Report # 8: Back in the Saddle Again

March 12, 2015

            It seems like just yesterday that we drove south from the Río Grande toward Oaxaca with our newly-expedited six-month visas tucked into our passports and the hologram that validated the presence of our car in Mexico stuck onto the windshield behind the mirror. The reason it seems like just yesterday, it that it was just yesterday. We’ve been fussing with the house here now for just under six months, and to stay legal we had to leave the country, peel off the old hologram, go back across the bridge, get new visas from the Mexican aduana, and stick a new official government numbered hologram (gray, this time, not red) on the now glue-grimy windshield.

            Linda and I like Laredo, sort of. It and Nuevo Laredo, the Mexican city just across the river, are symbiotically joined at the border. Traffic flows back and forth all day and half the night. People on both sides buy these things in Laredo, and those things in Nuevo Laredo. They live here and work there, or live there and work here. The two towns have lots of hotels; ours had a nice garden and a happy hour with free nachos and hot dogs, beer and something touted as lemonade. Free, as in already paid for in the hotel tab. The city has lots of churches but no bookstore. Lots of restaurants: steak houses, Mexican joints, and buffets, some Chinese, some just plain miscellaneous. A sushi bar or two. Plus all the standard chain eateries. But there’s not much variety beyond that. Arrayed along both sides of the interstate are the standard big box stores. Lots of wealth in Laredo; in the northeast there is a large gated neighborhood of residential palaces surrounded by manicured gardens. Lots of poverty, too. Down near the river a pawnshop on every block.

            Almost everyone in Laredo is bilingual, and they constantly code-switch, oscillating between Spanish and English sometime three or four times in a single sentence. As the waitress at breakfast said to me as we were leaving her restaurant, “Que le vaya bien, sir.” “Have a nice day, señor.” There may be some people who speak only one language in Laredo, but we didn’t meet or overhear them.

            Linda and I had planned to spend two days in Laredo, picking up the meds and books we had had mailed to “Back Porch,” a package-expediting warehouse that receives and holds stuff two-hundred yards north of the river for people who pop across the border from Mexico to pick them up. We also shopped in Laredo for house and kitchen things that are unavailable in Oaxaca. And put the proposal for my completed book manuscript into the mail. But we ended up spending four days there, two to do what we’d planned, and two to hassle the American health insurance providers to authorize the things that our doctors had prescribed for us, and to expedite the approvals so that the pharmacy could dispatch them. Each of those operations —authorize, expedite, dispatch—required at least four iterations on the phone. I can’t begin to tell you how much I hate the judgmental, paper-pushing, non-support apparatus that inflates the cost of allegedly making the rest of America’s first class health-providing industry run smoothly. The doctors, nurses, hospitals, general practitioners, and all the other medical professionals we have come to know and respect, are on the whole really great. But the insurance companies! If Dante were alive today, he would add an extra canto to his Inferno just to accommodate them.

            The pills—well, most of them—finally came. We got our new hologram and started south in a pouring rain. In Charcas we ate dinner at the Bucaneer Restaurant with a dozen miners and mining engineers and slept under a pile of wool blankets that bent our toes at right angles to our feet. The rain intensified. Just south of Tlaxcala we bought a portagarrafón, a small ceramic barrel in the Talavera style, with spigot, on which to place our 20-liter bottle of purified water. In Puebla we slept in a hotel, across from the bus station, that did not have one single wall outlet in the bedroom or bathroom. The rain picked up in intensity: Tlaloc, the Aztec rain god, strutting his stuff. Near Amozoc a momentary break in the clouds gave a glimpse of the summit Volcán Malinche; first time we’ve ever seen it covered in snow. The highway runs for 1,600 kilometers, just over a thousand miles, from Laredo to Oaxaca. The rain sluiced down for 1,575 of them, and then at Huizol, at the last tollbooth on the cuota highway, it stopped and the sun came out. 

            It also seems like just yesterday that I sat down at ‘la compu’ to write a blog about our lives in Oaxaca, but I realize that it has really been nearly three months! It’s not like we’ve been lying around the pool in our hammocks sipping margaritas, because, well ... no pool, no hammocks, and neither of us does alcohol any more (me, none at all; Linda very little, and rarely). It’s just that our daily routine has become all-consuming, and at night we are both too pooped to pop.

            Up at, well, early. I write for an hour or so and drink the first two mugs of coffee. Hike with the dog at dawn for a couple of hours. Say hello to the workmen as we pass them on the road, Kalba and I heading for the hills and ravines, they streaming toward our construction site on their bikes and motorcycles and ... of course ... their feet, since most of them are our neighbors in Santa Cruz. Breakfast back home with Linda,—cereal with chunks of mango, Linda’s home-made granola, a slice of my toasted cranberry-oat bread. As we finish, Pepita—a gray, toaster-sized dynamo of fluff—bounces out of a white station wagon and accosts us with canine glee. Then her owner, Cynthia, the “arqui,” who plunks down at our table, takes out her drawings, and begins reviewing with us today’s decision points. Where to put X? How high the Y? What color for the Z? How far apart do we space the Qs? Have we decided about the paving on the back patio? Ángel the electrician has questions about which beams to hang the overhead lights from. Ángel the plumber wants to know if it OK to raise the tank in the roof-top solar heating assembly another 6 centimeters even though that means that it can be glimpsed from one point on the road at the foot of the hill. The two Ángels are really the same person. If he seems a little beside himself, it is just that his wife Lupe—the cook at the stand in the Mercadito where we sometimes have lunch and a wonderful friend to us both—gave birth to their son Oliver on Saturday. Both are doing well, thanks for asking.

             Then there is our daily trip to the bank; we make payroll and buy cement and quarry stone and rebar from the ATM  machine. The daily trip to the hardware, plumbing, bathroom tile, floor tile, and lighting stores (each in a different sector of Oaxaca), followed by the daily trip to the grocery store for fresh veggies and the like, and to the candy wholesalers to buy another bucket of jalapeño-flavored lolipops. Of all the treats we bring two or three times a week to the workforce, these chili-bombs are far and away the favorites. The workmen break for lunch at 2:00. We grab a sandwich at home or join friends at the Mercadito. In the afternoon more of the same, checking on details; browsing the downtown stores and roadside workshops for furniture; making sure the plants get watered by dipping buckets out of the irrigation channel; consulting on how randomly we want the big and little stones on the front wall of the porch to be placed; answering friends’ phone queries; helping arrange for Lucy’s surprise birthday party (Surprise: the restaurant where it was to be held went out of business the afternoon before the party, without notifying Lucy’s husband, of course!). You know, the usual.

             The Casa is nearly done. We’re mainly just waiting for the floor tiles to come in and rumor has it they arrive tomorrow. Six weeks ago we confidently ordered dark red, only to find that no one had them in stock and they would have to be manufactured. Six weeks, from digging up the clay, molding it, firing it the brick kilns on the road to Yagul, sealing them with some sort of poly-loquefuera.

Most of the lights have been hung or fastened to walls, some of the windows are in place, most of the tile work is finished.

All of the walls mudded and sealed and some of them painted. Most of the electrical and plumbing is finished. The front terraza is walled and lighted; the back one ditto. Waiting in the storage shed are a couch and chair, and a “refri” to keep our food cold.

In my study sits the first piece of furniture, a bookcase with cabinets along the bottom fashioned by Moisés, our carpenter. Really nice work, good enough that we are negotiating with him on a contract for the rest of the cabinetry.

Moisés had me lecture at his synagogue of neo-Jews down in Viguera a couple of weeks ago, but that is very much another story and will follow in due course. Late April or early May still seems like a reasonable wrap up date. The big honor-the-builders party is May 3, which coincides with Santa Cruz Days, so the casa had better be done, because the party is going to be held here.


            Anyway, here is a brief selection of photos showing the current state of things. The casita should be ready for visitors by the middle of May.

            D & L