July 16, 2006

Where to live?

Our intention when el Jefe (the boss) and I came to Honduras was to buy a small house with space for a garden. I had romantic visions of a little cottage with a beautiful tropical garden ... palm trees swaying, bougainvillea draped over the fence, me stepping outside to pick lemons from the tree for my tea. We looked at houses for two months. Nothing!

Home lots here in La Ceiba are generally very small. A small house means one of two things: 1) A house so small we wouldn't have had room even for the small amount of furniture that we brought with us and kitchens the size of my pantry in Dallas, or 2) a bit larger house with no garden space.

It is customary to cover every possible inch of space with concrete, and then for those who can afford it, cover the concrete with ceramic tiles. Ceramic − outside! The large homes, that are more like the size we are used to in the U.S., generally had no green areas larger than, say, 2 x 6 feet in the front and 4 x 8 feet in the back. Clearly not acceptable to someone who lives to garden.

We found a two story house in one of the nicer colonias (neighborhoods). It was rough but had potential as it had about double the standard garden space (but still very small). The woman who owned it refused to do even the most basic repairs, refused to adjust the price accordingly, and was very pushy. We were living with el Jefe's mother at the time − but that's a whole 'nother story.

We were anxious to get our own home but we began to get suspicious about her insistence so we told her that we wouldn't sign the deal until we had seen the house after a good rain. I forgot to mention that this was the beginning of the rainy season and we had looked at several vacant houses that had 2-4 inches of water on the floors inside!

Well, three or four days later we had rain ... and more rain ... and even more rain. We went to look at the house. We had to park two blocks away because the streets were flooded. I rolled up my pant legs and we began to walk. By the time we reached the house, the water was above my thighs and the current was so strong that we were holding on to each other to keep from being washed away.

Even though the house was built several feet above the level of the street, the water level had reached the front porch. Inside was just as bad. Every window leaked. There was water on the floors upstairs and downstairs. A stream of water was trickling down the staircase from the second floor into the living room below. We didn't buy. We told her we couldn't afford to buy the house and a boat! We found out later that this particular area of the neighborhood always floods.

We looked at more houses. Nothing worked. We became acquainted with a builder who builds fairly decent quality houses − without the typical Honduran goofs. If I sound snobbish, please consider this: What would you call a bathroom where the toilet is installed in the middle of the room right in front of the shower, with it's back to the shower door? Oops! The drain was in the wrong place ... Oh, well, you can always climb over the toilet to get into the shower. Or, what about a steep staircase that has eleven steps with a height of about 7 inches each and the twelfth is 3 inches tall? Oops! An accident waiting to happen. How about a room where there is a little ledge down the middle of the floor and half of the room is approximately 2 inches higher than the other half. Oops! Watch out for toe stubbings. These are only three examples of many, many that I could give you.

Anyway, we went to look at two houses this builder had built in a subdivision outside of town. They weren't bad, actually kind of cute. I could have lived there but the problem was that he built both houses on one lot and each had only a small area of about 3 x 3 feet in a front corner that wasn't covered with house or concrete.

Totally discouraged, we rented an apartment with a dark 2 x 6 foot concrete patio surrounded by a 10 foot concrete wall with razor wire on top. I wanted to paint grass and flowers and the sky and sun on that wall but I never got around to it. Later on the owner decided the wall wasn't high enough and added another 5 feet of concrete blocks to the top. This completely cut off all sun and breeze from our apartment. We moved.

Meanwhile, we decided to buy some property and build. More El Jefe's decision than mine. We began working with an architect to plan our home. Nine months later we started construction. Nine months, you ask? All I can say is that he's a busy architect with much grander clients than us, along with the usual answer to most 'why' questions here: "This is Honduras." Enough said. I never ever wanted to build. I knew it would be a nightmare and it was even more of a disaster than I thought it would be.

From the top of our roof, we can see the ocean. Not that we go to the top of the roof much. It's cooler out here because it's usually breezy, there are mountains and trees, and we aren't completed surrounded by blazing hot concrete like in town.

My nearest neighbors are a block away on each side, luckily, because we don't have any curtains yet. The neighbors are nice people.

This is how the construction started, by making a frame around the outside of where the house will be and measuring from that to determine where the walls will be. Is that how it is done in the U.S? I didn't know.

And then there were walls! Well, sort of. I usually only visited the construction about once a week. It seemed to go faster that way.

Construction took more than two years and even when we moved in, in September 2004, we had no windows and no doors. We thought that by putting pressure on the contractors, they would step up the pace a little. BIG MISTAKE!

Until you've lived through hurricane season in the tropics with plastic sheets covering the very large holes where your windows are supposed to be, you can't imagine how much rain we get. I used to wake up in the middle of the night to mop the floors -- sometimes 10 gallons at a time. And then I would wake up in the morning and start all over again. Or to be more precise, I would be awakened at the sound of workers trampling through my house.

It got so bad that I had to post a big cardboard sign on the front entrance (where the door should have been) saying something to the effect that "People live here! Don't come in without permission!!" Even though it was in Spanish, it was totally ignored. One time I came inside from out back to find two strange men in my kitchen admiring my cabinets. Another time a woman was wandering around my house looking at all the stacks of boxes.

This picture was taken probably about the time we moved in. We were idiots! I also call this my "before" picture of the front garden. Nice, huh? ;-)

Yet another time, after we had doors but before our muro (fence) was completed, I woke at 6:00 in the morning to find a man and a mentally disturbed woman in my back yard. She took a liking to my favorite tool, an ancient spading fork, and decided she would take it home with her. I tried to trade her some butternut squash (the only thing that came to mind in the heat of the moment) for my fork, but she wanted the fork. I screamed to wake up el Jefe, telling him that I can't live without my fork, so he pulled on his pants and rushed out and down the street to get it back for me. I was beginning to understand why everyone who can afford it lives behind 10 foot concrete walls with razor wire, guard dogs, and a vigilante (guard) with a shot gun.

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