Friday, October 25, 2013

Building in Paradise - from the ground up! It's Lawrie's turn to write

All done September 10th 2007
Okay, so you've decided that you want to live in paradise, and you've found the perfect spot.  Should you rent, buy or build?

If you are new to the island, I recommend that you rent to begin with to be sure you have found the perfect place for your dream home. 

Of course if you have been a frequent visitor to the island you probably have all that information and you can go directly to purchasing or building.  In our case we decided to build, as we couldn't find the perfect place already built. 

Day one January 15th 2007
If you are buying a lot, do your homework.  It's a really good idea to have a recent land survey to ensure you are purchasing the correct lot, and that you will be building within the actual boundaries of the lot.  

Mistakes do happen!   We know of a few instances where owners started a house but on the wrong lot, or were in the process of purchasing a lot or a house and discovered the "sellers" did not actually have the legal right to sell the property. 

After purchasing a lot the next step is to find a reliable and honest builder. There are a lot of horror stories about building in Mexico but if you check references you will find someone that fits your requirements and your budget.

Digging down to bedrock - they dug down 13 feet
It's always a good idea to see some of the builder's completed projects, and talk to the owners to find out if they are pleased with the finished product. 

Before you actually get to start on your project, obtaining a building permit and having your plans approved can take awhile but eventually you'll be ready to start.   

Blocks are quickly rising up!  

Now permits in hand you are ready to clear the property and construct a solid foundation.  No, you don't have to actually do the work, the crew will do it for you.  

You can satisfy yourself with watching.  (But be sure to wear your supervisory hard hat and carry a clipboard.  You want to project the right impression that you know exactly what you are doing.)  

Pouring the roof
On Isla there are very few foundations dug with backhoes, instead a couple of strong guys will dig a trench deep enough to hit bedrock.  

We shuddered when we first saw these young guys down 13 feet, in a narrow trench, with no reinforcements, filling buckets with sand and rocks, then passing them up overhead to other workers.   It's a hot, dirty, and potentially dangerous job.  

As with most manual labour jobs in Mexico there is no safety equipment: no steel-toed boots, or work gloves, or hard hats, or safety harnesses.  Most of the guys work in bare feet or sandals.  That's it.

Pouring the roof of our casa

Mixing the concrete occasionally involves a portable cement mixer, but just as likely will be done by hand with a shovel, and a bucket brigade to transport the wet cement mix to the required location.  

During a roof-pouring we have seen as many as twenty-five guys working the site, passing heavy buckets of concrete from the ground up to the second floor, and up again to the roof. The empty buckets are tossed back down to start the journey over again. Most houses are created out of eight inch concrete building blocks and rebar. A few large architecturally designed homes on the island have used concrete pumper trucks.  

Downstairs tile floors
When the crew finally starts constructing walls it is amazing how quickly things progress.  We had dewy-eyed visions of a three-month completion as our house was progressing so rapidly.  Wrong!   

Once the blocks are up, things slow down dramatically as the first coat of plaster is literally thrown at the walls, then troweled, and smoothed.  Repeat for a second coat, and the third and final coat.  It is a mind-numbing, but very necessary process that takes the edge off of the initial excitement. 
Oh good!  More photos of plaster going on the walls.  That's so very exciting. 

Several coats of plaster - boring, boring boring!
But wait, we need plumbing, you know stuff like toilets and sinks. And electricity!  Silly me, those services are installed after the plaster has dried.  Chip-chip-chip. Slowly paths are chipped into the plaster for wiring, and pipes.  Next are the windows, tile floors, and the final touches to the roof. 

At this point, the only wood that has been used during construction is to build a homemade ladder for the work-site.  How different than North American construction methods.  But this is the tropics; hurricanes, humid weather, rainstorms, and voracious tropical insects have altered how buildings are constructed.  Your typical Minnesota or Alberta home would not last a year in this climate.  

Finishing off the tower

While all this activity was going on, we shopped.  Choosing lighting fixtures that hopefully would not rust or corrode, or cost a bazillion dollars in electricity to operate.  Picking out plumbing fixtures, and tile, and kitchen cabinets.   The easy jobs, the fun jobs you say.   

Well, not exactly.  Cancun building supply stores do not carry a lot of inventory.  Very little on the display floor is actually for sale, instead items must be ordered with a wait of ten days to eight weeks.  We needed three matching bathroom mirrors, and only found two.  We wanted three matching bathrooms sinks, and again, only found two.   We learned to be very flexible in what we had envisioned, settling for the easy solution instead of a long wait in most cases. 

December 2007
And finally our dream home was finished; just seven months from start to finish.  

We are very happy with the results as the house was completed quicker than promised, and cost less than what we had budgeted. 

Damn, one small detail we forgot about.  

We need furniture. 

Stuffing a king-sized mattress through the doorway

And that is a whole other story!

Hasta Luego
Lynda & Lawrie

Lawrie - waiting for the king-sized mattress

Friday, October 18, 2013

How do you make a living in a small community? Diversify!

Javi & Marla 
Earning a living in a small community can be daunting, but for energetic and resourceful people it can be a very interesting adventure.  When Javier Martinez Cen and Marla J. Bainbridge teamed up romantically and professionally their world got a lot more interesting.

Javi’s family, Martinez, is one of the oldest families on Isla Mujeres.  He has spent his entire life on the island, with the exception of a few vacations to Canada, Germany and the USA.  Grinning Javi added he was actually born in Mérida.  He is not sure if his mother planned to have him in Mérida, or she just happened to be visiting family when Javi made his debut. 

Not long after they joined forces, Marla created a spreadsheet for Javi, with the week blocked out in one hour segments, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  It was a simple demonstration that they would have plan where and when they worked as sleep was a non-negotiable line item on the spreadsheet. 

Toso, Julio, and Javi part of Banda Sin Nombre
In previous years Javi had tried a variety of jobs.  He worked on the reception desk at the Cristal Mar Hotel and as a guide at the turtle farm.  He also tried his hand at lobster fishing and cleaning boats but music was always the main motivation in his life. 

Taught at an early age by his dad, Toso, Javi later expanded his music education in Mérida.  His grandfather and uncle were also musicians, and his dad stills plays a mean bass guitar in the La Banda Sin Nombre.  However, for Javi, playing a late night gig at Fayne’s and then reporting to work at the middle school at 6:45 in the morning was not going be successful in the long term.  It doesn’t matter how young you are, eventually the body says: stop!

Javi and his bud.  
On the other hand, Marla who was originally an Alabama girl first moved to Isla Mujeres about three and a half years ago.  She has lived in a number of American cities, and states, and enjoys the challenge of re-inventing herself when presented with new opportunities.  Marla readily admits when she was in high school she was an awful student, she had absolutely no interest.  Several years later she decided she was bored and needed a new challenge.  She enrolled in Pepperdine University in California, and breezed through her Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership.

Moving to Isla she realized she had to cast a large net over the island to find job opportunities, and business ideas.  Creating websites and promotional ideas for various island businesses, plus property management for seven or eight homes got her started.  The property management led to purchasing the web-based business Isla Mujeres Budget Rentals, offering booking services between a number of lower priced properties and tourists. This has expanded to include Isla Mujeres Vacation Rentals for mid-priced properties and Isla Mujeres Luxury Rentals for the higher-end properties.  

Another one of their business ventures
Creative and restive her mind is never still, so Marla came up with two more inventive ideas. Dinnertainment: private dinner parties hosted in your home, condo, or apartment complete with music.  And Transportainment: Javi tours clients to the off-the-beaten path locations of Isla Mujeres complete with a local history lesson.

Just when I thought they had revealed all of their business secrets, an early morning email informed me of their newest venture Isla Iguana Tag, to be launched in November.  According to Marla, “it’s an updated version of a scavenger hunt where teams use their smart phones to join in the fun, and are given a list of challenges to compete for points.  It’s a great way to see the island, and to visit local attractions or businesses.” 
Singing "Sweet Home Alabama!"
With all of these enterprises rolling along, Marla reflected that she has realized a very important fact about herself.  She enjoys the development of new business ideas.  

Her criteria for a great business venture are simple: the joy derived must be greater than the time spent, and money earned.  

For Javi he wants to be a good husband, and a good dad to his thirteen year-old daughter Ambar, and to lead a balanced and happy life. 

Check out their website:

Hasta Luego 
Lynda and Lawrie

Friday, October 11, 2013

Bella’s Story

Well, this is a little embarrassing.  I’ve been asked to tell you about myself, and really I am quite shy.  I’m not prone to bragging.  The beautiful brown-eyed blonde smiled impishly at her visitor.  But, since you asked, well, here goes.

When I was a tiny little baby I had five brothers and sisters.  Our mother was taken from us quite suddenly so we never knew her.  

I was so tiny I would fit in the palm of a person’s hand.  Bella’s feathery tail swished softly as she warmed to the idea of telling her story.  One day just after the loss of our mother, a tall woman picked me up in her arms. 

The woman whispered to me:  “You are going to be safe sweetie, don’t worry.  I know exactly who is going to love you forever.” 

I am only 1-year-old in this photo
The next thing I knew I was being handed to a very pretty blonde-haired woman. “Oh, she is so beautiful.  I love her to pieces!  She will be my very special friend.” 

Well, that made me very excited and I must admit I acted just like a very young puppy would, licking her face, and wiggling ecstatically.  It’s all a bit embarrassing, really, but I was so happy to have someone love me. 

She is the person who named me Bella, which means “beauty” in Spanish and since we were living in Mexico it just made sense to have a Spanish name.  One of her many friends thought that my name should have been Sandy, as I blended perfectly with the beach sand floors of their outside living area.  I am very happy she stayed with the prettier name.  I think it suits me perfectly, don’t you?  She smiled, coyly.

After my operation , one ear up, one ear down
As I grew up it took me quite a few months before I could climb the stairs up to the apartment of my two humans.  Because I had very poor nutrition as a tiny baby, I had very weak bones, and my feet would swell when I tried to run or play.   

My female human was so very patient with me, carrying me down in the morning, back up for an afternoon nap, down for playtime, and up again for bedtime.  It really was a nuisance for her as she was also operating a busy resort.  She kept telling me she loved me, and it was not a problem.  Lucky for me she loved me so much!  

Her handsome male human was away a lot of the time working in another city, so we were good company for each other.  Now, happily, he is here all the time and I love him as much as I love her.  Well, maybe I love her just a teeny, tiny bit more because she carried me up and down the stairs.

This is our family photo in 2004 
When I was learning my manners, my special treat was a few Cheerios, those little round crunchy circles that people float in a bowl of milk.  I adore them.  I will do anything for Cheerios.  Learning my manners wasn’t a problem at all, it was quite fun, actually.  I have also been told that I am very smart, so smart I even learned to love cats including my first friend Luna, and now my friend Peek-a-Boo.  Luna taught me many secrets that only cats know.   Peek-a-Boo and I have become good friends, and we patrol our property together.  We keep an eye on our humans, and make sure their house is safe.  Any strangers must pass our inspections, especially if they are working at the resort. 

Where's the fish?  Where's the fish?  Pounce!
Some of my favourite activities include a game I invented – I call it pounce.   It’s an exciting game.  My humans take me down the path, through the dark, cool caves, and onto a smaller quiet beach.  In the shallow tidal pools I watch very carefully for small fish.  When I see them – I pounce!  I wait, and I watch; then pounce again! I have been told that I look like a fox pouncing on a mouse when I play this game.  I could play for hours.  Peek-a-Boo would like to play with me, but she’s afraid to walk down to the beach with us.   

I also enjoy running on long sandy beaches at a place called Tulum.  I’d run for miles, dash into the surf, roll in the sand, and then clean my face on a fluffy beach towel.  It was a delicious treat.  I am quite a bit older now, so I don’t do the long runs and hikes that I did when I was a much younger dog. 

Sadly I have had a few health problems in my past.  The first problem occurred when I was about two-years old.  I had a large tumor in my head that required surgery.  The doctor did a fine job of removing the tumor, but as you can see from the photos both of my ears used to be perky, like wings.  Now the right one is perky, and the left one is relaxed.  It makes me much more interesting to look at, I think.  

Playing in the tidal pools on Isla Mujeres
I was such a scrawny, lanky teenager – all legs and feet.  Now that I am a mature woman, I have settled into a fuller, Rubenesque-body type.  I do have other health challenges including skin sensitivities, digestive issues, heartworm, and Ehrlichia, but I won’t bore you with the gruesome details.  And of course as I age, I am gradually losing my eye-sight to cataracts.  It is such a challenge getting older.  I miss the carefree days of my youth.

With such a rocky start to my life, being adopted has been a blessing for me.  I gained a loving family, who feed me, care for me, and let me share their lives completely.  And I’ll tell you a secret.  She leaned closer to whisper.  I have my own private closet filled with beautiful jeweled collars; collars for Hallowe’en, or Christmas, or Thanksgiving, and for my birthday.  I have collars to match my female human’s dresses, and my male human’s shirts.  I am spoiled.  

And here's our recent family portrait !
They also let me share their bed for part of the night.  I like to get into the bed first, kiss both of my humans good night and then leave to sleep peacefully in my own comfy bed.  Part way through the night I will sometimes sneak into bed for an hour, or when my male human gets up in the morning I’ll make a warm nest with his pillows.  Those extra few minutes of sleep are delightful, full of wonderful dreams and memories of being young again.

I love my life.  Bella looked away, a film of tears in her eyes, thinking how she had aged so much in the last year or two.  I hope I can stay healthy and happy, sharing my life with my people for a few more years yet.   I love my people.  But her life was too perfect to be sad about anything for very long.  Softly thumping her tail on the floor she grinned happily at her visitor.  I wish every dog could be as fortunate as I have been!


Cast of characters:

Bella – is Bella who lives at Villa la Bella Bed & Breakfast on Isla Mujeres

The tall woman – Alison Sawyer Current who founded the non-profit organization Isla Animals dedicated to helping animals in need.

The pretty blonde-haired woman – Ashley Margilyn Blogin co-owner of Villa la Bella

The handsome male human – Curtis Blogin co-owner of Villa la Bella

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Little Devils of Isla Mujeres

Delivering vegetables to Hidalgo Avenue
“Bicycle?” he asks with a smile, pointing at his specialized vehicle a diablito (little devil).  It’s a combination of a cart and a bicycle welded together in an ingenious fashion.   

The maleteros, bellboys, or bicycle-couriers are a hard working bunch of guys who meet all of the arriving and departing passenger boats.  They offer their portage services to everyone.   

On this particular day two of the maleteros have been hired by a local restaurant owner to cart his heavy purchases from the passenger boat a few blocks to his restaurant on Hidalgo Avenue.  Boxes of ripe tomatoes and aromatic peppers are stacked on top of sturdy cartons of supplies.  Sacks of green cabbage heads and crisp white onions are balanced to one side – the bright red diablitos are loaded and ready to go.  Both maleteros are wearing the sponsored t-shirt of the day, this one from Casa España.  It’s a clever way to identify the legitimate porters.

Bellboys (porters) loading packages on UltraMar
On the other side of the bay at the UltraMar docks in Puerto Juarez, the white porters’ tunics with navy trim, and “Bellboy” embroidered over the pocket strive to create a hotel-resort atmosphere.  This subtle visual reference is presumably designed to ease the concerns of tourists as most travellers will have encountered a bellboy in a safe and familiar hotel situation.  

Puerto Juarez - hotel-style uniforms for porters
To complete the resort illusion the porters use a traditional hotel cart to move packages, not the bicycle-cart diablito.  They will offer to transport heavy bags and purchases down to the docks, stacking luggage in piles for easy loading onto the boats. 

Embarking passengers wait sheltered under large canvas sunshades – chatting amiably with friends if they are familiar with the routine, or eyeing their luggage fearfully if they are new to the island. On the Isla Mujeres side of the water, the procedure is similar, but we have noticed that people are less worried about their possessions on the return trip now that they know the system.

Passengers waiting to board at Puerto Juarez docks
It is always a bit amusing to see a tourist react with suspicion at the suggestion that they turn over their precious baggage to a stranger.  Although to be fair, the first time we arrived on Isla we didn’t feel comfortable enough to let someone walk off with our suitcases.  

Now, we are so accustomed to the service, we gladly let someone else cart our heavy items.  Disembarking on Isla, we hand over our goods, describe in Spanglish where our vehicle is parked and part company.  We walk out the passenger exit, while the maletero must go around to an exit for the diablito.  We meet up again a few blocks down the street where we indicated the golf cart was parked.  For just a few dollars it’s a nice treat, especially for my shoulder and knee joints! 

Diablitos - bicycle/cart combination 
On Isla there is the added service of the bicycle-couriers transporting heavy items directly to hotels in centro, or the customers’ place of business, or to a near-by vehicle.  

And as with every form of transportation on Isla, people become very inventive on what will fit on a diablito: 50-inch TV, propane tanks, groceries, large pails of paint, pet carriers, lumber, mattresses, and of course suitcases.  Some enterprising operators also use their diablito to transport family members when it is not being used to earn a living.  Mom and the kids pile in the cart portion and papa provides the pedal power on the bicycle.

Maleteros - use  hand carts as well as diablitos

Maleteros, bellboys, and bicycle-couriers work for tips.  Be generous.  It’s a hot and physical job.

Hasta Luego 

Lynda and Lawrie