Sunday, June 29, 2008

The house is taking shape.

The house is really taking shape. Juan Carlos, our Engineer/Architect/Builder told me yesterday that we’re currently ahead of schedule. We’re 20 minutes up the mountain from San Ramon. When he planned the schedule, he thought getting workers up here would be difficult, so he planned on having a small crew. We’re all pleasantly surprised that most of our workers are coming from the local small community of Berlin less than 5 minutes from here. Last week we had 15 men mixing concrete, tying re-bar, building forms, pouring concrete footings, and laying blocks. Everything is going smoothly, Carlos, the foreman is coordinating the work efficiently so that nobody is in anyone else’s way, with everyone working on different areas of the house.

One day last week, we had a dump truck of sand and one of gravel (for the cement), Shortly afterwards, a big truckload of concrete came and was unloaded by hand, each 50 kilo bag was carried to and stacked the construction shack to keep it dry. These men are in terrific shape, they’re all fairly small without an ounce of fat. They can pick up a 50 kilo bag and throw it up on a shoulder and carry it to, or from the shed as needed. No sooner had the concrete truck left, than another large tuck full of concrete block pulled in. The blocks were quickly unloaded by hand and stacked by the edge of the driveway. A single man with a wheelbarrow spent the rest of the day moving the blocks. He made stacks in the center of every room of the house.
One man spends all day at the cement mixer, mixing batch after batch of cement, two or three other men with wheelbarrows deliver the fresh cement to the men building the walls.
This way, the men who are actually building the walls never have to take more than one or two steps to get blocks or cement.

All the while that the block walls are going up, water and sewer pipes are placed where needed in the walls, and the electrician puts in electrical boxes and conduit for the wiring.

The original schedule has the house completed by the end of the year. If they can keep up the pace, they hope to finish ahead of schedule. But having built our Bainbridge house, I’m not getting too excited. So far, so good, but we’ll see how it goes.

Limóns, Bromeliads, and Toads

Lemons, Limón, limes?

Apparently there are dozens of varieties of citrus called Limón. According to general gringo say-so, lemons as we know them are not available.

Yesterday I juiced a dozen or more “Limón” to make a frozen dessert and was surprised to find the variation in the fruit colors. Limóns are limes and they come in at least two flavors “dulce” sweet or Limón ácido. I think that I can safely say that the bag I bought at the market was predominantly Limón ácido. The lemon ice that I made, which contained the same amount of sugar as juice was beyond tart! Web research says the large warty ones “Limón dulce” are best for lemonade. Hmmm, the ones I juiced were definitely warty, perhaps not really large?


There are bromeliads on nearly every tree. The most common one around our property is the scarlet torch (Guzmania monostachia), pictured here. The bases of these plants form a tank. The water within the tank supports bird, insect, and amphibian life. The two pictured here are part of a living fence post. Fences here are living and can be a cross hatching of hibiscus branches that grow into a hedge or seemingly dead posts stuck into the ground, that are soon sprouting greenery.

We haven’t planted anything yet, since the likelihood of damage during construction is too high. That being said, we did receive several large clumps of white lilies (not sure exactly what they are) from our architect. These are now planted along an edge of the property far enough away (we hope) from the construction to be safe. I won’t know for sure what they are until next April or May. I know they are white, are not Calla lilies, and are common along the road and in yards. I am hoping they are what I think they are! Huh?

Those toads on the terrace

Bufo Marinus is a large tropical toad known in Spanish as “Sapo Grande”. They are native to Central America and the Amazon basin. The ones we have on our terrace are small, about 2 to 4 inches. They can reach 6 inches, and some web sites say nine inches. The largest recorded specimen weighed 2.65 kg (5.8 lb) with a length of 38 cm (15 in) from snout to vent. It has parotid glands containing a poison strong enough to kill a dog in 15 minutes. Its warty skin can also exude a milky poison. We had been warned about the cats going after the toads. Because Bufo are regular night time visitors on the terrace here we know that we’ll need a plan to keep them out of the cat area once we move to our house. In the meantime keeping them indoors is the solution.

On Tuesday morning, at about 1:30, I was awakened by the sound of something slamming against the door. When I looked outside I could see that it was windy and the door was not latched. Thinking it was just the wind; I secured the door and went back to bed. A bit later the alarm sounded, indicating that something was near the house. The terrace light had also been triggered. Getting out of bed again, I was shocked to see Jelly and Fred outside. Of course they didn’t come when I opened the door, but took off.

Norm and I were both outside trying to get them to come for an hour before I was able to get my hands on Fred and get him into the house. Meanwhile, a toad was on the terrace and others were in the driveway where Jelly was hiding under the car. We spent another nervous hour trying to coax Jelly into coming. At one point he was up near the road. We were concerned about the toads and also the unknown. We know there are coyotes and also some raccoon family relatives. Finally, we left the door of the house open with the cat door in place. Norm held onto Fred and I called Jelly by shaking his food bowl. When he came, I opened the cat door, and he came in and quickly closed it behind him. He gets pretty freaked out when in a strange place, both inside and outside. He is fearful of us at that point and doesn’t come, although he is conflicted. I’m sure it goes back to his traumatic kitten-hood.

Now in the evening, we’re double checking the door to be sure that the dead-bolt is firmly engaged.


Sunday, June 22, 2008


What a treat! Jazz in San Ramon!

Sunday we enjoyed a nice brunch and had the pleasure of listening to the Joe Anello trio at NavCafe, located 500 meters west of Gasolinera Chury, just down the street from the Seguro Social office in San Ramon.
NavCafe is a relatively upscale place with great food, atmosphere, and service, and from what we hear, possibly the best hamburguesa in CR.

Joe, a retired New York area professional musician says: “Fortunately I have met some wonderful Tico musicians here who love jazz music as much as I do!” Joe on drums, along with Rudy on the keyboard, and Donald on trumpet played great straight-ahead jazz in the intimate venue of the open-air patio.

We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and will defiantly be returning to what promises to be a weekly gig, Sundays Noon to 2:00 pm.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

House Plans

Here is the floor plan and front elevation of our house. The view side is all doors and windows, covered by a big veranda. Construction will be concrete block & stucco walls, aluminum windows, metal roof, ceramic tile floor, wood cabinets, granite counter tops, wood cathedral ceiling in the kitchen, living/dining and master bedroom. The rest of the house will have 3 meter ceilings.

It is a one bedroom house, but we’re also building a small one bedroom guest cabin on the property.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Construction Update

Construction is now seriously underway. We’re building a concrete block house, reinforced with concrete and re-bar, which is the typical construction method here where earthquakes are common. (We’ve felt three minor quakes since we’ve been here).

A temporary overhead power line is now strung from our rental house meter, which is on a pole by main road, to the edge of our property where a concrete column will eventually hold our electric meter. From that point, the power cables are in conduit which was buried by in a meter-deep trench which was dug by several men with shovels.

Labor is cheap, so much of the work is done by hand. We’ve had six or seven men working daily. One man is a migrant worker from Nicaragua, the rest are local. We’re especially pleased that we’re providing work for a few of our neighbors.

While the power was being installed, the workers erected a temporary wood and corrugated sheet metal structure, called a bodega, where they’ll store materials and where one of the workers will live during construction. All jobsites have at least one worker who lives in a bodega until the project is finished. This provides security and gives our Nicaraguan worker a free place to live.

Once the bodega was built, two men built the septic tank. It also is reinforced concrete block construction. The drain field is built to the same standards that we use in the states, and will probably be completed today.

Several men spent over a week bending and tying rebar for the foundation footings and columns. They are now placing the tied rebar in the footing trenches and installing the tied bar for the concrete columns which will strengthen the walls, and support the roof. They are also tying in the re-bar which will run up the insides of the block walls. Juan Carlos, our architect/engineer/builder, has designed us a very strong house.

They have just started mixing concrete. There are very few ready-mix concrete trucks here, and those are used only for large projects, so all of our concrete will be mixed in our onsite cement mixer. This morning there were four men with wheelbarrows moving concrete from the mixer to where it was needed.

Time Flies!

Time flies when you are having fun!

We are still amazed at how busy we are and how the days and weeks seem to disappear.
We had part of our shipment of household goods and some furniture delivered 3 weeks ago. We had a list of over 200 boxes or items requested. Since then we’ve been unpacking and repacking. The labels on the box exteriors are more often than not misleading, so we have to open each box to determine its contents. There are some very strange box mates----would you think to look for a pasta machine in with garage tools? Or how about master bedroom clothing with extension cords and ?

We have found many items that we wanted as “early out”. We now have our own dishes, silverware, pots & pans; coffee maker; toaster, and towels. We also have our king size bed, dining room table, entertainment system, and washer and dryer. We had a washer here in the rental, but now that the rainy season has started, it is great to have a dryer.

Speaking of weather, we purchased a Davis weather station before leaving the US. We didn’t have it set up for tropical storm Alma, so do not have the data for our specific location but we now can see the rate of rain (inches per hour), wind speed and direction, temperature and humidity inside and out, and daily total, highs and lows etc. Last Sunday it rained 6 inches in 5 hours and at one point it was coming down at 11.5 inches an hour. That was when Norm was outside checking the gutters. They weren’t clogged, only overwhelmed!
Typically the rain is starting mid afternoon and it rains for 2-4 hours. It is variable though, we have had two days with virtually no rain at all. The 6 inches on Sunday was the most. The next highest for 24 hours was 2.8.

We had our last Spanish class last week. Although it is really fun, we are so busy that having class on two mornings a week had been hard. We are continuting to study using Rosetta Stone. We can plug into the program at our individual levels with earphones and study/practice whenever we have time. We are both studying daily. Rainy afternoons are good for study and napping. Hey, we’re retired!

We were invited to visit a wonderful garden last week. No photos since we didn’t know we were going. Our architect’s in-laws (Hidalgo) live on a property bordered by a small river on two sides. The back yard is a hidden treasure. The plants are huge and nestled under a canopy of native trees. One of the tree species’ berries feed a multitude of birds. The trees also host orchids on every available inch of trunk or branch. The couple doesn’t speak English and our Spanish is still very limited, so we didn’t learn a lot about the plants. What we do know is that most of them grow in the shade and came from relatives’ lands here in the mountainous area of Berlin. They offered to start some of the trees for us and also to give us cuttings of other plants like the ferns. They have ornamental bananas, fruit trees, huge clumps of spathe flowers (aroids), anthuriums and gorgeous ferns. We are welcome to go back whenever we want. It was very inspiring and we are planning an area in our yard that will be similar.
Now that I have my tropical plant books, I have been pouring over them and highlighting suitable plants. I expect that the view side of the house will be predominantly low growing succulents, ground covers and accented with clumps of spiky agaves and aloe. After seeing the Hidalgo garden we decided that the bathroom/bedroom end of the house will be a great spot for the shade garden, since we don’t have a view to preserve. We have some terraced areas behind the house. I hope to have figs, both ornamental and edible, perhaps some small citrus trees, and a mix of foliage plants and ornamentals like ginger, cannas and bird of paradise. There are so many options. Hibiscus and bougainvilleas are everywhere we look. The hibiscus makes a good hedge and also have soil retaining ability. The cats will be contained behind the house, between a tall retaining wall, the house and gated ends. Besides cat mint, it will contain sturdy plants that can withstand boy kitties wrestling the fronds and eating the leaves.

Most of our property is steeply sloped and we will not be landscaping those areas. The native species are doing well and will probably only need to be contained!

We went to the movies for the first time yesterday to see the new Indiana Jones flick, in English with Spanish subtitles. The movie was disappointing, but the local theater complex is great. It is newer than the Bainbridge Cinemas, with very comfortable high backed rocking chairs and a steep incline to the theater. The sound system was also good. The tickets? Two dollars each!

Cooking here is a bit of a challenge. The rental house only has a two burner gas stove. No oven. Now that I have my appliances, I can make pesto with the Cuisinart. I brought pine nuts back from my recent visit to the states. We are using the crock pot, but place it out on the covered terrace, so it doesn’t heat up the house. I am experimenting with different ideas based on produce and fruits found at the market.

Although we don’t have a stove, our rental is deemed very good by gringo friends. We have a fabulous view and of course visual access to our building site. We don’t have hot running water so that makes cooking more challenging, since clean-up is slow. No running hot water is typical and we know of only one household with hot water in the kitchen. Everyone has “suicide showers” which is an electric shower head that heats the water on demand. Of course, most gringos have hot water at all taps in their houses.

Life here is a bit of a time warp. Much of what we see reminds of the 50’s in the US.
Women with their aprons, sitting on the stoop, sweeping, talking over the fence, or walking their kids home from school. Old Toyota pick-up trucks are everywhere. They wash your windshield and check under the hood at the gas station. Ice cream bicycles vendors with the ringing bell are common. On the other hand, everyone has a cell phone. A pin drive hanging around someone’s neck isn’t unusual, and the internet bogs down when the kids are out of school.