Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A DIY lifestyle

First off, I am going to try to write a post that does NOT ramble on and on about the landscaping. Nor the water filtration system. And I have already shut up about building the pantry shelves. (They are finished and installed, anyhow.) I am not going to post another one of those repetitious sunrise photos. At least, not right now. In fact, since I haven't posted a photo of this part of the house in a while, I will use a pergola photo for a change:

And it is taking a lot of self control not to discuss the landscaping going on around the pergola or that row of outside lights I had to fix. Already.

We are once again back to thinking about what to do with that opening in the end there. Maybe a custom wrought-iron gate, or I might build something funky and unique out of driftwood. Heck, most of what I build turns out funky and unique anyhow. Not usually on purpose, unfortunately.

I was just looking over our past few blog posts here. I wanted to add another photo to that previous post about having to fix the lights after they spent just four months in this climate. I was also a bit interested in how we got selected for this "Best of Blogger" thing, and how we got into the "finals" in the DIY (Do It Yourself) category. I am a little surprised at that, because I really did not intend for this blog to be about DIY projects. Heck, it is supposed to be about living in the tropics. You know...sunshine, beautiful beaches, coral reefs, diving, fishing....all that tropical island type stuff.

But.....looking back at what I have been posting lately I realized that there probably is a bit more of the do-it-yourself aspect of life inherent in living here than there is in almost any other place I have ever lived. Basically, it's pretty much a necessity. Being able to be somewhat of an all around handyman is pretty important to living in a small remote country. When something breaks (not "if" it breaks, here, it's definitely "when" it breaks) the choices are to fix it yourself with materials already here, or hire someone to fix it, or replace it or just learn to live without it. We have experienced elements of all of those choices.

If you hire someone else to fix it....well...that doesn't mean it's really fixed. "Fixed" is a very nebulous term here. Some of us consider "fixed" to mean returned to full functionality. Repaired. Problem solved. And then there are others who consider "fixed" to mean that some small bit of the original functionality has been restored. This can lead to misunderstandings when you get the bill from whomever you hired to fix the problem in question. If what was once a coffee table can be made to stand on three legs by adding weight to one corner....is it fixed?

You can, of course, simply replace whatever has most recently failed. This is usually only slightly more expensive than fixing it, but at least you will get something that works for a while. And if you keep the original failed item you end up with an almost complete set of spare parts. Which you can use to fix it when it, also, fails. And it will.

And of course in many cases when something fails you can just learn to live without it. This is the most cost effective solution by far. But it just doesn't work in every case. It's pretty much up to the individual (and his spouse) to decide how many creature comforts one can live without. If you can get by living under palm fronds and spearing fish with a sharp stick, you've probably got what it takes to adapt to life here. Ah, but you will need to sharpen the stick. Knives, whet-stones, 3-in-1 oil....it starts getting complicated fairly quickly.

So, becoming your own home repairman is the logical solution. Not everyone seems to have the genes or chromosones or whatever it is in human DNA that makes some people naturally understand mechanical things. I am lucky in that I do seem to have that particular genetic bend. I struggle with quantum physics and chaos theories that others find to be simple concepts, but I can remove a rusted bolt or re-gap a spark plug in my sleep. There are places for all of us, I guess. Fortunately for me, I think I finally found mine.

Being able to fix things requires at least some access to materials. That is the major gripe about life as a homeowner here. There is just no way that an infrastructure this small can stock and supply all the bits and pieces that a homeowner would like to be available.

For example, there is obviously just not enough local demand for 6-32 stainless acorn nuts in order for the local hardware people to stock them. I am sure I could ask them to order some, but the usual answer when you do that here is "three weeks". Need a new water-heater? Three weeks. Need a starter motor ? Three weeks.

The other stock answer is that "it's on order, maybe it's in the next container from Miami which will be clearing customs on Monday".

Well, for a few months after first moving here one will tend to start counting off those three weeks. As though the part in question is actually going to arrive 21 days later. That is SO "North American" thinking..... Eventually, after enough experiences, one wises up and guess what? It's not going to be here in three weeks. When you call three weeks and a day after you thought it was ordered, you are most likely to hear something along the lines of "Oh, it takes three weeks after we order it. Did you want to order it?" You can forget all about the arm waving and shouting and showing people credit card receipts dated three weeks earlier. Waste of time. If it didn't get ordered, it just didn't get ordered. Take a deep breath. Do whatever mantra works for you. Put a smile on your face, and see if you can get it ordered. And be ready to hear the phrase "it should be here in about three weeks".

I am not joking about this, incidentally. We have been "Three-Weeked" for months on items including kitchen sinks, water heaters, storm shutters (11 months), louvered window cranks (six months and still counting)....the list goes on.

I actually did not intend to get onto a rant about how long it takes things to happen here. That's just a fact of tropical life. It takes some time to order whatever it is. It has to be shipped to Miami. Then it gets loaded into a container, and then onto a boat. It takes a while to get here. Then it has to be cleared through customs. These are all real factors.

What generated this particular post was thinking about the DIY livestyle. Some people choose to live like that, and some of us are forced to. We are a little of both. The other factor that generated this post was a brief visit to the USA over Memorial Day weekend. We had not been in the US since August of last year. And every time we visit up there, the contrast just knocks us silly. It's a different world. And seeing it again brings that home in big ways.

For example, this was part of the view from where we were staying, and it's nothing like where we live:

We were 2,400 miles NW and two miles above our new home. (And YES we were freezing our butts off. I had to actually put shoes on.)

Two miles above sea level. Wow. I don't think you can even get two miles from the sea anywhere on this 17 x 3 mile island we call home.

The area where we stayed has a population of around 10,000 people. About a third as big as the entire population of the TCI. But in contrast to the TCI, for example, I saw a professional installation truck with "Solar Systems " on the side of it. I couldn't find anyone who installs solar systems in the TCI. I had to reseach all that myself. I saw a building supply company here that specializes in "Green" homebuilding supplies. Here, I am happy to be able to just find a straight 2x4. We went into a Wal-Mart store , and I realized that if one were to take every single item off the shelves and out of the storage buildings of every single store in the entire TCI and made a big pile of it.....that total pile would not fill half the floor space of one medium-sized Wal-Mart in the USA. We tend to forget the differences between where we come from and where we now live. We have gotten used to the island life I guess. Living in the TCI, we have become accustomed to dealing with it. It's our life. Visiting the US even briefly sure resets the old perspective, I can tell you that.

And while in the US we walked into the tool department of a Sears and Roebuck. La Gringa had to drag me out by the scruff of the neck, with a set of taps and dies in one hand, an 80 tooth table-saw blade and stabilizer in the other, and a spray of drool on the floor marking where I apparently made a desperate lunge for the power tool display.

I have jokingly referred to the TCI as the "Land of Make Do" from time to time. I don't mean that in a derrogatory manner at all. Most vacationing visitors to the TCI will never see the small day-to-day McGyverisms needed to keep things functioning here. All of the resorts have their own repair people. They have backup generators for power. Some of them make their own fresh water...but for someone living here one constantly must be thinking in terms of Plan B, C, and D on the almost certain knowledge that Plan A isn't going to work out the way one might have anticipated. Oh, it will usually be something small, like a specific tool or part that does not exist here. Or an expertise or service that just has not materialized here yet. And 'yet' is the operative word there. It's all coming. We have seen huge changes just in three years. I wish we could slow it down, in fact. We like it the way it is. Warts and all.

It can be frustrating, for sure. The TCI is NO place for a "Type A" personality to settle. Those people will not be happy here. The pace is different. The life is different. Up in the USA there is always a choice of suppliers. There is competition for overnight delivery services to anywhere in the country. There is a Yellow Pages phone book an inch or two thick. Not here, amigo. Not here.
The small size and remote nature of these islands dictates that one adjust to the local pace and realities. It's all part of it. And it is definitely not for everyone.

So, maybe the DIY aspect of these posts is more about us leading a DIY life, as opposed to being used to buying a life off-the-shelf in the USA.

Back to the TCI...well this week we saw, for example, what at first looked like one of the Marine Police boats following one of the small local "conch" boats:

Then we took a closer look, because I noticed that the outboard motor on the Police boat is not fully down....

And we discovered that in fact the small local boat was towing the disabled Police boat...
I don't think you would see that too often in the USA. But here, it's a pretty sure bet that the Marine Police officers in the disabled boat are blood relatives of the fishermen in the conch boat.

As for new developments at the house, they are still going on. Here's a look at the electric water heater that we have been using for the past three months:

Notice how it pretty much fills the closet that it's installed in? That's pretty convenient, wouldn't you say? Well, maybe not if you understood that this was supposed to be a linen closet. Nothing to do with hot water. The electric water heater was supposed to be in the little attic above the closet. See, the idea is that the solar heated water from outside would feed the electric water heater. Then we would only need to use electricity to slightly (if at all) heat the water in the tank. The tank is very well insulated, and our idea was that it was more for heated storage of solar heated water, than to be the primary source of hot water. It needed to be installed higher than the solar collector for some simple reasons having to do with physics.

Well, the contractor somehow did not notice that little part of the plan. And he was not too happy about us insisting that he make it right. But we did. And he did. Well, almost.

The electric water heater he installed in our linen closet was too tall to fit into the attic. And the correct model is too wide to go up the pull-down attic stairs. So the solution was for him to buy the correctly sized water heater, and cut a hole in the wall above this linen closet in order to be able to fit it into the attic.

In the US, this would have taken maybe two days. Here, it has been about four months, so far. And it's not completed YET...!!

Here is the new short,fat water heater up in the attic, as seen through our new hole-in-the-wall:

That was a blank wall last week. Now it will have a louvered door in it. Oh well. We rescued our linen closet, at least.

Oh, and after hooking up the solar collector to the new electric water heater, the sub-contractor left without hooking up the electricity to it. On a Friday afternoon. Well, we went for an entire week (so far) without a "functioning" electric water heater. It's not wired in at all. And we took hot showers not only at night, but the next morning as well. And the solar heated water being stored in the non-functioning electric water heater tank was piping hot. I guess that speaks pretty well for the whole concept. The plumber was so impressed, I think he is planning to do future installations the same way. It's a pretty simple concept, using the insulated tank to store the solar heated water. Put the tank above the level of the solar collector. Heat rises. Makes perfect sense, right?

Totally new concept to several people here. This took four months to sort out.

The landscaping continues to progress. They are about half-way done. When we signed the contract for it a month ago from start to finish was supposed to take......three weeks.

I do have some more DIY stuff planned for the very near future. La Gringa has been keeping her eye out for driftwood and similar building materials when she takes Dooley the Devious Dog on his daily beach walk. She found this dead hardwood tree, which is pretty common here. (See our previous posts on the Christmas Stumps):

She says it is about three feet tall. I am thinking this might make a good first project using local wood for furniture. I can see this becoming an outdoor patio table. I just need to go back at low tide and dig it out of there. Fun project coming up!! Funny, it doesn't LOOK like patio furniture, now does it. Yet...

Hmm..Would that qualify as a DIY project? I can see it now..."Building a patio table, Step 1. Search the local beaches and mangrove swamps for a suitable dead tree. Step 2: figure out a way to cut the roots and retrieve the dead tree at low tide....Step 3, transport the dead tree home...."

This ought to be good for a blog post. Too bad the voting on the "Best of Blog" contest will be over by then...

We just got back home to the TCI last night. It was a short trip, but we did manage to hit a few stores while we were there. We came home with tools, camera and music stuff, new Crocs, and a renewed aversion to the Miami airport.

This trip should have some impact on the blog, by the way. La Gringa picked up a new web-cam, and we should be able to get that going for those who want to watch sunsets. And I managed to buy some of the special batteries for my old, obsolete Sony F707 camera. It's ancient by digital camera standards. It's slow. It's only got 5 mp resolution...limited image storage, but it's got optics way superior to any of our newer cams. I was checking it out this morning, and now I can, for example, get photos of that marina that is 900 yards away if you are a bird (10.2 miles of bad road if you are driving):

I can get closer photos of the "ironshore" from the patio than I could before:

And we should be able to get better photos of boats, the moon reflecting on the ocean, waterspouts, and other distant subjects that the little pocket digital just couldn't handle.

This is the house we tried our best to purchase back in 2005, as seen from our new patio:

We got overbid by someone who offered MORE than the asking price, sight unseen. We just could not compete with that. So, we started driving around, banging the rental car off the rocks...depressed, frustrated, looking for another house we liked as much, when La Gringa found this desolate hilltop lot ....and said "hey, why don't we just buy some land and build our OWN house?"...and if you follow the blog you pretty much know how that story is going.

We bailed old Dooley the Delusional Dog out of re-hab first thing this morning, since we got in too late last night to spring him....

("I want my lawyer. I want DNA testing. I want some sleep.....it was NOISY on D-Block last night....")

And we are all extremely glad to be home and back to our DIY life, right here at our own little timberline... only 50 feet above sea level.

We like our ice to stay on the inside of the glass. Ahhhhhh


Anonymous said...

Ahhh a good "fix" this morning. Been votin for you and congratulations on the big E and being nominated. You know, that dog of yours has the most expressive face - even in a photo you can see what he's thinking. And in this one, he ain't the happiest dog I've seen. My wife loves him - I always show her the posts with the dog in it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Guys, I was down south at our mountains over the weekend and planned to e-mail you some photos to remind you what you are missing, I wont need to now :)

I could have helped you a littl with the solar design Gringo, you only needed to ask.

Keep up the good work

Anonymous said...

Hello NZ,
Thanks for the comments. It's really the only feedback we get on this blog. I have to admit, for a while there a couple months ago I considered just dropping it. But then we get messages from people that tell us they enjoy it, so we keep it going.

The dog...well...he is a trip. He is the most vocal dog I have ever seen. When he thinks it's time to be fed, he will start following me around mumbling and whining. If I ignore him, he just gets louder and more insistent until I feed him. If I sit down at the computer he will take his nose and lift my hand off the mouse. He gets louder and louder, and sometimes it almost seems like he is trying to form words.

He understands a lot of english, too. We have to spell some words around him. And he knows some of those, as well.

Oh, the mountains. Yeah we saw some beauties. We went through Vail Pass and Loveland Pass, both up around 11-12,000 feet. Both covered in snow. Ouch!

When we landed in Denver, I had on shorts, flipflops, and a t-shirt. Dumb. Spent the whole weekend cold. Fortunately, we don't have to go North too often.

And we always come home with a suitcase full of goodies we can't buy here, makes it somewhat worthwhile. Not totally, but somewhat.

heinz said...

Please keep you blog going - it is one of the highlights of my week. I enjoy the beautiful pictures and all of the writing. I am always impressed by how you can fashion something also -

Anonymous said...

I follow your blog also.
I love the pics and even the house building stuff. I had a house built in FL. It was stupid too. I still do not laugh about it though. Someday I hope to - it has been 10 years.....
If I ever get the cat I want and the time to sail it, one of my plans is to just show up one day and seek you out.

Anonymous said...

Please, bore me anytime. Water heaters, errant contractors, sunsets..whatever. Your boring stuff in TCI is at least a thousand times more interesting than my boring stuff here! House looks fantastic, love the pergola and look forward to the web cam.

Malicious Intent said...

So funny when I read this. I think I have heard every bit of this story in bits and pieces over the years when my cousin lived on St. John. I just kept reading shaking my head going 'yup, that's island life alright.'

At least you are learning it and not trying to fight it, as that will definately get ya now where down there. Things get done, they just get done at island speed. It's looking good!

La Gringa said...

If you can't go with the flow here - ya ain't gonna make it. Or at least, you won't be very happy doing it!