Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Some tips for making a Mexican home a better place to be in quarantine

Chances are you’ve been thinking about your home a lot lately. Now that you’re spending so much time inside, little details you hadn’t noticed before are suddenly front and center and, I’d be willing to bet, things are starting to feel a bit crowded.

We interrupt today’s regularly-scheduled gloom and doom with a twist of hopeful rallying and pleading at the very end for something a bit different: how to make your home a place you don’t mind being quarantined in.

I’ve been seeing quite a few articles and videos lately about how people are using this time to renovate, add on to their homes, or simply carve out a little space inside of a rental away from the kids where they might actually be able to get five minutes of uninterrupted work done.

Most recommendations for DIY-ing it (Do It Yourself) are excellent, but I always notice that they are geared toward people in homes in the U.S. and Canada. The assumption is always that you have large and plentiful closets, a complete kitchen with ample counter and cabinet space, storage spaces with vanities in the bathrooms, climate control that runs through wood-beamed structures covered in drywall, screens on the windows, and standard-sized windows and doors.

Ha! As those of you who live here in Mexico know, on the whole these are not reasonable expectations; depending on your renting and buying budget, some of them might be, but if you’re like me and arrived as a poor student, you’ve probably lived in places that made pantries and a couple of shelves in the bathroom feel like items of luxury.

Lucky for all of us, there are solutions, and for the most part, they aren’t expensive. The following are my top tips for organizing and decorating Mexican homes, especially if you’re on a budget!

Space is precious: don’t let junk take it up!

I’m no Marie Kondo (get rid of all but a handful of books? Are you crazy?), but I do believe in the awesome power of decluttering. When I help friends with decorating projects, I absolutely refuse to start on the “fun stuff” like painting and adding pretty details until all the junk is out of the area we’ll be working on.

Start with the obvious: all expired food items and medicines get tossed. Then move on to old papers: keep the major documents — maybe invest in a filing cabinet or box — and toss the water bills from two years ago. If you’re afraid to do this, snap a picture of it first.

Then, it’s on to clothing. A good rule of thumb is that if you haven’t worn something in over a year and it’s not from some special, sentimental occasion like your wedding, wash it and put it in a “donate” bag. Either take it to a donation center or save it for when someone comes to knock on your door asking for old clothes and shoes. Do the same with jewelry, electronics, toys, kitchen stuff (I know you have a bunch of lids in there that no longer go to anything — off with them!).

I personally like to start with the kitchens and bathrooms: that’s where you can typically make the biggest changes and clear the most space at once. Plus, it’s just so cathartic to give yourself permission to throw out that five-year-old bottle of lotion with only an inch of product left in it once you admit to yourself that it’s never actually going to get used.

Make that place safe!

I’ve often joked that Mexico’s motto seems to be “Safety third!” Hand railing on slick stairs? Who needs it? My own beautiful home at the moment (I’m renting) has quite a few stairs, and when I moved in there was only one handrail on only one side on only one flight, as well as open spaces (read: gaping holes) between the stairs and the studio spaces. Those empty spaces next to the stairs were big enough for even a slightly-tipsy medium-sized adult to fall through, to say nothing of adventurous and oblivious children.

The owner is lovely, and I convinced him to install bamboo barriers that “closed” the spaces while still letting in the light from the stairs in. I also bought a few rolls of “traction” strips for all the stairs. Like most floors in Mexico, they’re made of tile and pretty much anything can make them slippery.

Making your stairs safe (get something to grab on to and something to give your feet traction) is always my No. 1 tip. You should also consider anchoring heavy furniture to the walls lest you have little ones that might want to pretend to be mountain climbers when you turn away for five seconds. Mosquito netting for your bed if you can’t put screens on your window is also an excellent investment.

When you don’t have storage: use the wall!

My go-to solution for creating storage space is to use the vertical space. Invest in a good drill (the hand-held battery ones might not be powerful enough for the concrete walls) or have a carpenter install shelves that he or she makes. This is usually a very economical option, and you can use baskets and containers that you find at the supermarket, artisans market, or even the catalogue of home products your neighbor sells to organize the things you need.

Sometimes even a simple nail will do: pots and pans in my house have been hung on the wall near the stove in the places where I’ve lived for at least the past 10 years, and holes are very easy to fill back up once you’re ready to move.

When you need to cover something up

I don’t know about you all, but I can’t count how many homes I’ve rented here with closet space (score!) but no closet doors. And as organized as I might be hanging my clothes and stacking my shoes, I just don’t want to see them when I walk into the room. The solution? Get some wall hangings. If that’s no longer your style, you can have some tasteful curtains made to hang in front. It’s simple, cheap, and makes a dramatic change while still keeping the space accessible.

When you want to give things a dramatic change

I’ve painted pretty much every house I’ve lived in here. My go-to color palette looks a lot like the “bold” Crayola-brand box of markers with lots of deep corals and rich teals paired with off-white “brightening” neutrals, but I know everyone’s got their own tastes. Paint an “accent” wall in the room and soak up the gorgeous change! Paint is just amazing, not to mention forgiving: if you don’t like how it turned out, just paint over it in another color!

This makes for a fun activity for kids as well, and both walls and old furniture have been known to receive makeovers in times of boredom. I’m currently waiting for a large protein powder container to run out so that I can paint it and make it into a cookie jar, a product that mysteriously doesn’t seem to be sold anywhere anymore.

A lamp or two (do yourself a favor and get the “warm light” bulbs) can also make a huge difference in a room, as can houseplants. The natural green is just such a beautiful touch, and they’ll make your space feel fresh and outdoorsy even if you yourself can’t be outdoors.

So there you have it, folks. We might not be able to hang out in our favorite cafe or bar, but we can make our homes as lovely as they can be in the meantime. And when we’re finally able to hang out with each other again, they’ll be totally ready to receive guests and have parties! Hang in there, and get decorating: you’ll be glad you did.

Sarah DeVries writes from her home in Xalapa, Veracruz.

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