21 March 2011

Costa Rica! The Build!

I may or may not have mentioned that a trip to Costa Rica was in the cards for me. I just returned from nine days in Costa Rica. I was part of a volunteer team of 13 with the Habitat for Humanity International Global Village program. It was one of the best trips of my life! Our build site was located in San Isidro, about a thirty minute bus ride from La Fortuna de San Carlos and Arenal Volcano.

Our volunteer crew was full of wonderful people - the oldest was 86 years old, the youngest was 22! We were from all over the country. There were two couples - one from San Francisco and one from Montana. Both had been on Habitat GV builds before. Our oldest crew member was also from San Francisco and there were a few more California natives - one from San Jose and one from Orange County. One more volunteer from Montana, Missoula, to be exact. Boston, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Toronto were also represented! And of course, there was me - from Michigan! I actually used the hand as map to show people where Grand Rapids is. Hehe!

A few of us - all smiles after our first day.

The Crew - still smiling - on our last day.

When I signed up for this trip, I had envisioned working on one house from start to finish. It wasn't quite like that. The build site was actually two separate sites located just a stones throw apart. Each site had three houses, each in various stages of completion when we arrived. The single story houses are about 900 square-feet each and are made of pre-fabricated concrete slab walls and columns. A lot of work goes into just one house!

The first day onsite, I pretty much dug and moved dirt all day. The three houses that were more finished needed their own separate septic tank hole and drainage trench. The hole for the septic tank needed to be about 6 feet long, by about 3 feet wide and about 6 feet deep. Picture a grave and you're about right on. The trench only needed to be about two feet wide and about three feet deep. After a full day of digging, we were dreaming of a backhoe! Dreams do come true! Some of the guys flagged down a backhoe that was driving down the road and arranged for the driver to come back to finish the tank holes and trenches. Our crew all pitched in the cash to make it happen. That little bit of luck saved us days of back-breaking work!

The back yards prior to a day of us digging and the arrival of the backhoe.

Taking a quick break from digging on Day One.

The backhoe!!

Day two found me bending rebar and making concrete forms. The footings of each house are pre-fab concrete columns that are set into concrete bases and reinforced with rebar. The forms are three boards that nailed are together and positioned around the concrete column (already anchored into the ground with concrete) with bent rebar wire tied to the vertical rebar for support. Once in position, the forth board is nailed into place and is all set for more concrete. This might sound easy, but it was sometimes a bit challenging with warped and splitting boards being the only boards available to build forms.

Concrete Forms!

Oh and if you've made concrete before or had concrete work done at your house, you probably had the use of a mixer or had a delivery by a cement truck. We mixed concrete on the ground using shovels and a mixture of delivered rocks, concrete mix and water. Talk about a work out...I tried it for one mix, but couldn't keep up with the boys! More upper body strength needed to tackle that job!

Other jobs I did over the week: moving dirt the old fashioned way - shovel and wheel barrow for hours on end to fill in the floor of one of the houses. All the concrete footings had been done and we needed to fill in and level the floor with dirt as preparation for a delivery of rock and eventually a poured concrete floor. We finished one house in a week. That's a lot of hauling dirt!

Look really closely at how low the dirt level is in the first house in the background.

This is the same house on our last day...we moved a LOT of dirt!

A closer look at the level dirt floor. All set for a load of rocks and concrete.

The pre-fab concrete walls had to be prepped with a bonding adhesive. This was like painting with a really watery paint that smelled slightly of Elmer's glue. This job was one of the more zen jobs, and in certain areas you were in the shade, which was a blessing. Once painted with the bonding adhesive, the seams were mudded with a mortar mixture and taped so you could no longer see where the slabs came together. Then the entire surface inside and out was mudded. The finish was similar to a stucco house you'd see here in the States. We actually finished the bonding/mudding of one house and were on to another by the time we had to leave. That was a good feeling.

All week we were working along with some of the families who would be living in these homes. The change we were helping make in their lives will be enormous. Of the families we worked with, there was a husband and wife with two children, a nearly blind father with two children, and three single mothers each with two or three children of their own. Something you wouldn't see in the States, children on the work site! The kids were very much part of our days on site. We heard them laugh and cry daily! They helped where they could. While there was a bit of a language barrier, the universal language of a smile and a laugh was something we all shared.

The site had a kid-sized shovel and wheelbarrow that the kids actually used to help move the dirt.

I was surprised this little guy sat still for this pic, he was all over the work site every day!

Cuties sitting on what will be the front porch.

Kicking back in a wheel barrow, eating/drinking fresh coconut!

Can you even believe this smile?!

One day we brought one of the moms and her children back to the home where they currently live, so we saw first-hand how the home we were all working on would change their lives. It was no bigger than the kind of shed that many homes in the States have in their giant backyards, except it was totally dilapitated and maybe even smaller. One of her children had been removed from the home because of the living conditions (I'm not sure of the details) and she told us at our closing ceremony that she was grateful for our help because moving into her new home would mean her other child could come back to live with her. Our usually lively ride home from the work site the day we saw where she was living was super quiet, as we all contemplated the work we were there doing.

From this...

To this...almost finished!

It was an honor to work with such great volunteers and the families who will eventually live in the homes! I am so thankful for the opportunity to go on this trip. It might not be what most would consider a vacation, but it was exactly what I was looking for in some time away from my regular life in Michigan. I saw a part of the world I've never seen, experienced a different culture, met some amazing people and helped make a difference in the lives of a handful of Costa Rican families.

If this sounds at all like something you'd love to do...stop thinking about it and find a trip in a part of the world you've always wanted to see. You can go directly to the Global Village site to read more about the program and see the trips that are still scheduled for this year. You won't regret it! I'm already thinking about where I want to go for my next Global Village trip.

Check back in the days to come as I'm going write up at least another post or two about the whole experience. Let me know if you have any questions and I'll try to answer them in the future posts.


Anonymous said...

In this succinct description you captured the work, the rewards and the reasons for your Global Village trip. The end purpose of government (and perhaps of humanity) is justice. Thank you for showing us how social justice can be attained one shovelful at a time.

Your Marquette uncle,

Anonymous said...

That is a wonderful tale you told, dear Rachel. We are all so proud of you for helping others build and own homes. It's one thing to send a check (or punch a PayPal button) to a charity. It's a completely different experience to work and sweat side by side with the families who will be living in the new homes. I love the ingenuity you showed in flagging down and persuading the backhoe operator to dig the septic fields. You might not have been measuring but a cubic meter of hard-packed dirt weighs about one ton. Under the broiling tropical sun, it feels like two. Thank you for sharing your trip. And thank you for making the world a better place wherever you go.

Your Berkeley uncle,

Anonymous said...

Brilliant account, Rachey. Long after the last of the Costa Rican soil is loosed from your boots you'll have the above memories so succinctly recounted. You make me proud. Well in!


meena said...

a person
an inspiration
a connection
a difference


k said...

Oh, those sweet faces. I can't wait to hear more.

add_rock said...

So ROCKIN' dude!

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