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Ship's Log: Updated May 2, 2009

A Bit of a Change in Plans

As we said at the end of the previous update, Tracy got a call that would change our lives, at least for the next twelve months. He left Panama on March 23rd to go work in the Middle East...and it all happened so fast, he had to do some mighty quick packing!

A little background: As work on Cerro Velero progressed, and the global economy continued to sag, it occurred to us that our cruising kitty could probably use some attention sometime in the next year or so, if we were to have any chance to continue cruising. We began batting around ideas for how to replenish it.

Coincidentally, in early February, Tracy got an email from friend Bill Huggins, a college and Army buddy stationed in Iraq. He had learned that the Army was going to need a bunch of guys to work with some new training equipment that he would be working with. The guys would be screened through and hired by Raytheon, a defense contractor. Tracy was ecstatic about having a possible opportunity to be back "with his guys" and contributing to the cause, while doing something he loves to do! So he immediately updated his resume and submitted it.

After going through the Raytheon application and interview process, Tracy was selected to join them. He will be managing and coordinating training on the MRAP family of vehicles being deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. You can read all about them here:

And while at first he was expected to be in the second wave of new hires going overseas, he ended up in the first wave, with three days' notice to get himself from Panama to Orlando, Florida, for the pre-hiring workups: physical, drug screen, dental exam and x-rays, testing, orientation, etc.

Then he was flown to Detroit for some training, then to Ft. Benning, Georgia, for additional training. Then on April 17th he was on a plane to Kuwait. Wow!

Then he got stuck in a 16-man tent in a Kuwait camp for a couple of weeks, waiting for space available on a plane, any plane! to Kandahar, Afghanistan. Kandahar, in southeast Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border, is where he will be based. It is also where things are getting really, really busy.

For regional map overviews, click here and here.

On the 30th of April, he was finally in his new quarters in Kandahar--a dorm-sized room divided into four more rooms by hanging blankets, with the bathroom down the hall. Tracy's space is about the size of his BOQ (bachelor officers quarters) room in Korea. And that was very, very small!

On his first day in Kandahar he went out to the training site to set up the training device.

And more important than that, at least to his friends and family, he also got his computer and Internet set up, so he is online with his own computer again! So he can email normally, and make free telephone calls on Skype.

But after being awake for more than 48 hours, he was whipped, and happy to be in a bed that he could call his own for a while. He promises to send pictures when able, for the next update.

What About The Roof? The House?!

Meanwhile, in mid-February, Sharon had planned a two-week visit to her family in Indio, California, scheduling it for the end of March, a full month before before Tracy was expected to leave Panama. With the new job a distinct possibility, and the house still in progress, and with two dogs, the bird, paperwork and surveys to complete buying the additional hectare next door (another story), and Landfall to keep an eye on, it was not likely that she would be able to leave Panama easily once Tracy left.

Well, wouldn't you know it. On the morning she was in Bocas at the airport buying her ticket to Panama City, Tracy called her on her cell phone. "Are you still at the airport?" he asked. "Are you sitting down?"

"Um...I'm just walking out of the airport, and somehow I don't think that I want to sit down..."

"You need to turn around and go buy me a ticket on your same flight. I have to leave Monday for Orlando..."

"But...but...but what about the house? I thought that before you left, we'd at least have a roof, siding, walls, a water collection system, windows and doors, a toilet upstairs, a power system, and a working kitchen. What the heck just happened??"

As she was (now sitting down on the curb and) asking that question, Capt. Ron walked by. We know him from Casa Verde, where he lived and where we park Cricket in Bocas. And he has recently started house-sitting at Dave and Kim's house in Darkland, so is now a neighbor whom we see at Rana Azul, our local pizza place... He is also developing some property on Solarte, and so is "sort of" in the construction business...

"Hey, Capt. Ron, I'm talking to Tracy and he has to leave in three days and our roof isn't done. Do you know anyone who could work on it?"


And then we were off!

A few days after we both left, Capt. Ron's subcontractor Russell's roofers came in and finished putting up the rafters, installed the gutters, and started nailing on the zinc. This is the scene Sharon came home to, two weeks later.

Still lots of daylight showing through, but it's coming along...

And the next week, they were done.

Unfortunately, they just did not do a very good job!

First of all, it's ugly! Lots of scratches, dents and dings in what was pristine zinc. Lots of screws misplaced and the holes filled with goop. Screws screwed down too hard, breaking the rubber collars and leaving dents in the metal everywhere. And metal shavings everywhere, already rusting on the white zinc.

Zinc caps screwed down so hard they buckled. But no caps up to the loft, so where is the water going to go when the wind blows??

And the gabled dormer roof we specified ended up being flat...

Not at all in keeping with the showcase quality of the rest of the house. And since there are still places where you can see daylight, it will leak when the windy storms of winter return.

But for now, it is better than no roof at all, and we have a plan for how it will be fixed: Garry is coming down to fix it! And the gutters work, so we will be catching water for the big tanks as soon as the pads to put them on are finished.

Vacation in Indio

So, while Tracy was being poked, prodded, measured and tested in Orlando, and the roofers were working at Cerro Velero, Sharon was enjoying visiting with her family in Indio!

Uncle Joe Burrows from Damariscotta, Maine, and friend Susan Gear from Moses Lake, Washington were also there, and brother Robert and wife Donna from San Diego came up for Dad's March 27th birthday weekend. Long time east coast family friend Jack Brennan, who spends the winter at his home in nearby Cathedral City, also came by for Dad's birthday party.

Jack also had a very special treat planned for Sharon and Susan: a chauffeured ride to an evening at the theater in Los Angeles!

Events from Jack's life as former President Nixon's military aide in the White House and then as Nixon's Chief of Staff in San Clemente, California, have been made into both the play and the movie, Frost/Nixon. (Jack is played by Kevin Bacon in the movie, which is directed by Ron Howard.) Ted Koch, the actor who plays Jack in the play, had asked Jack to come see the play during its run at the Ahmanson Theatre in LA.

While at first Jack had said "No, thanks," once he realized that Sharon and Susan would be there during the play's run, he relented and made special plans to go.

Cidny Jane was thrilled to have the opportunity to get Sharon all dressed up--she is always trying to get her to be a little more feminine, and this was just the occasion! CJ provided Sharon's clothes and jewelry, and fixed her hair and put on her makeup. All Sharon had to do was buy a new pair of shoes! A far cry from the jungle attire you usually find her in!

After the play we were invited backstage to meet the actors, including Stacy Keach, who plays Nixon. Everyone was gracious and we were warmly welcomed by the cast. Then it was out for drinks with Jack's actor Ted and some of his friends. It was a lovely, once-in-a-lifetime evening, not to be forgotten. Thanks, Jack!

Taking in the Local Sights--Aerobically!

For Dad, Joe, Susan and Sharon, trying to get some daily exercise is just a part of our lives, and so it was such fun to take a few hikes together. So much more fun than working out alone on a machine!

This hike was at the Coachella Valley Preserve in Thousand Palms. The preserve straddles the San Andreas Fault. If you stand on one side of the visitor center, you are standing on the North American tectonic plate. If you walk about 20 feet across to the other side, you are on the Pacific plate, which is slowly but relentlessly grinding into the North American plate.

According to scientists, the San Andreas fault here is capable of producing a magnitude 7.9 earthquake. That magnitude quake would release about 65 times the energy of the 6.7 Northridge quake, which killed 57 people and caused $40 billion in damage. They also say that the San Andreas is about 40 years overdue for a major quake. Mind-stretching, to try to imagine it!

We took the McCallum trail out to the oasis, remembering, with much affection, Sharon's mom, Janice McCallum Burrows, who would have loved the desert hike. The oasis is a true miracle of the desert. Lush and green, with endangered pupfish living in the streams and pools...

and endangered fringe-toed lizards scampering around the dunes. (At least, we think this was one...)

And some really big, shaggy palms! The California fan palm, Washingtonia filifera, is the only palm native to this area.

Its dead leaves hang vertically and form a skirt around the trunk. Great places to play hide and seek!

A few days later we took a second hike, up the Bump and Grind trail, behind a huge shopping mall in Palm Desert. Lots of elevation gain, and on a hot day, quite a workout! Looking east toward Indio.

Hats were needed protection from the blazing desert sun, but it was so windy up on those ridges! Sharon's new hat kept blowing off, so Joe, long-time leader in Outward Bound, cleverly used her sunglasses keeper to secure her hat to her head. Not pretty, but hey, it worked!

Torn between wanting to finish her planned visit with her family and wanting to see Tracy in Orlando before he shipped out overseas, Sharon decided to say an early goodbye to her Dad and CJ, and flew to Orlando, where she and Tracy spent a busy five days getting Tracy ready for his long year ahead. And having some fun, of course!

And then it was time to come home. Look! There's the Panama Canal...we must be getting close!

Flying into Bocas, Cerro Velero is tucked down in the bay at the center of the photo...look at all those mangrove islands! The red line shows the usual water route we take into town.

Unexpectedly Adding to the Acreage

Judy Green, our next-door neighbor and worker Joe’s mom, approached us in early March to ask us if we would buy another hectare (2.5 acres) from them. She needed to have some surgery and needed the cash to pay for it. (She said she has money, but that it’s tied up in a 5 year CD or something, and they wouldn't let her take it out, or take a loan on it.)

The land she wanted us to buy is basically a triangle encompassing the hillside and valley to our west. This view was taken standing beside our house, looking southwest toward where the back boundary would be.

All things considered, of course we wanted it, though we felt uncomfortable about her having to sell to save her health (and probably her life). When we asked him, Joe said he was fine with us buying the property, and that his brother and two sisters have no interest in the land. Joe already has his house built on the waterfront on the other side of his parents' house, and he will inherit the rest of the property (over 40 acres). Judy said she wanted to sell it to neighbors because there is no way to sell all the way to the waterfront. The Cerrutis, neighbors on the other side, have no interest in buying more dirt.

We really felt that we did not want to spend the money. But if one of us had a job...well of course we would want to protect our view and have a bigger green buffer for planting trees... and, well, at that point, Tracy might have a job sooner rather than later... but should we commit?

Well, we did. This view is taken at the back (south) boundary, looking northwest, toward the water. On the right side, the old west boundary, and on the left, the new west fence line.

This is still looking northwest, after walking toward the water about 100 feet. The old western boundary can be seen in the cut grass path on the shoulder of the hill on the far right. The house is just up the hill from that, out of the picture. The new fence line is on the left.

The new property includes more of the swale that the stream flows into, and then a lot of high ground and some nice trees. It’s not waterfront, because the triangle starts at our property line about thirty feet back from the water. But the views are as good as ours.

We reached a deal in which we made a big enough deposit to let Judy get her surgery, and then make payments over time...starting three months after Tracy got a job. Whenever that might have been, up to twelve months after we reached the agreement. A moot point now, but it was a big concern at the time.

And Judy got her operation, which was a success, and we can sleep with a clear conscience knowing we did what we could to help her. Joe privately told each of us that we saved his mama's life, and he would never forget it.

Looking toward the bodega and house (small white patches in center) from near the new southwest boundary. Vicente has already planted some sticks which are supposed to grow into guava trees.

Looking toward the house across our new hillside and valley.

Looking away from the house across our new hillside and valley.

Heading closer to the house, about halfway along the new boundary, looking northeast. The old property line is clear in the cut grass path.That's Joe's family home down by the water on the left. Landfall is still anchored out on the bay.

Standing at the intersection of the old and new boundaries at the front of the property, looking toward the south (back). The gate on the right leads to Joe's family's house. The fence used to run straight up the hill in the middle of the picture. There are about six citrus trees in that patch of new property straight ahead. Lemons, limes and oranges.

The view from the side porch.

Siding and the New Dance Floor

While Sharon and Tracy were gone, house-sitting neighbor Tom Dunne was also working on the house. He continued where Tracy had left off, framing for the windows and doors, putting in the windows, and then starting on the siding. Between the uneven quality of the siding and the different angles created by the not-nearly-uniform corner poles, Tom said it was like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle!

We had heard that painting diesel on the wood helps to preserve it, so Joe did a lot of diesel painting over the last couple of weeks. It may or may not protect the wood from bugs, but it sure gave it a deep rich glow! That top board under the window wasn't painted; the others were. Big difference.

After Sharon got home, she ordered another load of wood, and they started laying out the sub floor. This is looking in what will be the front door. It is really starting to look like a house!

And this gives the dogs a lot more room to play out of the rain, too.This is looking in what will be the guest room door. The front door is on the left, and the door to the master bedroom is on the right--if we stick with the floor plan we originally worked out. Now that it's all taking shape, the house itself may dictate what goes where, and walking around it now, it seems to be saying that our plans may change a little...

We'll see what evolves. Meanwhile...

More Work in the Mud

One thing we want to do is get all that rainwater locked up in our water tanks. The plan is to build two square pads, one for each tank, each halfway under the house, under the downspouts. Each pad will be secured on five posts sunk in concrete.

Meanwhile, the gutters and downspouts have been catching water just fine--with nowhere for the water to go but into the dirt and wash down the hill. So Sharon had the guys bring the dinghy up.

At least we could catch some water, and then use it for making the concrete and flushing the toilet. Which, by the way, is now a bit more private.

Siting the water tank pads was painstakingly tedious work because we would only have a few inches of tolerance around each of the five-foot diameter tanks.

Things were made a lot more complicated than originally planned because when Sharon ordered the wood for the pads, she had to buy 20 foot long 2x6s, not the 14 foot lengths we really wanted. So the pads were now going to have to be 6’6” square instead of the 7’ originally planned. (When you do the math, you see that we had to go with 6'6" pads to avoid having all those 6’ useless remainder boards left from cutting 20' boards into 7' pieces.)

And with five foot diameter tanks, it all had to be pretty much exactly right. We spent one Wednesday, all day, carefully thinking and adjusting, measuring and re-measuring, siting the pads. We had to figure out exactly where to put each of the two tanks, figure out how the downspouts would go into the tanks, how the downspouts would meld into the porch poles rather than stand out like sore thumbs, where the tanks could go to be close enough under them, etc., etc.

And, we wanted them to look pretty! To exactly match the angles of the porch sides they were each under. Which were not exactly uniform themselves...

We cut four 6'6" boards, and four 6'3" boards, nailing four boards, two of each length, together to make two 6'6" squares. Just figuring out how to get that part right was a real hat trick!

Then we carefully measured and marked out in the dirt exactly where those two squares would go, and placed them there.

Sharon had Joe put in stakes and string to mark all eight corners that the posts would have to nestle into. We were very careful to stake and string the area to be sure that the post holes, which of course would be dug wider than the posts, were dug in exactly the right spots. Only then could we plant the posts in exactly the right spots, and then pour the concrete around them.

All went well with digging the 8 corner post holes the next day, until about 3 pm, when Sharon went up to check (again) on how they were doing. To discover that Joe and Vicente had pulled out almost every one of the stakes to make it easier to dig the holes. AAAARGH!!

It took all weekend for her to cool down (and stop crying).

But Monday morning we were at it at 7am, re-measuring and re-staking and re-digging to move the center of some of the holes, and by the afternoon, three posts had been poured!

They are all done now, and all we have to do is wait a week for the concrete to cure before we can start bolting and nailing the wooden frames to the posts.

Then nail the pads together, and put the tanks on them. And then add and angle the downspouts into the tanks. And Voilà! A working water-catching system. Getting the water into the house from the tanks is another project entirely...

Saying Goodbye to the Dying Laurel Tree

We love trees, and we love the woodpeckers and the parrots attracted to the decaying wood and bugs of a dying tree. But dying trees near a house roof are just plain dangerous. Our sick laurel in front of the house had to come down.

Joe got out the chainsaw and some heavy anchor line. Expert rodeo man that he is, he lassoed the tree way up high. Vicente and Micky wove the line around the big mango tree at the base of the hill, and pulled the line taut.

Joe made his wedge...

and then dropped it...

Right where he wanted it!

And as we suspected, the tree did indeed have a black heart. Rotten at the core. It would easily have smashed our roof, and porch, and house, given a little more wind and time.

New Digs

With all the construction activity going on, Sharon has had to move off the boat and up to the hill. And, so has Jasmine. Here is the new spot for her cage.

And her new favorite perch in the hacksaw...well, at least when the guys aren't using it!

Stay tuned...

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