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Monday, March 2, 2015

If you're going to a knife fight bring a Machete

Our new casa

One thing apparent when you're traveling in a third world country like Mexico is they don’t do things the same way as we do in North America or Europe.  Take building for instance:  anyone who travels extensively will notice construction techniques in these countries are very different from ours.  Buildings  are not built quickly. We recently rented a brand new two bedroom home in the little Mexican town of Yelapa .  Our neighbours informed us the construction of this modest dwelling took ten years.  That’s for several reasons:  first of all everything is done by hand.  Every brick and bag of cement is hauled by hand (or burro) from the beach, up the road, up sixty stairs to the building site. 

Cascading Casas
Once there all the cement mixing is done by hand: no cement mixer.  Occasionally the builders run out of money or enthusiasm and the building remain partially finished for months or years.  When the construction is finally finished you’re likely as not to see six foot lengths of rebar sticking out of the roof.  This is a common practice in third world countries. First of all there is always a plan to build another dwelling on top of the existing dwelling and they need to attach it to the floor below – hence the rebar.  There never seems to be a final story- no matter how high they stack the floors.  I've seen buildings near Puerto Vallarta that are eight and nine stories high and there’s still rebar sticking out of the top story.  I guess they’ll keep building until the whole thing collapses like a house of cards. 

The other reason for the rebar is that in some countries buildings are not considered complete if there’s still rebar sticking out.  The owners want to foster that assumption since they don’t pay taxes on the building until it’s complete – and in those countries it will never be complete. 

How do they get away with building like that?  Well in many cases there’s no such thing as building codes.  We encountered a few examples of that.

Yelapa is fairly new to the electricity game.  A decade ago there was no electricity in town.  When electricity did arrive the system was downright scary.  The high current wire was strung haphazardly on poles and trees along the roadway.  As you walked along the road way you could hear electricity buzzing and crackling above you.  People were advised not to walk in bare feet, because  in places if the pavement was wet you could get a nasty shock.  Luckily the government got involved and put in a proper system a few years later.  They installed proper underground wiring (along with a nifty fibre optic cable for data) and hooked the system up to meters in front of each person’s residence.  From there it’s up to each owner to get the electricity the rest of the way to their house.  At our house  I  noticed a long length of lamp cord running from house to the meter some hundred meters away.  It was strung in the trees – often so low you had to duck to go under it.  It turns out this wire supplies all the electricity to the house.  A lamp cord is designed to carry just enough current to light a light bulb – not an entire house.  Hence when the fridge cycles on the lights in the house dim - like the old movies when they throw the switch for the electric chair.

I also noticed the living room light switch was over heating when the lights were on full. (it was a dimmer switch).  An email to my landlord in California resulted in the Yelapa electrician paying a visit.  He was the town electrician since he had the necessary equipment - a volt meter.  A quick examination yielded the problem.  The owner had installed those obnoxious compact fluorescent light bulbs.  Dimmer switches are not made to handle fluorescent bulbs; they cause the dimmer mechanism to overheat and short out.  

When the Yelapa electrician took the switch apart it became apparent  whoever wired the house didn’t understand the color convention for AC wiring.  Most of the white jacked AC wire we use (not lamp cord) has three wires.  A Black one, a white one, and a green or bare copper one: the black is the “hot” wire, the white is the “neutral” wire, and the green or copper one is the ground.  Usually you see the green or copper wire grounded to the wiring box.  In our casa, for some strange reason, the green wire was the “hot” wire which was hooked to switch box – not safe.

We also had a plumping problem:  there was virtually no water pressure in the house.  This led to another email to my landlord who sent Paco, the Yelapa plumber.  Paco decided to become a plumber and not an electrician because he didn’t own a voltmeter. 

He needed to take the faucets apart – which was a challenge since he had no tools.

My late father-in-law had a saying “ There’s a tool for every job.”   In Mexico they’ve amended the saying to “There’s one tool for every job - a knife.”

“Can I borrow a kitchen knife, senior?” Paco asked.

I opened the drawer and gave him a knife and he went to work taking things apart.  Watching him work I had a flashback to my father.  Even though he was not Mexican he shared their view on tools.  Any problem could be fixed with one of my mother’s good butter-knives. As a result, all of  my mother’s knives had a little sharp twisted edge at the tip.

Paco was more adept at using the knife as an all-in-one tool than my father was.  He found that all the screens in the faucets were plugged up with gravel – the pipes had never been cleaned out after construction.  He would have to take all the faucets apart and clean them.  I came up with an idea to speed up the process: I went into the bedroom and dug out my Swiss Army Knife.  You would think I offered him an entire workshop.  

Our view - before
A few weeks later I had another example of the power of the Mexican uni-tool.  This time it was a much bigger knife: a Machete. 

We had been promised a view of the ocean, but there was a fair amount of “jungle” in front of our casa - including several good size trees.  After harping on our lack of a view for some time a guy showed up one morning with a Machete.  I figured he might us it for clearing vines, but I was in for a surprise:  he chopped through three and four inch branches with one or two strokes.  He didn’t bring a ladder -instead he used a “Mexican” ladder - a six foot
Our view - After Machete Man
bough, propped up against the trunk of the tree. He scrambled up the bough and into the tree to wield his machete. In less than an hour was finished – including chopping up the fallen boughs and stacking them.  The only downside was that less than two weeks later the trees had sprouted new branches. 
We’ll have to do it again next year.

The town folk of Yelapa decided that a basketball court right in the centre of town would provide a better recreational opportunity for their children.  The only existing basketball court was beside the secondary school on the other side of the river – a good thirty minute walk from the centre of town.  So they built one – out of concrete.  The huge concrete slab hangs about three feet over the roadway on one end, and is cantilevered over the beach on the other – about a twenty foot drop to the rocks below.  There is no fence or restraining barricade at all, so if a kid goes up for a layup and someone puts a shoulder into him, he could end up on the rocks! 

In the eight years I've been going I've never seen a kid injured – even though they have playgrounds featuring all the items we have now outlawed.  I miss some of those old things such as the old fashioned teeter-totter where you learned about trust at a very early age. You learned about physics regarding picking someone to sit on the other side: 

“Of course I promise I won’t get off when you’re up in the air.”

Don’t expect things to get done quickly.  We were promised our dryer would be hooked up on Monday – but they didn’t say which Monday.   Three months later it still wasn't hooked up.  So, if you’re going to Mexico or another third world country get used to how things are done there – and bring your Swiss army knife. 

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