Habitat finishes

25 February 2006
1:15 PM

Yesterday afternoon we ended our week with Habitat for Humanity in Temuco. Our sum total of finished houses was zero. Part of that number stems from some setbacks we encountered during the week. But now I understand more about how the program works and the number doesn’t bother me.

For a variety of logistical reasons, the local Habitat office could do minimal preparation before we arrived. On top of that, due to some scheduling conflicts, the trained workers couldn’t come help us until Wednesday. As it turns out, there are some jobs that uneducated construction workers (like me) can do, and others that they can’t. I thought that from the onset, but a failure to understand that principle caused some problems. Two helpful but untrained men who are going to live in the houses we are constructing staked out the lines to dig the foundation trenches. After we followed their instructions and dug trenches for two houses, more knowledgeable workers re-measured and told us we had to re-dig the trenches. Time drain number one.

On Wednesday, a torrential downpour transformed our trenches into moats. Time drain number two. That halted our digging, although with everyone working indoors on constructing walls, we made substantial progress.

I know almost nothing about construction, but I think we were also somewhat limited by the machinery available. Thursday morning Roy, Matís, Caitlin, Maureen, and I hauled rocks and sand from point A to point B to prepare for concrete mixing. As we wheeled wheelbarrows back and forth, I had dreams of driving a giant yellow Tonka truck to reduce a 100-trip task to a one-half-trip task. On Friday we mixed the concrete for the foundations bucket by bucket. Or more specifically, a half-bucket of cement, four buckets of sand, seven buckets of rocks, and a variable number of buckets of water. During this process I came face-to-face with my primary failing as a construction worker: I can’t lift heavy things. Hoisting the buckets of rocks up to the concrete mixer was sometimes more than I could manage. Fortunately the Chilean worker who accompanied us was good-natured about it. He would lift the buckets for me every now and then after laughing and grabbing my arms.

When we finished, we had dug foundations for four houses and filled them with large rocks, mixed and poured the concrete for one house’s foundation, and built 27 of the 60 walls needed for the project. We were the third Habitat brigade for the summer; on Monday another group will follow us immediately and continue where we finished. Although we don’t have a house to show for it, we leave knowing that we did some valuable work and that we are leaving a solid foundation—literally—for the people who will follow.

In an interesting twist to our trip, there is no room for us on the return bus to Santiago until Wednesday, unless we fork over more money. Instead of doing that, we’re taking a detour to Puerto Montt, farther to the south and catching the bus back later.