San Felipe, Chile
It is nice to relocate alter the nearly three and a half weeks that I spent in Constitutión; I’ve recently figured that’s the longest I’ve spent in one place in roughly eight months.
I had quite a good time, however, and it felt good to give back for once. I started my work roughly three days after the posting of my last note, and since then I have helped in the construction of nearly twenty temporary homes for those who lost everything in the quake or the ensuing tsunamis.
To pick up where I left off last: The following days were spent looking around at earthquake damage, which, as I stated before, was quite a sobering expirience. It’s amazing how a mere ninety seconds of the ground moving about can cause so many broken lives.
I also spent a lot of time watching movies (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and reading a Terry Prachett novel (Going Postal)
OK, quick subject change and let me catch everybody up on something really quickly: since Perú, I’ve had super itchy and dry legs. Very infuriating, drive-you-completely-mad itchy, and I didn’t know why. I figured it was just dry skin or something, since a bottle of lotion is a luxery I can’t afford. While I was here in Chile, I took advantage of the conviently socialized health care system and made a free trip to the doctor just to make sure it wasn’t something more sinister.
It turns out, it’s not dry skin. While in Perú, I seemed to have picked up a few little friends known as scabies mites. Go ahead, make all the jokes you want, I’ll admit it: I can be a filthy bastard sometimes. I thought a lot about it, and I think I probably got it from this nasty mattress I slept on when I was washing cars in Trujillo. Seriously, it would have probably been more sanitary to sleep in the dirt.
They are probably the most bothersome creatures ever to crawl slowly on the face of the earth. I officially loathe them even more than mosquitoes and houseflies, and I have the fiery burning hatred of a thousand suns for mosquitos and houseflies.
They are nearly microscopic, and burrow just under your skin, lay eggs, and leave their little mite doings everywhere. This causes your skin to say, ‘Hey, what the fuck is this shit?’ and promptly have the most itchy allergic reaction in the history of the universe. And once the itching starts, it doesn’t stop.
Fortunately, I was provided with a creame that would apparently vaporize the little bastards in a few weeks time using a combiantion of insecticide and sulpher. I call it ‘Volcano Butter,’ since, after an application, the sulpher makes me smell akin to a lava pit.
I figured something like this would happen eventually, since I went gallavanting off to a wild continent without so much as getting a flu shot. At least it’s something curable and not malaria or something, which stays with you all your life. As of today the mites are all but vanquished, save for one deternimed little bugger, (pun definently intended,) who is still tunneling enthusiastically around my lower back. But he’ll be dead soon. And then I’ll be free.
So, back to the story: after I realized that the Red Cross no longer has a presence in Constitutión (or ‘Conti,’ as it is locally known), Siboney and I set out to find some sort of other volunteer work. We decided to try the hospital. So we set off in that general direction. However, as we were walking, we saw a guy with a shirt on that said ‘Voluntario, Un Techo Para Chile.’ We stopped him and asked if they were still taking volunteers. Turns out, they were! And off we went to headquarters to get me set up.
Un Techo Para Chile (translated: A Roof for Chile) is a charitable organization that is all over Latin America as ‘Un Techo Para Mís País’ (A Roof for my Country.) They construct transitional homes for those who are living in poverty. However, after the earthquake, they began also building homes for people who lost theirs. In Conti, that consists of well over half the population, so there was lots of work to be done.
I started that very day. Soon I was hammering in nails and helping an old lady shovel what can only be described as a beachfront out of her living room. By the end of the day we had a nice little house up for her and her wrinkly husband.
The other volunteers were all university students from up north, either in Santiago, San Felipe, or Valparieso. They were all super friendly, and seemed tickled pink to see a gringo doing real actual work.
They offered me lodgings as well, in what used to be the boat house along the riverside. I accepted, but planned on staying with Siboney for a few more days until she left for the north, as she had an actual bed for me to sleep in.
I worked with these guys for about three days on and off, and helped built several more houses (or ‘mediaguas,’ as they call them here.) Then the day came when it was time for me to leave Siboney’s place and move into the boat house. I packed up my things and made the walk.
I was welcomed enthusiastically by the approximently one hundred other people staying there. After an obligatory bowl of hot soup, I was shown over to where I was to sleep: we went up the stairs and soon emerged on the second floor, where I laid eyes upon the largest dirty clothes pile in the history of large dirty clothes piles.
It began at the top of the stairs and was spread out all over the entire level to a depth of two feet, with some places having drifts at least six feet deep. The clothing bulged out over the railing of the indoor balcony, where several socks and jumpers hung precariously over the edge, threatening to cause a sock shower to take place on the ground floor. This would have been unfortunate since dirty socks in your soup is never a good thing.
I waded gingerly into the mass, the sweaters and pants parting reluctantly aside as I tried to find my footing. Upon farther exploration of the area I discovered the pile even extended into several bathrooms and a dilapidated kitchen, whose oven was stuffed with torn black jeans and a pair of orange socks with holes in the toes.
On the other side of the level was a wall that consisted entirely of windows and a glass door, which led to a second outdoor balcony. Three or four of the panels near the bottom were broken, and a few resourceful volunteers had piled clothesdrifts against them to keep the cold out.
This was, apparently, where I was to sleep. The clothes served as a mattress of sorts, so I picked out a spot in the corner and tossed my things down there, trying not to get my dirty clothes mixed up with those of approximently the entire population of China.
I said to my new friend Fernando, ‘What’s the purpouse of all these clothes here?’
‘They are donations for people here in Conti from all over Chile. Sort of like Goodwill in the USA. We’ve just piled them up there since we don’t have enough mattresses for everybody.’
‘Huh. Donations.’ I nudged the sleeve of a black trenchcoat thoughtfully. There were actually some decent clothes here, and I’m sure if you excavated one of the larger piles you could find a passable sweater or some pants.
I turned to Fernando. ‘Are we allowed to take any of these?’
He grinned. ‘Layer up, my friend. It’s cold in the morning!’ he said, and then turned and dissapered down the stairs, a wayward sock clinging stubbornly to his shoe. Sweet. Free clothing. This was good news, as now I could sufficently prepare myself for some seriously cold weather down south without spending a dime. Or, rather, a peso.
I trudged over to the nearest drift, piled bulkily against a support pylon which was sprouting out of the top like a lighthouse. Cracking my knuckles, I started to dig.
After about twenty minutes of rummaging about amongst tweed jackets, skirts, and socks of many exciting colours, I extracted a few sweaters (one with a turtleneck which, if not rolled down four or five inches, would cover your entire head,) some black pants with pinstripes, and a beanie hat. Further exploration also yielded a nicly preserved goose down jacket, which was discovered lurking about a full three and a half feet inside the pile, next to a pair of couderoy overalls and a lone glove sporting a fading iron-on of Scooby-Doo.
Feeling much more prepared, I went back downstairs and had more soup, which was thankfully still sock-free. Soon afterward it was time for bed, and I and the rest of the volunteers filed up the dirty tile stairs and into our well-flanneled sleeping grounds.
The next day we worked. Rising at around seven, we went downstairs and ate breakfast, which consisted of bread smeared with peanut butter, cigarettes, and eight or nine cups of coffee. Then we gathered up our respective tools of trade and headed out, the pickaxes and shovels bouncing merrily on our shoulders. I had to fight hard to resist the urge to sing, ‘Hi ho, hi ho, hi ho the derri-o!’
Once we arrived to the job site, we split into groups of six or seven, the goal being for each group to finish one house a day. After the divisions were finalized, we began construction.
The first step was a lot of measuring and chatter revolving around centimeters. The two people who seemed to know most about the construction of these houses had a small argument over the placement of a small marker stick in the dirt. After several re-measurements and much waving about of the hands, the stick was moved a fraction of an inch to the left. This seemed to resolve the issue, and the building commenced.
My job was to dig holes. Us being without sophisticated excavation equipment such as posthole diggers, I was made to make do with a heavy iron stake about five feet long and a small spade. The instructions for digging with such tools are as follows:
Step 1: Stab ground repeatedly with stake as if it were looking at your sister in the wrong way.
Step 2: Scoop out loosened earth with shovel.
Step 3: Repeat.
This was how all ten holes were dug, to a depth of about two and a half feet. Sometimes, after a few inches, you would encounter an inconsiderately placed concrete foundation, in which case your iron bar would double as a very manuel jackhammer until either the concrete gave way or your arms fell off.
As I was labouring away with my stake, other people would come around with pylons and more measuring tape. Sometimes, I would have to move the hole several inches, or, in one distressing case, several feet. This was particularly upsetting when you just spent an hour brutalizing a chunk of concrete and your arms felt as if they had a consistancy similar to that of fresh Jell-O.
Once it was determined that my holes were, in fact, in the proper place, the pylon was tossed into the hole and anchored down with stones and dirt. It was ensured that the pylon was at the correct depth by using some sort of system that was a plastic hose filled with water that I don’t even remotely understand.
When all of the pylons were in the ground, I was granted a reprieve from digging. Two large preconstructed floors were then manuevered onto the pylons and nailed down. Afterwards, thankfully, we broke for lunch with the person for whom we were building the house. Following the much-needed nourishment, we took a nap, which was a pleasant surprise.
Later, it was time to tackle the walls. With each of us handeling a side, we managed to maneauver the walls onto the floors in a manner similar to ants moving a large leaf cutting about, except for ants probably swear less. The walls were then nailed together while a few other people did their best to hold them up. I was always the holder-upper, as I had already proven that I couldn’t consistantly hit the nail on the head during the installation of the floor, and my hammer had been surreptitiously confiscated.
Next, supports for the roof were installed. I was allowed to hammer again here, as time was not of the essence since heavy walls were no longer threatening to smush people. There was no clear rule for the nailing of these supports; the general attitude seemed to be that if one nail could hold it up, than five nails could hold it up even better.
Then it was time for the roof. This was a delicate operation and I was not allowed on top. So I busied myself with cutting out strips of roofing paper of the appropriate legnth while the people up top performed more measuring tape Olympics. Then I tossed up my roofing paper, which was quickly nailed down with the urgency of someone boarding up thier windows five minutes before the hurricane strikes.
Following the paper was the tin roof itself, which came in about ten pieces roughly eight square feet in size. These were put togethere with the attention to detail of someone working on a very difficult jigsaw puzzle.
Once the roof was safely nailed down, all that was left was the windows and door. I was put to work chiseling in the space for the hinges. Once the hinges were installed, we popped the windows and door into their respective prefabricated holes, screwed in a few final screws, swept out the floor, and vióla, we had ourselves a small, one room house! I felt distinctively Amish.
By this time it was quite dark, and we were all more than happy to get back to the boat house and have supper. During the meal nearly all of the volunteers were together in the house. Several of the guys who had by this time designated themselves as my new best friends wasted no time in informing me that apparently, all the girls in the room liked my eyes. This was then followed by several statements in their own particular form of broken English meaning ‘she wants to sleep with you.’ These included:
‘She wants put her mouth on you,’ ‘She has small bed for sharing you,’ and, my personal favourite, ‘She wishes to make many things with you in the night.’
And that’s how my days went as a volunteer. Eventually, I was allowed to actually roof a house, as is evidenced in one of the photos. It was a great and fufilling expirience, which was made even better by copious amounts of cheap wine drank at night by light of beach bonfire.
We also did some exploring of Constitutiòn’s rocky coastline.
I made many friends there, most of them from San Felipe. It is not a coincidence that that is where I am now. Before each group of volunteers left (there was a new one every week) I was given stacks of emails and Facebook pages, along with many invitations to visit. So, when Un Techo Para Chile left Conti yesterday, I hitched over to San Felipe.
That brings us to the present. I’m here staying with my friend Marco, but I’ve been being bombarded with Facebook messages all day asking me to visit, so I have a feeling I’ll get around this town.
Love, peace, and fine wine,
The Modern Nomad