is done in rajuela too… fanned out around the Virgen’s head to look like a halo. But where we really won the rajuela sweepstakes (took the rajuela prize?) was in the concrete walkway outside in the pasillo. We didn’t want to have a plain cement floor. We couldn’t afford tile for such a large area. We needed to break up the cement into a pattern that looked both attractive and would allow for expansion and contraction, thus avoiding cracks if at all possible. We settled on a diamond pattern of cement squares (echoing the diamond layout of the saltillo tiles around the pool), separated by lines of rajuela. This sounds exotic, but it is quite common here in the Yucatan. It might be common, but it certainly isn’t easy or, because of that, not particulary inexpensive. The rock doesn’t cost much. The cement doesn’t cost much. But the labor to chip all those rocks and then lay them in lines… well, in our case, that seemed to take months. And not for lack of people spending time on it, either. By the time the entire pasillo was finished with the rajuela pattern, we were sure the albañiles doing it wereready to ride us out of town on a rail. They were probably chipping rocks in their sleep for weeks afterwards. Despite the torture of creating it, however, the end result is lovely, and we’re glad we bothered.
Built For the Breeze
Throughout the design process for our house, we continued to make decisions that led to maximizing the way air flows through the house. We only installed air conditioning units (mini-splits) in the bedrooms and the offices. The rest of the house would have to depend on the prevailing breezes. We built high ceilings whenever possible and situated the house so that it faces north to south. One of our requirements was to have our master bedroom on the second story, hoping that with a design that maximized air flow, we would be able to sleep comfortably as many nights as possible without using the air conditioner. We’re happy to report that this has worked very well. The bedroom faces south, and the master bath faces north. There are windows in both, and when all windows and doors are opened, the breeze sweeps through, cooling down the bathroom and bedroom very well. There have been very few nights, even during the heat of the summer, when we have wanted air conditioning.
The breeze flows well throughout the ground level of the house as well. There is a pasillo all along one side of the building that is open on both end to the sky. And there is a central courtyard between the office and the main house, which effectively gives the kitchen/dining/living room area open windows on three sides. We don’t have air conditioning in this area, and we haven’t missed it once this summer. If things get a little hot and stuffy, with a push of a button, our remote-controlled ceiling fans turn on and cool everything off sufficiently to get by. Did we mention we have a swimming pool? If things heat up too much, we just head for the pool.
Airing Our Dirty Laundry
Where did that expression come from, anyway? Nobody hangs out their DIRTY laundry… they hang out their CLEAN laundry. And so do we! One of the very last things we added to the house (courtesy of Handyman) was a clothesline on the roof. What a great idea that was! The laundry hangs out of the way, only visible by Working Gringa when she’s taking a shower and gazing towards the front of the house. It makes her feel good to see it hanging in the sun (and the rain sometimes) and in the almost-constant breeze. Laundry dries quickly and putting up and taking down clean laundry on the roof, overlooking the city as the sun rises or sets has become a recurring and pleasurable experience. The laundry line is safely hidden away, visible only to us and the cameras for Google Earth. We highly recommend rooftop clotheslines.
The Earth Laughs in Flowers
That’s a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson. It’s about a garden, our big garden called Planet Earth. We have a small approximation, in a style called ‘tropical’, in our backyard. The first thing we planted, before we were even done with the house, was a ceiba tree, a gift from a friend who found it growing on her property out in the countryside. This little sacred ceiba was chosen because it was growing so true and straight and with lovely symmetry. When it was planted, it was barely taller than Working Gringo. After the albañiles were done and the polvo (dust) was reduced to a dull roar, we invited in a local nursery to plant the rest of our garden. We settled on a price, as well as a few likes and dislikes, and then let them have their way with our little plot of land. Our few requirements were a path along the wall so we could walk through the garden, a lawn area for the dogs to play in and the ceiba tree (in the center of the photo on the right). We were grateful to have bananas and heliconias and lilies and elephant-ears given to us by friends and those were planted also. The garden was installed in the space of two days, including lawn, four royal palms and two truckloads of other greenery. Our sprinkler system (and our pool, by the way) is fed by our own well, so we have watered freely from the day the garden was installed, and it has rewarded us with growth the likes of which we have never seen. We come from California, where water is scarce and gardens ought to be planted with drought-resistant natives. So this tropical paradise is quite astounding to us! The bananas (two kinds) which started as babies no bigger than our forearm, are above the wall (9 feet) by now. The palms are well beyond that, as is the sacred ceiba tree. The elephant ears would make any elephant proud, and the heliconias have been cut back twice already.
At one point the lawn seemed to be dying, and we noticed that it was visited constantly by little low-flying wasps. These wasps didn’t seem the least bit interested in us, but we thought perhaps they were killing our lawn. We brought in the exterminator to spray the garden, and from that day on, the lawn has been fine.
Every morning, Working Gringa spends time in the garden, mostly cutting things back and pulling weeds. All week long, flowers and dark green leaves sprout from vases in various places throughout the house, bringing the garden inside whenever possible. We have a compost heap in the back, where all the lawn cuttings and vegetables parts from the kitchen are thrown. In five months, we’ve already enjoyed the production of a ten-bag equivalent of rich loamy dirt, which has then been returned to the garden around some of the plants that seemed to need the nutrition (the challenge of a tropical garden is keeping the nutrition from leaching away). We have had some bug infestations, which we have tried eliminating with soapy water or garlic spray, but in the end have resorted to chemicals. Bugs and plants alike seem to be stronger and grow faster here in the tropics. We’re still rank amateurs when it comes to tropical gardening, but we sure are enjoying the chance to improve our skills.
Oh, The Water
A house in the tropics involves planning for the catching, directing, draining and controlled enjoyment of water. Perhaps our biggest problems with the house so far have come from water. Water is everywhere here in the Yucatan… it comes from above, it comes from below, it comes out from the walls, it’s in the air. This is actually a fact we are grateful for, and when the rest of the world is paying for water what today they pay for oil, we hope that the Yucatan may be exempt. But because there is water, there are water issues, and one must build one’s house with water in mind. And even if one does, apparently, water can still find ways to puzzle and confound.
One day during construction, a valve stuck somewhere and the tinaco (water tank) on the roof of the second story was overflowing for four or five hours, spilling water down the walls and into the pasillo. The problem was discovered and solved, and we all moved on. After the walls were painted and we had moved in, those walls started to discolor and show dark spots (sure sign of moisture). The white cement floors in the dining room have also discolored with moisture spots. To this day we still aren’t 100% sure what was or is the problem, but we suspect we are still seeing the water from that tinaco accident working its way out of our cement block walls (it can take years). We conducted a lot of tests (including breaking into the walls) to make sure that no pipes or desagues (drainage) were leaking (they weren’t) and the tinaco accident is now the only thing we can come up with. Since we are in the middle of the summer rainy season, we have decided to wait a few months (a year?) to see how it works itself out. One thing that the Yucatan has taught us in seven years is that not everything can be solved overnight. Some things just take time, and taking time is a luxury that we can afford here.
The Fat Lady Sings
We think it’s fair to say that the construction of our house is now officially over. We don’t want to call Working Gringa fat, exactly, but she has noticed that the acoustics for singing are especially good in the downstairs bathroom and the kitchen. We’ve noticed that the upstairs terrace outside our bedroom is the best place for watching stars, and the roof terrace is the best place for watching fireworks. We’ve noticed that sitting in the pool with a plate of cheese and crackers on the chicum siding is the best place for watching television (iTunes downloads, mostly). We’ve noticed that the offices are warm in the morning, but cool off quickly when we open the front postigo doors (those little doors within doors on the old colonial doors). We’ve noticed that the fireflies dance in our garden at dusk after a rain, and that the iguanas that live in the drainpipe by the compost heap like bananas and apples, but not carrots. We’ve noticed that the cats next door like the chicken bones we throw down onto their roof and that the men selling "Tierra!" will stop at our door to get water for themselves and their thirsty horse. We’ve noticed that laundry smells particularly good after it has sat out in the rain and dried again afterwards, and that the Flor de Mayo trees bloom almost constantly, and their flowers smell good all the time. We’ve noticed that bats love to fly down the pasillo at night and then dip into the pool for an evening drink, and swallows like to do that too. We’ve even noticed big white barn owls flying around our house late at night in the moonlight, and one night we noticed them right away when they flew into (and promptly out of) our bedroom.
We’ve noticed that now that we aren’t building a house anymore, we have more money, more time and more peace. We’re grateful to ourselves, our wonderful architects Mercedes Sanchez and Alvaro Cervera (their contact information is listed in this article about How to Build A House in the Yucatan), and to all our albañiles, gardeners and others who had the fortitude to follow through and make this house possible.
We hope this house, sprung from our imagination and the hard work of many others, brings peace and happiness to many generations to come. Hecho! Estuvo! Now let the Yucatan Living continue…
Like this article? Read the others that led up to it…