How To Build A $400 Home In Panama

August 18, 2009 by:
How To Build A $400 Home In Panama

All I Can Offer the Aspirantes is a Mud House


Written by:  Jacobo

Por Jacobo(of the jungle)


With every La Vaina issue that arrives on thedoorsteps ofaspirantes in training, I feel the need to share my vast knowledge of Panama.  In past issues I’ve written articles on the fine art of using Panama City public transportation as well as getting around on the cheap…themes that are imperative to a PCV’s service in Panama.  Since I’m running out of skills to offer, all that is left for you 60ers is my mud-home making skills.Yes, I was one of those idealists who wanted to live in “traditional” Panamanian house, and besides I built my 22ft X 12ft shack for $400.


Now I know this may have little relevance to you CEDers as you generally end up inye ye sites trying to decide whether to rent the house with Direct TV or built insoda dispenser.  But on the rare chance you get thrown out into themontana,bien metido, like your EH cohorts oryearn to live like yourPanamanian ancestors, building your owncasa de kincha (adobe of mud house) is the way to go.


Begin bybefriending a nice family in yoursite, whohas a nice lot ofmonte, preferably witha view of theocean and mountains.  Explain your interest of building a house on this location, in which after two years you will give the house and itsentiretyto the family,as long as you can live there rent free. It is a win-win situation for both sides.  Once agreed upon,solicit the help of your community (ie: cooperative, water committee, localmaliantes) for a “junta  deenbarra.”Or just post signs all over the community advertising that you will needgente interested in ajunta and that you’ll be providing a delicious noon-timesancocho, a few jumbos ofSeco,and your wittiness.  Also, advise the participants to bring materials, (ie:horcones (corner posts),soleras (ceiling beams),canasa (small diameter bamboo),behuko(vines) or even nails). Most importantly find the local carpenter and especially lobby for his participation, or you could end up with a lopsided house. (He is likely the only one in town with a plumb bob, tape measure, and level).


But before thefirstwork day, make sure all the site preparations and other materials you need to purchase are ready.  Start by clearing the area where you will build.  Second,collect clumps ofpaja peluja (long/widemeadow grass), which is needed to mix with the mud.  Also dig up amontón ofbarro(adobe).  Next you need to make apila, which is a big hole where you will mix the grass, mud, and water.  The hole should be big enough to fit 6-8 people at about 2-3ft deep and very close to the house.


On the first day of building you’ll put up the whole structure, which is a skeleton to hold up the mud/grass bricks.  Putting on the roof should be done once the structure is completed.  Make sure you use 4in. screws to hold the roof down for those windy summer days.

The nextworkday will be spent getting extremely dirty in a mud pit.  But just imagine you’re at some 16th century French vineyard crushing grapes…but then again that will be hard to imagine as you try to changeyouryegua-likegritar into a realSanteno salomar as you choke down another gulp ofSeco.  Basically you will slop the grass around with the mud to form bricks ofbarro that will be used tofill in andform onto the skeleton.

Once all the walls are up, they need to dry a few days, which is when they will start to reveal cracks large enough for cockroaches to fit through.  This is when you mustrepellar orfill in andsmooth over all the cracks with pure mud, just like you would to finish a concrete wall.  You can make the mixbein priti by either mixing in white sand or even selecting more reddishmud, which ever you fancy. Finally depending on your skill set, you can construct the door, windows, shelves, paint all the exposed wood, and if youhave theplata, put in a cement floor.  This all can take awhile and depending on your individual situation canresult inan extended living period with your host family (9 monthstotal,in my case).


Honestly though, this will bea valuablecommunity building and cultural exchange experience, if not a chance for you to show the community howbellaco you are. When I was building my house I had no clue and totally relied on mygente, whom had much experience and although theyhadn’t built a mud house in years, totally relished the opportunity.  Building a mud house can be one of the key moments of gainingconfianza with your community as well as pushing your patience to the limits.  But either way, make sure yougritar bastante,diga bastante“carajo!” and take a face plant or two in the mud pitjust for a little comic relief.  Finally, rememberyou nowhave heaps of bragging rightsforyour friends back home who are getting into 30 yearmortgages or defaulting on their loans…whileyou’ve constructed a home for a few hundred bucks.


EyeOn Panama 120 post in this blog.

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