by Mari Pintkowski (Nov. 2013)
I have been listening to my friends and neighbors, who live in the Maya jungle near the coast in Quintana Roo, complain about the effects of the record-breaking rainy season we have been experiencing. I hear words like mold, mildew, foul smell, dampness, plant debris, bat and bird guano and insects—dead and alive.
I remember what it was like for Lou and me our first year in this damp, rich climate after living decades under the dry, blue Colorado skies. One of the reasons I wrote Embarking on the Mariposa Trail (www.amazon.com) was to prepare others for what we were experiencing for the first time. I took out my battered copy of the book and went straight to Chapter 25, “Lessons in Nature.” Sure enough, on page 286, I found in capital letters the word MILDEW.
I knew rain in Quintana Roo was a blessing and after several months, Chac, the Mayan rain god, blessed us with abundance. I began noticing those ugly black dots and knew I had to do something about this new botanical menace. Thus I began to wage a war against MILDEW! It was everywhere; on my straw hat, artwork, musical instruments, photos, our furniture, clothing, walls of the house, fountain steps etc. I found a book I had brought along from the States about how to clean just about everything. I followed the suggestions that worked for some of the items. On my straw hat, I used Hydrogen Peroxide. On the walls, I used bleach in a 1:3 solution. For my many baskets, I used a stiff brush and set them out in the sun. When I put things back in the storage baskets, I placed them first in a layer of plastic. I put photo albums away in plastic containers wrapped first in plastic bags. I used a stiff brush on the leather and wood chairs until I discovered Golden Glow at Home Depot. …We put some varnish on the furniture pieces that were being used in the outdoor terraces, and on the armoire that was never sealed on the inside or in the drawers.
For books, I used a soft cloth with some rubbing alcohol, and put it in the sun for no more than thirty minutes. The cleaning book I relied on, suggested that you put toilet paper between pages to absorb any moisture. I put cloves on shelves behind books and some in my plastic boxes of books. The books I stored in tightly covered plastic boxes had remained dry and I was so glad I had not tried to set them out on open shelves.
The mildew war was the least of the worries that John Lloyd Stephens encountered when he was excavating ruins in the Yucatan in 1840 during the rainy season. The sites were unhealthy because they were embarking on uninhabited territory where the land and ruins had not been kept clean over time, the way we do today. We are actually finding that living in a damp paradise after six months of no moisture has its advantages.
When I asked my sister, who lived in the tropics, what she suggested she said, "Bleach solution and don't get attached to things that mildew." I will remember this for next year and for all future purchases.
Many of my friends had read my book upon embarking on their journey along the Mariposa Trail, but at the time did not imagine they would actually be dealing with these problems first-hand.
We have lived at La Selva Mariposa, located off the Cobá Road in Macario Gómez, for almost nine years now, so we can say that we have the experience to speak on the subject. Currently, we have three staff persons, along with Lou and me, who are aware each day of the ravages of la temporada de lluvias and help us spot these signs and deal with them on a daily/weekly basis as we go along.
Because this is low season for tourists visiting the Riviera Maya, we use this time to do heavier maintenance projects like replacing and repairing palapa roofs, stone patios, composting and replanting the kitchen garden, and touching up paint on walls and furniture. We each take great pride in the outcome of these projects, and know we are going into the tourist season with a fresh new face.
We also take this time to embark on one big project each year, reinvesting our profits to make LSM truly an amazing gem in the Maya jungle. Our project this year was a comedor expansion and a second-floor Jacuzzi and small yoga lounge. AHH!
One dark, gloomy day, I decided to follow our workers Julio and José around to do a little research on some of the maintenance techniques that are being used on a daily basis during these days of constant dampness. Right away, I saw that you should make Clorox your friend; but wear gloves if you have sensitive skin and cover your clothes with an apron. Cloro now comes in a convenient spray bottle (Cloralex Banos Anti-Hongos) that is great for using with a scrub brush, rag or sponge. You will want a bottle in every room. BUT, if you have really big projects, like heavy mold, you will want to use Cloro full strength. This product is light, so easier on our lungs, hands and clothes.
I noticed that he uses this on walls, inside and out, including Vista Maya stone, shower surfaces and floors where guests inhabit. There are parts of walls that we let nature patina with its mold that adds character to the buildings. Building with materials that lend themselves to the environment is essential when designing your home, so talk to others who have come before you; your builder may not mention that your ideas will not produce the results you are dreaming of. For instance, the sleek white look is almost impossible to achieve without extensive maintenance. As I rounded a corner in front of rooms #2 and #3, I saw José with the hose and a broom and an even larger bottle of Cloro. This job required a little more elbow grease and different tools, but when the steps were dry, the white stone was broken up only by the shiny gemstones embedded in the concrete: Hmm, maybe that is why one of our guests referred to this as a "gem in the jungle."
Later when Julio was cleaning the dining palapa, I asked him how he liked the new fabric we used to recover the furniture in this open-air room. He let me know this was so easy to maintain and it always looks fresh and clean. I heard about this weather-resistant fabric that is made with Teflon from another friend. I followed her directions to this tiny fabric shop in a corner strip mall on 30th Ave. in Playa del Carmen across from Mega, Tony and a few other big stores. There is a laboratory for clinical studies on the corner and a Santander Bank next to the shop that is named EMT. There is usually a table of discounted fabrics out front and barely a light on inside. Lou carried our cushions that were to be recovered; they can also make them from scratch if you have measurements. We walked to the back of the shop and I spotted many one-foot by six-inch samples of this Teflon fabric. I was delighted to see so many choices, and chose a green, jungly weave for the comedor furniture. The price was reasonable and I could see it was indestructible to the dogs, guests and Mother Nature. The sales girl called the upholsterer and Felix came right over to strike a deal with us. We could tell the cushions were going to outlive our furniture so did not want zippers. Interestingly enough, it is the same price with or without zippers. We would pay when the cushions were ready. They were finished in less than a week and his work was top-notch and the price was acceptable as well.
We found this fabric comfortable for our outdoor spaces, but wanted something a little more refined for the new indoor couch cushions. Color is very important when choosing fabric. I know, because at first I used a bright yellow for our couch cushions, and the next time we upholstered, we changed the color to red. This go around, I chose a dusty green. I said to myself, "You can't go wrong with this color," in Sombra fabric. Sombra is supposed to be mold resistant, but if you look at beach lounges you will see the tell-tale black spots. I have been noticing that most of the beach clubs and hotels with pool or beach lounges are switching to the Teflon fabric for good reason. Since our furniture is inside, the Sombra should be perfect.
Continuing my journey around the property, I found José mixing some paint to re-do one of the house's outside walls. At first we used outdoor latex paint and after repainting many times, we decided to try an oil base paint and it has lasted so much longer. He explained that he was adding some anti-hongos to the oil base paint to help prevent mold from growing on the surface. He said that the paint store will add it to your paint if you ask or you can do it yourself. I felt some comfort in knowing that he was mixing it personally. There is no commercial label on the container, only instructions on how to use this white liquid. Ask the attendants at the paint store to see what they recommend. Perhaps there is a new product on the market.
I discovered that a can of spray varnish goes a long way to lessen the maintenance jobs. The only place we have found this product is at the Sherwin-Williams Paint store north of Playa del Carmen on the west side of the highway. On a sunny day, take a walk through the house and gather up all your baskets and smallish bamboo wood items and place them outdoors on a table or straw mat that won’t be affected by varnish spray. Now lay out your pieces and spray away! You will not have to oil or dust until next year or longer. Trust me, this works and it is fun to discover how many of these pieces you have. I had over one hundred the first time I did this. Spray varnish would also be a great idea for the inside of kitchen cabinets and other hard to reach places. Also think about investing in a gallon of varnish for furniture that has not been sealed or posts and beams that are exposed to the elements. It comes in a matte finish if you don’t want the shine.
I ordered giant Ziploc bags to put my sheets and towels in for each guest room. As long as they are used regularly, they stay fresh and clean.
Our three dogs, Molly, Zoie and Rosie are family to us, so they get first-rate treatment. I change the dog bed covers every few days in the damp season and make sure I bathe them at least once a week. You need to be diligent with tick/flea treatments. If they get skin "stuff," go to the homeopathic pharmacy in Tulum and get a jar of Tepezcohuite ointment. But if your dog can reach the spot, he will most likely lick it and it may not work, but it is a great remedy to have for skin conditions for you as well.
I have found that photos left out on shelves in albums or in frames seem to eventually disintegrate along with the cardboard backing on frames. If you have photos that are irreplaceable, have a family member or friend store your priceless memories in a dry location which would not be under a palapa roof in the tropics. I do keep a few albums with photos of my grandkids because I want to have them at my fingertips and know they can always be replaced, as they are on several computers. Setting up your computer desktop wallpaper to a slideshow format can give you almost the same experience. But sometimes holding a photo and touching it seems to feel a little more intimate than looking at a picture on a computer screen.
Books get moldy if they are left out, so if it bothers you to read a moldy book (I am often reading in the pool, Jacuzzi or on the beach, so it doesn’t bother me), get a Kindle. They make really cool waterproof envelopes to put your device in and you will be safe from any mishaps and you can actually turn each page with it inside the envelope. If you have a special copy of an heirloom book or just a favorite one, save yourself the trouble and don’t bring them to this damp climate.
At the end of the winter season, we clean all our blankets and bag them into giant Ziploc or Space bags and hope they survive in the only storage closet we have. So far so good! When I have stored clothes in tightly closed plastic containers, they have to be washed or at least hung in the sunshine before wearing again.
One last word about the moldy smell: I am constantly checking pillows, curtains, etc., for this foul smell. To freshen up these pillows, I take them out of the covers and place both covers and pillows in the dryer or at least hang in the sunshine, if you can get a long enough break in the weather. For extra protection, I put a Bounce fabric sheet inside before I zip the pillow cover.
Use your fans as often as you can, and if you have air conditioning our staff swears that will help dry things out. As far as mildew on clothes and other fabric, once it is set, I have not found a way to successfully remove it. If the fabric is still damp, I soak white things in Cloro and they are good as new once thoroughly dried. For colored things, I use one of the non-cloro products. Our clothes dryer works non-stop at this time of the year. I also remember what my sister says: don't get attached to things that mildew.
When I can't stand the dampness and the things that are hopelessly wet won’t fit in the dryer, I take a day off and go search for the sun.
I continued to read Embarking on the Mariposa Trail and at the end of this chapter, I quote:
It has not rained in three weeks, and as we water our gardens we chant to Chac to bring more rain. Overall we have adjusted very well to life in la selva ... Each day is an adventure and we marvel at how far we have come along the Mariposa Trail since we began our journey.
We have been back from our annual trip to visit family in the States for exactly one month and we are waiting for this to happen. Not one day has passed without a drop of rain. The trees and plants are lush and green, the cenotes are full, and the beautiful, blue morpho butterfly is circling the gardens. This I can not complain about.