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On dream houses in Mexico and life lessons – PART 2

by Steve McKee on March 12, 2009

Six months in Mexico wasn’t all just carefree fun, though the bodysurfing and inviting friends to come visit for a week sure helped. I was in charge of building a second beach house on the vacant parcel that my dad just bought next to our first house, so there were building chores to occupy me on a regular basis. Meanwhile, Melody passed the time creating several stained glass windows for the new house and baking bread. It was 1988, and my dad and I were at the height of our developer thinking ways, so our plan was to build this second house as an extra one to sell, just like they were selling houses a short ways up the coast at Punta Burro. A big difference, said my dad, was that “our house will be a lot more sexy.” And with that statement I had one of the most unique design directives I ever received.

I knew just what he meant, so, while he sent checks down from California, I directed Mexican workers to create a house of stone and brick with arches and a cantilevered balcony overlooking the tiled living area below. Add in Mel’s stained glass windows in highlighted locations and I dare say that we created a house that was pretty darn sexy.

It proved to be such a comfortable and livable house that my parents decided not to sell it but instead use it as their own home for the fifteen years of winters they spent in Mexico prior to my dad’s passing. That they found satisfaction in this cute but modest house repudiated the idea that we needed to use their remaining vacant lot to build them a big “DREAM HOUSE” complete with all the loaded expectations that accompany such an endeavor.  A life lesson not lost on me, to be sure.

Here are the steps for building in Mexico:

The first hurdle, of course, is to get the land. It’s a huge task involving multiple trips with much travel to many different areas to decide your favorite and meeting different Mexican realtors, most of whom speak excellent English, a point of pride for them. For non-Mexicans to acquire land within fifty meters of the shoreline, a “fideicomiso” trust is set up in which the foreigner (you) holds the land via a trust held by a bank.

Once you have the land, the next step is to get the design of your house correct in the ways that designs always need to be correct: with the right amount of roominess in all the proper places and with the flow of human life considered and enhanced. Be aware that life in the tropics has its own demands, with open spaces inviting breezes in some places and other spaces closed and screened against insects.

Then you need to find a local builder to construct it. Big projects such as hotels and resorts get built along that stretch of coast; therefore there are high-powered builders at work in the region. But people like us with smaller projects must seek out builders that are lower down the food chain.

You don’t get bids. You don’t even usually get a builder with an established crew of regulars; at least we didn’t. What you look for is the right lead guy, a “maestro,” someone noted for his skill and integrity, and then he brings on some other local workers of varying skill and they all just get paid by the hour. In our case, every worker walked to work from somewhere in town always wearing rubber flip flop sandals, always arriving on time. We usually had two or three “albanils” (masons) and about five or six “ayudantes” (helpers.)

The work schedule with its numerous holidays was determined by the union, an unseen but constantly felt presence. The rate of pay mandated for low level ayudantes was $6 per day. (Is it any wonder that there’s an abundance of Mexican laborers waiting in front of Home Depots across the USA?) At least they had an abundance of union-mandated paid holidays to make up for the meager wage. Skilled albanils got $15 or $20 per day. These were 1988 prices.

My job was to lay out for them the construction details for that day in passable Spanish and then run all manner of errands, including trips to get cash from the bank in Puerto Vallarta and numerous drives with my lead maestro to suppliers in nearby towns (and not-so-nearby towns) to arrange for delivery of brick, stone, cement, rebar, doors, and so forth. There was no phone service at all in our little village of La Cruz in 1988 so we used a shortwave radio to contact friends in Vallarta. (Total connectivity is available nowadays, cell coverage and DSL.) I’m not sure how much a phone would have helped anyway. It makes for a fond memory now to recall that I spent time in the tropics using a shortwave radio – not terribly convenient at the time, but off-the-charts for the adventure of it all, at least by my usual standards.

Concrete was all mixed by hand on site by simply making a pile out of the dry-mix on the ground and then adding water in the middle like a flattish volcano and stirring from the middle outward with a shovel, adding more water and mixing until there was a grey blob of concrete on the ground ready for carrying in buckets for use in the house.

There came a special concrete day, spoken of almost reverentially by the locals, called the “losa” (slab), a day when a massive amount of concrete was needed all at once, in our case for the entire second floor slab. Many cubic yards of concrete would be mixed by hand with the help of an additional twenty or so local workers coming to work just for that day, the Mexican version of an Amish barn raising. Pay bonuses were standard because it was a laborious day indeed. They would break into seven or so teams each working their own pile of concrete and then carry it in buckets on their shoulders up a ramp. There was a constant parade of rubber sandaled feet heading up the slim plank to the second floor where the buckets were dumped next to two smaller teams of finishers who worked the concrete into place and smoothed it.

At day’s end it was quite satisfying to have the concrete down and all the guys cashed out. As was usual right after getting paid, some of the workers would return with a case of cold cerveza and I’d be invited to sit in the shade with them and enjoy a beer or two while the sea breeze gently rattled the palm trees overhead. We all had the next day-and-a-half off and life was good.

Fast forward to the present, twenty years later, and I often reflect wistfully on my six month Mexico adventure. I discovered that a sense of purpose combined with fun and adventure is a potent combo, one that invigorates a human life quite like nothing else can. A life lesson, for sure.

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