Tuesday, December 16, 2014


During my time in Florida as a member of AmeriCorps, one of my favorite service opportunities was when we would partner with Habitat for Humanity and help with the construction of a house for a family in need. These projects, while always completed in the blazing Florida sun, were some of the most fulfilling service opportunities that we participated in because it was directly effecting the future of a family. While we may not have been able to see the end result at the end of the day, we knew that we were providing a needed amenity to those in need of it.

Here in Colombia, and across South America, there is a similar organization to Habitat called Techo. Techo, which means "ceiling" or "roof" in Spanish, was established in Chile in 1997 and is actively constructing houses in 18 countries throughout South and Central America, including Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Dominica Republic, Uruguay, and Venezuela. With nothing really pressing to hold my attention until school starts, I decided, along with 4 other volunteers from my groups (Sammy, Esther, Jessi, and Derek) to check out a build this past weekend. At the very least it was an eye opening endeavor in regards to some of the many cultural differences that I will face over the next two years...

Instead of trying to describe the building process itself with words (which will be extremely difficult since I really don't know all of the technical terms myself), I'll chronicle it with pictures and then discuss some of the frustrations/difficulties/lessons that I learned from the build itself.

Building the House

The house that the family was living in before the build
The land where the new house was built
Measuring out where to place the foundation poles
Digging out holes for the foundation poles
Using a tube and colored water to check the levels of the foundation poles
Senor Alvaro, the father of the family, digging out loose dirt by hand
Working on those dang foundation holes! 12 in all!
Getting ready to lay down the floor of house
The floor is down!
Nailing the floor into the support beams below
Putting up the walls
Photo op with the kids of the family!
It rained at lunch, meaning the only way in the house was shoeless!
Derek nailing in the supports for the roof
Creating a brace so that the walls didn't move while putting in the roof
The start of the roof!
Almost finished!
The finished product! Just in time for sunset
Presenting the house to the family
Ribbon cutting ceremony
The entire team with the family!
Frustrations/Lack of Organization

It is widely known that I am a well-organized, motivated, efficient person. When it comes to working, I enjoy finding the quickest way to complete a task and in a timely manner. This is also a quality that is often found among many Americans. Coming into this past weekend, I wasn't quite prepared for the level of inefficiency and disorganization that I would have to deal with.

It all started from the very beginning. We were instructed to meet at 5:30 pm so that we could leave promptly and arrive at the build sites in a timely manner. I completely forgot that 5:30 pm here in Colombia actually means 7:00 pm. As we waited for people to trickle in, very little direction or sense of organization was apparent. We were pretty much left in the dark without any idea of what was going on. Instead of using this time to load up the buses or get things ready to go, we just sat around wondering what was going on. When we finally headed towards out sites, it took another 30 minutes or so to load up the buses and get going.

When we arrived at the school in Puerto Colombia, we were broken up into our building groups. What would have been nice is if a run down of the process or an overview of the tools that we were going to be using (let's face it, my construction Spanish vocab isnt' the strongest) was conducted at this time. I just felt like I was unaware of anything that was going on all weekend and I found that to be super frustrating.

During the build itself, I found myself constantly being treated like I knew nothing. I was really unaware of how to construct this house because it was my first time and the tools that we were using were also new to me. However, instead of taking a little extra time to properly explain to myself and others what the process was, frustrations boiled over, equipment was taken, and jobs were completed that I was more than capable to doing. It was shocking and disheartening that this was how new volunteers were treated, whether they were Colombian or otherwise.

One of the other difficulties that we ran into was the build site itself. The place where we built the house was full of large rocks under the ground that made digging the foundation poles time consuming. I'm pretty sure that we spent about 6 hours on one hole alone. However, as we were struggling with this one hole, it seemed like the rest of the progress came to a halt as well. It amazed me that we couldn't work on the rest of the holes until this one was done. After about 40 minutes, it was pretty apparent that we were not going to be able to break through the rock very easily. I attempted to ask if we could just cut the pole shorter, but was met with a response of "That's not how we do it here." No other explanation was given - I was just supposed to accept that that was how it was going to be.

Overall Lessons Learned
All of these issues (and some more) added up to a really frustrating weekend. This was honestly one of my first times running up against some of the cultural differences that we heard about during PST and it took me by surprise. I thought that I was ready to face these differences and ready to deal with them. While this was just a small sample, the laid back attitude of many Colombians is going to be my biggest challenge to cope with over these next two years.

Despite all of the frustrations and wanting to pull my hair out moments during the weekend, the presentation of the house to the family put everything back into perspective for me. This project was never about me and my inability to cope with cultural changes - it was about the family that we were building for. As we dedicated the house to them with the sun setting in the background, the pure, raw emotion that the family showed really humbled me. The mother was beside herself and one of the children ran around the finished house shouting "Mi casita! Mi casita!" ("My house! My house!").

I can't express how much this family, a family of 6 living in a one room shack built out of some random logs and plastic bags, helped change my attitude from one of disgust and intolerance to one of humility and acceptance. They were starting over in this brand new house that they never thought was possible. I had helped to give them the chance to begin a brand new chapter in their lives. Sometimes you just have to look past yourself to see that the bigger picture is more important than personal feelings.

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