Recollections of a Project in South America

Dylan Hitchcock- Lopez (USA, AC 08-10)

The first thing any Chilean will tell you upon arriving in their country is to watch out for Chileans. According to Chileans, Chileans are very dangerous. They will- they say -rob you blind and leave you to die in the gutter without a moments hesitation. Indeed, It might have even been as dangerous as they said, only every Chilean I met was so busy trying to look out for me that they hardly had time to do me bodily harm. The greatest heist I suffered in my entire five weeks in their fair country was the extra gringo surcharge of a hundred pesos (about ten pence) or so on the odd pack of roasted peanuts. I had never been warned so heftily about the dangers of a country, and yet I had never felt so safe in any metropolis as I did in the dirty, polluted streets and shantytowns of Santiago, swept along with the tide of its seven million inhabitants as I tried to do my little bit for humanity. How could I have anticipated how what paltry glimmers of idealism I may have dragged with me across the Atlantic paled in comparison with the veracity of that which they already possessed. Whatever I might have had to give the people of Chile when I stumbled onto their soil after 48 hours, three continents, and an ocean’s worth of travel, it was nothing next to what I took back with me on the return trip.

We arrived in Chile as a group of eight optimistic, worldly, and intrepid AC students (or so we thought), with very little idea of what exactly we were going to do to justify the obscene amount of carbon we had just spewed into the atmosphere in our arial transatlantic leap. We started off working with an organization identified by some lengthy hispanic acronym that none of us except our Chilean leader, Consuelo Fuentez Perez, was ever able to remember, let alone repeat. Theoretically, we were meant to be assisting the organization with its work helping to support the poor through educational development, health infrastructure, and job support. The main model involved employees of the organization training community volunteers from the impoverished areas of Santiago to work in various caregiver roles. The idea, or so it seemed to me after watching a long presentation in Spanish of which I understood very little, was that this was supposed to inspire a ripple affect, by which jobs and improvements would spread from the initial corps of volunteers outwards to the rest of the community. This was also our first encounter with the ethos of latino professionalism. With no disrespect toward the latino community at large, there is a certain deficiency in timekeeping ability that pervades all levels, at least of Chilean, society. On the first real day of work we were told to arrive at nine o’clock, a perfectly reasonable morning hour at which to begin the day. We arrived within the acceptably late range of about five minutes, to find that no one at organization headquarters was there yet to open the door for us. We waited on the stoop, shivering in the frigid winter air, until a secretary arrived to show us through to a room where we could sit and wait. She was kind enough to equip us all with mugs of Nescafe instant coffee before leaving us to our own devices. Employees began to arrive around ten, making their way through where we waited with warm smiles and hellos. Though one would assume that they had all eaten breakfast before leaving home, as is customary throughout the working world, they seemed to feel the need to settle into the small kitchen and catch up on whatever had happened in each others lives since the previous afternoon over boles of cereal and cups of more instant coffee. Our day began around noon, when our would be ‘managers’ arrived. We spent the rest of the day touring various offices around Santiago, a protracted six hour inspection of the municipal transit network that felt decidedly useless as they shunted as from department to department, attempting to find something productive for us to do when the reality was they had no need of eight foreigners, only half of whom could speak Spanish with any degree of proficiency. We returned home at the end of that day thoroughly deflated. We had expected to be met with hardships, never anticipating that the work would be easy, yet what was more more difficult to accept was that there might perhaps be no work for us to do at all. The thought that we might have traveled half way around the world to spend countless intimate hours on the Santiago Metro was, I admit, disheartening. The next morning we again arrived early at the organization headquarters, only to find out that the staff had been hit by an outbreak of swine flu and were quarantined at home.

Over the next several weeks we continued to work with the same organization. They eventually decided that we would be best teaching emergency first aid to groups of their volunteers, many of whom happened to work as professional nurses. The extent of our collective knowledge on the topic consisted of my beach lifeguard certification and the other’s left over remnants from the preliminary first aid course they did upon arriving at AC, two years before. Needless to say, the collective psychological condition was an all encompassing feeling of acute uselessness. I spent most of my days watching the dogs. Santiago is over ridden with packs of half wild dogs of every breed and variety. Mangy mongrels and giant, sleek german shepherds accompany miniscule ladies lapdogs with twigs and bits of rubbish snarled in their white ringlets. They are tolerated by the human community with an almost semi-affectionate disregard. They move about the streets at knee height, sometimes going as far to board one of the overcrowded city buses or doze on the lawn of the presidential palace. There is no hint of fighting between them, or attacks on community members, even though there are areas where they move in packs of fifteen or even twenty animals. Most curious of all, they never bark. The guard dogs bark, the dogs kept in the back of cars, the dogs being walked on leads, but never the wild ones. For some reason they seem to possess a dignified disdain of everything outside of themselves, completely unconcerned with the shifting vortex of the world around them. I saw once, on an abandoned lot in the midst of downtown Santiago, an orange tree in full fruit and underneath it, lying across its exposed roots, a dead labrador. There was no sign of how the dog had died, it didn’t appear overly thin and had no external wound, yet it was most certainly dead. It was as if it had given up completely on the struggle for life and had found this one oasis of tranquility in which to carry out its personal extinction. I could not help but feel as if there was some vast extended metaphor lurking there, beneath the surface of that poignant image. Sadly I could never summon the eloquence to do it justice, and so it remains to me simply a forlorn canine bundle beneath a tree, peaceful in death.

Thankfully, salvation came to our little odyssey in the form of a man named Felipe. Interestingly enough, we encountered a good half dozen Felipes throughout the course of our adventures, but this one was particularly significant to us, he had green eyes. I never actually met him in person, but I heard from Consuelo that he was an archangel incarnate (though this could simply have been her infatuation with his rare green eyes speaking). More important than the genetic curiosity of his irises was the fact that he represented an organization called Un Techo Para Chile (A Roof For Chile-for the linguistically limited such as myself). Un Techo Para Chile is, incidentally, the largest most influential and most successful humanitarian organization in Chile. Its aim is the eventual eradication of homelessnes- especially within the rural and suburban ‘campamentos’,haphazard slum communities in which people live far below the poverty line, often their only form of shelter being rough constructions of cast off lumber and cardboard. Un Techo builds small one room houses, three meters by six meters, complete with one door and two glass windows. The construction is solely hand powered, the laborers are all volunteers from universities or secondary schools who dedicate their winter or summer vacation to working for the organization. The walls and floor are pre-constructed panels built in polytechnic institutions throughout the country and then trucked to the nearest building location. The families who will eventually own the house work along side the volunteers, and are asked to pay approximately three hundred pounds to offset the cost of the materials. Un Techo’s aim is not just to give people houses, but to construct communities. By mixing volunteers with poor families in the campamentos they manage to merge the varying classes of Chilean society. University students from Santiago carry small children on their backs and teach them how to pound nails with oversized hammers, or else ask them to carry bits of wood and fetch water, involving entire neighborhoods in the process. Un Techo became so radically successful within Chile that the idea quickly spread to other nearby nations, until a larger umbrella organization was eventually established called Un Techo Para Mi Pais, which now operates in the vast majority of Latin American nations. Thanks to Felipe, we became one of their very first group of volunteers from outside the Spanish speaking world to join the ranks of the intrepid architects of Chile’s future. In the space of a few days we had shifted our allegiance from the old to the new non-profit agent for change and were on a dilapidated bus heading for the hills. We joined a group of secondarios, secondary school students from a Santiago high school, volunteering in a small community- really just a collection of precariously standing homes and a few mules -called Cajon Del Maipo about an hour into the mountains outside of Santiago.

We stayed there for three days and two nights. In total I slept somewhere around four hours. Breakfast was stale bread and instant coffee, lunch and dinner white salted rice and boiled frankfurters. The days were blazing hot, the nights frigid. By the second afternoon I had blistered all the skin on my right palm and most on my left from repetitive use of a large sledge hammer, having to resort to wrapping my hands in masking tape stolen from the painting crew in order to so much as manipulate a spoon. We also came close to murdering the sixty secondarios with us in their beds, and might have had they ever gone to sleep. Despite the enumerated miseries, it was the beginning of the most rewarding and remarkable work we did in Chile. Though the food was dismal the views of the surrounding mountains were spectacular, and we soon realized that we could, for ten pence, buy small loaves of dense bread fresh out of the wood fired oven near the building site. The secondarios, who as a group were positively obnoxious, were as individuals delightful. They waited patiently while I wrestled with my few words of Spanish, and happily mimed what I failed to understand. There were a few people with whom I probably could have been friends for a lifetime, had I ever been given the opportunity to see them again. Their one annoying habit was to stay awake until one or two in the morning talking, and then organize some highly amusing prank to take place at three or four in the morning, usually involving singing and banging on pots and pans. We spent the three days building two houses, though we connected them to form one larger dwelling. The man who was to become the patriarch of the new establishment worked tirelessly along side us. He appeared somewhere in his mid forties, sun browned and thin as one of the knotted pine fence posts encircling the adjacent field. He never seemed to cease smiling, though it did sometimes seem more a grimace of pain when he had to do particularly heavy lifting. We, in regular Chilean fashion, failed to complete work in time and were thus forced to stay until nearly two in the morning after the last day to finish. It was, effectively, our training with Un Techo before they shipped us out to a more remote location, and it was my first real experience with the true humanitarian mentality.

After Cajon Del Maipo we were deemed fit to serve with the real volunteers, and were thus deployed nearly eight hours south to a far more remote location for an eight day building extravaganza with a large corps of university student volunteers. They were a much better organized and disciplined group, all having done at least one- and most more -previous stint with Un Techo. We worked in teams of twelve, under the supervision of one experienced volunteer acting as leader, and were tasked with finishing two homes in eight days. It was the most reality based service we did while in Chile. Ten hour days of construction, frequently in the pouring rain. The foundation pilings refused to stand up straight and were continually washed away in the morass of red, ferric mud that covered everything we did. We revealed all sorts of relics as we worked. Old cooking pots, bits of rubbish, cast off clothing, and the bones of, what we at least thought-or hoped- were dogs. I felt like an archeologist, except for the fact that I didn’t need to dig to see how the people lived, for I was in their very midst. I could see for my own eyes the contradictions of their existence. The cardboard walls and unheated rooms and clotheslines of barbed wire and, glaringly out of place, the television satellites and brand new mobile phones which, I learned later, people sometimes went without eating in order to afford. People possessed strangely skewed priorities, the product of insufficient education, a lack of opportunity, and a saddening apathy. Yet, these were the true things that Un Techo was attempting to eradicate. They thought that, by encouraging people to become involved in their communities, by sending young excited students to poor rural areas, that they could turn the tide of disenfranchisement and resignation. And, despite all odds, it seemed to be working. Their secret did not seem to be in their organizational genius, nor in their delicate strategy, but rather in the blind, indomitable optimism of their volunteers. Every night for eight nights, after a full day of work, the volunteers would stay up until two or three in the morning to discuss why Chile was the way it was and what they could do to change it. They questioned whether they had enough solidarity as a nation, whether they had enough commitment, whether there was enough activism. They asked me what I thought, how did Chile compare to ‘Gringolandia’ (their joking name for the United States)? They had a difficult time believing when I told them that, nowhere I had ever been had I witnessed the levels of commitment and energy as in Chile. They thought that a more developed nation, such as the US or Britain, would certainly entertain far greater levels of individual commitment and activism than a still developing one like Chile. I am not sure if they ever really believed me to the contrary, indeed, without witnessing how stark the contrast was I doubt anyone would really be able to comprehend.

Until I traveled to Chile I had never really thought of myself as jaded, never considered that I might be a cynic. I was always a happily self prescribed realist, one of many would-be intellectuals who consider a certain degree of skepticism the sign of a healthy world view. Sadly, I think that for many of us the line between healthy skepticism and damning cynicism becomes blurred over time, leaving us disturbingly disenchanted with the general ineffectual nature of the world without even realizing that we, in our pessimism, make it so. It was not until I saw the volunteers of Un Techo who, as I thought, exhibited optimism to the point of idiocy, accomplish things I would have simply written off as impossible, that I began to realize the error of my views. There is, I have come to firmly believe, an amazing capacity for the incredible among those who simply refuse to accept the existence of limitations.

We are that labrador, that desolate carcass of extinction. All of us who have, surrounded by the plenty of infinite opportunity, given up the desire to yearn for something better. Our society, that has lain down to welcome a death inevitable only because of our own dismal apathy. This is the secret of the Chile that I saw, for it refuses to accept the certainty of futility. It refuses to extinguish the flame of its enterprise, and instead goes bravely where we, in our bitterness, fail even to look. They do not, in reality need our help, yet we are desperate of the lessons of their vision. It is to us now, to learn the secrets of the veracity of their belief. For honestly, if they can, why can’t we?    

-United World College Student Magazine-

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