THE PALAPA (pronounced pa-LOP-ah)
Saturday, June 12, 1999
A palapa is a thatched roof. We have one rising in our back yard. How
it came to be is a little story.
[We have pictures of the palapa, but they load very slowly.
Click here to see pictures, or wait until you've
read the story.
When we were selling stuff at the flea
market in Colorado Springs, I discovered the awning that you make out of
plastic tarps and conduit. You
build a frame of conduit, and
pull the tarp(s) tight with bungee cords.
You can make the roof flat (for shade) or you can get a really big tarp
and put a peak in the middle so that it will properly shed water or snow.
Most trailers nowadays come with an awning
on the side that you can swing out when you park.
Our 1976 model didn’t have one of those, so I checked into getting
one. $700!! Wow, one-fifth the
cost of the whole trailer! So, I
bought all of the basic stuff to make one after we got down here: welded
corners into which you stick the conduit, 150 feet of light bungee cord, a
grommet kit to put extra grommets in a locally purchased set of tarps.
We got the trailer in place and I watched
the sun peg the Jack Daniels thermometer on the outside wall of the trailer,
so I bought two 8x10 tarps, and started looking for conduit.
Oops – they use PVC pipe for electrical conduit down here.
So I got 130 feet of ½” diameter PVC and assembled a 10 x 16 awning
for the front of the trailer. The
PVC pipe isn’t nearly stiff enuf so I got some rebar (cheap down here) and
put it inside the PVC to stiffen it. It
worked, but the PVC bent under the tension, and the whole thing just looked
We went out to visit “Tony’s Trailer
out by the airport.” Tony is a
Dutchman/Belgian/Oregonian who built a big awning over his whole
trailer (instead of a little awning on the front like I had) and it really
worked well. He had conduit
sticking up 20 feet in the air, completely covering the trailer and a nice
space out in front for parties. We
had a party there, and I REALLY hated my wretched little awning.
I started plotting to get some conduit, but nobody in town stocked it
or wanted to order it for me.
Then about a week after Tony packed up and left for Oregon to sell his house
up there, there was a moderate blow (not really a big one) and it blew his
awning to Smithereens! The awning
was over on the next property, and the conduit was all bent up.
My little awning survived, but every day, the trailer would get up to
100 inside, in spite of the fact that we’ve painted the roof with two coats
of Snow White rubberized paint. I
started thinking about putting an air conditioner on the top of the trailer.
(This would probably cost three or four hundred dollars.)
Then Trooper Ed put a little palapa up in
his back yard. It was just big
enough to hold a hammock and a table, but it was nice, and COOL. So Charlotte and I talked it over, and decided that we might
be willing to spend six or seven hundred dollah for a palapa over the trailer.
Charlotte asked Ed’s palapa man, whose name is Salvatore, to come
over and look at our trailer. He
arrived with his posthole digger & machete.
He looked at the trailer, and measured a little (with our measure) and
nodded. I wasn’t there, so Charlotte negotiated.
much?” she asked.
thousand dollah?” he says.
says Charlotte. “We only have
says Salvatore with a smile!!
can you start?”
So he starts digging, and in an hour, he
has the four corner post holes dug. He
tells us that the next day, he will be out in the bush cutting poles.
The next day, Ed goes looking for him and gets recruited into bringing poles
over for our palapa. Ed has a little Dakota pickup, long enough but barely
heavy enough to carry a load of poles, so they switched to hauling thatch.
The thatch is built with round palm fronds, each about 5 foot in
diameter. They grow deep in the bush, and Salvatore knows where. He and an
accomplice cut a couple of pickups full, and shortly we have two big six foot
piles in the back yard. Salvatore
finishes digging the (eight) three foot deep holes for the support poles.
SNAKE ALARM DOGS
has a family of 11; six sons and three daughters. Except for Salvatore,
Junior, they all have biblical names. They
are Seventh Day Adventists. His
wife is a Guatemalan, speaks no English, but she can read perfectly from the
(English) King James Bible. The
family helps him work the bush. Two
or three of them go along when he’s collecting poles or thatch, and drag
loads back from deep in the jungle to roadside.
Some places he takes along two or three of his dogs. The dogs look
for snakes, and when they find one, they bark and circle it until Salvatore
comes and kills it.
The next day, Salvatore cuts until noon,
and then we take the Scout to the bush. With
the back seat folded up, it’s a little pickup, and of course, it can haul a
big load, so we used it for big poles. Salvatore
has me back it in, and he obviously believes that it is indestructible, so he
doesn’t notice that I’m catching the right tail pipe on a pole as I’m
backing. It’s bent to the
ground, and broken at the manifold. We
take a little break while I bend it up out of the way and hang it up there
with (surprise) duct tape. Then
we resume hauling. Even though we tie them up with rope, some of the poles
hang way out the back and drag on the road. We’re sneaking across town,
hugging the side of the road, exhaust roaring, poles dragging, two of
Salvatore’s boys (Daniel & Jeremiah) sitting inside, hanging on to the
poles for dear life. Two trips
and I’m sure that everyone knows I’m building a palapa!
Then we make about six noisy trips with truckloads of thatch. Altogether, we have cut and hauled fifteen hundred palm fronds, and over a hundred poles.
The palapa is twenty-five feet long, and
twenty feet wide. The trailer (8’
x 22’) takes half, and the other half is a veranda which we will eventually
pave with tiles. There are four corner posts, five inches in diameter, set
three feet deep, so that the thatch starts about nine feet up.
There are four more intermediate support posts, four inches in
diameter. Salvatore builds a
ladder out of poles and starts putting rafters on these supports. Some of the
supports have a fork on top, and some get a fork made of five inch nails. No
prebuilt trusses here; Salvatore dances along the rafters, building arches and
then a lattice of lighter poles that will hold the fronds. He nails, using an old (indestructible) Estwing steel-shafted
hammer with either hand. He
lashes, using bailing wire, at all the critical junctures. And then he starts placing fronds.
He brings his wife, and a couple of the
kids to help. Using a forked
stick, they pass fronds up to him. He
inserts each frond in the fabric of the roof, splitting out a part of the
middle of the frond and slipping it down on the cross poles of the lattice. One after another, each frond split and inserted exactly the
same, each layer covers the top of the layer below. He does the west side first (the veranda) so that his workers
can stand in the shade as they pass fronds up to him.
It takes him (and his family) two days to
finish the thatch. Everyday, I
fix lunch for the family, rice and beans and chicken, and they sit in the
trailer and wolf it down, leaving nothing but empty plates and a few clean
chicken bones. I think maybe he
will take Saturday off for church and work Sunday, but he works until sundown
Saturday, explaining that their church service is in the evening.
He is exhausted and takes Sunday to rest.
I survey the palapa, rising sixteen feet
in our back yard, hiding the roof of the trailer. The thatch, bright green, is
done, but not trimmed. I tell Charlotte I want an uneven edge along the bottom
(I called it a “hairy thatch”) but Monday, using his machete (of course)
he trims it pretty square. From
the outside it looks square, but on the inside it looks “hairy.”
I love it.
THE AMNESTY PROGRAM
many illegal aliens in Belize. All
of the surrounding countries are crowded and poor, and Belize is a land of
opportunity. The new government
instituted an amnesty program; register, pay $200, and we will forget that
you have been here illegally. The
program has been in place for six weeks and about 200 people have
registered. They estimate that
there may be another ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND who are living and working here
Most of Salvatore’s jobs are small ones; a little palapa like Ed’s,
or a patchup on the roof at the Bayview Lounge.
Our job is real big money for him, and he takes 200 dollah and pays the
amnesty fee that will legalize his Guatemalan wife, illegal even tho she has
borne nine Belizean children. He
is very grateful for the money. When
he comes to finish the job, he brings four exquisite orchid plants which have
been living at his house, and he and Charlotte put them up in the palapa.
He brings me a set of horns on a piece of skull; smaller than a water
buffalo, but what the heck. He
puts them up, high on a center post, and we both grin and shake hands.
Salvatore and his family live in a 20x20 pole house with a corrugated
cardboard roof. The roof is
supposed to look like “zinc” – galvanized corrugated steel – but after
a year in the rain, it begins to deteriorate.
His roof is several years old.
don’t you build yourself a palapa roof?” we ask, thinking about the
shoemaker and his barefoot children.
time,” Salvatore grins sheepishly, and shuffles a little.
We give him all the leftover nails and
wire, and urge him to use them to put a decent roof on his hut.
He says he will. We
volunteer the truck and the scout to help him gather materials, but,
ironically, he is getting more work because Ed’s palapa (on the north side)
and ours (on the south side) are good advertising.
As the fronds dry, they shrink, and daylight appears at the corners.
The fronds are turning a golden brown, and the thatch looks beautiful
in the setting sun. But it might
leak, and so, yesterday, Salvatore and his family show up to investigate, and
to take us to see wildflowers. By flowers he meant orchids.
A mile south of us is the Ranchito Lagoon. The road in looks pretty good to begin with but rapidly
deteriorates to a dirt track. Our destination is a small mangrove-lined
clearing at the edge of the lagoon. Salvador, his wife and three of the younger
children lead the way through tall, tall trees filled with different kinds of
orchids. Salvador climbs up and,
using his trusty machete, cuts down entire branches which bear orchids. His
wife directs. As the orchids come down they are handed off to us to take back
to the truck. Ants – Charlotte’s nemesis – cover the branches.
The family doesn’t notice. The children are barefoot, but they
blithely walk through, suffering whatever lives there.
Some of the trees grow out of the water, so Salvatore jumps in, shoes
and all, to get to the best orchids!
We’re all carrying orchids, and it doesn’t
take long to fill most of the pickup bed.
We have a total of 17 orchids in our palapa and Mr. Ed has some for
his. Placing the orchids is another production.
Salvador’s wife directs, and we hang them from the rafters and wire
them to the support posts. Bottom
line: we brought the lagoon home to the palapa!
However, daylight is still leaking into the palapa so Ed and Salvatore
go to the bush and come back with a 100 more fronds.
Salvatore works his magic, stuffing fronds where I would have thought
there was no room, and now the roof has a mottled look, cammy-colored,
indescribable. It is wilder and
hairier, but it rained about an inch last night, and this morning, the area
beneath the roof is bone dry. To paraphrase the Nerds, “we have achieved thatch.”**
Sr. ric & Sra. Carlotta
Explanation. In the very funny movie Revenge of the Nerds, the
nerds rig up a periscope so that they can look into a girl's dressing
room. When it finally works, one of them says "We have achieved
Copyright, CASELab, 1999. All rights
For pictures of the palapa-building process, click here.