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!

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