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David Rubel’s Blog from Chiang Mai -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

David Rubel’s Blog from Chiang Mai

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Off-Balance

I’m so tired that you won’t be reading this today. I’m having difficulty focusing my eyes on the screen of my laptop, and I can’t trust myself any longer to catch typos. More importantly, until I get a little sleep, I can’t be sure that what I’m writing will make any sense.

Here’s what my schedule has been like: I’ve been getting up, along with everyone else, at four-thirty in the morning. Breakfast begins at five, and the first buses leave for the build site at six. By seven, most people are hard at work on their houses. With a short break for lunch, work continues until five.

Because afternoon traffic is a little worse than morning traffic, the buses don’t get back to the hotels until a little after six; and because we’re all filthy with sweat and cement dust, it takes a while to get ready for dinner, which usually begins around seven.

The dinners are a great example of the long and intense planning that goes into a Carter build, especially one held overseas. Last night, all two thousand volunteers in Chiang Mai were bused to a large public square and served a buffet dinner. Then we were treated to a performance of traditional Thai dance and the lighting of enormous paper lanterns that floated high into the night sky, forming shifting constellations as they drifted slowly away in a long chain. Quite a stunning sight.

It took something that dramatic to distract people from their conversations. More than any other time of the day, dinnertime is when volunteers get a chance to process what has been happening to them—and, believe me, there is a lot to process. I’ve written an entire book about what happens on a Habitat build, so I had a pretty good idea what to expect; and yet my expectations could never match the reality of taking part myself, because hearing other people talk about a feeling and feeling it oneself are simply too different.

What Habitat volunteers hope to build is more than a house, of course. They—I mean, we—are hoping to build human relationships as well; and because food and drink are conducive to this, dinners often linger as people share their experiences. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, and I usually don’t get back to my hotel room until ten. The first couple of nights, I powered through my blog posts, but not tonight. The sleep deficit has caught up with me, and it’s not only making me a little loopy; it’s also reducing the separation between my personal and professional worlds to the point that it’s hard for me to tell the difference anymore.

I spent a good part of the morning using a hammer and a nail punch to make identical J-bolt holes in the large, rippled cement-board tiles that will make up the roof of House 2, so I had a little time to ponder my expectations for the build and how these have differed from what has actually taken place. The metaphor that came to mind was a rollercoaster. You can observe people riding a rollercoaster, see them waving their arms excitedly and listen to them screaming as their car takes a dive; you can even talk to them about it afterward; but until you take the ride yourself, you can’t fully understand what it’s like.

For first-timers like myself, the rush of emotion is difficult to manage in any kind of temperate way. As when one’s first child is born, the experience is life-changing, and the world suddenly takes on a different character. Trying to explain (and thus understand) this within the context of a Habitat build is rather easy, because the veterans have all been through it themselves, and they smile bemusedly, remembering their first times and sometimes chuckling at my newbie excitement.

But explaining what has been going on to you is more complicated; and adding to my difficulty has been the fact that I’m feeling a little off-balance, which is unusual for me. It’s an uncomfortable position for me professionally, but personally it seems liberating. I’m so far out of my normal daily routine, I guess, that anything could happen.

David Rubel is the author of “If I Had a Hammer: Building Homes and Hope with Habitat for Humanity.”