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Aching arms and a happy heart

By John Therkelsen

After five days, Habitat volunteers in Cochabamba understood dirt, shovels and pickaxes at a deep level. Photo by Ana Maria Madaio

In November 2012, I traveled to Cochabamba, Bolivia, to participate in a Habitat Global Village build. The volunteers numbered 18, and our ages ranged from 23 to 79. Over the course of five days, we dug the foundations for two Habitat houses. I have worked on a variety of Habitat builds, but I have never seen a group of complete strangers work so well together so quickly.

Digging trenches for concrete requires that multiple teams work with pickaxes and shovels in close quarters. The volunteers who had worked with pickaxes before started swinging, and the newbies picked up shovels because everyone’s an expert with a shovel! The pickaxes were sharp and cut into the dry ground with an authoritative “thunk.”

‘Hypes and gripes’
On Monday night, trip leaders Chris Goodrich and Ana Maria Madaio convened the group for a session called “hypes and gripes.” Ana is a mother of two who has played competitive ice hockey for more than a decade. Chris has led more than a dozen Global Village trips. He loves the organization so much that he actually wrote a book about Habitat. They wanted to read the pulse of the group and see if they could improve our experience.

GV team member Karla Silva hard at work on a Habitat build site in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Photo by Diana Suarez

At home in the U.S., when I explain that the Global Village program includes a donation, friends often ask, “Why would you pay an organization to volunteer?” Coordinating a GV trip requires additional resources to handle a large group, like buses and lodging. A set of shiny new pickaxes demonstrated precisely where some of our funds went. The quality of the tools impressed us, and we were happy there were enough to go around. This showed good organization by the Habitat Bolivia National Office.

The power of the sun at Cochabamba’s 8,000 feet made work challenging. That first night, more than one volunteer asked for more shade because it was a tight fit cramming 18 people under a small canopy at lunch. When we arrived the next morning, the affiliate had provided an additional canopy.

My favorite “gripe” was the wish for softer dirt!

After five days, we understood dirt, shovels and pickaxes at a deep level. Key pointers: Use thick gloves to prevent blisters, and find your rhythm. Rhythm is everything when it comes to pickaxes.

The family
Two sisters formed the core of the homeowner families for our Cochabamba build. Tanya and Ana had received a plot of land from their mother, and they partnered with Habitat to build two houses for their families on the site. The sisters and their husbands, Cosme and Eduardo, swung pickaxes along with the volunteers. Cosme works as an English teacher, and he acted as a gracious host, remembering everyone’s names and translating between family members and volunteers.

“I have never seen a group of complete strangers work so well together so quickly,” Therkelsen says of his GV experience. Photo courtesy Ana Maria Madaio

Every Habitat family participates in the process through “sweat equity,” and Habitat Bolivia requires extensive effort from its families. Homeowner families in Bolivia frequently procure land and are more involved with coordination of the construction process. When a water truck arrived to deliver water for cement mixing, for example, the family negotiated directly with the driver.

This GV trip, like most, included extra time. In the middle of the week, we visited a local orphanage, where about 20 young girls lived in close, but clean quarters. At the group dinner, I made friends with 9-year-old Kelly because we appreciated the same favorite foods: pizza and ice cream. We left gifts of soccer balls and other toys, and were very inspired to get back to the job site the next day.

The work
We dug trenches for three days before earning a break. Our next tasks were to mix concrete and carry heavy rocks. Mixing concrete is often a labor-intensive process, mixing cement, sand, rocks and water using only shovels. Thankfully, Habitat Bolivia had arranged for a portable concrete mixer to be on hand.

This made the process much more efficient, but it meant we had to coordinate closely to mix concrete batches in rapid fashion. As soon as we finished a batch of concrete, one of the four on-site masons would cart it away with his wheelbarrow. We coordinated in Spanglish, a mix of our two languages. It’s amazing how many jokes you can share without sharing a vocabulary.

Ultimately, the group built two house foundations with trenches 1-foot deep and footings twice that depth. During the week, we often wondered, “How can my muscles hurt so much when the numbers are so small?”

Working with Tanya, Cosme, Ana and Eduardo, we realized that 1 or 2 feet of concrete would form the literal foundations for these two families for years.