For a kid who grew up in Pittsburgh or in Seattle, or in the “other” Washington for that matter, thatched roofs have seemed somewhat exotic. For me, a thatch roof brought to mind not a musty damp hovel on a rain-swept heath in medieval England–you know: the place with cats and dogs slipping from the sodden twigs and straw above–but shade and sand and palm trees and a warm tropical breeze with maybe a few women wearing grass skirts pleasantly swaying in the background.

Here in the Dominican the realities, as they often are, are somewhat different.

I have thatch, but no falling cats and dogs, only damp frogs leaping to the floor–and no grass-skirted chicas either. I have no sodden twigs or musty smells but I do have a pleasant tropical breeze, which is nearly constant on top of the little hill where I live.

Here, with thatch there are lots of shards of the “cana,” or palm fronds that make up the roof. Also there is no shortage of dragons and geckos and other reptiles and amphibians and the occasional small mammal living in the roof above. That’s living with thatch in the Caribbean. One grows accustomed, or one copes.

Typically, a Dominican housewife sweeps her floors twice a day. This is because the tropical breeze lifts the brittle ends of the cana and showers down just enough of the friable material as to to be untidy. The assiduous housekeeper can be seen, in addition, sweeping the footpath in the garden or the beaten-down earth around the door. Myself, I manage to sweep every other day or so, and just the floors. It’s always surprising how much stuff drifts down from the thatch, and just how much rustling and squawking and scratching is done by the critters who call the cana home.

Thatch also leaks. But usually not right away–the roof on the guest bungalow managed to last for seven years before water began to percolate through in a couple of places. The roof over the large terrace that is my real living area lasted only three years before giving problems. Over time I discovered that the charm of a thatched roof diminishes in direct proportion to the surface area of a wet floor.

As you may know, water leaks are notoriously difficult to track to the source and repair effectively. For a number of years I earned a decent living in the United States doing just that, and so I do know from experience that of which I speak. However leaking cana is a whole different ball of wax. Where does one begin, if not by removing the whole thing and starting over?

In the words of Roberto,the Dominican roofer who last year contrived an entirely ineffective repair: “But I did the best that I could,” or in the words of the Bronx-born Dominican at the local ferreteria: “fuggedaboudit.” And now I have forgotten about it; I have completely dismissed thatch as a potential solution to most of my roofing problems.

Perhaps that’s why you haven’t heard very much from me since I returned to the RD a few months ago: I’ve been a fully engaged roofer, and more. Actually I’m more like a force of nature, now at work in my (thatched!) gazebo in a semi-industrial environment.

Let me explain.

All of those creatures formerly living comfortably in my thatch roofs are now homeless by my action and their abode has been consumed by one of several fierce fires set to dispose of the cana. Some of the creatures have seemingly departed for good, others are circling aimlessly looking for a place to perch and still others are glaring malevolently at me as I work to prepare and replace the roofing before the rainy season begins in earnest. So much for being a force of nature.

As to the industrial part, in these pages I’ve previously observed that much here in the RD in incomplete. For example, many items, purchased new, are missing the last few steps of manufacture. I can attest that this is true in the case of roofing tiles, and doubly so in the instance of roofing tile fasteners.

I mean, this shouldn’t be so difficult. For sure, I’m not the first guy in the Dominican Republic to buy clay tiles with the intention to screw them down to wooden rafters and battens. But I might as well be.

The tiles all have three or five holes, or rather they have three or five indentations suggesting where you might prefer to drill holes, should you decide to actually screw the tiles down. So, OK; I’ve got hundreds of heavy clay tiles and a drill, I’ve got saw horses, a work table and a jig to hold the tiles.

Electricity! Water!! More than one thousand holes! More electricity! More water!! Mud! Wait, wait for it–wait, wait…Zzzztt!! Pow!!! Whooeee!

Voilá, a little third-world industrial workshop.

Fasteners, you say? Well, you seemingly can’t purchase them sized for roof tiles, not in stainless steel or in galvanized metal, and not in brass either. And absolutely never, never in sufficient quantity to put on a couple of good-sized roofs. Drywall screws? Yes; those you can have, in a variety of sizes, goodly quantities too and all nicely rusted–and I have never even seen an actual sheetrock wall in the entire nation! Go figure.

Gasketed fender washers? Fuggedaboudit.

Eventually, and with several trips to a number of big ferreterias located in a couple of major cities in the RD I finally did manage to buy enough of several different kinds of screws to do the work. Screws with three different styles of head, naturally. And a rubber and metal fender washer that can seemingly only be purchased fully assembled with a useless bolt.

Voilá, another little industrial workshop, this one ideal for the mentally challenged. Someone, for example, who might find disassembling and reassembling thousands of fiddly bits of hardware intrinsically rewarding.

Me, I’m driven–consumed by the idea that I only have to do this once; these roofs will last for 25 years, which is probably longer than me and almost certainly longer than I’ll be here in Las Galeras. And so I plod on, removing thatch and diligently collecting the used nails (which have a magical affinity for tires), varnishing the roof framing (really), drilling and drilling and drilling and cutting and fitting materials and turning my home once again into a construction site, meanwhile confident in the knowledge that this will eventually pass.

And today, near to the end of the year and some months since beginning, the end is at last in sight.

The roof of the bungalow is finished and–because opening a building and replacing the roof is messy, the inside and outside have been repainted. Guests have come, been charmed, remained dry, and departed.

The larger but less dangerous roof over the terrace is fully shaded and with only a couple of small leaks left to chase and the gutters and downspouts to run.

The displaced critters have seemingly settled into the new world order, as have I and together we’re looking forward to new projects in the New Year.

I hope you are, too.

Leave a Reply