A Long Road Ahead II

A classic symptom of culture shock is the excessive fear of being cheated and the constant thought of “everyone is ripping me off!” This was the most obvious of all my symptoms. I assumed every price was inflated and refused to go back to any merchants that tried to “cheat” me out of a dollar…

Maybe this gringo was a bit paranoid of being taken advantage of but after our business meeting with the maestro, my suspicions were confirmed. When Translator Jose exclaimed, “those guys are crazy! Their price is way too expensive!” I wasn’t imagining it. This maestro’s bid was outrageous…

I had a feeling all along this maestro was not the person for our inn and wondered why we had even wasted our time meeting with him. When TJ said he would help us find a reputable builder, I realized then TJ was the reason. He continued, “My mom knows a lot of people in town. Maybe I could ask her if she knows someone who would be good for the job.” His offer was genuine with a clear desire to help us Americans. For the first time, I felt as if we had made an Ecuadorian friend who wasn’t out to make a buck off of us. But despite the good feeling I got from TJ, in the back of my mind I wondered how much of the maestro’s cut he’d get…

That evening the phone rang. “Hello?” Captain answered the phone. “Oh hey TJ! Yeah? Yeah… Really? Wow! Great. We will be there tomorrow. Thanks so much. See you then.” Captain was ecstatic. “That was TJ. He found us the perfect guy for the job! And we’re meeting him in the morning!”

I couldn’t believe it. Had TJ just found us our maestro? Captain and I were both amazed how quickly we had manifested a builder. When I realized what was really happening, my excitement faded quickly and panic set in. We were meeting a potential builder the next day. Though I had the basic layout for our place, by no means did I have a real detailed plan.

We knew we were transforming the already standing two-story concrete structure into five stories with a rooftop terrace. The guest rooms will have huge floor to ceiling windows with spectacular views of both the ocean and jungle. They will be spacious and open yet intimate, all with luxurious bathrooms. Because our inn will also be our home for the next few years, Captain and I each have a room for ourselves; a man cave for him and my room for an office, meditation area and creative space. We’ll have a private kitchen and dining area for the two of us as well as a kitchen on the first floor for a future eatery.

Then came the anxiety…

Because I had spent so much time preparing for our trip to Ecuador and expected it would be months before finding a builder, our building plans were nowhere near completed. I had went over some ideas with my mother but I hadn’t committed to any details. Captain exclaimed, “we might have just found the perfect builder! Why are you so upset?” Captain calmly reminded me that our building was a simple concept and not to fret. But I had just realized that I was the architect and no matter how simple of a creation our inn was, it was my job to think of everything. “What is the best layout for a restaurant’s kitchen? Which way should this door open? Is this too many plugs on this wall? Not enough?” The racing thoughts continued. I am definitely not an architect…what about all the other things I wouldn’t even think to consider? Not to mention my reoccurring thought of “I have no clue what options I have in Ecuador.” What were my choices for home appliances? How big are they? What kind of light fixtures are available? Where would I shop? Lowes? Home Depot? Menards? Ahhh!!!!!!!!!

The more I thought about our plans, or lack thereof, the more I became overwhelmed…

I got angry with myself. Why hadn’t we planned for all this when we were back in the States? I could have had an architect student draw up these plans on a CAD program. Why hadn’t I made more time to talk with my mom who has so much insight into planning a home? My construction buddies could have estimated the amount of materials we’d need. Why hadn’t I looked more into building on our last trip to Ecuador? I was so preoccupied with packing the littlest things that I missed planning for the biggest thing of all, our building. Captain was much calmer about it all, reassuring me that my plans were perfect. At this point I wasn’t expecting perfect but they were far from what I was sure I wanted…

The next day we met Maestro and from the first moment, Captain and I had a good feeling about this guy. He was professional, kind and up front with what he was able to do with our building. Although I didn’t like hearing no to my structural desires, it was nice to know my maestro didn’t agree to everything. I had recognized the cultural trend of telling others only what one thinks the other wishes to hear. Empty promises from my maestro was not what I wanted to hear…

Over the next three days I scrambled to provide more detailed plans for Maestro. He visited our property and reviewed my plan. I explained they weren’t exact as we hadn’t expected to find a builder so quickly. Maestro offered us a fair price and despite Captain’s best negotiating, Maestro wasn’t budging. Unlike the other maestro who just threw out a big number, this man provided us a detailed list of how much his services cost and what was included in the total price. Before shaking on the deal, I reminded Maestro my plans weren’t exact and before I could commit to certain details, I needed to know my options. He didn’t seem a bit concerned with the lack of details…

TJ confirmed he was a reliable maestro. “I wouldn’t have got you this guy if he wasn’t good!” Maestro guaranteed his building for thirty years and showed us around town to some of the buildings he had built. His work was solid but initially I was taken back by the look of a few as they appeared unfinished. Steel poles sticking out the top, the concrete of the side walls weren’t finished, and only the street side wall painted. He explained this was the owner’s preference. It is typical to see buildings construction-ready waiting years for the owner to acquire enough money to complete the next floor…

We were concerned about it being rainy season and how that would affect the timing of construction. “It’s all good!” Maestro said in Spanish. He wanted to start the next day. Whoa! Really? We suggested he wait until we have electric and water but he was ready to start. Captain and I were so excited to have found a legit builder. There were so many overseas horror stories like homes falling apart or worse, the builder accepting large sums of money and not finishing the job! Had I not been so excited at the thought of having my own home finally, I would have asked for a bit more time to get organized. But Maestro didn’t seemed pressed for details so I was going along for the ride. I really didn’t want to wait another day to start this project either!

Details like the payment plan, buying materials and signing a contract were all discussed. He said he was hiring a team of ten to fifteen men as well as a woman to do the cooking for the workers. Maestro estimated that materials would equal his price for labor so Captain and I were well within our budget. We had found a responsible builder through a respectable friend and Maestro was starting pronto. Shaking on this deal was thrilling and terrifying all in one. We were finally building our place in paradise!

Although, I have never built a home in the United States, there were obvious differences from the start. First of all, the fact that he was agreeing to any price without knowing all the details shocked me. The next striking difference was him beginning the project without electric or water. Not only did Maestro not have a vehicle any bigger than a dirt bike, he had next to no tools. Being a professional builder I expected him to have a repertoire. In the U.S. I would be skeptical of a professional of this sort but I was in Ecuador. This is the way they roll here…

When Maestro saw we had a two vehicles, he took interest in the Lada. He said with a bigger vehicle he could get his workers to work easier. Excuse me? It’s the boss’s job to get his workers to work? Isn’t this what you are paying them for? To show up and work! A part of me felt obligated to let him borrow the Lada for ease of construction. Captain said the Lada was for sale for the right price. Because Maestro didn’t know if he would have enough money to buy it at the end of the project, he just wanted to borrow it for now. Hmmm…I was skeptical lending out our vehicle for such an extended time no matter how responsible this guy was. Together Captain and Maestro came up with a rent-to-own plan and the Lada keys were turned over.

Maestro wasted no time moving in. In a place with no walls, no windows, no plumbing or lights, they got comfortable on our concrete slabs and appeared to feel right at home. There were mattresses and hammocks in places I’d never be brave enough to sleep at night. I saw more beds than mosquito nets and wondered how anyone in the middle of the jungle could sleep without one. On the second floor a tarp was wrapped around the corner of the building where the kitchen and living space was created. A toilet bowel was set up at the edge of the jungle surrounded by four bamboo posts and a hanging piece of black plastic for privacy. The woman quickly oriented herself to the land and found the nearby stream for washing dishes and everyone’s clothes. Home sweet home! And as always, the whole family was there.

IMG_1323

It is customary to house your workers. I’ve heard keeping your workers on site is the best way to ensure the job gets done. But I hadn’t known the whole family was moving in. Miss Cook had all three of her children. Babies and toddlers were running around in their bare feet and were just as comfortable on site as the workers. When I saw a two-year old leaning over the edge of the second story concrete slab, I wondered how many casualties there would be constructing our inn. It was a relief a few days later when I saw a ladder wedged between the two columns. It still was by no means safe but it was safer than nothing at all…

Work Day

Nothing was safe about the work site. There would have been several hundred OSHA violations. Maestro was often in flip-flops and occasionally I saw him running around in bare feet. There were no hard hats so I was amazed watching the workers stand comfortably below a sketchy pulley system heaving concrete blocks up several feet. The scariest moment was watching two workers transport a packet of steel rods. The steel was loosely tied with a piece of frayed string. As the steel creeped to the third floor, the man below was standing directly below the rods. All I could imagine was one of the rods slipping from the rest, plummeting from great heights and spearing him through the middle of his chest.

When Maestro started putting up the walls for the bathrooms, our workers couldn’t believe the size. They laughed and told us our bathrooms were bigger than most Ecuadorians’ bedrooms that they share!

The walls went up just in time because we were about to experience our first rain. Falling from every inch of the sky were the biggest raindrops I’d ever seen, supposedly typical February rainfall. With a raincoat on, I was drenched running from the front door to the truck thirty feet away. Even when I stayed inside, I was soaked. This continued for three days straight. There was no escaping the rain…

Deep Waters

When the rain stopped and we left our refuge on the The Hill, we headed to our property to see our team’s progress. Riverstone lined the drive down The Hill so it was a slippery ride down. Captain was not quiet about his nervousness. “Oh God! We’re sliding!!! Oh, God! Hold on guys! Here we go!” He had me a nervous wreck. I was envisioning us slipping off the edge of the hill and crushing our neighbors’ shacks below. Remembering that our angels are always ready and willing to offer assistance, I asked that we be taken down the hill safely. I then saw each our guardian angels pushing the front of The Hulk slowing our truck to safe speeds.

Our town wedged between two cliffs was hit hard with the rainfalls. There were small streams running through the town. Trees were washed into the roads from the slippery hills above. When we got to our property, it was very apparent we should have built a driveway. We were holding off until after construction so the oversized trucks didn’t destroy it; turns out without a drive, our property was impassable. The grounds were saturated and the heavy trucks couldn’t make it to the work site. One driver couldn’t make the pass and dropped 1000 concrete blocks at the edge of our property. Our workers were hauling the block by the wheelbarrow load. Although there was plenty of water nearby for mixing concrete, the time Maestro wasn’t spending on pumping water from the stream, his team was now pushing delivery trucks that were getting stuck. Maestro wasn’t phased; apparently inconvenience was the norm. All I could see was a waste of time, energy and money. A driveway was a must…

I was already overwhelmed with my disorganization but now seeing the poor planning and uninsightfulness of my maestro’s decisions, my anxiety was over the top. Why would he ever agree to start work without a reliable water system and electric? Or a driveway at that? Surely he knew how wet it was going to be after a typical rain. As a first time builder I didn’t know how organized foremans are typically and didn’t know how much it was my responsibility to intervene. The stress of building a home was becoming a reality. And we were in Ecuador. Was this a huge mistake?

There was no time for regret. The best service Captain and I could be to Maestro was to get power and water to our building site. We visited the electric company where the plan for our property was discussed. On a big white board with a dry erase marker, the electrician drew the plans for the property in which Captain and I agreed on. Detailed prices of the service were provided, and although we were surely overpaying by a few hundred dollars, it felt as if we had no bargaining power. But their final price was within our budget so we agreed to the terms. We were told if we handed over all the money that day, they would begin “manana” which is ‘tomorrow’ in Spanish. I was hesitant to hand any money over before seeing work done but Captain reassured me this deal was more legit than the others. This was a government establishment so surely that couldn’t be that thieving, right? Since we paid so much cash upfront, I assumed our job didn’t get put down in the books to avoid a paper trail that showed the “miscellaneous” charges also known as the gringo tax. With that in mind, I agreed on the quick payment and expected they be there the following day.

We also followed up with the town’s water committee. They explained our neighbor was going to purchase the pipe because he claimed to be able to get it cheaper purchased factory direct. Our neighbors are people from Quito who come to the beach in their free time. Their home is the farthest of the homes that will be using the new water line. Neighbor Franco was buying the total pipe and we were to pay him for a fraction of the principal. After paying him our part, he said in 10 days the ditch would be dug and the new water line would be run. Ten minutes…ten days…ten dollars…its all relative in Ecuador. We were pretty sure the bigger and better line would not be ready in ten days so we would be purchasing the smaller tubing to tap into the already established line. Our neighbor was a bit distraught by this. Neighbor Franco was building a pool and not wanting to lose water pressure to his home, he asked us wait to access the water system. I felt it was quite bold of him to request we not use the public water line. Apparently it was bold of us not to oblige his request. Cultural differences I suppose. But it was the first time we had met our neighbor and we had already pissed him off.

When we returned to our rental, our decision to establish our utilities ASAP was reiterated. The House on the Hill was without power. Here in Ecuador, it is normal to have days here and there without electric so it was no surprise. But when we were getting out our headlamps for the evening and noticed the town still had power, we were a bit perturbed. Why didn’t we have power? The caretaker Mr. Deeds would be there soon for his evening shift so we assumed that when he returned he would have it fixed promptly. Until then, we would adorn our headlamps, eat dinner by candlelight and not flush any of the toilets. No worries…

In the middle of the night, I woke up in a pile a sweat. Our bedside fans hadn’t kicked on. Damn, still no electric!?! I cursed the builders of the house wishing they had the insight to build this bedroom with a cross breeze of the ocean winds. I faded in and out until I woke in the morning to Captain cursing his side of the bed soaked in night sweat as well.

How ironic. All this time Mr. Deeds was lurking around the corner and the first time that I really needed something, he is nowhere to be found. When there was actually important work to be done, he wasn’t there doing a damn thing! We went into town to talk with the housekeeper in hopes she could assist us or at the very least let Mr. Deeds know his assistance was needed. When he finally showed up that evening, he informed us that a tree had fallen on our line and the electric company would need to come out and fix it. Since the power company was coming to our property that same day, it should be quick fix, right?

Wrong…

No one showed up all day long. I was quite upset that the power company rushed us to gather our cash and then did not show when that said they would. Mr. Deeds was going to ride the bus into town to talk with the power company but it was too late in the day. We decided we would all go to town the following day to request assistance with our downed line and inquire about our new lines as well.

Yet another night without light…

We had just been to the grocery store. The thought of all of our food in the fridge spoiling was beginning to frustrate me. Sorry Neighbor Franco but this is precisely why we were not postponing construction! Our place would be on a generator for the essentials like flushing toilets and a refrigerator.

Captain was getting frustrated as well. Overnight, he put on his headlamp and took the puppies outside for a bathroom break. His vision was tunneled but it was better than nothing. When leading the dogs down the stairs, a “THUMP!” behind him stopped him in his tracks. He thought a piece of the ceiling had fallen it was so loud. When he turned around, there before him on the floor was a giant black tarantula. It was standing tall on its back legs while its front legs kicked ahead. Grace was face to face with the tarantula and neither one of them was backing down from the fight. As Miles became interested in the stand-off, Captain started to panic. Unsure of what may ensue, Captain knew his priority was capturing the tarantula. Not wanting to leave the dogs unattended with the angry arachnid, the closet thing within reach was my aloe plant. Spilling dirt all over the floor, he dumped out the aloe and had himself a trap. When the dogs started barking with excitement I woke from my sweaty slumber. Worried there was an intruder, I peaked my head out of the bedroom and saw quite a sight. Captain had Miles pinned under one arm, Grace locked under a leg and a flower-pot in his free hand. His gaze was fixed on the tiny intruder. When I realized what was happening, I offered my assistance. “Can I help?” Captain hadn’t seen me standing there. “Ahhhhh!” he shouted when I startled him as he was slamming down the pot over the tarantula. Captain was not happy. “Our maestro better not be long because I can’t take much more of this dump!” Seeing dirt smeared across Captain’s face, I couldn’t contain myself…

Tiny Intruder

The following day we went with Mr. Deeds to the electric company. It turns out our landlady’s workers weren’t current on the bills and before they would come fix the line, we had to pay for four months of electric. Although we hadn’t been there for even half of that time, we paid the bill knowing it was the only way we would see the light…

Mr. Deeds then made his soft-spoken request to fix the line. I was shocked at his measly request and wondered how many more days we would be without power. I didn’t understand much of their conversation but I clearly heard, “manana”. Although manana translates to tomorrow, I was learning that when someone says manana it means, “it won’t be tomorrow and it probably won’t be the next day either. It might even be a week.”

The next day a truck full of employees from the electric company arrived. Apparently they were only looking at our property. Why it took all of them, I do not know. I also didn’t understand why they didn’t do any work considering it was rainy season and the sunny days should be used wisely. I was even more perturbed when they said they would let the service guys know we needed the line fixed. “Is anybody working today?!?” By the end of the day we still hadn’t seen the electrician so we were going on day four without electric. Frustration was setting in. I would have thought Mr. Deeds would be more frustrated as he and his son were hauling 30 gallon jugs of water from the cistern into our house so we could flush toilets and rinse dishes. But he seemed happy to carry the water for us. I suppose it’s the norm to carry water from the river into the house so Mr. Deeds didn’t think twice about it. We had been out of power for four days now and the electric company didn’t appear to be working very quickly to satisfy their customers. We were very prompt in paying the overdue bills and then lied to when they said the electricians would be there the next day. I felt quite disrespected…

When we returned to our property, the team of electricians were at our house finally starting the project after a week of “manana” promises. I was happy to see a team of five people at our place but noticed that at any given moment only two of them were ever working…

For as many people supervising the man chainsawing in the trees, I would have thought someone would have told him how dangerous he was doing it. The man had shimmied fifteen feet up a tree, hanging on with one hand and holding his chainsaw in the other. He was in a full body spread cutting the arm of the nearby tree. The sound of the tree’s branch began cracking but the man did not head the warning. When it came crashing down he jumped out of the tree, tossing his chainsaw away from him. He landed on his back as the huge branch fell on top of him. I thought for sure he was laying there paralyzed. Maybe he was dead! A moment later his head peeped up through the pile of debris. Both him and his colleagues were laughing hysterically. Was this funny? I was frightened and couldn’t watch him work any longer…

Two men were digging holes, the other three were watching the two work up a sweat. The driver was always supervising the supervisor and never were they all working on their own tasks at once. One day they made the trip to our place to hang the transformer but the rain starting coming down so hard they decided to return the following day. I wondered why that hadn’t just stayed a little longer the previous day and saved themselves an extra trip. Perhaps there is more to the story but had I been in charge, I am sure the project would have taken half the time…

While we were establishing power at our property, The House on the Hill was still without.

Mr. Deeds sensed our frustration and told us for twenty dollars he knew an electrician in town that could fix our downed power line. I assumed the power company were the only professionals that had rights to the lines in town. I hadn’t ever thought of a private electrician doing the job. Thanks Mr. Deeds! Of course! It just so happened that our electrician had just arrived at our place. Brilliant!

Maestro was quick to please his paying customers and told his electrician to help us with whatever it was we needed. On Mainstreet with our electrician we were the great spectacle of the day. People were hanging their heads out their windows. Kids were swarming the streets to see what we were doing. A few men in town that are always involved in the action quickly joined our efforts with the power line. Mr. Deeds snuck out of the trees and shimmied up one. With his machete, he began chopping off the branches to free the line.

The electrician needed a ladder and although there was a bamboo ladder at our rental up the hill, a townsperson had one that was easier access. The man assisting us said it was going to cost us three dollars. What? She was charging us for her ladder? Hmm. Okay. I was expecting a common neighborly gesture to let me borrow her ladder for fifteen minutes but we weren´t in the Midwest anymore. “Let’s go get ours,” I remarked. Captain looked at me and said, “C’mon, its three bucks…”

Let There Be Light

Captain returned the ladder and with his good negotiating skills got it for two…I was a bit more bitter toward the woman thinking to myself, “I´ll remember this the next time you need a ride.¨We were always offering rides to our neighbors to save them a dollar here and there which is a lot of money to the locals. I didn’t want to be so negative but what happened to doing kind deeds for neighbors?

Town´s Taxi

Captain reminded me that we were still the outsiders and many probably did not realize we would be living here, not just vacationing…

Captain was starting the truck to return our electrician to our work site when Mr. Deeds came out from the trees again and waved us down. He wanted our electrician to fix his electric as well because his power line had been down for nine days. Nine days?!? He had been out of power for nine days?!?

When Mr. Deeds came running out from behind the woman’s house carrying her ladder, I wondered how much he was being charged…

While our electrician was working on Deeds’ power line, I came to the realization that Mr. Deeds was going to have us pay twenty dollars to his electrician to do both his and our job. I shared my theory and Captain shouted, “of course he did! This is Ecuador!” How clever.

To me this behavior is not a very honest way to treat others but perhaps here it is a well-respected trait among the people. “Mr. Deeds. What a clever man! He got the gringos to pay double for their job so his job was free!” A respected act or not, this happens all the time and I am making the conscious decision to not take this personally anymore. Everyone isn’t trying to rip me off. Everyone is ripping everyone off!

When our electrician finished, Captain told Mr. Deeds it would be twenty dollars…

Progressing from the hostile stage of culture shock, one becomes more compassionate and understanding of the culture. Instead of criticizing others, humor is used as a coping mechanism which Captain and I use often. Some days we are open to the ways of the land and find humor in it all. Safety first!!

But both of us are wavering between the angry and compassionate stages. Learning more about the exploitation of Ecuador’s people, I understand their opportunistic culture is a means of survival. But most of the time I am still angry with a society in which it is acceptable to lie, steal and take advantage of others.

At first I thought Captain was kidding. Mr. Deeds still had a smile on his face so apparently he took it as a joke as well. But Captain was serious. “I’m tired of people overcharging us for everything!” Mr. Deeds sunk in his shoes and said he didn’t have any money right now so he’d pay us at the first of the month when we paid rent.

A part of me felt bad taking money from this poor man. But whether it’s a good thing or not, I’ve had to harden my heart here in Ecuador. If I hadn’t, I would have taken in over a hundred strays or fallen prey to many persons I have crossed paths with. From overcharging unsuspecting buyers to asking tourists for money, these are means of survival. I know this isn’t just Ecuador; this happens in the United States as well. All around the world I am sure. But in these parts of Ecuador, this is the way of life for most.

My means of survival has been discernment. With a negative attitude toward society at large and immersed in a place where people thrive at the expense of others, I find it hard to trust anyone. I know with time, true friendships will develop. But in a time when I already have so much doubt in myself and my life choices, allowing such relationships is difficult. With no trust in myself, how can I trust in others? I am learning the importance of this self-trust and being challenged to discover the truths that lie within. When I do not trust in myself along the way, it is easy to be led astray…

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