So if a papeleria is a paper store, and a fruteria is a fruit store, then a ferreteria would be… a ferret store?  Nope.  It’s actually something much more essential for the adventurous, expat, do it yourselfer – a hardware store.  In my constant quest for home improvement, I’ve become a regular at the many ferreterias in my neighborhood.

Home Improvement at Home…

In my own country, I would outline the steps of a do-it-yourself home improvement projects as follows:

  • Get the Information: Use internet, books, and friendly advise to find out how to do your project.
  • Get the Supplies: Go to the Big Box home-improvement store to buy everything you need (and probably a few things you don’t).
  • Do it: Make first attempt at said project.  Screw up, swear, cry and return to the store for more supplies.
  • Celebrate: Achieve success and bask in glory for a few minutes before you notice the next thing in your house that needs to be fixed.

And Home Improvement in Mexico…

Here’s how those steps play out  for me in Guanajuato:

Get the Information:  Different places deal with things in different ways.  I remember some friends who had moved to New Zealand lamenting the flies. “And they don’t put screens in the windows.  If you ask them why, they say, ‘we just leave the windows open and then the bugs can fly back out again.’ ” Culture dictates what a home should be and therefore what home improvement projects can be done.  Information gathering takes a lot more conversation.  Dealing with muriatic acid, a water tank on my roof and a gas tank outside my door were new to me.  Even familiar processes took research. My handy little dictionaries did not tell me the word for grout.  And where do you get it? And what quantities can you buy it in?

Get the Supplies:  Storefronts in Guanajuato are tiny, but if you ask the proprietor, they usually have what you need hidden somewhere in back. This means that the first step in getting an item is knowing what it’s called.  Most home improvement projects start out with a session perusing my Spanish/English dictionary, often in vain.  I write down the new word and strut on down the hardware store.  The interaction typically goes something like this:

ME: I need a (insert the new Spanish word)

CLERK: (stares at me with a puzzled look)

ME: A (repeat the Spanish word)

CLERK: (shrugs)

ME: This (showing the clerk the piece of scrap paper on which I have written the new word)

CLERK: (Looks at the paper, shakes his head, has a side conversation with someone else in the store and they try to guess what I’m looking for.)

ME: (Now I employ that most useful of language skills, talking around the word you don’t know.)  Okay, so, I don’t know the word in Spanish, but it’s for putting a shelf on and it’s shaped like the letter L. (I’m trying to get a shelf bracket).

CLERK: (Face lights up as he pulls a bracket out from under the counter.) What size?

ME: (In my overzealousness to learn a new word I forgot to measure.  So I gesture with my hands).

CLERK: How many?

ME: One. (At home they would only come in prepackaged pairs.  Here I can buy exactly the amount I want.)

Casa Verde Then and Now…


Out of thinner, I head down the alley to the nearest paint store with an empty plastic coke bottle in my hand.  The woman at the store fills the bottle and writes “THINNER” on it in large letters with a permanent marker.  I love this.  I can buy exactly the amount I want.  No need for a three-car garage to store leftover materials (not to mention the benefit of being able to put an empty bottle to good use).  I know this wouldn’t pass muster in my country.  There is no label telling me not to drink the thinner.  No Material Safety Data Sheet.  Here they expect me to use common sense.

Then there’s the issue of getting those supplies up to the house.  I live in a “callejon,” an alley which cannot be traversed by car.  That same, wonderful North Face Daypack (that I use to carry dirty clothes and travel guides also serves for getting the 20 kilo bag of grout up the hill. I’m my own burro.

Do it:  Just like home, new challenges emerge when you actually do the project.  Home improvement is also self-improvement- a chance to practice learning patience.

Even little things- sticking a nail in the wall to hang a picture, turn into an adventure.  I’ve learned about pilot holes, cement nails, cement tips for my drill bits.  When the hole I’ve made comes out to big I stuff it full of wooden pegs or toothpicks, giving me a wooden surface to nail into.

Those beautiful handmade tiles are also hand cut- a little irregular.  Not going to fit together like the machine made ones at Home Depot.

Celebrate: Even bragging over a successfully completed home improvement project has its cultural spin.  Mexico’s machismo attitude has come out whenever I’ve told people that I’ve done some tiling.  “You?” they say. “You?”  Clearly, they are completely befuddled by the idea that such a project could be taken on by someone of my gender.  I find their reaction confusing as well. I’ve done quite a lot of tiling and for the life of me, I cannot figure out where in the process it would be useful to have a penis.

Fun with tile and my first mural…

 Lessons Learned:

  • Adjust your expectations.  You might not be able to have things exactly the way you would home.
  • I’ve learned two important things about painting in Mexico.  First, the color  of your house may be democratically decided by your neighbors rather than unilaterally by you.  Second, there is no (nada, none, zero, zilch) relationship between the color of the sample paint chips and the color of the paint.  Refer to lesson number one.
  • If two things were ever meant to go together it’s audiobooks and home improvement. Imagine my joy when I learned that through libraries to go I could use my Washington County, Oregon library card to download books in Mexico.
  • Hiring a job out has it’s own challenges.  Get a recommendation from someone you know.  Agree on a price before hand.  The hardest part for a gringo in Mexico is scheduling.  Try to pin down a time, but don’t make any plans to do anything else that day.  Waiting for the workers can be a full time job

Beware the Expat’s Suitcase

Returning to Mexico after visiting family in Hawaii, I was not surprised to see the slip of paper indicating that TSA had inspected my luggage.  But it did make me wonder what they thought.  Among other odd items, my carry-on-sized suitcase held a piano stool.  Part of my strategy of moving to a new country one suitcase at a time.

It’s not just me.  A friend of mine recently returned from Florida with brass plumbing fixtures in her luggage.  Expats are like that.  We don’t waste precious space on mundane things like clothing.  Stateside visits are opportunities to stock up on those items from home that we miss.

Luggage! Photo by Katy Warner.

Luggage! Photo by Katy Warner.

Can’t You Get the Same Stuff Everywhere?

What with globalization and all, isn’t everything available everywhere? Yes and no. I live in a relatively small city (around 150,000 inhabitants) that is nestled in the mountains.  Roads are narrow, windy and frequently underground.  So there aren’t any triple-tractor-trailers bring in loads of goods.  Reaching the convenience of a Big Box store (Costco, Home Depot, etc.) means going to a larger city about an hour away.  I don’t have a car, so this doesn’t happen often.  It’s just as easy to pick things up when I’m visiting family in the US.

Language and culture can also be challenging.  Asking for something means knowing the word for it (or at least being able to describe it), and presumes that your new culture deals with the problem the same way your old one did.  I once brought fireplace bellows down for a friend.  She hadn’t seen any here in Mexico, and was considering having some made.  Imagining her explaining that she wanted a leather and wood apparatus to help her blow… well, it just seemed like a better idea to throw them in my suitcase.

Then there’s the cost/quality ratio.  Some big life items – housing, education, health care – are relatively more affordable here in Mexico.  But stuff, the kind of stuff George Carlin talks about – costs as much as it does in the US and is often of poorer quality.  I know what you’re thinking.  Don’t we all get the same cheap crap made by some poor exploited worker in China? Yes, but I’m convinced that the best of that cheap crap gets sent to first world countries and the worst of it to other places.  In my experience, the same product, of the same brand, will likely cost as much and be of poorer quality if I buy it in Mexico.  A sort of global, commercial discrimination on the part of the manufacturers.

What Makes the Cut?

So, aside from freak items like bellows, what makes the cut? Often enough, it’s something from the kitchen.  My most important US item is lemon juice.  I’m sure lemons could grow quite well in Mexico, but they are not part of the cuisine and I can rarely find them.  Limes are ubiquitous, small and sweet.  But when my recipe calls for lemon juice, I need sour, not sweet.  Frijoles, beans, are also abundant.  White beans, black beans, Peruvian beans.  But no red kidney beans.  A friend had her sister send some down from Gringolandia so she could make chilly.  After many attempts to make cornbread from masa (the corn-based dough which is used for tortillas), even going so far as taking fresh corn to a mill and asking them to grind it in a courser texture, another friend carried down cornmeal.   So there you go.  We bring corn and beans to Mexico.

Among non-edible items, nothing is more precious than books.  A good portion of my suitcase represents a successful trip to the used book store or literature I’ve managed to inherit.  Books in English might as well be bars of gold.

So that’s how I pack.  I’m planning a visit to see my father in February.  There’s a band saw collecting dust in his garage.  Maybe I’ll relieve him of it…