COCHABAMBA, BOLIVIA - Up at 7 a.m., a quick breakfast and then 30 minutes on the bus to arrive at a hot, dusty worksite where you get to haul gravel, rocks, bricks and dirt uphill and take turns with the sledgehammer or pick ax (note that we're doing this at 9,000 feet above sea level).
No indoor plumbing and just a tarp to keep the sun off when you take a break - sound like your idea of a fun vacation? In fact, this was one of the best experiences we've ever had: Working alongside native Bolivians, helping to build a house under the auspices of Habitat for Humanity.
Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America, with an average annual income of $2,900 a year (U.S. dollars). The population is comprised of 8.9 million people and 3 million llamas; 64 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Despite the fact that Bolivia is land-locked (unless you count Lake Titicaca), the nation has a merchant marine comprised of 25 ships.
Our group of 19 intrepid builders was comprised of families living throughout the Pacific Northwest - from Seattle, Bremerton, Boise, Eugene and the Rarick/Antoniskis family of Lake Oswego (Mark, Diana and kids Paul, Anne and John). Eleven of the 19 volunteers were between the ages of 13 and 21, which was a definite asset when hauling loads of gravel uphill. We spent the first two weeks of August building the foundation for a house in 'Maria Auxiliadora,' a suburb of Cochabamba, which is located in the central highlands of Bolivia, near the Andes mountains. The suburb itself is located on a steep hillside with city/mountain views; the distance from town and lack of infrastructure makes the area affordable to native Bolivians (despite the killer views). Lots in the area sell for about $600 (U.S. dollars).
Habitat for Humanity is an organization founded in 1976, based on the philosophy of 'a hand up, not a handout.' Practically speaking, this means that recipients of HFH housing must provide land on which the house is to be built and qualify for a no-interest loan from the organization. In addition, they provide 'sweat equity' by working alongside volunteers from around the world to actually build the house. In our case, it would have been next to impossible to build that foundation without the strong backs and hefty muscles of our young and enthusiastic volunteer team.
The family with whom we volunteered was comprised of parents Eva and Adolpho and their three children: Daniel (7), Gustavo (6) and Rosalina (14 months). Although the kids couldn't work much and Adolpho was busy at work most days (he's a driving instructor), Eva was right out there with us, hauling rocks and doing just as much as everyone else. The work was directed by a team of four paid Bolivian construction workers wearing sandals, who each had the strength of 10 gringos - it was a marvel to watch how much work they could get done with just a few tools.
'It was the hardest work I have done in over 30 years,' said Mark Rarick, 'but every calorie expended was repaid in memories too numerous to count.'
In addition to the volunteer work, members of our HFH team raised money from friends, relatives and co-workers to help provide the building materials for the house. Although each member of the team was asked to raise $500 in donations, our team was able to raise more than $21,000, which was enough money to pay for materials for four HFH homes in Bolivia. Many generous donors from the Lake Oswego area contributed toward the goal of providing decent, affordable housing for families in Bolivia.
'Going to a foreign country to build houses not only benefits the community there, but you also have a wonderful vacation,' said John Rarick, 15, who is a sophomore at Lakeridge High School.
His sister Anne, who is 17 and an LHS senior described the work as 'really fun' and would 'definitely recommend this experience to everybody.'
So, if you're looking for a karma-building alternative to lying on the beach, think about a Habitat trip for your next vacation - you won't regret it! For more information on HFH, see www.habitat.org .
Editor's note: Lake Oswegans Diana Antoniskis, her husband Mark Rarick and their children Paul, Anne and John (Rarick) recently returned from working with Habitat for Humanity in Boliva. Paul, 19, is a sophomore at the University of British Columbia. Both Antoniskis and Mark Rarick are physicians at Kaiser Permanente: He's a hematologist/oncologist and she's an infectious disease specialist and chief of the HIV clinic there. The family has lived in Lake Oswego for 17 years, has done volunteer work through its church (Atkinson Memorial in Oregon City) and Anne and Antoniskis belong to National Charity League but have never done volunteer work outside the U.S.