A Seasonally-Appropriate Story

(I posted the following on our local El Valle Yahoo Group, but I thought that it would make a good blog post, too.)

This year, Cynthia and I discovered an excellent gift to give to employees. You might want to keep it in mind for next year or for Easter. Of all the gifts we have given over the years, including cash, this one drew the greatest amount of thanks and appreciation. 

It happened like this: We currently have three men laying the tile in our new home. Four days before Christmas I overheard them talking as they worked on the front steps. I’ll loosely translate their conversation to English:

Armando: “Wow, did you see the price of hams at Supermercado El Rey this year?”

Hanibal: “Yes, almost $40. Too expensive for me.”

Francisco: “Me too, looks like arroz y guandu y pollo (rice, pigeon peas, chicken) at our house for Christmas.”

I could see that they were very disappointed, and as a man myself, I could see that they were distressed as they really wanted to provide it for their families. 

I was busy marking and cutting tile (with my ear plugs in), and I don’t think that they thought that I was paying attention. But I chimed in.

Me: “So ham is a traditional thing for you at Christmas?”

Armando: “Si señor.”

Anibal: “But not this year.”

I went in the house to talk with Cynthia, and we decided to offer them the hams as a Christmas gift.

I went back outside and talked with them, asking them how many adults would be at their tables. The average was six. We asked if we could give them the hams as a gift and they lit up like Christmas tree lights.

So Cynthia went shopping and bought three, frozen, double-smoked hams, about twelve pounds apiece.

I was pretty sure that they didn’t have refrigeration at their homes, so we said that we would thaw them in our refrigerator and that they could take them home the day before Christmas.

The reason that I said that the hams were the most-appreciated gift that we have ever given is that when we presented the hams to them, they each shook our hands with genuine thanks, much more so than with cash in the past. Then, not even remotely expected, they each gave us a hug and another thank you. I think that the hug went way, way beyond the boundaries of the “classes,” but they were so moved they couldn’t help themselves.

Those hugs were our best Christmas presents.

For Cynthia and me, this experience was reason enough for us to work so hard to learn Spanish. Otherwise, we would never have known, and they never would have asked.

Season’s greetings to all, Fred


New Plant Bonanza Plus Yet More Tile

With just a month or so of the rainy season remaining, Cynthia and I decided that we should get some more plants in the ground so that they can get a good start before everything goes dry.

So Friday morning, after I got Hanibal and Bolivar started on another tile floor, Cyn and I went to a nursery in town. There are other places that we like to buy plants too, but for quality and sheer volume, Sr. Chico at Plantas del Valle was our choice this time.

It sure is nice to have enough Spanish under our belts to be able to easily describe what we were looking for — we talked about sun vs. shade, drought tolerance, colors, the heights of the plants, and how many of each. A worker took us into the yard to confirm our choices. Cynthia and her new hip navigated the muddy paths really well.

The nursery really is quite large. Here are some photos:


We purchased 80 of these. The women are removing any dead leaves for us.


Here the workers are choosing and cleaning 16 nice ferns.


An hour later their truck was loaded for delivery.


Here is our bounty, unloaded in our driveway turnaround:


Eighty of the variegated plants in the foreground, sixteen ferns, three tall red-trunked palms, six grasses, and five mother-in-law tongues.

Armando arrived Saturday, saw the plants, and said, “I guess I know what I am going to be doing today!” He made great progress, not finishing only because a pounding rain that arrived at noon:


Armando is planting the new variegated plants between the two rows of green plants. In time, they will all fill out and provide a colorful border along the garden path.


View from the window at the top of the stairs to the loft and roof deck.


Two of the three new red-trunked palms are placed at the end of the container. They still need to be moved around to find the right spot.


The new grasses will hide the concertina wire.

The north side of container #4 is a good place for the sixteen new ferns:


In tile news, in the loft, I cut the edge tiles, ready for Hanibal to mud them into place:P1010885-001

Here is the loft, now all done except for the grout on half the floor:



I am in the process of installing a sink at the far end of the loft, by the door to the roof deck.

This is the landing at the top of the stairs, with the roof deck through the door:


Earlier I mentioned that I got Hanibal and Bolivar started on the next floor — and it is a big one! It seems surreal that we are FINALLY getting to this floor — the entry, dining room, and living room. We’ll be a week or two on this monster:


When Cyn and I returned with the plants, Hanibal and Bolivar had laid out a T-shape of tiles, using only the tiles and a framing square to determine a right angle. Personally, I wouldn’t have done it this way because if you are even a little bit out of square, the effect of compounding errors is greatly magnified when you get to the other end of the line of tiles. I find it better to lay row after row.

I didn’t want to second guess Hanibal, but the mortar was still wet, the tiles not yet set firmly in place. So I risked insulting him and interjected myself into the process to make sure the layout was square.

The best way to determine square in a large area is to use a 3-4-5 right-angle triangle. Units of measure for the 3-4-5 can be inches, feet, meters, etc. I used feet.

To use the triangle, go three-feet in one direction, then four-feet in the other direction, then the hypotenuse must be five-feet.

For an even larger area, you can multiply each number by two or three or more to be even more accurate. In this case, I multiplied each number by three. So my measurements looked like this on the floor:  P1010882-001

I’m glad I checked because the layout was about three-eights of an inch out of square in nine-feet. Using a rubber mallet, we tapped the tiles to their new location where they met up with the correct points of reference. Now we won’t have to trim tiles to get them to fit or, conversely, have overly-wide grout lines; it could have been ugly.

One day after the guys left, I installed an LED strip of lights under the long bench in the living room. The lights come on a spool; you just unroll them, peel back the paper to expose the sticky-tape, stick ’em up, plug ’em in, and you are done. These lights came with a dimmer that I mounted under the bench. Here is a night-time photo:


In the pretty picture department, I took this photo at the nursery:


And lastly, here is lunch that Cyn made for me one day:


Egg salad, real chemical-free salami, peas, tomato, and grated carrot. Thanks Cyn.

We’ll be working on the big floor for a while. See you next time. Thanks for stopping by.

Some Disassembly And Assembly Required

With all the recent holidays and the crew not working, I had a chance to tackle two projects that have been on the back burner for some time now.

First, when we bought our new stove, a six-thousand-plus dollar American Range, we were assured that it was set up for propane, not natural gas. Natural gas (pipe in the street to your house) is not available in Panama, so you would think that it would be a no-brainer that all gas stoves would be set for bottled propane.


Here is the stove in case you missed it in a previous post:


When we connected the stove, the burner flames were way, way too yellow. We had a tech guy come out from the company and he verified that yes, it was wrong and was set for natural gas. He didn’t have the appropriate gas jets, and worse, said that he couldn’t get them. But he pulled a couple burner jets out and hammered on the brass where the hole is that lets the gas pass. This made the holes a practical-but-non-scientifically-bit smaller. It was somewhat better and we could use two of the six burners without sooting up the bottom of the pans.

I called the company in the States and they directed me to the company that handles all international support. I worked with them for four-or-five months to get the correct parts, but in the end, it couldn’t be done. I seemed to have hit the Inefficiency Infinity Department.

With no small amount of frustration, I collected myself and again called the manufacturer in the States. But this time I used our State-side mailing address and just posed as a regular customer. After we worked through the legalities and waivers of liabilities, the parts were shipped to me, $125. I’m not even going to try to get this reimbursed. We received them here in Panama a few weeks later, but knowing that it would take me a day to install them, the parts had to sit in a bag until I could get to them.

Finally a good day arrived. First, the stove is hundreds-of-pounds heavy and is a challenge to pull it out without scratching the floor. I got some two-by stock and levered the front of the stove into the air so that I could slip old pieces of a plastic cutting board under the front legs. The back legs are actually wheels:

P1010812-001Next, I wrapped a strap around the stove legs and around my hands and slowly pulled the stove out of its space. Like this:


Yeah, you can have your fancy rowing machines. I move stoves!

Next I tore the stove apart to access the guts.

First I changed the jets, or orifices, on the six stove top burners. This was a dicey process because the jets sit down in holes. To keep from dropping the jets into the darkest reaches of the bowels of the beast, I took a pea-sized glob of plumbers’ putty, put it into the nut driver, then pressed the jet into the putty. It worked well and I changed the jets in no time at all:


The new, brass jet is sitting on the burner just to the right of the nut driver.

Next, I had to replace the six burner control valves on the front of the stove:


Some of the wiring controls the flame igniter sparker thingies. I don’t think that there is an acronym for that. There is a micro switch built into each control valve. There is also wiring for the LED lights that indicate when a burner is on, plus wiring for the oven light switch. The light switch fell apart in my hands when I tried to remove the wiring lug, so I’ll have to buy a new switch and take the front panel apart again. Another year…

Replacing the control valves took some time because the wiring was in the way of all the gas connections — I had to reverse engineer the wiring. But at about a half-hour each, I had the task done.

Next, I had to replace the jets for the oven and the broiler, and that meant removing a lot of stuff on the back of the stove. Sorry, no photo, but it too was a rat’s nest of wiring for the gas-valve safety apparatus and for the two oven convection fans.

The last new part was a replacement gas regulator that I had to install at the bottom of the stove.

Finally, I checked all my gas connections and verified that all the wiring was as engineered. I buttoned all the covers and trim pieces back into place. I was pleased because I had fewer than a hundred screws left over! Elapsed time: six hours.

By the way, there were no installation instructions with the new parts so I was winging it all the way. It didn’t explode so I guess I did okay.

Cynthia said that I was her hero, the flames now burning bluer and hotter (the flames on the stove, not her flames for me…), just as they should.

We’ve had another project in the works since we lived at the rental house down the road. There we had an old washing machine that I disassembled for recycling. But the stainless-steel drum was too good to toss. Without any real plans for it, it moved with us to the new house.

But the question arose, what style of chandelier should we put over the dining room table? We searched all the lighting stores and the styles and the lofty prices turned us away. Nothing really said Shipping Container Chandelier. Then one day, one of us, we can’t remember who, spied the washing machine drum in a heap in a corner. Hmm…

We talked and schemed, and finally came up with a plan to turn the drum into a chandelier. Cynthia fused some glass pendants that would hang from the drum. I engineered a way to hang the drum from the ceiling (back when we installed the ceiling metal I welded a bracket to the metal roof framing), how to put lights in/on the fixture, and how to hang the glass pendants. In keeping with the industrial look, I chose a piece of 2″ galvanized pipe as the pole that would support the chandelier. It kind of looks like a drive shaft and I expect the chandelier to start spinning at any moment. Here I am threading the wires (that earlier I ran through the ceiling) into the pole:


I drilled through holes and connected the pole to the bracket with a bolt.

Next, I drilled 48 holes in what would be the bottom of the lamp from which to suspend the glass dangles. I also drilled a hole through the shaft on the drum for another through bolt, plus two more holes to pass the wires from the switches through:


Check the body English.

The drum had three, kind of ugly spots where there used to be plastic agitators attached inside the drum:


This fix was easy; I cut three pieces of aluminum scrap and caulked them onto the drum:



Then it was time to attach the drum to the pole:


I think that I look a bit like Wallace in Wallace And Gromit. I guess it is better than looking like Gromit.

Cynthia had made 50, fused glass pendants and I now had to drill a hole in each one. I put a 2×4 in the sink and added water to just above the level of the 2×4. Then, with the water as a lubricant, I chugged away, making a hole about every two-minutes:



I fashioned a little block of wood with a hole in it to use as a guide for the diamond-tipped drill.

Next, Cynthia attached pieces of a braided bead cord (similar to fishing line only used for jewelry) to each pendant, and I started hanging the pendants:


I pushed each loop up through a hole, then placed a piece of galvanized wire through the loop, the loop then resting on the wire to hold the pendant in place. Yes, this was tedious and an important part of Some Assembly Required.

Getting my head and arms coordinated around all the pendants was challenging but I got it done:


No, this wasn’t my Halloween costume.

Here it is with all the glass hanging. Note that some of the pendants have dichroic glass, reflecting different colors depending on the light:


Oh, I forgot to mention that I wired a lamp socket inside the drum so that light will spill out all the holes in the side of the drum. A separate switch controls the light that points down onto the table.

Here is a shot from underneath the chandelier; you can see that I had to make a piece of aluminum to hold the lamp that points toward the dining room table. The bottom light fixture has an LED bulb:

P1010852-001Here is one more photo of the chandelier from up in the loft:


The bottom of the glass pendants hang three-feet above the (soon-to-be-completed) dining room table. The whole thing kind of looks like water flowing from a shower head…

Here is a photo at dusk:


Cost? The LED down-light was expensive. It has an aluminum-finned heat sink to keep the unit cool — $200. Dichroic glass — $25. Pole and miscellaneous parts — $25. Total — $250, less than the cheapest $1,500 off-the-shelf chandelier at the lighting stores. And way cooler by far. The pendants are made from window (aka: float) glass. The pendants were made from the scraps of glass left over from our kitchen lamp shade project (soon to be installed).

By the way, there were no fabrication or assembly instructions with this Shipping Container Washing Machine Drum Chandelier Kit. But it hasn’t fallen from the ceiling so I guess we did okay.

We can’t wait until I wire for the switches and see the chandelier at night. We think that the design fits our Natural-Industrial-Bling design strategy.

In other news, my antennae perk up any time there is a full moon and a bunch of holidays in Panama. There has been a rash of robberies down in town and up here on the rim of the volcano — Saturday night two weed whackers were stolen from the local church just down the road. And last night about 8:30 Jabo went ballistic at the front gate.

So I take frequent walks around the house at night, looking for a hole in the fence or other added attraction. With the gravel path around the house, it is like walking in a park at night. Quite pleasant and peaceful if you don’t count the fact that I am carrying a bunch of defensive hardware. On one of my passes last night, I saw an owl sitting on the back fence. I throw our kitchen vege scraps by the banana plants there, and the owl was no doubt waiting for an unsuspecting mouse:

P1010835-001It let me get within ten-feet and it stayed put while I took its picture. Looks like a young one:


A funny — I showed the picture to Armando. He said the owl looked like it was a smiling politician saying, “Vote for me!”

As I passed the back garden, I thought that this plant would make a good nighttime picture:


And in the carport, a potted orchid was in bloom:


That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.

Yet More Glass Block And Tile…

In the unplanned work department — Cynthia and I returned home from our vacation at 9:00 p.m. on a Tuesday night. At 10:30 p.m. a petty thief climbed over our back fence, I don’t know, perhaps to welcome us home, and was making his way into the yard. Jabo spotted him and gave chase, the man re-vaulting the fence and vanishing into the jungle. Cynthia spotted him too, and yelled at him with such vigor that she lost her voice for two days! All the while I was happily singing in the shower.

This is the umpteenth time this has happened so I decided it was time to raise the ante and install some razor wire on the two jungle-abutting sides of our property. The razor wire is also known as concertina wire, or here in Panama, Alambre (wire) de Gillette. Most times this wire is strung at the top of a fence, but we decided to hang it mid-way on the fence; at the top of the fence the thief could just cut the cyclone fence and slip through. At mid-height, the wire is so low that Sr. Thief can’t get under it and so high that he can’t get over it. At least not without risking being sliced and diced by the razors. With some care he might be able to get over the wire, but in a hurry and in the dark it would provide an impediment to an elegant and bloodless escape. Also, at mid-height it doesn’t look quite so much like a prison wall. We’ll see, ask me in a year if it worked. Eventually, plants will hide the wire from our view on this side of the fence:


You can see the concertina wire on the other side of the fence.

Because of the schedule disruption around our vacation, Hanibal has been trying to juggle two jobs — ours plus another in town — so progress is a bit slow. But he has completed the second glass block wall in the master bathroom — well almost — we still need to form and pour concrete borders around the open edges of the blocks:


The 1/4″ rebar sticking out from the mortar joints will be embedded in the concrete surround to give stability to the wall. A length of this rebar runs in each mortar joint.

And looking in the other direction, Armando is working his way to the top of the stone wall in the shower. When the wall is done, he will wash it with muriatic acid to remove the mortar film from the rocks,then we will use a sealer so it has a “wet look”:   P1010753-001For our next project, Hanibal and I moved into the bathroom off the second bedroom. We tiled the walls and Bolivar grouted:


As in the master bathroom, we planned the tile installation for minimum cutting and a cleaner look at the shower valve and shower head.


Bolivar grouts the wall.

Today, Hanibal and Bolivar set the level of the floor in the second bedroom bath, sloping the floor toward the shower drain:


In my spare time I have been doing a bit of painting. Cynthia decided that the walk-in closet would look better with white walls, so I applied a couple coats of paint. I still need to build a few more shelves and apply some baseboards: P1010751-001


It is nice to have the new tile under foot rather than the rough, dusty concrete. And on the left, check out Cynthia’s Pre-sort Central laundry baskets. So much for a man to learn. 

And I’ve started painting the big wall in the living room. We selected a middle gray that will go well with the stonework and the tile and dark gray wall on the other side of the room:


The wall will look good with some art hanging on it. And Bob finally wandered into a photo…

So far Hanibal and I have used about two pallets of tile, enough so that Cynthia and I could clean up around the remaining materials. It has been a long time since we could use the stairs in front of my shop and there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Before, what a mess:

P1010553We cleaned the area and I took a truckload of cardboard and plastic bottles to the recycle center in town. After:


Jabo practicing his Salutation To The Sun yoga pose. Either that or he is doing a Maori Haka war dance.

And now it is my turn — Cynthia has turned out a slew of slumped glass lampshades for the kitchen lights. Now I need to get busy, drill a hole in the top of each one, install lamp sockets, and hang the lights. It will be good to see them hanging from the kitchen ceiling. Wish me luck…:


That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.

Stairs, Glorious Stairs

The big item on this past week’s to do list was to mount the handrail on the staircase wall. Sounds quick and easy, yes?

But first we had to make a dozen handrail brackets and weld them onto the handrail. In the next photo, we still need to cut the long ends to length. We bent the one-half-inch square steel with the oxy-acetylene torch. These brackets aren’t as beautiful as what blacksmith friend Smyth Boone would have made, but they look industrial and fit the bill:


Here is a video showing how we bent the steel bar:

But before mounting the railing on the wall, it would be much, much easier to paint the wall first. We chose some paint, a rich, dark grey. To refresh your memory, here is the big wall:


But wait. Before we paint the wall, it would be smart if we cleaned the dried mortar from the steel staircase. I bought a gallon of muriatic acid and a few boxes of baking soda (to neutralize the acid when we did the final wash). I also bought two pair of long, acid-resistant gloves.

I mixed a ten-percent acid/water solution and also a bucket of clean baking soda water in case we splashed any acid on us while we worked. I mounted a new wire brush on the small angle grinder.

Ramiro and I donned the rubber gloves and rubber boots. We started at the top of the stairs; I applied the acid solution, Ramiro operated the grinder, and I cleaned up behind him, washing the clean stairs several times with the baking soda solution. It was a long, hard day bending over the stairs:



Here is a video of the process (sorry about the bad audio, must be a problem with the camera…:

With just one more wash to go, the cleaned stairs look like this:


Now for the fun part — I sent Ramiro home and before a new coat of rust could form, I spent another hour applying a boiled linseed oil finish. I wiped the oil on with a rag, then wiped the stairs dry with another rag. The completed stairs are quite glorious if I do say so myself. Here are some photos:


As I finished, the late afternoon sun started streaming in the window at the top of the stairs:


And got even better a few minutes later, the stairs gleaming a rich, dark patina:


Next it was time to paint the walls on either side of the stairs. With the high ceiling, this big room is very spacious. Cynthia and I thought that if we painted the walls white that people would feel lost in the room. The two, floor-to-ceiling window walls bring in a ton of light. So we decided to paint the walls a very deep dark grey to give the space a cozier feel. Spacious and cozy, if you will.

Finally, days of work after just wanting to hang the handrail, it was time. This morning, Sunday, Cynthia and I brought the long, intricate handrail back into the house (it was outside for painting) and screwed it to the wall. Ramiro and I had already drilled and installed plastic wall anchors at the appropriate locations for screws, so the install took only a few minutes. Here are the painted walls, the handrail, and the oiled steel staircase. A new mirror makes the look:


The mirror frame has the same bronze-y brown tones as the oiled stairs.



In my free time this week, I took a day and completed the kitchen stove exhaust fan. I had built the hood, but still needed to install the fan motor and duct work. I started by making a six-inch round outlet hole in the shipping container wall. I used a combination of one-quarter-inch drill holes and a saber saw with a metal-cutting blade. I left two tabs to bend in and secure the duct. Here is the hole almost all cut — I think that it looks like an evil smiley-face icon…:


I tried to use some of that aluminum Slinky hose, but it was seven-inches and the motor was six-inches. I was also concerned about grease building up in all the crevices. This is the stuff:


The more I worked the uglier the mess got, so I threw it aside and made my own ducting. Using pop rivets, I made a triangular aluminum diamond plate box. and cut two, six-inch holes in it. (Yet another use for my DIY homemade sheet metal bending brake.)


Next, I couldn’t make a round duct, so I made another aluminum box to complete the ducting. In the next photo you can see the hood, the triangular aluminum transition box, the exhaust fan, the other aluminum box, and a sound muffler:


Finally, I wired the fan. With no adjacent wall to install a switch on, I chose to use an X-10 wireless remote control unit. I plan to Velcro the wireless switch inside a drawer next to the stove so that it is easy to reach and won’t get lost.

This exhaust fan moves a lot of air. It isn’t as quiet as we would like, but we don’t smell any gas fumes regardless of how many burners are being used.

While I was working on the exhaust fan, Ramiro finished installing the angle iron trim on the inside of the windows:


Armando and Francisco are moving into the home stretch with the garden path, nothing four more yards of gravel can’t cure:



When the rainy season arrives, it is goodbye grass and hello gardens. We have a lot more plants to fill out the gardens.

That’s it for now. Thanks for stopping by.

Kitchen Floor ~ Five Days In

One day last week plus four days this week makes five days working on the floor so far. Although the going is slow, we are really happy with the progress.

There is one tedious part to the floor tile installation and I have resigned myself to taking the time that it needs — when abutting the end of one tile to the end of the next tile, I have to make sure that the joint is at the correct elevation — that is to say that it is all too easy to have that joint be too low or too high in relation to the neighboring tiles, thereby creating a spot to trip or stub a toe. And I often can’t tell if the height is correct until the next row of tiles is in place, so I’ve had to remove a few tiles here and there to adjust the thickness of the mortar. To help me remove an already surrounded tile I made a tile removal tool; I doubled some baling wire and made a small “L” bend at one end. I can slip the wire into a grout line, turn the wire 90-degrees, and lift out the tile. This saves a lot of mess and I don’t have to unnecessarily remove other tiles.

As I said, we are really happy with the progress and we like how the floor is warming the space. Here are a few progress photos — remember that I still need to apply the grout, so the floor doesn’t look finished yet:




Yes, that’s a lot of tiles to scribe and cut along the container wall. But it is going surprisingly well.

So far I have about sixteen of the forty-feet of floor completed. This has been the most difficult part because in addition to the walls, I have to cut around the islands, too. I’ll pick up speed when I get to the open area of the floor.

To give my old knees a break from the floor, I spent some time installing adjustable shelving brackets on the kitchen wall (other side of the wall from the stairs). I made two aluminum shelves; there will be a lot more shelves and four, large sliding doors. These shelves will be the pantry for food and dishes:


In other news, In another day off from the floor, Cynthia and I went to the city and bought a dishwasher. I hope to have the kitchen up and running, although not finished, within the next two weeks. Although we will still be “camping,” it will be great to have the kitchen out of my workshop and to have a sink actually inside the house! And without the wind constantly blowing the burners out when Cynthia is trying to cook, as happens now in the shop/kitchen.

And finally, some pretty orchids are in bloom. Along with the hibiscuses, our “plant angel neighbor” also gave us some Espiritu Santo (Holy Ghost) orchid plants. Armando planted them in pots, including in the dirt mix some rotting pieces of wood and some charcoal from our burn pile to make the plants happy. Already, one of the plants has flowered:




And in the dead tree in the front garden, two orchids are in bloom. One with large brown flowers:


And one with tiny, tiny white flowers:


That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.

Kitchen Floor Tile And Garden Bonanza

At 10:30 on Monday morning, I got a phone call from the woman at Elmec where we ordered the floor tile. She told me that the tile would be arriving at 1:00 and asked if I could be there to transfer the tile from the large delivery truck directly to my truck. This would save a lot of handling and potential for breakage. I told her yes.

I knew that it was more than our half-ton payload Honda Ridgeline could carry, so I set out to find a larger truck. Friend Jim gave me the number of a potential person, but he didn’t answer his phone. Looking for more advice, I drove to Aramis’ (the man who has been welding for us) house about two kilometers from our house. Fortunately for me, Aramis was home and suggested that I go to the kiosko where Cynthia and I buy fruits and vegetables. I went there and pleaded my case. They had a one-ton pickup truck that would be available, and I agreed to come back at 12:15.

I returned at 12:15 and we headed, each in our own truck, down the mountain to Coronado. The large delivery truck and our two pickup trucks pulled up to Elmec simultaneously. We loaded the 65-square-meters (700 square feet) of tile plus 20 bags of mortar into our two pickups and drove back up the mountain. At 3:00 after unloading, I paid the driver $60 for his time and fuel. For having had no idea where I would find a truck, the process couldn’t have gone better.

I’ll get back to the tile, but first, on Sunday a neighbor of ours came by to visit. He told us that he had just rented his weekend house for six months, and that he had some hibiscus plants in pots that he wanted to give to us. Cynthia and I got excited, because he is a hibiscus collector.  Beyond the standard red hibiscus, he has a wide range of exotic colors and flower shapes and sizes. We drove the short distance to his house. By the time we left his house, we couldn’t fit another pot in the overflowing pickup bed. Most of the plants aren’t flowering now, but I’ll post photos when they are in bloom.

Cynthia and I decided to dedicate most of the west side of the yard to a giant hibiscus garden. Armando started his week on Tuesday, and spent most of the day putting the plants in the ground and giving them a good drink of water. Here is a photo of one of the plants that had one flower on it:


Here Armando has a few planted and a few to go:


In addition to the 25 hibiscus (called papos in Spanish), our neighbor also gave us a couple bonus plants including a raspberry bush, a giant elk horn, and a giant variegated cut-leaf philodendron. We planted the cut-leaf near the front gate:


I labeled this post Garden Bonanza not just because of the plants that our neighbor so generously gave us. This week another neighbor gave us seven large clay pots that they were no longer using. All we have to do is clean them and find some plants to put in them:


While Armando was planting the hibiscus on Tuesday, I put some foam building panels on the west end wall of the kitchen. I also ran wires for electrical in the wall and for an outside security light high on the shipping container wall. On Wednesday, Armando applied the first coat of repello (stucco). He works elsewhere on Thursdays and Fridays, so he applied the second coat of repello on Saturday. Here is the wall ready for paint after the mortar cures a bit more:


We’ll mount the TV on this wall. The two holes will allow me to run all the wires to and from the TV behind the wall for a nice clean look. I’ll build a cabinet below the TV so the bottom hole and the electrical receptacle will be hidden too.

On Wednesday I wanted nothing more than to start laying the tile. But there was still some prep work to be done. When we poured the concrete floor in the kitchen, I was sure that we would put a baseboard around the room so we weren’t too neat about the concrete. But the more I tried to design a baseboard that would work with the corrugations of the container walls, the uglier the end product became.

I could affix a piece of tilebacker to the container wall (how???), then tile the tilebacker with the floor tile, then fill all the spaces with mortar where the container wall bends outward. If not tile, then whatever material I could think of still had to have all the outies filled with mortar and it would be a dusting nightmare for the person cleaning the floors. It was just arduous and ugly in my mind. The only conclusion was to go baseboard free. No baseboard was the decision. But as I said, when we poured the floor, we didn’t figure that the tile would hug all the innies and outies of container wall corrugations.

So I spent all of Wednesday on my hands and knees with a hammer and a chisel cleaning the line where the concrete meets the container wall. This made a lot of dust and debris.

I woke up Thursday morning and couldn’t open my right hand, the one that had held the chisel all day Wednesday. I had no choice but to take the day off. But I planned to start the tile on Friday!

Friday arrived and I was anxious to start the tile. But wait, I still had to clean up all the concrete debris, so I got out the shop vac and cleaned the entire floor. After that, I noticed that the container walls were quite dusty from all the chiseling and also from sanding the counter tops. So I washed the walls, changing the water in the bucket umpteen times. Now that the walls were nice and clean, I noticed that the white paint on the walls needed some touch up where I chiseled the floor. I got a paintbrush but really didn’t want the brush marks. What the heck, I hauled out the paint sprayer and not only touched up, but gave the container walls an entire third coat of white. Wow, now they gleam!

Armando arrived Saturday morning expecting to see half the kitchen floor tiled. Sorry to disappoint, but no Armando, I am only now going to start the tile. I set up the tile saw and finally, FINALLY got to work. I took my time establishing a straight and true first two rows of tile.

Here is what I got done on Saturday:


I had to go slowly so that I didn’t disturb the first two rows while the mortar set. I also wanted to make sure that every tile was level with its neighbor. I hate tripping over the edge of a tile.

The downside of no baseboard means that I have to scribe each and every tile where it meets the wall. I rigged a Sharpie marker on a pair of dividers to scribe to the wall:


I left a little space at the wall for grout.

So that was the week. Next week — MORE TILE!

That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.


Of course we would have liked the house to be a bit more finished before we moved, but hey, we couldn’t stand the rental pit one more day. We have now slept here (there is no longer a there) two nights. The new bed is quite pleasant.; I’ll get a better picture of it later. Cyn and I designed the bed and Aramis and I built it:


Aramis welds the headboard.

Cynthia painted it:


Cynthia mosquito-proofs herself with long sleeves and pants tucked into her socks. What a slave to fashion!

And cat Bob Bob laid claim to it:


The kitchen, I mean the camp kitchen, is a bit spread out but it worked well enough for Sunday morning pancakes. I made a concrete counter next to the sink that I hung on the wall. Here is the counter ready to pour:


I drilled holes in the metal wall, the back concrete wall, and the sink, then inserted rebar into the holes. The counter needs no other support after the concrete cures.

Then Cynthia took possession. Here she is washing a few dishes:


The stove is in my shop:


As is the refrigerator. Although our chest-type refrigerator and freezer experiment was a financial success with really low monthly electricity costs, Cynthia had had it with playing Rubik’s Cube with all the plastic boxes. So we bought a Panasonic refrigerator/freezer with their energy saving Inverter technology:


With the sink outside, the stove and refrigerator in my shop, and all our dishes and pots and pans in the guest bedroom, one can get quite dizzy keeping all of this camp kitchen arrangement straight.

I managed to find time to hook up the washer and dryer. This was a significant amount of work because I had to spend a lot of time in the crawl space under the house connecting the gas, water, electric, water drain, and dryer exhaust. But now, just as we both ran out of clean clothes, the laundry is working. You’ve seen a washer and dryer before so I won’t bore you with a photo until I put the tile on the floor and wall.

We decided to use LED lighting throughout the house; if we install solar power in the future, we will need a lot less solar capacity. There is a small store that sells only LED lighting (in Panama City, on Tumba Muerto between PriceSmart and the Discovery Center, opposite side of the street, next to the Puma gasoline station). We have two ceiling fans in the dry room (dehumidifier) and one in the laundry room. Here is the dry room, still being organized. Later I will build custom shelving:


New-generation LED bulbs throw a lot of light. We put eight, six-watt (equivalent to 50-watt old bulbs — 48-watts total instead of 400-watts total) in the dry room and four of the eight-watt bulbs (70-watt equivalent, 32-watts total vs. 280-watts total). Although the bulbs are $10 to $12 to $15 each, they should pay for themselves quickly given our high electric rates. One reason that we like these particular Ams brand bulbs is that the heat-sink area below the glass dome is cast aluminum. Many other brands use plastic; we have heard that the plastic parts can catch fire if the circuit board should fail:


Regardless of the challenges of living “en campo,” I have to say that it is absolutely wonderful to wake up to all the nature that surrounds us. Good nature that is; parrots, eagles, a falcon, an occasional sloth and more — no mold, no termites, no ants, and so far no spiders.

Meanwhile, in spite of having to move truckloads of possessions from the rental pit, we have managed to accomplish quite a lot on the construction front. I made forms for the mini steps at the landings to the bedrooms and Armando and Alex poured the concrete:


They turned out well; I’ll tile them when I tile the floors:


Jabo is savvy about concrete. He wouldn’t use the stairs until I showed him that they were solid.

In my free time I hung the corrugated zinc panels on the wall behind the bed in the master bedroom:


Later I will install trim at the top of the wall.

For the electric switch and receptacle boxes in the wall, I cut holes and inserted waterproof exterior boxes; more money but no holes for spiders! After I inserted the boxes into the holes, I caulked around the backside with urethane caulk:


On the front side, I plan to go around the box with some gray or aluminum-colored caulk. After the switch or receptacle is installed, a standard cover will fit nicely on the box.

Armando and Alex have primed and first coated a lot of metal including these windows and bars:


And the master bedroom bump out bars. I like the design of the metalwork a lot:


Once the paint dried, I installed screening on the outside of the bump out. I did it the easy way — I put clear polymer acrylic caulk on the 2×2 square tubing and then embedded the screening into the caulk. When it is time to replace the screen or to paint the metal, I will just peal off the old screen and install new with new caulk.

We made another window frame and cut out a hole for the window (back side of container #4) in the guest bathroom:


I still need to install the louvered glass panes, but the man that made the window cut the glass a quarter-inch too short. He will deliver the correct size later this week.

In the loft, I was going to put container siding below and a fixed glass pane above, as you can see in the next photo. I was never really happy with the design because it didn’t go with the vertical windows to the right nor the kitchen window below:


So the redesign committee decided to replicate the kitchen window just below the loft window. Much more continuity of design and more ventilation. This window was a lot of work; first we cut an eight-foot section of wall from between containers #1 and #2. It took the four of us to raise the heavy panel to the loft where we welded it into place:


We used the long carriolas to guide the wall panel up to the loft.

Aramis welded the panel into place:


Then we cut almost all of the wall away for the window! But it looks good:


The lower kitchen window is now painted black, too.

Here is that same loft window from inside the loft after we installed the security bars:


Aramis is zooming along with the metal work. When he ran out of work on fabricating the doors, windows, and the bed, we decided to tackle the inside of containers #1 and #2, our future kitchen and den. Next is a photo taken from the container doors on the east (driveway) end. (Remember? — some time ago Armando and I cut  and moved one of the walls from container #2 and moved it upstairs to make the long loft wall.) So far, in the #1/#2 pod we have cut an eight-foot section of wall that we moved upstairs for the east window wall, cut a twelve-foot section that we will use to make the exterior wall by the second bedroom stair landing, installed two ceiling beams, and installed two window frames:


The beams are double 2×6 carriolas. They hold the roof up (as does the wall above that is welded to the roof of the containers). Also, because the beams are centered over the  (future) kitchen islands, it will be easy to run wires and install lighting.

Cynthia and I are really excited to see the kitchen/den underway. I didn’t think that we would be able to tackle that area for some months to come; the camp kitchen experience will be relatively brief.

In critter news: Armando was picking beans in our garden across the street when he came across a small frog. El Valle is world famous for its endangered golden frog. This one looks like a close relative:


The house has been taking all my time. I can’t wait until it is done and I can get back to watercolor painting. I really enjoy painting hands, so this photo may be a candidate for a painting.


Armando became papa to the little frog — it wouldn’t leave his hand when Armando lowered it to the ground.

And while I was disconnecting the alarm at the rental pit, I came across the remains of a gecko. Dead geckos have been the demise of one of our computer printers and a computer graphics card. The alarm survived a close call; perhaps there should be a gecko trip wire in the alarm…:



I spotted this next critter on the stove. I had to be quite persistent in removing it; it’s feet were super-glued to the stove. And check out those antennas!:


Starting with this post, my blog should load much faster because I have finally figured out hot to optimize all the photos for web viewing. Sorry it took me so long!

That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.

The Big Roof ~ Part 4

The Big Roof isn’t done yet, but progress is perceivable. I like the next photo that Cynthia took of me welding an X brace onto the roof. I used 1/16″x1″ flat stock (called platina), welding it to each rafter as it crossed the roof. This will keep the roof “square” and keep it from wracking in the wind:


I’ve welded in a lot more of the rafters:


One nice day Armando, our neighbor Tomas, and I started at 6:00 a.m. and screwed down nine, twenty-foot roofing panels. Each panel is 42-inches wide. Although that’s a lot of sheets and square feet, you can see that there is still a lot to go. It’s a big roof!


Since I took this photo, I have completed the rafters in the little square area to the left of the sheets.

The next picture gives a better perspective on the size of the roof. I still have to weld in the rafters on the left section, plus I have to build the roof that will cover the roof deck:


The rains have been washing the tree blossoms away, so that means that the bees are almost gone too. I am going to try to get to that upper left corner of the roof (previous photo) tomorrow and see if I can weld without raising the ire of the remaining bees. Wish me luck. If I can, then I will start welding in the remaining rafters in that area that overhangs the front of the house. Then more panels, then the section over the roof deck. I figure that I have until the fifteenth of June to work on the roof, then I’ll have to start working on doors and windows so that we can move in the fifteenth of July. Maybe the end of July.

Here is what the place looks like from the front steps:


I took a short 360-degree panarama video from the Big Roof. I can’t believe that we live here:

In other news, Armando has been digging the fish pond. He is putting the dirt in the big gardens and also across the street to improve his yucca and guandu (wan-doo — pigeon pea) garden:


We have a pump to extract the water when it gets too deep.

And he has been cutting the grass and weeding the gardens, both growing rapidly with the arrival of the rains:


Where’s Armando?

The photo above reminds me of one of my favorite artists, Henri Rousseau (link):

Henri Rousseau 2

And when it has been too rainy for me to weld outside, I’ve been doing odds and ends inside, including preparing the stuccoed walls for paint by wet grinding them. This process uses an angle grinder with a diamond grinding/polishing pad. A garden hose is attached to the grinder to wash away the gritty debris. It is all a big mess and is quite scary — water and electricity is never a good idea — even though I have the tool plugged into a GFCI protector. Here are a few photos that Cynthia took:


I’m wearing the latest in fashion: rubber gloves, rubber boots, boxer skivvies, and a plastic trash bag cut for my head and arms.


Cyn insisted that I post this photo. She said I was “cute.” Go figure!

And then there is this NSFW atrocity:


I’ll leave you with that last photo to ponder. What I will do for art. That’s all for now.

The Big Roof ~ Part 3

The roof shows progress, but not enough, not fast enough. Whenever you work off the ground, multiply the time times two. Or three. For every rafter that I weld into place, I have to move the scaffolding, advancing two feet at a time. So it is up the scaffolding, down the scaffolding; I’m getting more-than-enough Jungle Jim Fred time in on this project! And sometimes I get to the top of the scaffolding and find that I have forgotten to turn on the welder. Down the scaffolding, up the scaffolding.

And the rain is making its debut. Friday and Saturday I lost much of the day to huge downpours that lasted several hours. But I am not complaining, we need the rain; Panama is currently in a drought because of the several-week delay in the seasonal rains. We get 50% of our electric power from hydroelectric dams, and the reservoirs are perilously low. School has been cancelled and government offices have shortened work hours. Air conditioning in businesses has been restricted, fish are dying in rivers because of low water and/or warmer water than usual, and cattle are dying due to the lack of water and grass. If we all don’t cut back enough, there will be rolling 4-hour electrical blackouts. So I won’t complain about losing time; the greater good is much more important.

In my last post, I had three of the main beams in place. In the next photo I have a lot of the rafters welded in place and I am in the process of sliding the east beam into place:


Looking down, you can see the welder on the top of container #2 — the future loft. Yes, I’ve been wearing my safety harness!

I had difficulty getting the eastern-most beam into place. There are a lot of bees in the trees at the front of the house, and all bees in Panama are Africanized. They were paying a bit more attention to me than I would like, darting rapidly closer and closer to me; they even swarmed at the end of the carriola where I had placed my hands. So I moved the beam the last few feet with a long 2×4, then tied the beam into place. I’ll weld it later when/if the bees go away. Here is a photo taken from the carport roof:


The yellow tow strap and the come-along are holding the roof “square.”

Because of the bees, I decided to work at the far end of the roof. I welded together two more 40-foot 2x6s to make the last beam, plus I welded together two, 8-foot 2x4s for a column on top of container #2. Armando and I raised the beam to its perch and I clamped it, then welded it into place:


Here is the last beam, ready to receive columns below to create the west wall of the living room:


Because there isn’t much Armando can do on the roof while I weld, he has been busy digging the fish pond that will be near the hydroponic greenhouse. No photos yet, it’s just a hole in the ground.

In other news, I couldn’t sleep last night (Saturday) so I decided to take a walk around the neighborhood from midnight to about 3:00 a.m. With the recent rains, the frogs and toads and other water-loving night creatures have come alive. Here is a video of the raucous sounds of nighttime in the tropics just a few steps from our rental house. Actually, it was too dark to make a video but the audio came through loud and clear. Turn up your speakers:

And by the way, Ramiro (with the head injury) just came to our house with a big bag of star fruit (fruta de china [chee-na]). I gave him an extra hardhat that I had. The wound is healing very well and he plans to be back to work soon.

It is now 2:00 Sunday afternoon and the sky has just opened to a downpour. I guess that Armando and I will have to switch to our rainy-season start time of 6:00 or 7:00 a.m.

That’s all for now. More welding next week.