By Roberta Malysh & Dwayne Hahn
It had been known as the coldest February in 40 years in parts of western Canada. Although they say you can always dress for the cold, the long dark days of winter seemed to stretch out and last forever. It is no surprise that “snowbirds” continue to seek some respite in warmer parts of the world.
It is common to get asked, “Are you getting away for part of the winter?” Luckily the answer was “Yes, to Mexico for a couple weeks.” Since everybody knows all about Mexico, the next question was invariably, “Oh great, which part?”
The answer was “Oaxaca State in southern Mexico.”
“Is that near Cancun?”
“No, it is on the other coast, the Pacific side. We are flying into Huatulco and travelling from there to the resort area of Puerto Escondido. From there we have volunteered to help on a Habitat for Humanity build of a private house in Bajos de Chila.”
“That sounds pretty interesting but what is that like?”
These were the questions but until we experienced the immersion into a world apart, it was difficult to completely answer. A group of 13 volunteers from the Edmonton area signed up to support the Habitat build on the invitation of Max Vandersteen and his wife Leslie. He had assembled a team from people he had met on past excursions around the world, and contacts through his social networking on other activities. Max and Leslie have been team members and their passion for travel and adventure, as well as desire to make a difference, led them to take on the challenge of assembling and leading a team abroad.
How exactly does the Habitat for Humanity “Global Village” model work? Who qualifies and how is the program able to build a “free” home for someone? Well, the house is not free. The applicants are typically hard-working individuals with steady jobs; in Mexico, they need to acquire a piece of land on which to build the home. Habitat is able to help build a modest but substantial home at a reasonable cost through donations and volunteer support. The recipient is not getting a “free home,” but is expected to repay the base cost to fund the program and support others. The payments are based on 35% of the family’s income to make it affordable for them. They are also required to work 500 hours of sweat equity to obtain possession of their home. Previous recipients and future prospective recipients from the community also volunteer their labour to help sustain the effort.
The motto of the Habitat para la Humanidad affiliate in Mexico is “Todo Empieza en Casa” (Everything begins with a house, or more to the point, a home). A small bit of help can make all the difference in the world to a struggling family needing that little support to raise a family and in turn, improve the community around them.
So, what does the volunteer get out of travelling outside of their home area with Habitat’s Global Village program? One of the most important aspects of this type of experience is the cultural exchange that happens when two different worlds work and interact side by side. We would like to share the experiences of some members of our group.
Roberta & Dwayne
The trip itself was surreal. We gathered together at Bajos de Chila near Puerto Escondido to spend a week working alongside a family to build a safe and sturdy home. We showed up on day one with positivity and a willingness to take on any job required: moving bricks, shoveling, mixing mortar, bending rebar, bricklaying. Naturally, there were language and cultural barriers – initially, there was an amicable distance between us and the community, but that quickly developed into conversation, laughs, the sharing of food, dance and music – and eventually hugs and tears when we put down our trowels and hammers on the final day. The amazing connections we made, the relationships we were able to build, and the lifelong memories we made for ourselves are hard to express.
Why were we here in Bajos de Chila? A group of sun-starved northerners from Alberta, Canada, 13 in total, with a strong Habitat work ethic learned in our own Edmonton affiliate, or other working life, some with many working builds done over the years in Mexico and Central America, and some total newbies to the cause.
We were warmly welcomed by the Puerto Escondido Habitat affiliate: hard working knowledgeable Chano; fun-loving teacher, Dani, pacing us, adding the “salsa” to the work day, morning stretches, brick-laying and dancing; our interpreter leader, Roman, from HFH Mexico, who guided us through his culture with ease. All three worked along with us for full days and we give you thanks for that and your warmth and friendship and guidance.
Then there were the homeowners, relatives, neighbours, all pitching in to help build this house; teaching us the building techniques.
Now the bright-red bricks! We went to the brick factory and saw how they turned black, gooey river earth into bright-red, solid, locally made materials for building. What an alternative to transporting building materials from further away at a higher cost, all while supporting a local industry and the local people too!
Linda & Larry Tutt
Working side by side with the Canadian team, the Mexican HFH interpreter, coordinator, masons and architects and also with the young family who will be the homeowners, their neighbors, extended family and friends was a wonderful experience that brought us together for a common goal. As we watched the brick walls go higher and higher each day, our friendship, cultural experience, sense of accomplishment, appreciation of the opportunity and gratitude for our blessings grew and grew. Watching the local women cook delicious local dishes over a fire each day was a bonus and a joy. HFH had the build well organized. I would highly recommend this experience to anyone. Put aside your fears of not being qualified, not having the right skills, extreme temperatures, etc. and dive into this humanitarian, social justice, cultural project to simply support a wonderful family in affording a home. All you need is to be a team player, be willing to work to your ability and be flexible.
Leslie & Max Vandersteen
For quite some time now we have had a fondness and respect for the people, culture, history and, of course, the climate of Mexico. We also both harbor a strong devotion to Habitat for Humanity so, coming from Canada, it is an ideal destination for a Habitat for Humanity Global Village build. So, we have done that on three occasions thus far; the first time was in 2009 to Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca; the second was in Chacala, Nayarit in 2010; and on the third trip we travelled again to Puerto Escondido in February of 2019. All three builds were terrific experiences but what made this last trip so special and unique was returning to enjoy a revisit to the friendly city of PE and finding that we felt comfortable and fit right back in.
We returned to the town of Bajos de Chila to volunteer on the construction of a new affordable home for a young family there. The coincidental thing was that the family we were building with this year turned out to be cousins of the family we volunteered to build a home with ten years ago and we were only a few houses away from them. Therefore, we also enjoyed a wonderful reunion with them and their grown and new children. So, although the project was global in scope, it was also still very much like a community working together.
Kathy & Tom Thackeray
We looked forward to our first Global Village Habitat build in the Puerto Escondido area with enthusiasm for helping to make the dream of home ownership a reality for a young family in Mexico! We came away from our experience feeling that our hard work on the days that we participated in the build at Bajos de Chila really did make a difference towards that dream.
We also felt the wonderful warmth and welcoming camaraderie of the local people we met, including Habitat staff members, family, friends and neighbours of the new home’s owners, Paloma and Luis.
From the minute I signed my name on a piece of paper in May 2018 I had no idea what lay in store. Then I met 12 strangers and started on an amazing journey that I will never forget. We were not brick layers, or concrete mixers or metal bending people, we were normal Canadians, living normal Canadian lives. Then we met, then we joined, then we became the TEAM. After 5 days of building a home for a beautiful couple we were one. These people became my friends, my family, my brothers, my sisters. Never before have I felt such a connection with strangers, and now they will never be strangers again.
Marj & Gerry Lubbers
The build in Bajos de Chila was our first experience with Habitat for Humanity. It was truly a pleasure working with the family and community members who were very appreciative of our help. They were ready to teach us anything we wanted to know and we were ready to learn everything! We learned so much of the Mexican culture. The Habitat representatives were very organized and helpful, allowing our team to maximize our contribution to the project. It was a trip of a lifetime, so full of purpose, and we recommend the experience to everyone. We hope to be able to help out on another Habitat for Humanity project in the future!
When I go to a Habitat build, I get a glimpse of what my life might have been like had my parents not emigrated to Canada. My parents came to Ontario from the Netherlands looking for opportunity. My husband and I moved to Alberta also looking for opportunity. When our daughter decided to go to school in Manitoba, she assured us she would come back. She found her husband there, stayed and now has two children. It wasn’t until our grandchildren came along that I realized how much each of us had missed by moving so far apart. We see our grandchildren at least 3 times a year as well as on FaceTime. My parents saw our children once every 2 to 3 years and in pictures sent back and forth. I never knew my grandparents. Canada is a country of scattered families. We have opportunity, but at what cost?
At these builds I see what we miss in the everyday getting together of extended families living close by, sharing in the cooking and eating of meals, working together to make their lives better. I see how lucky they are to be able to stay in their home country. It is an honour to help them in a small way to make their lives better so that they can stay close to family.
We conclude our memories with a poem by our group leader, Max. who captures our sentiments of Bajos de Chila.
A corps composed of personalities
with spirit and harmony in coalition
and, with mutual motive in our mission,
a cadre of bonded nationalities
jointly preparing new foundations,
building with blocks for new tomorrows,
and dancing, with birds, iguanas and gusanos,
in these newly born congregations.
Though we converse in tongues not common
when we act through love for one another,
when we work hand in hand and together
we convey yet a common idiom,
a vocabulary of emotion:
sweat, travail, blisters and jubilation;
cement and bricks and celebration;
el Corazon, virtue and devotion;
in unity, sheltering families,
in solidarity, fabricating
a global society integrating
villages, countries and communities.