Thursday, March 11, 2010

Portugal Part III - Doubts

As the days wore on, I began to wonder how much of an impact my work was having on the Habitat project. It seemed to me that what took me half a day took just minutes in the hands of the contractors, and my wrist began to hurt from the strain of repetitive motion. It took me all morning to spread the first layer of cement onto a wall, and all afternoon to spread the second. When I was done, one of the contractors would come in with a 2x4 and expertly smooth down my uneven handiwork by running it down the length of the wall, and the bits of cement that fell on the floor were swept up and reused for coarser work, like filling in the space above the stairwell between the basement and the main floor. I tried spreading cement lefty, to no avail, and went back to slowly and painfully applying cement with my right hand. I considered how much it would cost to hire a local construction worker to do my job, made estimated calculations comparing the participation fee I’d paid to the cost of paying professionals to build this house quickly, and began to doubt the utility of my labor. Once the thought had edged into the corners of my mind that my physical contribution to the project was essentially busywork designed to make me feel like I was indispensable, it latched on and wouldn’t let go. How much of my unskilled labor was actually helpful, and how much of it was designed to make my lefty, bleeding heart feel good? My energy flagged in direct proportion to my doubts; I began moving slower, applying pitifully small amounts of cement to my board and spreading them painstakingly slowly across the wall with my trowel. I looked around me and watched as the contractors sped through their more refined, skilled tasks, and fell into a funk.

To compound my rapidly dissolving sense of purpose, it seemed that we simply weren’t roughing it that much. Sure, the toilet on the job site had no tank on it and we had to flush it with a bucket of water and then use hand sanitizer because the sink wasn’t hooked up, but that was about the extent of it. We were staying in a relatively nice, if quirky hotel that had thin walls but plenty of hot water to shower with, and feasting every night as a group in one restaurant after the next. As it turned out, most of our group had come prepared with evening clothes, jewelry, makeup and hairdryers, but I went to dinner wearing a cleaner version of what I wore on the job site and a smear of Burt‘s Bees lip shimmer. To be fair, I’d picked Portugal as a destination with Habitat because it was less intimidating than some other locations, but it was all beginning to feel a bit too cushy. That night, in the privacy of our hotel room, I asked my roommate Frances, who happened to be the project leader, about it.

“So,” I began, choosing my words carefully, she was just so upbeat and sunny, I didn’t want to expose her too much to my dark, doubting side, “how much of the work that we do here is, um… would it be more cost efficient if the participation fee that we pay to come here went directly to Portuguese workers? I mean… how much of the work we do is to make us feel like we’re contributing to the project?” I tried not to look too sullen, paying special attention to my body language: I sat up casually on my bed, back supported by the headboard, legs crossed at the ankle, one hand on the bedspread, the other fiddling with my hair.
“That’s a big part of it,” she began, “its to make people feel connected to the project. We have some volunteers who come back every year to do projects, there’s people who make this their vacation every year.”
“So the fee that we pay… it would probably cost less if it all went towards the project than if it went towards paying for our meals and lodging…”
“Part of the participation fee go towards the local Habitat office, and part of it covers expenses.”
“So… this is to make people feel more connected to the project?”
“Yeah,” she said, nodding her head and maintaining an evenly sunny disposition, “and the families know that volunteers are working on the house, and that there might be some imperfections because of that.”

Frances explained some of the finer points of the Habitat model, that the family would have a loan that they’d repay, and the payments would go towards building other Habitat homes. They would also have to put in a certain number of hours helping to build both their own home and other Habitat homes. I considered all of this: on one hand I was genuinely helping someone to have a home, but on the other, it could be done much more quickly if I’d simply made a donation and left it in the hands of professionals. Of course, I wouldn’t have made the donation if it hadn’t involved traveling to Portugal and participating in the experience of travel and hands-on work; the fact that a professional team of construction workers could finish the house much more quickly than an unskilled team of volunteers was beside the point.

A family of five were going to move in once the house was complete. They’d begun construction on the modest house themselves, and then run out of money. Then they applied for assistance from Habitat. We’d met the father of the family, he worked alongside us regularly, and we’d met the mother of the family on the bus on the way home from the project site one day. She greeted us with enthusiastic hugs and kisses on both cheeks before someone explained who she was, and there were three kids who we hadn’t met yet. They all lived in a small temporary shelter near the job site. So they know that volunteers will be working on their house, I thought, and that their house might look a little jacked up as a result. Hmm. I went to bed with a bevy of doubts, pros and cons floating through my head.

The next morning I dutifully donned my cement-crusted pants, t-shirt, and trusty red bandanna, and joined the others in the lobby at 8:15am, as I did every morning. At the work site Frances and I were assigned to a new wall, a huge expanse in what would become the kitchen. It was less refined work, the cement mixture was rougher, and we were directed by the foreman to apply it more thickly. I don’t know if it was the cement, the challenge of such an enormous wall, or my need to release a night’s worth of questioning doubt, but I owned that wall. I dumped huge piles of cement onto my board, and literally threw it up against the wall with an impressive force. People walking through the kitchen stopped in their tracks and watched as I deftly flipped pound after pound of dark cement onto the wall.
“You have a technique going,” Cher said to me over lunch. It was true. No matter how much doubt had crept into my disposition, I had found a niche and grown into it. No matter that these skills would be useless once I came home (I’m fairly certain that drywall could have been used much more quickly had it been available), and that I’ll never again throw cement up on a wall like that. For a few days, I was the best cement flinger in town.

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