Report # 4: La Casita

             26 October 2014                    

            We spent two nights in the new Casita before going back to the States in early September, so we can’t say that we are returning to a brand new house. True, it wasn’t completely finished when we left: the screen door hadn’t been built, the hot water system wasn’t working right, there was a leak under the bathroom sink, we had no working telephone or WiFi, and a few structural bits were yearning for completion. We had no furniture except a bed, a folding table, and four mesh chairs (each in a different color, of course; this IS Mexico). Cynthia and Lalo (architect and builder boss) let us know that they would be working on other jobs while we were gone, and that we would start the Casa, the big house, when we got back. We lobbied for attention to the punch list.

            Fast forward five weeks. As we leave our post-bloqueo lunch at the Mercadito and drive the eight-tenths of a kilometer further up the hill to the work site, we wonder what we will find, and whether Mica, our galgo y algo dog, will even remember us. Emma Solís has house-and-pooch sat for us during the five weeks we were gone. Emma is the daughter of doña Carmen Solís, and she is in mid re-Mexicanization after several years of working the States. Mom and daughter collaborated for us last winter in the cooking lesson at our residence chez Tami and Karen with the Schechter family. In part exchange for the house/pooch sitting, we had promised to bring Emma her favorite brand of vacuum cleaner (Dirt Devil) from the North.

            We bounce across the culvert at the entrance to the drive up to our casita, smile in surprise at the nearly finished bodega (garden shed/storage room), drive up to the work area, greet the men cementing the last tabicón cinderblocks onto the bodega’s west wall, get out of the car, and are stormed by a galloping Mica doing the doggy equivalent of cartwheels: leaping high, corkscrewing in the air, darting in and around Linda’s and my legs, kissing everything her nose and tongue can reach. She is so excited that her breath comes in great wheezing gasps that make me want to look for some dog-sized inhalator of Albuterol.

            “Yup, I guess this means she really IS our dog.”

            Emma has sat the casita well, and most of the punch list, except the screen door, has been attended to.

            The time of serious settling in is upon us. First is to let folks know we are back. For that there are two standard modes of communication. Our lunch at the Mercadito plus our car parked in front of the casita will let most of our Santa Cruz Etla Mexican friends know we are in town. As for the more widely dispersed expat community, Linda has emailed our eight or ten close friends, and from there we can count on the ripple effect. Actually, telling just one of them would have been enough.

            Next, after taking Emma and the vacuum cleaner back to Carmen’s house, is to unpack the box of kitchen equipment that we squeezed into the car between the boxes of books and yarn. We realize, almost instantaneously, that although we remembered the zester, we had forgot some important items that we are not likely to find here. Like something to diffuse the heat on the stove burners, since Mexican stoves do not do “simmer.” A flour sifter. At least one decent bread mixing bowl. We do not unpack the rest of the plastic boxes, but merely place them here and there on the floor where we will be sure to step on them. Then we inventory the larder and make a list of our most urgent needs. There is still time for a shop before sunset.

            Linda claims that her PhD is in Spanish literature, but I believe it is in list making. Like one of those jugglers at the main intersections in Oaxaca who keep three bowling pins in the air while deftly dodging traffic, Linda shuffles a half dozen scraps of paper—anything with a postcard sized patch of unscribbled-on white will do, all of them draft scripts for upcoming shopping trips—and jots down the most pressing needs. A three-way light bulb. Two, make that three, plastic buckets for cleaning and hauling water to the coffee plants and the young nochebuenas (poinsettias). Some clothes pins and extra hangers. Toothpaste. Garbage bags. Dog treats. Cereal, flour, rice, pasta, and plastic containers to seal them in. (We don’t seem to have bugs....yet,... and it’s not all that humid, but ...) Breakfast breads. Sponges. Stain remover. A hose.

            We look at the high cubbyholes up above the closet and the pantry shelves. The suitcases will have to go up there. The light in the ceiling fan is beyond reach. So is the wire hanging from the guayava tree.

            A ladder goes on the list. And a garbage can with wheels. It’s a long walk down downhill to the front gate, and even though our rough-chunked entry road isn’t smooth enough to roll a garbage can on yet, there is hope that someday. ...

            “And dinner?”

            “Ah, yes,” Linda’s pencil pauses over the hardware store list, “something for dinner.”

            “How about, just for tonight, a roasted chicken with trimmings from the place down by the Juárez statue in Viguera? Then tomorrow we can start cooking.”

            The trimmings are a plastic bag of steamed rice with some diced carrots and a couple of peas in it. A small carton of potato salad with diced carrots and a couple of peas in it. A plastic wrapped stack of at least thirty tortillas. And another plastic bag, tied tightly, of salsa verde. Next time we’ll try the red sauce.


            In the morning we resume our marathon nesting. Two weeks pass in a flash.

            Linda begins planning the garden. Correction: revises the plans for the garden—I mean, gardens—that she has been drawing up in her head ever since we committed to buy this former bean field. In our absence, our one-and-half-days-a-week gardener Lázaro, who is doña Carmen’s son and Emma’s brother, has put in a little flower garden against the back wall of the casita, planted six eggplants and two rows of snap peas on the narrow strip between the irrigation ditch and the back fence, and three Poinsettias along the east fence. Juvencio, who is known as San Pablo Etla’s tree maven, has put in a majahua, a lluvia de oro, two pajareas, and two truenos along the west fence. That takes care of 200 of our 4000 meters of land. So Linda believes there yet may be room for innovation.

            Her eyes fix on the land immediately below our terrace, between the casita and the mango tree. Below that is place where the work crew has traditionally (we agree to believe that 3 months = a tradition) stored sand and gravel, and where they have mixed all of the concrete for the casita. The terrace garden designate is a semicircle. We could shape it into two levels. Put a little path below it, just this side of the mango tree, to facilitate walking from the terrace around the side of the house to the coffee plants and the níspero orchard (we agree that 3 trees = an orchard).

            Linda types out an email message: “All you folks who had good advice about what to put in our garden and said that your own gardens were overflowing with greenery, now is the time to step up.” She pushes ‘SEND’ and the phone rings. Within an hour we are deluged with the most delightful array of lenguas de suegra (mother-in-law tongues), daisies, Santa Teresitas, jasmines, camellias, spider plants, and a dozen others that are sworn to be hearty and beautiful, if momentarily nameless. All the ladies assure Linda that there are many more to come. Lázaro brings a bucket of delicate pink and white water lilies and Linda drives down to the vivero (nursery) and comes back with a large oval ceramic basin to put them in.

She also brings back several pots of lavender and rosemary for a petite coin de Provençe on the west side of the casita.

            We make three trips to the Home Depot: no lamp shades, no 3-way bulbs, though we do find a ladder. A trip to Aurerá (a Walmart subsidiary) to buy a juicer and a toaster. The toaster is OK but the juicer is too flimsy to cope with the standard Mexican orange, so we take it back. A trip to the Walmart for a sturdier juicer, and on the way home we buy a twenty-five pound sack of oranges for 40 pesos along the highway.

            We make a trip to the cabinet-maker’s shop to order a nightstand, then another stand on which to put our drinking-water dispenser, and a third time for a drop leaf table. In Oaxaca, the easiest and cheapest way to get the furniture you want is to measure the space, design the piece, and have a cabinet maker knock it together for you. Tropical wood of your choice. It takes about a week. We pick up the nightstand,

admire the extra decorative border that he has designed for it, take it home, see that it does not fit the space, and take it back to the shop for him to remove the extra decorative border. The water stand is exactly right. The drop leaf table works perfectly, i.e., it’s about the size we wanted and the leaves do drop efficiently, and as a bonus he has devised a way to anchor the swinging legs under the dropped leaves. Unfortunately, he has braced the legs in such a way that we can’t get our feet under the table, and he has doubled the thickness of wood on every piece that we wanted to be svelte, making the table the weight of medium-sized Hummer. We will take it back on Monday.

            After inquiring at five stores, it turns out there ARE no 3-way light bulbs in Mexico. They go on Linda’s ‘next time we travel to the States’ list.

            Saturday we go see Figaro get entertainingly married via Met simulcast at the ultra-Baroque Teatro Macedonio Alcalá in downtown Oaxaca, and then go out to eat at a Moroccan restaurant with friends from the other side of the mountain. I’ve resumed early morning birding with Bill Stitcher. The Bodega Boys convened at the pool at the Casas del Barco and I got to play my guitar. I’ve baked my first Oaxacan loaves of bread.

            I guess we are really home.


David & Linda