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Building steps…

February 14, 2008

PamplonaYesterday (Tuesday 12th Feb) I went on a ‘trip’ with school.  The school are currently hosting the American (the continent, not the country) Round Square conference (www.roundsquare.org) and an important part of it is the community service project.  The trip was to an area of Lima called Pamplona and the aim of the work was to build a set of steps up the hillside.  The school has previously been involved in work to build a small community kitchen/dining area and medicine store (complete with access steps) for the community.

I was expecting to see people living in poverty – I’d been told that it was a very poor area.  However I wasn’t really prepared for the sheer scale of it – hundreds and hundreds of tiny shacks, perched precariously on terraces that had been built out of the desert rubble (with some of the best dry stone walling I’ve seen outside of Yorkshire!).  The ‘road’ was little more than a single lane dirt track winding its way up the steep slopes.  The houses have electricity (although I’m not sure it’d get past health and safety at home – you could see where they had twisted the wires together to make them longer, or taken a spur off to a new house!) but no running water – the water truck comes up and fills barrels for people(and apparently charges 30 times the price of water in the main part of the city).  The smell going through the centre of the district where the rubbish dump and cattle pens are was stomach turning, however this lessened as you moved out of the bottom of the valley and up the slopes towards the small community of 60 or so houses that we were working with.

When we arrived at the work site we were greeted with smiles (and curiosity from the children) and shown the work that the previous day’s team had completed.  They had concreted half of the set of steps (the bottom half might I add, so we had the harder job – twice as far to lug cement up , and send empty buckets back!).  The importance of the work was emphasised as a number of men and women from the community had taken the day off work to be able to work on the project with us. (A day’s pay is a lot to lose when you’re living hand to mouth!)

The plan was to work for an hour or so and have a break, do another hour then lunch, another hour then a break and then a final hour before going back to school.  We had to line ourselves up alongside the wooden ‘scaffolding’ (which had been constructed earlier in the month and part filled with rubble to reduce the amount of cement needed) and create a human chain to pass cement up the slope and the empty buckets down the slope.

The need for the steps became obvious as soon as we tried to climb the slope to get into position – I needed to use both hands and hold onto the frame to climb up – the slope was just a jumble of sand and rocks and every time you moved your feet you sent a small avalanche of loose dirt sliding down the hillside.  I couldn’t imagine trying to carry children or shopping up to the houses at the top.  By the time I reached the top I was out of breath, covered in dust and absolutely shattered.  Then the hard work started. 

Standing about an arms span apart we formed a human chain and began to pass buckets of cement up to the top, things were going fine until the empty buckets started coming back the other way – you either had to put one down, or let go – not ideal when our footing was so insecure! After an hour we had only completed 3 steps.  The 30 degree heat and blasting sunshine were taking their toll on one or two people too and by lunchtime a couple of the students had gone back to school feeling sick.

We had a break and then while I was getting back to my place I slipped and cut my leg on a large rock.  I didn’t realise I’d drawn blood until we stopped for lunch when the school nurse cleaned it and put a plaster on for me – it’s not every school that takes the school nurse out on trips with them rather than just shoving a first aid kit in the bus!  She also flushed my eye out for me later on when I got something in it (probably sweaty, dusty sun lotion – it stung like mad and made my eyes run so much I couldn’t see.  On the plus side I didn’t get badly sun burned or get sunstroke which is what I was worried about).

After lunch I decided I couldn’t cope with the rough ground anymore, at the risk of sounding like my mother my knee was really starting to hurt, so I positioned myself closer to the bottom of the chain where I could stand on the steps built the previous day.  We also organised ourselves so that while a chain of many people passed buckets of cement from person to person up the slope, the empty buckets were passed down by throwing them along a more spread out chain of about 10 people down the slope.  This increased our work rate quite considerably.  Unfortunately we hadn’t finished the steps when the time came for us to leave.

To thank us for our help the community had prepared a small show for us – firstly 5 of the young girls from the community did a dance for us, followed by 3 of the older women, in traditional costume, who insisted on the menfolk joining in!  The kids were obsessed with the digital cameras – they loved to look at themselves in the pictures once they had been taken and, like small children everywhere, they put their hands behind each other’s heads and pulled funny faces at the camera. 

It was a strange experience being involved in the day.  On one hand the poverty was awful and no-one should have to live like that, but on the other their was a real sense of communitythe people were friendly, open and very positive about their futures and determined to work their way to a better standard of living.  The kids were all happy and all the animals you saw about (LOTS of dogs, a few cats, chickens, ducks, pigs, rabbits, guinea pigs) were healthy and looked after. 

I was glad to get back to the hotel, have a shower and put some clean clothes on.  At the same time I was aware that the people I’d been working alongside all day did not have that option.  The contrast between the dry, dusty, impoverished area I’d been in and the wealthy, lush, spotless suburb of Miraflores was striking.  I was lucky to get the opportunity to go and I’m looking forward to getting involved with more work there if the opportunity presents itself.

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