Wednesday, January 31, 2007

15 Individuals Define Teamwork in Santo Domingo

Amanda and Lisa´s Global Village team in early December (yes, that is a photo taken in December below!) took to building their house in Santo Domingo by storm: 15 people, some of them with lots of Habitat experience, all working on ONE house!This group consisted of 2 parts "returner" from other Global Village groups that Lisa and Amanda had led, and one part "new-comer." The team represented three countries: US (if I remember correctly there about 10 states were represented!), Canada, and Brazil.

Here's an album of pics from the Lisa/Amanda team:
Lisa and Amanda´s Team

The two leaders met a few years ago in Costa Rica at an intensive language program. Lisa had been involved in Habitat for Humanity almost since its birth and she invited Amanda to help lead teams and to practice her Spanish abilities during trips to Latin America (on the left, Amanda, to the right, Lisa.... I don´t think we got a picture of her NOT working!).

This is the first house in Ecuador for which I participated in the construction from the initial scraping of the ground (I soon participated in several more!). This site was located on a narrow, tropical, strip of land. To one side is a banana field and to the other was a neighbor´s residence where we used the well and the "bathroom."

A pleasant surprise at this site was that, each afternoon, neighborhood children would gather for a dance class on the dirt road! The girls would line up on one side and the boys on the other. We had help on the work-site from some of the neighborhood children later in the week.

Across the street was a more dismal site: this is exactly the type of housing Habitat strives to eliminate. There were SEVERAL young children who lived in this bamboo-plastic sheet residence.

Although we had planned to be working on two houses, a land-legalization holdup made only one site available. Luckily our "maestro", Jose, has become a master of work allocation and training diversification. We were able to keep everyone busy and tired all week!

Usually the Habitat houses in Ecuador have a front "sala", kitchen and bathroom, and two bedrooms. The first task was to clean the area while Narcisa, the engineer and Jose, the maestro measured out the plans for the house on the ground: 6 meters by 6 meters, 36 square meters. That is less than 400 square feet!

The family that will move into the house consists of Susanna and Miguel (the owners), their two children and their nephew, Victor. A brother in law of Susanna´s, and her nephew, Victor, were the family´s representatives working on the house all week. Prior to this house, the family was paying a rent that was too high to allow the family to purchase their "primary needs basket", and too high to allow for savings. With the Habitat no-interest loan, they will not only have lower monthly payments than they incur currently, they will also be putting their income towards an investment. In 8 to 10 years the family will have paid off their home! Susanna (left) often brought the group fresh juices as a mid-morning or mid-afternoon treat.
After the site was cleared, and the measurements made, the next task was to dig the foundation trenches.

The trenches are quite deep due to the risk of earthquake damage! The ground, however, was very soft and the team had the thigh-deep trenches completed by the end of the morning on the first day.

To ensure the trenches for the foundation would be level, long tubes of water were used, verifying the water level was the same on each corner and midpoint. Below "la ingeniera" (the engineer), Narcisa, and our "maestro", Jose, are pictured checking whether one of the back house corners was level with a front corner of the house. Water isn´t affected by what happens between two points in the tube, each end will demonstrate with its water the level of that point in the foundation.

After the foundation trenches were prepared, the group began creating the "cadenas" (chains) which would provide structure to the house´s columns and footings.

Each component of the chains was prepared manually: re-bar was measured and cut; wire for tying was wound into rings, measured and cut; narrow re-bar was measured, cut, and bent into squares. Then using the wire, the squares were tied to the re-bar, creating column frames.

Here is a pic of the site, and the team, after the first day´s work was completed.

To prepare the base of the foundation, large rocks and sand were used to partially refill the trenches. Moving the rocks with wheelbarrows and buckets is always a massive job... and then the endless task of cement mixing began!!

Although I have heard rumor that one of the Habitat sites in Ecuador has a cement mixer, it has not yet appeared at any of the sites on which I´ve worked! The human version, however, is always present. Who needs a gym???
The chain-columns were tied into foundation squares at each house corner, and at their midpoints, creating a framework for the entire house. When the foundation was poured, the cross-columns, which would become the frame for the footings, were created in between the column chains and tied into place. By the end of the week, the team had finished the foundation, footings, and poured the cement floor for the house. They had also poured the vertical columns for the walls of the house, dug a septic tank, and started to lay brick.

Tasks such as moving brick, and pulling water out of the neighbor´s well (for mixing cement--- we used A LOT of water!) are HUGE and take up time one wouldn´t guess in the grand scheme of building a house.

With all the action taking place, we attracted the help of many young children! I was impressed with their strength- they passed bricks in our "human brick chain" for as long as any of the other volunteers. was finished! When the group left Santo Domingo, they had made huge strides towards the completion another family´s dream of their own, decent house.

VISA Renewal: I love Bureaucracies :-(

My first 90 days of allowable time in Ecuador expired the 6th of December, also the Foundation date of Quito, and a national holiday here (See "Fiestas de Quito, Chiva!"). I had a feeling this coincidence in dates might be a problem, so I had visited the Migration Services office two times before I left town in early December.

The first time I went, I wanted to verify that the 6th of December was the day that I needed to extent the 90-day tourist VISA, and to find out if the office would be open the 6th of December. Upon turning over my brand-new passport (see "Path to a New Passport" entry), we discovered that the new number was not available in the computer system and that I would need to bring a copy of my old passport. I was assured, by 3 independent sources in the office, that Migration Services would be open the 6th, despite it being a national holiday.

The second time I stopped by migration services, with a copy of my previous passport, and to re-confirm that I would have no problems getting my 90 day extension. We were able to locate my computer files using the old passport, and I was once-again confirmed that the offices would be open and that I would be able to renew my tourist VISA the 6th.

On the 5th of the December I had to leave Lisa and Amanda´s Global Village group in Santo Domingo (see previous post), in Daniel´s capable hands, to return to Quito. This in itself was an adventure as there was a "paro" (stop) due to a "huelga" (strike) in between Santo Domingo and Quito. The bus I took, left late to start off, and then traveled via an alternative route to avoid the huelga, so that we arrived in 5 hours, rather than 3. By that time in the afternoon, everything had closed in anticipation of the following day´s festivities.

The next day, December 6th, bright and early, I arrived at migration services to find... That it WAS OPEN! Great. Except, it was only open for services I didn´t need. Extensions to VISAs would not be give ´til the following day! I was rather upset, and worked to argue the point that I had asked three people on two different occasions and all had assured me I could take care of the extension on the 6th. Although my insistence did not change anything, I was assured that I would not be penalized because I had no way of renewing the day my first 90 days expired. I didn´t believe this, but there was nothing else to do. I stayed in Quito another night.

Luckily, this time the information I received was correct and I was able to renew the next day and return to Santo Domingo where we were learning to cook, Ecuadorian style (see next post).

Monday, January 29, 2007

Witnessing Ecuador´s National Elections

As many of the readers may know, Ecuador recently inaugurated a new president on January 16th, Rafeal Correa.
Correa won with a healthy margin... after trailing in the polls! A large percentage of Ecuadorians polled had responded that they were "undecided" between the two finalist candidates. The undecided proportion remained very high up until the final day of the election. After the final tally, Alvaro Noboa, the candidate who had been ahead in the polls, was the favorite in coastal provinces, while Correa was the favorite in the Sierra (mountain) and Oriente regions (eastern jungle).

I was in Tosagua for the second round of elections and I decided to visit one of two voting cites which was held in the courtyard of the towns technical high school. Several things were very interesting to witness.First, a group of enterprising Ecuadorians had set up laminating stands outside the voting site and charged each customer 25 cents to have their voting "receipt" laminated. Below are two of these "lamination stands."

Lamination cost 25 cents. Having a good copy of one´s voting "receipt" is a good idea because proving one´s voting record is required for many financial transactions and for all Ecuadorian "permission to leave the country" which are required in addition to visas and passports! There is a "multa", a fine, for anyone who does not vote.
The second thing that I found particularly interesting was that the men and women were separated into different lines to vote.

The first side and a half of the voting "booths" were for men and the second half and third side where for women. This picture includes the sign designating this particular "booth" for "mujeres." Those "booths" for men where almost entirely maintained by men, and those for women where also staffed accordingly. I have not yet recieved what I consider a likely answer for why the voters are separated in this way. Several people told me that it was because "you can find your line more easily", and that "it makes the lines go faster".
The voting "booths" where cardboard tri-folds, set up on tables, with signs which announced that "your vote is secret."

The second round of presidential elections where held on Sunday, November 26th. Elections in Ecuador are always held on a Sunday to give citizens time to return to their city of registration. In my earlier post on the first round of Ecuadorian elections, I mentioned that voting is required for Ecuadorian citizens between the ages of 18 and 65. After 65, voting is optional. Military members cannot vote, and this was the first year that Ecuadorian citizens living abroad had the opportunity to vote. More than 60,000 Ecuadorians in Spain voted in the second round of presidential elections.

The final presidential race and election themselves were very interesting as they were between two pretty polarized characters. The first round of elections were held between 13 candidates (see "Ecuador National Elections- This Weekend!" post). (By the way, a Google search on "Ecuador National Elections", are somewhat alarming as my blog appears as one of the top few finds...).

Alvaro Noboa is the richest Ecuadorian and is one of the ten richest people in the world. He inherited a fortune, but has increased this fortune as a businessman with dealings from bananas to health care. Naboa had unsuccessfully run for presidential office 2x before. He was decidedly the more conservative candidate from the PRIAN party.

Correa was the younger, more charismatic, candidate, whose only political background was a 3-4 month stint as the Minister of Economics under Alfredo Palacio the outgoing president. Correa completed his PhD in Economics in the US and was the candidate supported by Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Correa represented a group of interest groups rather than a single party. He wants to have a constitutional convention and referendum to replace the current constitution.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Thanksgiving Ceviche and Cooking Adventures

Thanksgiving 2006, aka "Dia de Gracias" will go down in history for all those who shared it in Tosagua, Manabi, Ecuador. (below, the traditional Thanksgiving "kids table!").
It was a day full of food, creativity(!), and cultural interchange. Karen´s Thrivent team (see "Tosagua, the Heart of Manabi"), habitat personnel, the house-recipient families, some neighbor kids, the hotel owner and workers all joined for a huge meal which included many familiar foods, and variations on traditional themes.

The preparations for the dinner required creative planning, beginning with the turkey! The hotel kitchen did not have an oven. My day started with Daniel (new Global Village Coordinator) and Maria (Tosagua Habitat Director). We wondered around town, seeking to borrow an oven!

We had been fairly certain that any of the friendly bakeries would be certain to accept us as temporary users of their ovens, since our hotel kitchen did not have an oven to lend us. It soon became apparent, however, that the bakery ovens were made specifically for... bread! All the ovens were specially designed so that flats of bread would efficiently fit in a multi-layer stack of drawer-like compartments. We ended up baking the turkey at Maria´s family house with the help of her mother (and nephew)!

After we got the turkey going, Daniel, Maria and I had a "ceviche date" with Hugo, our interim National director for Habitat for Humanity. Here I am below, enjoying my first crab-ceviche, which is now my favorite of the Ecuadorian ceviches. Ceviche is usually seafood, "cooked" and marinated in lime juice. The Ecuadorian ceviche is served as a kind of soup, with tomato, onion, and limes and "chifle" (fried plantain chips) on the side. That was the second meal of the day (after breakfast.... and would be one of four!!... and I thought I ate too much in the US on Thanksgiving!).

Daniel and I took a trip to the local outdoor market for the veggies for the big meal, and I picked up the apples for my pies;-).

The Global Village team took a half day at the work site and then helped to prepare for our big dinner. Karen made pumpkin pies; Tim and James helped me with the apple pies;

Kim, Colleen and Sharon helped with the fruit preparation; Jenny and John sought out cheese and bread; A bunch of people helped prepare green beans; Hugo brought the requisite white rice (no Ecuadorian meal is complete without it!) and Maria brought the finished turkey and stuffing that we had started that morning!

Our meal began with the "story of Thanksgiving" told by Ricci and Jane. It came complete with props and theatrical elements... and Daniel interpreted so that the Habitat families, staff, hotel staff and random children would understand this foreign holiday.

Below is Rick in his "pilgrim hat."
After the story, Hugo said a prayer for the meal and much food was shared. The turkey stuffing had been prepared by a local woman, and was amazing! It included pecans, raisins, olives, wine, beer, local bread, and who knows what else.. Pies are not typical in Ecuador and the pumpkin and apple pies were a huge hit with our local guests.

After dinner, the festivities continued with bubbles and story time for the neighborhood children.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A Renewed Respect for Interpreters

I always knew it was difficult, but it was not until the 2 hour dedication and blessing of houses in Tosagua that I truly gained an appreciation for the exhausting work of translating speech, particularly publicly!!! I understand why court interpreters rotate every 30 minutes!

Here Maria, Tosagua Habitat Director, prepares me with the sequence of events that was to take place during the ceremony.

Ecuadorians enjoy both giving and receiving speeches, particularly having to do with the work in which organizations such as Habitat engage. Thus, I have had many opportunities to interpret welcome and farewell speeches during my time here!

On this occasion, the schedule included: words of welcome from the local Habitat office, words from the National Director, words from a local collaborator, words and a blessing from the Global Village Coordinator, words from a city government representative, words from the team leader and members, words from the SEVEN families and a blessing from a Catholic priest.

Until I saw the following pictures.... I did not realize how outwardly my thoughts were expressed during these ceremonies!

In the above picture, the priest was blessing the habitat families, and volunteers. I do not think this particular man had experience working with interpreters: he did not stop his flow of speech until he finished his blessing, and would not pause for me to interrupt with the translation.

Next, I am concentrating extremely hard to remember everything that the priest said. When he finally paused, I tried to recover his complete oration. With so much material, I was able to extract main ideas rather than a well phrased translation!

Although difficult, it was quite exciting to know that I was providing the link between the volunteers and the representatives of the town of Tosagua that had assembled that evening.

Below, I am providing a simpler service: helping the police chief pronounce the name of a volunteer to whom he is presenting a certificate of thanks.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Building with clay brick in Tosagua

Despite all the events and festivities going on while we were in Tosagua (see "Tosagua, the Heart of Manabi" post), we found time to finish two houses, and "dedicate" an additional 5!!
Here I am in my now requisite on-site working hat... I feel incomplete without it! (it's quite useful at the equator with the sol FUERTE (strong sun)).

Karen Pickett's Global Village team put in 1.5 weeks of volunteer labor: laying brick, pouring concrete floors, digging and lining a septic tank, and plastering walls. Pictured below is one of the houses in a close-to-finished stage. The windows and doors were installed the day after this photo was taken.Karen had been in Tosagua the previous February and loved her experience so much that she wanted to return to the town for her first trip as a Habitat for Humanity Global Village team leader. She brought her husband, John, along with 10 other eager workers (above photos taken after day 1)! Her only disappointment she couldn't show John the lush green vistas she had seen in February (because the wet season begins in January).

Below on the left is the house one of the families (mother, father and children) was living in, along with a cousin(s) and the mother's parents (the above house with the team will be Marta's new house).

The house below is the second of the two houses the team worked on...Karen's group was a "Thrivent" global village team, meaning they were all members of the financial services business, "Thrivent". The financial services company has made a pledge to Habitat for Humanity International to make an additional donation to Habitat for any of its members who participates in a global village team. The team-members donates $450 ($100 to the international Habitat office and $350 to Ecuador), and Thrivent donates an additional $800!
This team was really fun and included many world travelers, and experienced volunteers. They were all from the U.S., and represented states from Washington, Texas, Michigan, Kansas, Tennessee, and the District of Colombia and spanned ages from their 30s to their 70s. Those who weren't world travelers were not inhibited with the new surroundings. They were ready to explore, learn about the local culture, eat the food, and try out their rusty (or newly acquired words and phrases) in Spanish.

The teams (one on each house) were immediately put to work learning to be brick masons:
First we unloaded brick, then soaked the bricks in water.

Pictured are Ricci and Jane soaking and passing the red clay bricks and Karen and Colleen working on an interior wall.

The bricks are made locally and cost less than one third what concrete blocks cost in Tosagua. The red clay bricks cost 9 cents a piece while concrete blocks cost 33 cents.

We were instructed in the art of brick laying by the "Maestro" (teacher/brick master) and his helpers who are contracted workers for Habitat. Pictured here are Tim, one of the volunteers, with Freddy, one of the "maestros."

Next, James builds an exterior wall from scaffolding on the outside of one of the houses.

The laying of bricks is a detail-oriented job which requires precision-placement, the squaring of each brick with the rest of the wall, the floor and the rest of the house, and use of the proper amount and consistency mortar by mixing cement and water.

Above, Jenny helps pass mortar to Sharon. Below, John sets a string to a consistent height for his next row of bricks.

Above, John taps a brick into place and below Clare mixes mortar to perfection.

To the left below, Jane demonstrating the art of the final "tap" required to set a brick.

Next pictured is Sharon, working on "her wall" and using scaffolding to reach the top rows.

The maestros frequently checked on our work. Actually, I should say "their work", ... because I mostly went around "llenando huecos", filling holes, which is my favorite activity involving cement:-). Here I am pictured below, filling my trowel to smooth out the wall and eliminate holes where bugs may have lived.... making it "pretty."

As days passed, much progress was made on the houses' walls. As the houses became full- fledged, four-walled structures, we added the less obvious parts of the house, such as the floor, the kitchen counter and the septic tank. Here are Kim and Colleen, lining the septic tank with a small red brick. They were pretty vulnerable in that hole.. we had to bring them water and lower a ladder to let them out! When they were digging the hole, it reminded me of the book, "Holes" in which the boys who have been sent to work-camp are forced to dig perfectly round, perfectly deep, holes... all day! Well, our volunteers only had to dig for less than a day to complete this hole, but they were in it for awhile afterwards in order to line it.

As always, the work site was also a site for play:

above, Kim tries to kiss a cow and below, Rick really enjoys his watermelon (it was grown fresh in Manabi)!

To celebrate the completion of the two houses at the end of the 1.5 weeks of building, and to dedicate the houses, and 5 others that had been finished recently, we had a big ceremony that lasted over 2 hours!~!!!! .... I interpreted, and it was truly EXHAUSTING. I must say it was my biggest language challenge yet.

The ceremony included entertainment by some local high school dance teams, such as the one pictured below. They incorporated traditional and modern themes.

Above, they are dancing with clay pots and bowls. Below, they are pictured towards the end of a dance during which each girl placed a bottle of juice on her head and danced with it balanced there, until the bottle fell.

When a particular girl's bottle fell, her style of dancing would change. Eventually only one girl was left and then they all started a new portion of the dance; it was choreographed, but a competition for was built in!

During the Ceremony, each family was presented with keys and a bible and Auster's house was blessed as the symbol of all the houses blessings. In this particular dedication, a Catholic priest blessed the houses. Families in different areas of the world elect to have different religious/spiritual leaders bless their houses. The reason that so many houses were dedicated at the same time is that the house-owners, of the five previously finished houses, wanted Hugo, our interim National Director, and the man who started the Tosagua affiliate, to be present during the ceremony.
Pictured above I am interpreting a portion of Hugo's speech to the assembled crowd about the importance of decent housing to a community.
When I say crowd, I am not kidding: we had representatives from the mayors office, the police department, local collaborators, members from all seven families (if not the whole family), habitat employees, and the 11 Global Village volunteers.

Here is a pic of me with Auster's family, his wife and three daughters, behind their new house, after the dedication ceremony. Once again, one of the best parts of the house-building experience was working with, and getting to know the families.