Household repairs

A Fond Farewell?

Our house, a fond farewell?

Our house, a fond farewell?

In recent news, Arnold and I have decided to put our house on the market and uproot ourselves once again looking for a house that better suits the way we are living these days. It will surely be an adventure, and hard for me, who doesn’t do well with big uncertainties, to say the least.  I wish we had the money in hand to just buy whatever new place we fall in love with and sell ours later, in a leisurely fashion, but we don’t. And friends here who tried that gambit ended up not able to sell their original house and now have it rented out. They are enjoying being landlords and having the extra income but we – alas – will need every penny we can wring out from the sale of our present casa to propel us into the next one.  As our real estate market here is so tied to whatever is going on in the States, the market for sales is awful, and as you’d expect, the market for buyers is full of relative bargains. There are loads of absolutely beautiful places up for sale here so finding something that we will both love will be the least of our worries, I think, once we know how much we can get for this house and have an offer on it that looks reasonable so we can forge ahead.

The good news about living in Mexico is that with few exceptions there are no mortgages. Every sale is “all cash” which frees you from the stress of worrying about those horrid payments every month. Being free of debt in a house I never could have afforded back in the States was one of the things that I found attractive about the idea of retiring in Mexico. But propelling yourself out of one house and into another is in a way more crazy-making, because no matter what price you negotiate on both the sell side and the buy side, you still have to arrive at the notario’s office on the day of your closing with the requisite fistfuls of cash for the entire purchase wired to your seller’s account. So you dare not fall too much in love with any house that is more than what you can scrounge up in real money  – but on the other hand if you don’t go out and look you have no idea what is really, truly, out there for sale in your price range, so it is a little bit crazy-making, but  this is where we are right now. First step, get ours on the market and see what happens over the next few months. Our real estate agent is telling us – and we know she’s right – that right now, when all the snowbirds are in town till April – is a good time to be putting it up for sale. In spite of all the bad publicity about Mexico, there are at least a few buyers out there, apparently.

It will tear me up to leave this place when the final days here come, especially the garden, which I carved out of what was basically a cobblestone parking lot. It has become really beautiful, a sanctuary for birds and butterflies, with two fountains and dozens of flowers everywhere, plus we are growing all kinds of fun things – bananas, mangoes, papayas, limones, avocados, and all sorts of herbs and spices – all the bounty that a Mexican garden provides year-round as a matter of course. I am hoping that someone else will in turn fall in love with it on the spot and want to live here. But there is no doubt in my mind – nor Arnold’s, I suspect – that in many ways we have outgrown the house itself and need something with a different configuration. Short of remodeling this place, which doesn’t make economic sense as we have way more into it now than we’ll ever get out, given how the market has declined – to get the space and quiet we are looking for these days, we will have to move.

So this week the preparations have begun.  I called our trusty construction guy, Ricardo, last week, who has sent over three or four workers who are now crawling around painting, plastering, repairing, redoing the floors – the cosmetic stuff you know you should do when you are simply living in a house (but never get around to). Of course these repairs become imperative once you decide to put it on the market, and it has to be if not impeccable, then more presentable than what you just ignore most of the time before you make the decision to sell. It’s weird; we have even rearranged some furniture and reorganized things  “for showings” and realized that we should have made x change years ago because it looks so much better now. Why didn’t we do it before, why didn’t we see it before?

It is interesting how a stay in the hospital for surgery, heart procedure, whatever, can change your perspective on your life. In my case, my ailments were painful and inconvenient but not life-threatening; but Arnold’s heart adventures – plus the fact that he’s ten years older than I am to start with –  have made him more aware of the passage of time in recent months.  It seems like getting into, or approaching, your seventies can put your own mortality into sharper relief. Especially dealing, as we do every day, with the agonizingly slow departure of my mother, who will turn ninety in a few days, but has spent much of the last third of her life in an inexorable physical decline (much of which she could have fought against but didn’t) that has left her completely bedridden and unable even to talk these days. Thus we are both in a “if we are going to do things, we need to do  them NOW” kind of place, and dealing with the house, the inevitable addition of some of my parents ’ treasured Mexican furniture, and the changes in the way we are living these days, is inevitably pointing to moving rather than trying to patch something more accommodating together here.

Everyone is asking us – since our present house is two stories – and actually three, if you count the rooftop mirador where I take my morning coffee for a view of the mountains and the lake – if we’re downsizing and looking for something on one level. Typical of us, al contrario, the one house we both managed to fall in love with is three levels as well, with breathtaking views of the lake from high up on the mountainside. If we get serious about it we will have an elevator guy come from Guadalajara to look at it and tell us whether and how they could eventually put an elevator, or one of those chairs that move up and down stairs, into it. But we don’t want or need to anticipate being incapacitated just yet. Neither of us needs it now and we seem to be doing fine with the stairs in the house we have , so we can know it’s possible and leave it at that until or unless we need it down the line. Since my surgery, I have not been allowed to do the kind of exercise I was doing before, so the stairs actually are about my only exercise right now, for the next few weeks, at least. Arnold refuses to do the “look at a one story place” routine; we’ve always lived in two-story houses and I think for him it’s a kind of surrender. Anyway, pun intended, many steps before  we get to the rearrangement of x new house wherever it may be and whatever tweaking it might need.

We shall see!

Podando (pruning)

This week, we had a crew of guys crawling all over the garden in hard hats and tree gear pruning our trees. They grow like weeds here, especially during the rainy season, so this monster haircutting has to be done once a year at least. There was a huge wood chipper parked outside, partially blocking the calle, and our gate stayed open all day long so they could haul debris out to put in the chipper. Adding to the stress, chain saws and pruners were everywhere, with branches falling all over the place, so we and the animals all had to be locked inside all day. We have the “nicest” house in a very Mexican neighborhood, and I am always a little jumpy about who can peer in and check out the property. Having the driveway gates open makes me nervous since I don’t like passers-by being able to see into our garden.

Then the plumber was here trying to figure out exactly where our septic tank is located; we have never had a set of plans for the house and no one ever has known exactly where it is.  “It’s by the back wall somewhere” was the best the guy who painted the house originally could do, trying to remember back to when the house was built in 2003. Thus no one had ever inspected it or cleaned it out. So, fearing a seriously unpleasant disaster somewhere down the line (literally and figuratively), I said, if this plumber has one of those cameras – as he said he did – and can figure out where the bloody thing is and look at it and tell us it either needs cleaning out or is okay, that would be well worth the investment.

So he also was out there banging and running drills and equipment, poking holes in the lawn and chipping out our exterior walls every few feet trying to locate the septic tank itself and the lines that lead to it. He did locate it out back, finalmente, and put a nice new sort of manhole cover on it, so now, if there are problems, it’ll be easy to get septic cleaning equipment down there. This new plumber is replacing the guy we’d used for years, who – sadly – has developed just a little bit too much of a drinking problem. The terrific new plumber-designate, is gradually working his way through all our temperamental and problematic plumbing and electrical systems, correcting all sorts of things that – as it turns out – had been done halfway, or totally wrong. It’s costing a fortune but step by step, things are undeniably improving around here. Or so we like to think.

But we still are suffering the ongoing battles of the cuatro gatos, which adds to the craziness. The new arrivals are still fighting to establish territory, mercilessly chasing and ganging up on our original two. Poor little Rosie got cornered on the kitchen counter by Taby this morning and took a flying leap down into the open empty dishwasher. The poor kitty, who is tiny, landed right on all the upright prongs in the lower rack. She seems okay, but pobrecita, who knows. I decided enough is enough and I called our vet, Dr. Jesus, to come over and a) give them all the shots they need, especially rabies for Group 2 who are venturing outside now into the enclosed garden with its high walls. I asked if he could prescribe some calmantes (tranquilizers) for all of them so maybe we can ratchet down the inter-gato tension a bit. Group 1 is completely stressed out and maybe Group 2 will be less aggressive with a little relaxant. He said he’s going to try some natural remedies first and see if that helps the situation. He says some Vitamin B will help with all their stress (in their water bowl!) and there are herbal remedies to try to see if it helps the territorial battles before we go to real drugs. Thank god he makes house calls – we did not look forward to bundling four yowling cats, plus Reina the dog, who also needs booster shots, into carriers and going into the village to his office.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the chaos, we had one of those Perfect Mexican Moments when Dr. Jesus did come to the house. He arrived with only half the vaccinations he needed, however, having forgotten the others. He gave the kitties what shots he had with him, and then our house call came to a screeching halt. Oh well, mañana. He is a wonderful veterinarian and much-loved by pet owners here, but in his other life he is a very serious classical guitarist and everyone in his family is musical. When he realized that he could go no farther with the vaccination project, we began chatting, as we often do, about music. In passing, he mentioned that he had his guitar in his car.  Well, we said, since you don’t have the other vacunas with you, how about you play us something? A little Sor or Tarrega etude, or perhaps some Bach? Claro que si, and he ran out to his car and brought in the guitar and serenaded us for a half hour with several pieces.  It was just delightful, hearing the music float through our house as the afternoon began to fade. The kitties, having been spared for the moment, ran off and hid for the rest of the day.

Then he had to go to minister to some other cats and dogs and took his leave, saying he’d come back tomorrow with the missing vaccinations – which he did.  But no recital on the second trip.  Sadly, he said he had to get back to his office because two guys had a very old, much-loved Rottweiler he was going to have to put to sleep, and he said “I know I will have to stay with them for awhile, it will be very hard for them to say goodbye to this poor old perro, even though they know his time has come.” This is how he is; he consoled both of us so wonderfully when we had to put our much-loved Korat cat, Achille, to sleep a couple of years ago. I said to Arnold, “So typical, he forgets half of what he is supposed to do but then, also SO typical –something completely delightful and unexpected happens instead.”  If you can just let go of your assumptions about precisely how things are to be done and in which order – difficult for us gringo types – sometimes you get really nice surprises, like the sound of a guitar  echoing against the masonry walls of your house for awhile.

In all the chaos and noise of our week of home maintenance, I tore a contact lens and without even knowing it really scratched up one of my eyes. Looks like I was in a bar fight. It’ll be okay in a few days but who needs it? But the good news is that the crew is all down there singing and bantering back and forth over the horrific racket of the chainsaws, drills, and the chipper outside. Without being too colonial about it, it is good to hear them belting out Mexican favorites at the tops of their lungs as they work. It reminds me so much of one of my all-time favorite pieces of music, the chorus of sailors in Act I of Britten’s Billy Budd, the sea chantey they sing while they are fixing the sails, readying the cannons, and scrubbing the decks of their ship, the Indomitable.

A domestic detour…

The last several days have been occupied with domestic matters, the most inconvenient of which was the sudden, unexpected demise of our water pump. For no good reason that we could ascertain; it wasn’t even that old. To explain why this was a catastrophe, here, the municipality gives you water whenever it has some, and it gets delivered to a big underground storage tank inside your property called an aljibe, which is usually somewhere fairly near the street. Many larger houses also have purification systems to rid the municipal water of impurities ranging from plain old mud and sand to nasty intestinal parasites, so you can actually drink it from the tap. The luckier ones among us also have a second, large rooftop storage tank, called a tinaco, which holds enough water for a backup day or two for times of drought, when the water authority only distributes every couple of days, or when there’s a power outage. The tinaco dribbles its water supply down to one’s faucets and toilets – in a teensy little stream, but there is indeed a very welcome trickle so you aren’t completely out of luck to wash your hands or whatever. It is gravity fed, being on the roof, so even if the power is out it’ll still work.

So all was not lost, we did have the water out of the tinaco, but once it’s empty, you’re sort of a goner. Thus to conserve that supply, showers, laundry, anything requiring a certain volume of water, was not in the cards for several days. The “Jewish American Princess in Mexico” irony of carrying buckets of water from the pool to flush the johns was not lost on me. My mother would have had a hissy-fit. Actually I didn’t even THINK of using the pool water; Arnold did. Which shows you what a totally urban creature I am; obviously there is a ton of THAT water out there.

Clearly getting the pump fixed was top priority.  The plumber first thought that all we had to do was replace the computerized controller which had apparently burned its motherboard out. This happens all the time here where there is tremendous variation in the current. The motherboard got promptly carted off to Guadalajara for repair, of course involving expenditure of a boatload of pesos. Then it was looking like we also had to replace a faulty valve on top of the pump itself (another bunch of pesos). Only problem with that being that our pump was a fancy model that had come from the States, and the parts were nowhere to be found in town, not even in Guadalajara. They would have to be ordered from the States via Monterrey – a couple of weeks? Naw, we thought, let’s try something else, what they call a “Mexicanada” where they just improvise something from what they have and hope to god it works, which it actually often does. I still have one toilet in my house that flushes perfectly well with a Mexicanada wire thingy my gardener made for it five years ago. Mexicanadas are what keeps all those Volkswagens running here – wire, chicle, rubber bands, string – they really do work, most of the time.

But alas, the Mexicanada approach failed with our fancy U.S. made high pressure pump. Various threaded bolts –for gas connectors, toilets, god knows what – were scrounged up or purchased and tried that were mas-o-menos the right size, but when the water in the tank got pressurized, they all leaked or flew out or just listed to starboard and didn’t seal anything, spewing water all over the place. Not only that, further examination revealed a small crack in the pump itself (weird, the whole thing is stainless steel, but oh well…) and it was obvious at that point that aside from not wanting to be without water for several weeks while waited for this dumb little valve from Monterrey, the whole unit was then going to need to be replaced entirely.

The house remained without water till we could resolve the situation, and I am domestic enough a creature so that I went crazy trying to figure out what to try next. Making things more difficult (bienvenidos a México) was that our plumber, who is usually very reliable, was nowhere to found after the repeated failure of his various Mexicanada attempts at repair. He “fixed” it, it worked for a while, he went away, then an hour after his departure, the pump went haywire again and shut down. So we needed him to come back and try something else, urgently. But his cell phone wasn’t receiving any more calls due to his mailbox being full, “out of the area de servicio“, or otherwise unreachable. We just couldn’t find him anywhere for a couple of days, while we went showerless and the dishes piled up in the sink. It just brings out the worst “What is wrong with people in this country?” xenophobic tendencies any frustrated expat might have, especially some of the people I know around here. Most of us worked pretty much like dogs our entire professional lives, promptly showing up as required and even more promptly returning phone calls from clients on phones that worked, for decades, in order to save the money for their Retirement in Paradise one day. I know intellectually that you just cannot expect Mexicans to be like Americans, you just can’t. And actually I don’t even want them to. Except when I have a plumbing emergency .

Probably it wasn’t such a great idea for me to vent to Rosa, the maid, and Carlos, the gardener, about just how furious I was that the plumber wasn’t accessible by cell phone after three days, and how Americans always return their calls (I realized the second I said this that of course it was nonsense, but it was too late). They then eagerly launched into “save the Señora’s sanity” mode and came back with a zillion suggestions as to how I should proceed, ranging from “fire him at once” to “give him a good lecture but then let him have another chance, pobrecito” with everything in between. They also brought me the cards of a bunch of other people in town they know who they assure me will be much, much more reliable, cheaper, “de confianza” (you can have confidence). The “fire him at once” option would work fine except for the fact that as in so many houses, he has done all the work around here for the past several years and knows where every single wire, cable, plug, connection, fuse, etc. etc. on our property is. Do I really want to start all over again with someone new?  For as Arnold points out, a new person will immediately come in and tell us we have to replumb and rewire the entire place – more pesos down the drain, pun intended – because everything that has been done was wrong and we are going to be electrocuted/drowned straight away. And then there was the other unfortunate fact that at that moment we were still utterly without water and I wasn’t in a mood to, as they say, shilly-shally around with someone new. But the “give him another chance, pobrecito” approach is also fraught with problems – I truly do think he’s been drinking more; something does seem to be going on with him because the quality of his work just isn’t what it used to be. Much to ponder.

But thankfully, the cavalry showed up yesterday afternoon. Finally I was able to reach him on his cell phone – he apologized and said he had had the flu; he’d be right over. Which he was, but he looked just fine to me when he got here, maybe a bit hung over, to tell you the truth. But he did show up and we were once again reviewing all the options for the poor dead pump, when Arnold saved the day by saying “just give him (yet more pesos out the door) some dough, send him to the hardware store and tell him to buy a nice, basic, Hecho En Mexico pump, nothing fancy, with parts that will be readily available at the aforementioned hardware store, and he can install it tomorrow and then maybe I can take a shower!?” We did exactly that, and this morning bright and early (both Carlos and Rosa had told him he had better straighten up and fly right because the Señora was pretty fed up with days of not knowing where he was) he was at our gate with a nice big box with a new pump in it from Amutio Hardware, the expensive place in the village that is actually pretty reliable.

Rosa did laundry all day and caught up, I took a nice long shower and washed my hair (¡finalmente!),  Floors were washed, beds were changed, we put water in the flowerpots outside, all is now well in our little world. The four kitties and Reina even have fresh water in their dish.

Onward and upward.