Our One Of A Kind Orchid Wall

About a year ago Armando and I built a planter wall so that Cynthia and I could have some orchids. We poured a sizable foundation to support the twelve-foot tall wall and embedded a few vertical pieces of rebar to also support the wall. We attached a piece of foam building panel to the rebars ~ I used this same foam stuff elsewhere in the house construction ~ it has a core of Styrofoam with a wire mesh on both sides. You plaster the panel with stucco. Of course we chose the wettest time of the year…

Looking out the kitchen window, waiting for the water to recede.

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With the exception of a couple finishing details, the living room floor is DONE! We are just so wildly excited; this place is now a house for sure!

In the last week-and-a-half, tile by tile, Hanibal worked his way across the entry/living/dining room floor. My job as usual was to cut all the perimeter tiles. Here we work around the steps to the master bedroom:

P1010907While we were in the neighborhood, we decided to set the tiles for this set of steps, too. In the next photo Hanibal places mortar and I stand squat ready with a jig that I made to determine the height of the mortar on the steps:


The next photo is a closer look at the jig — I measured the total height of the staircase and then divided by three (the number of risers), equaling even steps of four-and-three-quarters-inches. To that number, I added the thickness of the tile (five-sixteenths-of-an-inch) to yield a jig height of five-and-one-sixteenth-inch. In the shop, I cobbled together a few boards, making this:


The jig rides on the tiles already in place on the step above the one being worked on, thereby setting the height of the mortar to set the tiles on.

We decided to tile the steps with some left over tile from the bathroom floors. The different style of tile sends a safety warning to a person walking nearby that says, “pay attention, something is different here.” Here is the end of one of the steps where I cut the tiles to fit against the rock wall:


We still need to install tile on the risers and grout the staircase.

Finally, with the exception of a few finishing touches, the floor was done. Here it is looking from the living room toward the front door. The little set of stairs at the far end goes to the second bedroom:


We planted some Mother-In-Law Tongues in concrete pots on the landing.

And looking from the front door into the living room:


The next photo looks from the master bedroom landing into the living room:


We went shopping on Black Friday and got some good sales on some big pots for the living room.

You may have noticed in the above pictures that the long container wall, the one with the long bench, is no longer white. Hanibal didn’t need me for a day, so I painted the wall two coats of a warm-grey satin latex. I’ve found that a brush works just fine to paint the container walls:


Once I got two coats of paint on the wall, both Cynthia and I commented on how tranquil the room had become. We think that this tranquility will make a great backdrop for a few vibrant punches of color:


One of those punches of color will be the dining room table. One day I had a chance to roll five coats of “Red Hot Mama” polyurethane (fifteen-minute drying time) paint onto the table that Ramiro and I made some months ago. The name of the color is written on the can in English — I translated it for the guys and they couldn’t stop laughing:


A thick slab of glass will top the table. After painting the inside corners with a brush, I found that a small foam roller applies a nice smooth finish. When you look at the front windows you’ll notice some squiggly lines. Cynthia put those up with a yellow highlighter so the birds wouldn’t try to fly into the windows. Apparently the birds see the lines”fluoresce” and we’ve avoided many head-on collisions.

With the big floor done, it was time to move upstairs to tile the roof deck floor. We laid one long row first; Hanibal calls this row El Maestro (the teacher):


Cynthia inspects the first row. As we near the outside edge, we’ll move the plants inboard so that we can finish tiling the floor. A tarp protects the recently-laid end tiles from an imminent afternoon rain.

On the second day, Hanibal continued laying tile and I spent most of the day marking and cutting the border tiles. I am happy to announce that I have officially cut THE VERY LAST TILE that abuts the intricate innies and outies of the container walls. Glad to have that done!


With so much mortar and tile to carry up to the roof, Hanibal brought his son-in-law, Francisco, to be his helper. Francisco had to do double duty with the edge tiles — after bringing them up to the roof, I marked them, he carried them back down to the saw, I cut them, and he carried them back upstairs. You really don’t want to carry more than five of these tiles at a time as they are thick and heavy. Here is Francisco ready to hand a tile to Hanibal:


When a new guy comes to work for us, I take his picture and send him home with a copy. The next day they always come back smiling, saying that their family responded, “Guapo!” (pronounced wappo), or “handsome.” This was the photo I gave him.

As of today, the roof deck looks like this:


The roof deck pitches about a quarter-inch-per-foot toward the outside to shed rain. Armando’s job this Saturday was to grout the floor, making a space ready to move the plants to.

The rainy season is going out with a bang — we’ve had some pretty good downpours in the afternoons and also in the hours just before dawn. Here is one at two in the afternoon — we are really happy with the water management on the property:


As wet as it looks, we’ve also had some lovely sunny days. The rainy season will end around December 15th.

Once the roof deck is done, the last big tile job is the front steps. We’ll probably get started on that project sometime this week. Can’t wait.

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


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.

Finally, A Concrete Sidewalk And Steps

For a couple months now, Armando and I have been working on a sidewalk and steps in the carport area. We work outside on other projects when the sun shines, then when it rains I pull Armando in to work under the big roof.

The carport is thirty-two feet deep, so there is plenty of room for a sidewalk and some steps in front of my shop. Here we have the area mostly formed for concrete:

Each row of blocks for the steps has its own concrete foundation.

We also built a block wall and made a suspended walkway in front of containers 3, 4, and the twelve-foot space between them:

Just like Cynthia’s workbench, we used metal roofing panels as formwork for the suspended walkway. Then we cut wire mesh for to reinforce the concrete. This slab will be a good four-inches thick:

At the bottom of the photo you can see that I have rebar sticking out from the forms. Eventually the sidewalk will continue around to the front door, and this rebar will keep the separate pours connected.

Here’s the project all formed and ready for concrete. We decided to save the steps for later; this was going to be quite enough concrete for one day, thank you very much.

With rain pouring down outside most of the day, Armando and our man-for-a-day Rigoberto mixed three big batches of concrete under the protection of the carport roof. In total we used sixteen bags ($160) of cement.They delivered the concrete to the forms by the shovelful or five-gallon bucket full. At first, Armando said it couldn’t be done in a day and I agreed. I told him that if he could and would, I would double their pay for the day:

The guys mixed, then Rigoberto poured, Armando distributed and struck the concrete level, and I followed with the wooden float and later with the steel trowel:

Armando usually works until 2:30 or so, but he and Rigoberto ended up working until almost 5:00. They were dog tired. I finished troweling about 7:00. It was dark by then. I had a light but apparently it wasn’t bright enough; there is one small area that I am less than delighted with, but we hope someday to tile all the floors:

During a big, blowing downpour I took it upon myself to get a ladder and hang the blue tarp to protect the concrete. Such fun!

All in all, with just one small blemish area, I am happy as a clam to have all this concrete done. Next week Armando and I will work on the steps.

In related news; As weather permitted, Armando has completed the block work for the hydroponic greenhouse. Next we need to pour a concrete beam at the top of the blocks and also pour slabs for the steps to the door:

Armando worked the shovel and I worked the laser level to even out the dirt inside the greenhouse. We’ll let the rain settle the dirt before pouring a concrete floor. Yes, everything is square if not necessarily level — it is just the darn camera angle.

Bonus photo department: My brother, a diamond setter by trade, will relate to these next photos. Back in the ’60s I made dozens and dozens of wooden chucks for him to clamp ring settings while he set the stones. In an unpacked-until-recently box I found the original pattern that I worked from. Jabo is now gnawing on it; being a tropical dog, he has never tasted maple wood. I think he liked it:

I always count my fingers after playing with Jabo. He’s a tough customer; I wouldn’t want to run into him in a dark alley:

That’s all for now. More, well, sometime in the future.

Update ~ Cynthia

(My wife, Cynthia, suffered brain damage during open heart surgery at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio twenty months ago. This post is our story of her trying to get relief from seizures and the medicines to treat them. See the end of my previous post for more about this.)

On my flight back from Texas, I was seated next to a woman. I thought that she was very attractive and we smiled at each other. We exchanged sentiments about how happy we each were to be going home, and I couldn’t help but notice that she was flirting with me. I tested the waters and flirted back, and enjoyed her warm, genuine smile. This woman had life in her eyes and although I could tell that she was tired from travelling, she was very animated and alive.

I couldn’t help but compare her to Cynthia on our trip to Texas. Cynthia was anxious, apprehensive-but-hopeful, and her eyes were dull and foggy from the prescribed drugs she had been taking for the past twenty months since her open heart surgery.

You are probably wondering who the woman was that I was sitting next to. Did I get her name? Did I do something stupid? The answer is no, I didn’t have to. The woman next to me was Cynthia.

Our week in the epilepsy wing of the hospital was grueling. On the first day she had a state of the art 3T MRI (photo source):

Then we found our way to the epilepsy department and checked in. The obligatory hospital gown followed and a team prepared her for the week of testing. After an RN took a complete history, a young man who was in training to be an Air Force med tech applied EEG electrodes to her head. This would allow the team to record her brain waves 24/7 for the entire week:

The tech uses a sandpaper scrubbie to remove dead skin cells so that the electrodes will adhere better. Ouch!

About half done. You can tell she is getting tired of this by looking at her neck and her clenched jaw...

With all the tugging, pushing, hair pulling and a doosey of a headache; enough is enough.

Then he wrapped her head in a gauze bandage and gave her a fashionable chin strap. A pony tail of wires drapes over her shoulder and connects to a black blue box that is then connected to a 25-foot cable wired to the wall behind her bed, then connecting to a monitor located down the hall. This cable allows her to get to the bathroom but doesn’t allow her to leave the room:

Now we wait.

The doctor and her physician assistant (we liked them a lot) explained that she was going to discontinue Cynthia’s meds so that she would have more seizures. The techs explained that they were going to flash strobe lights in her eyes so that she would have more seizures. And the whole team explained that there would be two nights of sleep deprivation so that she would have more seizures. And more seizures she did have, perhaps a hundred in four days.

This photo of Cyn reading on our Kindle was during one of the sleepless nights. I had a cot right there in Cynthia's room. My job was to pull the covers off of her when a seizure started so that the camera could video her movements.

Caught in a yawn

And forcing a smile behind tired eyes:

The hospital rooms have wi-fi and I was able to keep up with the outside world via our new Samsung tablet. I like it a lot. I've always been a desk top computer kind of guy, learning DOS on my own by reading the DOS list of commands (there was no app for that) back in '84, but now I'm beginning to see the light on portable computing, especially with cloud storage and everywhere access to files.

With the 24/7 video camera, we felt as if we were on a reality TV show. One night I climbed into bed with Cynthia to watch a video via Netflix on the Samsung tablet. About half way through, the tech that was watching us came into the room and said I couldn’t be in the bed because I wasn’t the patient. Liability and all that stuff. So we pushed a couple chairs together and continued the movie, the camera swiveling to our new location. Here’s the camera and the ultraviolet LED illuminator for watching us at night:

The camera is a pan, tilt, and zoom type. At the end of the hall is a room with 16 large screen monitors; 8 screens have the video feed from 8 patients, and the other 8 show EEG activity for each patient. A new batch of patients starts every Monday.

By the end of day three the team had enough information to make a preliminary diagnosis. The team spent the fourth day looking for zebras (potential but unlikely causes for Cynthia’s seizures). On Friday we met with the doctor and physician assistant.

The results of the testing were very rewarding and made the week eminently worth while. It seems that for the past twenty months Cynthia has been misdiagnosed and over medicated with all the wrong medicines. She doesn’t have epilepsy, but rather non-epileptic “events” from a “shower of blood clots” during the open heart surgery.

This “good” news makes us very happy because Cynthia won’t need to be on those dreadful drugs for the next 30 or however many years, and also because she doesn’t need brain surgery to remove pieces and parts of malfunctioning brain cells. Yes!

Now, a very small amount of the correct medicine has already made a world of difference. Although we just arrived home at 3:00 this morning, she is already more alert, happier, and looking forward to living a normal life (is there such a thing?) and getting back to sewing, working with seed beads and hot glass, and working to make our new house a home.

Here is a happy Cynthia on day five getting the electrodes removed, just before being discharged. The glue is a very durable goop and needs a greasy, smelly acetone-based solution similar to nail polish remover. She was an even happier camper after she washed her hair the third time(!):

There is still healing to be done, but now life is again worth living. She is excited and I am ecstatic!

Thinking back to the journey home, I am delighted to have sat next to that lovely woman  on the airplane.

Lunch, A Cemetery, And To Grandmother’s House I Go

Nothing special in this post, just the story of our day away from home.

Cynthia and I needed a few things down in Coronado so today was the day. In Coronado, we made our purchases, and being lunch time, I decided to surprise Cynthia with a visit to a new restaurant in San Carlos.

Coming from Panama City, just where the speed limit drops before San Carlos, right on the highway where all the stones are stacked in piles for sale, is an authentic Italian restaurant named Mamma Mia — Toscana in Bocca (Tuscany in your mouth if I remember my smattering of Italian).

The first thing we noticed was the setting. There is a large wall that separates the restaurant from most of the road noise. Inside the wall is a large bohio (open sided, thatched roof hut. It’s always cool under a bohio.).

The setting is very relaxed and peaceful. Our English/Spanish bilingual waiter brought us menus written in Italian. We did some quick math and saw that we could very easily spend more than $20, maybe more than $30 for lunch, so we did our “water and the least expensive dishes” routine. No wine, no dessert. Cynthia ordered a spaghetti dish and I ordered a cheese/tomato pizza.

I was very hungry. I went to the owner who was working at the outside kitchen and said that we would like some garlic bread while we waited. “No!” he said, our lunches would be flour, flour, flour, too much flour! He refused to make bread for us! He said, don’t worry, your food is only a few minutes away and it will be plenty!

Sure enough, our food arrived promptly. And he was right, it was plenty. Not too much, not too little.

I was in Tuscany, Italy, back in the ’70s and I have to say, all my memories of the food came back to me today. Simple food. Well blended flavors. Spaghetti al dente, just as Cynthia likes it.

We finished our meal and told the waiter that we would like the small crumb left on my plate wrapped to go. He laughed; whether at my joke or at my Spanish I cannot tell you. I left a twenty that included a tip.

On the way back up the mountain, I remembered that the formerly nearly impassable road to a cemetery had just been freshly graded, oiled and graveled. So again as a surprise, I turned at the road and drove to the Virgen Del Carmen cemetery. This is the same name as the Catholic church in Los Llanitos near our house.

Here are some photos. Notice that the colors in the plastic flowers are not very faded; they must be changed regularly. And check out the views!

This rock formation is called, "La Puerta" (The Door).

From enjoying the views of the cemetery, we drove home.

But while we were at the cemetery, I showed Cynthia  another “road” that went to Cedelinda’s aunt’s house (Cedelinda is the young woman I am tutoring in English). I was there just last week. Not much more than a steep-hilled, two-track dirt path with lots of rocks, the Honda barely made it. Let me explain why I was there.

Cedelinda’s grandmother is 97-years-old and lives with Cede’s aunt. Grandma, deaf and nearly blind, fell and badly hurt her spine, her hip, and her legs. The family had to care for her there in the house for several weeks until she was well enough to get from the house to the road so she could go to the doctor! With only a rough path, the house is a long way from the road, and the road is so bad that it would have made Grandma much worse.

Cedelinda related the story to Cynthia and me. Pretty much the only way over the road is in one of the local pickup trucks or a farm truck. All had the suspension of a spring-less buckboard and I cringed at the thought of Grandma being jostled so much. So I volunteered to drive Grandma to her appointment with the doctor.

I actually did it again the next week, too, so she could be seen by another doctor. Cedelinda suggested that the second time I take a different road that was in better condition. On the specified day, I drove to the spot that we were to meet. We went to the doctor’s and returned.

Now here is the part that touched me so deeply that it brought tears to my eyes and affected me for days after. As I said, they don’t live near the road. Grandma can’t walk. A wheelchair would be useless on the hilly, rocky, narrow terrain of the path. How to move Grandma? Simple. A young, robust grandson piggy-backed his nearly-100-year-old grandmother to the road. I couldn’t believe my eyes as they came into view, Grandma’s arms wrapped tightly around her grandson’s neck.

I was deeply touched by the profound intimacy that I routinely see in these peoples’ lives. In the States, families tend to be smaller and separated by miles and by generations, and we generally rely on professional services to take care of situations like this. But here, three and four generations live under one roof and they often do what needs to be done themselves. After he carried her, grandson straightened her dress and made her presentable. It took several of us to get her settled into the front seat of the car.

I do not pity these people. Their lives are not complex, hurried and harried as are the lives of so many up north in the States. There is a profound simplicity for them. But there is also the constant need for them to be self-reliant, inventive, and resourceful. I admire their “grit” in so many ways.

Here is a short video of the “road of choice.” After I turn the car around, you can see Cede, her aunt, and the grandson bringing Grandma to the road.

Cynthia and I had a good day today exploring. That’s all for now.