Tag Archives: Expatriate

Thinking Outside The Box

A common complaint here, especially among the expat population that huddles, incestuously, in the mountain peaks and valleys around Boquete above the city of David, is about horrible, or nearly non-existent, customer service. In the almost five years I’ve lived here I haven’t found that to be true at all, and today was an example of the good customer service. Comparable to good customer service anywhere. (Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I try my best to speak Spanish with the Panamanians I have to deal with.) Here’s what happened:

Last month I went into David to pay my cable and internet service bill. I wanted to delete the television portion of the service since my t.v. died and I decided I didn’t want to buy a replacement. The girl I dealt with at the Cable Onda office played around on the computer keyboard for a while and said the service had been discontinued and that I needed to bring in the t.v. modem. I asked if it would be okay to wait until the next billing cycle to do that instead of having to make a special trip back to their downtown office. She said it would be fine. But that the internet portion of the bill would be $42.36 since I had signed up for a “package deal” that combined t.v., internet for a monthly total of $50.36. That was all right with me since before I signed on to Cable Onda’s five meg cable internet I had been paying $45 and change for Claro’s USB modem internet which, on a good day, provided me with half a meg speed. What  I’d save not having to pay for the t.v. meant that I’d be getting almost two months of free internet service. I figured I was ahead of the game.

Friday I received my monthly bill and saw that they were still billing me the full $50.36. This morning I put the modem in my knapsack and went to the Cable Onda office. I asked to speak to one of the customer service reps. This time I ended up with a young gentleman who insisted on speaking English even after I’d explained my situation to him in Spanish. He said I’d done it well, but he liked the opportunity to use his English whenever possible. He explained that with the package I had I paid $21.12/month for the television access and $29.24 for the internet. But internet alone was, as I said before, $42.36. HOWEVER, even though I wasn’t going to buy a new t.v. and use the service, he could sign me into another package in which I’d be subscribed to just Panama access to local television shows and that only costs $6.88/month but would leave the internet payment at $29.24 for a grand total of $36.12. A savings of $14.24 a month from what I had been paying and saving $170.88 over a year. Another way of looking at it is, I’d also be paying $6.24 a month LESS than subscribing to internet alone OR saving $74.88 over the year. That’s like getting two months FREE internet service.

He spent some time clicking around on his computer and said I’d only have to pay the $36.10 today and not the $50.36.

Now THAT’S customer service. Do I think the girl last month was trying to rip off the gringo? No, not at all. She was thinking linearly. The book says if someone comes in off the street and wants to subscribe to internet service by itself it costs THIS MUCH. I’m sure customer service reps in a similar situation in the States would have done exactly what she did. I probably would have done the same thing had I been sitting on her side of the desk last month. I was lucky today to get someone who thinks outside the box and who knows that giving the customer a little lagniappe, as it were, results in a satisfied customer. And another thing to consider…the pay here in Panama sucks. The girl and the guy will be lucky if they GROSS $125.00 or $150.00 a week! At those prices you can’t expect them to be doing a lot of thinking at all. But sometimes you just get lucky.

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Latest Inspiration

I know, I know, I keep coming up with different ideas for what might be a good shanty boat to build. Here’s today’s offering. It’s a stretched Chugger. Back in October of 2009 I featured the Chugger in one of my posts: http://houseboatshantyboatbuilders.wordpress.com/2009/10/13/chugger-the-spirit-of-shantyboats/

Chugger

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Bryan Lowe, who built the first Chugger (the red one above) has expanded the original eight by four foot boat to a 12 feet:

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During the building of the Bonne Chance he took a ton of photos that would help anyone interested in building one of their own. https://www.flickr.com/photos/sidshare/collections/72157629210859469/

And he offers the plans, here: http://www.angelfire.com/ego/lewisboatworks/html/ChugBuildPlans_a.htm

In the pictures on this site you can see that the sides of the boat are cut out first and then molded over a couple of frames to get the boat into 3-D shape. Chines are installed, the boat is turned upside down and the bottom is put on. Then additional framing for strength are added later. He also has some sketches for a 16 foot by 6 foot version which I think could be stretched another four feet.  I think building in this fashion would also be easily adapted to building in sections and then bolting and epoxying everything together. Working with sections would make turning the sections over a lot easier than trying to manhandle a 20 foot boat.

I really like the skylight on this one. It would come in handy down here in Panama during the rainy season when you’d need to keep the side windows closed but you’d still get a lot of light below.

skylight

This builder, who calls himself “Bike and Boat” on Boat Design.net where I found thise shots came up with a nice “pop top” idea to add headroom after towing the Chugger to a launch site.

flatjt1

 

 

 

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Moved To The Dark Side

I haven’t posted in the last week partially because I didn’t have anything I wanted to say, though I do have a couple of drafts that aren’t completed. (That’s kind of a silly statement when you consider that almost all of my posts are, essentially, first drafts quickly scanned for spelling errors. ) Ad another reason I didn’t post was because my computer died. Kaput. Shit the bed. Won’t start! Finished. Washed up. I could go on, but I won’t.

Except for my very first computer, every one I’ve owned has been a Hewlitt -Packard (anyone remember the old Packard cars?) whether a desk top or a notebook. And, by and large, I’ve been happy with them. When using them I would often remember a phone conversation I had back in 1974 when I was working as a head hunter in Chicago. We recruited high-end systems analysts and heads of IT departments. This was back in the days when computers were so huge they took up entire floors of big buildings and were attended by white-coated acolytes.

I really didn’t know squat about computers or what the jobs of the people I was talking to actually entailed. But I knew certain buzz words that we were supposed to ask and that was actually enough.

One day I blind-called a systems analyst at Hewlitt-Packard, and during our conversation I asked what projects he was currently working on. He got real excited and said, “We’re working on building ‘mini computers.'”

“What the hell are those?” I asked.

“They’re computers people will have on their desks.”

“Yeah, right,” I thought. “Call me in a couple of years and let me know how that worked out for ya.”

I came down here to Panama with two HP notebooks. One was on its last legs but I figured it could be a backup if my main one went belly up. About a year later they were both toast and I went into David and bought a third notebook. It, too, was an HP, mainly because it was the only one in three stores that was reasonably priced and also had an English keyboard. Remember, this is a Spanish speaking country so naturally Spanish keyboards predominate. They’re slightly different. For example, on the English keyboard the key with the colon and semi-colon is now the Ñ key. The semi-colon sits to the right of the letter M and the colon key is just to the right of that. There are also three-key acrobatics needed to get the @ symbol up and running instead of simply the Shift and #2 keys.

Everything worked fine until last Saturday. Then it was impossible to get the thing to start. Parts of files somewhere were missing, etc., etc. I’m not going to get into what I tried to do to repair things using the defunct spares.

So, on Sunday morning I went into David looking for a replacement for the replacement that replaced…well you get the picture. However, this time there wasn’t an English keyboard to be found around Plaza Terronal where there are three stores selling computers. Now, I know that if I went to the Pricesmart (Panama’s answer to Wally World) I could probably get one, but the last time I was computer shopping the exact same model I eventually bought at Panafoto was priced over $200 more than the one I bought.

When I made a sad face about the lack of an English keyboard model the computer geek sales robot said that going into a computer’s it was possible to select what language you wanted the Spanish keyboard to resemble. For instance, I could turn the Spanish keyboard into an English one with a couple of clicks.

Cool!

Then there was the problem that all the Windows-based computers were loaded with the universally panned and hated Windows 8 operating system. Funny, the week before I’d read a story about how the world was anxiously awaiting Window 10 (no one said anything about why there was no Windows 9, though).

There were three long shelves full of Toshiba, HP, Sony and other PC notebooks and I played around with the Windows 8 displays and could see why people didn’t like it, and not knowing, and not being able to be computerless for who knows how long before Windows 10 comes out, I started to eye the meager collection of  Apple products. I very much liked the 13″ screen Airbook, especially because it was fairly reasonably priced and I liked that instead of a mechanical hard drive it has a solid state memory. The problem with regular hard drives is that they move and things that move wear out. They also generate a lot of heat because of the whirling discs.

So, I bit the bullet, pulled out my debit card and bought one. I took it home, plugged it in and NOTHING!!! Damned thing wouldn’t start. I figured, okay, the battery needs to be charged before it will start. I left it plugged in for four hours and still nothing.

I was the first civilian through Panafoto’s doors Monday morning. I went around and around with the manager about getting them to swap out the non-working unit with one they had out back. All in Spanish, I might add. No, they had to send the one in my possession to the Apple Store in Panamá as they call the Capitol. They would send it express and I’d have a replacement Wednesday afternoon. Needless to say I was pissed, but had to capitulate after 45 minutes of fruitless arguing.

Wednesday afternoon arrived. Nobody with a computer showed up at my door. I called Panafoto and they apologized, but the torrential downpours currently underway meant it wasn’t going to happen but I was assured that I’d have the replacement “before 12″ the next day. Well, almost. I was just ready to call when two guys from Panafoto showed up at 12:15. We opened the box, pushed the button and Voilà, it worked!

So, here I am with four notebook computers:

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There is definitely a learning curve moving from the PC platform to the Mac way of doing things. It will take a while, but the Airbook is praised as absolutely the best notebook in existence. We’ll see.

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Getting Around

One of the first entries I posted on this blog was way back in April, 2009.

http://onemoregoodadventure.com/2009/04/29/the-boaters-car-of-pickup-truck/

None of that has really changed, of course, but thinking about living on a boat on the hook again has the whole dinghy situation churning around in my head. Sitting on the back porch of Dos Palmas Hotel in Bocas del Toro you look out at the Bocas Marina and the anchorage.

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Every one of those boats has an inflatable dinghy with as big a motor on it as it can possibly handle. After sailing to Panama at what was probably an average speed of around five miles an hour now that they’ve arrived they have to zip around as fast as they possibly can while the natives, descendents of those who lived here before Columbus arrived in 1502, have a more sedate manner of getting around.

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I’d be lying to you if I said I hadn’t loved my semi-rigid inflatable when I was on my nine-month tour of Mexico, Belize and the Rio Dulce in Guatemala. I enjoyed zipping around in it, the wind ruffling my hair. But times and ideas change.

My first inclination for a dinghy would be one of my favorite designs ever…A Puddle Duck Racer. http://www.pdracer.com/ I’ve written about these so many times in the past that I won’t elaborate on just why they appeal to me.

Here are a few reasons why I think one would be an excellent dinghy.

  • No asshole is going to punch a hole in one like often happens with inflatables.
  • You can row one whereas rowing an inflatable can be a exercise in frustration, especially if you have to row into a headwind.
  • You can sail a PDR. Ive seen, on line, sailing kits for inflatables, but I’m not so sure how well they’d work.
  • You can even put an electric trolling motor or a very small gas outboard on one, too.
  • The thing is so ugly that theft wouldn’t be a worry. Why? Well, because it would most likely be the only PDR around and instantly recognizable as stolen if you weren’t in it.

And the downside of a PDR?

Unless you’re going to tow it everywhere, there’s really no place to easily stow it on board a 23-foot boat with a 6-1/2-foot beam since the PDR has a 4-foot beam. There’s nothing wrong with towing a dinghy. I towed mine for, literally, hundreds of miles without incident.

They’re fairly heavy. I’d be living at anchor in a place with a tidal range of around 19 feet. That means that sometimes when I’d want to get ashore I’d be afloat, but when I’d be ready to return home both boats would be high and dry, or there would be a lot of sand to drag the PDR over to get to enough water to get it to float again. An inflatable would be even worse.

So, what’s the solution? Is there one? I think so. It would be in the form of what is known as a one-sheet boat. That’s one that is made from a single sheet of plywood. Made from 1/4-inch ply one would weigh around 35 lbs. It, too, would be something that wouldn’t be too attractive to thieves, especially if you painted it some garish colors. Here are a couple of pictures to show you what people have concocted with just a single sheet of plywood.

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And this from the designer of the boat above: http://koti.kapsi.fi/hvartial/oss_sam/oss_sam.htm

simprigalter6

Here’s all you need to build one of those: http://www.simplicityboats.com/minisharpie.html

If you find those interesting just Google “One sheet boats” and in the images section there are hundreds to look at.

 

 

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Contemplation

Yeah, yeah, I haven’t posted anything for a while and I know you’re all wanting an update on the quest for my having a shanty boat.

Well, there are a couple of reasons I haven’t posted lately, the most compelling being, I just didn’t feel like it!

But I haven’t been idle. I’ve been deep in contemplation about how a boat should go together. For example, I think, for now, anyway, that I’d like it to have a bowed roof, sort of like a Vardo, or Gypsy wagon:

vardoIt’s attractive and fairly easy to do, and the little overhang on the edges would be good for rainwater collection of which I will write more about later on.

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Another thing I’ve been contemplating is doors and windows. Should I build simple bi-fold doors that secure with a hatch like this? (Note how the lip of the sliding hatch basically lock the doors shut.)

colorful narrowboat

Or should I go with something a bit more conventional, but still off-beat like in the two doors in this photo?

NantesErdreColorfulHouseboats_dianenaoned

Windows are another story. Down here at a little over eight degrees north of the equator, and at sea level, it never gets cold, so windows with glass panes aren’t really necessary. A lot of houses in Panama are built like these:

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There was a sliding window on a green boat, I’m sure, that I liked a lot. I must have downloaded it but I simply can’t find it now and have been searching online for the last hour before giving up. Sigh.

I’ll leave with a couple of inspirational paintings by Claude Monet of his studio shanty boat. monet-studio-boat

Monet 1

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Hmmmm…

Jeffrey M. Deuel shares one of his “pesky psychotic episodes.

“I have smelled death and stared it in the face as the last glimmer of consciousness faded from the eyes of a man whose head I held in my hands. My greatest fear in life is not death, but waking up some morning ordinary and predictable.”

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Crazy Boat Idea #???

I don’t know what number it is. Over the years there have been so many crazy boat ideas I’ve lost track. There was the R.V. camper shell on pontoons back in the late 60s. I briefly toyed with converting an oil well jack-up service barge after seeing one out at Breton Island when I worked there. I don’t know how many scow hulls and pontoon hulls I bought plans for. I still have some of them in the back room here. As you know I recently went over to Bocas del Toro to look at possibly buying a Westerly Centaur fixer upper. It was too much fixer and not enough upper so that hit the trash bin of bad ideas. This one, whatever its number might be, just might work.

So what’s the new idea? Well, as my readers know I’ve thought about how much work is involved in producing a hull that would support my shanty boat idea. I thought about how difficult it would be to build a scow hull upside down and turn it over and toyed with the idea of building pontoons in modules. All pie in the sky stuff, that’s for sure.

I thought about trying to find an old hull and putting a house on it, hopefully better than this, but you get the idea:

boat

So where to go from here?

I looked at the boats on craigslist, panama and what few were offered were WAY out of my range. For instance:

four winns

“Quest Four Winns de 26 pies, 10 pies de ancho
Excelente condiciones, vivero, 2 fish box
Baño, servicio, lavamanos, camarote,
GPS Garmin a colore con fish finder y ecosonda,
Radio de comunicaciones i-com, wash down,
Twin Yamaha 250 hp 520 horas
Tanque de 200 galones 2 bombas de achique
Trailer de aluminio.

And they’re only asking $55,000.

Then I was looking at a site called “encuentra 24.” Their listings for “Yates and Veleros” (Power yachts and sailboats) had things like this 38 foot Donzi, a steal at only $95,000:

donzi

Or this 35′ sportfish for a mere $300,000.

fish

Things were looking bleak. Then, for some unknown reason I clicked on their section labeled “Botes, Jet Ski.” The LAST thing I ever wanted was a jet ski. I hate the damned things and I despise the people who have them. But in there I found this:

Ventas de lanchas nuevas (New Boat Sales) Pangas de pesca y turismo

Precio de Venta: $3,500.00.

For those of you who don’t know what a ‘Panga’ is, they’re ubiquitous working craft throughout Mexico, Central America and parts of Africa and Asia. They look like this:

bernal panga There was a price list: lanchas de 18×5.5×3 -2,300.00, lancha de 20×5.5×3- 2,700.00, lancha de 23×5.5×3-3,100.00, lancha de mas capacidad 23×6.5×5- 3,500.00, lancha de 25×6.5×5- 3,800.00, lancha de 28×6.5×5- 4,500.00, lancha de 30×6.5×5-7,500.00.

I’d done some rough number crunching when I was into the idea of building the scow and figured that just for the scow hull itself it would cost me roughly $2,300. And then, of course, I’d have to build the damned thing myself! So paying an extra grand to get a good fiberglass hull built by someone else didn’t seem to be such a bad idea.

Hmmmmm. And the ad said that he was located in David, though I suspected Pedregal was more likely.

I hadn’t given too much though to the panga hulls for a long time. I remember on my first visit to Bocas del Toro back in ’09 standing in the lee of a restaurant and looking at a panga that was all kitted out against the rain and thinking, “I could put a cabin on that and be comfortable.” The problem is, as you can see above, the things are NARROW! The beam of my Nancy Dawson was 7’10” but on reflection I lived for nearly six years in a very tiny space. The overall length on deck was 26′ but the cockpit behind the cabin was a good eight and a half or nine feet, cutting the interior living space down to about 18 feet, and remember, forward of the beam it narrowed down considerably towards the stem. In an earlier blog entry I’d figured out that I’d been living in about 52 square feet of floor space! And yet I was comfortable, never the less.

My plans for a scow or pontoon boat called for about 24X8 with a cabin of about 16X8 or 128 square feet. More than double what I had on Nancy Dawson. If you look at sites like Tiny House Blog and similar you’ll see a lot of these minimalist shelters running around the 100 to 125 square foot range. And costing $30 grand and more, too!

But you have to realize that we’re not just talking about square footage, here. We’re talking about VOLUME when considering living space…length, width and HEIGHT! To keep windage down I would have built the house to give about 6’6″ headroom, so the volume would be 832 cubic feet.

Now, using the same calculations on a panga with a 16′ cabin and 6’6″ headroom you come up with 676 cubic feet. One hundred fifty cubic feet less. Sigh.

How big a handicap is that six and a half foot beam? Depends on how you look at it, I guess. Over in England, Scotland and Wales, they have what are known as “Narrowboats.” These were originally designed as cargo carriers on the extensive canal system that preceded the railroads. These boats have a maximum beam of just seven feet! That’s so they can make their way through the locks on the canals.

I did a lot of rummaging around online in recent days about these boats. The government estimates there are some 25,000 people who live on narrow boats in the country and then there are the weekenders and vacationers on top of that. While most of the boats a quite long, 40 t0 70 feet, there are quite a few smaller boats as well, many of them just 23 feet:

colorful narrowboatsilver-sailsarni

This is the interior of a Springer 23. Quite cozy:

springer 23-2

Wednesday I called the panga builder’s phone number and talked to him, sort of. Talking to someone in a foreign language on the telephone is incredibly difficult. I hated cringed when I had to do it in France and it’s only slightly better here, but I did confirm my suspicion that Sr. Bernal’s operation was in Pedregal.

So, Thursday morning, inspired by what I’d seen on the internet regarding narrowboats I took the 60¢ bus ride to the bus terminal in David, walked three blocks and got on the bus to Pedregal which costs 35¢. I got off 25 minutes later when I saw what looked to be a boat construction site down a side street which would be near one of the rivers in the area. I asked the first person I met if they knew Sr. Bernal who built pangas. They said they didn’t know that name, but a couple of blocks away there was a house that had several pangas in the adjoining yard and perhaps that’s the place I wanted.

I found the place with no problem, and sure enough there were five pangas about the right size there. They were what one would expect of a small operation with so-so quality. They certainly weren’t faired out well. I mean they were rather on the “wavy” side and the gel coat was certainly not of standards we might expect in the States. Of course we’d be paying a lot more for a boat in the States too, so you have to take that into consideration. Pangas are built to two purposes, fishing and tourism. Those for the tourism trade are built with several rows of bench seating. The fishing pangas are an “open” plan. Both kinds have a small enclosed compartment in the bow and a couple of feet from the transom which is cut down a bit for the installation of an outboard there is another full-width partition thus creating an “engine area.” All of these boats were set up with seating.

Heavy salsa music blared out of the open door of the house next door but I finally got the attention of someone inside. They said this was not Sr. Bernal’s operation, but the location where the boats were built was only a couple of blocks away.

 The operation was at the edge of an overgrown and neglected baseball diamond. There were four young men working away at three hulls. The boss wasn’t there but I talked to his brother who didn’t know how much the boats sold for. When asked how long it took  for them to build a hull he said eight days. I gave him my phone number and asked him to have his brother call me so I could find out how much the boats cost. I still haven’t heard from him.
The place I REALLY wanted to go to was a mystery and I didn’t know to how to get there.  Walking down a side street from the first taller (work shop) towards the main road where I figured I’d catch a cab, I asked an old man standing in the shade of a tree if he knew Sr. Bernal who built boats. He didn’t, but a teenaged girl sitting on the front porch of the house we were in front of said she knew. The guy I needed was her cousin! His shop was a good ways away and it would be best to take a taxi, and she wrote down the directions on how to get there. Out at the main road I caught a cab and was at Bernal’s in about three minutes. Pedregal isn’t THAT big a place, after all, but walking in the heat would have been enervating.
Amado Bernal, is a young guy in his early 30s. He was rigging out a 25 footer with a 75 horse Yamaha outboard. The boat had decent gel coat and the interior was finished off well with at least a modicum of attention to craftsmanship. The gel coat inside and out was nicely done, the inside with what we called “spider webbing” which is fun stuff that my friend Stefan and I used to use when fixing up old boats.
Amado said the 23X6.5 hull, with flooring, would cost $3,500. Knock off $300 if I wanted to put in the flooring myself. And knock off another 10% if I paid him in cash. (That was MY idea). The cash thing is that I don’t have a bank account here in Panama. It’s very hard and complicated for a gringo to get an account so my SS checks are deposited in the U.S. and I withdraw cash from ATMs. Only problem there is I’m limited to $500/day. I could go buy a Panamanian bank check, I suppose, but I’ll take the time and the discount.
He wants 1/2 down to get going and it takes him four weeks ( as opposed to one like the other place said) to finish a boat out. The construction is done with hand-laid mat and roving, not chopper gun construction. They will deliver the boat here to Boqueron for $125 and I can finish it out here. I told him what I was planning to do, put up a cabin structure to live in around Pedregal and over in the Boca Chica/Boca Brava area.  He thought it was a pretty cool idea. I like the guy and I’m going to start visiting the bank next week to make withdrawals so I can start the process. I’ve already called MY bank and told them when I was going over to Bocas that I was planning on buying a boat, needed to make a bunch of withdrawals and that the fraud department shouldn’t put a hold on my account for what will certainly look like suspicious activity. They made note on my account so all is good.
So that’s where it stands right now. The picture of the panga with the blue sheer stripe is the boat he was working on. He’d already put up a nice canvas shelter over practically the whole thing and added a nice steering console. This one is 25′. All the hulls have the same beam, they just have a piece that they insert into the mold’s stern to make the different lengths.
I think the color schemes for the narrowboats of England are extremely cool and I would seriously consider doing something in a similar vein. But seeing this is Panama I might do something along the lines of the now-defunct “Diablos Rojos” that used to terrorize the streets of Panama City. They looked like this:
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Now how cool would a narrowboat be looking something like that?
I know my landlord will be reading this, and I know he wants me to stay here until the house sells.  I can understand his apprehension as he reads this, but all I can say is that none of this is going to happen within the next month or so. In fact, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to get things done before someone buys the place and I have to move before I’m ready. I can see this taking a minimum of six months and that’s if I got real lucky and everything went smoothly. And we know things never go smoothly.

 

 

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