I've been really freaking lucky and blessed when it has come to travel. From 18 to 24 I traveled a lot, from studying abroad in Paris to a graduation present trip to India to 6 months in Thailand to many more trips between. I did all of this travel for me. And these places and experiences gave me everything. They gave me so much that at a certain point, I realized the scales were tipping dangerously. I had been given so much by travel, but I had given so little back in return.
And so I made a decision and a promise that I would start to give back with my travel. It would still be partly selfish of course, because I would be able to go see new and beautiful places and make lovely memories. But at least there would be some balancing of it all, some contribution on my part. That promise began with Haiti, and as hard and tremendously sad as that trip was, it flipped a switch in me, almost an addiction. There's so much poverty and suffering in this great, wide world, and the more you see of the world the more you realize it. And for someone who has a hard time accepting those truths, who finds it so profoundly unfair that so many people have so little while others have so much, there's nothing more satisfying or soothing as being able to physically put a dent into that poverty and injustice, even if just a tiny dent.
I'm not sure I would even know how to travel to a place like Haiti or Malawi or Nicaragua without sifting sand or mixing cement or hauling cinder blocks. Habitat uses the phrase "sweat equity" to describe what is expected of the families they build houses for, but it also applies to us, the "unskilled laborers". What we do on a build is not heroic or even particularly grand, but it's something. It's something you can feel and touch. It's the blisters on your hands, sweat in your hair, and a layer of caked on dirt on every inch of your skin. It's simple and small and honest, but it's something. And for the rest of my life, I will seek out trips like these. For the rest of my life I will be a proud supporter of Habitat.
People in the US know Habitat. I knew what it was before my first trip. To be 100% honest I've never volunteered with Habitat domestically (although I hope to soon!). I knew its general mission and thought it was great. But what I've seen that Habitat does internationally makes me a fervent believer. It's international aid done in a way that it's not always done. First of all Habitat has branches in each of the countries it works in. These branches are not staffed by Americans, but staffed by locals. They have local CEO's, local coordinators, local everything. They run the show. Habitat is organic in the sense that each country runs it slightly different. The houses built are different, and even the way the houses are built is different.
Too often international charity is impatient and arrogant, even if it's well intentioned. It's a mindset that NGOs or non-profits can go into a country on a white horse, independently hand out whatever is needed, whether it's money or supplies or religion, and leave as heroes. That sounds great, but it isn't sustainable. It doesn't really fix or change anything. For an NGO to make an impact in a country it has to become a part of that country. It has to slowly and patiently put down roots and make partnerships and develop and grow in sync with the culture and environment.
From what I've seen in Malawi and Nicaragua Habitat excels at that. Other than our team leader, every Habitat person we worked with was Nicaraguan. Because Nicaraguans are the only ones that are going to really understand what Nicaraguans need. This build was different from my Malawi build in that we didn't go in and work on an entire house. One of the ways Habitat Nicaragua has developed is by realizing that the way people in Nicaragua build homes is not all at once. People build as they can, as the money allows, in increments over years. Our build was in a neighborhood in Managua that Habitat has a large project in. The two primary sites we worked on were homes of two families who already had one Habitat "room" built on their properties. Houses in Managua are often clusters of small buildings around a central courtyard. Each of these families had original homes (really just one or two room structures) that fit the international standard of inadequate (dirt floors, scrap metal walls). Habitat houses are not just gifted to the families but rather offered as an affordable, no or very low interest loan. Both families had been able to pay off their first Habitat structure and so were ready to add on another. In this slow and incremental way, the families could eventually have homes that were solid, dry, and safe. It's the kind of aid that would frustrate some people, because it's very slow. But it's what works in Nicaraguan culture, and so it's what Habitat found a way to provide.
Our big team (13 people) split into two teams, and each took a different site. Ours was for a large, multi-generation family (a mother and a father who had several daughters ranging from early 20something to little kids). One of those daughters (who could easily have been 18 or 19, Nicaraguan women start families early) was married and had two young children. All of these people lived in the "compound."
The start of the family's new room in the walled in compound. The scrap metal structure right behind it is the latrine.
Justin, little hellraiser and grandchild of the older generation couple who lived here at the door of the family's original
More of the family on our site
The other half of our team worked on a house for a similar, multi-generation family. The type of construction that Habitat does in Nicaragua is cinder block homes that are very, very reenforced. As I mentioned before Nicaragua is very seismically active, and there was an incredibly destructive earthquake in Managua in 1972. For this reason it's very important that the houses Habitat builds are solid and secure. The type of work we did on this build was very different and a lot more physically demanding than my Malawi build. In Malawi we used brick and did not do anywhere near as much rebar work. We also didn't have to mix the cement ourselves, because there were a dozen teenage boys around at any time who would do that for us. For this house we sifted the sand, mixed our own cement (by hand thank you) and spent a very large amount of time tying rebar (for non-construction minded people, a single row of rebar is composed of two long metal rods side by side that runs the length of the four walls of the house, the two rods are tied together with smaller bent metal rods).
Mike and Sahana tying rebar like champs, after it's tied the rebar goes into a row of cinderblocks and which is then filled with concrete, this reenforces the house
Cutting rebar, despite my thrilled expression this was really, really hard
Mixing cement using child labor
Bending rebar, this was also much harder than my happy expression would suggest
We also helped our mason, Dellis, with the actual construction of the house. I didn't put any cinder blocks on the rows, because to do that you had to balance them precariously in the air and thread them through a vertical piece of rebar (I so would have ended up knocking myself out with a cinder block). But I did fill in the gaps between the cinder blocks with cement. Once the house got tall enough they put up the world's most precarious scaffolding, and so filling in cinder blocks became even more adventurous.
Sahana and Edward mortaring away
Up on the scaffolding with Dellis, trying to make him proud as always
If you know me it may not come as a surprise that I don't do a ton of manual labor. I work out yes, but I do not spend my days lifting heavy objects and shoveling and bending metal. Habitat build days are exhausting. We worked our butts off every day. In fact we worked our butts off so much and so fast that we ended up ahead of schedule (that's why we owned our name Team Lightning). We did as much as we could with this house (it still needed a roof and a floor but both of those had to wait for Dellis to finish up the fancier, more technical things we couldn't help with), and so we ended up starting work on two more build sites.
One of those build sites was literally a field. Nothing had been started. And two other guys on our team and I (that's right, I was the only lady) got the lovely task of starting the foundation. Now I know squat about construction, but I figure that in the US digging foundations is done by some kind of machine thingy. Not so in Nicaragua on a Habitat build. We were there to be unskilled labor, and by God did we Labor with a capital L on this project. I'm pretty sure that ditch digging used to be a sentence for criminals. I don't think I've ever done anything more exhausting other than run a marathon. In about two hours, in 98 degree weather and absolutely no shade, we took this plot of land:
Those are all Habitat houses in the background
I'm not sure if the picture can convey what literal back breaking labor this was. To give proper credit the three of us had ample help from Selim and another Habitat worker. Basically one person (this I did not attempt) would hack away with a pick axe (because soil is not soft despite what you may think) and then three of us would jump in and shovel the shit out of it. The only way I didn't collapse or have to stop is because what I lack in arm strength (a lot) I make up for in sheer stubbornness.
The next day we also got to experience the joys of manual tamping (you have to tamp down the soil of a foundation to make it even, also something that I think is normally done by machines). The tamper is basically a giant metal tool that weighs at least 50 pounds that you repeatedly smash into the ground with force. Not easy. When I went to take the tamper from one of the Habitat guys, he looked at me with skepticism (he hadn't been there to witness my incredible shoveling skills) and said it would be too hard. One of my proudest moments on the trip is that John (the 30 year veteran LA fireman and former Marine), looked at the Habitat guy and said "oh no, she's better than most men." Again I have almost no arm strength (I'll never forget the health fair in high school where there was a machine that gave you a numerical reading for how strong your grip was and one of the seemingly frail, elderly teachers had a higher score than me), but when I go on Habitat trips I am absolutely there to work my butt off. It's exhausting and dirty and so, so sweaty, but I can't describe the exhausted sense of satisfaction you leave with after working so hard all day. Every time I come home from one of these trips I briefly consider switching careers to something involving outdoor manual labor like construction (and then I remember who I am).
(Funny side note: On one of our first days of the trip we were all working doing various tasks, and the family was doing their usual domestic things. Our team leader Edward said that his favorite politically incorrect joke to make on Habitat trip is that it is a complete role reversal from what it's like at home, all these "white" people doing construction while the Central Americans watch from inside their houses).
You may have read up until this point and thought Sweet Jesus, why would anyone go on a trip where they physically exhaust themselves in extreme heat for a week? But there was so much more to our trip than shoveling and tamping and tying rebar. I can't believe I've written this much without talking about the kids.
On volunteer trips like these, I think the kids are always one of the best parts. And no matter where you go there will be kids. We didn't have quite the horde of children here that we did in Malawi, but there were still plenty of them. Most of them were part of the family but they also had various little friends and neighbors over. They didn't speak any English. Most of us spoke very little Spanish. Yet when it's kids you usually realize quickly that it doesn't matter much. Games and coloring and songs and being silly are universal.
And you guys, Nicaraguan children are ridiculously cute. Most of the week we tried to think of discreet ways to steal a few of them and take them with us.
By the end of the week I think we all felt bonded and connected to these families. Even with the language and cultural barrier, there's no way to leave a week like this and not feel a connection. Some of the older members of the families were a little shy at the start of the week but on day 5 they were right there next to us, shoveling cement and laughing at funny things that happened. I think I forget on these trips just how much these houses mean to the family, because selfishly the house and the build mean so much to me, are such a gift to me, that it's easy to forget who it's really impacting. But I was reminded forcefully of what it means to these families during the dedication (a Habitat build always ends with a dedication). For both of our sites one member of the family was given an opportunity to speak, and both women who did got choked up when she was saying what that week meant for her family. One of the coolest part about the dedication is that both families asked each member of our team to go inside the new houses (with brand new spanking floors on our last day-we mixed like 10 batches of concrete and cement for those floors) and write a word or phrase on the walls.
I was so surprised and touched by this, that they would want a word written permanently on their house from a bunch of American strangers who they'd only known for a week. They'd welcomed us, in every sense of the word, into their homes and their lives, and I'm so in awe of that welcoming and generosity. I know we were there to "help" them, but on trips like these it's not that simple or straightforward. It feels so much more mutual, because everything we give we get back exponentially.
Gracia for grace in Spanish, Elisa is my Nicaraguan name given to me by the kids
The nearly finished house with our super snazzy decorations (we spent hours trying to get these to work, let's just say it was extremely windy
Once we'd finished with the dedications and blessings and tears, we ended the week as any good week should end, with a dance party, games, and a pinata. Nicaraguan kids go nuts over pinatas. And they are so good at it! Even like the two year olds knew how to hit the stuffing out of it with a blind fold on.
Dancing, to Gagnam Style, naturally
I write about these trips, and I wonder if I come close to really describing them, to a true explanation of what they are and what they mean. I'm not sure if I have or if I even could. But ultimately the word I took away from all of this, the word I would write on my own little internal cinder block wall, is gratitude. I am so grateful for this trip, for the people I built alongside and played with and learned from. I bring a lot back from trips like these, but I also leave a piece of myself. It's not a choice. You can't go somewhere like Managua on a Habitat trip and not lose a little sliver of your heart and soul. Although maybe lose is the wrong word. Because I know exactly where that piece of my heart is. I feel it as it beats. It's in every cinder block of that house, in the mortar, the people I met. It remains there, always. And so much of there, so much of Nicaragua, remains with me. Always.