Road Service

The past few weeks have been very rainy. That, coupled with our surveyor’s complete lack of possession of a wristwatch, calendar, duck feet, or memory for recent and numerous promises to be here tomorrow, has us in SloMo. We have, however, made some progress.

We have paved a driveway area about 40-feet long with 8- to 12-inch stones as a base to get us up and out of the water when it rains heavily. The next step was to fill between and top the stones with a more driver friendly material. Our choices were:

  • Sand and gravel: Cheap at $12 per yard, and green (with a low embedded carbon footprint as it is sourced from a local riverbed), it was high on my list. But the negatives killed it; sand holds a lot of water for a long time making it a desirable habitat for bugs, plus sand and gravel really never compacts but acts more like ball bearings and bowling balls.
  • Dirt: Also cheap and local, and a lot of it could come from the drainage ditch that we are going to dig at the back property line; free is a good price. We were planning to have grass growing on the driveway, and grass grows well in dirt (duh). Downsides: No-see-ums love to hide in grass and it would be nice to be able to walk in the driveway without having to don a hazmat suit. Also, the local dirt makes deep, slippery ruts during the rainy season. So no to dirt and no to grass.
  • Small stones: One inch stones make a nice driving surface and would fill in around the larger base stones. But we would need forty or more yards once we get the entire driveway length complete, at $35 per yard, and it has to come kilometers up the mountain. Expensive and not very green. Maybe we will save this option for a final topping after construction is complete; we will need fewer yards because we won’t have to fill in around the big stones.
  • Tosca: The word tosca means coarse in Spanish. A combination of small gravel, fine particles of sand, clay, and broken rock, tosca is what the locals use on the non-asphalted roads. Many years ago in New England, I think we called similar stuff Rotten Rock. It compacts well and resists washout fairly well, although steep/hilly roads deteriorate to impassable without a high clearance 4WD as the rainy season progresses. A road grader is needed to smooth the road out again for the dry season. A simple phone call to man-with-big-truck Melvin can have ten or twenty yards of tosca hauled up the mountain in the next day or two. But at $35 per yard and all that diesel required for transport, we really had to find another source.

Tosca can be found locally; there are whole tosca mountains and hillsides. There is, in fact, a tosca mountain just walking distance from our property. This mountain was harvested and quarried some years ago, but now there is a gate and padlock on the entrance and locals tell me that the tosca is no longer available. I walked there with a neighbor and we agreed that the operation appeared to have become hazardous; tosca walls can rapidly and spontaneously calve off and can bury people and equipment. But locally sourced tosca seemed to be our best option for covering the larger rocks in our driveway.

Enter Abdiel. Abdiel picks up day labor locally, and I have been using him for various tasks so far. He works hard and has a pleasant personality and a good sense of humor, making his living with a machete, pickaxe, and shovel. He does have a propensity to ask for advances in pay, and during our house construction Banco de Fred has a $20 credit limit. It is unlikely that he would be able to pay me back in cash, but he is willing to work off the debt in labor. Abdiel lives in a small, remote pueblo about 4-5 kilometers from here. He makes the journey on foot, up and down very steep hills, as do most all of the inhabitants of the pueblo including pregnant women with small children. I have also seen an elderly man carrying a heavy car battery in a homemade, rigged up wooden backpack. He probably uses the battery to power a single 12-volt light bulb and had to get the battery charged. Few non-residents venture into this area as the roads are so bad. Most people traveling the main road past our current house drive past the deeply potholed and rutted access road without a glance.

But there is another world in there if you can literally make the grade. I have been there before; we Gringos hold occasional spay/neuter clinics for the local dogs. Acting as taxi one day, I took a woman and her dog home post surgery. She questioned the Honda Ridgeline’s ability to drive the road, but I was her best and only option short of her carrying the dog herself. It was an exciting adventure traveling up and down the mountain roads, navigating high rocks and deep potholes, enjoying the remoteness and the vast vistas down to the ocean, and contemplating the fact that she normally makes the trip on foot in flip-flops. I also bore in mind that there is no road service should I need it. It turns out that this was one of Abdiel’s dogs and this was the first time I went to his house.

Cynthia has also been to his house. Our neighbor has two quarter horses, and Abdiel’s brother Hernan works for our neighbor. Cynthia loves to ride, and with Hernan or Abdiel as her guide, she has ridden to their pueblo. One time she enjoyed freshly made lemonade (lemons picked right then from their tree). It was a rare experience for her; the house is a 70-year-old mud walled house with a dirt floor. Chickens ran about, and dogs lazed in the sun. The family welcomed her warmly and she enjoyed using her Spanish to make small talk with Hernan and Abdiel’s father and sister.

Back to my tosca story, Abdiel told me that he could get tosca from the banks of the road to his pueblo. He would charge me $14 per yard and offered a one dollar discount to $13 per yard, delivery included. Shrewd businessman.

First, we went to the local mayor and secured his permission to take the tosca as it was on public property. Amazingly, no rubber stamps were needed. Next, Abdiel, his brother Hernan, and I piled in the Ridgeline and went to see the tosca. We shoveled about a yard into the pickup and headed back to our lot. The Ridgeline is a great vehicle, but the clearance could be a bit better than it is. I had to pick and choose my way out so as to not bottom out, and I was glad that I didn’t have to make twenty trips to get the tosca myself. Back at the lot, we spread the tosca in a small area of the driveway and decided that it would work. I gave Abdiel the go-ahead to supply twenty yards. This would be one heck of a paycheck for him and he was anxious to get started. Still, with the rain and finding 4WD pickups available and willing to tackle the road, the project took more than a week. One time, he found a 4-yard truck. They had it loaded, but it just couldn’t make it up one of the hills. They had to unload the truck, but they put the tosca in the road where it needed it.

During that week, it wasn’t quite as simple as Abdiel arriving with the tosca. I had to supply the pick and shovels, sometimes delivering them to the site of the tosca, and had to supply a hose at our house so the owners of the various delivery trucks could wash the sticky tosca out of their truck beds. Each interaction took a phone call or two, and I am still trying to get a handle on the mountain Spanish dialect. Some years ago I saw a design diagram in the form of a triangle. The sides were labeled Good, Fast, and Cheap. The caption read, “Pick Two.” So the twenty yards of tosca job came in in the Good, Cheap category, and I am relatively happy, although I am constantly adjusting to the inability to have the Fast option thrown in at no extra expense.

We decided that another six yards were needed to complete the job, and that was put into action, two yards per trip, three trips total over two days in an old Toyota pickup. As I awaited the final two yards, Abdiel called me. I was deep in an afternoon siesta, and Abdiel rattled off something I had not a clue of what he said. I did fathom that he needed help, though, so I resorted to my standard drill of Twenty Questions (in Spanish). “You need help?” “Yes.” “Where?” “Antennas” is what I heard among a flurry of words, so I knew to head out toward his pueblo, and he was near the array of TV/cellular phone/Internet antennas by a particularly steep hill. I figured that this would be a Road Service call of some sort. It is very interesting to head into something here without a clue as to what is about to happen. This is occurring less and less as my Spanish improves, but life is still frequently an adventure into the unknown. As I rounded the bend at the top of the hill, I saw the guys and the white Toyota. They were about a quarter of the way up the hill, and they were attempting to tow a 2WD flatbed delivery truck up the hill. But they didn’t have quite enough juice to get the job done. So I did a 38-point turn and backed/slid the Ridgeline down the hill to the pickup. I set the emergency brake and Hernan shoved a large rock behind a rear tire. I didn’t need it, but it is the standard emergency brake of Panama so it was an automatic given. We hooked up my tow strap to the Toyota, and with the Toyota still hooked up to the flatbed truck, in a Rube Goldberg/Little Engine That Could fashion, we began the procession up the hill. We made it to the top without further incident or ado, and as we unhooked the tow straps we all laughed and shook our heads in amazement at the Honda that pulled the ragtag train up the hill.

That’s all for now.

9 thoughts on “Road Service

  1. Do you have a winch on your truck? Mabe the one from the cable car would work if there are trees or boulders to wrap a chain around if you get stuck.

  2. No, no winch. But I am considering carrying a come-along. I had two old ones, but they rusted out and broke the other day when I tried to pull our neighbors’ big farm truck out of a ditch. It was loaded with chicken guano. They had to empty the truck by hand and a wheelbarrow to make the truck light enough for me to tow. It raised a real stink in the neighborhood.

  3. I wish you had a photo of the truck towing a truck towing a truck! In my youth my family was grading the back yard and got the Bobcat stuck. The tow truck sent to unstick it ended up getting stuck on a retaining wall with the drive wheels off of the ground, so a second tow truck had to rescue that one. Similar situation that I haven’t thought about for at least a decade.

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