Monday, January 03, 2011

Back to Building

I'm happy to report that my arms aren't sore the next morning. I have a slight blister from a seam in the work gloves, but I put a bandaid on it yesterday as soon as I noticed the tender spot, and it is not a problem either. The group in general seems to have done as well. No one reports mosquito bites, dog bites, cow bites, chicken bites or landmine wounds from yesterday, either.

We load ourselves back in the punctual vans at seven a.m. and retrace the familiar route through the countryside to our village. I and one other member of the group who is making an effort to learn the language aimed to sit together but didn't jump fast enough and both ended up on less popular middle seats a couple of benches apart in the same van. We pass the phrasebook back and forth, not quite as productive as being able to share tips and pronunciations. There are more oxen hitched to carts piled cartoonishly high with goods. They stand placidly in their traces and appear to be free of sores and to have healthy hooves. But what do I know about oxen. They don't lead a life of leisure, but I don't think they work as hard as the people here do.

Once we reach the village, we know what we're doing this time, so bid some hellos and go straight to work. There are some floors left to do, but I know those go quickly and will be done in no time, so I go straight to building walls today. Under each house is a pile of green corrugated metal sheets. The first time I picked one out of the pile I didn't even realize that I had picked up three sheets together until we were lapping it under the previous sheet, and I realized how much thicker mine was. It's thicker than the stuff they built the Apollo moon lander out of, but just barely. There was no tutorial on wall-building, but there are local contractors working on the houses. We don't even share enough language to express up, down, left, and right. so it's kind of a matter of watching what he's doing, helping out where it's obvious and then watching to determine the process. We have to line each one up with the frame of the house and with the adjacent panel, giving it just the right amount of overlap, hold it straight and nail it on. I watch carefully while the contractor positions the sheet, and then he indicates where to drive each nail.

These nails are different from floor nails, as they have giant heads, the size of a nickel, but flimsy. If you don't hit the nail square in the centre of the head, straight on, with each blow of the hammer, the head either flies off to parts unknown or skitters down the shaft of the nail. And the head of the nail is necessary to retain the metal on the frame. When the nail head flies off, it's hard to pull the nail out, because normally you use the head of the hammer against a surface to get some leverage to remove a nail, but you can't push on the metal sheets at all. They're so thin that they would tear. Like any nail, you also have to drive it straight in so it doesn't bend

I start out standing on the ground, nailing the bottom edge of the sheets to the edge of the floor. This is simple enough, because I can always stand right in front of the nail I am hitting, with it just slightly over my head, and the edges of the floor are solid. So once I figure out the importance of getting these in straight, they are not too hard. The problem comes at the higher levels. The cross pieces for the walls are just little strips. I think they might be one-by-twos at a Canadian hardware store, except that these are rougher and not very even along their length. They are springy. Some of the time I spend working on walls, I'm just standing inside the house, bracing myself and holding a hammer against the strip of wood so that someone else can nail a sheet onto it without it springing away. Sometimes we stand inside the house and reach around to the outside to nail a sheet to the frame. This results in an awkward angle and bends a lot of nails. I notice most of the contractors, who do this all the time, bending nails from this angle, too. I really don't want to bend them, because when we do, getting them out will leave at least a hole, and probably a tear and a lot of ugly dents and flattening in the sheet metal. You don't want someone's home to look like that.

We do most of the wall nails from a ladder against the wall, which creates a bottleneck, because there are fewer ladders than people, and even if there weren't, there wouldn't be room to have enough ladders to reach every level at once. We have to put up the sheets one at a time so they overlap and line up properly. Some of the contractors direct us to put the nails in the convex part of the ridges, the sticky-outie part, which seems odd, because that flattens it, and it doesn't look as good. Others are okay with the nails going in the channels, which lay flat against the house, and I think look nicer that way. Another participant noticed that the contractor she was working with insisted that each new sheet of mental overlap the previously laid one, while having it underlap made it easier to get straight, because the friction helps hold the new sheet in place. Our theory is that these are habits that carried over from roofing for these guys. With roofing sheets it is obviously important that each lower sheet underlap the one above it, so rain can't trickle in the join, and similarly if you drive the nails into the channel, that creates a hole in the low spot. Much better to put the hole in the ridge, where water will never pool. I don't either consideration matters for walls, but at least it makes sense now.

While we build, kids are running around everywhere, just doing their normal things. A group of girls are playing what appears to be hopscotch. The grid they have scratched in the dirt is rectangular, and they play rock-paper-scissors to determine who goes first. It's almost disorienting to see this familiar game played here. When I was a kid you didn't learn any playground games from adults, you just learned them from kids, older kids teaching younger kids in a presumably unbroken succession back to the kids that invented the game. So how did hopscotch and rock-paper-scissors get to or from here? Our ancient common ancestors didn't invent them and bring them all the way from Africa through Mesopotamia, because that predates the invention of scissors and paper. Rock-rock-rock wouldn't have been a good game. I wanted to communicate, "We do this in Canada too!" I would have taken off my boots and joined them, but I probably would have communicated something more like "Canadian grown-ups are crazy." I tried to say, "Canada same!" while pointing at the game, and I tossed in a marker to show I knew how it worked, but I don't know that they understood.

At the house next to the kids playing hopscotch, one of the somehow cut himself on his upper arms, probably reaching around the thin sheets of metal. He didn't even notice, someone else had to point out the trickling blood. We've all had our tetanus shots, and he's not seriously wounded but I offer to go and get my disinfectant. As I'm walking away I suddenly remember the rule and come back and remind him to smile happily and come with me to the first aid supplies. I don't know that anyone cared, but apparently one year a housebuilding tool fell and struck a child, and after that they villagers wouldn't let work on that house continue, or even allow materials form it to be salvaged for another house. That one had become cursed.

Right on the road in the middle of the village there was a building where people congregated that we think was a store or a community centre of sorts. That's it above, and the kids at the top of this post are standing in front of it, too. It was a good place to get group shots of the local people just relaxing. At one point a little motorcycle with a big box on the back came up the road and stopped here. The driver opened up the box and it became a little mobile store. Here is where all the plastic came from: he was selling candy and snack food and other things in plastic wrappers. People who live in a society where everything is made of palm fronds and chickens don't learn not to throw wrappers on the ground. I watched some women admiring a selection of brightly-coloured combs. I think pretty much all the women in Cambodia have long hair. I didn't see if they bought any combs, but they definitely liked them.

The little boy on the bicycle with the girl was the subject of a lot of photographs. Photographers would take pictures and then always turn the digital camera so the people could see their image. Most people were interested or appreciative, but the little boy cried when he was shown his photo, until we spread the word not to show him.

At lunch I stuffed a bit of food into my mouth, then sat at the edge of our assigned stuff platform and took out an exercise notebook I had purchased in Phnom Penh. I drew a picture of a cow, one of their cows with a hump on its neck and long horns, and turned it so some kids could see it. I already knew the word, so I could tell if they got it or not. They did, and named it for me, "kō." I drew a chicken and let them name that, me echoing their word, trying to name it. More kids gathered and pretty soon I didn't have a hope of making out the consonants in the words, as they all came in a chorus. I would then point at one child to repeat the name so I could hear it, and then I'd try again. They would laugh and correct. When you're trying to distinguish between a voiced implosive dental and an aspirated alveolar, in a language for which you don't even have a complete inventory of consonants for, a group of laughing children is not the best source. But it was the best fun. I noticed in the back of my mind that the children I had been so carefully admonished not to touch were crowding around to press up against me.

After a while I ran out of things to draw that I imagined were in their experience, and tried to turn the pen over to one of the children. I've played this game before and found it an effective way both to learn vocabulary without having a common language, and to interact with people without having to learn any words. The kids were hesitant to take the pen. I drew some more things. I told them the English words for some of the things, and they would laugh at that, too. I kept offering the pen in various directions, and eventually one of the kids took it. At first I was disappointed, because he drew a car, a copy of the car that was the last thing I had drawn. They probably learn principally by rote here. It requires less teacher training and promotes classroom discipline, and of course it's better than no chance to learn at all. Another boy took the pen, and his car was a little different and more elaborate. Creativity emerges.

One little girl, picked up the pen and drew a princess. Not a Disney princess, but presumably a Khmer princess, with an elaborate hairstyle, earrings, some kind of beaded or fur gauntlets from wrist to elbow (she paid a lot of attention to adding texture and detail to them), and a dress that fell all the way to the bottom of the page. I wondered where she had seen such a thing. Other kids drew an ox cart and a scene of two people in a flat boat, one poling and the other I think fishing with a net.

Someone organized the kids to sing their national anthem, so we sang ours. One of the Canadians played the bagpipes. I'm not certain whether we had completed all the houses at that point, or whether some people finished up the remaining ones while most of us smiled at people and took pictures. We gathered the builders and the recipient families all together and our group leader made a little speech through a translator, then the other Khmer student in our group said a couple of sentences in Khmer, which I partly understood, because I had solicited coaching from my shopkeeper friend on how to say something similar. To make handing over the homes into a ceremony, and because apparently these folks somehow manage to be cold in this weather, we had a number of beautiful quilts from the Tabitha store to give to the new homeowners. I had the privilege of presenting one of the quilts to a woman standing with her family. I pronounced, with a crib sheet, the words I had learned for, "I hope you will be very happy in your new house." I think she understood. And I think there was a tear in her eye. Or maybe that was mine.

Our group leader asked through the interpreter if anyone had any questions. There was a lot of silence then someone dared to ask. The translated question was "Why are you doing this for us?" The leader tried to answer, addressing more "why are you doing this for us?" and detailing how the team chose Cambodia (past experience) than the reason we were doing it at all. I don't know if that was the answer that was wanted, but there were no more questions.

I think the plan was for more singing or something, but no one really wanted to make anyone stand around in the sun anymore, and the assembly kind of dissolved into wandering around, trying to meet people, and taking photos. I "met" one woman who was drying rice on mats in her yard. I was interested in how they harvested the rice, how long it took to dry, how much she had to turn it, how did they store it, that sort of thing, but all I could do was look.

When the Canadians gathered for a group photo in front of one of the buildings, most of the village gathered to watch. I would so much love to know what they said and thought about us.

We claim we came to build houses, but our real contribution is the one that you made, the funding for the houses. Our actually showing up and putting some together was more for us. Our presence makes us feel good, and certainly allows us to see that the money was well-used, not wasted, and went to people who needed it. The contractors probably could have built those houses in two days without our help. But they couldn't have done it without funding for the materials.

I think the whole structure of foreigners coming to build may be controversial in Tabitha. I suspect that there was quite a bit of politics in the organization--not ours, the Tabitha group--perhaps a power struggle starting as the founder is ill, and know that our group leaders insulated the group from most of that. They also had a stunningly dedicated commitment to making it a "no surprises" experience for the group, something obviously impossible where travel is involved. But just as in planning a flight, overplanning means that when something unexpected happens, it's as minor as possible.

I wish we could have spent longer, and many people I spoke to felt the same sense of disconnection as we just suddenly got back in the vans and drove away. The road winds through and around the village a little way and people waved as we left. We waved back, speeding away much too fast.

It is not encouraged for us to try to send letters or ever return to see the people in our village. I hope the houses hold up in the monsoons. I hope that boy's immune system is sufficient for his infected toe to get better on its own. I hope there is a good rice harvest. I hope that little girl someday gets to wear a beautiful dress, and that there are no landmines in any of their rice fields.


majroj said...

When a nail needs pulling, especially without a head, SNUG the nail shaft into the hammer claw, then lever it sideways, not the customary way. You may need to repeat the maneuver two or three times and wind up with a "U"-shaped nail, but with a really strong hammer you can sometimes even pull screws this way.

Good luck to your villagers and may they become self sufficient enough to make their own in future.

rw2 said...

"One of the Canadians played the bagpipes."

My god! I, for one, did not contribute to your trip so you could allow such torture to take place! The appropriate response would have been to run full speed and tackle this heartless soul.

Aaron said...

I'm not commenting a lot because there's not a lot to add, but these posts are beautiful and real. I'm enjoying them.

I've been there, driving away from people who have touched your heart, knowing that you'll never see them again. Sometimes it actually makes me think about travelling less, or maybe interacting with people less while travelling... But I'll probably never quit :-) Maybe having little pieces of your heart torn out keeps it tender... Either way, painful yes, worth it? No question.