Designing + Building a House in Guatemala - Part 5b



Zaqueo hired a third friend of his from his home area named Chicalo. He was to be an “ayudante,” or assistant as they are called when they don’t have a specific trade. Chicalo had only one working eye. The other had been irreparably damaged by a bungee cord accident. I used to work with eye surgeons, and one of them told me, “Don’t EVER use bungee cords, and tell everyone you know they are very dangerous and to throw them out!” She had treated many eye injuries from bungies and said it’s quite common. I thought of that often when I looked at Chicalo. The other thing about him is that he is inherently lazy. Zaqueo told me that Chicalo has all his life chosen the simplest path possible and never had a desire to develop a talent or trade. He also did not want a wife and family, and even though he created family, he wasn’t much interested in them. I thought he might be a bit simple-minded, but as I got to know him I found he was actually quite smart and could plan, measure, cut and carry out constructions without much direction.


    Chicalo, right, and Zaqueo building bottle window


Zaqueo told me Chicalo usually lived on about $6 a day,working here or there doing odd jobs, but working as little as possible. One job that was pretty common for him is bicycle maintenance. He could fix tires, chains, and brakes, maybe one bike at a time and have enough money for a little food and quite a few cheap beers. Eggs are so cheap and easy to cook that he would eat a dozen eggs in a day, maybe a small packet of beans and a few tortillas. The beer and occasional cigarettes were more important to him than food. When Chicalo wasn’t working his favorite pastime was fishing. He would spend the entire day with a line in the water, not too concerned whether he got a fish. When he came to help Zaqueo with our construction it was a big change for him to get up early every day and work hard. He needed a push once in a while.



Luckily Chicalo had a house to live in that he inherited from his parents. Somewhere along the way in his life he had acquired a daughter, but I don’t think he had spent much time living with her mother. Eventually something happened to the mother that she was no longer around and Chicalo was left with responsibility for his daughter. He didn’t take it very seriously, and the daughter was pretty much raising herself, going between her father’s house and her aunt’s, whenever she felt like it. It seemed that she was going to school regularly, but I don’t know if she was self-motivated.


I met Chicalo’s daughter one day when we were visiting Rio Dulce. Zaqueo’s own two kids and his niece were hanging out with me, as well as Angela. They were all pretty curious and intrigued by my being foreign and fair, and speaking English. I was teaching them some words in English and eventually we got to math, since all of them professed to love math in school. I was throwing out problems for them to solve in addition and subtraction, and I noticed that Angela was really quick with the answers, being first to speak most of the time. She was a stunningly beautiful girl, either poised or aloof, and very self-confident. The more I talked with her the more I got the sense she was a street-wise child at age 11, and likely to be attracting boys’ attention already. It made me wonder if anyone is supervising this child’s comings and goings.


Chicalo would follow orders by the mason or Zaqueo, but I picked up on his independent nature. He took it upon himself to design and build a small structure for the breaker box panel and pump for sending water into the house. He used leftover materials and did a great job. Later when the first level was finished and Misai had gone back to his home, Chicalo stayed to help Zaqueo with finish details. He knew how to hang doors, put in doorknobs, pour cement, and followed my design for the deck/carport. He had also worked on our bottle windows with Misai and laid some tile in the shower. Zaqueo actually learned a lot from him, although he might not admit it.



         Misai and Zaqueo


Misai did an amazing job on the first level, but when I decided on a variation of method for the second level, he was not in agreement with me. I wanted to put less weight on the earth by switching out blocks and iron for walls made of “electropanels” as they are named here. I had not seen them in the US, but they are 4 foot by 8 foot panels made of pieces of styrofoam with wire cages on both outer sides. These outer surfaces are slathered with cement and then the smooth layer of a cement/plaster, the same as block walls are, but the central foam makes the walls lighter. The cement is added the same way they “throw” cement on top of blocks to level the surface. These panels still have to be supported every four feet with some sort of column. My plan was to build cement and iron columns at all the supporting corners to give strength for the beams that hold the roof. In between I wanted to use 4 X 4 boards as columns that would disappear along with the electropanels under the cement. This was where Misai disagreed. He wanted to build cement and iron columns every four feet for the panels. He had never worked with the electropanels and didn’t trust they would work. They worked. And Misai left the project for a break and decided not to return.



     Cement columns and covered stairwell on ceiling/floor


First level construction was SO exciting! I was seeing my designs unfolding and really enjoying the process. Most of it went really well, once we were past the architect struggles. The first architect had no experience building private homes, so he was booted. The second one we hired got my plans ready to submit to the Consejo to get our building permit. As I wrote in the previous chapter, the heads of this department were all in prison for fraud, so we just kept going. This second guy was from Chile; he was very excited about my design and went along with it. The thing he was most excited about was his digital design program into which he plugged my first blueprint information by the first architect. He did a fair job of supervising the workers, but I could tell they didn’t really respect him. Maybe because he was not Guatemalteco, or maybe because he, like the first one, seemed a bit effeminate. I knew the workers were making fun of him behind his back and imitating his Chilean accent.


The other problem for me and Bonnie was that he was spending a lot of time designing our interiors on his drawing program, putting in furniture, paintings on walls, and “nick-nacks” on the furniture. He even took photos of the volcano views and entered them to show what one would see when complete looking out the windows. Very nice, but we didn’t hire an interior decorator. On top of that issue, he was unable to submit our new blueprints to the Consejo because his architect license from Chile was not valid in Guatemala. We were just considering firing him as well when he announced he was returning to Chile. It turns out his wife was unhappy and they were splitting up. She stayed in this area where she had family and her own business, and he put his tail between his legs and went home.


Construction of the roof was iron and cement. This also becomes the floor for the second level. The workers laid a temporary floor of wood boards, supported underneath by poles. Then Misai used the blueprints to locate tubes for water and electricity for every room. Orange tubes are for electricity and have flexible wires inside to be used later to pull the actual electric wires through to each wall or ceiling outlet. White tubes are different for hot and cold water and also were laid according to blueprint plans. I was double checking everything myself, since the design was mine and I had been over it previously with both architects. Once the second architect left I had to be more vigilant. Occasionally there were near-mistakes because of my difficulty translating to Misai in Spanish what I wanted. He was very patient, and on a few occasions had to do something over again. Luckily not too much of that occurred.









When everything was in place on the roof, there was a big day of pouring cement for the entire surface so the floor would be consistently “tied” together as one unit. Zaqueo put out the word through one of our local workers to find as many men as he could to work just one day on the floor pouring. Most of them had done this before. The men get a good day’s pay and lunch, and they stay as many hours as it takes, even if it goes after dark. Our crew finished around dusk, but they got it done.


The workers made a huge pile of cement close to the house and near the road where the supplies had been delivered. We had to assure there would be enough water in our six 55 gallon drums to make a lot of the mixture. Some men shoveled and mixed. Some carried 5 gallon buckets of the mixture to the ladders and passed it to a man who took it up, and another received it up on the roof and emptied it. This went on all day, except for their break for lunch. 






Zaqueo planned and prepared all the lunch with help from Margarita, Misai’s lover. They grilled chicken and served it with rice, beans, tortillas, salad, and soft drinks. I baked some cakes for dessert. The men were all very happy and did a great job. Then we had to wait 2 weeks for the cement to cure. The main things left to do on the first level were plastering all the walls to cover the cement blocks, the bottle windows, glass windows, and the pouring of floors. Most of this had to wait until the poles could come out that supported the roof, so the men took a break to go home.



Zaqueo and I wanted to move into the first level as soon as we could, so we wouldn’t keep paying rent in Antigua and so we could continue with interior finish work. The second level of construction was put on hold for four months due to having to wait for more funding. But there was plenty to do on the first level. The crew came back and kept going on walls, floors, doors, and windows. Once that was done and before we could move in we had to resolve the “hole” that was left in the ceiling/floor to become the stairwell to the second floor. We were concerned about the newly laid cement being porous and possibly leak, so we painted it with waterproofing for cement and built a structure over the stair opening to keep out the rain. It had a heavy tarp covering it that flapped loudly in the wind, reminding us of rain and possible leaking. Rainy season was just starting. Zaqueo and I were checking carefully for leaks after every hard rain, and we did find some seeping. Water was puddling up on the roof, so we put flexible tubing in the low places and draped the tube over the side. Zaqueo would suck the tubing below to siphon water off and reduce the weight of it as well as the seeping. A few times he jumped out of bed in the middle of the night to suck the tubes, knowing the puddles needed to be drained. To me, he was a total hero, to go out in the dark with rain pounding him to siphon water off.






Windows going in, Kari in front of kitchen window, bathroom bottle window and custom cement tub by Misai, and crew installing water cistern on second level.









The next chapter will have more about bottle window construction and cement counter tops, so if you are interested, come back next time.


Next Designing + Building a House in Guatemala - Part 5a

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