Bloques, impossible tile choices, and Don Emilio – The building begins!

Every trip to Nicaragua begins with the first mission: get out of Managua as quickly as possible. However, we were starving. This sandwich full of interesting ingredients wasn’t too appetizing, but it wouldn’t be right if we didn’t make our usual stop at Domino’s before heading off to the beach.

On his first trip to Nicaragua, our friend Petrucelli remarked, “this Domino’s is better than the one in the States!” He might be right. We always order a large pizza and one liter of grape soda, eat half the pizza and all the soda, and take the second half for a snack on the drive.

Ryan hates getting hounded by the window washing kids but at least we had a pocketful of change to share with them.

The one way to guarantee not getting pulled over by the police is to pick up a hitchhiking cop, throw him in the back of the truck, and parade through town with no worries of getting stopped at a checkpoint!

Then, at last, the reward for all the hassle, a cold beer in the mellow afternoon light… aaahhhh!

Of course we were stoked to see our lot again. In the month following our last trip the rainy season had begun and everything was wonderfully green. We were happy to see the lime tree planted a year ago, already head high and green, bushy, and healthy!

Last time the well workers had just struck water so we were interested to see the well in action for the first time. I ran over and started pumping and a solid stream of water began pouring out. It was clear and cool as it pooled into my cupped hands. I licked it to see if it was salty and spit out the rest. It tasted good and clean! The next day I went back, filled up my cupped hands and gulped a few mouthfuls. It tasted great!

Next we walked around the lot to check out our plants. A mystery watermelon plant had sprouted out of nowhere.

The almendra or almond tree we planted last time looked happy. They grow fast, not needing much water.

This is a young avocado tree, one of many we have planted on the lot.

We can’t remember what this plant is, but it seemed to be healthy, so hopefully it’s something good.

Our neighbor’s fence was definitely growing. I used to think that fence posts grew accidentally. I didn’t realize that the growth provided a function other than just shade. We learned on our last trip that only certain types of fence posts are used. You actually really want the type that will grow when planted as they will then send down roots and make the fence much sturdier. If your fence posts don’t take root “no pegan” they will eventually dry out and fall down. For that reason, we used tiguilote fence posts that are the growing type.

So we were really happy to see ours starting to sprout as well.

On our last trip, we marked out where we wanted the house. We decided that we would start by building the caretaker’s house, a small 400 sq ft one bedroom “studio” with a kitchen, bathroom, and a porch. We figured that there would be a lot to learn during the process that would help when building the bigger house later on, and it would be nice to have a place where we could leave surfboards and stay when we came to visit.

Before we left on the last trip, Ryan had sketched some initial plans, we had our contractor, Don Emilio, write up an estimate and we agreed to wire down the money and more formal, computer generated plans so that they could get started and would already be in construction by the time we arrived on this trip. Ryan designed and drew up the plans and we wired the money ($13,000) to our lawyer. Then we got a call from Don Emilio saying that prices for materials had gone up substantially and he wouldn’t be able to honor the estimate. Rather than asking for more money, he preferred to wait until we returned, suggesting we could go shopping together so we could see the prices. We trusted him, but agreed it would be good to wait, that way we could have more input in choosing which materials to use.

I love horses! I was happy to see that Shay’s initial 3 had turned into 5, including two young ones. They were skittish, but this little cutie let me pet his nose.


The view of the surf from the lower corner of our lot with a cow in the foreground.

The hotel had just setup wireless internet which was incredibly helpful in getting my work for my MBA program done on time! It was slow, but definitely better than nothing.

Ryan usually shapes all his own boards. We call them “funk” boards, but in a nice way. I often think that his boards hold him back though, and bought him 3 new Rustys for “real” waves. It was a little strange to see him riding a board with a logo, but I definitely saw a difference in his surfing.



I was trying out a Rusty model Aviso Surfboard. It is made of carbon fiber and hollow in the center. These aren’t the best photos, but trust me, it was really fast and responsive!


The Aviso boards are supposed to be nearly unbreakable. Every other time I have been to Nicaragua I have broken a board. The beachbreak can be heavy and I like pulling into closeout tubes. I was eager to test the Aviso’s strength. So far so good! No dings, no breaks. I also got lots of interest from the local kids whose quivers are the result of traveling surfers breaking boards. They were very impressed with the idea of an “unbreakable” surfboard.

Shay has started teaching some of the local kids to surf.
This is one of the newest recruits, Isaac, listening to an ipod for the first time,

and riding a board that has never been broken in half. Most of the boards these guys get are from broken boards left behind. They find a way to piece them back together. Some of them have been broken 2 or 3 times!

As news that we were about to start building spread through town we started getting solicitors offering their services as caretakers. We weren’t sure we’d need a caretaker right away since our lot is close enough to the hotel to be easily visible, but we had recommendations that it was a good thing to have someone watching over it at night. Plus we needed someone to keep the weeds low and take care of our trees anyways.

This character, Cesar Chavez, showed up repeatedly to make conversation and make sure we knew he was interested in the job. It started friendly enough and I kinda liked him, but soon it got to be a bit too much. He said he was a chef and there was no work for him anywhere nearby. He said he didn’t drink or smoke, was very reliable, had a young wife who was pregnant with their first child, and that if we chose him he could make us delicious dinners. He even offered to cook for us one night as an audition. Ryan didn’t like how pushy he was and we had decided against using him even before he showed up with traced “drawings” of ponies that his wife had made along with a letter telling us how much he really wanted a television and then asking us to be the godparents of his firstborn! It was all a little too much! He was definitely the most aggressive but he wouldn’t be the last to ask for the job.

After one day of just surfing and relaxing, it was time to get down to business. We went to town to visit our lawyer and pay our property taxes.

This is our lawyer, Aldo, going to pay the taxes. When you register your title after buying your property you get to claim what you paid. If you claim you paid lower, your taxes are lower, but in case the government ever decided to take your land away and pay you back whatever you paid, you only get the amount you claimed. We said we paid only slightly less than we actually did (i don’t remember what that claimed amount was). This year we owed $50 in property taxes on this lot. We picked Aldo up, drove him to the place we needed to pay, waited in the car while he paid, made a copy of the receipt and that was it.


Aldo, getting copies.


Ryan with $13,000 US in the local currency.

Then there was the little business of picking up the money. The estimate for all the materials for our 400sq ft house, the septic system, and the labor came to $13,000, so we had wired that amount to our lawyer since our contractor doesn’t have a bank account. We had Aldo pull out the money and he handed over a neat pile of 130 crisp US $100 bills. Our contractor Don Emilio said we would get better prices if we paid in the local Cordobas and suggested we first change as much as possible. Aldo called his brother in law, Michael the money changer, who he claimed always gave him the family rate. A few minutes later Michael showed up with a fanny pack full of local colorful cash. He didn’t have nearly enough on him, and had to run back and forth a few times collecting it all. Unfortunately, he was never able to come up with enough big bills and we ended up with a huge stack of local money. Aldo wrapped it up in a newspaper for us and we walked out with Ryan trying to pretend it was his lunch!

In Nicaragua there is no Home Depot. Ryan likes saying that it’s as if a Home Depot store were blown up and spread across an entire city with each department separated by multiple blocks of crazy one-way streets filled with fast-driving, loud-honking taxis, horse-drawn carts, boys on bicycles, women with trays of fresh cut watermelon balanced on their heads, street vendors, shoe shines, and giggling school girls in uniform smiling at the perplexed gringos wishing they weren’t rolling with so much cash.

At the bloqueria, where they sell bloques (of course!), Don Emilio suggested we stay in the car as the price would have instantly gone up if they saw gringos.


We hung out at the lumber store for a while.

Then we cruised to the tile store. There wasn’t a whole lot of selection. We knew we wanted a red tile floor and picked that out immediately. Then we looked for bathroom tile. Ryan and I both liked the blue, and picked out this combination, the little squares for the floor and the other with the pattern for the walls. Of course, they didn’t have it in stock.

They did, however, have the same thing in pinkish tan. We never would have picked it, but it did match a bit better with the floor tile, so we paid cash and carefully loaded the truck with the heavy boxes of tile. That store also had toilets, but Don Emilio insisted they were cheaper somewhere else. That would be a reoccurring theme of our shopping adventures with Don Emilio. We might be in a store that had a few things we needed but he would insist on only getting one item, assuring us the rest were cheaper elsewhere. He just didn’t understand that time (not to mention gas and hassle) are worth money and it might be better just to pay a few more pennies at one store than driving all over town.


“Trapo” wasn’t sure why we found the paint choices so funny and was really encouraging us to choose the bright orange color!

We went to the paint store. Ryan is holding up the color choices. Home Depot probably would have had about 300 different shades of white to choose from. Our choice was quite a bit easier. Once we eliminated all the colors we didn’t like (purple, red, yellow, etc.), the only thing we were left with was white. Bone white, inside and out. Simple and clean.

We were just starting to get to know Don Emilio at this point. We already knew he was the pastor of the church and Shay had told us that he couldn’t read or write. I had asked a member of his congregation how he could possibly be the pastor if he couldn’t read the Bible. That’s easy, he said, “divine inspiration!” Of course, why didn’t I think of that? Regardless of whether or not I believed he had a direct line to God, I was starting to really like Don Emilio and beginning to trust him completely. He was definitely charismatic and had a constant smile and infectious loud uninhibited laugh (which was very often directed at the two silly gringos).


Ryan, choosing from among the sink options.


A very smiley Don Emilio and Ryan with paint, sink, and toilet in the back of the truck. I was happy to see that the toilet was proudly Made in Nicaragua!


We checked this construction supply warehouse for roofing prices. They were more expensive than another store on the other side of town but I couldn’t help notice the pre-fabricated outhouse for sale and snapped a photo of an item you definitely can’t buy at Home Depot.


This is the glass store where we bought glass for the windows.

I really liked the perfectly lit cat display and took a photo. The owner of the shop noticed my interest and asked if I liked cats. I told him I did and he then asked if I wanted a kitten. I said that I would eventually but couldn’t have one right now. That didn’t deter him from bringing me a rascally kitten to hold. It was really smelly, loudly mewing, and not happy about being held. It scratched both me and Ryan immediately and we could see instantly why the guy was trying to get rid of it. “Nice try, but no thanks!”

Back on our lot, they had started marking out the perimeter of the casita.


The delivery truck showed up with the first load of supplies.





We were pretty stoked to finally get it started!


They used the roofing material to construct a temporary shade both to provide relief to the workers and to shelter the rest of the materials from rain.


The guys started digging the big hole that would become the septic system.


This will be the frame of the septic tank. They make it up top and then will drop it into the hole when the hole is ready.

One of the workers on our lot, Ruben, the son in law of Don Emilio, also offered to be our caretaker. He said he knew of another beachfront property for sale that already had a house on it. We weren’t really interested but decided to go for a ride with him to check it out as a way of getting to know him a little better. He took us to a beach a few minutes up the road and showed us a very sandy lot with a house on it.

This is the inside of the house. Definitely a fixer-upper!

They offered us some fresh coconut milk as a refreshment.

The caretaker of this lot is actually Ruben’s father. Immediately upon meeting us he asked if we had any kids. I told him, “not yet”, and he launched into a lecture about how we had to get off the pill and stop using condoms immediately. He couldn’t accept the fact that we didn’t have any kids and wouldn’t stop hassling us about it. I tried to turn the attention back on him and asked him how many he had. He proudly replied, “15!” He only had about 3 visible teeth in his mouth and Ryan was nudging me, whispering, “more kids than teeth, more kids than teeth!”

Ryan and I both really like a common tree called malinche that grows tall and is covered in vibrant orangish-red flowers when in bloom. We wanted to plant a few on our lot. On our last trip we pulled a pod out of the tree and started a few seeds germinating. All but two of the seeds sprouted and when we returned we had 4 nearly 6″ tall seedlings. We planted them on the lot. On this lot we were checking out there was a mature malinche and below it there were dozens of seedlings sprouted. Ryan showed some interest, and Ruben’s father pulled them out and handed them to him in a bouquet to take back to our lot and plant.


a transplanted Malinche


A malinche in bloom.

Every afternoon after surfing, we went to our lot to hang out and watch the progress.


As the hole for the septic tank gets deeper you can see the volcanic richness in the soil.

Here you can see the holes for the footings and foundation.


All the construction was done with minimum tools. No power at all. Each metal piece was meticulously bent by hand and then assembled.


These are the “heavies” of the construction industry in this area. They were all happy to have some work. We were surprised by the cost of labor. About ten guys working for about two months, including the contractor, cost $3,000. Labor is cheap! The whole thing is going to cost about $30 per sq. ft..

Instead of carrying buckets of water back and forth to use in making the cement, they used the pipes that will be used eventually for the septic system, and rigged a pipeline from the well.

The two young horses showed up thirsty, looking for water. Ryan filled a bucket for them.

Once the foundation was laid, the walls went up incredibly quickly!

We were supposed to go home, but still needed to buy a few more things in town and wanted to watch as much progress as possible. This is me calling to extend our ticket to stay a few more days.


The view of the surf from the front door.


Me, standing on what will be the patio.

By the last couple days of the trip, we still hadn’t decided on who we would use as a caretaker. Cesar was out, and it was just a decision between Ruben and Osmar. Ruben is Don Emilio’s son in law, a church-goer, with a wife and one 4 year old son. He was nice, seemed intelligent, easy to understand, and had an important role in building the casita. He has a job in construction but his wife doesn’t work, meaning she would spend all her time working for us. We liked him a lot.

But, we also like Osmar. We had been paying Osmar already to take care of our trees. We’ve known him longer. He is married to one of Shay’s first employees, the head chef at the restaurant. They have 3 kids, two daughters aged 8 and 10, and a son, “Panchito” age 4. They also both have jobs meaning neither one of them will be at the casita during the day, and the big family was a turn-off as they would all be living in the small casita.

Based on the smaller family and the fact that Ruben’s wife didn’t work, we chose him. Then, we would talk to Osmar and realize how much we liked him, and choose him. It went back and forth for days up until the very last day when we had to make a final decision. Ryan called Shay to ask his opinion and he seemed to lean towards choosing Osmar. So…… that’s what we did.


Osmar and his wife, Ruth. Our new caretakers!

This entry was posted in Surf Life Nicaragua. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Bloques, impossible tile choices, and Don Emilio – The building begins!

  1. GR says:

    Thanks for the info Beck. You place looks sweet…..

  2. Palma says:

    HI Becky,We own property just up the beach. We live in Nor. Cal and will be moving down this winter. Your info is so helpful. Hope to meet you when we get there. Pamela

  3. Pingback: Don Emilio Taxi « The biggest Taxi Database

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