Friday, December 31, 2010


Meant to write more here the past few weeks but the role of Nurse Mommy to La Princesa has been all-consuming until the last few days. She's doing well and needing less attention. So with the cold weather (-4C) in Victoria this week, I find the time and the motivation to get back to the sultry heat of the Yucatan, in my mind at least.

What I remember from my first experience in Merida was a feeling like being inside a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. The tropical feeling, the sense of time slowing to a standstill in the heat. The horse-drawn calesas certainly added to the atmosphere. That timeless sense is harder to find now, almost 30 years since my first visit, in the city's centro, now full of persistent hawkers of tourist wares. But I found it in abundance when I stepped into the public library.

The library wasn't exactly easy to find. The signage isn't very prominent, and after it was first pointed out to me on a previous trip I couldn't seem to find it again.

To enter this library was like stepping back in time - most modern libraries don't have card catalogues anymore. The "silence" sign is a throwback to an outdated concept of libraries as well. Contrary to the stereotype, librarians don't go around shushing the patrons anymore. It was certainly quiet in the library on this evening, with a handful of students bent over their laptops at the tables.

In a small room at the back of the library I found something you probably won't find in any other library in the world. The "Seccion Yucateca" is dedicated solely to Yucatan authors and topics. Librarian Ana Cana works in the Yucatecan section and graciously allowed me to take her photo.

The section includes clipping books compiled by librarians on key Yucatan issues and events. Hurricanes, artists, any kind of local issue. These pre-internet clipping books are a labour of love. They take a lot of time to compile but for anyone researching one of these topics they replace impossibly long hours paging through fragile old newspapers or deteriorating microfilm reels. (Do they even have those? How do they hold up in the heat and humidity, I wonder?)

I am looking forward to spending hours in this place in the near future, improving my Spanish reading skills and learning more about local history and culture.

As I'm tinkering with this post for the 14th time (or so) before publishing it, I see that "el Gabo" himself, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is coming to Merida for a couple of days, starting January 10th. I wonder whether the place also reminds him of his own novels?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

It gets worse before it gets better

 More scenes of destruction. A narrow corridor is opened up to enlarge the bathroom. A new wall will separate it from the guest bedroom in back which will get its own bathroom, though not right away.

Coming from a temperate rainforest climate, I'm a little iffy about punching holes in the roof for wiring, but I'm assured this will not leak, once patched, and the conduit for the wiring will withstand the furnace outside.

The hot water tank has a leak and needs to be replaced. So we're going to take the opportunity to switch to a solar hot water system. Now trying to assess the options and requirements (do we need a hydropneumatic pump to increase water pressure? What kind of anti-scale system will treat the hard water so sarro doesn't build up in the heater and elsewhere?) Water softening technologies seem to be a matter of great debate online - I wonder what others have found to be effective?
The wiring conduit will run along the roof  - hope this works!

The walls are for tall closets in the bedroom

Plugging the door opening in dining room
The bathroom was so hideous, this seems like an improvement

Saturday, December 4, 2010

City buses

The driver's area of one is covered in stickers in marijuana leaf shapes. Others have images and metal plaques of la Virgen de Guadelupe and other religious icons. On one night ride, the driver's girlfriend, I think, draped herself over his shoulders and presented him with a large greeting card to read as he drove. Maybe it was his birthday?
Modern highway buses in Mexico, at least the first-class ones, are clean and comfortable as any north of the border bus. The ride from Cancun has movies and they give you a (nonalcoholic) drink when you board. But the city buses in Merida are a different thing. They appear to be operated by numerous private companies, each with different colours and models of vehicle. Many of them seem to have broken axles or other worn-out parts that grind or clank horribly at sharp turns. Despite this, they roar down the roads at frightening speeds if they get a clear stretch, and sometimes seem to be gunning for the parked car up ahead, but then they swerve just in time. The printed bus schedule is indecipherable to me, so I just try to slowly figure out by trial and error which bus takes me where, and how it returns. They are cheap though - 6 pesos or about 50 cents - and plentiful and it seems they will stop almost anywhere if you flag them down. Usually.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Scenes of destruction

11/30/2010 I hadn't heard from Merida in a few days so I figured things weren't moving too fast. Not so. Victor sent an update today. Walls are coming down, walls are going up. It makes me very happy to see rubble everywhere.
bedroom + entry hall - wall = new sala

the other side of the new sala

tiles from former bedroom will be relaid
this room didn't get any natural light before

pointless extra door from garage is removed

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The view from the roof

New stationary gas tank and cracked roof.
Doug checks the "tinaco", the essential rooftop water tank
Maggie is elegant in any setting.
  Tuesday was a day of meeting tradespeople, discussing work and estimates and checking out the roof. There's nothing like a visit to the roof to give a different perspective on a place.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Neighbors/Vecinos: Bob and Diane

11/10/2010 The morning after our first night in the damp, noisy, smelly home, I found a handwritten note tucked into our front gate. It was from Diane and Bob, who had recognized our house from the blog posts and pictures. In fact they even viewed the house when it was languishing on the market. Their house is just about two blocks away from ours.
We dropped by to say hello to and were greeted by this friendly couple from New York. They have transformed their compact house on a narrow lot into a jewel with polished black concrete surfaces, high ceilings and abundant light. Familiar Yucatan and Mexican elements are used in surprising and delightful ways. They call it their Merida brownstone, because it has a lot in common with their brownstone in Brooklyn.
Our visit was cut a bit short because half a dozen tradespeople were due to show up at our house to give estimates. But it was wonderful to connect with our gracious neighbors and it made me feel a little less like a stranger in town. Brother Doug really enjoyed the visit too. He is able to recognize the potential in a building that would appear to most as a run-down old rock pile - his house in Manitoba used to be one - but seeing what Bob and Diane have achieved, he says he now really understands what we're trying to do.
I didn't take pictures of the interior of Bob and Diane's house because we were too busy enjoying their company to get around to asking how they would feel about that. But it was a highlight of the trip to meet them.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Merida moments: banking problems and getting a phone

11/10/2010  Much of my first full day in Merida (Doug's third) was taken up with getting a local cell phone (me) and dealing with banking problems (Doug). Doug spent much time on payphones with banking reps who couldn't find a reason why the city's bank machines wouldn't process his cash withdrawal. (The problem magically disappeared the next day.)
Somehow (embarrassing admission) I have never had my own cellphone before, though I borrow other family members' phones as needed. I figured this made me less tethered, freer, and there was one less bill to pay. My new Merida cell phone will be for local calls and texts. I plan to leave it at the house, so it can also be used by anyone else who is staying there. It seems to be something people do here, where a land line can take a long long time to get. The phone was only about $30, and while calls are fairly expensive for the first year, the rate drops significantly after that.
It took a long time to get the new phone to work. I am trying to become more of a technical person but remain clueless about some of the most basic things. I had to take it back to the young people behind the counter at the Coppel department store where we bought it. There, much discussion, fiddling, and conversation with someone on the other line ensued. Finally it was working. But it only spoke Spanish. Not the people on the line, but the prompts and instructions. Tuesday I received a prompt; I thought it was about turning up the volume of the ringer, but when I pressed "si" it started a game of Spaceball, whatever that is.
After a couple of days I've managed to change the phone to English and now am constantly checking for messages, adding new contacts, texting like a teenager (only much slower). It already seems to be becoming a comforting extension of of my very being.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Shadows on the wall

Returned to Victoria and Fallingdowne this week,  with lots of unposted blog scribblings due to time and connectivity challenges during Merida stay. So I hope you'll indulge me as I do a bit of catch-up.
11/13/2010 Tom suggested staying in a hotel instead of the house, which does make an awful lot of sense. Chairs and internet are objects of great longing these days. There seemed to be a point to be made about occupying the place. I think the point has been made, but I still stay after brother Doug has gone, not sure whether it is inertia or sheer cussedness. There's not much to see in the house these days - two hammocks, and a lot of tiny biting ants that swarm any food item that is left out for more than a few minutes. But there are these cool shadows on the kitchen wall in the morning.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Street dogs: no se tocarlo

On previous trips I never saw them. Okay, maybe once. I saw a city worker carry a sick-looking bassett-hound type out of the Plaza Grande and deposit him in the back of a pick-up truck. I guessed the dog was on his way to a quick euthanization.
I thought it must be an exaggeration (or my own mistranslation) when I read in the local paper that there are thousands of abandoned dogs on the streets of Merida. But in the past few days I've been seeing them in my neighborhood. A brindle-coated one. A border-collie type, very dirty, that followed me most of my last block home last night.
Tonight this  little one approached along the sidewalk on the busy side of Parque Mejorada ("mi oficina"). A tattered piece of what might once have been a leash dangled from his collar. Dirty, hungry, skittish. I feared he would run into traffic so I called him and he approached. He reminded me of our Mickey. I couldn't help it: I scratched his poor ears and he promptly curled up at my feet. (I couldn't get him to look up for a picture; he startled at the camera flash.)
Then a religious procession started near the end of the block across from the cathedral. When he heard fireworks he panicked and took off across the park.
Not long after that I noticed my hands, arms and elbows were getting very itchy. When I realized the dog probably had something to do with it I quickly packed up the netbook and headed for the nearest pharmacy to buy a bath-sized bottle of that sterlizing hand stuff. Doused my hands, arms, neck (which I had scratched), then went into a restaurant bathroom and furtively soaped my hands and arms up to the shoulders. Feeling better now, but pretty stupid. What did I expect from petting a street dog?
Quite a few of the Americans and Canadians living here have taken up the cause of rescuing and seeking adoptive homes for these poor creatures. My friend Debbie works with one such group, YAPA . I have figured that as a non-resident (for the foreseeable) I didn't have to think much about the plight of Merida's abandoned or mistreated animals but at the very least I need to find out what useful thing I can do when I come across them, beyond sharing their mites, or whatever it was.
No se tocarlo means "don't touch them," I think. In Spanish today I was learning about direct and indirect pronouns. It's kind of difficult to get my head around the rules so it might not be right, but I'm supposed to practice.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

My office/mi oficina

View from mi oficina, Parque Mejorada
If you've been anywhere near me for the past week  you've heard me complain (quijarse - a new verb I learned) about the torture of staying in a house without internet or easy access to coffee. It's my own fault of course for being so stubborn about staying in our house with nothing except a few lights and fans, plumbing that kind of works and two hammocks. Internet cafes exist but I've been opting for the public squares where Merida's government has installed free wifi. (I wonder why our wealthy cities north of the 49th  parallel haven't done it yet.) Despite the thoughtful provision of service, it has not been working all that well for me. It was hard to fit in trips to the squares during last week's busy schedule. Night falls hard at 6 o'clock so it's a little difficult to see the screen after that. And power is a challenge. This year-old netbook has about an hour of battery juice, and though there are a few electrical outlets around the squares, they don't always work. Unfortunately you don't find that out until the computer shuts down suddenly.
So this blogger has been mostly unplugged this week. But I think I'm getting it figured out. 

Saturday, November 13, 2010

(Slight) Fright Night

Brother Doug - our first guest!
Here we are again. Came in on the flight from Houston this time. I've been trying out all the travel options for getting here and back. A plane full of young teenaged girls apparently returning from a Justin Bieber concert, clutching stuffed toys and copies of the 16-year-old Canadian's insipid new biography.
Brother Doug arrived a couple of days earlier, catching the bus from Cancun. First time in Merida, first time in Mexico. My first guest. He spent a couple of nights getting eaten by mosquitoes in a nice hotel before I arrived. Sunday night was the first night staying over in the house for both of us.
Last trip I rented a room elsewhere because I didn't know if the electricity and plumbing worked, and a proper lock was needed on the front entrance gate. I wasn't sure if the house was habitable, but by the time I left it definitely seemed to be so. But Sunday night we both had doubts about whether it was fit for even the most rudimentary kind of habitation.
The house was damp and sour-smelling. This was in part because the plumbing for the kitchen sink was leaking. We had water all over the floor (again). I'll be glad when that plumbing's replaced. The dampness was probably also due to the heavy rains seeping through the roof that needs repair. It hasn't had the chance to dry out with the house all closed up. Cracks showed where I hadn't noticed them before. All the rooms seemed smaller.
Tired, jangled, having pissed off the airport taxi driver by asking him to drive an extra 10 blocks, everything seemed wrong. I couldn't sleep. Every sound was frightening. What were the neighbors' dogs barking at all night? It was one of those occasional what-the-hell-have-I done kind of moments.
One good thing: there were no mosquitos in our house the first night we were here. I guess they figured out there hadn't been a meal in the place for going on two years. It didn't take them long to notice fresh prey. In the morning we opened the windows and back door to air and dry out the house. Immediately they followed our carbon-dioxide vapour trails inside. Later, whenever we disturbed any of our papers or clothes, they rose in little clouds from their hiding spots.
Monday morning started better, with the shower water in the hideous bathroom nicely heated by the new stationary gas tank, and tasty, cheap panuchos and fresh juice at the market stands down the street. Some challenges regarding internet and bank machines commanded much of the day's attention. But when we got home the house felt different, dry and fresher.
Tonight (after an inaugural trip to the new, nearby mall for some basics like towels and anti-mosquito artillery) we just sat around on the bare floor, talking reading, eating cheese and crackers and learning how to do things on computers when you don't have internet. And everything seemed just fine with this place.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Mi casa mexicana

Published in Victoria Boulevard magazine, November/December 2010:
by Deborah Wilson

It can start with a vacation.
The city of Merida was well off the beaten track when I first saw it in the early 1980s. A sense of torpor and graceful decay pervaded all. Horse-drawn calesas clip-clopped along empty streets. An old man slowly mopped tiles under the grand arches of our ancient hotel.
A quarter-century later, returning for a family vacation, Merida had changed. Public squares thrummed at night with live music and dance. Colonnaded buildings and private homes had been restored to their original grandeur.
Odd details stick in your mind: The grace of an elderly couple dancing to music in the square; a particular shade of blue on the walls; the riotous noise of birds in the trees at dusk. Back home, you search the online real estate listings and lurk on forums where expatriates share tips about scorpions and septic systems. You realize you can buy a house in a nice neighborhood for as little as the price of a kitchen renovation here at home.
That's how I ended up earlier this year holding the keys to our own,  slightly dilapidated,  century-old casa mexicana. Along the way I learned that a lot of Canadians and Americans are doing the same thing. Some are also from Victoria.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Article: At home in Mexico

I am excited that my article is out this morning in the latest issue of Victoria's Boulevard magazine. If you're interested you can read it online . The website navigation's a bit cumbersome but you can find "At home in Mexico" on page 34. I'll also post the whole story shortly, either here or on my website.
I'm very grateful to the people who shared their stories with me while I was researching the story, including Juanita Stein, the editor of Yucatan Today in Merida, as well as Michael Cullin and Evelyn Butler.
Like all stories, a lot of great material gets left on the cutting-room floor, but their stories and observations have really stuck with me and I hope to write more about them soon.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Almost there!

It's exactly one year  since I put in an offer on the green house hidden behind a huge tree. In a week I'll be back and I think we're just about ready to get those renovations underway. Lots has happened since my previous rather glum observations on progress (or lack of it).  Plans are done. We have some bids for different parts of the work and expect a couple more in the next few days. Permits are in the works and our architect estimated they'd be done within days. It sounds like at least some of the work can start right away once we make our decisions on who's doing what. So far it looks like the first stage of renovations might just be do-able within my very modest budget. I hope to have the original part of the house rewired, replumbed, with repaired walls as needed (and one wall removed), painted, polished, and fitted with new fans and lighting. Also, renovation of the single existing bathroom...will the money stretch far enough to cover the walls in limestone? 
In past renovations of other houses I've done at least a bit of the grunt work, sometimes a lot: demolition, drywall, plastering, painting, landscaping. Mostly stuff that doesn't involve complex math or precision cuts.
 This time I don't expect I'll be much use on the jobsite. I figure I've got time to take some Spanish lessons, so I will perhaps be able to comprehend at least a bit more of the neighbors' conversation.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Terrific story about moving to Merida

If you're wondering why people keep coming to this too-hot, partly crumbling, hard-to-get-to place in a country with a highly publicized drug war (in other parts), Beryl Gorbman captures it well in this Wall Street Journal story.
I find myself hoping it brings lots more people here, and also hoping it doesn't.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Going to the bloggers' conference

For the past couple of years the voices of bloggers have provided information, entertainment, encouragement and sometimes words of caution in our, well mostly my, pursuit of the Merida dream. They share household budgets, renovation stories, experiences with festivals and food, heat and occasional cold, bugs, floods, crime (and its relative infrequency). They talk about fabulous cultural events and occasional culture clashes, learning the language and becoming part of the community. To me they made everything seem possible and somewhat familiar.
I've never even met any of them. So I'm looking forward to attending the Latin American Bloggers' Conference in Merida Nov. 12-14. At first I wasn't sure if I qualified as a Latin American blogger. After all we're not living there yet, and won't be more than vacation-time residents for quite some time, from the looks of things. But they're a welcoming bunch so I'm very pleased to get to go. If you have a chance to read these bloggers (linked from the conference website or just over there on the right on this blog) be forewarned. You might catch the sickness that makes semi-sensible people go off in search of real estate in charming, out-of-the-way, at-times hellishly hot places.
A couple of recent blog discoveries (one's a rediscovery) have been delightful: I recommend the recent posts about heat in An Alaskan in Yucatan and Yucatan Yenta (see Yenta's hilarious entry under "Merida, the schvitzing capitol of the world").
 Soon I will be schvitzing along with them.

In The Yucatan: Neighborhoods: La Ermita de Santa Isabel

Here's a video about the charming Ermita de Santa Isabel neighborhood where I stayed last year. When I rented a little house near the square over the internets, I had very little information about the neighborhood. I was a little bit anxious about staying in an unfamiliar area outside the tourist zone, but I loved it. Isn't it pretty?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

First frost

First frost on the roofs in Victoria this morning. In three weeks I'll be on a plane to the tropics. I'll escape two weeks of my least-favourite month in Victoria. November is usually so dark and rainy; it seems like all the light has gone out of the world.
Not much progress on the renovation front, at least not that I can see. I received an estimate for roof repair and waterproofing that is about a quarter of my entire renovation budget for this year, and several times the price paid by other people I heard from. Who knows, maybe it's the world's best waterproofing job, or the world's worst roof. I haven't had time yet to explore these questions, and hurricane season is over in a couple of weeks, so there might be time to get the answers before plunging into that job.
Our friends Ted and Kathryn joked about us buying "a house made out of computer drawings" and I admit I spend more time mooning over the mock-ups of the rooms than the "before" pictures. So it's going to be a bit of a rude shock for me when I get back to Merida and the very primitive accomodations awaiting me: missing light fixtures, peeled paint, no furniture (I'm bringing a hammock), no kitchen appliances. Oh yeah, worst of all, no wifi. Urban camping, I guess you could call it. Or squatting in our own house.
I had hoped by now the electrical work, at least, would be done, but it will happen when it happens.
It shouldn't be such a terrible hardship (except for the wifi). The market and food kiosks are a block away, and a block away there's also a pretty restaurant where I had great shrimp cocktail one afternoon, and they urged me to try their breakfasts next time. There's also a highly recommended comida economica right around the corner. At least I hope it's still there.  It will be my vacation from cooking. And there are lots of places to use the internet.
So for Kathryn and Ted, and a reality check for myself, here are some more "before" and computer-simulated "after" pix:

This is now the living room

It will become the dining room

main bedroom looking towards study

main bedroom- after

ugly bathroom
who is the dude in our new shower?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Freshening up

Should be cleaning the house in preparation for (Canadian) Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow, but instead I've been fixing up the blog. It started because I wanted to use an image of the pasta tiles from the front room of our house as a background picture for the page. The old blog template didn't seem to want to accommodate that sort of customization, so I ended up finding a new one. Then I figured the picture of the mystery building in my neighborhood, which I'm using under the blog title, deserved a bit of photoshop lipstick. The fiddling around just continued from there.
My blog-improvement project, like the Thanksgiving housecleaning, does have a reason. I'm anticipating I might have some new visitors in the next few weeks, as I am about to come out as a member of the hordes who are buying into the Mexican Dream. Victoria's Boulevard magazine is publishing in their November/December issue my story about local people (ourselves included) buying, building and renovating homes down Mexico way. Among the current and former Victorians featured in the story, I was pleased to "meet" (via skype) Yucatan Today editor Juanita Stein and her husband Jan Zak, who cashed in their chips in Victoria and moved to Merida about five years ago.
There's never enough space in print to share all the great details and anecdotes, so I hope to say more in future blog posts about what I learned from Juanita and the others who I met in the course of writing this article. One thing really sticks in my mind, though, and eases my mind when I wake up some nights thinking I've taken a foolish risk with this Merida thing: they are all so happy they did this.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Readers have questions...

Some friends checked out this blog recently and had a few questions that made me realize I should fill in some of the details about our wild Yucatan house-buying adventure. Such as: where is it, and what's with the computer people in the images?
Jo-Ann wanted to know which house we actually bought, out of the many I viewed and posted about here last year.
Here it is, the morning after we massacred the overgrown ficus tree in front, in March. The leaves have grown back since then but it needs another pruning to give it a decent shape and keep the branches out of the overhead wires.
Our casa is about a dozen blocks east of the Plaza Grande where everyone goes for concerts and dancing and big events. It's in a residential neighborhood called Chem Bech, which is the name of the market about a block away whose vendors sell everything from fresh fish and fruit to toilet paper. I can't find too much information about Chem Bech online but, judging from the mural on the front wall of the building, it appears that it might have been the historic site of a Mayan market of some sort. I'll research this and get back to you on it.
Here's what the back of the house looks like now
Here's the post-reno concept, courtesy estilo arquitectura

Friday, October 8, 2010

Counting the days

Suddenly I'm just a few weeks away from returning to Merida.
It's exciting and anxious-making. I should have a list of things to do and things to bring. When I try to write one my mind goes blank. It's probably because I'm not sure what state the house will be in by the time I get there Nov. 7th.
Lots has happened in recent weeks, but the house is still unsullied by renovation rubble. Some recent progress, on paper:

  • We have a fideicomiso - the documents confirming our ownership through a bank trust. It is now in the hands of the architect's office.
  • The architect is apparently preparing to apply for renovation permits, now that they have show proof of our ownership of the place.
  • Plans for the reno are nearly complete, I think. One of the most thrilling parts is a plan for perfect little casita, a tiny building with its own bathroom and interior garden, in the narrow extra dogleg of the property that had looked like a useless strip of land.
  • I'm waiting for estimates of costs for the first phase of the reno, which will be a basic upgrade to the original part of the house, and, if it's within the budget, a redo of the existing bathroom. The pool, the guest bedroom and second bathroom, the casita, the big kitchen renovation, will all have to wait. That's okay with me, though Tom is of the view that we should do everything in the reno plans all at once.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"Then it was deathly quiet"

25 years ago today, at 7:19 a.m., an 8.1-magnitude earthquake shook Mexico City. The seven-minute tremor caused an estimated 10,000 deaths and left at least 250,000 homeless.
I had just begun work that week for the English-language Mexico City News.  
In memory of that day and the thousands of lives lost in the earthquake, here is my account published a few days after the quake, in the daily Vancouver Sun.
A collapsed school

Special to the Sun

Mexico City -- When the pitching finally stopped in the fourth floor apartment, when the building stopped cracking and shaking, the sounds of screams and breaking glass subsided.

We stumbled to a window to look outside, just in time to see a nearby apartment building slowly tilt and then topple from the skyline.

Across the street the facade had fallen from another building, exposing the rooms inside like a doll-house.

On the radio, the announcer instructed: “Maintain absolute calm. The worst is over. Don’t got to work, don’t go to school.”

But in the battered streets, calm was an impossibility.

In the ruins, volunteers began scrambling through the rubble minutes after the last shudders of the quake had faded, as clouds of dust still hung in the air.

When the quake first hit last Thursday, I half-woke in confusion and thought my bed had broken. Then there was another violent shake and suddenly I was awake.

The earthquake lasted seven minutes. Dishes fell from shelves, walls cracked noisily, and the building lurched far enough over that it seemed certain to crash down. Then it righted itself as the earth buckled again.

There was the sound of crashing and screams. And then it was deathly quiet.

The three of us in the apartment — Warren O’Briain of Victoria, Ellen Saenger of Abbotsford and myself, all journalists with the Mexico City News — were safe and unharmed.

Heading out into the neighborhood, we found buildings collapsed or damaged on every block.

We wandered through the streets, and tried to call home on payphones that didn’t function.

The devastation around us was beyond comprehension.

We watched rescue workers search through the jumble of concrete and steel that had once been a building, calling for silence when one thought he heard a survivor’s voice.

The quake cut a swath through the heart of the city. Hospital buildings collapsed; downtown hotels, government buildings, press offices, banks and schools were destroyed. The stock exchange was badly damaged. All around were the sights and sounds and smells of disaster: crowds running in fear at the discovery of leaking gas lines at the huge Multifamiliar Juarez housing complex. The smell of gas in the streets. Women sobbing on strangers’ shoulders. Medical attendants on the street dressing wounds. A teenaged girl standing at a street corner across from her collapsed home, pleading for help from passers-by. Hospital staff dressed in their scrubs, atop a pancaked hospital, pulling at broken concrete with bare hands.

At the central medical complex, nurses and interns joined rescue workers searching for survivors in the devastated nurses’ residence at Juarez hospital. The maternity wing had also collapsed, killing as yet uncounted mothers and babies.

Workers formed bucket brigades to douse fires that have flared periodically since the Thursday morning quake.

“There are still many people alive in there,” said Dr. Juan Aguilar Rodriguez, the hospital director.

“There are groups of 10, 15, 20 people who were in different parts of the tower and they are asking for help.”

He said it was possible that among those trapped were about 30 medical students who were attending a class.

Aguilar Rodriguez estimated there were 800 to 900 people in the hospital when the earthquake struck at 7:20 a.m. Thursday.

“It was a time in which there were many people because there was a shift change, some people were coming in and others hadn’t left yet,” he said, and 350 of the hospital’s 680 beds were occupied.

Others in the building included doctors, nurses, social workers and maintenance and cleaning crews, he said.

By Saturday morning, 32 bodies and 140 injured had been removed from the wreckage, but it was not known how many others might have been able to escape before the building collapsed.

Aguilar Rodriguez said the known dead included the chiefs of surgery, intensive care, equipment and maternity services.

“They all died at their posts,” he said. “We have lost very valuable, capable people.”

Hundreds of people crowded outside the structure, seeking news of relatives who had been in the building.

Rescuers around the city were still combing the wreckage for survivors as the second quake struck Friday.

Weakened buildings fell into the street near the downtown newspaper offices where we work. And for the second time, hundreds were trapped in the subway.

After the second quake, throngs of people fled from buildings in the centre of the city to pitch tents in central parks. They huddled with sheets wrapped around their shoulders, a few salvaged possessions piled beside them. When the parks filled, they huddled on street corners and later, on traffic medians.

To navigate the streets at night, vehicles zig-zag between burning pots of pitch that mark the narrow passage through roads clogged with rubble.

The streets today are still jammed with trucks and buses and mini-vans converted to emergency vehicles.

On some streets, amid the rubble, hang gay decorations — reminders of the 175th anniversary of Mexico’s Independence Day, the Sunday before the quake. The vast square in front of the National Palace that was packed with people for independence celebrations is now filled with army trucks.

In the collapsed seven-story apartment near the building where I was staying, we were told only the ground floor residents escaped. During the weekend, rescuers continued to comb the rubble, finding the dead and hoping still for the living.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Fairs and fair weather

Did I mention I bought my tickets to Merida for November?
A priority was to schedule this trip around the 3rd annual Latin American Bloggers Conference. When I first heard about this conference last year it was a revelation that bloggers could actually meet in meatspace. How quaint! I didn't know if I was eligible to join the confab. Could I be considered a Latin American blogger while still living full-time "NOB"? Lucky for me, the answer is yes.
I'm looking forward to meeting many of the bloggers from Merida and elsewhere who have guided and inspired (incited?) me in our own adventure in Mexican real estate. Also some tips on how to do this blog thing. At least I'm no longer posting pictures facing sideways. Who knows what else I can learn?
Of course the conference is just over the weekend of Nov. 12-14 and so there will be time to get house-related things done. I am fervently hoping we'll have plans and permits and people actually working on the renovation by then, but we'll see.
Meanwhile there is also much to explore in and around Merida,  just for fun and fascination. The XXXVI Feria Yucatan Xmatkuil, for instance. There are many smaller fairs in the towns and villages where locals display the distinctive arts and products of their area, such as stone carving or leatherwork or hammocks. But what Canadian wouldn't make the time to visit a big state fair where the highlight last year was the "Snow Zone" where people can slide and make snowmen with real snow?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Fantasy and reality

Some good things are happening:
- The lawyer says he now has the documents we need so the architect can apply for permits.
- The latest money transfer arrived safely in the new Monex account (after the last one vanished between my bank and HSBC in Merida.)
- I'm booked to return to Merida in November (escaping the darkest, dreariest month in Victoria).
- Our architect sent new plans for a perfect little casita at the end of the useless, overgrown dogleg of land at the back of our property.
- Our property manager said the heavy rains had not flooded the house in our absence.

Some not-good things are also happening:
- I had a worry about the roof in all this rain and asked Maggie if we could check it to see how the waterproofing was holding up. Bad news. Lots of cracks and even a spot where water is pooling. Also signs of excess humidity and water permeating inside. 
- An ominous crack in a newer interior wall.
The house (in the pictures Maggie sent) is definitely looking worse than it did in the spring, and the severely pruned ficus has grown back a new crop of leaves but is definitely muy feo. After months of looking at the dreamy architects' images of perfect rooms filled with perfect fake people, it is quite a reality check.
The pictures of the casita make me feel much happier than the pictures of the cracks and the water on the roof. Unfortunately the casita is one of those nice-to-have things that is destined to remain a fantasy for a long time to come. The reality is roof and masonry repairs that I wasn't planning for. I'm hoping they can wait until the rain stops and the renovations are finally underway. 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Zombies and scorpions

Finally got to Vancouver this weekend for a long-planned lunch with Georgina. We met on the flight back to B.C. from Merida last November. I  had just put an offer on what would become our place. She's owned her home since 2006.
We've exchanged emails and photos since then but it was great to get together and compare notes and experiences, hear tips and suggestions. I learned what to do when a huge scorpion shows up in the bedroom (drench it with a spray can of "Home Defense"). Her house is beautiful and simple, with original and salvaged character details and simple features like crushed white gravel in the courtyard instead of high-maintenance grass. It's an inspiration for the way I'd love our house to look and feel.
Afterwards my bus was delayed by zombies. I didn't realize there was a zombie walk underway on Robson Street . They smeared fake blood all over the bus windows. So funny and charming. Sometimes I miss living in this city.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Hablando un poco

On the bright side, I finally got the details of a long-running Spanish conversation group here in Victoria and summoned the nerve to show up. I figured I'd just drop by the cafe where it meets, buy a coffee and check it out from a distance. But I recognized the parent of one of our kids' friends in the group, and went over to chat, and it was all so friendly and interesting I ended up staying and meeting a bunch of nice people. It was great to hear Spanish spoken so far from Mexico. I yakked away but felt a bit embarrassed by my mangling of the language. I only really know verbs in the present tense and I often fumble and stumble and use the wrong words for things, like vecino (neighbor) instead of vecindad (neighborhood). But I'm keen to have a chance to practise and improve, and The Victoria Conversational Spanish Group provides some more motivation to improve. 

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The money thing

You wouldn't think sending money from Canada to Mexico would be too difficult. We buy stuff online. I've got a paypal account. Almost all my bills at home are paid automatically, straight out of the bank account, so I barely even think about them.
By contrast I'm finding that transferring money to Mexico is old-fashioned, fairly expensive and a bit unpredictable.
I thought I had it figured out. After a bit of back and forth to sort out the accounts and clave numbers and swift numbers and  such,  payments were successfully sent to the people who are holding the fort for us in Merida. Then one payment seemed to get lost between the Canadian credit union and the Mexican bank branch. We're trying to trace what happened to that transfer (cost of trace: $35CDN). Fortunately the lost transfer wasn't for a lot of money, so it feels a bit like an experiment. Meanwhile I'm trying to set up a new payment to a different account through a different bank, and once again the information I have doesn't seem to match what the bank needs. An account number has 17 digits and it should have 18. It isn't clear if the address field is supposed to contain the address of the Mexican bank or the person who is the final recipient. So I must track down the info, and trek back to the bank if I can find a time when it's open and I'm not at work, and spend another half hour or so standing there, trying to sort it all out with a bank teller. I hope this gets easier because it takes a lot of time.
The bank transfers cost $15 to $30 (dollars, not pesos) depending on the bank and the amount of the transfer, which seems like a lot to send a fairly modest sum. On the other hand, the bank's labour costs for processing each of these transfers would also be pretty steep.
I wonder if anyone else has found a better way to do this? I'd be interested in hearing about it.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

On Mexican time and Victoria weather

Last evening we could see our breath at a friend's backyard barbecue. In August! It's been that kind of "summer" here in Victoria. Never really warm; generally pretty cold. The thought of having a place to escape to in Merida somehow gives me insulation against the chill. I can go there in my mind and remember the heat and I just don't feel as cold.
Meanwhile, progress towards actual physical work on the Merida house is affected by a familiar delay: paperwork. Our lawyer has not yet received the fideicomiso and catastral documents which are needed by the architect, presumably to prove ownership and apply for building permits.  It has been more than four months since the purchase of the house was completed. I was surprised when the lawyer told me this was a normal period of time. In total I've spent eight months waiting for paperwork and bureaucratic processes, since it also took about four months to get a new survey and other documents needed to complete the purchase back in March.
If this was happening in Victoria I'd be pretty frantic by now. That's because if we'd bought a "cheap" fixer-upper in Victoria it would have cost about 10x as much, and the interest costs on a mortgage would be killing us while it sat empty. For a little while I was prodding the lawyer for updates on progress every week like clockwork, but I was clearly not actually helping anything from here, 3,000 miles away, and really just being a pest to the three people actually doing the work of obtaining the papers. So now, I just wait.
I believe the heat and the slower pace of Merida life is teaching me to relax and slow down, and I'm actually enjoying letting go of my compulsive busy-ness. Our friend Morley once suggested my tombstone might read "She got a lot done." Maybe we'll get to rewrite that, in time.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Who has seen the fideicomiso?

The weeks go by here punctuated by plans and pictures. We joke about the identity of the strangers who appear in the mock-up images of our future renovated house. Who's the glamorous woman in stilettos in our bedroom? Who's the guy in the red trunks in the shower?  They are a lot like the Sims characters our daughter used to create, only their backstory is more of a mystery.
Meanwhile other messages from Merida contain tantalizing references to it being "time for the beach." I read somewhere that things slow down in the next month and many offices close down. I was obviously, typically, over-optimistic in my earlier anticipation that actual renovations would be well underway before the end of the summer, but it doesn't really seem to matter at all. I'm usually rush-rush, but maybe I'm experiencing mananafication, without even being anywhere near the Yucatan. I think that's part of the reason for this whole project, so it seems to be working.
Except...the architect now needs paperwork to move to the next stage. Presumably for construction approvals. I know, I should know the details. They need the fideicomiso (for the uninitiated, this is the document for the bank trust which holds title to the property). They also need a "cedula catastral "and "croquis catastral". These are words I never encountered in my previous Spanish classes and I keep going back to Google Translate to try to figure out exactly what a cadastre or catastre is, in this context. Some kind of ownership/land description certificate?
Whatever the translation, I clearly don't have them. I know the fideicomiso wasn't ready yet, last time I was in Merida to pick up the keys to the house and start getting it into shape, pre-renovation. I didn't really mind. I wasn't sure what to do with it. The one my realtor showed me was a huge binder full of pages. Am I supposed to keep it with me in Canada, or should our property manager keep it? It doesn't seem like the kind of thing to leave in an empty house. It seemed safer with the lawyer or the realtor until I figured this out. Still, I had some of those anxious feelings, kind of  like the dreams you have about forgetting your baby in the mall.
Anyway, I check on the location of the fideicomiso and other mystery documents, and it seems the lawyer hasn't received them yet. It's nearly 4 months after the sale closed, and he says it normally takes 3-4 months for the fideicomiso to arrive. I guess we'll see if it shows up soon, or perhaps we'll have some delays while the city shuts down for beach time.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


I feel about two tons lighter today. Submitted the final project for my web foundations course, and will give a brief presentation tonight. It was a bit of a late night, partly because I finally read the details of the assignment and saw that I needed to create at least one photo gallery. I wasn't really planning one, so I had to scramble a bit but it was fun to play with the architect's "vistas" for make an aspirational web page for our house, which I've provisionally named Casa Verde . I know. Very original. No, there isn't  a pool, yet, but it will happen.
Anyway now I will return emails (If you've sent one recently, sorry, I haven't been ignoring you), pull weeds in the garden, shave the dog, fix the car, catch up on other people's blog posts I've missed, and eat something that isn't from a take-out place or from the frozen foods aisle. What have I missed?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Pretty pictures

Even though I haven't posted much lately I've been busy with Merida-related stuff. Writing a magazine article about people from our city (Victoria) buying, building and renovating homes in Mexico. Working on a website to advertise the house for rentals. And every week or so dreamy pictures show up in my inbox from Victor Cruz at Estilo Yucatan. It is way too much fun to moon over the plans and visualizations of our eventual renovation. I am oddly amused by the way our proposed sala is populated with attractive young people. We must get some of those too. By total coincidence, a couple of them even look like our real kids (though not the ones in this image). This front room is created by taking down the doorless wall that separates the entrance hall from the dark and dingy front bedroom. That bedroom was only accessible from the middle bedroom, and it was obviously created in an earlier renovation that chopped up a big front room. I'm more of a rustic than a modern type, but it's neat to see this treatment, and I like the floor lighting, even though I was thinking of unobtrusive sconces. What do you think?

Friday, May 28, 2010

Architectural daydreaming

We are far away from Merida these days but I am frequently roaming the spaces in our empty house in my mind. It is made easy by the emailed architectural plans that Victor Cruz from Estilo  has been sending for our comments. Yes, we decided to get an architect's help rather than my usual approach of drawing up basic plans on my own, with the inevitable mistakes and miscalculations. I have to say I am thrilled that we did this. The solutions and options Victor proposes are things we would never have come up with on our own. Even so, his proposals are in keeping with my cheapskate minimalist approach to renovations. I've been sharing the drawings here and there, getting feedback, and basically having a great old time inhabiting these imaginary spaces. In one proposal, a wall is opened between the entrance hall and the dark, dingy front bedroom to create a new living room. The add-on bedroom at the back gets two pairs of doors that open onto the patio and the future pool. There's a charming kitchen island. Both plans have drawbacks (mostly to do with bathroom access), but they're beautiful.
Meanwhile, a persistent worry about the house has been largely relieved with the onset of the rains, because the house didn't flood. I am a bit of a worrier, and I kept thinking that the back patio, which is two steps up from the main house and covered in concrete, could be a problem. But the roof drainage seems to be working fine.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Google Streetview - yes!

Okay, I should be doing homework, or paying bills, or cleaning the house. But I just had to do some exploring around our new neighborhood now that Google Streetview is online for Merida. I counted the blocks to the new Sendero Mall, which Debbie and Lexy showed me several months ago during a quick scan of local amenities. 11 blocks, not bad. I know the bus to the mall stops very close to our house. It should satisfy many Gringo cravings with its big Soiriana food emporium. There's a Parisina fabric store, and I know they had bolts of inexpensive linen, which could be just the thing to cover the big windows in the front of the house. And apparently a great taco place. More local sights to come in future posts.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Here comes everybody

Yolisto flags a new story about the government of Mexico's dream of luring millions of  U.S. citizens to retire south of the border, from The Miami Herald: "Mexico's big hope: get 5 million U.S. retirees" 

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Mayan message

Graffiti on a wall in Merida, Calle 51 near the corner of 52. Haven't seen anything like this here before. Beautiful, but do you wonder about what stirs under the polite surface of a culture with such long experience of plunder, enslavement and subjugation?  Ronald Wright's Time among the Maya was a great, although dated, exploration of the Mayan world and its modern context. Still, I am keen to learn more.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The "new" Merida Initiative

Do you think someone liked my blog's name?
I guess I should take it as a compliment. Interestingly the article, in part, seems to sum up our general plan: "Their focus now is on smaller residential properties with long-term value in places that have a sense of community and an active social life...They want lower-cost properties in desirable locations that they can use now for vacation homes and rental income. They want them to be good quality and low maintenance, preferably with on-site rental management. And they want to be able to retire comfortably in these properties when the time comes..."

...April 11 On further thought, there are a number of things in the article that don't actually reflect our checklist, such as on-site rental management...and the article refers to calculations of "'QTR'… Quality Time Remaining", which sounds awfully cold and actuarial, especially in reference to people who are a long way from conventional retirement age...

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Manana myth

Back in Victoria with a notebook full of experiences from my first few days getting down to work on the long to-do list for our new Merida house. Although I must credit others for doing most of the work. A lot got done!

On Sunday I picked up the house keys and met property manager Maggie Cardena. She is effiicient! On Monday the huge tree that hid the house was hacked back to a manageable (though temporarily leafless) size. A shiny new deadbolt lock on the gate replaced the puny padlock and chain, we'd met the neighbors and the tax/water and electrical accounts were getting sorted out. All thanks to Maggie.

El Arbol, before and after: I knew there was a house under there somewhere!

Did I mention we have electricity? I had assumed the account was shut down, but on Maggie's suggestion I tried the main breaker (duh!), and instantly we had lights and fans. Funny how a bit of electricity can be all it takes to make a house seem quite liveable.

I was surprised and impressed by how efficiently things got done. Julio and his assistant worked strenuously all day at the big fig tree with just a machete and an axe. No power tools. I guess gas is more expensive than labour. Before the cutting began, we had to find someone to move two pickup trucks that were parked under the shade of the tree. So Maggie and Julio marched down to the market a block away (I tagged along, feeling like a bit of a goof) and they asked around to find the owner. They found him - and he wasn't too happy about losing his shady spot, but probably better than having his camionetas dented by large falling branches.

For my part I managed to get the floors more or less washed, though I don't know if I will ever get the hang of the Mexican squeegee method.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


What do you think happens if you put the stopper in the kitchen sink when the tap has a drip, then leave the place unattended for a few weeks, or maybe months? Yep, I had some squeegeeing to do after I picked up the key and got inside the gate at our new Merida house for the first time this morning. Doesn't seem like the tiles are damaged from the flooding, but we'll see how it looks after I purchase some cleaning supplies and get down to work on it tomorrow. Score one for tile floors. Back home this would have caused thousands of dollars of damage to carpets, wood floors, subflooring and whatever was below.
Anyway, things improved after that. Neighbors introduced themselves on their way past. Maggie came by with information on getting the big tree cut back and new locks, and helped sort through the mysteries of the status of the electrical and water accounts, and the property taxes, and how much cleaning and maintenance is needed on a house that's soon to be covered in construction dust. It's good to know there are straightforward answers to these types of challenges.
After that, several hours of reading and lazing around, avoiding the afternoon heat (I think I'm finally getting the hang of this) and an evening stroll to take in the scene in the Plaza Grande: great live music, the street full of people dancing in the languid tropical way, old men elegant in crisp white guayabera shirts and dress pants, lots of kids, everyone appearing to be enjoying themselves and each other's company, and the obligatory cheese-filled Marquesita, my new favourite street snack.
Not a bad way to live, I think.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Made it to Merida in record time (for us)

So it took 12 hours from boarding in Victoria to arriving at the Merida ADO bus depot today. Not bad, though pretty tiring. I wanted to see how hard it is to get here without an overnight layover in some city where you don't really want to be, like Mexico City or Cancun. It is definitely worth it to just get right off the plane and on the bus, though I will need to figure out the airport-to-bus-depot shuttle scheme a bit better. In one of those funny coincidences I shared the combi ride with a couple who also happened to be from Vancouver Island; a lovely nurse and a veterinarian who have spent the last week exploring Mayan ruins and other Yucatan sights. 
In Centro tonight the streets are busy with people walking around and looking relaxed. There's subdued jazz and pleasant chatter drifting over from a restaurant behind the Hotel del Peregrino where I'm staying. A nice vibe to come back to.

Monday, March 22, 2010

We have a house. Now what?

Got the email while sitting in my evening class, saying the purchase of our Merida house is completed. Lucky I'd paid for the house insurance the day before.

What we've got is a cool, though slightly dilapidated, colonial house in a fascinating city in the tropics, for the price of a proper kitchen renovation here in Victoria (which we still need, unfortunately). I know there are a lot of expenses yet to come, but so far the arrangement agrees with my bargain-hunting, thrift-store-shopping, curb-scavenging soul.
Here at home it's the time of pink snow. The peach and plum tree blossoms are falling and drifting at the curb and along the sidewalks. I wonder what the season will be like in the Yucatan - according to the dialogue on Yolisto it sounds like the weather has been fairly unpredictable and weird. It's been so busy here, there hasn't been much time for arranging useful things to do while I'm in Merida next week, but at least I'll have a set of keys and the ability to come and go. Maybe I'll buy a bottle of vinegar and spend a whole day cleaning the mineral deposits off the kitchen taps, or hack back the 10-foot tall weeds in the back. Or just hang a hammock and read.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Almost there

That's what our realtor says: We're almost there. Friday is the tentative closing day for the purchase of our house. In less than three weeks I'll be there, a short trip, to do....something or other. Get the electricity turned on? Arrange for someone to manage the property in our absence? Get some help with renovation plans? Try to refrain from buying anything to put in the house that isn't a light fixture or a fan? I see school's out the week I'm there. Will anything be open during Semana Santa (which appears to be dos semanas in practice)? 
It all seems surreal, and there's little time to plan because it's a hectic time here at home with work and classes and kids' trips and complications from dental surgery (our daughter's, not mine).
Here in Victoria it's suddenly cold, after weeks of balmy weather that seemed to coax everything into brilliant bloom. On Sunday it rained, making the chartreuse new growth and billows of pink plum blossoms and heather look especially luminous against the watery grey background. It's not the time of year when you think I've got to get out of here. But I'm still looking forward to getting back to Merida for a few days at least.
It is 25 years since we first set out to make a home in Mexico. It was a plan that didn't hold together long. The 1985 earthquake in Mexico City was more than a jolt of harsh reality. Everything after it was, for me, overlaid with a sense of threat. Even without the complications of a natural disaster, we had moved with no real sense of what it would be like to live in Mexico, or any foreign country. There was a young person's lack of realism about the challenges. I wanted to be a foreign correspondent in Latin America like The Globe and Mail's Oakland Ross. Not quite the same thing as writing about the peso exchange rates for a 22,000-circulation ex-pat rag in Mexico City,  for the equivalent of $7USD a day. We were snowbacks, working on a tourist visa.
It's different this time.We're better informed and more realistic, thanks to bloggers and friends and fabulous online resources. Others have blazed the path and shared their learning. I think we're ready?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Putting our money where my mouth is

Feeling light-headed today. Could be because I went to the credit union and transferred a sum about the size of a very small down payment on a Victoria house, to pay in full the cost of our Merida casita. I'm told the sale could be finalized by the end of the week.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Our house in Merida - officially (sort of)

We have a house, or a  contract to buy one, anyway. A "promesa de compraventa" is signed and "earnest money" has changed hands. Now, we're told, the contract is ironclad and awaits paperwork, including the creation of a bank trust to hold the title, known as a fideicomiso. Three or four weeks and it will be ours. Yikes! What have I done? Pardon the jitters, I'm sure they'll pass.
It is hard to believe it's real. For four months since I was last in Merida and made an offer on this house, we've waited for a technical issue with the deed to be sorted out. We were advised not to sign a contract of purchase before the issue was settled. So the house could have been purchased by someone else in the meantime if they put forward a better offer (though they would have had the same problem.)
In the meantime, other cute houses were listed and sold, the Canadian dollar rose and fell against the USD (the preferred currency of foreign real estate purchase in Mexico), and I tried not to think too far ahead.
 Now the list-making begins: How do we hook up utilities (or do we even want to do that before the renovations are underway)? How do we arrange for work to be done on the house while we are here in Canada? I know many people hire an architect (something that is not common for lower-end renos in Canada) but is an architect necessary for a basic upgrade that doesn't move walls or add to a building? Is it advisable to arrange for a property manager before the house is ready to be lived in?
Can I get there in a month or so to arrange to get work underway, or should I wait? Do tradespeople continue working through the scorchingest months or is there a break in the action during the late spring/summer?

I think the first thing I'd like to do is some extreme pruning on the giant ficus tree in front of the house. It is getting into the overhead wires. Does anyone have recommendations for a careful tree-pruner? Do I need any kind of permit or approval from the power company to get this done?
This is a whole new chapter and I've got a lot to learn.