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 ...

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