I love the Dutch. I hate avocados

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October 22nd 2007
Published: October 22nd 2007
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This piece should have been entitled "I want my mummy!", since I was feeling rather sorry for myself a week ago, but having forgotten, remembered, forgotten and remembered my login details for this blog, a fair amount has happened since then and I am no longer pining for what I call "manja" in Malaysia, and what you folks back in Blighty call TLC. It´s all about avocados. Other titles included "I nearly sat on two scorpions", which would, as a title alone, save me writing all this below when I actually want to be curled up in my bunk bed right now; "Cristal is Peru´s Number One beer" and "I´m an asbestos team leader" being others. The most current one is "I love the Dutch". It´s a long story, but you had to be here. They´re very tall and make great pancakes when you´ve only had 1 hour´s sleep.

I shall start from the beginning. I signed up for a project in a lush green valley sitting right in the middle of a desert, an oasis of sorts, with rustling bamboo along the clear waters of the River Cañete, vineyards, papaya trees, and really strangley oval-shaped apples, as well as a bounty of wild nispero trees (for those still in Sevilla who will know what I´m talking about). The brief was to complete the second stage of a damaged irrigation ditch in the hills between two communities, Ramadilla and Con-Con, with a joint population of about twenty. The basic plan was to clear the remaining ditch of mud slide and rocks (requiring a significant amount of weeding for which my mother´s garden in Suffolk has provided me with more than adequate training), construct the formwork for the trench and pour 300m of concrete to reinforce the canal´s edges. For this, highly specialised skills were needed; in my case, scrambling up steep scree cliffs that had suffered landslides in the first earthquake, selecting prime hand-sized rocks, and flinging them down the mountain side towards a waiting wheelbarrow and a laconic Peruvian, usually "in high spirits" from home-brew grape-derived liquor (and yes, at 8am, when we started work). These were then put in the trench while another lucky volunteer shovelled sand for nine hours each day, into their cement mixer and the rest of us gathered yet more scree to reinforce the concrete. It wasn´t how I would mix and build concrete, but we left them to it since it was their ditch, their farms and their egos at stake. We just provided the muscle and entertainment.

Boys will be boys, so the girls continued on rock duty for the week while the men played with their prize cement mixer and tried to out-do each other by carrying ever heavier buckets of cement, while perched precariously on ladders or a 15cm wide embankment, 10m above the road and a very steep cliff. I found a peaceful place among my rocks, coming across little sand-coloured scorpions and black spiders (¡Cuidate! ¡Pica, pica! - Careful now, it stings!) which the Peruvians took great pleasure in holding up by the tail for me to get a closer look. There were of course some snags, and the now-expected frustrations of working with these guys, but which evaporated somewhat in the beauty of the conturyside and view over the valley we beheld each morning. One such exasperation was the lack of water. The irrigation ditch is shared by Con-Con and Ramadilla. The first phase of the project allowed Ramadilla´s farmers to irrigate their crops and fruit orchards, and every 5 days they allowed Con-Con to use the water for their crops. When we ran out of water to make the concrete, we (the volunteers) thought it would be easy to get some more water by turning on the water again. Of course. Simple, a tap and that´s it. But no. It was Ramadilla´s water week. And would they allow their parched neighbours to benefit from it for half an hour? Of course not. It took two hours to find Ramadilla´s farmers, ask permission, turn off and on and off and on the water, and get started again on the cement mixing. Whereupon we ran out of fuel for the mixer, naturally, leading to another delay. Then the piece of rope that was being used as a starter mechanism for the mixer broke. Then there was lunch. Then a siesta. All the while, we were absent-mindedly eating biscuits and soda crackers and dissassemblng a mountain of rocks, piece by piece, reassembling it 20m further down the road, moving rocks back and forth. So it really makes you think how easy it is for us back home, building sites and all. Running water. Some other way of pouring concrete without running along a narrow embankment for 150m with a full bucket of concrete on your back. Aggregate in bags. The lack of health and safety was liberating.

We lived with Jorge, who oversaw the ditch project, having the most wholesome Peruvian homecooking - beans, rice, lime juice on everything...and avocados. They are the size of my outstretched hand. Huge. Full of cholesterol but so delicious that, in a fit of gluttony, I ate two and a half in one day. The result was intense stomach discomfort (imagine that as you will, something akin to what one might experience in Delhi) from both ends. Hence the "I want my Mummy!" pining, and I´m not ashamed to admit it. If you had been there, you would have felt the same. I now think it was actually "The Week One Volunteering Bug" (otherwise known as "I had chicken and chips at Salmonella Chicken last night and feel like poo today" - a restaurant (if you could call it that) just down the road from the HODR HQ house), adjusting to changes in diet and water. Here in Con-Con we had no running water, only river water, boiled to drink and flush the toilet with, and bathing in the strong currents of the river below before it got too dark each night, which was a lot of fun, something like I imagine being in a washing machine feels like. I lost my bath poof (pouf?). But I have been mentally scarred by my avocado experiences and now face waves of nausea when contemplating those diabolical fruits.

The next week, I embarked on a wee bit of demolition in Pisco town for a lovely family who kept refreshing us with lurid Inca Kola (smells like bubblegum, it´s the colour of yellow motorway signs, but is not-so-surprisingly very addictive). I was even interviewed by a journalist for an Argentine newspaper doing a story on foreigners helping with the clean-up and reconstruction. Or at least I thought it was that. I may have been wrong. He might have been asking for directions and my Spanish got a bit confused. Either way, my Spanish skills were called upon again a few days later when I started leading a team of demoltion technologists in taking down dangerous adobe brick houses in the beighbouring town of Paracas. One such project was alongside the Panamericana highway, in a beautiful site opposite a steel melting factory, a gas canister, in a desert beside South America´s busiest motorway (actually just 2 lanes). Adobe bricks are so easy to demolish that we just had to hit the bottom of each wall with a sledgehammer and we could pull, or push, the walls over by hand. Simple stuff. The lady organising the project, however, had forgotten that she had left us in the middle of a desert and so was 2 hours late to pick us up. Luckily, the family provided us with warming beers and entertainment in the form of dancing to Peruvian traditional songs (one dance interestingly called "Wino"), as night fell. It gets really, really cold here. The next week was more demolition of adobe houses, including various requests for us to cut the mains wire electricity and rewire it to the neighbouring house. Of course, simple job, 220 volts, me up a ladder with some wire cutters. In the politest fashion, I had to explain to them that they should get stuffed. One job also involved potential asbestos removal, of which none of us were qualified, equipped or prepared, but with careful planning, lots of water to damp down the dust, and laborious removal of bricks one by one, we managed to get the house down. Asbestos (of which none of the houseowners had heard), was supposed to be banned in Peru in 2005. YES! 2005! But we´re not sure if it was or not, so we were extra careful. I know, I know, we shouldn´t have gone in there in the first place, but there were no pieces of the stuff left (someone else had already removed it) and we were very careful with dust and masks and gloves and all sorts. So keep your fingers crossed we´re all fine.

I´m now starting my third week here. Personal hygiene, hair removal, diet...it´s all gone pear-shaped. I´m even cultivating proto-dreadlocks by accident since it´s so hard to get the cement and dust out of my hair in the (cold, outdoor) showers each night. But thankfully I solved my bedbug problem (actually an infestation of my pyjamas) by a good session with the washing machine. I now have a very intersting eco-system growing on the surface of my skin. Thankfully, after 30 days, the boss (Marc) recommends that we take a break for 4 days to wind down as things are really hectic and sometimes stressful and very, very tiring. I´m in bed before 9.30 at night, most nights, and the six day week is pretty tough when it´s all physical lifting and wheelbarrows and such like.I think I might go to see the Nazca lines down south, probably 17 hours in a bus (so not actually that relaxing) or more probably go sand boarding and dune buggying down the road.

Of which I have had a very funny experience as recently as last night. Although I was intending to get an early night and do the pub quiz in house with a cup of hot chocolate, I somehow got confused and ended up buying a crate of beers. All very funny conversations round the fire, leading to more beers and even some girly make-up session before heading out to a discoteca round the corner from the HODR house, when we did the locomotion, the congo, I danced on tables, I was hit on by not one but TWO eighteen year old boys with not even the promise of future facial hair, was told I looked 17 years old, spoke complete rubbish in Spanish, told the South Americans that the Spanish lisp for "c" and "z" is actually more elegant than their way of pronouncing things, taught some bloke how to say the verbs for the 5 senses in English seventeen times, and just generally had a messy night. At about 5am, we were getting a little hassled as gringo girls with worse for wear gringo boys who were useless as bodyguards, so we persuaded the vet who lived next door to the disco that he really, REALLY wanted to take us 5 volunteers for a spin in his dune buggy across the demolished wastelands and potholes of Pisco playa. It was the most novel solution to a potentially rather fractious interaction with locals. And incredible fun. Alas, I lost my wind round about 6.30 and retired to bed, but having not quite lost all my energy, couldn´t sleep so got up and was fed enormous pancakes by a very tall Dutch man with whom I´ve been working this week, all the while singing rude songs about Yogi bear and his girfriend Suzy. I managed to grab a couple of hours sleep before hitting the beach with the folks who had been sitting there for a few hours waiting to watch the sunrise but looking into the west. There might have been some beers involved, which is why I have just had potentially dodgy chicken and chips. We´ll see how I am tomorrow.

Ah, another week. I´ve joined up to be a Spanish-speaking leader on a UNICEF project in Ica, a town 70km from Pisco, where we are re-designing and project managing the construction of 80 temporary classrooms, which should be a really fun and feel more satisfying than tearing everything down, which is basically what I´ve been doing for the last week.

And please - a reminder about AIDGLE.COM, a substitute for Google. Instead of searching through Google.com, use their charity site AIDGLE.COM which gives back the same results as Google. Only for every link followed through it´s search, one cent is donated by Google to an NGO working in disaster zones. Until mid-November, Google is donating to HODR. So please, please, even if you´re looking up the BBC or Gmail or Facebook or whatever that you don´t need to use a search engine for, use AIDGLE.COM and search through that. It takes so little time, and so far, in the last two weeks, over $1000 have been raised for HODR which is being channelled directly into the school reconstruction project for which I may be team leader. Thank you - and pass this information on to everyone you know!


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