AUGUST 2005: “I need an epidural, and I need it NOW!”
Birthing pains? Well, that's one way to put it. Building a house is a lot like hitting yourself over the head with a hammer, while waiting for that wonderful day when you stop.
August marked the fourth month of construction, the month Eleuterio originally said the house would be done, and the month we realized that it wouldn't—not any time soon. There were hold-ups in materials, hold-ups in skilled workers, which meant hold-ups in those jobs, and the rainy season was upon us, so there were hold-ups due to lluvia (rain). We just felt like we were being held up! Money kept going out, but there wasn't much to show for it. Seemed like nothing ever happened, and you know how I love going to the lot only to find nothing done. For crying out loud, there were days when we found only five guys there, doing piddly little jobs, and not those with much enthusiasm. It was a long month...
At least we were getting some roof under which los muchachos could work when it rained. All the jobs on the inside—electrical, plumbing, tiling, painting, etc.—were called trabajo muerto, "dead work." Kinda ironic, when it's the trabajo muerto that everyone sees the most, that we will interact with the most, and live with the most.
But, that's how los muchachos felt about it. They'd much rather be whipping up a concrete block wall or covering one with repello—the cement mixture like stucco that's used in Panamá to cover block walls and make 'em look pretty (click on the image). That's the basic crew, however, the "grunt" workers who had an affinity for cement, our core of trabajadores who had been with us from the git-go, and who had never met a building material they didn't like. It was the skilled labor that was holding things up...oh, and the rain.
Yeah, we were beginning to understand what people meant when they said, "Rainy season." They don't mean it rains; they mean it RAINS! Thundering, slashing, bashing, smashing storms with rain so loud TC and I had to shout to be heard, even in the same room. Rain so loud you can't believe the roof will keep it out—and here at Lamelot it doesn't always do that. But, the sound of downpours was nothing compared to the thunder. Altos is in a huge bowl of a valley, so when the thunder booms, it also rolls and echoes and rolls some more, round and round and round. The sound reminded me of something, but it took me a while to remember: Washington Irving's story Rip Van Winkle and Henry Hudson's dead crew playing nine-pins in some Catskill's valley.
I think it was Henry Thoreau who appointed himself inspector of snowstorms and rainstorms. Well, leave off that bit about "snow," and me, too. There are never enough storms of any kind in Southern California to really get a feel for them, but here in Altos I've discovered I love 'em! Of course, we're so hemmed in here at Lamelot, what with all the huge trees and the presence of Cerro Picacho, that there isn't a lot to see, but once we're in Casa Ingaso with its unimpeded view down the valley and out to sea, watching storms is probably going to be a full-time job. And I'm your man! I will appoint myself the unofficial inspector of storms.
Something of that sentiment—a self-appointed storm inspector—expresses a sense of why TC and I came to Panamá in the first place. We felt there must be more to life than the pulling and tugging most people are so concerned with, no matter what guise it may wear. And I guess we eventually came to see the fallacy of it all: "Look! The emperor isn't wearing any clothes!" That, and Southern California was gettin' too damn crowded!
Here's a Zen master's simple poem—a poem I truly love—that also reveals an attitude not unlike our own:
Too lazy to be ambitious,
I let the world take care of itself.
Ten days' worth of rice in my bag;
a bundle of twigs by the fireplace.
Why chatter about delusion and enlightenment?
Listening to the night rain on my roof,
I sit comfortably,
with both legs stretched out.
"But, what the hell are we going to do about our house!?!?"
There, there, enough about the house, instead let's talk about "waiting room hell," as in, it's time to get our driver's licenses. You see, when they say stuff about things taking longer in Latin America, it's not just an urban legend. Mid-August, five months after starting the process, we finally got our temporary resident status from the Panamanian government, and were issued a 1 year Temporary Immigrant Visa—we'll get our Permanent Residency (Cedula) at the end of that year. Nonetheless, we were now "official" and that meant we could apply for Panamanian driver's licenses. Little did we know!
To do that we had to go to the big office, the one where all the cab drivers go, the one where people have been known to go in and never come out. It's called the D.T.T.T. (I never learned what the acronym stood for; best guesses were "...the department of transito something or other..."), and you start in the line that introduces you to the system and the color coding of licenses. Properly coded (I think we were red?), we went from there to the cashier's line (money before bureaucracy every time!). Then back to the first line to prove we went to the second one, and then to the next, where you found out where to go for the next, and on and on and on. We stood in the D.T.T.T.'s Draconian lines for somewhere close to four hours. Now, that might not sound like a true hell, but keep in mind that those four hours included a sound track of screaming kids, TV sets blaring mostly interference mixed with some very loud Spanish soap operas, around a hundred irate Panamanians voicing their disillusionment with the system to the arrogant and insouciant bureaucrats—and anyone else who would or wouldn't listen, plus the low, grating, dull roar that always fills institutions full of unhappy people.
Beginning to form a picture? Okay, let's not stop there, let's populate your vision with dozens of sweaty and very smelly people, 99 percent of whom were men, and I would suspect 90% of them were cab drivers. There was barely enough room to stand. The air conditioner only stirred the dust. The florescent fixtures' buzzing could actually be heard above the blaring TVs. And everything was set in a worn, drab, dirty, and abused institutional building. I won't bother mentioning the heat that the air conditioner only pushed around; everybody knows Panamá City is hot and humid. Of course, the west facing windows capturing the late afternoon sun didn't help any. At any rate, I think that qualifies as "Waiting Room Hell." If you can top that, I'm truly sorry.
Meanwhile, our Saturday tradition of taking beers and cokes to los muchachos continued in August. Invariably, things usually started out subdued, but loosened up as the cerveza flowed. Unfortunately, I'm really impeded by the language barrier. (I have more than enough trouble with English, so trying to learn Spanish is mostly a lesson in utter frustration.) One Saturday, however, I was able to soar above language, so to speak, and evoke much mirth from los muchachos. Somethings are universal; take Tarzan for instance. While people chugged beers, it dawned on me that our great room would be a great place to swing from a rope, always fun. I was telling TC how we could hook one to the center of the 15-foot high ceiling, then climb up on the ledge of the TV wall and swing across the room. I decided to emphasize my description with a very lusty and impressive Tarzan "yodel," for want of a better word. Everyone found me funny; I found that fulfilling. Language be damned!
August ended with a bang. (Well, "crash" would be more accurate, but poetic license and all that, you know?) One night, our neighbor here at Lamelot, Honey Dodge, didn't dodge the gravel patch in the middle of the road coming down the steepest hill in Altos. Whoops!
About 6 pm there's a knock on the door, and a bewildered and disheveled Larry Dodge is standing on our stoop, asking for help because Honey was in a wreck. "What!?!?!" Her car had slid off the road, but fortunately at a section of road with no immediate drop-off. Had she hit the thin pine trees just 60 feet further on there would have been nothing between her and Rio Maria, except 150 feet of humid air. So, if she had to be in a wreck, she picked a good spot. Not only did the Altos flora cushion her fall, there was a stream bed and boulders and all kinds of natural barriers between her and oblivion. "Whew!"
As it was, her Kia Sportage wound up straddling the stream bed about thirty feet down from the road bed, after plowing through a small forest of trees and shrubs. Larry and I went there to salvage goodies, while TC and another Altos neighbor, a retired RN, Dee Braden, administered to a shocked but, miraculously, not seriously injured Honey—she'd been able to crawl out of the car, across it's hood, up the hill to the road, where she got a ride home from a passerby! Hard to believe, had you seen the aftermath. The only serious injuries were to the Kia—it was totaled.
And that was our excitement for August...
Well, except for the numerous outages, electrical and Internet. Sure, we'd had sporadic electrical outages ever since moving into Lamelot, but August was mind-boggling. I think the longest outage was 12 hours, and that's 12 hours without Internet access, too—our means of making money. Not only that, but our Internet provider was down for another ten hours, after the electricity was back on. "¡Allã la peste!" (Spanish for "Shoot.") Basically, 24 hours without email. I cringe even now just thinking about it. And it was during that particular outage, naturally, that I was having problems with our largest client's web site.
"Can you spell: acid reflux?"
All in all, we experienced around twelve outages during August, adding up to around five days without power—TC didn't think we needed a backup generator until then. Now, our builder is installing the electrical and liquid petroleum gas hookups for our new generator. It's not an instant-on, but it will get us through the Dark Ages. It, plus very powerful UPS (uninterrupted power supply) devices for our computers, and we'll be fine. Doesn't mean we still won't be without Internet access from time to time, but at least we won't have to leave a candle burning in the window...