Thursday, December 16, 2010

Starting the Build

We were given the option to choose what time the vehicles would come to take us to the build and chose the earlier option of seven a.m. I don't know if anyone else was biting their tongue against suggesting "four a.m." There's something about pilots and black humour. Our transport is a convoy of vans because the rural roads aren't suitable for a bus. Our drivers are here punctually and sort themselves out in the narrow street for boarding. They made a fuss about "our cars aren't like your cars" and "our roads aren't like your roads" in telling us how long it would take to get to the build site, but honestly I wouldn't have raised an eyebrow if the same fleet of used but serviceable passenger vans came to take us to a Canadian farm. Most seats even had seatbelts. We have a further briefing reminding us not to touch the children, and don't compliment people's children either. They don't say why. Either it's more fear that we want to take them, or it's a society where so many children die young that it's bad luck to draw attention to their merits, lest the gods take them back for their own. I'm kind of lost for a way to make contact with a person with whom I share almost no language or culture. Can I admire their cows?

We drive off through some poorer areas of the city, and then through increasingly rural communities. It's really difficult to take pictures through the windows of a moving vehicle and impossible not to want to record some of the things we are seeing. All manner of goods are being transported by bicycle. There was a pair of yoked oxen pulling a large cart all hung with different sorts of reddish pottery. I recognized the same kind of platter we'd had our fish served on at the sitting-on-floor restaurant, for example. I can imagine that that identical scene, the oxen, the wooden yoke, the cart and the pottery being sold has repeated for a thousand, maybe two thousand years here. Could be more. Pottery has been made for millenia, and the skill probably came here with the initial human migration to the area? Domesticate the ox? Ditto. Manufacture wheeled vehicles? The same. I love doing things, even the simplest things like running barefoot, kneading bread, or seeing an ox cart laden with pottery, that have been done since before recorded history.

After an hour or so we turn off of paved roads onto a red dirt road. The clay won't need to come far. There's a busy and extremely interesting-looking market right at the corner of the paved road and the dirt one. It's the intersection of the things the people who come down the dirt road produce and the goods that they want to take home with them. We also pass a pony pulling a cart on which there is a dead cow. I wonder what the story is there. I would expect that you would walk a cow to slaughter, and that if a cow died in the field you would butcher it there, or burn or bury it there if the meat were considered unusable.

There are houses and people all along the dirt road. Some of the houses are very simple, at ground level and made of palm fronds and bamboo. Others are more elaborate than the ones we will be building, same style in that they are up on stilts, but larger and with fancy metal railings and painted shutters. I doubt anyone has plumbing. The road is crazy with potholes, but our driver is very skilled at going around them without excessive swerving or braking. In fact, Cambodians in general drive well. No road rage, sensible speeds, and excellent maneuvering in difficult conditions. I can't speak for their adherence to vehicle regulations, because I can't be sure there are any. Certainly there are no rules forbidding four people and a live chicken on the same motorbike.

We pass some flags in a field which someone says mark it as a minefield. There are chickens running around loose everywhere, chickens with longer legs and thinner breasts than the ones at home. The cows are quite a different breed, too. One person on the bus calls them water buffalo, but I know what a water buffalo looks like and these are Asian cows, they look like the ones that wander around India. Other people think the cows and dogs are abused because you can see their ribs, but they look healthy to me. The dead one back on the horse cart even had some meat on it. You can see my ribs and I'm not in any way starving. North Americans have become used to the shape of overfed animals, and of course these animals have much thinner coats than the ones that stand around in Canadian winters. These ones are all either yoked, tethered, or being tended by children with sticks, and the latter two sorts are all languidly eating what looks like lush vegetation. They don't have to get through a cold winter, either.

The van stops. We're here. We get out, surrounded by curious Khmer people, giving us just enough room to follow the Tabitha leader to our marshalling point, while they watch us. I give the "jum reap sur" greeting I've been taught and it is returned, but the experience is more like waving to the crowd than meeting a group of people. There are no introductions. Nari shows us where to put our belongings. It's a low platform made of strips of bamboo nailed to a wooden frame and covered with a mat. There is also a cooler full of water on he ground there, several more cases of water, plus there are hammers are on another table. By the time we can put down our bags and pick up hammers, we're being divided into subteams and led along the paths in the village to the homes that need completing. I say 'completing' because to ensure the project can be completed and for everyone's safety, local contractors have already poured the foundation, erected a frame, put on the roof and laid the floorboards in place. We climb up the wooden ladder and Nari tells us to put two nails in each floorboard at each point that it crosses a joist. She also tells us how to put the walls on, but I didn't do walls until later in the day, so I'll describe that later. Three or four of our six people put on our work gloves and start nailing floorboards down.

I wanted to take a picture of the frame when we began, and of all the building materials you bought, but I didn't want to lag behind and miss out on the instructions that were being given inside. Then once the instructions were given, it was just "go!" I'll take a "before" picture at the next house. We want to get this done and there have been warnings that the work is very difficult. I'm following one board across the house, driving two nails, shuffling backwards to the next joist, and driving two more. I put in about ten nails, straight and true, one after another. I'm setting them with a couple of taps, then using a goofy two handed hammer technique, because if I'm going to do this all day and all the next, a little girlishness is a cheap price to pay for a functional wrist tomorrow. I'm starting to think this will be pretty easy. The next nail bends. I pull it out and try again with a new nail. It goes in a little further, then also bends. I straighten it out and that works for a moment but now the head is bent and I can't hit it straight. I try a third, and bending that makes it three in a row. What the hell? Is my wrist worn out already? There's not a knot here, and the joist seems normal, too. I skip that joist and move on. The next nail goes in properly. The next one I notice before I start driving it has a manufacturing defect, a tail deformity. I knew in advance that the made in Cambodia nails were going to be a little less predictable that the ones I'm used to, but I consider these building materials to be something you have given me to accomplish a mission, and I want to use them well. I select a healthier-looking nail and drive it in. I try counting blows per nail, but I can only count to ten in Khmer, and sometimes it takes twenty hammer blows to get a nail in. Sometimes I hit the nail and it feels like I'm trying to drive it into an engine block. There's just no progress into the wood. I hold it with my pliers and bang and bang on it until it finally succumbs. Yeah, that seems pretty damned wimpy to me, too. I seem to remember that if I hold a hammer right, the nail should be flush in three or four blows. As I clean up my bent nails I realize that as a group we are producing a lot of bent nails. It's not just me. Others have hit the same almost-impossibly-hard spots, too. I had to wait until the the van ride back to figure out why it was so hard to drive a simple nail, but I'll let you in on it now. The boards are made of mahogany. Tropical hardwoods are hard.

I am being extra careful to get the nails all the way down. It's better to leave a hammer imprint around the head of the nail than to have any metal sticking up. Sure it seems like I'm building a tree house, but people's babies are going to be crawling around up here. Babies will probably be born in here. I don't want there to be anything poking up that could hurt someone, or even damage their carefully made bamboo mats.

It seems like a lot longer than twenty minutes before someone calls "water break." We've made good progress, though. The floor is at least half-nailed and the walls are up maybe a quarter of the way around. We guzzle some water and get back to work. There are a few really tough spots in the floor, like the one where I bent three nails, but we get two nails into every joist, and figure out ways to nail down the boards at the tricky corners, where the joist stops a little short of the concrete post or a nail has to go diagonally to hit wood. When the area that still needs nails is smaller than the hands and knees footprint of the number of people we have working on it, I go outside and see if the wall-nailing people need help. They have it under control and don't want to swap out, so I declare that I'm taking a photo break, and no one objects.

There are three mothers with children sitting in the shade of a palm-frond house quite close to the one we are building. I greet them in Khmer and receive the same greeting in return, then hold up my camera and say djaa?. That means "yes" said by a woman. The phrase for "may I please take your photograph?" was really long and I haven't memorized it. The women smile and have the children to look at me and smile. I photograph the first pair and then the mother urges the child to come up and look at the photo on the camera. Mom has seen this before. The first girl seems pleased with her picture, but the second child expresses discomfort when I raise the camera, so I don't take her picture, just lower the camera and say "okay, no picture." I try to talk to them, using the tiny number of useful words my guidebook has given me for this situation. I look at the construction of the existing house. It may not be as sturdy, but the construction has required far more skill. I try to ask if who made it, and only get across that I am interested in it. I understand from them that it is not so good when the rains come.

The wall-builders still don't want a substitute, so I nominate myself to go and get more water for the group. As I walk back with the water I notice a lot of plastic garbage on the ground, so I make that my next task. I find an extra plastic bag on our stuff-platform and start picking up trash around our house and around the village. Where did all this stuff come from? I don't think these people are using hair conditioner and contact lens solution, nor eating Chinese-branded junk food and candies in plastic and foil wrappers. My trash collection route passes by another house, in the same almost-completed condition as ours. The group leader is working on that one. I ask him if he knows where the plastic comes from and he doesn't. "Maybe they go through someone else's garbage looking for things they can use?" The villagers see me collecting the trash. I wonder if they think I'm taking it because I want to keep it, or if they appreciate that I am cleaning up. While I'm picking up the trash I step onto a grassy area between the road and the fence and then I realize what I haven't been doing. Mines! I told myself before I came that I would not step anywhere that was not obviously trodden. Obviously this area next to the fence had to have been stepped on when they were building the fence, and I'm sure people and cows step here all the time, it's just that I wasn't thinking about it. It's like when I land and realize that I didn't consciously do the short final check. I put the gear down, I checked it down, but I missed that last little check. No harm done, but if you can miss one check you can miss another. I think about what I'm doing and fill a bag with gum-wrapper-sized bits of plastic, then go to see if another group needs more hammer power.

Everyone has finished their floors by now and several people have splintered off to start floors on other houses. I find one of those houses and join them. As first there is a conflict, because while my original group was nailing all the way along one board, these people are nailing all the way along one joist. I switch to their way and we stop stepping on each other. I did some wall-nailing too, which I'll describe tomorrow. And then someone says it's time for a lunch break.

Lunch was actually the worst part of the trip. Not that there was anything wrong with the bread or with the food chosen by the committee. It was all excellent. It was turning our backs on all these people and eating baguettes and cheese and cured ham and bananas while they watch us. I have a choice between turning my back on them, looking at them and eating in their faces, or not meeting their gaze. They aren't starving. And yes, I understand that if people don't eat white bread and cheese and butter that they will get sick on eating it. But this makes me feel like an alien. The very least I can do to show you that I am a friend is to squat in the dirt next to you and share a meal. Couldn't we bring food we could share? How about if we bring a sack of brown rice and a basket of dried fish and the villagers cook a meal for everyone while we build. Sure it wouldn't be prepared to Canadian Food Safe guidelines but neither are the restaurant meals we get around here. If their water is so bad that it would irreparably harm us to eat rice that had been boiled in it for forty-five minutes, then we're working on the wrong project here. We may be different, but we are the same species. It would not be an impossible task to devise a way that we could all share a meal.

I eat rapidly and then leave the food behind to try to talk and take pictures. Someone has a better phrasebook and manages to ask a woman how many children she has. "Buan." No "braun." Five. That's nice. I guess. Having lots of children is good in this culture, right? Five is lots, right? We don't know. Maybe five is not enough. We all smile happily at having achieved some sort of communication, and the little conversation gets discussed down the line in Khmer for the people who couldn't hear or understand it the first time. I don't know if the hardest part of a conversation is knowing the words, or knowing what words you need. They probably feel the same way about us. And at least we have the context of being able to see pretty much their whole lives in front of us. They have no idea what our lives are like.

These kids were all sitting on a log next to the main track through the village. You can't see it in the picture, but the kid nearest me, has an infected toenail. Even though the living conditions are so different than home for these people, everything is so different that I'm having to consciously hammer it into my own head that this is the Third World. People in the Third World die of simple things like infections. Ergo, this kid sitting right here on this log might die because he kicked a jagged rock and then stepped in cow manure, or whatever kid-normal thing it is that he did. I have a small bottle of hydrogen peroxide in my bag over there on that platform, not four metres away. But you don't touch people's kids, so you most certainly don't pour strange foaming stuff over their toes. And disinfectant isn't magic. It's just part of the whole medical apparatus that I have become so accustomed to, I still don't appreciate how much it is lacking here. It's going in about as slowly as those nails into mahogany.

Another floor done and it's only two o' clock. We move on again and have to synchronize nailing systems with another group of people. We're not quite done that on. There's a board that is too close to another one at one end, and partly nailed down, but we managed to work together and lever it away so the boards are not overlapping in the finished floor. That was a good bit of teamwork. By two-thirty they're declaring it time to get back in the bus. "But that wasn't a whole day!" The group leader doesn't want people to get tired and have accidents. We tidy up and get in the vans. Everyone shares the experience of ridiculously hard to hammer wood. Mahogany flooring. Wow. It may not be super straight and some of the nails are bent and then hammered in flat anyway, but do you know anyone with mahogany floors?

The van we're in has worse suspension than the one I rode out. I should have worn a sports bra. We pass a truck laden with women all in matching headscarves, probably coming home from a factory job. It's not so much a truck as a long wooden box with slats across, the women all sitting on the slats, like on the thwarts of a canoe, and the box pulled as a trailer by a motorcycle.

That evening I bought a Khmer phrasebook from a street vendor, and I'll tell you about that, later.

This is a lot of work putting these posts together and I have a lot of things to do, as I imagine many of you do. I'm probably going to take a break from heavy-duty trip-report posts until after Christmas. There will be a few intermediate ones on current affairs and my usual end-of-year topics, then I'll return to the rest of the build and the other parts of the Cambodia trip in the new year.


amulbunny's random thoughts said...

Thank you so much for sharing your trip through pictures and words. We have so much to be thankful for, yet these people are happy in their lives too, with 1/10th of what we have.

I looked at Tabitha's website and saw the pictures of the homes that were built. Such a great gift of shelter.

Thank you again.

A Squared said...

Bend your elbow instead of your wrist when driving nails.

GPS_Direct said...

I'll 2nd amulbunny's thoughts! The effort you have put in - both in the trip and construction, and now in these lengthy, detailed blog posts - is appreciated.

I actually lol'd at part of your last comment - "my usual end-of-year topics" - as knew exactly what you meant! Kind of funny, that.

Thanks for sharing your green haired, blue skinned, sports bra lacking, balloon legged, smoke breathing, pop and chip toting, slight banked, skidding turn flying adventures...

Verification word: enalin - what 'trix is doing no that she's isn't actually nailin'.

Jeremy said...

Thanks for the very detailed posts, this is amazing!

I've participated for many years on similar building projects with Habitat for Humanity, in El Salvador. To avoid the issue with lunch that you mention, we usually would go to a central location - either a community hall or church if the town had one, or park/town square, or one year, just the backyard of one of the town's wealthier residents. The meals would be prepared there by locals who had been trained by Habitat on Western hygiene, and provided bottled water for cleaning vegetables or cooking. Also, each of our houses had 3-4 professional masons who worked with us (they were concrete block houses), and they would join us for lunch at the central location. For many of these guys I suspect it was a much more substantial meal that they would normally have - even for dinner - as it normally included meat. Our days were short also as you mention - 9:30am to 3:30 sometimes - but the masons would be working from dawn to dusk. They got paid by the house - the more houses they could finish in a season, the more they got paid!

Obviously the families and other town residents would be aware of the quality and quantity of food we were being served, since they were small towns and I'm sure it wasn't a secret, but at least we didn't have to eat directly in front of the families on the work site.

AE613 said...

Blessings to you and your colleagues for not only doing this work, but for bringing it to our attention.

grant said...

re: "It would not be an impossible task to devise a way that we could all share a meal."

... we did this often on a short mission trip in Mexico. It was facilitated by the fact that the local churches were our guides/hosts so they had some wherewithal (manpower etc) to organize it. We ate the local cuisine and no one got sick that I'm aware of. It was a significant opportunity to get to know the local people who were also working to "help themselves," building schools, orphanage/child rescue homes, etc..