Anyone you talk to in Baja with a roof over their head has a story or two to go with the roof. Jack Smith of Los Angeles Times, joyfully chronicled his home building adventures in his book, God and Mr. Gomez, Ben Hunter did the same in his book, The Baja Feeling. These gentlemen started their homes from scratch, using actual house plans and the foreknowledge of what they would end up with (more or less) at the end of construction.
Another method of home building is the “add-on” method. This entails buying an old trailer, finding the perfect lot for it, and going from there, which usually means adding a room to the front, a bathroom to the back, building a cistern on a hill behind the trailer for gravity feed water and praying it doesn’t leak, building a septic tank down the hill below the trailer and praying the lines don’t clog, (Important note here – whenever possible in Baja, do not put the paper in the toilet), oh yes, and to really finish the job, have a blow-out of a party.
My husband, Dick and I took the most common method to home building in Baja, which is to say the tried and true “add-on” method.
When I married Dick I became a proud partner in one of the most mystical possessions – A Place in Mexico. I hadn’t really spent any time there before we said “I Do”, but shortly after our vows I found out what “The Place” was all about.
My first overnighter at La Bufadora occurred in early March. I watched as Dick packed the pick-up with supplies. Two five-gallon jugs of water were the first items in the truck.
“Why do we need so much water?” I asked.
“There’s no water” he replied as he added the kerosene lanterns to the pile of things to go.
“And the lanterns?”
He shook his head mournfully, obviously I wasn’t the L.L.Bean girl of his dreams, and I suddenly realized this wasn’t going to be like staying at the Hilton, the Holiday Inn, or even like my grandpa’s trailer in a stateside retirement park.
We arrived at La Bufadora shortly before sunset. The recent winter storms had brought the fleeting spring greenery to La Bufadora. Natural vegetation of maguey, cactus and tall grasses glowed in the late afternoon sun from vermilion to forest green. Unfortunately, the same winter rains which had nourished the earth had also caused the dirt road which wound up the hill to our lot to become so rutted that we had to park at the bottom of the hill and hike up, carrying our provisions. It was then that I found out that the pretty grasses I had admired waving in the breeze were really foxtails.
Finally, the moment I had been waiting for, my first view of my place in Mexico. The door was stubborn and wouldn’t give to all of Dick’s tugging, so he climbed in through the back window and pushed from the inside. With an ear-piercing screech, the door gave way, along with the doorjamb and half the molding. Dick came out and brushed himself off.
“You know, no one’s been here in a long time” he said as he put a restraining hand on my arm, “It needs a little cleaning up.”
“Oh, a little elbow grease never hurt anybody” I grinned enthusiastically and started inside
I froze in shock. I thought the trailer looked tiny from the outside, the inside was claustrophobic, and probably had the single largest mouse population on Earth, based on what evidence they had left behind. There wasn’t a clean horizontal surface to be seen I couldn’t even tell what color the small camp stove was, and droppings crackled under my feet like so many Rice Krispies.
I retreated back outside. “You didn’t tell me to bring gloves and a face mask.” I cracked.
“It’ll be fine, just wait and see.”
Well I did want see, but we had no time to wait, the sun was quickly dropping into the bay, and I didn’t want to clean in the dark. Dick began to drag everything out onto the dirt in front of the trailer. I beat on mattresses and cushions, shook out clothing and bedding, and filled three trash bags full of mouse nibbled items, reminders that we were terribly outnumbered by rodents.
Dick took out drawers filled with nests, pots and pans filled with nests, jackets with pockets that had become nests, old books that had been hollowed out and made into nests – after all it was springtime, a time for new life. By sunset we had cleaned and inspected every nook and cranny, the bed was back in place with fresh sheets, blankets and pillows. The dishes were washed and the kerosene lantern lit inside, giving off a homey glow from the tiny window over the bed. We decided to wait until the next morning to deal with the bird nest in the broken skylight over the stove.
We sat down in our lawn chairs by the fire ring we had constructed of nearby rocks, popped a cold Pacifico and watched the sun make its final descent into the blue gray waters of Bahia Papalote, and then I saw it – the Green Flash, and knew I was home.
The pioneer woman from somewhere deep within me emerged and I began planning my battle against the mice as I lay in the trailer bunk that night. I was further motivated to win the battle when one of the furry critters ran across my foot and scurried behind a nearby cupboard.
The next morning I discovered another joy of dry camping in a trailer without water – no bathroom facilities. Dick handed me a folding shovel and a roll of toilet paper, and I experienced the meaning of the phrase “morning constitutional.” Since we had no neighbors, and the hillside was covered with lush vegetation, I had no trouble picking out my own special spot. Just another challenge for the pioneer woman.
After a year of toting all of our water to camp, we had a cistern built on the hill behind the trailer to provide the gravity fed water to our site. We used this water to wash dishes and ourselves. At the same time we had a septic tank built on the hill below our trailer, sort of the gravity feed idea in reverse – we all know what flows down hill. Of course our little twelve foot trailer had no room for a bathroom, much less a flushing toilet, so our little septic tank remained unused for a couple of years. Our morning constitutionals had to stop when we acquired a neighbor on the hill behind us with powerful binoculars and a penchant to watch everything in camp. We fashioned an outhouse behind the trailer with an old freestanding closet, part of a tarp and a chemical toilet, which sufficed for emergencies.
While on a fishing trip with a friend, my husband decided he’d had enough of fighting the weeds in front of the trailer and trying to balance a lawn chair between the proverbial rock and a hard place. He had a 30′ X 17′ slab built right off the front door. We had the smallest trailer with the largest patio in all of La Bufadora.
Of course with such a large patio we began the search for a trailer to fit it, and we found it, abandoned in Boulevard, a tiny community nestled in the foothills of the Laguna Mountains, about sixty miles east of San Diego. The original asking price had been way out of our price range, but through a quirk of fate, and the final bit of the owner’s patience, he had cut the price in half and with perseverance and the last bit of our savings we could just afford it.
We drove out after work one evening, arriving well after dark to a lonely country lane. After a measured two miles, in accordance with the directions given to us by the seller, there it stood in white and faded green glory, our next home in Baja.
We pulled up in front and left on the car headlights so we could see our way into the trailer. There was no lock on the small sliding glass door, which opened to the petite living room. Without furnishings it seemed like a palace compared to what we were currently living in at La Bufadora. It had all the comforts of home, in smaller dimensions. The lighting was 12 volt, though there was no battery at that time to check out the system, and the stove, water heater and refrigerator were gas, a definite plus since La Bufadora did not have electricity. I fell in love with my dollhouse that evening and started decorating in my mind’s eye after ten minutes.
In cold light of day the next morning, Dick began to have doubts.
“Do you really think it’s a good deal?” he muttered, more to himself than to me over coffee.
“Dick, it has a bathtub!” I exclaimed, as if this were the only thing worth considering in purchasing a home.
We decided that saner heads than ours were necessary in finalizing our decision. We asked my parents to take a look at it, that evening.
Now by selecting my parents to help make the decision about investing more time, money and roots in Baja, we were really choosing the only two people we knew who would firmly play Devil’s advocate. There are people who love Baja, and there are people who don’t. My parents fall into the latter category, and since we had doubts about spending so much at this point in our lives they seemed the safe choice.
It rained most of the day, and I feared the trip out to “my” trailer would be postponed. Dick and I had agreed that if my folks didn’t feel it was a good buy, we wouldn’t do it, and I didn’t want to postpone what I thought would be their evident rejection. But as my parents arrived at our home in San Diego we were treated to a glorious rainbow sherbet sunset and we headed east.
As we turned onto the frontage road the last rays of light extinguished in the western skies. This evening, we had come prepared with an extra car battery to hook-up the trailer’s electrical system. After hooking it up, it was a great pleasure to find all the lights to be working.
“Oh it’s cute” cooed my mother “Oh look – a bathtub!”
What can I say? The women in our family have priorities.
We bought the trailer.
Getting the trailer to La Bufadora was our next challenge. It took a few phone calls but Dick’s mother found a friend with a fifth-wheel hitch and the inclination to tow a trailer along the hundred winding miles of Mexican highway between Tecate and La Bufadora. The two weeks were spent in a flurry of activity as we lined insurance and supplies for the big move. We made arrangements by telephone with our landlord to have the `mouse-house’ removed from our lot, with the hope that his English was significantly better than my Spanish as we made the transaction.
When the day arrived, we kissed goodbye and Dick headed east with Mel Doerr to pick up the trailer in Boulevard and cross at Tecate. While I headed south to see that the lot was ready for our new home. When I arrived at La Bufadora I found all was in order for the new trailer. Our little trailer stood at a 45-degree angle on the hill behind our lot, which had been cleared of weeds and debris for the move. The ranch workers, whose regular Saturday ended at noon, were prepared to stay a couple of extra hours to help us level and set up our new home.
Noon came and went, as did 1:00, 2:00 and 3:00. The workers were long gone. I sat on a lawn chair on our patio, eyes glued to the road, which snaked down from Punta Banda to our little community. Finally I saw a familiar truck honking as it raced down the hill. It was Dick, sans that one important ingredient, the trailer!
A hundred scenarios ran through my head as I waited for him to come up to our lot. Had the federales seized our trailer? Had there been an accident… was our trailer lying at the bottom of some ravine between Tecate and Ensenada?
It was simpler than that; the trailer hitch hadn’t fit. Try as he might, Mel couldn’t get the trailer hitch to work on his fifth wheel rig. Another friend with a rig was called, and he drove the one hundred and twenty mile round trip out to Boulevard and back when they found that his hitch didn’t fit either. So Dick got back to San Diego shortly after noon and hurried down to tell me the news. Mel was left in San Diego to ponder the adapter situation.
Our next dilemma was easily solved. We went to Señor Toscano and explained our temporary homeless our situation. He graciously offered us the use of the beachfront bungalow he used as an office. It came equipped with a hammock for two in front of the fireplace. The sound of the surf lulled us to sleep and we dreamed of trailer hitches.
By Wednesday the adapter had been located and Dick and Mel were on the road again by 5:00 am. They were in Boulevard by 6:30, and the attachment went on without a problem. However, as they pulled onto the highway the tires on the old trailer, which had been settled in the same spot for 7 years, gave way, no air, no spares, no repair kit. They managed to muscle the trailer to the side of the road not far from the only service station within twenty miles. However, the service station didn’t open until 8:00.
My husband, the impatient sort, was frustrated. Mel, the patient sort, shrugged his shoulders and pointed out there was a diner next door to the service station, and he was just about ready for breakfast anyway. The diner was small and cozy, everybody seemed to know everyone else, and the waitress called everyone “Hon” and asked their business in town as she took their orders. Mel explained their situation and she smiled and said “Harry” came in every morning at 7:30 for his wake-up Joe, and she’d be sure to point him in their direction when he came in. She was as good as her word. Just as Dick and Mel were finishing what came to be known as the best home fries in the world, Harry walked in, and the waitress had him sit with the guys.
Harry kindly got his coffee to go that morning, when he heard of the adventure the two men was undertaking.
“Now you make sure you tell them border people you’re going fishing in L.A. Bay, and that’s why you have such a big rig. Looks like you’ve got all the gear for it anyway.” He advised them as he pumped up the last tire. “You won’t have any problem getting across if you tell them that”
Having heard this same advice from several other old Baja hands, Dick felt confident the border crossing wouldn’t be a problem. He and Mel headed down the back road of old Highway 94, twisting through Campo, Descanso and Dog Patch until they reached the turn-off for Tecate. Another two miles and they were at the border.
On the U.S. side there weren’t even any border guards for southbound traffic so Dick thought it was easy going. He was impatient to get going as the lost hour due to the flat tires weighed heavily on his mind. However, on the Mexican side of the border they were stopped.
“Where you going?” Asked the guard.
“We’re going fishing in Bahia de Los Angeles.” Dick answered with a smile, Thinking now they’d just get waved through.
“May I see your tourist card?” Asked the border guard.
Momentarily Dick was stunned “Oh, we don’t have them can’t we get them here?”
The guard shook his head and pointed back to the border crossing station on the U.S. side of the border, “You can get them there” he stated. He had Mel park the trailer to one side as traffic at the two-lane border crossing was backing up, and Dick walked back to the U.S. side.
In the neo-Spanish style office at the border the man behind the desk shook his head, “You get the tourist cards at the Mexican consulate in San Diego, or at the Tourist Office in Tijuana” he advised.
Now this was getting complicated. Dick had to do some quick thinking as he walked back to the trailer. He knew all the stories of duties and taxes that had to be paid on trailers, usually measured by the footage of the trailer. He had received estimates from one of our expert friends, most likely the same one who first suggested that he use the fishing story to get across, that duty on a 32 foot fifth wheel could cost as much as the trailer itself, and that was money we just didn’t have.
“Amigo,” he started “They do not have the papers we need in that office.” he pointed back to the U.S. side “However, in the past, I have always just paid for my papers at the border.”
“Cuanto?” asked the guard. As the guard neatly folded the twenty-dollar bill into his front pocket Mel and Dick drove south.
Mel laughed most of the way to Ensenada, in all of his 60 plus years he had never been an international smuggler and he had never paid off a public official, he could hardly wait to tell the folks at church.
The rest of the trip went smoothly, no more flats, no encounters with Mexican officials, and the ranch workers were ready and able to help with the trailer set-up.
Dick got home shortly after dark and said the septic and water would be hooked up by the time we went down the following weekend.
As the evolutionary process of home building goes in Mexico, so went the evolution of our home on the hill. With the acquisition of a larger trailer, came the acquisition of more possessions for maintenance, and a small storage shed project turned into the building of a 17′ X 30′ cabana to the front of the trailer, to allow more living room space, which led to the building of two walled patios, which led to the building of a retaining wall and block wall fence around our property, which led to the major landscaping project, and the final project of building a horseshoe pit which became the focal point of our entertaining which left the living room/cabana virtually empty on any given day. Oh yes, we did complete the cycle of home building in Mexico by having a blow-out fiesta with barbecued goat, piñatas and mariachi for the construction workers and their families.
Our little trailer on the hill was like any home; it had its temperamental quirks. The water heater had to be lit every time we wanted hot water. It saved on gas, but quick morning showers had to be delayed for a half-hour while things heated up. The refrigerator had a freezer, but things froze better on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator in the vegetable bin, and the sliding glass doors we installed in the cabana wouldn’t lock. We never did have a problem with thievery. And the bathtub? It leaked and never held a tub full of water.
We were happy with our little home for the next six years. Then our plumbing went bad, in a big way. The trailer toilet, which had been hooked up to our septic tank, decided it had enough. Dick returned to La Bufadora late on a Saturday night to a flooded trailer. The black water from the toilet had backed up saturating the floors of the trailer, seeping under the tile and the carpet. A decision was made and we said farewell to the trailer as it was dismantled, piece by piece, in an operation that took the better part of two weeks, as we had optimistically cemented it to a concrete block foundation. We were back in the building business.
The addition of two bedrooms and a bath in the area where the trailer had been, plus the addition of a kitchen in the cabana took five months, but the finished product was worth it. We were fortunate in that we had a real contractor to do the work and not just two pie-in-the-sky dreamers like ourselves. A solar electric system was put to work, and 110 wiring installed for the day when real electricity made it over the hill to La Bufadora. We have the dubious distinction of having the first doorbell at La Bufadora, and we’re wired for a telephone, though I hope the day never comes when we put it to use. We now have a cozy home to entertain guests, and actually have space for an overnight friend or two.
When our house was done, and we moved in, a neighbor came over and exclaimed “Oh how nice, now you have a real house.”
I looked around, smiled and said, “But we’ve always had a real home here.”