Monday, January 30, 2012

Volunteering at PSF, part three

Missed part one? Or part two?

There is another side to PSF as well, which is an integral part of the experience. I’m talking about the social elements. The people around you have a huge bearing on your life so the communal side of things has a big bearing on the experience you have. I had an incredible experience and much of the credit goes to the people I was working and living with.

It’s no stretch to say I made lifelong friends in the two and a bit weeks I was there. Of course, this is true of travelling anywhere. But with PSF, there’s such a diverse range of talented people who share a similar mind-set that it’s easy to make real connections. Never before have I seen so many good people gathered together in one place. There are also plenty of opportunities to be social.

The living arrangements promote it. There are two buildings which house the volunteers. All meals are served at one, which has a large courtyard. This courtyard also hosts a meeting every morning. At night, there is generally a fire in a barrel to huddle around with a cold litre of cerveza. During the day, some sort of productivity is always going on in the courtyard. The whole place hums with activity the whole time. It’s a set-up which encourages interaction.

PSF’ers are the thing-doing type. The second day I was there we had a day off due to a Peruvian national holiday. We went to the beach and had a bonfire with beers. It was a great way to meet some people and get to the talking.

Something which happens fairly regularly is a trip to Huacacina, one of the nearby towns. The ‘main’ draws is sandboarding. This is basically like snowboarding but on sand. Around 20 of us went out there on the last weekend I was in Peru and it was massive. It started off with a mini-bus ride for an hour and a half to Huacacina. There was a lot of rum involved. The vibe was festive.

Upon arrival we checked into the hostal and proceeded to continue making merry next to the pool. It was mid-afternoon and we already had a good glazing. We kept up the pre-gaming at a good rate for a few hours until it was dark and late and time to go to the nightclub. Fortunately, this was adjacent to the hostal. What else could we do but go in and tear it a new one?

The next day was an exercise in agony. However the weather was good and there was a pool to laze around so not everything was mislaid. Calming recovery beers were drunk in this ideal locale (never doubt the power of a recovery beer). Later we went out to sandboard.

Sandboarding is fun and I would recommend it to a friend. First you get into a massive souped-up dune buggy and drive madly around the dunes. Then you find a good steep one and drive to the top. Next you strap a waxed piece of wood to your feet. Alternatively, you can lie down on said wood. Then you do your best to get to the bottom of the dune stylishly or at least upright.

My penchant for nudity kicked in at this point and I stripped off to do a ‘winner takes all’ high risk run on the last hill. Fortunately I made it down in one smooth, unbroken ride. There should even be a video of it somewhere (although I’ve never seen it) as I was followed by a lucky fella with a camera strapped to his head. Afterwards, everyone thought it would be a great joke to make me wait a long time for my clothes to come down. To be fair, it was. Getting back was eventful as the buggy got stuck at the bottom of a bowl of sand. We got it out eventually but it was negligible for a while.

We rushed back to PSF to go to a birthday party. With 80-odd people in PSF there tends to be one or two a week. This one was great, with lots of games and food and laughter. It was set up so that to get a drink you had to complete a challenge. It was a great night and the ideal end to the weekend.

There were two bars in town that the volunteers went to: Mystica and the other one (the name escapes me but I remember the floodlights). Both were good for a laugh although the volunteers tended to make up most of the customers when we went. I remember one night on the way to Mystica I asked the driver of the tuk-tuk (basically a three wheeled motorbike rigged up to carry some people) if I could take the controls. I was surprised to be allowed, considering I was slurring drunk. After we arrived at the bar and dropped off the other volunteers he let me take it for a lap. When we swapped bars I again asked successfully. I was properly sloshed by this stage and just gave it full noise over a speedbump into an intersection. The other volunteers on the back were terrified but I was delighted.

Another interesting but horrible social event we attended was a real-life cockfight. After pantomiming the actions of 2 roosters fighting to the tuk-tuk driver (including foot actions) we made it to a little concrete coliseum with a sandy arena in the middle. Two birds were being prepared, which meant having blades ties onto the backs of their feet. Then they were placed to face each other, separated by a flimsy plastic barrier. This was removed and the birds eyed each other up. One of them made a crowing noise. Then there was a blur of motion. Around a second later one of the birds was only good for use in soup. This cock fighting was serious stuff and I didn’t enjoy it. It was a bit brutal for my tastes. Having said that it is an important part of Peruvian culture and I’m glad I went along. We must have watched about six or seven rounds before we’d seen enough.

That’s a taste of the social scene at PSF. There’s so much more to it than that though. It’s an important element of what makes PSF such a great experience. I was surprised at how sad I was to be leaving after only two and a half weeks. But I had a flight to catch so leave I did, going through a protest and then getting on a bus to Ica. From Ica I managed to catch a bus directly to Santiago in Chile. It was 54 hours of cramped, unreclining, hostile, and distinctly non-English-speaking hell. I was the only Gringo on the bus and everyone else made sure I knew I wasn’t welcome. But I got to Santiago with a night to spare, cleaned my bike and caught my plane so it all ended okay.

Now you've read the words, why not donate to the cause? Don't be tight, they need that tenner more than you do.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Volunteering at PSF, part two

Here's part two of my rambling account of my time spent volunteering. If you missed part one, you can read it here.


I did a few days in the wood-yard, which was a good place to chill out and detox a bit. But I also got out into the community a bit. I spent an excellent day out at a school helping to put the finishing touches on a cafeteria. Mostly it involved cutting tiles in half using an angle grinder, barefoot and shirtless in the sun. Later a few of them got put onto the wall. The school itself was not tip top after the earthquake, with one of the larger buildings earning the condemned title. This meant that the school ran in the mornings for primary level and the afternoons for secondary. It’s not the ideal for the kid’s educations. Anyway, the cafeteria was a nice big space which was sorely needed at the school, and there were plans to provide nutritious lunches afoot when the building was complete, which will likely make a big difference to the quality of the kids’ lives.

One Saturday morning I had an interesting time teaching English to some local teenagers. I battled. I was lucky they were at an intermediate level or I would have been left high and dry. Mostly it just involved talking to them, which was interesting as I got to learn a little about their lives. There were also some activities which we got into, but I found them as difficult as the students. It made me realise that as far as languages go, English is very inconsistent and a little bit stupid sometimes. I have heard it called idiosyncratic before but I think that’s being a bit gentle. The problem I had was giving a legitimate and sensible reason as to why we speak English the way we do. “It’s just the way it is” wasn’t to inspiring for those I was trying to teach. If you speak English as your native tongue, I think you are very lucky you learnt it at an early age.

I spent a good few days helping to build a new wing of an existing hospital, which I really enjoyed. The project was known as ‘the French Hospital’ in PSF because the hospital we were at was originally set up by a French organisation. We were building a women’s wing consisting of several rooms. The structure was made out of brick with concrete pillars. While I was there bricklaying was underway and some pillars were also being poured. I helped with that.

To pour a concrete pillar, firstly a framework of re-bar (reinforcement bar) must be built. This involves four big metal poles sticking up out of the ground at the corners of a square, with many little squares attached at various heights around the initial poles. Form board (big planks, basically) is put around this structure (with ample space between the form board and re-bar) and the form-board is tied to the re-bar using wire. Then concrete is poured into the top. Air is removed using a machine called a vibrator. Innuendo was everywhere when the vibrator came out, providing many laughs. When the vibrator’s done its job there is no air left down there and the form boards are full, the pillar is left to set. When the concrete is set, the form boards are removed and we are left with a fresh shiny pillar.

I particularly enjoyed my time at the French Hospital as it was good manual labouring out in the sun and in the community. It felt good to do some physical work after so much time spent looking at the sights and practicing bottle-sized bicep curls. Concrete is bloody heavy stuff and passing up buckets of it above your head for a couple of hours certainly lets you know about it later in the day.

Those were the only projects I got onto at PSF. I also took a turn cooking, which was a surprisingly fun day. Cooking takes an entire day for four people. This is because you cook for everyone at PSF, usually about 70 or 80 people. We were a team of four lads, and none of us are going to give Gordon Ramsey a run for his money anytime soon. Things looked a bit bleak for the stomachs of everyone at PSF. The cooks get to choose what they cook which is a bit of pressure when it’s for so many. In the morning you go to the local market and buy all of the ingredients you need, with the allotted money you are given. The food markets are an experience in themselves and it’s a great way to see some of the local culture. It’s also fun to haggle over the price of food and generally have a mosey around.

Once you’ve got the food you need the four of you head back to PSF to start preparing and cooking the food. The trick to success with cooking for that many people is definitely to keep it simple and cook what you know. Even following these golden rules, we were under a lot of pressure to get everything ready on time. To make matters worse, I was frantically attempting to organise some sort of transport to get me to Santiago in time for my flight and had to go on a mission to the bus company at one stage (with no love; my new plan became wing it and hope, which sort of worked out). In the end it all worked out; our chicken pasta didn’t cause any deaths so I’d call it a success.

I got to participate in just a tiny fragment of the projects PSF initiates and gets involve with. A big one I missed was building modular houses. Apart from that, they also do things such as childcare, environmentally friendly fuels, houses made from bags of dirt, painting murals, building parks and gardens and other programmes designed to improve the lives of those living in Pisco. Something I really like about PSF was the way they were always looking for new ideas which they could implement to improve Pisco.

The whole place was amazing because it shows what people can do when they pull together. We’re communal animals, us humans, and we have the capacity to achieve great things when we’re in groups. To me, that’s what’s happening at PSF. I find it incredible that a bunch of regular people can get together and make a real and effective difference to the lives of those in need out of the goodness of their hearts. These people are often driven by enthusiasm and determination over expertise on their way to doing what’s needed. There aren’t necessarily  a whole lot of people with a lot of skills and experience in construction and that sort of thing out there, but everyone there has a red hot go and makes sure that what needs to be done gets done in order to make the community of Pisco a better place. And it works out, because these people make it work out. It just shows what people can do if they really want to and it was a great thing to be part of.

Stay tuned for part three, where I tell you all about the social scene at PSF. We go large!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Volunteering at PSF, part one

For the last two and a half weeks of my time in South America I had lined up something I’d wanted to do for a while. My time away was incredibly rewarding and I wanted to give something back to the place which had provided me so many new experiences and helped me to change my perspective and grow as a person.

So I was excited about spending some time volunteering in a South American community. There is a plethora of organisations dedicated to the cause on the continent but the one I settled on was Pisco Sin Fronteras (PSF, in English it means Pisco without borders). It’s based in Pisco (yes, it’s not just a deliciously potent alcoholic drink, it’s also a place) and has a reputation for both providing a great service to the community and having a really good social scene amongst the volunteers. I had heard about it from an English amigo I had gone large with in Chile and the way he talked about it really sold it to me.

The reason Pisco needs some help is that there was a fairly large earthquake there back in 2007. By fairly large I mean fucking huge. It kicked around the 8.0 mark on the Richter scale and laid waste to the city in a tremendous way. Sadly it killed a fair few people - I’ve read a variety of death tolls from 430 to 595 – and it is estimated to have badly damaged 80% of the buildings in the city. Many of these buildings are still unliveable today, over 4 years later. In some cases, entire families are still living in tents or under tarpaulins. Anyone who has been to South America will understand when I say that the government is simply unable to provide sufficient aid to the city. And that’s where PSF steps in.

I was dumped at the turnoff to Pisco at an ungodly hour of the morning after an awful overnight bus-ride from Cuzco. I had a throbbing hangover and no idea what was going on. In my haste to leave Cuzco after the Inca trip I had neglected to get any information on where PSF actually was in Pisco. Immediately there were a bunch of taxi drivers gabbling at me in rapid-fire Spanish so I picked one who looked trustworthy and loaded my gear and burdensome bici into the back of his station wagon.

On the ten minute or so drive into Pisco I got my first look at the place in the early morning light. I remember wondering what I had gotten myself into as the place looked like a dump. Everything was haggard and run-down and there was what looked like rubble visible in some places. At this stage I basically didn’t know what to think. I had been into some places that I thought were pretty dodgy looking in Bolivia and this was up there with any of them. I remember having some doubts at this stage.

The taxi driver said he knew where he was going and we soon arrived in the right place, but being so early in the morning no-one was awake. I was locked out of the complex. I told the driver that I would be fine and he could go and then proceeded to make a lot of noise on the metal gate. It must have worked because I was let in and went to sleep. All in all my arrival to Pisco and first impressions were not the best.

I had arrived on a Sunday. The next day was Monday and that meant straight into working. I started off in Bollywood, PSF’s wood-yard. PSF’s bread and butter is building modular houses and it’s in Bollywood that the modular’s constituent pieces are created. The houses are modular because all the parts are ready to go when they get to the site – so you start with a bunch of walls, a door and some roofing, and can then very quickly finish with a house.

Bollywood is where the walls are made. The process is as follows: Every week, a sizeable stack of pallets is collected from the local metal-works located just outside of the city. These pallets are then broken down by the volunteers (which is a fun couple of days of smashing them with sledgehammers, stomping them apart, and for the truly savage, ripping them apart with bare hands). After this the nails have to be removed, which is A Bad Time. The pieces of wood are then cut to a specific length and stacked neatishly. While these goings on are going on, a framework is built up – it’s basically a big rectangle divided in half by a cross-brace. A piece of tarpaulin is cut to fit and stapled to the frame. Finally, some of those boards so diligently stacked earlier are removed from the pile and attached to the frame using nails. And just like that, a section of wall is ready to go.

It may not sound like much, a house made from recycled pallets and lined with tarpaulin. But remember, some families here have been living in a tent for over four years. Sure, camping can be fun, but only when you have a nice safe secure place to go when you get over it. I want to emphasise the word secure here because a problem  with living in a tent that I didn’t think of is security. How do you make sure your possessions are safe? So in addition to providing much needed shelter, these houses provide security for families.

Read more about PSF in part two, coming soonish ...