Friday, May 25, 2012

Our Robinson Crusoe Tree House

Our second floor ocean-view tree-house perch
While sharing a bottle of wine (or two) a few years ago, we sketched with pen and paper what we envisioned for our new home on Isla Mujeres. 

Our design included a Robinson-Crusoe-style palapa for our upper deck.  Palapas are thatched-roof, open-sided structures made of either dried palm-tree leaves, or grass. 

We love our palapa. 

It's a cool, inviting, romantic place for staring at the ocean, reading books, stargazing, or sipping wine by candlelight. Last year we asked Patricio Yam, our builder, to re-furbish the palapa as it was starting to look a bit ragged. 

Benito, Manfred, and Miguel removing old palapa
Day One: Patricio and his crew of brothers, sons, and nephews arrived to dismantle the existing thatched roof. 

Patricio decided that the original job done by a crew from Cancun was not up to his standards particularly since some of the wood was already bug-infested, and starting to disintegrate.  He had his crew remove most of the original framework, with plans for new crossbeams. 

Day Two: They peeled, sanded and varnished small logs before attaching to the larger beams using stainless steel screws.  The rust and corrosion on the windy side of the island creates havoc with all things metal, so stainless steel screws are a perfect choice for building wooden structures.

Re-thatching the palapa

Days Three to Five: The new thatching was applied.  Angel and his brother Ishmael spent 8 hours per day, working shoulder to shoulder, balancing bare-foot on the small wooden crossbeams. 

No safety harnesses, no boots, no hard hats.  They hand-sewed each small bundle of thatch onto the sticks using a very strong twine, the same type used for making fish nets. 

My hands ached, watching them work. 

Re-thatching the palapa

Day Six: Patricio's brother, José, was in charge of attaching the fish netting to the outside of the thatching. 

The netting is necessary to keep the grass from blowing away during wind storms, and it gives the finished product a smoother look. 

José - balanced on board adding netting

Late in the afternoon of the sixth day I went upstairs to the roof deck to take more photos of their progress.  I discovered that José was balanced on a 2 x 8 inch plank thirty feet off the ground, on the ocean-side of the palapa. 

The plank was inserted through the last rung of two ladders laying sideways across the new thatching. 

The two ladders were then held in place on the roof side of the house by a 4” log.  Juan and Manny were leaning on the log - holding José and the entire contraption in place.  

Both Juan and Manny were exhorting José to hurry up as their arms were getting tired holding the combined weight of ladders, boards, and José. 

I hopped up onto the log, adding my weight to the counterbalancing efforts, and sat there for the next hour while José dangled three-storeys up over our stone patio - his bare toes gripping the edge of the plank. 

José thought it was pretty amusing that I was so worried about his safety.  Joking and perpetually smiling, José is usually the one that takes on the worst, and most dangerous jobs.  Angel, his nephew, was balanced on his stomach, wedged in under the top of the palapa - passing José the twine to sew the netting in place. 

My stomach was doing flip-flop, thinking about their lack of safety equipment. 

A few final touches!

The next night we sat under the finished palapa enjoying a glass of wine, the full moon reflecting off of the rolling waves and were very, very happy that these wonderful, and slightly crazy, people build such romantic structures.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Our Car Dilemma - Lawrie's turn to write

Leaving Isla Mujeres - to drive to Progresso
After four years of living on Isla Mujeres - it was time.  Time to sell the car.  Our 2008 Nissan Altima Hybrid that we had driven down from Canada was as close to perfect as we could get.  It's inexpensive to run, and trouble free - except for a few small details. 

And as you know it's all in the details.

We live on the oceanfront where clouds of airborne sea salt roll over the island and we are constantly battling rust and corrosion on anything made of metal.  I had to wash the car daily to stop the rust.  Plus ours was probably the only Nissan Hybrid in Mexico, so future repairs could be a problem.  And finally, with four people in the car, we were barely able to drive over the, topes, speed bumps that are very common on roads in Mexico.  The car just didn't have enough ground clearance.

Linea Peninsula Shipping
What to do: We couldn't sell the car in Mexico, as it had been imported on a temporary permit.  We couldn't sell the car in the USA as the gauges were in metric and the car didn't have the correct EPA stickers.  So the Altima had to go back to Canada.  How to do this?  We didn't want to drive it back as we aren't comfortable crossing the USA-Mexico border right now, and as much as we love driving trips we had other plans for a holiday this year.  I started investigating on the internet for an alternative means of getting the car back to Canada. 

Step one was to drive the car to Progresso, about four and a half hours north-east of Cancun and register with Linea Peninsula a container shipping company.  The staff were great!  They helped us navigate the complex rules to process the car through Mexican Customs, clear it through American Customs, and truck it to the USA-Canada border. 

Banjercito - paperwork
 Step two was to export the car through Mexican Customs.  We used Angie Winegar at Banjercito in Progresso, to process the paperwork.  Angie was fantastic.  She advised us that we had a slight delay before she could organize our permit.  The bank computers were being updated and were off-line until later in the afternoon. 

Angie suggested we have a nice leisurely lunch at one of the beach restaurants, and return at 1:30 in the afternoon.  We did.  She was late getting back to the office, but hustled and had our paperwork completed in twenty minutes. 

Step three was to drive the car back to Linea Peninsular and continue the checking-in process, eventually driving the car out along the seven kilometre pier in the port of Progresso to leave it at the container ship.  Linea Peninsular services were about five hundred ($500.00) US dollars.  I would use them again, in a heartbeat. 

Port Authority in Progresso
When the ship arrived in Panama City Florida, another extremely helpful person, April Parrish of Page & Jones Customs Brokers, expedited it through American Customs.  They charged $300.00, but later advised me that they would be refunding $150.00 as it was not necessary to have the car inspected.

For the next part of the journey from Panama City to Blaine Washington, near the Canadian border, I used Montway Shipping.  I found this company though a website called "U-Ship" where I requested on-line bids from several trucking companies before setting on Montway.  They picked up our car from the docks and in short order it was in Blaine Washington. The total cost for trucking was one thousand and four hundred ($1400.00) US dollars.
So for around two thousand ($2100.00) US dollars we got our Nissan to the USA-Canada border.  Sound like a lot to pay? 

Well considering the shortest route via Goggle Maps is 3940 miles it would take us a minimum of ten days to drive back to British Columbia.  We like to stop frequently.  Plus we would have to pay for gas, food, lodging, a few cocktails, and return airfare to Mexico - we think the cost was a bargain!

The only wrinkle in this whole process was caused by our previous insurance carrier ICBC, operated by the province of BC.  When we moved to Mexico they would not continue to insure our car, so we let it lapse and instead purchased Mexican insurance.  Before leaving Canada in 2008, I had been advised by an ICBC agent that when we wanted to return they would re-insure the car and send us the decals so that we would be insured on the drive back. 

Chuck Watt, inspecting the car in Blaine WA
Change of administrations and a change of regulations, and our car had been purged from the ICBC system.  Their response was "sorry, tough luck, but maybe you can find an insurance company in California that would sell you a policy."  No.  No one would sell such a policy.  Thank you so much, ICBC. 

I had such fantastic service from the Mexican shipping company, Mexican customs, US customs, and US trucking company - only to be told by our Canadian insurance company that we were on our own.

There is a happy ending.  The final step required the assistance of good friend, Chuck Watt, who arranged Canadian insurance and drove it across the border for us. The car is back in Vancouver, living at Chuck and Marcy's house, just waiting for a new owner. 

Sparkling clean and looking for a new owner

Friday, May 11, 2012

There's playing with, and then there's toying with .....

Gringos vs Amigos  44th year of Sol del Sol Regatta
The basketball spun through the air, swishing perfectly into the net.  Two points!

Before the ball had even completed its arc the Amigos team members were racing back down the court, confident in the outcome of the toss. 

The Gringos, the American sailors participating in the traditional Sol del Sol Sailing Regatta, and the Amigos, the local guys, have had this matchup many times before.

The Gringos have won this event only twice ....
At the beginning of the game when the organizers were being introduced, the announcer said in perfect English: "The Gringos have won this event twice.  Once in the last century.  And once in this century."  

A slight exaggeration, but basically true.  They have won only twice in forty-four years.

The Amigos, good-naturedly toyed with the opposing team like Harlem Globe Trotters teasing a high school team. 

Amigos toying with the Gringos

They passed to their teammates without even glancing at the intended recipient, secure in the knowledge the player would be in position. 

They sunk baskets without looking, occasionally flipping them backhand into the net.  Granted, they have a slight advantage in that most of the Amigos team members have played together several times for this annual Encuentro Amiso de Basquetbol.

At half-time the Gringos plotted to even up their chances by plying their opponents with free beer.  It didn't help. 

The local guys laughingly took the beers, and then drank water, lots of water to re-hydrate.     

One of the regular Amigo team members

Even with the energetic cheering of the assorted yacht owners and the stylish cheerleaders - in the end the outcome was the same;  Gringos 28 and Amigos 42.
Gringo cheering section

The lively game, and good-natured ribbing between the players was most enjoyable.  Sitting in amongst the various yacht owners, Lawrie and I, plus Brent Krausar were cheering for the home team. 

The Sol del Sol Regatta features sail boats that chart a course from Florida, then sail close to the western tip of Cuba, finally docking at Isla Mujeres.

Approximate course for Sol del Sol Regatta

This year there were a few changes to the Mexican Customs registration and check-in, causing major frustration amongst the yachters. 

Hopefully by race time in 2013 that will be sorted out. 

This event brings to the island a great group of people who are a financial boon to the local economy.  
Traditional sweaty t-shirt exchange!

Friday, May 4, 2012

A perfect week on a perfect little island starts, and ends, with blue

Using a small pump to help install dock pylons
We started out the new week - which in our world is Friday to Friday - looking for things to write about for the next Friday's email.  We stopped in at the Soggy Peso Bar & Grill for their yummy crispy beef tacos and a cool beverage or two.  Freddy Medina's father-in-law, and a crew of young guys were just starting the construction of Mal and Sal Richard's new dock at the Soggy Peso.

Standing in the gorgeous blue water under a sparkling-blue sky the guys were using a small pump mounted in a rowboat, to force water into the sand around each new pylon allowing the heavy wooden pole to sink until it hits a solid coral or rock base.

Decking next!

It's an ingenious method to install the upright supports - pylons - for the dock.  In Canada we were accustomed to heavy machinery pounding the wooden or steel pylons into the ground, jarring and jiggling the bones in your body with each forceful thump.  Their method of using water pressure to dig through sand is quiet, quick, and unobtrusive.

A few days later we checked back with the progress on the docks at the Soggy Peso.  Being Tuesday the food item for the day was fajitas, chicken, or beef, or a combination of both with a cool beverage or two - of course. 

The crew by now had installed the pylons, the crossbeams, and were about to start laying the planking.  More blues - blue water, blue lettering on the big boat anchored in the bay, and blue shirts on the guys. My eye is naturally drawn to the colour blue.
The turtles are out there .... having fun!
But, the ultimate display of blue is at the southern end of the island, where the deep, swift Cozumel current clashes with the Caribbean Sea - creating a kaleidoscope of azure, cobalt, navy, sapphire, and indigo. 

It is a very fertile feeding ground for fish, sea turtles, and rays.  We were looking for the big sea turtles that frequent this area in the spring, searching for mates and a little hanky-panky.  Slap and tickle.  Chuka-chuka. 

We paid our thirty pesos admission fee for the municipal park, about $2.50, and wandered to the southern tip of the island.  Wow!  The colours are eye-popping beautiful.  We were lucky enough to spot several turtles getting frisky.  Unfortunately my camera lens wasn't powerful enough to photograph the turtles as they were quite a distance out - all I have is beautiful photos of beautiful blue water. I can live with that.

The Ultimate Blue - South Point Isla Mujeres
When we got home from South Point and downloaded the photos we realized that we were wearing identically coloured clothes.  Blue shirts, and khaki shorts! 

Who dressed us?