Remodeling in Jamaica: 4 Helpful Hints
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Who would’ve ever believed that something as simple as replacing a toilet or fixing a water valve could turn into a drawn out ordeal? Anybody trying to do it in Jamaica sure will! Remodeling in Jamaica is not for the faint of heart or short of temper.
My husband, Rob, and I are currently renting a home in Jamaica that we hope to eventually purchase and live in during our retirement years.
We love that it’s in a Jamaican neighborhood. We enjoy the spacious yard filled with fruit trees. We feel like the house is close enough to the beach and other amenities to serve us well for years to come, but it’s old, worn and in need of a little love.
Having spent most of my adult life working on “fixer-uppers,” houses ranging in age from 30 years old to over 100 years old, I know the drill. Estimate the time and materials for the project, then add about 30% more to the cost and about 50% more time than you originally thought, and you will come out about right. Hopefully. That way of thinking kept me from going insane over the years.
It’s easy to say “Well, it takes about 15 minutes to change an exterior door knob and lock,” but I know all too well that once the old lock is taken out, it will turn out that the door is partially rotted and needs to be replaced. When the door is taken out, the hinges are discovered to be bent. After replacing the bent hinges and rehanging the new door, it becomes obvious that the doorway is crooked and the door won’t close without extensive shimming and trimming. I get it. Remodeling is tough.
That said, I must admit that my 35 years of roughing it through the remodeling jobs I’ve done in my American houses was scant preparation for what I’ve tumbled into here in Jamaica. What I once believed to be so simple has turned into a full-time job.
1. I don’t think it would be that bad if only I had a vehicle of my own.
Even though a “taxi stand” is right outside my gate, they are only there in numbers between the hours of about 7 to 9 AM. Not only are the stores not open at that hour, but taking a taxi at that time of day is literally a painful experience because the taxi drivers have no concept that a five-seater car was designed to seat only five people.
Cramming six or seven bodies into a sedan is a Jamaican art…and I have the aching back to prove it. During those morning hours, as kids are going to school and adults are getting to their jobs, it becomes a case of “how many clowns can fit in a VW bug.” Even children in preschool are put into a taxi and dropped off by the driver. It’s a major business here.
Conversely, waiting beyond those hours means standing in the heat and taking your chances with whatever driver comes by because, by then, most of the taxis have made their way to the bigger towns and are waiting for fares to bring back. They are pretty strict about waiting until they have seats filled, so the wait can be long before they make it back my way.
Sometimes, the car that comes by is a registered driver and car, red license plate signifying the fact.
Sometimes it’s a “robot,” what they call private cars that act as taxis, with darkly tinted windows, leaving you to wonder if Jack the Ripper is going to be your driver. Lately, I’ve spent so much time in taxis, I’ve gotten what I call a “taxi tan” on the arm that hangs out of the window.
I tell myself that I’m fortunate in that there are a number of people who hang around drinking all day at the bar across the street and they tend to know which of the private cars are working as taxis and help me find rides. It’s always such a comfort to know that a drunk has picked out my driver.
2. The next issue in remodeling here is that the hardware, tile and plumbing stores are few and far between. It’s very common to have to visit many such outlets, scattered across several small towns, before you can collect everything you need for a given project.
Hardware, plumbing and tiles are all sold through speciality stores. Although they may display a product, it doesn’t mean they actually have it in stock. In fact, it rarely means they have it in stock. Sometimes, it’s not even something they sell, it’s just something they like. Trust me.
When we first started renting here, we adjusted fairly quickly to the fact that we were only “on the pipe” (town water) Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. On those days, we had a bit of water pressure. Well, we did as long as we planned to shower at a time of day when very few town residents were using water. We found that about 11 PM offered the best pressure. So, we went to bed with wet hair and woke up looking like scarecrows, but at least we were clean.
The balance of the week, homes in my town are “on the tank.” Tank days mean that we have gravity fed flow, with water trickling down from the big black tank on the roof. In my shower, that amounted to two tiny trickles that I’d have to run around in circles under to get even damp.
Getting anything saturated with water is a challenge on those days so, for the most part, we just go to bed dirty, leaving dishes and laundry for another day. This is particularly unpleasant on days that we have spent time at the beach, or working strenuously in the heat but it seemed there was no way around it. Or was there?
A solar water heater was installed for us in December but my daughter and I discovered, upon our arrival in January, that we weren’t getting much hot water on our “tank” days. We were also having terrible trouble with air getting trapped in our pipes, spurting out with enough force that it once knocked a glass right out of my hand.
Midway through our three-month stay, my husband came to visit.
He brought with him a nifty set of power tools “for me” that he was itching to use so it appeared to be the perfect time to install a water pump to “fix” all of the water pressure issues.
Rob planned out the PVC piping needed, figured out where to install the pump and which water line to cut into. It had to be strategically placed so as to prevent it from being stolen, the fate of the previous pump years before.
He made up his list of supplies and we hopped into a taxi to the nearest sizable hardware store, about a 20-minute ride from home. We purchased a water pump and “all” of the necessary hookups. Three taxi rides, two hardware stores and several angry hours later, Rob had picked up “the rest of the parts” that he needed and had the pump up and running. Problem solved, right?
3. What we didn’t realize at the time was that a lot of sediment from the heavily chlorinated water had collected in the pipes.
This happens when houses sit dormant. Additionally, shower valves, gaskets and O-rings had begun to deteriorate or just plain rot from lack of use and old age.
Adding the pump was like a hurricane moving onshore, stirring up and moving all of that sediment. It was putting new pressures on every ancient PVC pipe, joint, fixture and valve. The rumblings of Armageddon had begun but we hadn’t heard the call.
Right after Rob headed back to the States, I had the brilliant idea to tackle the remodeling of the small bathroom we were using.
The rusting bathtub, complete with the army of ants, spiders and other creatures that seemed to have taken up residence in the damp, dark, mildew filled underbelly needed to go. The vanity under the sink had become their clubhouse and it needed to be shut down. It was a bit disturbing.
A tile guy was recommended and came to take measurements. He then told me how much of each tile he needed for the floor, walls, shower stall and shower floor. Quickly exhausting our limited choices for tiles close to home, we made the long trip to Kingston and in short order, we had beautiful new tiles and fixtures.
As is customary here, we were also tasked with finding all of the grout, cements, stone and thin-set needed to adhere the tiles to their appointed places and to build the new shower stall base.
4. Sometimes, after I’ve been given a “list” from the workman, I’ve done all of the shopping, and carted everything home, I feel like calling up the tradesman and saying, “Never mind. At this point, I’ll just do it myself. The HARD part is over!” but I resist.
What followed next was a series of plumbing crisis’s the likes of which I’ve never seen before and hope to never experience again.
The tile guy chipped a pipe in the shower wall, causing hot water to spew furiously all over the bathroom until a river of debris flowed out into the hallway. This forced the plumber to have to nearly chisel through the wall to free the pipe enough to repair it.
Meanwhile, the tired, old valves in the second bathroom shower suddenly went from a tiny drip to running as if I had turned the water on and forgotten to turn it off.
Upon removing the valves, it was discovered that neither the plumber nor the hardware store had ever seen anything like them.
The best we could do was to clean out the chlorine “stones” and put it all back together again, returning it to its pre-pump drip.
Next, the float valve that causes the storage tank to automatically refill when the town water comes back on became clogged with sediment. It simply quit allowing water to pass through. Unfortunately, the tile guy was in the middle of mixing grout when this grim discovery was made, causing yet another delay. I had to climb up on the roof, balance on a railing, while unscrewing the giant lid to the tank to figure out why we had no water.
The final blow was when I simply reached to turn on the water pipe that supplies our outdoor shower.
I needed to get water to mop the floors that were covered in tile dust. The handle simply fell off in my hand. I just stood there in disbelief and laughed at the insanity of it all.
The plumber spent so much time at my house last week, I thought the neighbors (and the drunks at the bar across the street) were going to start spreading rumors about us.
I called the poor guy so many times that “his woman” came by to “see him” (mark her territory) with their small child in tow. I mean, who in the world has every plumbing related item in their house go bad at virtually the same time? Well, me.
As of this writing, we still haven’t quite completed the bathroom.
Between broken pipes, no water to mix grout and the discovery that I’m one tile SHORT of being able to finish the floor, it’s rough. It’s been a slow, painful process that has dragged on well beyond the “it will take me about four days to complete” that I was originally told.
I find myself looking around at the rest of the house and wondering what will “be next.” The second bathroom shower needs to be torn into in order to fix the leaking valves, necessitating new tiles.
The entire house has floor tiles that are cracking, worn and starting to pop off. Despite being recently “refinished,” many of the kitchen cabinets don’t close and doors are hanging askew.
It’s only a matter of time before these issues, and many more that I’ve yet to discover, need to be addressed. I can envision myself repeating this remodeling experience over and over again for years to come. Traveling from store to store will become my job. Hopping from taxi to taxi will be my new “norm.” I have to ask myself if it’s worth it.
But then I talk to my Jamaican friends and neighbors as I walk through town and laugh with the owners of the little shops.
I smile at the roaming vendors who no longer hound me to buy their products because they know I’m here to stay. I take a long afternoon walk on the beach, followed by a breath-taking sunset over the sea and realize that we’ve made the right choice. This is where we belong and ever likkle ting’s gonna be irie.
To read about other fun experiences we are having, check out this story about what it’s really like to live in Jamaica.
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