Published in San Francisco Chronicle July 7, 2002: Read the edited version
Photos of the house
The story of how I came to build a house in Mexico starts with a kidnapping and ends with a bloody beating on a dusty road.
In the fall of 1998, I was about to be married in Oaxaca, Mexico, where my fiancè and I owned an acre of land that overlooked a sprawling valley rimmed by the twin crests of the southern Sierra. One day we planned to build a small house on that terreno.
The future arrived ahead of schedule, though, with a phone call from our architect in Oaxaca. The conversation was too rapid for my language-school Spanish, but I heard the word "secuestrado" - kidnapped.
"We have to buy the cement right now," my fiancè said as she hung up. "The guy who owns the building supply company has been kidnapped."
We had bought thousands of dollars of "cement futures" from that company in order to hedge against increases in the price of cement, which fluctuates widely in Mexico. The futures would guarantee us a low price for cement when it came time to build.
The compay's owner had fallen victim to Mexico's latest wave of criminal entrepreneurism. Enrique, the architect, feared the owner's children might have to sell the company to raise the ransom money and our cement futures would be worthless.
(Indeed, three months later the victim's family reportedly sold a Pemex gas station and freed their father.)
The thing about cement is that it is perishable. Once you buy it, you have to use it or it goes bad. So we had a flatbed-full of cement trucked two miles up the dirt road to our hillside in the little town of San Pablo, Etla, and by the time we were married in November we could show our guests the outline in the rocky ground where the house would be.
All we had to do was design the house and get the foundation built before the rains came in May.
The dream house was a casita, a small two-bedroom, one-bath home made of traditional adobe that we could use for vacations. The reality became a 2,700-square-foot casa with three bedrooms, three baths, a jacuzzi and a main room that is larger than our condo in Mill Valley.
There are two lessons to be learned here.
First, do not design a house while drinking mezcal with your architect.
Second, understand that Mexicans are a gracious, welcoming people who have a cultural difficulty saying no to a request from a stranger.
Ask a Oaxacan farmer for directions, for example, and he will never tell he doesn't know. To do so would be rude. So he gives you the best information he has, even if it is nothing more than más alla, further that way. Further could mean 1 kilometer or a 100, or possibly even in the opposite direction. Veteran Mexican travelers learn to ignore such directions, even while profusely thanking the person for giving them. To do otherwise would also be rude.
Applied to homebuilding, this custom works this way: We would ask, Can we make the kitchen bigger or use a different kind of floor tile? Si, se puede, señor, the plumber or contractor would answer. Of course you can, sir - but never adding the rest of the answer: But you wouldn't want to. To contradict the suggestion of the owner would be rude.
So we asked for bigger bathrooms, wider terraces, more windows. No one ever said no or pointed out that a 10-foot-wide window, no matter how grand the view it provides, might shatter in a sharp earthquake, which it did halfway through construction. (Two smaller windows have replaced it.)
Eventually, we hammered out a design and the first of many budgets (I now have an entire, well-worn manila folder full of budgets) and we began building poco a poco, little by little, transferring money a few thousand dollars at a time from our U.S. bank to a Mexican account.
In many parts of Mexico, people generally pay cash for most things, including houses and cars. It takes a credit-conscious American some time to adjust to a world without construction loans or car payments, where it is not unusual for a bank teller to hand you a six-inch high pile of pesos and expect you to just jam the notes in your pocket.
Once, when I withdrew about 60,000 pesos from a bank in downtown Oaxaca, I asked the teller for a bag to put them in. Astonished, she emptied two tamales from her lunch sack and slid the much-used plastic bag across the counter.
As the dollars became pesos and winter became spring, the cement became a foundation and the house took shape. Just not the shape we planned on.
"I had to make some changes," Enrique told us one evening as he unfolded a set of blueprints on his dining room table.
The house was backwards, flipped horizontally. The bedrooms, which had been on the left looking up the canyon, were now on the right, overlooking the valley. The kitchen now occupied the bedrooms' former space. Enrique's wife had thought my wife would prefer to gaze upon the mountain as she washed dishes. How could they have known that my wife's idea of doing dishes is to toss out the Chinese takeout containers?
Can we change it back? we asked. Si, se puede, but … the cement is already pored and it would be expensive.
In the language of international diplomacy, the ensuing conversation was "frank and forthright." More than one glass of mezcal was needed to restore civility. But by evening's end, we all loved the new design.
Over the next two years, the dollars moved southward and the house literally rose from the mud (remember, it's made from adobe).
There were moments of emotional exhilaration (standing on the terraza for the first time and seeing the ruins of Monte Albàn, the 2,500-year-old Zapotec city, shimmer in the distance) and financial despair (learning that the tile roof leaked because cement was poured after the rains started and would have to be rebuilt).
At times things went so badly we considered selling the half-finished house. After a disastrous episode when workers cut away the hillside below the house while attempting to terrace the land, leaving a barren, rocky swath that would need a huge retaining wall to hold the soil in place against the summer rains, I brought a real estate agent up to the construction site.
What's it worth? I asked. Her reply: Not enough to get your money back. Finish it.
So we did.
It is a beautiful home, with textured walls of dark adobe, floors of polished red tile, and high arched brick ceilings supported by massive wooden beams. The terrace is wide and long, shaded throughout the day by an angled tile roof.
The house is handmade, built without power tools. Some parts are rough, slightly imperfect by American standards. Other parts are magnificent, such as the tile floors and the hand-hewn beams. It is less like a finished product and more like a person - wonderful, flaws and all.
Our house sits at 5,000 feet on the edge of the national forest. Above, pine-covered ridges rise to rounded peaks more than 9,500 feet high. Below, the rough, rutted road curves two miles to the international highway, changing from dirt to asphalt for the last half mile.
An American I met one night in the zócalo, Oaxaca's main square, asked my wife and I why we built the house. I said something half-witted about how it seemed like a good idea at the time. Later I discovered that the real answer is found along the road to my house. It contains everything I love about Mexico.
I love the people and their spirit and their effort to build a community in a land so hard and unforgiving that in the dry season just digging a hole for a tree can be a morning's work.
I have never seen people work as Mexicans do. Construction laborers lay brick or carry buckets of cement from dawn to dusk in 90-degree heat six days a week. Many sleep on the job site. Others walk miles to the job and miles home again at night.
The men who built our adobe walls and put in the tile roof made $48 a week, and Americans wonder why a Mexican will walk 2,500 miles to the San Joaquin Valley to pick vegetables for $8 an hour. Do the math.
Since there are few jobs, Mexico is an entrepreneurial nation. All along the road to my house small businesses have sprung up. Women sell produce in the morning for the mid-day meal; a grandmother makes tasty ham and cheese tortas; carpentry shops make doors, shelves and bed frames; ironworkers craft gates and decorative window bars; and building supply stores seemingly multiply overnight, testament to the needs of a country that is still under construction.
For most Mexicans, the work stops on Sundays and in small towns like San Pablo, Etla, the music from the village drifts up the canyon and sounds like it is part of the afternoon wind. Even the poorest people, those who live in houses with walls and roofs of tin, dress up on Sundays. The road fills with them walking to the church or to the bus stop in clean white shirts or printed dresses, the woman using umbrellas to shield their babies from the sun. In a place where dust is as common as air and water is bought by the bottle, there is pride in cleanliness.
I love the manners of Mexico, the old-fashioned way of saying hello or good evening to people you meet on the road.
On my daily trip to the highway I meet the old woodcutter who walks to the mountain each morning with his pack of burros, the group of young men at the edge of town who've set of up an ironworking shop, the half-blind woman who runs the town's only store (which grants credit, but also posts the names of deadbeats on front door - debe Moises $800, Moses owes 800 pesos), and the lovely young women who run my favorite building supply store and have taught me the names of things I never learned in Spanish class - barbed wire, washer, pesticide.
We all exchange greetings. I am only a visitor there, another American elbowing his way into their lives, but they are polite and tolerate my bad grammar.
At times I am a clichè to them (a gringo who spends money), at times I am a curiosity (many want to know about the U.S. - hay chamba? is there work?), and at times I am a new neighbor, discussing whether to replace a small bridge damaged in a recent earthquake.
Still, even if I someday live in San Pablo, Etla, I know I will forever be an outsider, perhaps accepted in the community but never privy to all its secrets. An incident on my last trip to Mexico made that clear.
In May, we rented the house for a year to a Bay Area couple and their two children. He is a dot-com dropout; she is a chicana whose family is from Guadalajara.
I was ecstatic because the house had sat empty for nearly a year, watched over at night by a woman who slept there. We were paying her $200 a month and I was happy to turn the cash outflow into a bit of inflow, no matter how little.
My wife and I furnished the house in a week, buying everything from silverware to appliances. We had a budget of $5,000 and came in under, mixing up purchases from Sears and Sam's Club with those bought in roadside stands or bargained for in Oaxaca's vast outdoor market, Mercado de Abastos.
I returned in mid-May to deal with last-minute problems, like a water pump that had stopped working because a colony of voracious fire ants had eaten through the electrical cables.
I made several trips a day up and down the road to the house. Up went mirrors, cleaning supplies and tools. Down went garbage, garbage and more garbage. The young ironsmiths with the workshop on the road laughed at how many times I passed by in the beat-up (200,000 kilometers) Nissan van I had borrowed from a friend.
On my last day in Mexico, the electrician, my tenant and I were working on the water pump and I only had two hours left before my flight to Mexico City. I still had to make a stop at the Abastos market and then another to drop off the van. I had to go.
The electrician couldn't speak English and the tenant's Spanish was limited to "si" and a selection of nouns. I translated back and forth for a few minutes, left them both instructions, climbed into the van and disappeared in cloud of dust.
A last look over my shoulder produced a view of the programmer and the electrician on their knees, heads together, peering into the pump housing. I laughed. This is how it should be, I thought. Welcome to Mexico, hombre.
Halfway to the highway, I saw all the ironworkers out in the street. In fact, the whole town was in the street - kids, mothers, grandmothers, maybe 100 people in all. They were watching two guys about 50 yards down the road. I stopped.
"Que esta pasando alla?" I asked one of the boys. What's going on over there?
He gave me a long look before answering, then smiled.
"Nada," he said. "No pasa nada, señor." Nothing. There's nothing happening, sir.
For a moment, I didn't know what to say. The two guys had clearly been fighting. We held each other's eyes, and I felt a smile spread on my own face.
Thanks, I told him. Nos vemos. See you later.
I drove on slowly until I was opposite the two guys. They were young, about 18 or 20. They were standing dead still in the middle of the road about 15 feet apart.
The one farthest from me was swaying slightly and yelling loudly. Bright red blood poured from his head, glistening in the mid-day sun. It covered the left side of his face and spilled onto the road in crimson splotches that contrasted sharply with the pale dust. At his feet lay a bloodied rock.
He looked bad, but seemed very much alive, at least vocally. His opponent stood there, watching warily but seemingly unconcerned.
After a few moments, I drove off thinking that these two young men probably grew up together and, if one doesn't kill the other, will likely grow old together. They were part of a timeless ritual through which I was merely passing.
The ironworker was right. Nothing was happening. No pasa nada.