Operaciones Semana Santa

Late Sunday night/early Monday morning (April 4th-5th)

I lay in bed after a long, hot shower, cleansed and cleaned, wrapped in my soft, warm comforter. I relaxed the comfort and security of my own bed, my own room, Pepi dozing off on the other side of the window. I no longer had to worry about elbowing Constantine in the face as I cram up against the cold stone wall, or covering every inch of skin with clothing in a desperate attempt to ward off potential bed bugs. Yet as I lay in this secure and familiar environment to which I have finally returned, I reflect upon the experience I have gained from this extended weekend.

Operaciones Semana Santa. What had previously been nothing more than another facebook event which would probably lie in my invitation box, unanswered and ignored, had turned into an experience from which I may have gained the most so far in Chile. This experience began out of the chaos of last week, the stress of balancing my classes and reforming my plan for my future. During this week I was looking for an excuse to get out of this event  which I had been talked into by Cecilia. I knew that she would be the only face I would recognize, and I was even more certain that I would be the only foreigner on this trip. Yet as the departure drew near I decided to give it a try. This would be a great opportunity to practice my Spanish, and helping out some families recover from the devastation brought upon them by the earthquake wouldn’t be so bad either.

On Wednesday, after another long day of stress and sadness for not fully understanding my Mundo Andino lecture, watching all the other students taking notes as I struggled to make sense of what the teacher was saying, not understanding the jokes that the entire class, including the other foreign students laughed at, I finally returned to campus at 7:30, ready yet still nervous to embark on this journey. The campus was filled with the light of the setting sun, rendering the buildings in a manner like I have never seen. Not knowing where I was going, I loosely followed the other students with large backpacks and tools as I snapped a few photos with my point and shoot, regretting that I had left my large camera behind. I came to a set of tables and computers by the church, only to find that this was the wrong organization. One of the staff members kindly lead me through another building looking for another group. When we finally found them I thanked him as he left. I then quickly found that I was at yet another group with whom I was not registered. A staff member of this group then helped me search for the correct organization. Finally, after finding it, I found myself alone without any members of my subgroup as I was told the group leader was off driving somewhere. As students filed in and out of the room my group slowly began to build until we left to shop for some last minute tools.

We were running late as we descended the stairs of the metro. We began to follow more staff members and group leaders as we ran across a dark, grass field. In my boots, carrying shovels and pikes, I felt as if we were in some military training exercise. We panted as we entered the busses and searched for an open seat. It was now midnight as the busses left, and I soon fell asleep. The bus ride was uncomfortable, as I had expected, but I slept surprisingly longer than I had anticipated. However, on reaching our destination at 3:30am I was ready for a shower and a bed. I sighed at the fact that I knew that I would not be able to have either of these for the next four days.

As we piled into to the classrooms I began to worry about my sleeping situation, using a borrowed sleeping bag but not having any form of mattress to protect my skeleton from the hard, tile floor. But as I went to brush my teeth, mattresses began flowing into the school, one by one. I thought back to Heather’s experience with bedbugs in Puerto Natales as I lay my sleeping bag out on the uncovered mattress. If I was to have a similar experience this is where it would happen. I prepared myself for it as I covered every possible inch of my body and tried to fall asleep.

The next day I awoke crammed between another volunteer and a cold, stone wall, yet relieved to find myself free of bites. The sun was barely up as we prepared ourselves for our days work. After a light breakfast of bread and tea, we piled into the busses and drove off into the country. Pikes pointed towards the ceiling, everyone sat erect, energy flowed through the bus. I felt as if we were a squad of infantry in our transport to the battle field, ready to tackle our mission.

As my group, joined by another group descended the bus, we were greeted by a small, old lady and a variety of dogs. We were shown around her property. I looked in awe at the mud brick walls surrounded by rubble that was once a large country house. I couldn’t help but wonder why we were making a new house instead of helping to rebuild this one. I was reassured by my group leader that what we were doing was something quick and temporary to get the family out of the rain while they attempted to slowly rebuild their old house.

After a long morning of sinking wooden logs into the ground, anchored by rocks taken from the dirt road in front of the property, we sat down at a table outside behind a mud brick and plastic structure for lunch. This apparently was the kitchen. A wood burning stove, a refrigerator, and a table, all outside. We ate our pasta, surrounded by chickens, dogs, and cats, relaxing in the cool breeze. I looked beyond the table to find that the large pile of clothing and plastic tarps and other unidentifiable objects was actually a makeshift tent under which were beds. This is why we are building a house for this family. We continued work until completing the floor at dusk.

I desperately wanted a shower and a beer when we returned to the school, disdainful of the knowledge that I would not be able to obtain either of these desires. Alcohol was not allowed on this trip and I had forgotten my towel in Santiago. After first attempting to wash my face and arms in the sink, I eventually gave in and showered in the cold, dirty bathrooms, using my clothes from that day as a towel.

The next day I was surprised on one hand by the cheap quality of the prefabricated materials we were working with. A light wooden structure, no insulation, holes in the walls, and a corrugated metal roof. Yet on the other hand I realized that this is probably all that could be afforded by this organization. I wondered if some of the materials were donated like my labor. This structure was, after all, better than what this family was currently living in.

This portion of the construction was more of what I had expected to be doing. Instead of digging holes in the ground and stepping in mud we were now sitting on top of wooden walls hammering in support beams for the roof. I had never loved my Mutt Lynch’s T-shirt so much. I felt like a real construction worker, with a slogan on the back reading “I used to drink out of the toilette, now I drink at Mutt Lynch’s” and a breast pocket full of nails. The only thing I wish I had was some sort of tool belt, like the Doite hip bag I saw one of the other volunteers wearing, filled his large format camera, construction supplies, and topped off with a bottle opener keychain in the shape of a hard hat.

After a long day’s work we presented the houses to the families, taking pride in our accomplishments. I noticed one volunteer standing amongst the rubble of the previous house as the sun set, soaking in the purpose and affects of his work along with the golden light.

The next day I grew anxious as the bus driver appeared to be lost. We passed by our houses that we had built the previous day, driving deeper into the network of unpaved country roads. After a few stops in which various other groups descended the bus it was now our turn. We stopped in the middle of the road, far from anything which looked like a house. We were then told to pile into the bed of a pickup truck. We bounced along a narrow dirt road, constantly worried about driving a shovel into our tail bones, passed some open fields, crossed a river, and finally arrived at our new house.

A new day, a new family. I was immediately awestruck by the beauty of this property. Unlike the last one, which looked more like a farm in the French country side of 1942, this family lived in what appeared to be a wonderful, decent sized house, surrounded by grape vines which followed a trellised overhang creating a shaded porch.  On the other side of the open space which would probably be a driveway had this family owned enough cars, was a small mud brick house with adobe tiles, which had been burnt either as an effect of the earthquake or something completely unrelated. Beyond a series of clothes lines and around corner of the main house to the left was another mud brick structure which contained the kitchen. Straight back through the trees from the main open lot was a small outhouse and a greenhouse, beyond which lay fields of chilis and other crops.

As we started measuring out where the pilings would go in this main lot I couldn’t help but wonder why we were constructing this new house in the middle of what I felt was an essential open space to the beauty of the property.  I could not understand why we were building a cheaply made, prefabricated house with limited resources when it appeared that this family only needed to renovate and reinforce the current house, which had a beautiful country character to it. However, at our lunch break we all went to wash our hands at the outdoor sink, the one and only source of water for this family. Behind this I was able to see inside the greenhouse. Amongst the garden inside I was able to see piles of clothes, most likely effects of the earthquake.

We had an amazingly relaxing lunch on the porch underneath the tranquil shade of the grape vines. We sat with the family and talked about Santiago, Chilis, which Raul, the father, grows in his garden and the children’s interests. Raul’s friendliness was reinforced by his like for chilis and beer as we conversed over the table. If only I could spend enough time with him to understand his ridiculously rapid Spanish and to show off the fact that we had similar interests.

After lunch, Raul and his children helped us continue digging holes and anchoring pylons with rocks we had collected from a nearby river. Raul took me around the back of the house by the kitchen to show me some interesting fruit which I have never heard of nor seen before in my life. It was so strange that I forgot the name of it almost as soon as he told me what it was. Almost like a small, soft pomegranate, peeling back the skin I ate a soft, sweet goup filled with seeds. While I was back there I noticed inside the kitchen and the room next to it which held beds, the floors were in fact the dirt ground, and some of the walls were plastic tarps. I then walked over to the outhouse, which was a small wooden structure above a pit. I was actually surprised at the lack of horrible smells emerging from the abyss.

We continued working until we ran out of light, at which point Raul’s wife invited us into the kitchen for dinner. Knowing this was not part of the program (we were supposed to return to the school for dinner) but still waiting on the pickup to retrieve us, we graciously accepted the family’s hospitality.

The eight of us sat around the kitchen table eating bread and salad, drinking tea brewed on the small wood burning stove. A low amber light from the single light bulb covered everything in the room, from the mud brick and plastic tarp wall to our faces, to the dogs playing on the dirt floor at our feet. Raul’s wife and kids sat in the corner keeping us company as we ate and conversed.

It was here that I was hit hard by a realization. A realization of where I actually was and what I was actually doing. I had known it all along but I had not really felt it until now. I was in a completely different world, far away from sprawling, smooth pavement and tidily trimmed hedges of Irvine. Cecilia had asked me earlier that day as we collected rocks from the river for the foundation if I was surprised or impacted by the poverty. I replied with a simple “no”. Considering this family’s beautiful land, I explained how they appeared very well off compared to the slums I had seen in Costa Rica. But here at the kitchen table I was stricken with the realization that this family indeed lived in poverty. Yet it was a completely different type of poverty, something I had only heard about until now. Despite the fact that this family did not have to live in constant fear of drugged out, armed strangers robbing or violating them, they still lived without many basic luxuries. I began to realize that we were most likely building this cheap, ugly structure on their beautiful property because they do not have the economic resources to do so themselves. I let this soak in as we piled back into the bed of the pickup, watching satellites cross the night sky filled with more stars than I can remember ever seeing in Mammoth.

The next day as we finished the temporary house, Raul’s wife and children showed Jose and I through their actual house. It was here that I was able to see why we were here.  Although from the outside the house looked intact, with all its beauty, inside we found that the earthquake had rocked the support beams for the roof, which had fallen about a meter. The family explained that when the rains come, the roof will most likely completely collapse. This is why their beds were out on the dirt ground of the kitchen. This is why clothing articles were pilled the greenhouse. This is why we were here to help build a temporary structure to get this family off the ground and out of the rain.

After cutting the ribbon to their new home, we walked back down the dirt road towards the extraction point. Arriving at the river we stopped to soak our feet and admire the beauty of the country side as we waited for the bus. We were proud of our work. We had completed two houses in four days. We had also met some interesting people, from different worlds than our youthful city life.

I will never forget just how friendly, welcoming, and happy this family was, despite the fact that the floor of their kitchen is made from the same dirt as their driveway. This indeed is a different type of poverty. One that constrains the family in certain ways, but does not restrict their ability to show the love and respect that every human being deserves.

View the rest of the pictures on my Picasa account

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About sweisss

more to come
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