My Last Days in West Sumatra

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February 20th 2010
Published: April 27th 2010
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As may of you are aware, last October 23, 2009, I found myself arriving in the small village of Sungai Gerringing to volunteer my time for Hands On Disaster Response ( The area of Padang and subsequent villages around the big city had been hit by two earthquakes, which flattened many homes in that area of West Sumatra. I had written a time or two about my time spent there (one can always visit for more updates and well-written commentary about what we did in and how we helped out the community), so this is just the final synopsis of my final month at the project.

In January, we started building transitional houses (t-shelters) for a few select families in the SG area. Breaking up the work into different areas, volunteers were able to choose what it was they were interested in doing. In order for a family to receive one of these t-shelters, they needed to first do a few things themselves, one of which was the building of their concrete foundation. This had to be level and to certain specs and if it wasn't we were unable to build on it successfully.

We had a team of volunteers, the prefab crew, tackling the first stage of the t-shelter program, which consisted of the cutting of the lumber and the assembling of the little bits and bobs at our home base, whereby the framing crew then took all the lumber by pickup truck and assembled the wooden frame on site.

Once the frame of the house was on, we wrapped each house with a chain link fencing material, which provides strength to the house structure in preparation of further earthquakes. The model we used was based off one used by an Indonesian organization whose houses had proved the test of time for the past two decades. We put on a tin roof and built a small attached porch. After the chain link was attached and tightened securely, the rendering crew took over. I was one of the team leaders for the rendering crew, which pretty much took up the rest of my time at the project.

Rendering (or for some out there in the world, you might better know the term as plastering) didn't require a great deal of initial know-how, but once one mastered it, it was actually quite fun to see progress. It took me more time than the average volunteer to successfully figure out *how* to render, but eventually I got a bit better. I must admit, however, I was better at leading a team than actually doing quality work. There were plenty of volunteers on the teams I lead that picked it up quickly and became quite proficient in this craft. We changed our technique a number of times throughout the first few weeks; to say the least there was a lot of trial and error and even rendering over again some of the nearly-dried walls of the first houses, weeks after we thought they were finished. Oh well, this is what happens when you put together a bunch of unskilled labor! Ha. We had fun, despite all the frustrations, and with the homeowners participating in the building as well, made it even more of a family affair. We were, after all, building someone a home, and even though the houses were supposed to be transitional, many families will probably never be able to afford to build another house, thus this temporary 2-room structure will be called home for many years, many generations to come.

Rendering consisted of getting the right consistency of cement (called "semen" in Indonesia, and even with the emphasis on the second syllable, it was always worthy of a giggle when we opened a new bag) and water, which of course was different for the inside and the outside of the house, as well as the first layer and the second layer in this process. We slapped on the plaster over the chain link fencing material and went over it a second time after it had a chance to dry. The second layer was more fine-tuned, evened and smoothed on with care, as naturally, this was going to be the wall of the house, seen by everyone.

There were many steps to follow in this part of the house-building process and if the first step wasn't done successfully, the second wasn't going to work, etc., so, we took great pride and care to get the job done correctly right from the get go. Unfortunately I missed the last stage of the t-shelter program, the painting of the houses, which, as many of you know, I take great pride in. On past projects, such as in the Philippines, in Peru, in Bangladesh and even in Haiti in late 2008, I have enjoyed the painting part of the HODR deployments. Somewhere, at some time, at some stage, we are either painting schools, houses, roofs, or toys for kids. This is what makes Suzi very happy. Sadly for me, but excitedly for the new home owners, this was done very proficiently by other volunteers.

All in all, it was a time of learning, a time of frustration, and as always, a time of laughter at our mistakes and "ooops's," especially when our team would have a wall nearly completed and all of a sudden a big chunk of nearly-dried concrete would fall off onto the dirt floor (which eventually became a solid concrete floor once we completed the interior). Patching the walls is a whole other story. It wasn't always as easy and straightforward as one would think, so we just patched it as bet we could and laughed about our snafus later.

I felt good during the final month I was in Sumatra. I had just spent three months running with wheelbarrows, doing some heavy-duty shoveling and sledging down of structures, building some good solid muscles, but left it all to others as I took on the rendering process of the t-shelters for my final four weeks. I left HODR and Sungai Gerringing a week before the end of February, about 6 weeks before the project officially ended. I spent two weeks in Malaysia before heading to new territory --New Zealand. I am currently writing from the sunny North Island, after nearly two glorious months in New Zealand. More on that to come....


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