MAY 2005: “Rebar and Trenches and Forms, Oh My!”

After all the fun and games of April, it was time to settle down to house construction...more or less. Every time we went to the lot guys were hammering stakes into the ground and running string everywhere. It was like a mine field and I was constantly tripping over them. Good thing they weren't lethal.
Us and Forms Well, at this point the house pad was lower and wider, the driveway broken-off where the grading started, and our swatch of ocean diminished. Damn! But, it was a sacrifice we had to make in order to fit the house on the lot—seems our feet-to-meters conversion was a little off. The house we thought would fit across the lot with room to spare was actually too big to fit anywhere, except sideways, running the length of the lot. Whoops.
Anyway, all of that was behind us and nothing but clear skies ahead...sorta. During the rainy season in Panamá skies never stay clear for long. Hey, hold on a minute, this might be a good place to give others contemplating construction a little advice: have plans! And, make sure everyone involved in the construction has the same set of plans, plans you've signed-off on. Very important—as we found out.
TC and Plans You see, all we came to Panamá with was a floor plan. To be sure, it was a floor plan TC and I had fine-tuned for over a year, but it was never meant to be the definitive plan. We assumed (you don't want to do that!) that a "real" set of architectural plans would be drawn-up, we'd go over them, make changes, and wind-up with "the official set." Here again...WRONG! Basically, Eleuterio took our floor plan and ran with it. They were cutting down trees, grading the lot, and installing a driveway the day after we gave him our plan. It's been a runaway-train ever since.
[click this pic for May's photo gallery...]
There was the first set of plans Eleuterio drew up. There was a second revised set TC printed out. Then a third printed out. Plus, a fourth and fifth and sixth revision on different pages, not to mention the umpteen drawings, sketches, designs and print-outs. Unfortunately, Candaleria, the guy actually managing the site on a day-to-day basis (Eleuterio constantly jockeys between 5 or 6 projects), only ever got the first set which didn't reflect all the revisions, thus causing most of the errors: four doorways where there's supposed to be three, and like that. Would having had an "official" set of plans that everyone shared have made a difference? I think so, but either way my advice to prospective builders is: HAVE ONE SET OF PLANS!
Not having learned our lesson yet, however, we blithely plowed through the month. It was an exciting process, knowing that something you had created, especially something you had never created anything like before, was manifesting. We didn't micro-manage, but we inspected each day's progress, comparing what was done with what we wanted done. At first, we went to the lot during the day, observing the workers, but we found we could snoop around and check things better when they weren't there. So, we got in the habit of visiting the site around 5 p.m., an hour after the "trabajadores" jumped in the back of trucks for the ride down the hill to their homes. Then, the place was ours. We were alone to inspect, but also to envision, to see ourselves living on this wonderful piece of property in a simply unique home. Those early evening visits felt like keeping assignations, with all the anticipation and emotion, well, most of the time. When we found mistakes, there was a certain erosion of enthusiasm.
TC and Plans Lots of things upset us, but the most upsetting was when we thought the house too small. It's an odd illusion, for I don't know what else to call it, but when you see a cement slab your senses can't properly place it on a familiar scale. It's just sitting there under an open sky with no walls to establish a perimeter. The result is, the slab looks small. The whole time the forms were being built and the foundation ditches being dug, we kept thinking we had designed the house too small, that the compromise on the great room had left us with cramped quarters. Here we had this huge lot, but we'd stuck ourselves with a pill box to live in. And, that was how we perceived the area of our slab. Disappointing, to say the least.
Even as the concrete-block walls began to rise, the misconception remained. I imagine because the walls weren't tall enough yet, or they weren't capped with a roof, yet, but all the rooms still seemed diminished. It wasn't until roofs were added and walls were finished that we finally looked around and realized just how big the house is: it's huge! The inside area is only 1600 sq.ft., but the towering ceilings and the massive terrace make that 1600 feel more like 4000. Going through that transformation—from tiny to humongous—was very odd indeed, yet everyone we've talked to who has been through the same process has experienced the same phenomenon.
Walls Going Up Of course, we should have realized sooner that the house was going to be plenty big enough due to the retaining wall. By cutting down on the size of the great room and lowering the pad the house would fit on the lot, but just barely. In order for it to fit, a retaining wall needed to be built on the guest room end, the end that rested on the steep hillside, that dropped down into a ravine which delineated our east boundary. Actually, part of the reason we lowered the pad was to make that retaining wall smaller. It's hard to imagine what it would look like had we not lowered the pad, because: "Yikes!"
What they made was more like fortifications: a system of three stem walls and one lower retaining wall supporting a fifteen foot end wall. But, we didn't know that at first. At first, they were just making another wall. It would be a few weeks before the massiveness would totally reveal itself, before the drop outside the guest room door would make my head swim—I'm not good with heights; hope you are, if you plan on visiting.
TC and Plans The retaining wall was also our introduction to Panamanian construction correction techniques. You see, the foundation for the wall was poured by hand, like all the cement in the house, but it wasn't leveled. We didn't notice at first, but as the wall grew so did our awareness of a definite vertical wave in it—shades of Antonio Gaudi! Not sure exactly what to do, we did nothing and waited to see how this would be "corrected," assuming it would. Well, what they did is, once the wall was near completion, they made forms along the top and poured a cement cap, which was flat, level, and the right height. At Casa Ingaso, nothing is ever so "wrong" that it can't be fixed with more cement!
Anyway, our daily trips to monitor progress were bipolar: sometimes we were up, sometimes we were down. Sometimes, I didn't even go, the construction was so depressing to me. On our first trip to Panamá, when I saw how houses were being built, I swore ours wouldn't be the same. Guess again! It's the way they do things here; I had to learn to relax and enjoy the ride. We'd seen samples of Eleuterio's work, and every house was beautiful. So, I tried to keep my eyes on that prize, but it wasn't easy given the day to day "horrors" I was witnessing. Still, I hurt too much to cry.
TC and Plans It was also in May that we began "Cerveza Saturdays." Just as a way to show our gratitude to the workers, we took an ice chest of beer to the lot at 3 p.m. on Saturday's, quitting time. They are always quiet and respectful, and wait for us to offer the first cold can. Then, as empty cans accumulate on the slab, talk gets lighter, laughter louder, and everyone unwinds. It's fun, but I regret not being able to communicate more with them, not being able to speak Spanish, other than a few irrelevant phrases. They're a great bunch of guys, and I knew I would enjoy swapping stories and humor with them, but I was hobbled by the language barrier. Still, I was able to be sufficiently goofy on the odd occasion (never a problem for me) to make them laugh. It's my mission in life!
Whenever May nears the end, usually about the time Memorial Day Weekend rolls around, it's our anniversary: May 26th. This year, our first in Panamá, was our 21st wedding anniversary...23rd, if you count the years we "lived in sin!" You know me: I've never met a sin I didn't like. Nothing's changed, fortunately! But, we were at a loss how to celebrate or at least observe the day.
"Hey, let's go over to the lot and toast our good fortune!" So, that's what we did. We loaded a couple of folding chairs in the Sorento, packed some beers in an ice chest (sorry, folks, it's all we had—no champagne, more's the pity), a snack or two, and headed-out for Casa Ingaso. There, the chairs were set-up on what would be the terrace—one fine day—with a stack of concrete blocks for foot stools, and then we popped the top on a couple of frosty Atlas beer cans. The pictures here tell the rest. It was a great evening, and a wonderful way to close out the month.
I might as well say goodbye to May with a word or two on Panamanian beer: "Ick!" "Yuck!" Atlas is the only one they make that tastes like beer. Of course, I like my beer the same way I like my wimmin': full-bodied! Panama beer drinkers seem to be going through a "lighter-is-better" phase, something akin to what happened in the States back in the '70s: "Less filling! Taste great!" So, the most popular brews, at least with the hops weenies, are pale, tasteless, watered-down versions of something faintly reminiscent of beer, with odd names like "Soberania," if you can believe it. I've tried them all and I keep coming back to Atlas. At least it tastes like you're drinking beer. And I know it's good, because three make me sleepy. Ain't getting on in years great?
TC and Bob

¡Toda nuestra luz y adora de Panamá!
TC and Bob

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