DOMINICAN REPUBLIC JULY 1995
Having spent most of my life traveling in 3rd world countries and experiencing the appalling conditions that most of the world's population seems to endure, I decided it was time to do something to help my fellow man. I have always be intrigued by Habitat for Humanity, an organization dedicated to providing good quality, affordable housing to those who need it, which means 7/8 of humanity.
Habitat for Humanity was founded by Milford Fuller, a U.S. millionaire who one day, decided his life had no meaning and gave all his money away to charity, but that's another story. The organization has attracted the support of a few ex US presidents, notably Jimmy Carter who is one of their major patrons. The organization, however, is apolitical. I decided to contact them and check out the possibility of doing some volunteer work somewhere in the 3rd world.
I received a list of projects, and had a choice of 2 locations, El Salvador or the Dominican Republic in the time frame, I had available. I chose the Dominican Republic, since I had never been there. It was at this time that I became aware that Habitat is a religious organization (Christian). I was not aware of this, but from their literature, they were obviously slanted more towards "liberation theology" than the tele-evangelistic brand of Christianity. At least they seem to be practicing one of the original Christian tenets, namely, helping the poor. My father is a part time preacher (southern Baptist at that), so although I am not an active church goer, I did not think the religious aspects of the experience would cause me any discomfort.
This was only the second trip, I had planned without, Megan, my wife at the time. I had gone to the Yucatan in Mexico a couple of years previously with a friend and my high-functioning Autistic son, but trips without Megan always seemed weird. I did, however, manage to talk my friend Marten, a fellow BC Tel employee to come along. This particular trip was especially important for me, because at the time because Megan had separated from me, and I was in a state of transition. My trip to the Dominican Republic, was not only a means of regaining my self-esteem, but I also needed the time to think over what I wanted to do with my life. I decided to give my marriage another go, which in retrospect was probably the wrong decision, since 3 years later, it ended anyway.
Getting to the Dominican Republic from Vancouver is usually no big deal, if you do it in the winter. In the the summer, though, there are no cheap charters to the northern beach resort areas, and we had to book a milk run flight via Dallas and Miami. This involved sleeping on the floor of Miami Terminal overnight. On top of that, it cost one and a half times as much as it would have in the peak winter time.
We arrived in Santo Domingo to meet the rest of our group of 12 volunteers, all of them from various parts of the United States. We were the only Canadians. We then proceeded by bus to the town of Barahona on the semi-arid SW coast near the Haitian border.
The usual procedure is to billet volunteers with families that already have Habitat houses, but in our case, we were put up in a cheap hotel in Barahona 2 to 4 to a room. I shared a small room with my friend Marten. He probably would have gone elsewhere if he had known how loud I snore.
We spent about 10 of the 14 days of the project actually building houses. In the Dominican Republic, this meant concrete block homes about 8 by 6 meters with concrete roofs. Most of the homes we worked on already had walls and the majority of the work involved mixing concrete and pouring the roofs. We did this by mixing large piles of sand, cement and water together on the ground and then shoveling the mixture up to the roof by hand or lifting it up in a bucket brigade. The roof was supported from below with reusable plywood forms held up by 2 by 4's. We had previously installed re-bar. We poured a roof about 1/3 of a meter thick. Not too likely to blow off in hurricane. It usually took about 8 hours to complete a roof and we had to finish it, once we had started. Needless to say, in July, the Dominican Republic is a pretty hot and humid place. We were fortunate that Barahona had an ice factory, so our first stop every morning was to go fill up our large water containers with ice, which we then topped up with bottled water. This gave us ice cold drinking water all day long.
We obtained the water for the concrete from a creek near the town. Every morning we headed down there in an old pickup truck and scooped water into oil drums which we covered with reeds to minimize splashing. We then headed up the hill to the housing project where we siphoned the water out of the drums to mix with our concrete. It was hot, hard work, but very rewarding.
On one particular day, it had rained hard overnight. The following morning we had arranged a delivery of a dump truck full of gravel to be delivered to the housing project. Unfortunately it became stuck up to its axles in a mud hole. We had to dump the entire load (about 12 yards) of gravel out, dig out the truck, and then shovel it all back on board again. This took most of the day.
Habitat's policy, is that the recipient family has to work on their own house, plus those of others. This meant that we were working alongside the Dominicans (mainly men) during most of our day. The women were assigned cooking duties (women's lib has not arrived there yet) It was interesting to see the attitude change towards the women in our group as the weeks wore on. Dominican men, like most Latin Americans, are naturally chauvinistic and were quite surprised at the stamina of the women in our group. Most Dominican males seem to have mistresses as well as wives, very unusual considering its such a strong Catholic country. At first, the men had the habit of grabbing shovels and picks from the women, most of which adamantly held onto them. It took a few days for them to get the idea that the female volunteers had every intention of doing just as much physical work as the men.
Habitat is not in the business of providing handouts. Recipients pay for their house with an interest free mortgage and are expected to participate in the building of others homes through a policy known as "sweat equity". Income from mortgages goes towards building even more homes.
Occasionally after work, we would head off to the only tourist type Hotel in Barahona where they would let us use their pool for a dollar. It was quite a strange feeling seeing all the rich tourists lying around the pool sipping on their drinks. Because we were there working and living with the locals, I tended to see them in a different, not too complimentary perspective. I have never felt comfortable with a package type holiday since.
Working with Dominican Campesinos was at times a frustrating experience. Although I can speak reasonable Spanish, I had trouble understanding the local lingo. Phrases such as "Como esta usted?" became "Como ta ted". I have trouble understanding Caribbean English, let alone Spanish. There were also some incidents which gave me the impression the local inhabitants were not too bright, but what seems logical to us, does not always seem logical to someone without the same life experiences. On one occasion, we ran out of cement mix. The extra bags were located a long way up, a very steep hill. I knew that some bags were stored in a nearby hut for use on a floor in another house. It seemed logical to me, to use these bags and then replace them with others from up the hill later in the day, when the pickup truck returned. I had a lot of trouble getting this concept across. On another occasion, while placing re-bar on a roof, I noticed a Dominican measuring the 20 cm spacing one at a time instead of stretching the tape measure out and marking the spot every 20 cm. I soon realized, he was unable to count in 20's. I spent the next few minutes teaching him how to count in 20's in Spanish. He was thrilled.
Although the Dominican Republic is far better off than neighboring Haiti, it is still very poor. It feels much more like a Latin American country than a Caribbean one. Power cuts were a regular daily occurrence and on one occasion, one of my co-workers fell down an open manhole, at night, during one of these. Fortunately, she was not seriously injured. Interestingly enough, the telephone system with is run by GTE, is the most modern in Latin America (I work for the phone company, so I notice these things).
At the end of the two week stint, Marten and I with several kilo's apiece sweated off our ample frames, said good-bye to our fellow volunteers. We both stayed on for another week to explore more of the Island.
Mixing Concrete on Ground (I'm on left), and hauling it up to the roof (I'm at top of ladder)
If you want to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, contact them through their web site at Habitat for Humanity. Although they are a Christian organisation, non-Christians or members of other religions are welcome. Apart from saying grace at meals non-Christians should not feel uncomfortable and no one will try to "push" religion on you. All you need is a desire to help your fellow man.