By: KIRSTEN FENN
Today was all about challenges. And there were a number of them to go around.
Students from McMaster and UBC had their field trip to Xochicalco today, so some of our service sites were short on volunteers. We decided to mix our groups up a bit to make sure progress could be continued on all four service sites. So instead of being at Juana’s house, as usual, today I would be working with some of my other ASB teammates at the opposite end of La Estación.
It was hard to leave my original site for the day and to think about all the improvements my group would be making without me. Even though I had only worked there for two days, I felt an attachment to the family and the place they lived.
But working somewhere new also put Juana’s situation into context and exposed me to the different housing challenges faced by the community. Our house today, Maria’s, was a little more “luxurious” than what I’d been working on earlier in the week. It was larger and it had several rooms with solid concrete walls – as opposed to the cardboard cube in which Juana was dwelling. Maria’s house was also being occupied by more than one family.
Maria lives with her four daughters-in-law and their own families in what could be considered a small complex of houses. She has been living there for 25 years. Our job was to build a new roof for one of the houses in the complex, because the original roof was causing the walls to cave in. Two more of Maria’s sons would be moving into this house with their families when all the work was finished.
On top of supporting her family in this way, Maria cares for her elderly parents who are no longer able to cook or bathe themselves. She helps two more of her daughters with their cooking and cleaning, and she was happy to welcome us into her home as well, just like family. While the problems that exist for the families of La Estación vary, the value they place on family is unanimous.
Throughout the week, my team has been growing into the sense of community easily. Today demonstrated how our leadership capacity has developed over the trip and how we’ve become more of a family ourselves. Those who had been at the site all week stepped up to teach the rest of us how to contribute, and we quickly became part of the group. We learned how a sense of community could help us overcome cultural barriers in a creative way.
Normally each group has a translator to decipher the instructions of the foremen directing our projects, usually a volunteer or staff member from CCIDD. Today, however, our translator was gone with the other groups to Xochicalco.
Benjamin was explaining to us how to make cement. Or at least he was trying. While he could act out what we were supposed to do for the most part, we couldn’t understand what materials he was telling us to use. Rather than giving up, one of my teammates used her knowledge of Portuguese to listen for words that might sound familiar to her, Portuguese being similar to Spanish. Lo and behold, she picked up the gist of what he was saying and solved our problem with a little creative thinking.
I had to use some similar creativity when I found myself alone in “conversation” with Benjamin as well. He was desperately trying to tell me what tools to bring him, but all I could understand was our mutual frustration over the language barrier. Continuing to speak to each other in our own languages as if we might actually understand each other the second time didn’t work so well either.
So I quickly grabbed a few tools and offered them to him with a puzzled look on my face. I may have looked stupid, but he understood that he needed to show me what materials he was talking about. In the process of our little show and tell, I even picked up a few new Spanish words.
Although working with Benjamin was more difficult without a translator, it was a lesson in real-world problem solving. Even though we couldn’t understand each other through words, we bonded over our mutual frustration, and learned to be patient with each other. Ultimately, we both wanted to fix the house. Once we got beyond those early challenges, sharing that goal was all that mattered.
We also had another revelation. Unlike at Juana’s house, Maria’s property actually provided shade from the burning heat of the sun. Realizing we could step away from our work and cool off for a few moments was probably one of the most exciting moments of the day.
But as luck would have it, I still ended up sitting against the wall – watching my friends work while I weathered the nausea of heat stroke.
I was okay with having to step away from the work because we lacked enough tools – something I had experienced earlier in the week – but not being able to do anything because I felt sick was entirely different. Dealing with the heat was something I thought I could control, but not being able to conquer it gave me the feeling I was letting everyone down. I knew that there was nothing I could do about being ill except wait it out until I felt better, but I was left to ponder my guilty feelings in the meantime.
When I could finally stomach getting back to work in the sun again, I faced another test of strength. I was given the job of carrying buckets of rubble up a tiny ladder to the roof, where I would pass it to my teammate to toss off the side of the house. The ladder stood against a bedroom wall on the second floor, just barely touching the ledge of the roof, and with steps as thin as twigs. There was little room to balance my feet on each one, and I had to suppress my fear that the ladder might tip over if I put too much weight on it.
It was scary, worrying about all the possible mishaps. But then I realized that’s what my teammates were there for. They had my back every step of the way, helping me lift the bucket while keeping my balance on the stairs, and making sure I got down safely. With every challenge we’ve faced this week, our team has grown into an incredible support system for one another, in both the physical and emotional aspects of our work.
At the end of the day, and with a little more confidence, I climbed those flimsy stairs to see the view of Cuernavaca from the rooftop. All around was a border of mountains, the same ones that had been there all week, yet somehow they were more beautiful each time I saw them. And when I looked down below me, I saw tin and cement rooftops, with laundry hanging on thin clothes lines that stretched from one corner of the house to the other.
A young boy walked onto the roof to hang his soccer shirt on the line, and I watched as he walked carefully back to the other side again. He perched himself on the ledge of a wall dividing two houses, and struck up a conversation with his neighbor on the other side of the wall.
It dawned on me then – the creativity that these people have when it comes to making use of their space. They found ways to use their rooftop as a laundry room, or the ledge of a wall as a hangout place between friends, just as Maria was making use of every inch of her home available to family members in need.
Nothing is taken for granted here, and everyone is welcomed in as part of a community. No matter what the challenge, that support system and their creativity help them make the best of it. And in the span of a day, we did just the same. We faced our challenges together and improved our support system because of it. Just as it’s easy to adopt these people into our hearts, it’s been no challenge to adopt their values either.