Of Varas and Tree Houses

“I please need three 2 x 2 square metal tubes. What lengths do you have?”

I asked my question in what I felt was reasonable Spanish. Based on the reaction of the guy behind the counter I had perhaps viewed my translation prowess through gringo-colored glasses. I did eventually get a rapid-fire response that included the word “varas.”

I have spent most of my life unburdened by the tyranny of the metric system. However accidentally, I do know that a meter is a little longer than a yard. That meager base of knowledge, however, falls to pieces when the conversation takes place in Spanish and involves multiple systems of measurement (particularly when one of the systems dates back to the colonial period of Spain).

I have learned in my time in Pura Vida that a vara is about 33 inches (not exactly, but close enough). I have also learned the hard way that most countries where Spanish or Portuguese is spoken came up with their own calculation as to the exact length of a vara. It is therefore important to know if the guy behind the counter happens to be from Panama, or Brazil (it’s shorter in Panama but ten inches longer in Brazil).

Had I been in a Home Depot, for example, I could have brought my own tape measure and figured all of this out in private. Here in Pura Vida, however, everything is typically ordered at the front counter. Visits to the hardware store require that I state exactly what I want using the proper local names for everything (the regional differences for the names of tools and supplies are legion). If that is not enough of a challenge, there is also the regular need to perform the measurement conversions. 

My mind was not up for this challenge, so I cheated. “I need them to be at least 15 feet long.”

“Oh, so around five meters.”

That, I thought, was sneaky of him. I’d switched from varas to feet, and he replied in meters. Not nice. But five meters is more than 15 feet, right? Isn’t that right?

“Sure,” I replied back confidently. “You have the tubes in five meter lengths?”

“No,” he smiled, “more like 7 varas.”

I smiled back, knowing that the three inch long mental knife I’d brought to this 9 millimeter gunfight was not adequate. Seven varas was definitely longer than 15 feet. I’d cut off the excess and use it elsewhere. “Ok, I please need three.”

I felt a wave of pride pass through my body. I had won. It was over. Only, it wasn’t.

“How thick?”

I am relatively new to the world of grinders and welding. It hadn’t even occurred to me that there would be options in terms of thickness. Stores here atop the mountain usually had something, or they didn’t.

I smiled weakly, attempting to evoke pity. “Um…can you tell me the options?”

He checked the monitor in front of him and rattled off a lot of numbers. I got hung up on the word millimeter (millimetro) and completely missed everything else that was said. This happens to me a lot. My mind grabs a particular word with the idea that it can be used to understand the rest of what is being said, but by the time I digest the word the speaker is three ideas down the road.

There were now two other people waiting behind me, shifting their feet and muttering at the delay. Their tension made me nervous, which did not help my conversational Spanish. I cannot think in millimeters but I sometimes have success switching centimeters over to inches. I tried, and failed.

“The thickest you have.”

“Is there going to be a heavy load?”

He appeared honestly concerned that I might not know what I’m doing. I had already beaten him to that assumption but did not want to start over by comparing tension loads and carrying capacities of the various tube sizes available. I had used the 2 x 2 tubing on other occasions. It was fine for what I needed. Probably.

To save time and perhaps garner a small amount of good will I volunteered, “Nothing that heavy. It’s for the floor of a treehouse I’m building for my kids.”

He arched an eyebrow. I heard snickering from those behind me. Ok, yes, these men all worked in labor-intensive jobs often involving the repair and construction of houses for people and I was… looking to build a la-de-da retreat for Things #1 and #2.

“A house in a tree?”



I tried to avoid eye-contact as I paid the bill and then loaded the tubes atop my car. As I slowly drove home I realized that I would soon have to repeat a variation of this conversation at the local lumber yard. Perhaps by then my ego would have recovered.

The floor is now in. Now for that pesky roof, the walls, and of course, the jacuzzi

I spent the rest of the morning securing the tubes to the three trees that had been selected by Things #1 and #2. I had been directed to this spot, which is rather close to our house, because both boys are scared of the woods at night, and, related, because they want me to install an electrical line in the treehouse (roughing it is great but where do I plug in my phone?)

Later that same afternoon Things #1 and #2 returned from their outings and stared at the rudimentary frame.

Thing #2 pointed to another clump of nearby trees. “You’re going to put the porch over there?”

I had honestly forgotten all about the wish-list for the treehouse—which was extensive. There was the electricity, the porch, hammocks, and a zip line that would need to defy gravity to return them to our house. Additionally, Thing #2 had a number of ideas regarding the animals he intended to harbor inside. He took the opportunity to remind me of that.

“And remember Daddy, we need a room on the second floor where I can keep my lizards.”

Thing #1 instantly reacted. “No lizards! I do not want lizards in the tree house.”

Thing #2 rolled his eyes. “They’ll be tamed, don’t worry.”

“You mean you’re going to squish them so they can’t move. That’s your idea of taming things!”

Indignant, Thing #2 replied, “I do not squish them. I give them gentle pressure and pet them until they know not to leave.”

Thing #1 threw up his hands. “I don’t care! No lizards!”

Things #1 and #2 walked away—still bickering—I stood and stared at the frame, trying to figure out how many varas high the second story would be. I had little faith that Thing #2 would successfully train a team of lizards to consume all of the bugs that happened by, but am interested to see how the boys deal with the army ants that visit the area on occasion. Perhaps they will seek refuge in the jacuzzi on the porch that they will no doubt require.