Andelay, Ariba, Ica!

Trip Start Sep 05, 2006
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Friday, November 9, 2007

As of today, John and I have been living and volunteering in Peru for three full weeks...pretty unbelievable. Yes, the saying ¨time flies¨can be trite, but I know of nowhere else where the phrase is more true than while working with Hands On. Hands On projects are black holes of time. After three weeks of working in Pisco and Ica it feels like I´ve been here forever and at the same time it feels like we just arrived. Exactly, the passage of time as I previously knew it no longer pertains.

So three weeks... that´s 18 work days that need to be accounted for.

The Hands On base, which is located in lovely Pisco, which we endearingly refer to as Pissco..emphasis on the piss, is now overflowing with aproximately 80 volunteers. Even though John and I have a nice tent in the most relaxed Pisco living space, the dead seal, I nonetheless took the first opportunity possible to flee from the overwhelming Pisco scene to a much smaller hands on project in Ica. Only an hour south and slightly inland, Ica is millions of times nicer than Pisco. Unlike Pisco, Ica boasts views of enormous sand dunes and mountains, has an actual shopping street, and is marginally safe to walk about. Additionally the short term Ica deployment would max out at 24 volunteers instead of the 80 plus hot bodies up in the HODR headquarters. The choice was clear, Ica it was.

I´ve now been working on our UNICEF temporary school project in Ica for 13 days, and should be here for a week more. While here ít´s been ¨interesting¨ shall we say, to see how a massive international organization like UNICEF actually works. The initial plan was for Hands On to assist UNICEF by supervising the construction of approximately 400 temporary classrooms. Whewwy. That would have been quite a task. After the earthquake hundreds and maybe thousands of shools and classrooms were destroyed. The government, wanting to take good care of its children, offered to put up money for transitional class rooms to be built in 4 or 5 months time, but under the condition that the children are attending school in that 4 or 5 month interim period. UNICEF has therefore stepped in, supported by cash and materials, to build temporary class rooms which are supposed to preceed the government's transitional classrooms. Unfortunately, soon into UNICEF´s lofty undertaking, local UNICEF representatives realized that they neither had the manpower nor adequate organization in Peru for 400 plus class rooms to go up smoothly. And thus a marriage of conveniance was born. Hands On has lots of volunteers and little material or money while UNICEF has lots of goods and building materials without the workforce.

Being kicked out of the internet cafe but will try to finish as soon as possible.....

Yeah, so as I was saying about Hands On being a black hole of time...it's taken me a full week to find a chance to complete this blog. Yesterday, November 15th, marked our one month anniversary with Hands On. The Ica project has been completed, but I'll give you the overview nonetheless.

Back to Ica and UNICEF...

From the very beginning, the Ica/ UNICEF project was hilarious and riddled by a surfeit of hiccups. Hiccup. For example, let us consider day one. By six am on November 22nd, 12 HODR volunteers were waiting on the curb in front of the Hands On base. We had eaten breakfast, we had packed, we had spades and tool bags in hand- in brief we were ready to face the day and the work ahead of us. Besides one unfortunate volunteer, Merlin, who was accidentally left at the bus station while he was in the bathroom, an hour and twenty minutes later we all sat in the offices of the ministry of education with mouths agape as the MOE and UNICEF officials hurried around trying to figure out where the schools where we'd be working actually were. Hiccup one. Hiccup one though was fairly easily worked out and our group of 12 was loaded into the back of a pickup truck eagerly awaiting the days' hiccups yet to come. Hiccup 2 was the result of the project's design. Hands On and UNICEF had come up with a project plan where us volunteers wouldn't be doing the physical building ourselves, but instead would be overseeing and supervising local builders constructing the UNICEF temporary classroom design. What a surprise it was then when there wasn't a single local worker on site. However, the school's director took it upon himself to scourge the neighborhood for any abled bodies not at work but willing to work for approximately 20 soles a day- around 7 dollars. An hour later, hiccup 2 resolved itself as it segued into hiccup 3. The group assembled by the school director was quite a motley crew. Of the 12 recruited workers, 8 had no or very few teeth, 2 were over the age of 70, 3 were teenage boys who had been pulled from their classes, and the rest were middle aged women more interested in giggling at and teasing the gringo volunteers than at working. Fine. The fourth hiccup presented itself when it became time to work. According to the original plans, the paid workers were responsible for providing their own tools. In the case of our newly assembled Peruvian builders we had to settle for kitchen ladles instead of shovels, dinner knives instead of saws, and fingers instead of wire twisters. With the combination of the previously mentioned hiccups, our position as supervisors was given new meaning since we would now need to be digging, tamping, building, teaching, and overseeing all at once....and with incredibly limited spanish.

This first day on site provides nothing more than an example for how the rest of week one of the project played itself out. We learned to be prepared for having no workers, having no materials, or having half of the materials stolen by a school principal so that he could buy himself a plasma t.v..

After about a week of this work and a particularly disconcerting three day period when the liason between UNICEF, the ministry of education, and Hands On dissapeared off of the face of the earth along with his cell phone (he apparently was on holiday without telling anyone), Hands On decided to take on a slightly greater leadership role. At this point we restructured the project to primarily rely on Hands On volunteers and tools, but would still appreciate paid assistance from locals. With Crystal and Ken, two volunteers, at the helm, we ended up completely 40 plus schools in the total three week period.

These class rooms according to UNICEF's plan are only supposed to be in use for 4 to 5 months at most. We have had school directors though thanking us for the class rooms, haulas, which they believe will be in use for the next three years! These aren't impressive structures. They are sturdy and well built....of course since I was a project lead....but they're built out of skinny eucaliptus wood, estera (woven matts), wire, and one of two nails. Nothing more. As far as what I've gleaned while being down here, the year or two year class room life span estimate seems far more likely than the 4 to 5 month. It's going to be a long time before the government can come up with enough cash, material, and workers to replace our temporary structures with more permanent ones.

A second phase of our project with UNICEF was to inspect the classrooms built by locals without any supervision. This is where UNICEF"s overall project takes a depressing turn for the worst. The first site I inspected was the worst. 6 classrooms had been built. None of the classes had foundations (while our foundational posts are at a depth of 60 cm), 5 of the 6 classrooms' ceilings were already caving in, only half or less of the materials had been used, there were no rafters, and builders had actually been paid to put these up. 800 soles had been squandered on each. The day they were built they were uninhabitable, and the only way that they ever could be used is if they're entirely dissembled and put back up. But then there's the issue of the missing materials. Luckily as the day's inspections went on, some classes were acceptable, but none were even close to the quality of ours. I'm not saying this to brag, only to stress how sad it is that so little effort is put into structures which potentially will be in use for years to come.

After three weeks in Ica overseeing groups of local workers and new volunteers doing a quick rotation through, building frames, digging hundreds of foundation holes, cutting wire, twisting wire, and putting up roofs and wall of estera matting, I'm tired. John and I woke up this morning back in Pisco and simultaneously said "it's time for holiday" and it is. Long term volunteers are supposed to take a week off for every month, so on Sunday we're off. Don't know where, don't know how, but the only thing that really matters at this point is to get away from the shovel, the sledge hammer, the plyers, the rebar bender and anything else that will wreck havok on our limbs.

Thanks for reading and take care! Hugs and kisses Kristina and John
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