Around the Next Corner

by Judy King 11. April 2010 21:31

  One of the things I like best about Living at Lake Chapala is that I never know what I’ll see next. I always have a camera in my pocket or purse, just in case I see one of the startling Mexican Moments that always make me fall in love with this country -- all over again.

Years ago I saw an old, old man talking on a cell phone while riding a burro. Then there was the guy carrying a picture of Jesus while leading a funeral procession. He was wearing a purple T-shirt that read: “Let’s Get Naked and Party.” Do you think I had a camera?

Then I spotted a man in Chapala pedaling a bicycle up the hill by the Monte Carlo Hotel. As he passed the intersection with the street that kiddie-carends at the Chapel of the Virgin of Lourdes, he held his cap over his heart, and kept on pedaling up the hill with just one hand on the handlebar.

A 12-Year-Old  Driver

A couple years I spotted a young man driving a car. Make that a very young man driving a car. He must have been 11 or 12; driving along Zaragosa in Ajijic – his same-age buddy riding shotgun. I didn’t get the chance to see if he was sitting on a pillow so he could see over the steering wheel.

I’ve seen grownups from major US and Canadian cities grow pale at the thought of maneuvering a vehicle along the parked cars on Ajijic’s narrow, bumpy, cobblestone streets. This kid not only seemed fearless, and looked like he was having a great time, he also was doing a good job of avoiding pedestrians and other vehicles. Still….

walking-the-plank  Walking the Tightrope

I’ve always been glad I had my camera in my purse when I saw the truck in the photo at left. I barely believed my eyes – let alone having a chance of anyone else believing me.

Let me set the scene for you. The dump truck was full of sand that the workers needed to unload onto the roof of the house across the street.

Nothing is impossible in this country. They just leaned a ladder up against the house, balanced a ladder from the edge of the truck -- across the street  -- and slid it through the rungs of the upright ladder.

Then bravest of the bunch walked across the horizontal ladder Carrying  two 5-gallon buckets of sand.

More amazing still is that they waved me to continue driving up the street – and I drove under that ladder!

Unusual Sights – Right at Home

I didn’t even have to leave the house to get pictures of an unusual scene today. I was sorting a couple of the storage boxes in my garage when the fire truck pulled up – right out front and the bomberos (firemen) started pulling hoses off the truck.

I’ve only known of two or three house fires in the past 19 years in homes made of brick there’s little to burn, but still, I dashed to the door to look for smoke. It wasn’t smoke or a fire. A fireman climbed up onto the roof of the cab, signaled to the guys on the ground that he was ready, and when they’d upped the water pressure, he gave one spot on the trunk of the tree a good, long, mighty blast of water.

hose water

The explanation? It looked to me as if they were after a nest or swarm of insects. Still seems strange. When I had “killer” black bees trying to start a hive in the eaves of my house 15 or so years ago, the city sent out  crew to smoke them out and exterminate them – at 3 a.m. so they would be quiet and the streets empty.

Talking About Trees

Here’s another adventure – right in my own back yard. I invited this crew to cut my avocado crop last year. There weren’t substantial branches in the right places to support their ladder, so…they found another way to make it work. It takes faith in your coworkers to climb that ladder.

climbing ladder

The process may have been a little precarious, but the men garnered dozens and dozens of large avocados. In fact, they filled the buckets they brought along, then my two laundry baskets and came back the next day for the rest. Some they took home to eat, the rest they sold at $25 pesos per kilo.

The fruit they couldn’t reach eventually fell from the upper reaches of the tree, much to the delight of the birds that visit my garden and of my dogs who also love the buttery fruit. Bet you didn’t know that many of the more expensive brands of dog food include avocados in the ingredient listing.

We all have our memories and our stories to tell – we love telling the stories at dinners and parties when as we move around the table each scene is more surprising than the one before. Still it’ll be hard to beat that guy in the funeral procession.


Judy King is publisher of Mexico Insights—Living at Lake Chapala, a monthly online magazine for people interested in Mexico's Lake Chapala region, in the state of Jalisco.

Judy, a 19-year resident of Ajijic on Lake Chapala's north shore, conducts weekly newcomer's seminars and shares her expertise about Mexico in her ezine at www.mexico-insights.com, and in the "Mexico Lindo" column of the Lake Chapala Review.

Judy also is a speaker for local organizations and visiting tour groups about the Lakeside area about Mexican customs and holidays.

Brick: Lakeside’s Cornerstone, Part 5 Boveda

by Judy King 9. March 2010 13:47

boveda-ceiling Long before most visitors to central Mexico know the name or the benefits of the area's familiar brick roof systems, they fall instantly, firmly in love with bóveda, the beautiful arched natural brick ceilings of the system. The first question from newcomers is always the same, "How do they do that?"

Bóveda is the Spanish word for an arch. It is also the word in Mexican and ancient Spanish architecture and construction, for a long, narrow section of arched brickwork. Sometimes the Spanish language seems amazingly limited in vocabulary. The dome of the heavens is called a bóveda—it's like the inside of a bowl. The arched ceiling cupped over the altar in old churches, the vault that is built to enclose a casket at the cemetery, and even the barrel-shaped ceiling over a hallway are also all called bóveda.

Bóveda is also the correct term for the 36" rows of brick arches that form the ceilings of many area homes. Each of these styles serves a unique purpose and is constructed a bit differently, but all are based on the ancient theory of the arch. The Romans proved the strength of arches to the rest of the world when they built the aqueducts. Once an arch is put under pressure or is bearing weight, it becomes even stronger. The success of bóveda depends on this same basic rule of physics.

Lakeside Bóveda History
Long before our Mexican neighbors began building Lakeside homes with low-arch bóveda ceilings, local masons were very familiar with the art. They used the technique for most burials at the local cemetery. Many families could only afford to buy a few lots in the cemetery. Knowing they would have many family members needing a final resting place, they had the plots dug extremely deep—deep enough to hold three or four or five bodies, stacked one on top of the other. Before the first family member died, the walls of the family plot were lined with brick. When it was time to bury the first body, the casket was lowered to the bottom of the hole and then the masons climbed down into the shaft and built a low-arch brick bóveda top over the casket, forming a crypt. When the casket was enclosed, the masons climbed out of the hole, and covered the hole with a removable slab of concrete.

Do you suppose this very real work is why we talk of seeking closure after the death of a loved one?

How do they do that? First, sufficient support
The starting point of every bóveda project is to ensure that the building's support structure is sturdy enough to bear the weight of all those extra bricks and the concrete layer that goes on top of the bricks to form a waterproof roof system. (See Brick: Lakeside’s Cornerstone, Part 7 The Roof )

Castillos are vertical open cages of reinforced steel that extend from deep in the footings up through the foundations and then to the intended roof line of the house. Interlocking the castillos at the top of the foundation is a dala (platform), which is a larger horizontal castillo. The dala is filled with concrete and gravel, and becomes a steel reinforced concrete platform on which to begin laying the brick walls.

As the workmen build the walls, they extend the bricks slightly into the vertical castillos at the corners of each room and about every four to six feet in between. This way the walls are locked into the castillos, which are then filled with concrete and rock to become vertical support pillars to support the roof.

At the top of the walls is another horizontal castillo, this one is a dala. It also is called the corona (crown). The building’s crown ties the entire structure firmly together when the steel-reinforced concrete vertical castillos are welded to the corona.

Bóveda—The ceiling of low arches
The ceiling-roof structure used almost exclusively in new Lakeside construction is the series of low-arch bóveda. Parallel brick arches form the ceilings of the rooms and are the base for a super strong roof that insulates the house from both the sun's heat and winter's chilly nights.

If the underground and wall support has been well planned, and if the castillos, dalas, and coronas are sufficiently large, this type of construction can easily support a second story.

On top of the corona 5" steel I-beams are welded into place and span the house at one-meter intervals. Then it is time for the abañiles, (brick masons) to start laying arches of bricks from one I-beam to the next.

Masons use a sercha as their guide (you can see the sercha in the photo above) when laying the bricks in each row of the bóvedas. The tool is less than the width of a single brick and fits into the ledges of the two I-beams. When the sercha is leveled and screwed tightly into place, the mason piles concrete onto the end and edge of each brick and places each on top of the curved guide until the new row of bricks reaches across the space from one I-bean to the other.

When the mason reaches the end of the row, he drives in a small rectangular piece of flint stone called a rajuela. This small spacer is the key to the success of this craft. Once the spacer is hammered into place between the last brick and the I-beam, it puts pressure on the arch and removes the danger of the arch falling. Once the arch is secure, the sercha can be moved forward along the I-beam to guide the next row into place.

After every three or four rows, the abañile and his helper smooth and shape the cement between the last few rows of bricks. The preferred tool for this job is a table knife. The men curl the tip, leaving a smooth surface the width of the cement grout.

The local masons prefer to lay no more than half meter to one meter (19-40") of bricks into arches, from I-beam to I-beam across the end of the building each day. Amazingly the newly laid rows of bricks are strong enough for the men to walk across in less than an hour, even when the rest of the ceiling has not been finished—and it's all due to the strength added by the pressure of that little rajuela.

Special thanks go to General Contractor Juan Gilberto Higuera and the maestros of The Little Company in Ajijic who explained procedures to me, answered questions and provided technical information for this article.


Judy King is publisher of Mexico Insights—Living at Lake Chapala, a monthly online magazine for people interested in Mexico's Lake Chapala region, in the state of Jalisco.

Judy, a 19-year resident of Ajijic on Lake Chapala's north shore, conducts weekly newcomer's seminars and shares her expertise about Mexico in her ezine at www.mexico-insights.com, and in the "Mexico Lindo" column of the Lake Chapala Review.

Judy also is a speaker for local organizations and visiting tour groups about the Lakeside area about Mexican customs and holidays.

Brick: Lakeside’s Cornerstone, Part 3 Building Arches

by Judy King 7. March 2010 20:54

clip_image001In Part 2 of this series of articles about Lakeside’s handmade bricks, we looked at the process of brickmaking -- preparing the clay, forming the bricks, drying and then firing the bricks in a wood-fired stack kiln that burns the bricks for at least a week. 

Once the bricks in the stack kiln have completely cooled, the workers dismantle the created in place kiln, sorting the bricks into various grades.

  • The hardest bricks go into one pile to be used in weight-bearing outside walls.
  • The softest bricks are reserved for their insulating qualities.
  • Burned black bricks and those that are broken or warped are set aside to use to construct the next stack kiln.

Here at Lakeside, there are two more categories or sizes of brick often used while building area homes.

  • The weight-bearing outside walls are frequently built with a larger, heavier brick -- the medio adobón. They are half the size of an old square brick made from mud adobe.
  • The smaller bricks used here at Lake Chapala are close to the standard size brick used in North of the Border construction. Those bricks commonly weigh one pound and are 2.25" x 3.75" x 8" long. These smaller bricks are used at Lakeside in building boveda (arched) brick ceilings (See part 5, Boveda ceilings).
  • If you stop to look at the bricks in the truckloads near the Ajijic Cemetery, you’ll discover that even among the bricks of this “standard” size there are differences in the bricks’ finish. You’ll find bricks with finished ends, some with finished narrow sides and others with a finished flat face. You’ll discover why when you learn the six different designs used to create boveda. (See part 6, Boveda designs.)
  • A third common brick in Mexico is the same smaller size, but is fired differently, to make it more porous and lighter for the building of large ceiling domes (See Part 4, Domes and Vaults).

Building arched windows and doors

Many foreigners come to Mexico looking for a pseudo-hacienda-styled dream home lined and filled with arched portales, (arched covered sidewalks or terraces), doorways, windows, niches and other architectural details.

Learning how those arches made is part of exploring Mexican culture where the simple execution of complex shapes and concepts is a wondrous thing to behold.

arched-mission-door   arched-door

Once the workers have created a framework of castillos (upright made-in-place steel-reinforced concrete beams, in the doorway at left above, they insert a horizontal support at the bottom edge of the arch curve, and then build up bricks in a temporary form the shape of the arch they wish to build. Next they fill in the spaces on top of the arch of bricks, and then insert a dala (poured-in-place horizontal beam). This entry arched door also features a mission-style arch on top. Notice that this doorway needs a great deal more concrete support than the simple arched doorway at right which was also created in the same way.

This is one of those techniques that made me say Eureka! Why didn’t I think of that! Meanwhile arches have been made in this fashion for hundreds of years here in Mexico and even earlier in Spain.

Next: Be sure to come back to read the next part in our series: Brick: Lakeside’s Cornerstone, Part 4 Domes and Vaults. 


Judy King is publisher of Mexico Insights—Living at Lake Chapala, a monthly online magazine for people interested in Mexico's Lake Chapala region, in the state of Jalisco.

Judy, a 19-year resident of Ajijic on Lake Chapala's north shore, conducts weekly newcomer's seminars and shares her expertise about Mexico in her ezine at www.mexico-insights.com, and in the "Mexico Lindo" column of the Lake Chapala Review.

Judy also is a speaker for local organizations and visiting tour groups about the Lakeside area about Mexican customs and holidays.

Brick: Lakeside’s Cornerstone, Part 1

by Judy King 3. March 2010 12:11

brick-and-mortar-wall

Quality construction at Lake Chapala begins with a stone foundation and red brick walls which are strengthened with interlocking upright and horizontal steel-reinforced castillos (hand-made concrete beams).

While the brick boveda ceiling/roof structure is readily visible to homeowners, the material used inside the plastered walls of their homes is not as apparent. Given the opportunity to make the choice, I’d select ladrillo (fired red brick) rather than locally produced bloque (hand-poured, solid concrete block) for the walls of my home.

Mexico Insights Note: You can see bloque being made in an open field just above Doñas Donas in Ajijic. Forms are placed on the ground and filled with concrete. After a brief setting-up period, the forms are removed and the blocks cure in the sun.

We’ll talk about how bricks are made in local brickyards in tomorrow’s post. Those are the brick being sold from the line-up of huge trucks near the Ajijic Cemetery. It may surprise you to see how those bricks are loaded into the contractor’s truck for delivery to your house.

Workers throw stacks of five bricks (each weighs about a pound) bucket brigade-style from the huge truck to the delivery truck. At your house, the process is reversed as workers throw the bricks from one to another to bridge the distance from the truck to the stack of bricks they are keeping in reserve for the job.

 throw-bricks good-catch

(Left:) A worker stretches to catch the stack of five one-pound bricks that is thrown to him. Did you notice that the bricks separate mid-air and you can see spaces between them, making the stack even harder to catch? (Right:) Surprisingly, as long as the rhythm of the throw and catch are maintained, workers seldom drop any of the bricks.

What’s the Difference between ladrillo and bloque?

Developers producing homes for sale in a development and individuals building “spec homes” (homes built for profit, with the intention to sell them during the construction process or shortly thereafter) often build with concrete blocks. The blocks are less expensive to purchase than brick and because they are larger, it takes less labor and less mortar to construct a wall.

Blocks can be used to create a wall that is strong (if the builder includes several rows of bricks after about three feet of block height). If the developer cuts corners and uses only one or two rows of brick instead of three or four rows, or saves brick and money by waiting until the wall is four or five feet tall, the strength of the wall can be compromised.

While the quality of the finished home can be affected by the use of brick vs. concrete block, my biggest concern is with the insulating quality of the two materials.

Keeping Warm in the Winter and Cool in the Spring Heat

North of the border homes are insulated as they are built, and additional insulation is added to older houses. You’re familiar with the need of insulation to help keep the house warm during the cold months and cool during warm times.

Its very different in Lake Chapala-built homes. With no attics, crawl spaces or hollow walls, we depend of the building materials to insulate us from the more moderate climate here – and choosing the right one (along the best alignment of the house for cross breezes and direct sunlight) can make a big difference in the temperature inside your house.

1. Adobe. The best insulating building material of all is old-fashioned adobe. While I only know of one home built from hand made mud adobe in the past 15 or 20 years, I’ve lived in two old homes where most of the walls were adobe covered with plaster.

2. Local Brick. Locally made and fired traditional brick insulates very well. it can be even better if the walls are build in the old-time method, making them 1.5 bricks thick. Bricks are readily available, made from local deposits of clay, and are reasonably priced.

3. Concrete Block. Concrete block is nearly always used for locales (small storefronts in strip mall-like buildings), other commercial buildings and in cheaper construction.

How are these natural clay bricks are made? How is the process different from bricks made in Europe hundreds of years ago or in Canada and the US in the past two centuries?

Next -- Brick: Lakeside’s Cornerstone: Part 2  Making Bricks

brick-trucksLearn the ancient process of making and firing bricks

Then -- Brick: Lakeside’s Cornerstone, Part 3 Making Arches

How are arched windows and doors constructed?

And  --  Brick: Lakeside’s Cornerstone, Part 4 Domes and Vaults

Learn about the domes that crown many local homes in the old Moorish style the Spanish brought to the new world in the 1500s.

Ahhh  -- Brick: Lakeside’s Cornerstone, Part 5  Boveda

Ah, the key to making those arched ceilings so common at Lake Chapala. How do they do that?

And Then – Brick: Lakeside’s Cornerstone, Part 6 Brick Designs

See the variety of designs that used in side walls, boveda or domes…and learn the names. This is a valuable reference piece.

To Wrap up the series, there’s a Bonus Post – Brick: Lakeside’s Cornerstone, Part 7 The Roof

After all, the whole point of that strong boveda, vault, arch or dome is to create a safe, dry roof over the living area of a house. See what happens next.

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Judy King is publisher of Mexico Insights—Living at Lake Chapala, a monthly online magazine for people interested in Mexico's Lake Chapala region, in the state of Jalisco.

Judy, a 19-year resident of Ajijic on Lake Chapala's north shore, conducts weekly newcomer's seminars and shares her expertise about Mexico in her ezine at www.mexico-insights.com, and in the "Mexico Lindo" column of the Lake Chapala Review.

Judy also is a speaker for local organizations and visiting tour groups about the Lakeside area about Mexican customs and holidays.

About Judy King

Judy King

Hi There — Welcome to my little corner of the world. I'm Judy King and I live in the centuries-old village of Ajijic on the north shore of Lake Chapala, Mexico's largest natural lake.

I've lived here full time since 1990, and... [ more ]

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