Ecuador ’14 Week 2: Construction Week – Reaching #2000

The Ecuador Team has just returned from a week-long construction trip in Montecristi, a coastal city located a 9-hour bus ride from Quito. Along with over a hundred other volunteers we built 30 houses in the space of six days, and therefore helped TECHO achieve the milestone of 2,000 homes built in Ecuador since 2008.

From left to right: Eleni looks up while nailing down the roof; Two TECHO volunteers laugh while taking photos on the last day of construction; A TECHO volunteer climbs onto the house to nail together the wooden panels; Max with the ‘mangera’ or water-filled hose used to check whether the foundations are on the same level.

Armed with wet wipes

We arrived at the bus stop early on the morning of 2 August, armed with heavy backpacks and duffel bags. Collectively carrying a total of 60 cereal bars, 12 bottles of suntan lotion and insect repellent, and 840 baby wipes which we planned to use instead of showers, we joined over a hundred TECHO volunteers from all over the country on a weaving 9-hour bus ride around the Andean peaks, down to the seaside city of Montecristi. 

We set up camp at a local Catholic school in the neighbourhood of Terrasanta, laying down sleeping mats on the classroom floors. Arriving in the evening, it was clear that no time was to be wasted – after dinner (pasta pomodoro doled out from a massive saucepan) we were shepherded down to the football pitch for what would become one of the most characteristic parts of construction week: ‘los actividades’. These activities ranged from lively TECHO song-and-dance routines, to the anonymous ‘correo de brujas’ (witch mail) letterboxes whose contents were read out publicly, to wealth redistribution activities, where each volunteer was given a cash token and groups had to share pretend-money between themselves to ensure that everyone could afford dinner. 

From left to right: TECHO volunteers saw down timber; A view of a nearly-completed house while volunteers work on the roof; Ecuadorians play football as the sun sets in Montecristi; Alex nails down the roof of the second house he was constructing with his cuadrilla.

The Construction Experience

The five of us on the EcoHouse team (i.e. the ‘eco-guys’) were split into different ‘cuadrillas’ or work groups, along with seven or eight other volunteers. By the end of the construction week, awkward smiles and broken Spanish turned into hysterical laughter, food-sharing and elaborate inside jokes; and after we left, the friendships manifested themselves in lively Facebook chatter (like young people everywhere, Ecuadorians are avid social networkers) and scheduled summertime reunions in Quito, Cuenca and Guayaquil. 

And no wonder – construction week is an unforgettable bonding experience. Upon arrival you’re thrown together with a small group of Spanish-speaking strangers, equipped with nothing but a TECHO instruction manual, two bags of rice and lentils, and a handful of spades, hammers and nails. You’re then herded into the back of a huge pick-up truck. While packed into the crowded vehicle which is barely held together by wooden fences, you’ll feel quite a lot like an illegal immigrant being smuggled out of the country – but fairly soon, you and your 8-person cuadrilla are dropped off at a grey and dusty plot of land. 

 From left to right: Sarah taking a group photograph with her cuadrilla and one of the families they were building for; Karan and another TECHO volunteer laugh while working on the roof; A volunteer stands on the roof of a completed house with the overcast sky in the background; Eleni and her cuadrilla paint the panels of their first house a vibrant bright orange.

 

From Piso To Techo

There’s not much in the area but old and dilapidated bamboo shacks, often housing large families of five or six people. There are no toilets, showers or even running water; but the family whom you’re building the house for is very welcoming, and they’re keen to help by nailing together panels and painting walls. They’ll also cook for you – most have unofficially secured an electricity supply – and offer you plastic cups of juice and Coca-Cola to quench your thirst as you labour in the scorching sun. The food is infinitely better than you’d expected – the lentils are spiced and tasty, and they will serve them with grilled fish or chicken alongside a fried egg and a local savoury banana delicacy. While you work, street vendors will also drive by on motorbikes, selling ‘granisados’ or syrupy slush puppies, which you’ll jump at the chance of trying (by Day 3, the policy of avoiding tap water or even practicing common hygiene is completely forgotten).

With some difficulty – the ground will be uneven, wood will splinter and snap, panels will be screwed on the wrong way round – you’ll complete your first house in two days. That night, you’ll read out wishes to the family moving into it, before you sleep on the floor of the newly-built home. By seven or eight the next morning, you’ll be on your way to building the next house. Over the space of six days, you’ll build three houses for three families; your weak hammering technique will improve, you’ll learn how to dig a lot more efficiently, and you’ll become an expert at working on the roof. And at the end of it, you’ll have made a huge contribution to improving three families’ lives, and made half a dozen great new friends along the way. At this year’s construction, TECHO volunteers built a 30 houses, therefore reaching the milestone of 2,000 TECHO houses built in Ecuador since 2008. The EcoHouse Placement Team is extremely honoured to have contributed to this project, and we’ll continue working hard to develop innovative new technologies which can improve the quality of life of people across Ecuador and Latin America.

 From left to right: Max and his cuadrilla taking a group photo at sunset; Karan and his cuadrilla hard and work; Eleni with Carmen, 74, for whom her cuadrilla was building their third house; A panoramic view of Montecristi at sunset.

I’m currently in the process of creating a video with footage from this year’s construction – keep posted for more! – and we’ve taken dozens of incredible photos. Despite the mental and physical strain we were subjected to, we all agree on one thing: we’d jump at the chance of doing it all again.

– Eleni Courea