By: KIRSTEN FENN
The first thing I remember is the smell. That and the sign on the house to my right that read “Baño: $2.”
Our first tour through La Estación was met with the occasional waft of sewage, along with stray dogs caked in dust eagerly dueling each other in the streets. Walking into the squatter’s village, which is home to approximately 5000 families, was like dimming the lights in the city and turning it all grey.
The city pavement quickly turned to stones and rubble while layers of concrete buildings clustered the roadside. Pops of colour surprised the eye every once in a while, but rusted metal roofing and dull cement walls seemed to be the norm among the layers of makeshift dwellings.
Now that we were starting our community service projects, our ASB team of 19 participants was divided into four groups. We were assigned to four homes in the community, all in varying states of poverty and requiring different improvements. These are only a few of the 14 lucky families that will be assisted by CCIDD this year. In total, CCIDD received requests for housing assistance from 70 families in La Estación.
From what we are told, the woman I will be serving lives in the most destitute conditions of all four families. When I saw it for myself, I couldn’t disagree.
Juana’s house is about the size of my bedroom. Her family consists of six children, two of whom live elsewhere because she lacks the space for all of them. The floor is made of concrete, the walls of wood and a material slightly thicker than cardboard. Her roof is topped with the same thing. Juana’s family has no sink or shower, only a toilet covered in dirt and grime, with a giant cockroach floating dead in the bowl.
Our project required tearing down Juana’s entire home in order to build it up from scratch again. This time around though, she will have walls made of cement blocks, her floor will be widened, and she will have a real bathroom.
Knowing the scale of our project, we wasted no time taking shovels and hammers to the walls, ripping off the “siding,” and dislodging rusted nails. Within minutes though, we had already experienced our first lesson in cultural differences.
The foremen we were working with wanted us to save every last nail, and every piece of wood, cardboard, or building material we were trying to destroy. Why? Because it could be used again, for another project. What a concept, to save things that could be used again and to take nothing for granted! Where I come from, we’re fed consumer ads on a daily basis that teach us to believe we need shiny new things to make us happy.
But not here.
For the rest of the day we scavenged for any nails we could find hiding in the wood, and desperately tried to pull every last one so we could save them for later. And we did it all under the beating sun; there was no shade to spare us from the heat. The reward of saving something as small as a nail – and questioning the way I live because of this – was the first highlight of my day.
My second highlight came from the six-year-old girl living in the house next to Juana’s. From the moment we arrived in the morning, her eyes were glued to us with intrigue. Naturally though, when I asked her what her name was, all I got was a little grin and a giggle. Then of course, she ran away.
It took me a whole afternoon of trying to speak Spanish and waving shamelessly at her before she finally asked Juana’s daughter to introduce us. And that’s how I became friends with little Alonda.
Despite the fact that I could rarely understand her, she gave me a whole new perspective of community and gratitude, simply through her actions. She doesn’t have the luxury of gadgets or expensive toys to entertain her like we did when we were kids. But she was always smiling and happy to be playing with bottle caps, or climbing through the pile of cement blocks for fun. This girl was happy with whatever she was lucky enough to have.
That’s why when she came running up to me with a huge smile on her face and offered me half of her orange, I realized how special the people here are. This girl has so little, while I’m lucky enough to have so much. Yet there she was offering me half of whatever she had to eat.
If we could all emulate that sense of community and be grateful for all that we have, the world might be a happier place for us. The people of La Estación – despite lacking basic human rights such as housing and clean water – already have that one figured out.