From the Weeds Up… Building a House with Sand and Rocks and Magic

4 May
the big empty box

the big empty box

Don’t tell Conan, but I was less than thrilled with our house when I returned from my stint in the U.S. It was a big empty box- an extremely budget-busting empty box- and I was terrified that we’d never manage to fix it up and furnish it with the little bit of money we had left. Two of the rooms had dirt floors. There were lots of window slots and doorways but zero doors or windows. No separations between rooms, no water tank, no nothing. Did I mention we were already way over budget, and neither of us had a job? Nobody could tell me how long it would take before it was livable, either.

It took a month just to figure out who could work on the house within our budget and still do a good job. We hit the jackpot when Conan’s adult niece Lili agreed to come along with her partner Uriel, a master constructor (albañil). Uriel worked hard on our house for much less than what he deserved to be paid, and Lili helped with the cooking and watching Lucia to boot (especially putting her down for naps! She is our resident hammock expert). We never could’ve done this without them. On top of that, they were great company. Thank the universe for family!

Uriel stoking the fire so our black beans cook. Our albanil, our sobrino, our friend.

Uriel stoking the fire so our black beans cook. Our albañil, our sobrino, our friend.

Lili and Uriel on our roof. Lucia adores Uriel, who she calls "OO-wa" since she can't pronounce Uriel.

Lili and Uriel on our roof. Lucia adores Uriel, who she calls “OO-wa” since she can’t pronounce Uriel.

Lili, hanging out outside while we wait for beans to cook

Lili and Nery, hanging out outside while we wait for beans to cook

Again thankful for family, we spent the first couple of weeks in Puerto at Conan’s Aunt Artemia’s house, waiting for our house to be livable. We slept in a tent on their patio, folding up the blankets and taking down the tent every morning, only to rush and put it all back up again while Lucia was in the middle of a meltdown because we didn’t get back to the house on the other side of town until it was past her bedtime already again. Plus I was doing all of this tent-arranging and meltdown-calming solo because Conan was working from sunup to sundown at least, trying to make the house livable as soon as possible.

But the allure and romance of having one’s own bathroom is powerful, and “livable” can be redefined at any time. By the time we got our very own toilet, sink, shower head, and even tile floor for the bathroom, I was ready to be in our house, regardless of the rest. I was thrilled at the prospect of sleeping in a tent that I wouldn’t have to take down and put up every day. My good friend Luz, who’s also family by marriage, borrowed a tent from her sister for months on end so that Lili and Uriel had their own tent, too. Lili and Uriel left the crappy room they were renting and moved in to our construction site/future house with us. The night we all first stayed there was Christmas Eve. We ran out of gas for the stove but Lili grilled meat over a fire pit. Our friend Nery came over with beers, too; it was an appropriate and fortuitous start to living in our own place, both positive and representative of the tenacity and flexibility that would continue to be required of us.

our bathroom and bathroom floor, with the hanging shower thing that came laterP04-05-14_08.55[1] P04-05-14_08.56

When we did have gas for the stove, the kitchen consisted of some plywood on top of horses that we used as a table, and a two-burner stove. It was in the tin shed. That was the only part of the house that we could lock up, since our big box still didn’t have a door or window protections. We locked it every night and three different times I was accidentally locked out from my wake-up necessity of coffee. I can’t begin to tell you how relieved I was when, months later, we finally got to move the kitchen to inside the house and there was no chance of being separated from my morning life serum.

When we first moved in, there were two rooms with rough concrete floors and two rooms with dirt floors. There was a big hole in the floor where originally Conan had thought he might put a staircase connecting the bottom floor (the “in-law quarters” which will eventually be two more rooms) to the kitchen. The yard was all dirt, hilly and uneven, with big piles of sand and rocks being used for construction. There were tools and raw materials pretty much everywhere. All of this made it nearly impossible for Lucia to play without someone being on top of her at all times- which also made getting anything else accomplished nearly impossible. It was boring and maddening a lot of the time, and it required me to totally (temporarily) redefine success. Every day that we managed to cook our meals and do the dishes and work on the house and go out to buy tortillas and ice for the cooler and run any other necessary errands and prevent Lucia from any major accidents was a hugely successful day.

And progress was made. Suddenly the cousin that was making our window protections came over and installed them! Since we had waited for them, the fact that most of them reminded us of prison bars was easy to overlook. Like with so many other things, I learned to think, ‘we’ll fix it someday.’ Conan and Uriel painted the two nice ones that Conan had gotten a deal on, and we got those two up, too. Just in time for us to visit Juquila for New Year’s, the cousin who made our doors (without charging us any labor cost) came over and installed those. The house started to look like it was owned by someone and wasn’t just being squatted by bilingual hippies.

our jailhouse window bars

our jailhouse window bars

Big magic happened on my birthday. Conan borrowed Arturo’s truck and brought down mattresses that fit in our tents! He brought down a bunch of Lucia’s toys, a couple more chairs (we had 2 or 3 before and put more plywood on horses to make a bench), more dishes, more clothes and shoes, a dresser, the changing table for Lucia (oh what a luxury to change her somewhere besides the floor), and several other random yet important odds and ends (like the hanging thing for the shower so our soap and shampoo aren’t on the floor). He brought down a big gas tank so we wouldn’t run out of gas every two weeks. And Paulina (my mother-in-law) gave me the aloe plant I had wanted and needed so sorely in the heat (and sunburn) of Puerto. It might not sound exciting, but it was like camping for a month or so and suddenly having civilization brought to you. Lucia’s utter joy at throwing herself backward on the bed and landing on something soft was a birthday present all alone, never mind all the other benefits from the things Conan brought down from Juquila.

Slowly but surely things kept on improving. We all (except Lucia) stayed up till midnight putting down the first floor. The guys had laid the concrete during the day, with the help of an extra hired hand, dumping five gallon buckets of sand and gravel into a big machine to mix with the cement to make the concrete. Then they carried buckets of concrete from outside to the appropriate spot on the floor. Then Conan and Uriel smoothed the concrete out, which is a lot of slow and tedious work. They used a 2by4 and this thing that looks like an iron, and by sundown they were not even close to finished. Since you might recall that we don’t have electricity, and timing is of the essence in this whole concrete business, there we found ourselves, Lili and I, shining lamps on Uriel’s and Conan’s work for hours on end. Our rechargeable lamps both went dead and we shined our cellphones on the floor until they finally finished. The next day they spent the day, still hunched over, drawing lines on the floor to make it prettier and less slippery. I had never seen the perseverance needed to make something so seemingly simple as a floor. We wrote Lucia’s name in it, too, and it sunk in a little more that when you build from the weeds up, it’s really all yours.

the floor! smooth concrete with pretty lines on it (not a great picture, mind you)

the floor! smooth concrete with pretty lines on it (not a great picture, mind you)

<the link has a beautiful picture of Uriel and Lili working on the floor in the dark.>

The other floor, months later, was an even later late-night project. Because our entrance opens to that floor, Conan and Uriel and Nery (bless his heart for coming to help us after he got off work) did it at night so we wouldn’t need to walk on it while it was wet. But by then our good friend Epig (who you may recall from my post about his amazing burgers had lent us his small generator, so they worked by the light of Thomas Edison’s amazing invention. I went to bed so I could be useful the next day but Lili told me they were up till 4 in the morning finishing it. I made the coffee for them the next morning at 8 so they could start the back-breaking job of hunching over and drawing lines on it.

Once the second floor was in we moved the kitchen to inside the house. It was exciting, but still frustrating because we had to schlepp the dishes from the house to the lavadero (concrete washing tub/board) out in the yard and back up to the house. About a month later I finally got a kitchen sink! Not even my mother-in-law has an inside sink and a fancy faucet like mine! Beyond the convenience of not running dishes back and forth, beyond the convenience of a completely indoors kitchen (not super common around here), it is a bigger convenience because we don’t have to put on Lucia’s shoes and sunblock etc. so we can go outside to wash dishes. I had no idea I would someday appreciate the ability to wash dishes, but here I am.

the now finished kitchen sink!!!!

the now finished kitchen sink!!!!

And more and more happened as the weeks passed. There were lots of boring things that had to happen, like adding a layer of concrete to the walls to make sure they don’t leak in the rainy season, smoothing out the windows so we can put in screens (we have half of the screens in now; the other half is still in the works). Things that before sounded boring became exciting, like putting up curtains. Uriel made us curtain rods and Conan’s Aunt Artemia took me out thriftstore shopping. Some of our curtains are repurposed sheets, but they do the job just fine. And thanks to Nery, we have a big, beautiful bed with mosquito netting to tuck us in at night. Lucia has her own bed, too, and some nights she even sleeps in it. Paulina paid to do the second bathroom, and Uriel put a moon and stars on the ceiling for Lucia. We’ve got mint, oregano, epazote, watermelon, tomato, cantaloupe and chiles. We’ve got more furniture. Our magnets are on the busted refrigerator we use as a giant cooler. A piece my Nonna embroidered hangs on my wall, reminding us to have a good day, everyday. Everyday, the house becomes more ours.

a key holder my Nonna gave my dad and mom long ago

a key holder my Nonna gave my dad and mom long ago

our "fridge" and magnets from my niece kayla and my mom

our “fridge” and magnets from my niece kayla and my mom

a gift from my Aunt Julia, made by my Nonna

a gift from my Aunt Julia, made by my Nonna

our bed, a wedding gift from Nery (Conan's b.f.f.)

our bed, a wedding gift from Nery (Conan’s b.f.f.)

Lucia's bed

Lucia’s bed

the moon and stars in Lucia's bathroom

the moon and stars in Lucia’s bathroom


the new bathroom

the new bathroom


There are still plenty of other things that we want to do in the future. The porch is still at half mast. The “in-law quarters” downstairs is going to remain an open box for the foreseeable future. Eventually we’ll replace the bathroom curtain with a real door. We can’t do it all now, but what we have now is enough. Now, I am grateful that Conan had the foresight to build us a big budget-busting box, to change our original plans for something bigger and better, for something we can grown into over time. Like the rest of life, our house is a constant work-in-progress, a labor of love.

This time last year, when we first concocted this crazy scheme to build a house, when we were about to lose our minds from living in Juquila, where I am sitting now was a big patch of overgrown weeds and trash and stray-dog poop and uneven dirt. To make this house possible, I went and worked a restaurant job in Kentucky and my parents and stepparents rearranged their lives to take us in and to watch Lucia while I worked. To make this house possible, Conan lived in the tin shack he built, day in and day out, even when it rained for two days and our land flooded, even when there was no running water, even when it was 100 degrees (most of the time), even when he was all by himself making sure the materials weren’t stolen. He had to orchestrate everything: find the albanil, the plumber, the electrician (because someday we will have electricity), buy all of the materials, oversee the work, and a million other details. It’s been anything but easy, but it’s been possible thanks to help from our families.

And all of our sacrifices are part of what makes this house our home. It is what will make this house a legacy for Lucia and any future brothers or sisters she may have. It is what will make great stories for her when she’s in the mood to complain. It is the way to learn that you can’t take kitchen sinks and flush toilets and concrete floors for granted. Most people around here who have their own house have similar stories, only many are even slower than ours. It took Paulina some 20 years to get her house into the shape it’s in now, and she still has her kitchen on the list for the future. Some people are not even able to make slow progress on their houses. Although of course, some people have bigger and better houses than we do, too. But this one is all ours. We dreamt it when you needed a machete just to walk the parameters of the land, when it seemed totally implausible. And in all the moments when it was a struggle just to wake up and put water on for coffee, it was a struggle for our very own house, for the first time ever. Even when I felt disappointed that the house we dreamt of was just a giant empty box, it was our giant empty box.

So we’ll keep on developing our house and our family, day by day, rethinking our expectations, redefining success. We’ll keep learning to appreciate what we have when we have it. We’ll try not to pine too hard for what we don’t have. And we’ll give you the best Kentucky/Mexican hospitality there is whenever you come to visit.

May your home be as marvelously, royally yours as ours is, from the weeds up.


our dirt floors (Lili and Lucia pictured)

our dirt floor before laying the concrete (Lili and Lucia pictured)

under construction... our house and the in-law quarters

under construction… our house and the in-law quarters below

Conan's house- the tin shack he lived in for months/ our kitchen for a while

Conan’s house- the tin shack he lived in for months/ our kitchen for a while

our land, getting the weeds out

our land, getting the weeds out

4 Responses to “From the Weeds Up… Building a House with Sand and Rocks and Magic”

  1. Kelly May 4, 2014 at 7:04 pm #

    I love reading your posts. Thanks so much for these glimpses into your life far away from us in Kentucky.

    • exiletomexico May 5, 2014 at 6:53 pm #

      Thanks, Kelly! I´m waiting for your blog to come out!

  2. Kirsty Erikson May 5, 2014 at 1:53 pm #

    What a wonderful story you are growing (from the weeds up)…a legacy for your late-life-years…for your daughter. I am sitting in deep admiration for all you have done with what you have. What an inspiration you are, Julia!


    • exiletomexico May 5, 2014 at 6:55 pm #

      Thank you! And I don´t think I have really done all that much, but I am pleased to be growing my own story, for myself and for Lucia. Thanks for commenting- it helps motivate me!

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