Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Roof Over Our Heads

This is our roof, and I'm not saying it isn't a nice one.

Panoramic Pacific views as far as the eye can see, and plenty of space for enjoying them with as much or as little company as you might want.

But the flatness that makes it such a swell place for taking in the natural beauty on all sides is also where serious trouble begins during every rainy season, starting in earnest in July and lasting well into October.

The monsoon falls in buckets, and when the plummeting water stops on our roof, gravity isn't quite done with it. Most of it heads straight for the drain and eventually for the ocean just down the hill. But not all.

Quite a bit of the water that doesn't reach the drain dives merrily through chips and cracks into an invisible labyrinth of plaster and concrete capillaries that bring it eventually to our ceiling directly underneath.

There are times when anybody who has made the decision to live in a tropical paradise, especially one in which building codes are written in a foreign language, needs to understand that one has consented by implication to certain terms and conditions.

Among them is that certain sections of the plaster and paint overhead will bubble and peel every year. We understood this going in, and we've been good sports. We have mastered the shrug, the knowing eye roll, the philosophical "Well, what do you expect, it's the tropics?"

But we cultivated this easygoing state of mind in the years when we weren't actually living here during the rainy season. We only saw the aftermath when we arrived for our high season vacations, and a half day of painting and plastering was all it took to make it disappear. Sometimes it was actually done before our plane landed.

To ease whatever residual pain we still might have felt, the cost of these annual restorations is shared with our half dozen fellow condo owners. The damage, after all, arises (or descends) from our common roof, even though only the two condos on the top floor are directly affected.

We also pay only our pro rata share of our owner association's annual attempts to prevent future leaks by trying to identify the flaws in the roof and patching them. To date a cavalcade of roofers has only succeeded in moving the problem a little bit this way or that. Every year, gravity is the winner and still champion.

Now though, we know we have to up our game. Because we wanted to get Elizabeth into La Casa Azul closer to the start of the 2013 school year, we came south at the end of September, when it was still raining almost every day.

When we opened the front door we found our sofa draped in plastic and pushed toward the center of the room. Against the wall where it usually stands, water glistened on the floor. Overhead, the ceiling and wall were their usual monsoon shambles, though much worse. Drops fell steadily into the puddles below, apparently from a squall earlier in the day.

Throughout October we deployed the plastic dozens of times. We stopped thinking of the living room as a part of the house, more like a high maintenance patio.

There are all kinds of roofs, tiled, timbered or shingled, flat or pitched, tent, igloo or wickiup, but they're all expected to meet a first minimum condition, which is that they keep inclement weather off your head. Anything that can't do that isn't a roof.

What now? Our track record with local roofers isn't encouraging. Many piecemeal efforts to stop the seepage have failed. Also, a few years after our building went up in the late 1990s, the original owners' group resurfaced the whole roof, installing a "membrane" of roofing felt under the tile. There are supposed to be several layers of felt, impregnated with tar. Done properly, this should waterproof even a flat roof.

Was the one on our building done improperly? Did tropical summer heat under the tile create bubbles between felt layers or breaches at the edges or seams? Did the roofers skimp on materials or damage the membrane as they replaced the tile surface? Could one of our periodic earth tremors have weakened or overstretched it?

Clearly the physics of failure require further study, and we don't have a lot of time. Our annual association meeting is in January. Our building manager says the advice he's getting from our most recent roofer is that nothing short of sealing the entire roof will do. Even though the self-serving prescription comes from a guy who would like to be given that big job, it's hard to argue he's wrong.

But if the expense seems too great or the work isn't backed by a reliable warranty, a majority of owners may not feel like making what would look to them like a risky bet. That will leave us in the market for another of the annual patchwork solutions that could stop the drips at lower cost but so far haven't.

Doing nothing is not an option. As we know from Pam's years in real estate and mine as president of a three-building 1,400-unit cooperative apartment complex, and as all our fellow owners here have acknowledged through years of determined efforts to solve this problem, it's a settled principle of collective ownership that if one owner has a leaky roof, everybody does until it's fixed.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Quick Turnaround

I just made my first trip to the U.S. using my brand new and hard earned "residente temporal" card.

It's easy to forget when you come to Mexico as a tourist as we've always done that one of the little pieces of paper they give you on the airplane coming down is actually a visa application. Once stamped, it proves you're in the country legally, but only for so long.

The tourist visa limit is six months. If you stay longer, you're an illegal alien. Six months is plenty of time for a vacation visit, but pretty soon it won't be long enough for us. Elizabeth goes to a pre-school with an academic year of nine months-plus, and the older she gets the more it matters.

The next step for us under recently restructured visa rules here is "residente temporal" status, which gives us a full year. After several years of renewal, we'll be eligible for "residente permanente" cards.

The application process for your first temporal card is long and sometimes frustrating. The Trail of Tears begins at any Mexican consulate in your home country. The new visa rules don't seem to be well understood yet, so it took us a while to find a consulate that knew them.

In El Paso, we were told we would need proof of income for assurance we would not become a burden on the Mexican government, and a good character reference from our local law enforcement agency in the U.S.

The local cops in Ruidoso said the best we could do on the latter requirement would be a criminal records check, but we'd have to write the New Mexico state police to get one. It took a couple of weeks, but the documents arrived.

We decided to take our completed applications to the consulate in Albuquerque since we were going there anyway. When we got there we heard a different story. There was zero interest in our empty rap sheets. And we learned that my most recent pension statement would not do for proof of income. They needed the last six months of bank statements reflecting that income.

Most troubling, however, was that we were told Elizabeth would not be eligible for any visa beyond tourist because her last name is different from ours. We showed the court order that made us her parents and the birth certificate naming us as mother and father. Sorry, the young vice consul told us. In Mexico it is "not normal" for parents and children to have different "appellidos".

We were pretty sure this was nonsense made up on the spot, but it was looking like we'd need a Mexican immigration lawyer to get the job done. Then on the drive south, Pam had the good idea we should try once more at the border consulate in Nogales AZ, where they might actually know what they were doing.

It cost us a half day, but we left Nogales with my passport endorsed for provisional residente temporal status. I had 30 days to complete my application at an immigration office in Puerto Vallarta. Pam and Elizabeth were told they would have to wait. Our proof of income applied only to me. They got tourist visas. But the vice consul told us Elizabeth's last name won't be a problem, as we suspected.

At the office in Vallarta I got an application form and instructions to register on a government website. I was also told I should go to any bank to pay the U.S.$300 fee and obtain an official receipt. Finally, I needed front and right profile photos in the very small or "infantil" size.

Notwithstanding my protests, the Walmart photo lady was sure right profile meant facing right, not right side of face. That was wrong and cost me an extra trip. But in the end after about two weeks I got my card.

Our visa quest is not over though. Now that I have mine, Pam and Elizabeth are eligible to apply for theirs as family members. To certify themselves as family, Pam needs our marriage license and Elizabeth needs a birth certificate, neither as simple as it sounds.

We don't have our marriage license here. I've had to write the Bexar County TX clerk's office for it. Then both documents will need to be apostilled, a special form of government-issued notarization recognized by treaty in other countries. Getting that by remote control from here will cost about U.S.$200 per document.

Not quite done. Once in our hands, each document must be copied in Spanish by a government-approved translator. Then and only then will we be ready to apply for the cards with fees, photos, fingerprints etc.

But I've got mine, and it arrived just in time for my very quick trip to New York last week for my scheduled follow-up MRI, front and side views of the "benign schwannoma" that scared us so badly last June.

Good news on that front. The tumor is still behaving like the non-toxic slacker the doctors had pegged it for. I don't have to go back for 18 months as long as it continues not to bother me. Maybe I should have mentioned this sooner. A newsroom editor might say I "buried the lede."

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Now You See It, Now You Don't

I've never seen anybody work harder or faster in my life than the guys who have shown up twice now in our neighborhood to demolish old buildings where the property owners suddenly had new ideas about what should be occupying the space.

The first time was right next door, and we could watch them through our bedroom window. Now a bigger structure is being taken down directly between us and the ocean, so we track their progress from almost every room in the house without getting up from our seats.

In both cases the workers have done virtually the whole job with hand tools, nothing else but muscle and bone against thick pads and pillars of steel-reinforced concrete and walls of brick.

The work begins on the roof. They chisel the mortar away on the balustrades and dismantle them row by row, chipping the used bricks clean, stacking them and manhandling them to street level to be hauled away for reuse somewhere else.

Then they start swinging heavy sledges down on the concrete roof. Not much seems to happen with the first thumping blows. But then the chunks and dust begin to fly. You go away to run some errands and when you come back there's a yawning rectangle of exposed rebar with the floor underneath visible through the rusty steel grid.

Hour by hour, the hammers keep swinging and the chips keep flying. Soon the men are balancing on the concrete beams, the only place left to stand while they deliver the last licks before there's nothing left but the rebar to cut away.

You can see that other workers have already pulled down and carried away the walls on the floor below, where the sledges will be swinging again the next day.

It is incredibly brutal work, the kind that makes you stronger when you're young but starts wearing you down when you hit middle age, as many of the laborers on these jobs have done. They start early in the morning, and they keep going until it gets dark. Then sometimes they drape an extension cord and a naked light bulb over a beam and go on for several more hours.

But as crude and mindless as the work appears, there's a striking delicacy about it. No wrecking ball. No explosives. Just sledgehammers, chisels, shovels and wheelbarrows. Now and then a small jackhammer to loosen the concrete on the thickest pillars and beams. It's as if the building is being nibbled away in tiny bites.

Anybody who imagines that Mexico is the country of the three-hour siesta where everybody sings "MaƱana" ought to come have a look.

One day as I stood at the bedroom window marveling at the discipline and stamina of the crew at work on the building next door I had the idea of going out to buy a case of cold Coronas and delivering them to the foreman at quitting time.

When I mentioned this to Pam her jaw dropped. Had I forgotten, she wondered aloud, that this work was a prelude to new construction that would soon close forever the window through which I was observing it?

Well, yes, for a little while I had forgotten all about that.