Here is the naked truth about building a house on an island, in the middle of an enormous lake, in the middle of Nicaragua, in the middle of Central America. Two words sum up our experience, construction chaos! One would think that hiring a construction crew, purchasing materials, and overseeing the entire process would be simple. We did. After all, we weren’t novices in building a house. We built a timber-framed house using a portable generator and hand saws when we lived in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. However, one needs to take into account that we are not in Gringolandia anymore. Without a Lowes, a fluent command of the language, tropical construction knowledge, a daily weather report, and an unlimited supply of cash-on-hand, building in the tropics can get downright comical.
Our motley crew tried to be patient with our wild gyrations and mimes of; “No, it is not straight. We want it straight and level. What do you mean that our wood is illegal? Why are they delivering our new fence posts at 4 o’clock in the morning? What is the Spanish name for screws? You mean to tell me that you went all the way to Managua to buy a bathroom sink? They only had one bathroom sink in all of Managua? The sink is blue, the porcelain is chipped, and I wanted a white sink. Can you return it? How do you say polyurethane in Spanish? Where are your shoes? You need to wear shoes on a construction site. You have never used power tools before? Is there an Orkin man in town? Where can we buy an aluminum ladder? We have to make one? The termites have eaten…what? No, more to the left, no… I mean to the right. Oh, forget it. Let’s call it a day, we’re exhausted.”
They tried to eat the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that I lovingly made for them every day. One day, I found a peanut butter and jelly sandwich hidden in a hole in our Mango tree. That was the day I hired our neighbor, Marina, to cook a proper, daily lunch of Gallo Pinto for our workers.
When a roving band of ‘hormigas’ (biting ants) attacked me, our workers tenderly carried me to the only plastic chair we had at the construction site and watched as my foot swelled to the size of a Nicaraguan papaya. Guillermo ran next door and returned with a tiny cap of medicine. I think it was Benadryl because I woke up two hours later and discovered that they had propped up my foot on three neatly stacked cement blocks.
In October, the lake swelled and rose into our yard. The road in front of our house washed away, so we had no way to deliver materials and building supplies to our house. Ron and I attempted to carry one 100-pound bag of cement through the neighbors’ properties and three barbed wire fences, just as they did. Jose was astounding. He carried two bags of cement on his head and one in his arms. Later, they laughed respectfully when I asked for the Spanish word for hemorrhoidal cream.
They joked with me about my fears of scorpions, snakes, and spiders that were hiding in the crevices of the old bricks and roof tiles. They pretended to like the brick living room set that I designed with the left over bricks, and accompanied their comments with enthusiastic “Ohhs” and “Awwwes”. When construction was at a standstill for lack of materials, they never complained when I asked them to rake the mangoes and the leaves. Although, I think I overheard a whisper of, “This is woman’s work” and noticed a subtle eye rolling.
What really sent them rolling off the edge of patience, was the time I bought paint thinner. The little hardware stores in Moyogalpa sell paint thinner in plastic gallon jugs. The only counter space we had available in our house was in the kitchen, and this was the place where I set the plastic gallon water jugs for the times we wouldn’t have running water. You know where this is leading. Yes, I put the unlabeled plastic gallon of paint thinner on the counter beside the water jugs. Thirsty, Jose took a big swig of paint thinner, and swallowed it before he realized that something did not taste quite right. I apologized profusely in my limited Spanish. Then, I labeled the gallon jug of paint thinner with “Cener! No Beber” (Thinner! Do not drink!), and drew a picture of a skull and crossbones, if some of the workers were unable read.
After six months of construction chaos, our little beach shack was transformed into our home. Throughout the construction chaos, we labored together in compassionate understanding of cultural differences. Our motley crew has become our extended family. I am blessed to be a part of this gracious community of laborers, where we can share our successes, our failures, our joys, and our sorrows. Life will never be the same.
~I am dedicating this article to Jose, my friend and part of our motley crew. He committed suicide in March, 2011. He was 27 years old. I miss him mucho. Along with the good, and the bad, there is the ugly side of island living. And…that is the naked truth.