It’s Sunday afternoon in Viña and I’m lying spread eagle across my bed, completely determined not to move for at least the next hour and a half. I haven’t showered for three days, I’m covered in dog hair, dirt, sweat and drywall, but even that won’t motivate me to leave the oasis that is my bed.
I lie here peacefully, contented by the thought that I never have been quite so glad to have a room to call my own. At eight feet long and six feet wide (with barely enough space for a bed and a dresser) it really isn’t much, but it’s home.
Times of peace and relaxation always put things in perspective. Since my last entry, a lot has changed, but not in a way that’s proven to be visible or noticeable to the naked eye. It’s been more gradual and subtle than that, and like all good things it has needed time to manifest.
I’m starting to get the feeling right now something about me isn’t the same as it was when I first arrived.
Before I get too far down the retrospective path of no return, let me first explain my current state.
At Universidad de Adolfo Ibáñez (the school I am currently attending in Viña del Mar, Chile) there is a student run organization called ‘Oso en Acción’ – translating to ‘Bear in Action’. Yes, our school mascot is a bear and no, to my knowledge there are no bears in the area. Go figure!
Along with a group of roughly 15 exchange students and 25 Chileans; we volunteered to take our talents to the dangerous slopes of a Cerro (a neighborhood/area renowned for poverty), and away from the concepts of civilization that we have come to know.
In Chile (especially cities on the coast) there is a common conception that the closer to flat land you are, the safer the area is. In cities like Valparaíso, which is only 10 minutes south of where I live, ‘Los Cerros’ (which translates directly to the hills) are the highest and steepest parts of the city and experience high levels of crime and violence.
The neighborhoods here are usually shanty towns with hand-made lean-to structures made from recycled wood, signs, plastic bins, etc. The streets are rarely paved and transportation other than by foot is extremely hard to find in some areas.
Armed with 50 pounds of hot dogs, a couple of hammers, some lumber and dry wall we set out to help restore as many collapsing buildings as we could.
We arrived to the cerro by car, in the dark as no bus or large form of transport would be able to make it to the top. When I first got out, I could barely make out my surroundings. Soon there was a large fire burning that cast shadows in multiple directions and completely obscured my vision.
For dinner, we were all served the Chilean delicacy known as a ‘completo’ with pop by the fire. I say delicacy with a small hint of sarcasm, as a completo is a hot dog covered with mashed avocados (paltas), diced tomatoes, and mayonnaise. It is one of the most popular dishes in Chile.
There are specialty restaurants dedicated to providing the best completos in Chile. My personal favorite is ‘El Guatón’ or ‘The Fat One’, referring to the size of both the completo and the stature of their best customers. A completo can actually be very delicious when prepared properly, however also extremely unappetizing when boiled and served on a cold bun. Unfortunately, the meal we received that night was the latter of the two.
That night, we got a torrential downpour of rain, crashing down and pounding on the corrugated steel roof hour after hour in to the early morning. I was convinced that at any moment the makeshift ceiling was going to cave in and douse me with a tidal wave of water. I slept fitfully until eight o’clock, when alarms finally started ringing and we set out for work.
That morning, I was on insulation duty. Our job was to clear out the rotted and water-damaged parts of wall, reinforce it with wood planks, reline it with a black water resistant tarp, and then insulate and drywall.
The scene that afternoon was something I’ve never seen and probably will never see again. We were a group of six people without power tools, gloves, goggles, or any safety equipment or construction experience to speak of, rebuilding the back room of a house that overlooked a cliff.
In addition to our lack of experience, the wood we were using was soaked from the night before, making it much harder to drive the nails through. My weapon of choice was a 63-year-old hammer that was missing a large portion of the handle and rattled when I swung it too hard. To top it off, many of the crossbeams that I was unsuccessfully trying to reinforce were not planks of wood at all, but rounded trees thick enough to be cut and used as support for the roof.
What frustrated me the most were the two children that that were constantly entering and exiting the work space on their own volition. At one point I looked over my shoulder and noticed a two year old boy putting nails in the kitchen floor. Minutes later, a five-year-old girl carried a stray kitten through the construction site by its paws; flinging it through the air and trying her best to catch it on the way back down. My first thought was, “how did that kid get a hammer?”, closely followed by, “who in their right mind would give that little girl a cat?” The kids were completely out of control, and the parents were nowhere to be found.
Despite the distractions, we worked until dark; one portion of the crew cutting and sizing drywall, the other reinforcing and sealing it back up. Finally, around eight o’clock that night, we were finished.
I took a deep breath and walked away from the newly supported house with the deep satisfaction of a day well spent.
I realize that the moments of frustration and discomfort to start the day are the memories that I now feel the most connected to. Lying on my bed, I’m flooded with images that are now locked in my memory. I see myself swinging the five-year-old girl upside down by her ankles, listening to her shrieks of laughter. I see the little boy clinging to my knee, wiping his boogies down my pant leg. I see two exchange students from opposite sides of the world nailing boards and crossbeams for people they will never see again. I see a group of caring individuals overcoming language barriers to work together to provide a family with something they so desperately need – warmth, shelter, and security.
I saw things that made me proud to be a human being.
In one day, a group of 40 or so young adults demonstrated a profoundly empowering example of the best aspects of the human race.
That night we were served another Chilean specialty known as ‘choripán”, which is the equivalent to a bratwurst in Germany. The sausage was barbecued perfectly and I ate ravenously, my stomach almost completely empty from the days events.
The next morning we carried lumber from one yard to the next, as well as mended and painted fences around the community centre where we slept the previous night. Many of the locals thanked us and one woman even invited our entire team to her house for a glass of Fanta to toast a job well done.
In one weekend, I saw a way of life that I had never come close to before. A way of life so harshly and drastically different from my own.
If I close my eyes I would probably dream of the stray animals running from yard to yard. The children with no supervision. The walls made from scraps of recycled material. The streets of mud and dirt. The properties sandwiched side by side and winding in no particular direction from one street to the next. It was mayhem. It was chaos, but to them it was home. Just like my 48 square foot bedroom is now home to me.
Everyone needs somewhere to call their own. I learned the difference I can make can make it go from ‘cerro’ to one hundred, real quick.
This has been the second entry into My Great Trekspectations.
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