Bunkhouses, part 2
I’ve stuck with bunkhouse building this trip. Tomorrow is my last working day on project, and while I’ve had the opportunity to join other work sites, I want to stay to see this one through. The bunkhouse we’ve been working on has turned into a labour of love on a lot of levels. The team has built more than just a building; we’ve also been building relationships. The group we’ve been working with is IOM, which stands for International Organization for Migration. They are a multi-faceted, intergovernmental group which primarily assists with migrations. They also do work helping displaced people and refugees, as is the case here in the Philippines. They are building bunkhouses in the Cagayan de Oro area to facilitate the typhoon victims who are now homeless. The structures are temporary, and not intended to last more than a year. The gritty reality is that most of the families who move in will probably live there far beyond the year’s time.
During our breaks, we have spoken at length to the supervisor for IOM. He told us that his organization has built similar structures all over the world. They are quick to build (except ours, which is still incomplete after more than a week), relatively cheap, and each one houses five families. He was quite proud to say that his team has been working so hard that they were able to build 45 in just over a month. That’s impressive! His team helped us pour the concrete slabs for the two halves of our building. It’s been a LOT of work.
Today we had to pour concrete – the hard way. The equipment available is a simple cement mixer. This means that we have to pour in bags of cement, gravel, sand, and buckets of water in correct proportions, at the correct time. Our ratio was 5 bags of gravel: 3 bags of sand: 2 bags of cement: ?? buckets of water (they eyeballed this one). Doesn’t sound too tough, but the difficulty was that we only had a small number of bags. In order to pour the concrete successfully, we had to keep the mixer running. So we had something of an assembly line that ran from the road, down through the build site to our building, which lies in the very center. The other difficulty was that each bag weighed about a hundred pounds. We took turns shoveling gravel and sand into the bags, while others raked gravel and sand into piles we could dig from. Yet others of us would wheel the barrows through the site with bags loaded to the workers running the cement mixer. As quickly as they could empty buckets and bags, we would speed back to fill them again. I heartily recommend the work to anyone wanting to build up their back and arm muscles.
Complicating the work today was our equipment. We use a circular saw and a reciprocating saw. Each of these has to run on rechargeable battery packs, because there is no electricity on the build site. Each of our batteries (and we brought three) was dead within an hour. Our philosophy quickly became “if it cuts, it’ll do”. We used everything from handsaws to leatherman blades to utility knives to cut plywood, beams, boards, and more. I’d like to say it was an enjoyable experience, but when you’ve spent fifteen minutes cutting plywood with a leatherman only to find out you cut it just slightly too small and must start over again… well, it’s a good thing everyone has such awesome attitudes!
Our new friend supervisor thought we would REALLY enjoy watching a cockfight, so about halfway through our morning, he
insisted upon invited us to join him as he let his roosters fight. He didn’t make them fight to the death, just gave us a sort of demonstration. It was awkward, because we all know what happens to the loser in the cockfight, and we didn’t want a rooster to die just so we could watch. Thankfully, he only wanted to explain to us how you train the roosters… I think. I’m not a fan, but you have to remind yourself that not everyone shares your worldview or your opinions, especially when working on a humanitarian project in a foreign country. Sometimes that makes situations particularly uncomfortable. Judging is really useless, and it doesn’t serve to bring people any closer together. So, we watched politely, made some awkward jokes, and went back to work.
Late in the afternoon, our friend surprised us with a treat. In Japan, it was common for people to bring us food, treats, and lots of water as a way of thanking us. They took great care of the volunteers, and some made it their personal task to mother us. Here in the Philippines, it’s a very different story. The people here are much poorer, and they have nothing to give. We have a few local residents who bring snacks to our base and sell them. It helps feed their families and we try to buy as much as we can. But, in general, the people here can’t afford to do things like that. In fact, the ones who live really close to the build site scavenge from what we leave behind. One old woman comes by every few hours with a bag and collects wood scraps for fires. Others come looking for plywood scraps to patch over holes in the walls of their little houses. So it was quite a surprise when the IOM supervisor came around the corner with an enormous box… and told us to take a break from working. In the box? The largest pizza I’ve ever seen.
The supervisor invited all the workers, in addition to all the volunteers, to enjoy the pizza. He produced liter bottles of coca-cola (sugar cane coke, not the stuff we drink in the States), and insisted we were not allowed to return to work until the pizza was gone. Everyone happily complied.
Tonight, as I sit on my bunk in the stifling air, listening to a fantastically off-key rendition of the Chili Peppers’ “Californication” being sung next door over the karaoke loudspeakers, I can reflect on a strange, fun, frustrating, accomplished, uncomfortable, but ultimately satisfying day. This work leads us to such strange places, and such amazing memories!