“BUENAS DIAS PSF!!” Two strapping, boisterous college boy types shut at the top of their lungs, arms around each other. One is Australia, blonde, looks like he surfs. The other is Irish and sports a recently shaved pornstar handlebar moustache and the look of a serious futboler. Huge smiles on their faces. One grabs the other´s ass with a smirk and the other jumps, they crack up.
Meet Jules and Keith, the PS project managers. Regular volunteers, just in charge of overseeing the current projects running- signing up volunteers., finding new projects around the community,and overseeing the construction sites. Behind them, the brick wall is plastered with sunbleached Tshirts from past volunteers. Funky nicknacks hang from the wooden stair railing that leads to the wacky shack above. Early morning sunlight seeps through the overhead tarp that serves as our courtyard roof, setting groggy volunteers´ hair aglow in halos and defining the steam that pours from tea and coffee mugs.
It´s 8:15, and the morning meeting has begun. We volunteers- all 50 of us, give or take, cluster together on plastic chairs, full from breakfast. We may be sleepy but we´re already dressed in our work uniforms: Filthy, paint stained tank tops, ratty jeans, cement encrusted work boots.
We represent an array of nationalities and a hodgepodge of personalities. Each accent is unique. What we have in common is that we´ve stumbled upon a bubble of spirit and vigor in a sad and suffering place. Think summer camp atmosphere. Or college, without the coursework.Our day begins at 7:30 when breakfast is served. Ten minutes prior, people start milling about the kitchen door, faux casually conversing and greeting sleepy pajama clad neighbors. It only take one subtle, suggestive move from one eager person, and the mob lines up behind the door in a second. If you don´t move fast enough you´ll find yourself at the back of the line, so as soon as it begins to shape itself, action is imperative. Stragglers will often find themselves coffee less, yogurt less, cereal less, and most definitely milk less.Regardless, the quality of the food here is impressive. After feeding myself for three months and dealing with my own atrocious cooking skills, being cooked for and served is a blessing from God. At PSF, food is taken as seriously as any construction job: Every day, four people sign up to spend the entire day cooking for the group. This means leaving for the market directly after the morning meeting and slaving away in the kitchen until dinner is served at 6:30 PM. The chefs of the day have the pressure of over 50 very hungry workers on their hands, back from site and craving something hardy and delicious.
Our wide array of nationalities and culinary cultures also plays a role in the cuisine. I´ve had thai food, Mexican, Indian, Eastern European, Dutch, Spanish, and even a special 3 course feast from Oceania on ANZAC Day (Australia New Zealand Armed Corps. Sort of like Memorial or Remembrance Day back home.) Often, a dinner group will form of fellow countrymen to foster a bit of national pride and deliver a truly authentic dish.
Breakfast dishes are washed by 8:15 in time for the morning meeting Meetings aren´t just cursory check ins or strings of tiresome announcements, they determine what you´re going to be doing for nine hours that day, And it can vary immensely.
Every morning, Jules and Keith call out the names of the projects one by one and they re described by the Project Leaders. The names of the projects change virtually every day and almost always contain a sexual reference or some immature phrase that occasionally vaguely has to do ith the project itself. Examples include "Shitting Bricks" or "Make Shit Happen" (building a brick compost toilet), "Furious Modular Beasts" or "Finger My Bum" (Freestanding Modular Buildings) (I just made that up, no one is actually quite sure what FMB stands for, but it involves building panels for modular houses). The administrator slot has gone from "Admin" to "Facemin" (referencing facebook, because it´s said that the office bound administrators who spend so much time checking email are just on facebook all day). Now it´s just called "Facebook Stalking".
The louder and more competetive you are, the more likely you´ll get the job you want. Some projects are constantly shifting workers while others have somewhat of a fixed team. On my first day working. I signed up for "Ludateca", essentially a daycare center for kids not in school or finished for the day. Very similar to the "projects" supported by Quetzaltrekkers (Las Barilettes, Las Chavaladas, Las Tias).
The day started out at Jugo Chavez Elementary School. Eery day a group of PSF volunteers spend a chaotic hour babysitting a second grade class whose teacher is on maternity leave. The "Jeffa" (Project leader) Kelly organizes an activity for the kids; the day I went it was a color by numbers sheet for practicing sums. Obnoxious is too weak a word to describe the Jugo Chavez monsters. They shouted, they ran about like hooligans, they snatched each other´s activity sheets and stole each other´s colored pencils. They delivered eachs syllibul as if they were perfecting the world´s drawlingest whine. I thought I had it bad until I came back and heard past stories of tables being thrown across the room, and apparently yesterday the kids found a water tap and tried to flood the place.
It was a rough hour. La Ludateca, the after school daycare program created by PSF, was a different story. Numbers were unusually low that day, so the small group of pre teens that did show up grouped up to play many, many rounds of cards. After a couple hours, I´d had enough. It´s only a matter of time before playing the same game over and over gets a little old (especially if you haven´t been winning).
Towards the end of the day I migrated outdoors and things started to get entertaining. Despite refusing to have their picture taken all day, a group of little girls suddenly started loving the idea of a modeling shoot. Instant movie stars, they strutted and swooned for the camera, and actually listened when I directed them about: Tilt your face towards the light! Pose with your sister! Would it kill you to put the peace sign hands down for one shot...? At a certain point we all got a it too excited and moved our photoshoot onto a towering cross monument a couple blocks down the road. When we got a scolding from the Ludateca teacher hired by PSF I decided it was time to head out.
Inside the Ludateca
Sitting around all day doesn´t do me well. I was relieved to find out that Wednesdays are futbol days- NOT soccer- if you slip and say the s word you will be ridiculed. Most days Jose, a volunteer from the Ludateca, will bring along a group of his Peruvian soccerstar buds to play us grigos at the cancha a couple blocks and an alley away from Headquarters. I was unreasonably nervous about playing against the infamous Peruvian futbol crew, but being placed up against a speedy wall of Latin American ball handling skills seems to bring out the best in us.
Halfway through the week I was more than ready to get on some real heavy manual labor. At PSF, there are two main methods for building an earthquake relief house- The quick short term fix and the long, labor intensive, more sustainable projects. Hundreds of Pisco residents make their lives in less than tolerable conditions, living in scrap houses or squeezing entire extended families into a single bedroom. In order to respond to their immediate needs, PSF builds "Modular homes". Modular homes are essentially built in the workshop, and then only assembled on site once the concrete foundation has been poured. These homes consist of wooden panels made of recycled wood donated by the local steel mill. They are built for families in extreme situations who have been unable to rebuild their lives for one reason or the other during the five years since the earthquake. The upside of working on Modular Homes is that you are almost guaranteed to see a project through it its completion from laying cement to roofing and everything in between; you are exposed to countless construction skills and methods in a short amount of time.
And then there´s Earthbags. There are a lot of factors that attracted me to the earthbags project. It´s hard core, it´s simple, and most importantly, it´s sustainable; Earthbag construction is the only technique PSF uses that (should be) earthquake resistant. The earthbag buildings consist of stacks of, literally, earthbags, layered like bricks. They´re just heaping sacks filled with an agregate-cement-water mixture, then pounded down with a "smasher" and lifted onto the wall. It´s widely considered the most labor intensive job at PSF. The day is long; you leave for the construction site, the outskirts of a small, poor, rural town just outside Pisco called San Pedro, right after the daily morning meeting, and get picked up around 5:30. The earthbag building will be used as a community center and an emergency evacuation spot during an earthquake.
I absolutely love it. I love shoveling, I Iove mixing, I love smashing. My work day starts off with a mad rush to pull on hiking boots and filthy work gloves and leap into the rusty and constantly breaking down PSF truck. About 15 of us squeeze into the truck bed, some of us balancing on the edge, gripping the sides or each other for dear life as the truck jostles over potholes and swerves around tight curves. Some of us sit on the stack of plastic lawn chairs that we bring along to make ourselves at home during lunch (the lunch table sleeps in a tree at site. We´re unsure why that is the custom but it hasn´t been changed).
We roll out of the city and down a dirt country road into San Pedro. It´s nice to get out of the mucky city every day. San Pedro, although dirt poor, is set in a small oasis of green just before the dunes that rise in the background. Every day the walls of our building get higher and standing on top, you can see farther and farther into the dusty green countryside. The earthbag team consists of 6- usually 2 mixing cement, 2 making bags, and 2 on he wall pounding the bags into place. There are roughly 57 bags on a layer, and we usually get around 40 to 45 bags down in a day, or about 2 thirds. Progress may be slow, but the modular homes that go up within a week may crumble during the inescapably impending next earthquake, while our dirtbag palace will roll with the waves of the earth and, due it its flexibility and ability to shift but not crack, live on. Hopefully. Earthbag technology has yet to be tested in Pisco, which is a good thing; we´re not exactly eager for another major quake anytime soon.
Beginnings of the Earthbag house
Picking up the compost toilets crew. They are making 10 compost toilets in the community El Bosque, where there is no running water.
With the stomper :)
I didn´t mean to stay on the project so long, but I seem to be addicted. The project leaders speculated I would drop out after 2 days; that´s the average life span of a female earthbagger, apparently. Every long term team member was a dude. I´m already the second most veteran team member. With so many people coming and going every week, it´s good to be able to pass on skills, and for somebody, preferably a handful of people, to really know what they´re doing on their project.
It gets funner and funner every day. Last week, after getting increasingly frustrated with my exentuated and unflattering tan lines, I suggested we have a bathingsuit day. Since swimtrunks would be routine attire for the guys, I specified "speedos". A bit extreme I suppose. In the end, we compromised on short shorts. I wrote "bathingsuit day" on the events calander, but to my dissappointment only the Earthbags crew followed up on the idea (to be fair, we´re the only project working in a secluded area). So we hatched a plan: We brought along about 100 waterballoons, made sure one of the work stations that day was waterballoon filler (priorities) and launched a massive attack on the crew that come to puck us up in the evening- hey, we said to wear bathingsuits.
I was delighted when Jules and Keith showed up in bikinis to bring our lunch and joined in for the rest of the day. I had warned them that we wouldn´t accept any food unless it was delivered by a speedo clad deliverer, but I wasn´t expecting heart pattern string bikini tops and lacy bras as well.
Getting our attack ready.
Our drive home.
We´re supposed to get lunch delivered to the Earthbag site by a local restaurant who support our efforts. That doesn´t exactly happen- the restaurant does make the lunches, but PSF crew delivers it every day. There is one PSF truck and it´s constantly breaking down (we assume due to the director´s hazardous driving and affection for engine revving). Sometimes lunch comes at 1:30, sometimes at 2, and if the truck is out of commission, 3:00 isn´t unheard of. There is a certain time, around 2:45, when we can´t be bothered to go on without nourishment and collapse on the dirt pile in our weakness, or aternatively practice parcour moves on the scaffolding.
Once the food arrives, it´s usually enough to feed a crew of 20. We feed our leftovers to Azuli, the Earthbags "pet" dog. He´s quite a fright, actually, and I still don´t touch him. The name comes from his previous state: He was once blue. Really? No, Jules just spraypainted him. He also used to be even skinnier than he is now and on the verge of death. We are his guardian angels. He´s begun sleeping right next to the house while we work, and certain crew members have developed an affection for the mangy, ribby beast. He comes sniffing at our door at lunch time and has even become picky about his course options. Rice again?! Yeah, we´re wondering the same thing. He does love my discarded chicken feet and cow brains.(Yes, they do put that in the soup without warning).
Yesterday, we decided to make a run into the ocean right after work. We finished a bit early and the sun was just setting. Gearing up for an icy splash, we ran into the ocean screaming and then realized the water was actually pretty warm. What was going to be quick dip turned into a long and leisurly swim. We shared the long set waves with gigantic pelicans and swooping seabirds.
Sunsets here are unlike any I´ve seen before. It´s not the colors or the texture, it´s the sun itself- as it nears the horizon, it´s sharpened into a solid yellow, perfectly round circle, whilst in the background pastels rub about subtly. It dips towards the ocean and as you watch, the bottom half begins to drip It sags, a fiery ball of molten glass melting into the water- It becomes a lightbulb, an icecream cone, a cupcake, and to my never ending bafflement, square. It turns into a square! seconds before the teal swell swallows it whole, the sun is a tent, and a triangle. It´s strange and fascinating we are all a bit weirded out by this and would like to know what´s up; my best guess is that our proximity to the equator makes light refract in a certain way to create the effect.
Weekends at PSF, the action doesn´t stop. Saturday is a half day and we usually end up working until about 2 or 3. Most Saturday nights, some sort of event is put on. Last Saturday was PSFest, or Pissfest, as it´s affectionately called, a festival organized by a couple volunteers. The idea was to raise 600 soles to purchase materials for a roof for one of the modular homes. Attendees (you didn´t actually have a choice because the fest was at headquarters) spent money on activities such as Grab-A-Bitch (live action version of the grabbing claw machine), a mystery chamber, sock wrestling, a dump tank and more. We ended up raising enough, and this week, a Peruivan family in need will have a roof. All on volunteer creativity and initiative. There was also a talent show, and I ended up singing Angel from Montgomery accompanied by a harmonist, ukulele strummer, and maraka shaker.
The environment at PSF is addictive and one after another, people get stuck. It´s common for someone to arrive planning on staying the two week minimum amd end up staying months and months. I´ve found myself delaying my departure date again and again. The only thing keeping me from hanging out here for my entire three months in Peru is wanting badly to see the country. PSF is wonderful but it´s no example of the country as a whole. I want to see the Andes. I want to see the JUNGLE. To my shock and delight, the director mentioned yesterday that an indigenous jungle community approached him recently and requested an earthbag center built in their far removed community. The idea is to send three people at a time into the jungle to work on the building for a week, and then switch them out for three more. Because of my commitment to the earthbag project here, he said there was a good possibility I can go. This would mean coming back to Pisco in a month or two to jump on board. I don´t want to get my hopes up too much, but HOW SWEET IS THAT?! We shall see....
Our earthbag center DONE!!
Smashin the last bag.
The CREW on our completed wall.