My weekend building Aroldo a house!

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Techo!!!! It was seriously one of the most wonderful weekends of my life. The real name is Un Techo Para Mi Pais, which means a roof for my country, and they build houses for poor families in the greater Buenos Aires area. There are selection processes and everything, to see who needs homes more urgently, and then 2-3 times a year there are massive constructions. I got to participate in one of those! Last weekend, the SOLmates (minus Kylie because she was really sick) and I built two houses! Hollie, Maura, Lissette, and I were with one group, and Serg and Talia were in another, so we ended up building 2 houses between the 6 of us.

So, Friday. Friday we met up with Raul to get our sleeping bags and mats, and buy our work gloves. We left for the big meeting point at like 6:30, and took a bus together to the middle school where we got split into our big groups and said bye to Raul. All the SOLmates went to the barrio Pilar (about an hour north of the inner city, but still in Buenos Aires province), in the group Indiferencia-Peruzzoti. Indiferencia (indifference) was the name of our group because all our discussions and focus groups were about fighting poverty by fighting the urge to ignore the homeless and be indifferent, and Peruzzoti is just the name of the school we were staying at. There were probably about 75-90 people, mostly teens, at our school, and we took buses there after loading up all the tools and our packs. Once we got there, we unloaded all the tools, and met up in the “cafeteria” of sorts to eat. I put cafeteria in quotes, because it was one room with 5-6 tables, and a bunch of tiny chairs. The chairs were tiny because it was a preschool, same reason why the toilets were miniature, and there were crafts hanging on every wall. We had our dinner of cold empanadas and sandwiches that we had all brought, which was more satisfying that it sounds because it was already 10 by that point. After that, we got split up into our “cuadrillos”, which were the groups that each had a house. I think there were 4 cuadrillos in our school. Our group had 17 people, including our two leaders, Rama and Caro. Actually, Ramiro and Carolina, but we only used nicknames. We met up with our groups quickly and just introduced ourselves, and I made the mistake of teaching them how to pronounce my name “Katherine”, because they called me that the majority of the time so they could practice the TH sound. Oh well, it was funny. After that, I was talking to Mateo, and Cami, and Ugi (from my cuadrillo) and Yoryi, and Lu (their friends) so we decided to set up all our sleeping bags in the same room. We just stayed up for a while talking (in Spanish the whole time because they didn’t know a lick of English). Ugi was right next to me, and it ended up being like 1am by the time we stopped whispering. It was hard to sleep, because we were just on the floor, and my mat was tiny, and the only thing that separated us from outside was a glass door that didn’t close all the way. Keep in mind, its fall here and it was about 35-40 degrees at night. Anyway, I tried to sleep.

Saturday, they woke us up at about 6am. We had to get up and go eat (nobody changed because we were basically wearing all the clothes we brought the entire weekend), which was little cookies and mate cocido and some tortilla chips. Talia and I were still starving, obviously, so we braved the powdered pea and asparagus soup, which kind of really hit the spot. After everyone had eaten, we played a quick game to wake up, and then we gathered up our tools and walked to where we would build the houses. We got there, probably about 730 or 8, and met Aroldo. Aroldo is the man who is now living in the house we built, and I cannot think of a person who deserves that little house more. He’s 71 years old, and he lives alone because his wife died a couple years ago. He had 4 kids, one of his sons died as well, but two of his daughters visited us both days. The first day, they brought his youngest grandson, Uriel (3 years old and my new best friend, obviously), and the second day Uriel’s cousin Rodrigo (9-10 years old) joined for the inauguration. Aroldo also has tons of pets, 3 dogs: Negro, Choco, and Chiquito (Black, Chocolate, and Little One), a cat named Mikey, and several little birds in cages.

Ramiro started out the build by showing us where the house would go, and we measured it out. It’s a house 3 meters by 6 meters, roughly 10ft by 20ft. To avoid flooding when it rains, we had to raise the house up about 2 and a half feet off the ground. To do that, we had to dig 15 deep holes to put big logs in, and then fill in these holes with alternating layers of dirt and rocks or cement that we had beaten with hammers. Which in itself was pretty hard work, and little bits of rock dust were flying everywhere. All the poles had to be the same exact height, so the house was level obviously, but that meant we had to either dig even deeper or add rocks under the pole and break them up, then sometimes we added too many and had to slam the pole down to crush the rocks more and lower it. Obviously since we were building a house, all of them had to be placed exactly straight, and sometimes, after we had dug as deep as it needed to be, we then had to widen it out so the pole was moved a couple inches. All of these problems and more happened while Mateo and I were working on this one corner pillar, so that took a solid hour and a half to get it exactly right. Mateo was the one shoveling, and it was my job to get on my hands and knees to scoop out the mud with their hands, because the shovels didn’t have a good angle to actually get the dirt out. I’ll put a picture up of my muddy hands, because it got so bad that I just took off my gloves. It was bad. But, hard work is great right? Also, It was fun to see everyone’s faces when I started petting a frog we found, because I was already filthy right? Anyway, finally after we finished that pole we had lunch.

After that, I was strictly on rock searching and then rock crushing duty, and helped unload all the supplies off the truck. We had all the walls, the door, all the beams for the floor and ceiling, and more. The walls and floors come premade at a factory, we just had to put it together and make sure it held. Easier said than done. But first, once the poles were all done, we put down the beams in between them, which would end up supporting the house. At about that time, Uriel got there, and Ugi and I were playing with him sitting on the stack of walls. He had his slinky, and was playing hide and seek with it, and shooting us with his web (he LOVES Spider Man and told us he was Spider Man) when we started to win so that we would have to freeze. He really was having a blast, and so were we. After the beams were done (I only put in one nail, but they did tell us to focus on the family and the social aspect of TECHO, so I was!) Finally, we put the floor down! There were 3 panels that we had to line up perfectly and make sure there were no gaps due to warps in the wood, so that took a little bit, but we got the floor done by the end of the first day! It was pretty cool, and we all laid down on it for pictures/proof of our success.

We gathered up all our tools and cleaned up, because it was time to head back to the preschool, as it was getting a bit dark and we were at a good stopping place. Once back, we all piled into the cafeteria room again for mate and cookies as a snack, though I had 4 cups of mate to try and warm up. Talia was in a terrible mood, and completely exhausted, so she went to nap. The rest of us went outside because we had a group reflective activity. We all lined up in 2 rows facing each other, closed our eyes and stepped forward when we heard a statement we agreed with. They were all statements related to poverty and the treatment of the poor and then we broke up into small groups to talk about these statements, and a couple questions. Not going to lie: I don’t remember any of that discussion after 5 minutes, because I crashed and was half asleep in my chair. Afterwards, we had a 2-hour dance party in the patio to stay warm until dinner. We “Americans” showed the porteños some of the most ridiculous dances we have, and just in general made fools of ourselves, but we weren’t the only ones. Almost everyone was dancing, and they were just playing music off people’s ipods so most of the music was in Spanish that we didn’t know, but they were all singing along. There was one song that incited a short mosh pit 3 different times throughout, I’m not sure why, but it was fun! Then we limbo-ed for a bit, and there was a conga line, and at one point me and like 4 other people were doing yoga, and I don’t remember why. Overall, it was really fun and it did good at keeping us warm-ish. Finally, we ate dinner. Afterwards, people set up a small music circle, and some guy was playing an acoustic guitar and singing. I was talking to several people, and to be honest, we were exchanging cuss words in our languages and making each other try to pronounce things. For example, the funniest thing to ask a Spanish speaker (before they learn English and know how to do the accent) to say is “purple turtle” because the short r sound is hard for them. It’s just so funny! I finally went to bed at like 2am, which was dumb, because they woke us up at 6am again…

Sunday! We were woken up with the promise of fried tartas, basically fried dough with sugar. Yum. Then we did another game to wake ourselves up, called crocodiles and turtles. The exact same thing as sharks and minnows but on land and the turtles had to crawl on their hands and knees, but they could roll onto their back and protect themselves. It was fun, but I’m glad I got out quick, because the ground was cold and hard. After that, we gathered up our supplies and walked to the site. We immediately got to work putting up the walls. They had to go up in a certain order, which is not the order in which they were stacked, so we had to do a bit of maneuvering first. Finally, first wall went up! A couple people held it up, while Ramiro nailed it in, and then the next one. It got harder the more we added, because obviously we didn’t want any gaps in the walls, so we had to shove them together very hard to nail them in. At one point, the two walls were both slightly warped at the top and curved away from each other too far for the nail to fix it. But we couldn’t push it any closer together because the bottom was touching. So we had to prop it up from the middle with pieces of wood and nail the top together, then put it back down and nail the bottom. It was a production. Once we got all the walls up, a few people actually nailed them to the floor while other groups worked on the windows. The house has 3, and the frames came with it, but we had to put them up. Ugi and I were a team on one of them, which ended up being a giant pain, because once we put the hinges and screws on, the window didn’t fit in the frame. Well, it did, but it was almost impossible to open again. We tried hammering the frame down, which helped a tiny bit, we tried shaving a little bit of wood off the frame, and still only helped a tiny bit. The head TECHO leaders for our school were visiting the site, and the woman was helping us brainstorm, but we couldn’t get it to work. The guy saw us shaving wood off and he was shocked and told us to just hammer it. We said we had tried, he chuckled a bit, took the hammer and told us to back up, and in about 4 swings of the hammer, the window closed with space left over. It was a bit scary, but mostly impressive. Just around that time, we broke for lunch.

After lunch, Uriel visited again, and I don’t want to brag, but he was all over me. It was so freaking cute! He had brought some toys, and we were playing with those, and he was playing hide and seek again, and it was just precious. So I did take a break from work during this part, as they started putting up the beams for the roof. While one group was working on the roof, another group of us started to paint the house and light cream color (Aroldo’s choice). Uriel said he wanted to help me paint, so I held him in one arm and painted with the other. I was completely covered in paint, but I only got a tiny bit on his wrist. After a bit I got tired, so he went and played with his toys while I continued to paint. As if I wasn’t tired enough, I decided to team up with Hollie to paint the top part, and by that I mean she sat on my shoulders like a cheerleader. I was pretty impressed with myself for being able to do it, even if it was only for like 5 minutes, but she did get a decent amount of painting done! Anyway, I now know that I would have made a great male cheerleader. Also at this time, a couple people were trying to put the door on. Fitting it on all three hinges at the same time, when the frame wasn’t high enough for them to really lift the door up a lot, so it was almost impossible to align. It was kind of funny to watch the struggle. Once the painting was all done, and the roof was finishing up, I was called over to the side to help with the congratulations/welcome sign. Everybody signed their names, and we put it inside the house for the inauguration ceremony. This is when Rodrigo (the other grandson) showed up, too. We cleaned up the floor, swept up and everything, and then let Aroldo cut the ribbon. We all walked inside and said a few words. It was very moving and emotional, and most people were crying. I managed not to cry until Franco started talking, had to stop because he started to cry, and gave Aroldo a big bear hug. That’s when I choked up. We didn’t want to go, but at that point we had to leave to head back to the school so we could gather up all our stuff and head back to Bs.As. I passed out immediately on the bus back, and then Ugi’s dad took us all home, because she lives pretty close to us in Recoleta. I got home, showered, Talia and I ate like 4 helpings each, and then we slept like babies.

As hard as the work was, as cold as it was, as hard as the floor was and as thin as my mat was, even though the food was few and far between and always cold, even though I got sick, even though I was sore for more than a week, even though I got in trouble on Monday for not having done my homework, I do not regret a single moment of that weekend. Techo was an absolutely wonderful experience, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.