Lampshades in Paradise

It starts out as a dream.  A small wish, a tickle in your imagination, as you stretch out on a quiet tropical beach on a perfect 82 degree day.  I could live here.  It starts out innocently enough.  A week in Puerto Vallarta with a friend, in her Dad’s time-share up the beach a bit.  You’re young.  You can’t even remember the name of it now.  An impulse.  Lured by a free week at an ocean front condo and a frequent flyer ticket, you’re there.   Drinking cheap beer on the beach, watching amazing sunsets with Miguel, snapshots on your point-and-shoot camera.

You go back years later.  The next time with a boyfriend.  The time after that with friends.  Then you’re fine by yourself.  After that with your husband.  You find new places together.  The trips happen more frequently.  So much to see!  Now you know people, and feel at home there.  You bring your children, sullen and sunburned.  They’ll understand it – they’ll like it when they’re older!  You go anyway.

After staying in every dismal little hotel by the beach, enduring every broken or rattling air conditioner, every idling city bus, every unruly neighborhood dog and noisy rooster, you are ready for your own place.  You buy a time-share on the beach.  It seemed like a good idea at the time, fueled by high-pressure hustlers and too much free tequila.  The next stage of the dream.

You like it at first – it’s easy!  Just like a hotel, really.  It’s furnished, maids come on schedule, things are repaired and maintained magically.  Unpack and you’re ready to roll.  Eventually you notice something’s missing.  You miss the sense of it being…yours.  You can’t leave personal items, your favorite pillows, your art on the walls, and have to adhere to a rigid schedule and other people are living there when you’re not.  Suddenly it seems more like a hotel, really.

The dream moves on with a life of its own.  You want your own place in paradise.  Despite the well-intentioned energies of whatever real estate agent you work with, it will most likely happen when you’re not looking.  You’re just walking along on the sidewalk, and see a sign.  A friend drags you along to see a property she’s interested in.  You’re just visiting someone, who mentions a place that’s available.  It won’t hurt to look.

Then you’re in love.  You find yourself signing papers written in Spanish, wiring money, emailing friends for advice, most of which is…don’t do it.  You do it anyway.  Buying a place already furnished is a charming thought, but if you do what I did and bought new construction, this is what you can look forward to.

In my case, I bought my little casita based on a fabulous infinity pool (the developer wisely installed the common area prior to selling the units) and a sketchy floor plan, in metric and Spanish – two languages I’m only vaguely familiar with.  The location was dead center to where I wanted to be.  I was familiar with the site, which housed a delapitated collection of brick bungalows on a small rise just a couple blocks from the beach.  I had friends who stayed there year after year, lamented its demise and expected pool privileges for life.  I climbed up a ladder to imagine the anticipated view.  It was minimally an ocean view, but still “counted”.  I signed the papers.  Bank wires rolled on.  I returned to Vallarta three months before delivery to plan for furniture.  I was told it took awhile.

I had no idea.  I walked through the casita, a two-room studio, metric tape measure and notebook in hand.  I laid out a basic floorplan with masking tape and then went shopping.  There are three ways to shop in Puerto Vallarta.  (1) You are really rich and smart and hire a designer who does it all for you.  (2) You are almost as rich, but even smarter, speak fluent Spanish and arrange shopping adventures in five-hour-away Guadalajara with trusted friends and arrange truckloads full of stuff.  My plan was (3) not-at-all rich and taking the bus to far-flung stores which are ALWAYS on the other side of town, and my notebook, and providing endless entertainment to the ever-accomodating Mexican merchants.

Virtually everything must be made on order, to your specifications.  Especially upholstered things, couches, dressers, anything that needs to fit in a precise space.  The ready-made stuff appeals to Mexican sensibilities.  Think the US in the 60’s.  Maybe Jersey.  Mafia chic.  Chrome, brass, nagahyde, formica, lots of mirrors and glitz.  The good news is that the custom stuff doesn’t cost much more than the ready-made, but it takes a long time to materialize and is actually made in Guadalajara (see plan #2).  There is lots of room for error and it will always be your fault.  I had my sectional couch made at a place locally that actually did its own work.  It’s weird and hard and the seam split and the legs don’t quite match up, but such a deal.  My parota-wood dresser was a splurge, but worth every cent.  Delivered late, but eventually delivered.  Table and chairs at yet another place, with fabric on the seat covers from the place that made the couch.  Delivered by me, on the bus.  Each chair seat broke, one by one, over the last year, as the chair structure was not adequate to support your basic American butt.  Lampshades were virtually impossible to come by.  I even rescued a couple for the short-term next to a dumpster across the street.  It took months to track them down, impossible to bring in a suitcase from home.  The nightstands were fashioned out of the same wood, as was the end table, by a little shop just down the street.  No one spoke a word of English.  A lot of pointing and metric measurements and sketching took place, but it all worked out.  I taught them a valuable phrase, “see you later, alligator” and they taught me that I really need to learn more Spanish.  I took delivery of the nightstands by riding home with the guy in the truck and his dog with the furniture in the back of the truck, unwrapped, just sitting there.

It’s so much easier now, seven years later.  There are real furniture stores, a Home Depot, a Costco.  I am happy for my neighbors that breeze through the process.  But I learned a lot about Puerto Vallarta and the Mexican culture in the process, and when it’s time for a new couch (soon) I’ll know where to go, and arrange it again, in terrible Spanish, to the next patient shopkeeper on Avenida Francisca Villa.

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