Tag Archives: building a house in mexico

Castles Made of Tin

23 May

Like driver’s tests and many other formalities, zoning laws don’t seem to exist here. This means that you are S.O.L. if your next door neighbor decides to put a karaoke bar on the third floor of his house (true story, folks- it happened to my mother-in-law). It means you have no recourse if your neighbor is sawing through aluminum all day long. It has all kinds of potential consequences that are really, really ugly.

As with everything in life, though, there’s a bright side, too. What I love about it is that you can build whatever kind of house you damn well please. Okay, well, whatever house you can afford, but nobody’s trying to regulate it. You pay a fee to build on your land, but basically you tell them if you’re building a small house or a big house and pay accordingly. That’s it. Building a house here is the three little pigs in real life, except the materials that each person picks aren’t due to work ethic but rather to economic situation. Thus, we have neighbors with a house made of wooden boards hammered together. We have a neighbor with a mammoth house; it’s three stories, all concrete, fenced-in with concrete, including garage. We have neighbors who seem to have multiple concrete structures and yet still can’t manage (or don’t use?) an inside bathroom. I only know because I sometimes bike past the matriarch in all her nude glory bathing herself in the yard.

I got stoked to write this post because I was watching some neighbors building the other day. It only took about two or three days to get her house livable, not like the months it took us. She put up a tin house with a slanted roof (which is not common at all here- they’re almost all flat roofs). It was so fun to watch her little sisters and other random family members, all over there hammering away at some pieces of aluminum. And that’s that- for now. It’s awesome that you can throw something together pretty quickly when you need somewhere to be. Conan built a quick aluminum structure to have a place to be while our house was being built, and it was a cheap and needed home (that we continued to use as a kitchen for a good while afterwards, too). It’s sweet to see how within-reach something like shelter can be, when in the U.S. building a home is a distant, complicated, super-regulated, long-term affair. But watching this family all help to build this quick structure made it seem as if I could almost build a home for myself, too- not only Conan and all the builders, but little ole me! That feels outrageously cool to me.

house 2

our “garage”- the house Conan lived in while ours was being built

house neighbor1

Different bits of tin pieced together make for a quick home when you need it

The downside of this kind of housing is that any passing hurricane or serious earthquake will likely destroy it completely. That, and the lack of bathroom regulation, which is a health problem for all of us, are the major rain on my parade. Granted, most people have some kind of decent bathroom situation, which is enough. Maybe it’s an outdoor commode that you have to pour a bucket of water down to make it flush, but it probably goes to a septic tank. The shower might be a curtained-off area outside where you pour water on yourself in lieu of a shower, but it works just dandy in this heat. (Why can’t my neighbor get a curtain at least? Geez!) Those situations are fine, but when there’s not even a septic tank, it’s a problem- for the person living there and for the rest of us and our gardens. Oh, well, at least there’s disinfectant for fruits and vegetables.

Whatever you can get together is home, and if it’s just a temporary throw-together, at least no mortgage shark is out to take it from you. Instead of paying mortgages their whole lives, people work on improving the home that they’ve got. As Conan pointed out the other day, “Rich people are the people who finish building their houses before they need to live in them.” For everyone else, home is a work-in-progress. It’s common to see, for example, one story of a house made of concrete and a second story put together with wood or tin.

Our house continues to be a work-in-progress, too. We have two indoor bathrooms but only two out of eight of our house’s window frames have windows that you could close. (Don’t worry- the others have mosquito netting and bars.) We still need another layer of concrete and a paint job on the outside before the rain can stop seeping in when it’s windy. But our house is big, and made of concrete, and it’s ours, ours, ours. It’s a work in progress that belongs to us, and I love it!

And I love that if you have the money for paint and want to paint your house a vomiting-cosmo-cocktails pink, nobody will say a word about it. Everyone will mind their own business and let your home be your castle, no matter what it’s made of, no matter how it looks. Just like it should be.

What Not To Do When You Move to Small Town Southern Mexico

9 Apr

My dad always said that opinions are like assholes; everybody’s got one. So true, and yet we all still think that ours is truly valid, that we can really help someone out with our hard-earned wisdom. So I’m here today, ladies and gentlemen, to share my opinions, my own stellar advice for all of you pondering a moving to the marvelous state of Oaxaca. For those of you already in Oaxaca, this is still superb advice, but you might already know it. You guys can go ahead and laugh with me, please and thank you.

This is advice that I would have appreciated, theoretically. I mean, okay, sometimes I love to jump headfirst into things, blindfolded and grinning. But often I would prefer to research things to make the most informed decision possible. Usually that means I seek as much advice and information as possible and then jump briskly off cliff number one anyway. Sigh.

So here you go- I present you the fruits of my experience, aka some advice that you can read, reject and ignore. (I’m practicing for the kids’ adolescence.)

The first tidbit of guidance I have for you is second-hand, but it is first-rate advice nonetheless.

Don’t change your country of residence immediately after having your first child.

“Don’t plan any major life changes for a while. Transitioning to parenthood is hard enough.” Our lovely doula, the birth assistant we hired for Lucia’s birth, tried to warn us. Truer words were never spoken. But, alas, the U.S. government did not appreciate this wisdom. And you know, there’s gotta be some benefit to starting your kid off really, really early with the globe-trotting.

But it’s not a great plan for adjusting to parenthood sanely. Abandoning your entire support system and general way of life while learning how to parent is a special kind of madness. I mean, leave the country, yes! I am so glad that we live here- now. If we could have waited a year, though, it would have saved us lots and lots of heartache. So while I don’t recommend jet-setting first thing postpartum, if you find yourself doing it, you’re a special kind of badass, and I want to be your friend.

Don’t buy an automatic car that needs work.

Contrary to popular belief down here in the land of stick shifts, automatics are not bad cars. In the U.S. I owned several over the years, and a couple of them were fabulous cars. They go up hills just fine, thank you very much, when they work. The problem here is, unless your automatic is more or less new (or at least in such condition that it never needs to be worked on by a mechanic), you are screwed, because nobody knows how to fix it properly.

This advice is spawned by my current frustration- the impetus for this blog post- which is a recurring soap opera. Every time our car breaks down (which is about bimonthly) it either takes a week (or longer) to fix it, or in the process of fixing it they cause some other problem. This month both things happened.

At first I thought this phenomenon was due to having bought a lemon of a car. Then I thought it was because the mechanic we often took it to (the cheapest option, a friend of a friend) was just a slow and inexperienced mechanic. But at one point we had a problem that required about ten different mechanics. Ten! They didn’t know if it was mechanical or electrical, so we took it to all the types of mechanics. They didn’t have a clue. They took apart our car, broke other things. It was absurd. And it just keeps happening!

It was nice to use an automatic to transition into learning to drive on these bumpy dirt roads with lots of drivers who don’t follow any rules. But now I have my teacher lined up to teach me how to drive a manual car, and I’ll hook you up, too. Just say no to automatics that might need mechanics. Buy yourself a nice little Tsuru, just like the taxis and half of the rest of the population own. That’s what we’ll be doing next, if I manage to follow my own advice. (Don’t hold your breath.)
Don’t build a house to live in when there is not yet electricity in the neighborhood.

“It’s just an overgrown lot right now, there’s no electricity or water,” my in-laws warned me when we came to visit the plot of land in Puerto that Conan owned. “Right, but we can get that stuff installed, right?” I asked, thinking it was just a matter of getting things hooked up, signing a contract, paying the bill. Little did I know….

We got water hooked up just fine during the building process, thanks to some help from a family member. But with electricity, there was no “hooking up” because there was nothing to hook up to on our block. The electric company won’t set it up someplace new unless they’re paid to by the folks living in the neighborhood and/or government (and we’re talking thousands of dollars). So it was a lot of waiting and fighting and hoping and hopelessness. Perhaps someone tried to tell me beforehand, but I was too blinded by my desperation to get out of Juquila to really let it sink in. And really, if I had it to do over again? I suppose I would think about us renting a place while we waited for electricity. But would I stay in Juquila till the lights came on here? Hell, no. Hell, no. (Seriously. Double or triple hell, no.)

We got lucky that we only spent a year and a half (two years for Conan) living without electricity. I know people who spent years and years living “off the grid” by accident. So you just don’t know when you’ll get it. Don’t plan to live there unless you’re one of those amish-style hippy types who wants to go charge your iphone at someone else’s house and live without fans because your body odor just isn’t at its best in the A/C. And if that’s the case, bless your little heart, you’re made of sterner stuff than I.

Don’t start a business that you know nothing about.

When we lived in Juquila, we couldn’t find decent jobs. Everyone and their mother wanted me to teach their kid English, but nobody actually wanted to commit to regular classes, or pay more than 20 pesos an hour (less than 2 US dollars). Conan’s construction skills were not in demand, either, since everything they construct here is very different. He got a job at one point, but he was working about 12 hours a day, 6 days a week for next to nothing.

So we decided to sell cell phones, accessories, and recargas (prepaid minutes) out of his mom’s storefront in the front of the house. That’s right- we sold cell phones. Imagine me selling cell phones. Me- who refused to have a cell phone until I lived in Chile in 2007. Me- who then held on to the same flip phone for like 6 years. Me- who still had cassettes until I moved down here, just to give you an idea of how resistant I am to new technology. It was totally my dream job to sell cell phones- Not! (Haha, look how backwards I am! Still using kid quotes from the early 90s- that’s me.)

In fairness, Conan knew much more about cell phones and accessories than I did (and do; I’m still clueless). But neither of us had any idea what the people of Juquila would buy, really. It was a pretty uninformed business venture, which seems to be kind of the M.O. in Juquila. There are no corporations; it’s all small business. You don’t take any classes or write up a business plan. You either have experience because your family owns something or you just scrape together some money for a small investment and get started with your tiny business that you hope will do well so you can expand. It’s a respectable way to do things in the circumstances, but it did not make us a living. Now if we had invested in statues of saints instead….

It wasn’t a total waste of money. We sold most of it over time. We used some of the phones and accessories ourselves. We earned some money, slowly. It was certainly an interesting experience. And I certainly admire the tenacity of the neighborly small business owners who just open up the front room of their house and stock some snacks and sodas along with the most common of vegetables. I mean, why not? Who says you have to have a stupid business plan? Granted, bigger small businesses down here do still have a plan, I’m sure. And maybe a small business could still work for us someday. But not in Juquila. And not cell phones. This lesson was learned, for now.

Don’t let your small child sleep in the same bed with you “just for the transition.”

Don’t do this unless you want to sleep with them forever. There is no “just for the transition.” Once they worm their way in, you will never get him or her out of your bed again. The transition just keeps on keeping on. Just say no to bed-sharing, for the health of your grown-up relationship and the sake of your ribs, which will remain bruised throughout the duration from all that kicking and thrashing these mini-monsters do. ‘Nuff said.


this is our near future…

The Moral of this story is…..

Well, nothing, really. As you can see, I don’t have any real advice. I don’t have a clue what you should do, but I have a wealth of savvy on what not to do. Not that you should listen to me. Counsel such as this probably would have saved me lots of heartache, but that doesn’t mean I would have taken it. My dad was always futilely trying to save me from making the same mistakes that he made, but heartache is ours to find, one way or another.

Furthermore, if I had known then what I know now, would I have done things differently? In general, probably not. For one, I love rollercoasters, and I am constantly learning to appreciate this roller coaster that is my life, no matter what. Also, I’m working on not judging myself harshly, and both Conan and I have done the best we could with what we were working with, and that just has to be good enough. Not to mention that I always figure these brilliant “mistakes” are good for my character. And I’m pretty damn cool on a good day. So if you find yourself by happenstance moving to small town Oaxaca, look me up and I’ll impart more thrilling opinions. Worthwhile? Well, that and a few cents will get you a stick of gum, as my dad would say. So on second thought, come on down and I’ll give you a cup of coffee instead.

Duct Tape & Therapy Techniques To the Rescue

10 Jan

It was all fun and games until water burst forth from the wall. Our household improvements and  reorganizing was going swimmingly, brilliantly even, in the few days since we’d been back from Juquila on my winter vacation. I’d gone through three years worth of kid clothes and organized the sales/giveaway clothes, plus reorganized the kid chest of drawers. I did laundry and put away all the clean clothes. I reorganized all the toys. I finished cleaning out my closet (I’d mostly gotten it done over a 3 day weekend but there was one little section left). Conan put up new shelves in the kid room and the kitchen. He did a ton of cleaning. We bought thrilling new gadgets, such as a napkin holder. It was feeling like a sensational vacation.



Behold! A napkin holder! On our new kitchen table!!!!! We’ve moved so far beyond our piece of plywood on saw horses….


My new spice rack!


Okay, so I haven’t gotten to the kid books yet. But the kid toys are organized by type of toy, whether you can tell by the picture or not. It’s a miracle!


New kitchen shelves and a new faucet to replace the leaky one!

We were a cheery and energetic bunch. It really was how I wanted to spend my vacation- at least part of it. For one thing, it felt like claiming my space, making this house even more into a home. Conan and I desperately needed the sanity from more organization. The constant clutter from not having a place for everything was driving us crazy, even though we’re not exactly super organized types.


Khalil was the other motivating factor. He is suddenly not a little baby- he’s a giant and active baby who can’t be contained to a small space in the living room. It was totally unsafe for him anywhere else in the house, which was frustrating for everyone. So once I reorganized and he was suddenly able to go into the kid room and play with all the big toys, it changed his whole outlook. He was ecstatic, and we were pleased as punch to watch him crawl and semi-walk around and play like the 10 month old he is. It’s so satisfying to see the toys getting used at age-appropriate times. For example, Khalil can play with all the shape shifter things and the blocks because they’re all accessible to him now. Lucia can play with her puzzles because they’re properly stored where she has to be supervised to play them so we don’t lose half the pieces. It’s earth-shatteringly wonderful, even if it may not sound like it to you (in which case you must not be the parent of small children- you don’t have an existence based around total family chaos!).


It was my second to last night of vacation, and most of our projects were completed when Conan started drilling to put up the last new kitchen shelf. He dropped the f-bomb, which he doesn’t do nearly as often or as easily as I do. I rushed over to see a little fountain raining down out of the wall. Yikes. “How can I help?” I asked, calm because there’s always something to do in the midst of an emergency. “Hold here,” he said, and I put my fingers over the hole in the wall (only partially effective) while Conan turned off the water.


Once the flooding of our house was safely averted, the black rain cloud of doom came out. I asked Conan what we’d need to do to fix it. “Bust open the concrete wall and change the pipe,” he said. Immediately, tears welled up in my eyes. My doom cloud of worst-case-scenario hovered over me. Panic squeezed my chest. I envisioned the last little bit of my Christmas bonus money, the money we were using on home repairs and some upcoming needed dentistry, going to this disaster instead. I imagined that it would send us into more debt. I lamented that all of this fabulous, life-improving repair and organization we’d done was all for naught, that this instant of miscalculated drilling had ruined everything. Not that I blamed Conan; it was the fault of bad luck, miserly fate, etc. Fault or no, though, it felt like the end of the freaking world.


Because I’ve now had many years of practice with these end-of-the-world moments, and thus far the world has yet to come to an end, I managed to refrain from real crying. Bless my little heart, I was even able to tell myself that yes, it felt like the worst thing ever, but it really wasn’t. It wasn’t even the worst thing this month! Plus it wasn’t even certain that all the horrible consequences that I could imagine would come to fruition from this. Thank you very much, these three decades of having a therapist for a mother is totally paying off. I finally took advantage and continued breathing. The world continued to revolve on its axis, and continues to this very day, believe it or not.


But welcome to Oaxaca, where two different plumbers have stood us up for days on end (and those are the recommended plumbers!). Despite this, thanks to Conan’s craftiness, we’ve had water this whole time. Even that first night, we just let the water spray out into Khalil’s plastic bathtub so we could take showers quickly (always a necessity in my tropical paradise) and then Conan turned the water off again. The next day, Conan knocked out part of the wall. But it wasn’t as much of the wall as I had imagined. Then he rigged up a fix for the pipe until a plumber deigns to visit us. And it’s the dry season, so we’ve got some time before we need to fix our wall. It definitely doesn’t negate the wonders of our other home improvements and the joy that they continue to bring to our whole family.



The original quick fix for drilling into the pipe. Crafty and stylish.


Getting even craftier as the days go by without a reliable plumber. Welcome to Oaxaca!


The duct tape that Conan used to fix the pipe gets the gold star award for most useful thing on the planet, by the way (brought down from Kentucky by my mom- way to go, Mama! Everyone here is jealous of my duct tape). It has not only saved the day in our renovations, but it is also my go-to fix for nearly everything. I’ve used it to cover holes in our window screens, like the hole some stray cat made trying to get at an empty can of tuna. I use it to make these cheap cloth boxes more durable and less likely to be eaten by moths and ants. I use it to put Lucia’s name on her lunchbox and other school stuff. I use it to hold my cell phone together- my oft-dropped, two-year-old, cell phone, the one I used as a flashlight at night for the year and a half we were without electricity. Now when I drop it or a child throws it to the ground, the battery doesn’t come out. And it looks cool (according to me)! We all knew duct tape was useful, but this tape with multicolored designs on it is the bee’s knees, for sure. And now we are using it to tape up the hole in our piping. It’s the most stylish house-flood-prevention ever!



My too-cool-for-school cloth boxes, remade with cardboard and rockin duct tape

Thus, I’m continuing to bask in the glory of an organized and clean house. I feel all smug and satisfied every time I walk in the door, like a cat that’s just presented you with the innards of his recent kill. When I told my students that I spent 5 days of vacation binge cleaning my house and that it was fantastic, they all just kind of looked at me in disbelief. Indeed, 20 year old me would never have believed it possible, either.


I’m exceedingly proud of Conan and myself for getting all this done with two mini-hurricane children under foot. But I’m also still patting myself on the back about not having a major breakdown over this plumbing disaster. It was like my little rational mind made a nice cup of chamomile tea for my little emotional mind in the midst of disappointment and panic, and it was a lovely little tear-free moment for everyone. I wouldn’t exactly call it wisdom, but it’s close enough for me. So thanks again, Mama, for all these years of free therapy, and the duct tape to boot.

“Plans? What Plans?”

7 Dec

This is what my mom said to show me how “go with the flow” she was going to be on this trip. It’s all fun and games until groups are blocking the airport when you’re supposed to leave, though. Then we can talk about the importance of not making plans as a resident of Oaxaca (unless you’re prepared to constantly have them derailed).

A year ago, our house was “almost finished,” which was an extremely loose definition. Here people who aren’t rich build something to put a roof over their head and then slowly improve it over the course of their lives. In the U.S. you just make mortgage payments; here you make sacrifices and you wait patiently and keep working, and you still might or might not have a nice house before you die (but there’s no mortgage payment, at least). I was only vaguely aware of this, in that way where you’ve noticed a phenomenon but not yet applied it, when we made a plan for Lucia and me coming down to Puerto to “finish the house” last December.

Plans, like owning a house, are also a horse of a different color down here. Many people don’t bother to try to make life plans, because what’s the point? Life is so blatantly not in your control. Not that I believe it’s in your control in the U.S., either, but many things there are indeed much more predictable and reliable than things here.

Our plans to finish the house in a couple of weeks quickly got reduced to “just get the bathroom up and running and then we’ll move our tent from your aunt’s house to our house.” That was after we had changed our plan of me just cooking food in Juquila and taking it down to Puerto and spending a couple of days a week there. As soon as we got here it was obvious that much more help than that was needed; my presence and domestic help just a couple days a week was not going to cut it. Another nice-sounding, well-intentioned plan down the drain- welcome back to Oaxaca, Julia.
My to-do list here is a cross between a cruel joke and my saving grace. It’s helpful and harmful all at once. Without it I’d go crazy, but I know it will never, ever all get done (and daily, probably not even half of it happens). For instance, flu shots have been on my list of things to do for a solid month now, and it still hasn’t happened. Not that I haven’t tried. But all the students at the university were renewing their insurance in November, causing day-long lines in the Preventative Medicine office, so I waited for that to calm down. Then, of course, they were out of the vaccine. So I wait and cross my fingers. I keep multiple lists on paper (the long-term to-do, this week’s necessities, to-do before work today, etc.), so that these dozens of pending to-dos are not all being juggled in my head, stressing me out constantly.

When my mom and Dee were visiting, for the first couple of days, I had that illusion (delusion?) again that you can control your life. We made plans to eat lunch in x restaurant, for example, and then we carried out those plans. We made plans like, “we’ll go swimming in the hotel pool, then take showers, then go for a walk,” and sure enough, we were able to fulfill these plans. Granted, much of this illusion of control was due to money (my mom and Dee’s money, not ours, that allowed us to make those kinds of easy plans). If I had enough money a much larger portion of my plans could happen in a timely manner, too. Like I could probably find a private doctor to give us all the flu shot and go ahead and cross it off my list (although I’d still have to find out who- vaccines are mostly reserved for public institutions, who never have enough, probably because some of it goes to the private sector). But some of the lack of control is also just a cultural difference.

I witnessed this culture clash in action the day my mother-in-law came into town. She had told me she was going to cook some food and bring it down and arrive during my lunch break so we could eat together (my lunch break is about 2 and 1/2 hours long). It sounded like a really great plan. But last time she planned to arrive during my lunch break there was some protest happening with people blocking the road from Rio Grande to here, so she was delayed by having to get out of the van and walk a ways before finding another van for the rest of the route. People around here (my beloved mother in law included) are not famous for their punctuality to begin with, and when you add in all these other common possibilities for delays and cancellations, it’s almost more reliable to count on someone showing up late or not at all than on plans happening as scheduled.

Sure enough, when Conan came to get me on my lunch break his mom was just leaving Rio Grande, a 40-60 minute trip, depending on the circumstances. And even once she arrived, she had other plans and things to do before arriving at the hotel to eat with us- dropping off a chicken at her sister’s house, talk of going to buy some disposable plates, etc. Meanwhile, the gringo faction had made new plans, deciding that we would go to a restaurant instead, and have Paulina’s food for dinner. The logic was that then I could potentially start eating even if Paulina arrived very late, so I had time to eat before returning to work. This logical plan, however, was not destined to be, as is so often the case once there are plans involving more than one person (every single day of the week). There were a couple irritated phone calls between Conan and I, being the go-betweens between my mother, who didn’t know why we were still waiting for Paulina when we’d already changed the plans to accommodate the time changes happening, and Paulina, who absolutely wouldn’t hear of us going to a restaurant when she was bringing delicious home-cooked food. So the minutes of my lunch break ticked away, and once Paulina arrived it was not the leisurely, pleasant lunch it was planned to be- partially because I was running out of time, and partially because I think everyone except Lucia was then irritated and out of sorts. Welcome to Oaxaca, where plans are subject to change 15 times before anything happens.

So I can see why people don’t bother making plans. It’s excessively frustrating. Here you can only count on not being able to count on things. There are the unexpected things that come up, like the airport being blockaded by protesters the day my mom was supposed to fly out (they let passengers in anyway, but we weren’t sure it would happen until we got there). Then there are expected “unexpected” things, like teachers being on strike (which is practically constant here in Oaxaca). Then there’s the institutional lack of commitment. Like when there’s some big construction or remodeling happening, for example, they don’t give an estimated completion date until it’s finished. Most businesses don’t post their hours of operation anywhere, because who wants to be held accountable for that strict of a schedule? The doctor at my insurance company still won’t even give me an official due date on my pregnancy, despite being in my third trimester. (Try planning your students’ exam dates when you’re not sure when your maternity leave actually starts!) It’s a constant adventure.

A year into our move to Puerto, our house is 100 million times more livable than it was (finished, though, it is not). And I’ve accepted that it’ll probably never actually be finished, but hopefully will continue improving through the years. I haven’t lost all hope of being able to make and carry out plans, but I’ve learned to take my own plans and ambitions with a big old grain of salt, a raised eyebrow, and a shrug-it-off-and-have-a-beer attitude, at least on a good day, if not every day. Maybe you’ll come visit and experience it for yourself- just leave your plans at the airport, please.

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 https://exiletomexico.wordpress.com/2012/09/05/hamburguesas-epic/) 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