Friday, February 22, 2013

Final Days


I’ve already introduced Dona Lin. She runs the hotele and restaurant at the north end of the beach. Sweet sweet sweet woman. Finally made it over to her place for dinner tonight. Well it is all the way on the north end! They don’t have a menu. You can chose fish, camarones (shrimp) or pollo, served with all the regular fritanga stuff, including fried plantains. I had the fish (mackerel), and Dona Lin served platanos maduros, mis favoritos – you wait until the skin of the plantain turns black, and it gets muy dulcita when sauteed in butter – I saved mine for desert! The place is so close to the water that the floor of the restaurant is literally crawling with hermit crabs! And they had a little negro y café, a black and tan puppy who reminded me of princesa Calala! After dinner I stopped at the internet café, and the owner Roberto told me that Dona Lin’s camarones are very special. Tomorrow camarones!

My driver’s side rear wheel was a little low last night, and tonight it was just plain flat. I found a nail in one of the treads, so I pulled out the spare and jack, and I guess it’s one more trip to Rivas tomorrow to have the flat fixed. Yes, I know how to change a spare tire.

I was a bit nervous cutting down the Madrono today – it was attractive as a center beam because the trunk was long and straight, but there were no low hanging branches for him to hoist himself up on, Mono Chele couldn’t climb the tree, so we couldn’t get a measurement before Saba had at it with the motosierra. Just had to cross my fingers. It would be a shame to cut the tree down only to find out it was five feet short. The Bodega is 24 feet long, I and I want to put a 10 foot porch out front and have one foot overhangs on each end of the roof, so I need a beam at least 36 feet long. Using a stick just a bit over nine feet long, I measured four full lengths . . . which means I’m going to have at least the required 36! I love it when a plan comes together!


Last full day here, and I had to make a quick trip to Tola to get some alambra and grapas (barbed wire and u-nails) for some fence repair and to build a new gate. We used the wire from the existing gate to tie the logs together for the new camino onto the lot. Leonardo’s first effort was met with skepticism by the first delivery driver, and the second driver almost tipped his truck over when he got too far to the right coming down the ramp. So Leonardo started over by sinking a series of posts in the ground like he was building a fence (deep holes pounded into rocky soil with a chisel on a spike, poles and the surrounding soil pounded back into the holes for a don’t move hold). We wired logs to these posts to form the side of the ramp, and Don Tino’s team dumped three meters of rock and gravel onto the new ramp, and they’ll be back tomorrow with two more meters, but I drove my little Suzuki Alto onto the lot this afternoon! Drove all the way town to the house, turned around and drove right back of the see if I could also get off the lot! Worked like a charm, so I drove back down onto he lot, parked and did some fence repair work, right after having a good laugh!

Whe I got to Tola I noticed that my fuel gauge was on "fumes," so I asked at the ferreteria about a gasolinera in the area.  One clek told me the gasolinera was three blocks way.  The second clerk told me ther wer no gqsolineras in Toal.  Don't know for sure wheich wqs right, never found one, and decided to head to the beach and cross my fingers.  I knew there's a gasolinera at the beach, so I just had to get there.  Just a shack on the north edge of town, andwhen I arrived the gasolinero was out for ten minutos, so I hung out, and enjoyed a coldTona while I waited.  I asked for 200 cordsworth, which amounted to an Imperial gallon (five liters), so I aked for 200 more.  Want to be sure I can get to Rivas tomorrow!  They brought the gas out in gallon milk jugs and plastic soda bottles, and used an inverted plastic soda bottle as a funnel. 
When the second delivery guy went a bit sideways bringing the extra piedrin down the first driveway Leonardo built, he took out my corner post on the right side of the driveway, so Leonardo’s first job was resetting that. Tonight I braced and tensioned that post with my neighbor’s corner post, and re-strung five lines of wire between the posts. In the other side of the camino opening, I retensioned the wires between three end posts and repaired a broken line. Tomorrow we have to rebuild the gate across the camino, ostensibly to keep the neighbor’s horses out, but also to discourage the uninvited curious. I actually don’t mind the horses visiting. About 5 showed up one evening this week while I was awaiting sunset, and they roamed around almost oblivious to my presence, eating stuff I might otherwise pay some kid to cut down. And of course they left presents that I can use to seed my septica!

We’ll work from 6 am to 10 am tomorrow, I may put in a couple more hours because there’s at least one piece of fence above the arroyo needing fixing – one of two spots where it looks like the Iguanadores cut the wire to make it easier to get onto my lot. I fixed the one spot earlier this week. After that, a quick shower and change, check out any time you like, wish you could never leave, lunch and a few emails at the café, then off to Masaya. Juan wants to spend the weekend with his familia. He’s going to help me find some good Nica shoes and introduce me to his wife and kids, then I’ll head to Granada for the night.

I was in the pulperia buying ice this afternoon and ran into a guy I met last year.  He works in costruction at one of the neraby resorts (not the Pella family monstrosity).  I told him about my center roof beam, and he suggested I seal the ends of the beam to prevent the grain from splitting.  Here in surf country, his suggestion that I use surfboard wax was perfect!  Lots of the stuff available, and it's pretty cheap!   

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

I've done it again!

2/17/13 Domingo is a day of rest?

After last night’s great dinner and debate internacionale, had a nightcap (two tragos de Flor de Cana y dos cubos de hielo, por supuesto) and called it an early night. Slept again like a baby, except for a brief moment in the middle of the night when someone banged on my door. I decided to be quiet and resisted the temptation to open the door and ask the knocker “what the fuck?” Good thing I had the door shut and locked! I woke up raring to go at 5:30 this morning. The Pescadores were already out on the water by that time, so I figured I better get moving! Started working at the site by 6, kept going until 11:30, shoveling excavated dirt out of the middle of the bodega space, using Iziquel’s wheelbarrow and shovel. Five hours of that is enough on any day, and especially on el dia del dios! Okay, it’s not as much work as the guys put in excavating all that dirt, and probably not as much work as the Pescadores put in casting their nets today, but I moved alot of wheelbarrow loads, and it sure felt like a major chore. Unfortunately, I managed to slightly dis-align a vertebra in the middle of my spine, so I’ll be paying for it all day. No chiropractors in the campo!

I managed to get a bit more than half the dirt moved. We’ll still have some excavating to do to level the ground inside the bodega ( to account for the two foot change in grade) before we can pour the concrete slab floor and front porch next year, but getting the loose dirt out will make that job go faster. Used all that dirt to complete my berm, and it looks pretty darn good. Don’t know if it’ll actually redirect any of the runoff from the property to my north, but figured I had to try. My Canadian neighbors to the south (I know, sounds geographically challenged) came over the other day to inspect my work while Juan and I were in Rivas, and I noticed yesterday that they’re now using excavated dirt to make a berm around the casita they started building this week. Must’ve looked like a good idea to them. Not sure that’s much of an endorsement, guess we’ll all find out when the rains start in April or May!

If I can manage to get my spine re- aligned I may go for a fish-swim later this afternoon. Maybe after a little siesta . . . Last week I started at the north end of the beach and worked my way south; this week I think I’ll work south to north. I’m expecting the same results – no fish, but it will be a nice refreshing swim! Yesterday I went for a quick dip after work and a small ray swam by within a few feet of where I was standing! Looked like it had a barbed tail like the kind that killed the dude on Animal Planet, so I decided against trying to get a closer look!

It’s hard to believe that I have only one more week here before my scheduled departure. Unfortunately, no opportunities that might keep me here longer have presented themselves . . . so far. My plan is to leave here on Saturday afternoon, after we quit work for the day and I and settle accounts with Iziquel and Dona Margarita, then drive up to Granada to spend the night, maybe at a hostal owned and operated by friends of one of my stateside friends. Granada is a nice city, I’ll have a chance to get some Vigaron in el parque central, and it’s just a 20 minute drive to the aeropuerto in Managua on Sunday morning, plenty of time to make my 1 pm flight. Vigaron is an ensalada made with shredded cabbage, fried yucca and chicharrones (crispy chunks of fried pork belly), served on a plantain leaf, which I usually wash down with a tasty tea made from Jamaica (Hibiscus) flowers. Managua is to be avoided at all costs.

Later in the same episode . . .

My siesta turned into sipping a couple of Tonas while I crunched a few numbers for tomorrow’s trip to Rivas; after this afternoon’s visit to the homestead, I have some more numbers to discuss with Iziquel and Manuel.

I made a few calculations about the septic tank affecting where the waste in and leech out lines need to be, and need the guys to tell me if my math is off. Your septic tank has to be 10 feet from your foundation, and your waste line has to drop 1/8 inch per foot between the foundation and the tank (about 1 ½ inches for a 10 foot line to assure that your poo flows downhill). Because the foundation at the rear of the bodega is 2 feet below grade, the waste-in line needs to enter the tank at 2 feet 1 ½ inches below grade. The leech line must exit the tank about 6 – 12 inches below that, depending on how long a tail you put on the leech line. So to plumb this right, I’ll need a couple of black PVC elbows and some joint sealer, and tonight I hammered spikes into the walls of the septic dig to indicate where I think those lines should enter/exit. Tomorrow’s first math question for the guys.

Question 2 concerns the center divider wall that creates two chambers within the tank. The first chamber is the waste in chamber, and the idea is that the solids gravitate to the bottom of the first chamber, so that the fluids flowing into the second chamber and eventually into your leech field have little effluent remaining. Apparently it helps to seed the first chamber with some horseshit; the system processes the solids more effectively because of some magic ingredient in the horseshit. Plenty of that stuff around for the taking, but I can’t help wondering what Jean Boner D’Orange is doing next February. He’s just chock full of the stuff! At this point, Manuel hasn’t put in any of the blocks for the center wall, and there’s a bit of math involved in how high that wall should be – usually somewhere between the height of the waste in and leech out lines – just to make things interesting. Okay, so maybe septic math isn’t all that interesting . . .

The third question has to do with Iziquel’s order for more cement. Based on what needs doing, concrete-wise, I wonder if we should buy three bags instead of two.

I also need to discuss the list of possible jobs for next year – how much he can get done on my annual budget, and how much time he needs to do it.

When I walked into the dining area tonight, Nancy had a new puppy running about. She had him in a full face harness, and I encouraged her to take that thing off the poor boy. Nancy is one of Margarita’s daughters. Apparently, mi amigo Dandy is also her dog. Before Dandy she had another dog named Sandy. This little boy she named Randy. About 8 – 10 weeks old, looks like a pit bull mix, and we hit it right off. He’s really looking for stuff to chew on, and I told Nancy to get him a Vaca (beef) bone. I let him chew on m hand for a few minutes and he calmed right down. Dandy first and Randy later both came over to my table to get some. Smile makers both.

I’ve figured out that next year I’m going to get new SIM cards for both my phone and internet stick modem; the internet café is a bit inconvenient because most days I don’t get over there un til after closing time, which means I can’t get a password to use when I could use it, it’s like not having the inner tubes at all. I also figured out I need to buy a new battery for my little netbook. I can get the skpe here at Margaritas, but only in the dining room, where there’s no plug in, and my battery ‘s so old it only lasts an hour (at best) on a charge, so unless somebody’s on the skype chat ready to play when I sit down there’s not much time for conversating. Must say, though, it’s a treat when I’m able to IM chat with someone stateside while I’m sitting 30 feet from the surf, waves pounding in the background, here in the middle of no place anyone else needs to come.


Rivas day again, this time principally to pick up Juan when he arrived from Masaya. Gave me a chance to walk around the parque central while I waited for his bus, which I’d never done in all my stops in Rivas, probably because generally the only reason to go to Rivas is to get building supplies or Flor de Cana. Sure love their bright colors – and monumentos to heroes of the revolution overthrowing Samoza! Also stopped at Casa Perlin to pick up a few last items Iziquel needs to complete the septic build. Hola, Ana!

Iziquel says his crew will be done with this year’s work on Thursday. Manuel finished all the block and mortar work for the septic tank, including stubs in for the line from the casita and out to the leech field. It looks amazing, and Manuel tells me my design is not usual for the area – usual is a hole in the ground, no concrete foundation and no block walls, with one line in and no line out. And a hole for the honey wagon to clean the hole out periodically. He was impressed with my entirely stolen two-chamber design and he was rightfully proud of his work building something he’d never seen before. They’re going to put the lid on tomorrow, and it will basically be a sealed box until I get the plumbing all hooked into the system! They’li also pull the forms off of columnos five and six, and pour number seven. I think he’s planning on taking Wednesday off, then pulling the formas off of the tank lid and columno 7 on Thursday.

All the lumber used for the foundation pour, for columno forms, setting level lines and for Manuel’s work bench, where he created the jigs he used to bend 1/8 inch steel into the squares and rectangles for the columnos and vigas? Five pieces of 1” by 10” by 5 meter board, and five pieces of 1” by 3” by 8’ board. Ten pieces of dimensional lumber for the whole job. Each of the formas for each of the columnos was a different combination of boards, but each of the finished columnos measures exactly 114 inches tall! I’ve been watching every step along the way, and I can’t figure out how they do it!


Revised plans, looks like Iziquel will be working Wednesday after all, but will get everything done a day early. Iziquel sealed the walls of the septic tank today, Manuel fitted the forms for the lid, and we poured the concrete top. Best looking septic tank in town! Saba came out and cut down the trees, and tomorrow he’s coming back to cut down one of my Madronos that I’m going to use for the center roof beam for the bodega. The Madrono is the national tree of Nicaragua, and I have at least four of them on my lot, one big enough to give me a 36 foot long beam that will run the length of the house, including over the front porch. The other three are younger trees, and by taking the big one out the youngsters have more room to grow. I have to figure out a way to dget down here in Deciembre; Juan tells me that the Madronos are in bloom, and that they’re muy bonita! Madronos are cousins of the Madrones we have in the Pacific Northwest, except that the Madronos have a blonde colored wood, versus the dark red wood of our Madrones. Like our Madrones, the wood of the Madrono is EXTREMELY dense. Like petrified wood dense. After Saba cuts and trims the tree tomorrow. Don Tino’s oxen will pull the log out of the arroyo, and I’ll set it on some of the logs we cut today to keep it off the ground, and cover it with a big tarp so it’ll cure nicely and be ready for use next year.

I made a great trade with Iziquel today. Financially it’s a much better deal for him, but I get one more project completed out of the deal, and I get rid of some stuff I have no way to secure. We ended up with a bunch of extra rebar, which Iziquel wanted to buy from me to use on his own building project. Initially I told him I’d sell it for half price; then I asked him how much he’d charge me to excavate and level the floor of the bodega. His price for that was less than the price he’d have to pay for the rebar, but I told him I’d make an even trade. He thought that was a great idea, and told me he’ll do that work tomorrow. The only other tasks for tomorrow are removing the forms from columno #7 and the septic tank lid, so he’ll have plenty of time to get the floor ready for next year’s slab pour. We even have enough left over gravel from the concrete work to make a nice base for the slab!

Iziquel also told me that next year when I come down he wants me to stay at his house! This is AWESOME!

ALSO AWESOME: I have some additional potential projects I might try to get done this week, like maybe hiring Leonardo to build a better-reinforced driveway and to have a couple of meters of rock delivered to provide a more stable ramp, but even if we can do all this I’m going to be way under budget on this trip. It’s been a great experience using the local guys and getting to know their skill sets, and we’ve made way more progress that I thought possible this trip! If I can get the roof and cisterns built next year, I’ll be just one year from having a livable space!

2/20/13 - Finishing touches   Iziquel and Chele leveled the bodega floor and filled in the empty spaces around the edges of the septic tank, and Saba cut down the Madrono for my center roof post.  Tomorrow Don Tino will bring his ox team to pull the beam out of the arroyo so we can set it up for curing, amnd Leonardo is coming to rebuild the driveway.  Don Tino will bring a coupe of wagon loads of rubble to create a firmer driveway surface, so next year we won't have to worry about whether the delivery driver has sufficient testicular fortitude to make the trip down to the building site!   Last year when I left town, I cried all the way to Tola, 20 kilometers on rough dirt roads.  I cried because I was leaving my place of peace, and because I was leaving without my constant companion, sweet Calala.  After we finished work today we loaded Don Iziquel's tools into the car and I drove him home - he lives up on a hill with a beautiful view of Playa Amarillo.  It's going to be a great place to stay next year!  When we were unloading Iziquel's tools, I broke down and wept, couldn't get out even a word of broken espanol, except to say "no tengo palabras suficiente."  Iziquel gave me a big hug, called me his great friend, and promised that we would see each other very soon.  God is good!   I managed to pull myself together (I thought) by the time I got to Margaritas, but Margarita was sitting on the porch feeding one of her grandbabies, and when she asked me about work on the bodega, I teared up again, completely unable to tell her anything except the names of the guys who worked for me this year, and that they did great work.     

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Locos Americanos


Juan had to go home to Masaya this morning because one of his daughters was in hospital with an unknown illness. Thanks Jesus it was just a bacterial infection, some kind of stomach flu. He plans to return on Monday morning, and I will pick him up in Rivas at el parque central a las diez. We’ll pick up the two bags of cement Iziquel needs in Tola on our way back into town, and I’ll only have to miss a couple of hours at the site. I want to make the most of my last five working days on the site, but I also want to help Juan out any way I can; the bus ride from Rivas is no fun at all!

I got an object lesson today explaining why some gringos have trouble here: I was in the local pulperia to buy some time for my phone and an Americano I met last year walked in and tried to buy a five-gallon water carbuoy. He didn’t have enough Cordobas to pay the full price, but he argued with the clerk that his centavos (pennies) were the same as Cordobas (as with dolares, there are 100 centavos per Cordoba). And he got pissed at me when I pointed out that he wouldn’t give anybody a dollar for ten pennies. Absolutely no respect for the local currency or the people. At an exchange rate of 24 Cords to the dollar, this dumbass had no reason to argue, aside from sheer ignorance, but he got pissed at me for suggesting he should just pay his bill. He told me that since I was just a “fucking tourist” I should stay out of it. While I currently spend only three or four weeks per year in town, I hardly consider myself a tourist. I have tried very hard to develop peer-to-peer relationships with the locals, I think with a lot of success. Even if I were just a “fucking tourist,” I hope I’d have more respect for the locals than this yahoo.

Permite que los tiempos buenos rodar (Let the good times roll)!!


Happy birthday, Calala! Mi princesa Nicaraguense tiene dos anos hoy!

What a day! I’ve been living my own Discovery Channel program on third world construction methods!! Today, Iziquel and Co completed foundation pours for both the bodega and the septic tank! The guys really put their dive in the water! Considering that all the concrete was mixed by hand, in small batches on a bare piece of ground, and poured into the foundations one five gallon bucket at a time, it’s amazing. I keep hearing from gringos down here that the locals are not to be trusted, that you have to watch them all the time, and that they’ll avoid work whenever possible. Based on my experience last year with the crew who built my fence, and this year’s crew working on the bodega and driveway projects, I think my gringo acquaintances, as the song goes, just may be mistaken. In fact, the guys frequently work past quitting time to wrap up a particular task. On a three man crew, the guys all have their own tasks to do, and they coordinate their efforts virtually wordlessly. Nobody stands around waiting for the gringo jefe to tell them what to do. Ed Shultz talks about guys who take a shower when they come home from work every day, hard-working salt of the earth types. I’ve met some of those folks here in the campo de Nicaragua.

Today was a great example. I met the guys at the worksite at 7, and they started building rebar rectangles for the foundations, using the same technique they used for the columno towers. My architect specified the standard two runs of rebar around the perimeter; their method used four runs of rebar, based on what they know is needed due to the seismic activity here. Manuel bent 1/8 inch pieces of steel into rectangular frames then David and Iziquel used the frames to wire four pieces of 1/2 inch rebar together. Iziquel and Manuel fitted the frames in place in the footer trenches while David mixed the first batch of concrete. When the frames were in place, David and Iz worked the mixer and Manuel started working on the rebar framework for the septic tank. They just started pouring the footers when I had to leave for another trip to Rivas, so I missed most of the pour for the bodega, but it was essentially done when I got back at 1 pm. I helped assemble the rebar framework for the septic tank, basically a steel cage that will support both the foundation and the concrete block walls, and we put it in place in the big hole. At that point, they noted that it was 3:30, but they decided to go ahead and pour the septic tank foundation, which they didn’t complete until about 4:30. Not exactly what I’d call lazy or unreliable.

I think on big construction projects at resorts they might have cement mixing trucks, but in the campo even a small batch mixer is beyond the means of the average contractor. They just scrape clean a big circle on the ground to remove all loose dirt and organic material, pile sand, gravel and cement in the circle, toss it together with shovels to form a cone shaped volcano, then form a well in the middle of the volcano. They pour water into the well and, circling the volcano with shovels, they work the mix from the outside in to form a thick gooey mass. If they need more water, they form another well and repeat the process until they get the right consistency, then start shoveling the concrete into five gallon buckets and start pouring.

For the septic tank pour, David (nickname: Chele) was the barefoot mono in the hole, spreading the concrete with a trowel while Manuel and Iz dropped bucketsful of concrete into the pit. Chele somehow avoided getting concrete poured all over himself, and also managed to get the concrete smoothed and leveled nicely, with no visible footprints. Iz told me they’ll finish the columnos and the septic tank next week before I have to leave. Wish I had more time and money this year, but I told Iziquel that I’ll come looking for him next year when (I hope) we can finish the bodega.

Margarita’s family has two dogs and three cats hanging about, including Dandy, a tall big-headed white and tan dog who looks a bit like a beefed up greyhound. Dandy has decided we’re pals, and every day when I get back from “work” he insists I give him a good five minute pet before he’ll let me take my shower. I hope Buddy and Calala don’t get jealous, but this kind of thing happens to me all the time. Dogs seem to know what I’m about; Dandy has several times chased other dogs away who come over to my table for some attention. None of them seem the least bit interested in the food, they just want some G time!


The rectangular rebar forms buried in the bodega foundation are called “vigas.” In typical Nica construction they use four kinds of horizontal vigas: The foundation vigas are asismica vigas; above window and door openings they’re called dintel vigas; across the middle of exterior walls, just below window openings, they’re called intermedia vigas; and, across the top of exterior walls at the roof line, they’re called corona vigas. I was expecting the asismica vigas in the foundation, but Manuel explained to me today that they’re also putting in the intermedia vigas around the perimeter of the bodega! I had no idea these were going to be included in the work Iziquel intended to do, and I’m starting to think he seriously underbid the job. On the other hand, it looks like we have plenty of rebar for all this “extra” work, so maybe this was part of his plan all along.

We laid the first row of concrete blocks around the perimeter of the bodega and built the formas and poured concrete for two of the seven columnos today, and then Manuel climbed into the septic tank and laid a row of concrete blocks on the foundation. These guys may not officially be members of the club, but as the Masonic motto goes, they go to great pains to make sure everything is on the level and on the square!

While they were initially surprised that I knew how to use a hammer, saw, square and level, they’ve started treating me as one of the crew, and Iziquel and Manuel both have given me specific tasks to perform. Relatively simple stuff, banging nails, checking rows of blocks for level, hauling buckets of concrete (by the way, a five gallon bucket of concrete is HEAVY), cutting rebar pieces to use for the intermedia vigas. I think because I have proved useful, it’s also helped develop a sense camaraderie with the guys.

At the end of last week, Iziquel asked me for a ride home – he lives in the north end of the village, behind the most beautiful of the several beaces within walking distance. When I fired up my little rental rattle trap and turned on the air conditioning full blast that first day, his eyes brightened and he smiled mischievously; since then, he’s asked for a ride every day. At some point he let Manuel in on the secret, so Manuel stopped riding his bike to work, and now I have two passengers at quitting time. So far, they haven’t told Chele about the air conditioned comfort; he’s still riding his bike to work!

I got home tonight and noticed that Margarita had my room cleaned, fresh linens on the bed and a clean towel set out for me . . . it wasn’t until after I got done with my shower that I noticed the fan. Sweet Jesus! Just like uptown!


Slept like a bebe last night, in fact reported for work a few minutes late. Had to skip the café again, but had so much fun at work I didn’t notice the headache until quitting time.

Saturdays are half days, but the guys got plenty done today. We pulled the formas off the first two columnos (looking really good!), poured numbers three and four, and Manuel laid about half the blocks for the septic tank walls. Iziquel told me we’ll need two more bolsas of cemento, which I’ll get in Tola next week. He still thinks we’ll be done by Friday, my last full day in town. The awesome never quits!

Having lunch at the internet café, watching kids play in the sand (think I’ll join them after lunch) and enjoying the light breeze here in the shade. I’ll grab a bag of ice on my way back to Margaritas and start the weekend off with a doublé Flor de Cana, then take a plunge in the bahía bonita.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Benjamin Franklin didn't know about double taxation

I've been offline for awhile - my hours at the building site don't end until after the internet cafe closes, so here are my notes from the last few days.


Juan tells me that in Nicaragua the word for steer is ternero. The road leading to my property is just a little wider than one lane, and the shoulders are about as wide as a radial tire. When I drove to the property this morning, another car was blocking my path, so I stopped (not really any point in parking at the non-existent curb). About 20 minutes later, Juan shows up and tells me the oxcart is here and the road is blocked. I moved my car behind el otro, but I doubted the guy with the two-ternero team would be able to get by on the other side, and figured that I’d have to wake the neighbors and ask them to move their vehicle. No need. The cart made it by just fine with room to spare, and they made it down the not-yet driveway with only slight encouragement from the driver. Faustino (or Tino for short) owns the team, and he tells me his two boys will haul dirt up to the driveway – and onto the road itself (which needed a bit of fill in front of the entrada; I guess delivery drivers are also allergic to washouts) for 80 Cords per load. They moved six cartfuls of excavated dirt and rock (total cost: $20), and the limpiadores used the dirt to fix the part of the washout in front of my entrada and create a very serviceable though admittedly rustic driveway. Ready for the delivery truck!

When I was growing up, my mother’s folks lived on a farm in Windber, Pennsylvania, a little town up in the hills surrounding Johnstown. Grandpa Geisel always had a couple of cows and at least one bull (his bulls got to keep their testiculos; grandpa raised his own beef, and you can’t make calves with terneros), and one of the things I learned about bovines (with or without testicles) is that they do not like to go backwards. You can try to push them or pull them in reverse, and they mostly balk. You try arguing with a one ton bull! Tino’s team repeatedly performed perfect “Y” turns, backing up to the dig site to allow easy loading of the cart, made it look like they were born for it.

The limpiadores finished work on the driveway and path by 10 am. Iziquel and Javier finished the septic excavation by noon. Early weekend for everybody, and the workers were all smiles because Sabado is also payday, so they all went home with cash money in their pockets.

Monday is materials delivery day. Iziquel will tidy up the excavations, lay down some gravel to level everything out, then run a couple of courses of reinforcing rebar around the foundation dig and assemble the columno rectangles. We found a 450 liter water tank (about 120 galones) to borrow, and, beginning Tuesday, Tino’s team will haul water to the site, two sixty-gallon barrels at a time, for 150 cords per trip. Iziquel thinks we’ll need one or two deliveries per dia. My neighbors paid about $6 grand for their well. If you can’t afford a well, hire a pair of torneros!

2/10/13 – No fish were harmed (by the author) in the making of this episode

I slept through the Pescadores’ predawn preparations today. God may have rested on el domingo, but when the fishing’s good, the Pescadores work, no matter what day it is. During long stretches of the rainy season, and for a two or three week period in January, when the winds are like the Santa Anas de California on steroids (if you’re standing on the beach the sand will tear your skin and scratch your corneas), the seas are too rough for their 20-foot pangas, but they definitely make hay when the sun shines. I watched while I ate lunch as some of the crews returned home and unloaded their catches. Lots of pargo (red snapper).

I got up about 7 and arrived at the lot about 7:30, worked until 11:30 clearing brush and building a berm, which (hopefully) will help divert rainwater runoff away from the bodega foundation. Had the place to myself (albanilles and limpiadores don’t work on el domingo, no matter how good the fishing is!) except for the birds. Hurachas (think Blue Jay with better makeup and a pretty hat), noisy pajaros (parakeets) and little blackbirds all sang for me as I used a forked stick to move cut branches and leaves off the front yard. A couple of vultures soared gracefully and silently above the treeline waiting for something to die. Viewed up close, these grey-headed vultures are not God’s best work, but they are impressive in the air. In the background, unseen, a howler monkey made occasional reports.

Looks like we’ll have some tree work to do next year before beginning any further construction – a couple of trees suffered enough fire damage that they’ll have to come out. Even so, I’m surrounded by trees, and the whole site is shaded until after noon. Gonna be a nice place to raise goats and chickens. In the front section of the lot I’d like to plant some plantains, mangoes, figs, aguacates (avocados) and olives. I’ll have to come down during the rainy season for planting, and I’ll have to have an irrigation system worked out for dry season before that. For now, I’d be pickled tink if I get a roof on the bodega next year.

Before last year’s trip I bought a five-piece fishing rod and reel and assorted tackle. The whole kit takes up almost no luggage space, brought it down last year and didn’t use it. Nevertheless, I packed it again this year, and today I gave the equipment a workout. Didn’t catch so much as a sniff….take that back, on my third or fourth cast I caught something immovable on the bottom. Cut the line, re-rig, move off the rocks and into the surf.

I never catch anything when I fish. Even in my grandfather’s stocked fishing ponds in Pennsylvania, the only fish I ever reeled in were hooked by someone else. Today I walked the beach from one end to the other in water at least chest deep, occasionally getting knocked off my feet; going (not like going) for a swim with a fishing rod. Between five and six pm, so the sun was setting in front of me. Had me one of them blast things. Probably do it again next Sunday. In the meantime, I’ll settle for some of Margarita’s pargo rojo con salsa rojo o con salsa ajilla.

The ajilla is a white sauce with jalapenos and onions in crema. Crema is like slightly runny sour cream without the sour. Makes a great sauce/sausa base. The ajilla is served in its own little bowl and it’s got so many jalapenos it looks more like ensalada jalapeno. Takes the paint off the back of your throat! Also makes a great dipping sauce for the tostones.

2/11/13 – Irony as a way of life

Started at 6:30 this morning, moving excavated rock and gravel one shovelful at a time to strengthen the water channel I started yesterday. Iziquel arrived at 7, and he watched me for about 2 hours before suggesting that my job would be easier with a wheelbarrow. When I said I didn’t have one, he offered to bring his tomorrow. We’re going to need it.

We spent two days preparing the road through the property and fixing the driveway in front anticipating today’s delivery. What originally was an 8 am scheduled delivery got changed to 11 am and eventually became 3:30 pm. That’s the way of things here. Despite all the work we did to pretty up the place for him, when he finally arrived, the delivery driver refused to make the turn from the road onto our neatly groomed pathway. He claimed the driveway was too steep, and that he’d damage his low-slung gas tank. I think he was full of crap, and I tried to argue as much, but no budge. A representative from Perlins was there, and he thought if we took out one of my fence posts the truck would make it. Didn’t understand that one bit, but even when I said I’d take out the post, no budge from the driver.

Instead, he pulled the truck up the lane just past the entrada, and the crew with him started unloading bags of cement, rebar and tie wire, concrete blocks, wooden planks, and two sixty-gallon plastic barrels, which they hauled down to the base of the driveway, just 100 meters from the building site. Then the best part. They shoveled gravel out the back of the truck and sand out the side of the truck (and down the slope at the edge of my property). Just beyond my lot, the narrow lane gets even narrower due to a two-foot deep and two-foot-wide gulley washer that took out a big chunk of the road. Didn’t occur to me to point this out before they started unloading – in my own defense, they didn’t give anybody a whole lot of time for “hey, looky over there at that big gaping hole in your turnaround, have you figured out your escape route yet?”

By the time el senor figured out he had a problem, after all the materials were unloaded, it was literally too late to back out. He tried that, and got . . . stuck in the sand. Answer? Gun the engine and toss the sand everywhere. The guy from Perlins came to attention and started yelling at the driver, and the driver started yelling at everybody not to say nada (in espanol, the double negative is a means of emphasis rather than a grammatical faux pas). He embarrassed himself, and he didn’t want anyone giving him a hard time. Can’t say I sympathized. Nobody but me found my observation funny: If the driver had just entered the lot and dropped all that material at the building site, he’d now have a clear shot out the driveway and onto the road without having to worry about whether he was going to tip over in the gulley washer. Laughed so hard I peed myself just a bit. Oops. The driver and crew scrounged a bunch of felled logs to fill the gulley washer, shoveled some loose gravel on top, and after about 30 minutes of maneuvering back and forth, inches at a time, he finally got back down the lane. Have a nice day!

Enjoyed a bit of free internet at Margarita’s during dinner last night. The signal wasn’t strong enough to permit browsing, but Skype connected, and I was able to chat with my pal Doug for about an hour before the battery in my computer went out. No place in the dining room to plug in, and no signal in my room. Doug came down with me two years ago, and even though he says he had a great time, I can’t convince him to make a return trip. Doug has a coop full of chickens to feed and care for, so it’s hard for him to get away. Or so he says.


Iziquel has things under control at the site. He and another guy are cutting steel rods and bending them into squares for the columnos, and David is hauling the piedrin (stone) and arenas (sand) from the road, using Iziquel’s wheelbarrow. I’m going to stay out of everybody’s way today. The combination of yesterday’s excitement, too much sol and lots of trabajo has me muy cansado hoy. Enjoying a cup of Margarita’s café negro, trying to recharge. I’ll go out to the site this afternoon to see how everything is going.

Had lunch before going out to the lot to check on things. Iziquel told me that a man from the Alcaldia was next door, and to avoid an unfortunate incident with the taxing authority resulting from my poor espanol, I went to find Juan to help translate. No luck, and when I went back to check with Iziquel, he told me the tax man cameth and wrote up a tax bill for 3,000 cords, or $125 USD for my building permit. Sounds reasonable to me. Because the tax is based on a percentage of materials cost, and because we haven’t figured the final total, I put off the trip, but Juan and I will stop at the Alcaldia tomorrow on our trip to Rivas to square things.

2/13/13 – No bad deed goes unpunished

The process of buying land in Nicaragua can be a lengthy process, and the length of the process increases in inverse proportion to the shortcuts your seller might try to take. One of the steps in the process is payment of property taxes to the Alcaldia, equal to 1% of the value of the land being purchased. Every year after that, you pay another 1% tax. Let’s say your seller hasn’t paid taxes on the land he’s selling you. I guess I just did. If that happens, the buyer can be assessed two years worth of property taxes. Pay the taxes or your deed doesn’t get registered. Picture yourself slung over a barrel.

All of the documents that must be filed with the Alcaldia are in espanol. Imagine that. All of the documents are prepared by the seller, including the document that identifies the parties to the transaction, the property being sold, and the purchase price. The buyer doesn’t see most of the filed documents until the sale is done, registered, approved by the Alcaldia. Now imagine that the seller decides (for reasons that may escape rational thinking individuals regardless of your native tongue) to quote a sales price that the attorney I consulted a few days ago called “insultados.” That’s one of those near-cognates that doesn’t need much translation. Essentially, the seller told the Alcaldia he was selling a 1.7 acre lot for a fraction of the going price for lots a fraction of that size. Response? The Alcaldia established an avaluo (another near cognate) approximately twice the actual sales price. So when I bought the land, I paid tax on that value – twice. Because, surprise, surprise, the seller wasn’t exactly current in his taxes at the time of the sale. Insulting and delinquent. Care to try for a triple? Robert Blake used to say that if you put coulda woulda and shoulda in one hand and a nickel in the other you still can’t buy a doughnut. But it turns out you can get the hole.

Juan and I learned today that the 3,000 Cord bill from the tax man was just for the property inspection. Taxes not included. We talked to the inspector who visited the lot yesterday, and he said that we have 15 days to pay for the inspection and the taxes due, or he’ll order all construction stopped. And we learned there are eight separate steps to the permitting process, including presenting documents that I don’t happen to have with me, Not sure how this is going to work. The good news is that we’ll be done with this year’s construction before the 15 day time limit…..

Saturday, February 9, 2013

That ain't no bull!


Juan tells me that what we call a steer in Nicaragua is called a ternero. The road leading to my property is just a little wider than one lane, and the shoulders are about as wide as a radial tire. When I drove to the property this morning, another car was blocking my path, so I stopped (not really any point in parking at the non-existent curb). About 20 minutes later, Juan shows up and tells me the oxcart is here and the road is blocked. I figured I could park behind the other car, but I doubted the guy with the two-ternero team would be able to get by on the other side, and that I’d have to wake the neighbors and ask them to move their vehicle. No need. Made it by just fine, room to spare, and they made it down the not-yet driveway with only slight encouragement from the driver. Faustino (or Tino for short) owns the team, and he tells me his two boys will haul dirt up to the driveway – and onto the road itself (which needed a bit of fill in front of the entrada; I guess delivery drivers are also allergic to washouts) for 80 Cords per load. They moved six cartfuls of excavated dirt and rock (total cost: $20), and the limpiadores used the dirt to fix the washout and create a very serviceable though admittedly rustic driveway. Ready for the delivery truck!

When I was growing up, my mother’s folks lived on a farm in Windber, Pennsylvania, a little town up in the hills surrounding Johnstown. Grandpa Geisel always had a couple of cows and at least one bull (his bulls got to keep their testiculos; grandpa raised his own beef, and you can’t make calves with terneros), and one of the things I learned about bovines is that they do not like to go backwards. You can try to push them or pull them in reverse, and they mostly balk. You try arguing with a one ton bull! Tino’s team repeatedly performed perfect “Y” turns, backing up to the dig site to allow easy loading of the cart, made it look like they were born for it….

The limpiadores finished work on the driveway and path by 10 am. Iziquel and Javier finished the septic excavation by noon. Early weekend for everybody, and the workers were all smiles because Sabado is also payday, so they all went home with cash money in their pockets.

Monday is materials delivery day. Iziquel will tidy up the excavations, lay down some gravel to level everything out, then run a couple of courses of reinforcing rebar around the foundation dig and assemble the columno rectangles. We found a 5,000 liter water tank (about 1,000 galones) to borrow, and, beginning Tuesday, Tino’s team will haul water to the site, two sixty-gallon barrels at a time, for 150 cords per trip. Iziquel thinks we’ll need one or two deliveries per dia. My neighbors paid about $6 grand for their well. If you can’t afford a well, hire a pair of torneros!

Friday, February 8, 2013

Oxcart Technology

2/7/13 – The Book of Holes

Back in the stone age when I was in college, mostly busy NOT being a student, I was introduced to Firesign Theatre, a troupe who performed stream of consciousness skits tied together into albums by some loose and rather bizarre threads. To someone with a (shall we say) unique (we just did) perspective, FST was hyper funny. I particularly enjoyed their ability to turn commonplace expressions on their heads. In one album, a radio preacher convinced his followers that the way to salvation lead through a big giant previously unexplored hole in the planet. At one point, the preacher read from The Book of Holes, where it is written: “Yea, verily I say unto you, they knew not their holes from an ass on the ground.” Or something like that.

Based on progress as of this afternoon when Juan and I went to Rivas to buy materials and pester Ana, I’m confident that the bodega foundation hole will be done today, and that Iziquel and his crew have moved on to the next hole, the glamorous septic tank. Before I left the worksite, Iziquel laid all the lines for the tank dig, using the same technique he previously used to level and square lines for the bodega. Only this time, I got to help.

Before we started this year’s project, Juan advised me to limit my activities to supervising the project. He seemed to think it would be a bad idea for me to get my hands dirty, or that I’d just get in the way. I’ve mostly followed Juan’s advice, just asking questions along the way or answering Iziquel’s questions about dimensions. Gradually, Iziquel has come to understand from my questions that I know one or two things about construction techniques, and he’s accepted my help here and there. There have been times, though, when it’s clear he thinks me no genius.

I bought a set of drawings for the bodega from a professional architect back home, and I brought two sets with me, printed on full sized drafting stock (about 24” by 36”). Before he put the plans together, for what is essentially a 14 x 24 foot garage, the architect had questions about intended purpose, roof pitch, and construction materials. When I told him I was going to use his plans to build a concrete block bodega in Nicaragua, he was intrigued. This led to discussions about seismic considerations and regulations. These considerations are real in a country littered with active volcanoes, including Volcan San Cristobal, Nicaragua’s largest seismic consideration, named after the Spanish conqueror and killer of indigenes (No, Virginia, C. Columbus was not a nice guy), Cristobol erupted at least twice in the last six months, resulting in evacuations of communities around its skirt and rerouting of international air traffic to avoid damaging jet engines and the pesky crashes that follow.

When I showed Juan the plans, the first thing he noticed was the scale . . . not metric. Juan was sure Iziquel would find the plans useless unless I went through and converted all the measurements. Nobody bats a thousand, as they say in Nicaragua’s national pastime. At our first meeting, Iziquel reviewed the plans and confessed he wasn’t familiar with our system of inches and feet. But when he pulled out his tape measure, with metros on one side and inches on the other, he caught on immediately. We had to pull the tape out to 14 feet, for him to see the metric equivalent, and he nodded his head and said “no problema.” And mostly it’s been so, with a couple of exceptions. The first “problem” he had stemmed more from the facts that he’s probably never seen a set of architectural drawings and that he can’t read. In the drawings, the foundation and floor plans are combined into one drawing, with the foundation represented by a pair of broken lines on either side of each wall of the structure. The drawing includes dimensions for the length and width of the bodega (outside walls) and measurements to tell you where and how wide the windows and doors are, but nothing to tell you how wide the foundation walls are. Even when I told him that the outside dimensions of the footers are six inches wider and longer than the structure walls, he had trouble “seeing” it. But once I told him that the foundation was 14 pies (feet) plus 6 wide, and 24 pies plus 6 long, he again nodded his head and set his lines perfectly to account for the difference. Don’t explain it, give me numbers to work with.

The second “funny” happened today. As his helpers were completing the foundation dig, Iziquel started moving the lines to the outside wall dimensions, and he asked me about the outside-to-outside wall dimensions. At first I didn’t understand his question, but with Juan’s help translating, it turns out he wanted to be sure I understood that if you build a bodega with outside wall dimensions of 14 feet, after accounting for the thickness of the concrete block walls, your inside wall dimensions will be less than 14 feet. So maybe he doesn’t think I’m all that bright! I suppose it’s also possible he finds it inconceivable that I could be building a dwelling of such modest proportions.

One thing the US architect couldn’t fathom: the Nicas’ use of columnos, reinforced concrete pillars set at the corners and on either side of door openings. They tie together four lengths of rebar to form iron bar rectangles, bury one end of the rectangles into the footers, surround the rebar with wooden formas and fill the formas with concreto. After the concreto sets, they remove the formas and build block walls in the spaces between columnos. Except for the spaces defining door openings. Building a block wall in your doorway opening would be silly. Who does that?

Because he couldn’t fathom the technique as I described it, or because I described it poorly, or both, the architect’s drawings make no account for the columnos, including in the design specs for the footers. Once Iziquel figured out the dimensions, he knew the footers as designed wouldn’t support the weight of his columnos. Undaunted, Iziquel and his crew dug additional six inch deep square holes below the level of the footers at the places where the columnos would otherwise overtax the building’s foundation. Deeper footers under the columnos means more stability in the corners. Hard to argue with that.

Iziquel reminds me of the cathedral builders described in Ken Follett’s series of historical fiction novels set in medieval England. For generations, builders learned their trade on the job. Most were uneducated, poor as hell, but handy with a set of tools. They didn’t always know how to explain their math, or how to explain why the dimensions they were using worked, they just had time and experience on their hands. Except for the cathedrals bombed out during WW Dos, most of those old cathedrals still stand.


Was it a dream, or was it real? Since I rarely dream, and since my dreams are rarely this vivid, I’m thinking it was real. There’s a covered-up hole in one wall of my habitacion about the size of a window. I’m guessing that after they built the addition including this room, my hosts figured it wasn’t a good place for a window after all (the view: the shack where Margarita’s husband runs his fish brokerage business). So besides being pretty small, the only opening is the door, meaning the room has little ventilation. I may have mentioned that it’s pretty warm in these parts; even at night, the temperature hovers in the 80’s or 90’s. To improve chances of catching some of the natural breezes, I’ve been leaving my door open a bit at night. I may have to rethink that strategy.

Right at midnight last night, a very pretty local girl who called herself “Carolina” walked into my room and asked me for a beer. She seemed pretty young, so while it’s not generally considered polite, I asked “cuantos anos tiene?” To which she said “quince” (fifteen). So of course I wasn’t going to give her a beer. After some further discussion about whether she was old enough to drink (by the way, she smelled like she’d already been drinking until a few minutes before she invited herself in, when the cantina next door closed for the evening), she then asked for money for food. I pointed out that all the dining establishments in town were also closed, so por supuesto (of course), no “dinero para comida” would be forthcoming. Undaunted, she then asked for money for sex.

Readers of previous year’s blog entries may remember my description of the teenage hookers plying their trade (a trade older apparently even than the builders of the cathedrals) ironically in the parque across the street from the catedral in Granada. So I had some experience with this kind of thing, and at this point rather emphatically told her I wasn’t going to give her money for beer, food or sex, and to “vete” (get out). As she was leaving, she turned around and called me “estupido.” I dunno, I think I made the right call. There are maybe 200 locals in el pueblo, and everybody knows everybody else’s business. Ethical considerations aside, not a good move to encourage this kind of thing. Stuffy or not, my door will remain closed esta noche.

Arose at 5:30 this morning, which gave me enough time to splash water on my face and sort out the previous night’s event, then off to the property to meet the “limpiadores” I hired (scheduled to arrive a las seis – at 6 am) to help clean a suitable but very rustic path from the road to the building site, in anticipation of the delivery truck coming on Lunes (Monday). Although the limpiador I hired to clear the lot before my arrival generally knocked down the previous year’s growth, he didn’t remove the basura, and didn’t take out any stumps. The delivery drivers are allergic to stumps – they are hell on truck tires, so understandable. Today and tomorrow, the fresh crew (with some help from the Gringo) are cleaning a path right down to the hardpack, taking out all of the stumps and clearing the basura, thus relieving the driver’s otherwise allergic reaction.

What I thought was going to be two guys turned out to be three, and they were very hard workers; between the four of us, we got the path mostly cleared. I stuck to basura removal and left the machete and axe work to the experts. Limpiadores typically work from 6 am to 10 am, before the sun’s heat takes over and makes such work miserable. By 10 am, I had a raging headache, and decided to take a siesta. The excavadores continued their work on the septic dig, and I left with the limpiadores. Two hours of rest and a cup of coffee later, I was refreshed and ready to return to the site for the important mostly supervisory work that is my normal role. In my desire to show up on time, I skipped my normal cup of Nica coffee (black, sin azucar y sin leche; no sugar and no milk – you have to order it that way or you get what New Yorkers call a “regular”). Coffee grown in the shadows of volcanoes tends to be rich and extry strong anyway, and the traditional brewing method here results in what elsewhere is called “espresso.” One reular-sized cup’ll do nicely for the entire day. Being a normally highly-caffeinated sort, forgetting the morning cup was a near-fatal mistake!

I’m completely stunned by the pace of every aspect of this year’s project. Either I’ve been really fortunate, or well-represented by mi amigo y hermano Juan, but it looks like the list of shit to do this year may be completed well before my stay ends. Given the rudimentary tools used, it’s to me phenomenal that the entire bodega foundation and septic tank digs will be done tomorrow, and that the delivery truck route to the building site is essentially done. One engineering problem left to solve tomorrow, and we’ll be ready for Monday’s scheduled delivery of cement, sand, gravel, rebar and miscellaneous supplies. After that, Iziquel says he’ll be done with the concrete work in a week, maybe ten days. Best low tech solution ever: I don’t have a well, and don’t plan to build one, because I’m going to get all my water from nature, captured in the rain gutters surrounding the bodega. Because I don’t yet have a bodega with a roof for this purpose, I don’t have a water supply on the property. In addition to sand, gravel and cement, gotta have agua to make concreto. Instead, the guy who last year delivered some of our fence posts by oxcart will make runs between the property and a local well, delivering 50-gallon drums of water. The pictures should be epic.

The engineering problem: my lot sits about five feet below the road, and the existing rock-and-gravel “driveway” is potentially too steep for the delivery truck (though, ironically, Iziquel assures me the oxcart driver will have no problema getting up and down), so we need to add some rock and gravel to improve the grade. Fortunately, we have two on-site sources of rock: there’s a lot of loose stone on the slope adjacent to the driveway, and; after they got below 18 inches, Iziquel’s crew ran into a lot of shale and limestone while digging the septic tank hole. The top 18 inches is good black dirt, great soil for plantains, figs and olives. Everything else they unearthed will make good “fill” for the driveway. Iziquel and Javier made it to 5 feet (destination: seis pies – six feet) by about 2:30 este tarde, so they knocked off early today. Since I’m paying Iziquel for the job and not by the day or hour, and since he’s got things pretty well in hand, I had no problema with the idea. Besides, I got an early start on cocktail hour.

Juan thinks the oxcart man may be able to help us move all the diggings the 50 – 60 meters from the septic dig to the driveway – he’ll back his team up to the dig, we’ll shovel his cart full of diggings. Instant driveway. Tomorrow’s going to be another great day!