Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Weak bricks, light cement, shoddy workmanship

Day 2 (Monday, Aug. 2)

Leogane, Haiti

Surprisingly, I slept well in an un-air conditioned room, sharing a double bed with another grown man, with a mosquito net overhead. The rooms smells of fresh paint and plaster. We were awakened at 5:15 a.m. – 3:15 Pacific time. No one grumbled at the early wakeup call; everyone was rarin’ to go and excited to get to the orphanage.

The truck that took us from the airport to our hotel and from our hotel to the orphanage broke down Sunday, and no one was disappointed. The drive from the airport to our hotel took two dirty, stinky, dusty, clutch-slipping hours. Sunday night, the orphanage’s ambulance took us home in two shifts, and we repeated the practice Monday morning. I was in the second group each time, with the kids’ group going first.

I begin a routine the first day that would repeat itself several times a day. First, I put on sun screen on my exposed parts. I wear long pants, wool socks and boots because of my construction work. I decline shorts because of my fear of mosquitoes and malaria. I would rather sweat more, be a little bit more uncomfortable and survive the dreaded bugs. When we arrive at the orphanage, I apply No. 40 Deet over my exposed parts and clothing. I grew accustomed to the smell of sweat, sunscreen and Deet.

We asked the cook for breakfast to be served at 7:30, but it was 7:30 when she finally arrived in the kitchen out back. It was an example of Haitian time, we were told. Things happen in their own time. Haitians don’t wear watches. They get up at sun rise and work till dark, then go to bed. Most Haitians eat a late breakfast and early dinner, with perhaps a light snack around mid-day. We Americans wanted our three squares a day, though. So as not to rub that fact into the noses of the children, we are told to eat lunch only inside the dining room, which is always 10 degrees hotter than it is outdoors. We eat fast.

I was put on the three-man team to rebuild a dilapidated front gate, a double-swinging gate that drags along the ground halfway to being open. I worked with the father-and-son team of Bill (dad) and Paul, both experienced handymen and carpenters. Bill taught his eldest son everything he knows about construction, and his knowledge is fast, we would find out throughout the week. Bill works in a similar capacity with the Lawrence-Livermore Lab, while Paul is a manager with UPS. I was there to learn at the feet of the masters. In other words, I was a gofer.

At 8:30, breakfast was served. At least we were told it was breakfast. I’m a part-time caterer and pretty good cook, and my knowledge of food is fairly extensive. Still, I had no idea what was set before us. It looked like oatmeal that was blended for a couple of minutes. Jeannine, a public school teacher in Pittsburg, told us it was spaghetti.

“No way,” I responded.

Way. She said she saw the cook boil the noodles, then put them through a ricer. I don’t know what she did to make it creamy. It was a bland, soupy glop. I added sugar to make it palatable. One of the kids’ team members, Justin, added peanut butter to the glop and said he liked it. As the week went on, we watched Justin put peanut butter on everything. I made a peanut butter sandwich with white bread, knowing I needed the protein. I brought beef jerky, almonds and energy bars to meet my protein needs.

I did get my precious coffee – strong, black Folgers, with a pinkish sugar that is different than the granulated stuff we see in America. I am an avowed coffee snob and haven’t lowered myself to drink Folgers in perhaps 10 years. There was no cream or milk, but I was happy, nonetheless. I didn’t care; it was caffeine.

We eat our meals in the dining room where a big table sits to your left as you enter. The cook places our food there and covers it with a fleece blanket. Maybe that’s how Haitians keep their meals warm. I do not recall eating any hair during the week. Roughly eight chairs line the outside of the room for us, as well as two coolers that contain our beloved water. Despite our request solely for water, the Haitians buy us Coca Colas, Sprites, grape soda (called raisin on its wrapper), orange soda but never diet sodas. Something tells me that Haitians don’t diet much. A large block of ice and the drinks are brought to us every morning. We never saw an ice cube during the week. The ice company simply stops on a city street and dumps the blocks on the road and sell them, first-come, first serve. Cash only.

Fixing the dual-hinged gates should have taken us no more than 5-6 hours. At 3:30, we finished hinging gate No. 1. Our main problem was the softness of the cement and bricks. When we start, there is a conglomeration of wood shims and nails holding everything together. If you know anything about cement, you know how difficult it is to hammer a nail into cement. That tells you how soft the cement is. 2 x 4s intermingle with 1 x 4s, and the depth of structure is never the same. Instead of 1-inch thick bolts, dozens of 16-penny nails hold the gate to the wall. Baling wire can be seen in two spots. The gates weigh about 200 pounds each.

We use 2 x 4s and anchor the gates with thicker bolts. We replace two of the four hinges with sturdier ones. We have to raise the gates 6 inches so that they don’t drag on the ground when rolled back. (Two days later, we discovered part of the problem; children riding on the gates.)

The flimsy cement is the core of our problem. Looking at the two gates, all we saw was gerry-rigging, something done for an instant solution when the proper tools or parts aren’t at hand, but it isn’t meant to be permanent. As we look at the parts of Haiti while driving around, we routinely see flimsy walls and homes made of brick whose cement has no structure because the locals have used too much water and too little cement.

With normal cement texture, it might take five minutes to go 3 inches; it takes us three. The problem was that the bolts would not seat; instead they easily pulled out of the wall after being hammered in. We decided to drill all the way through the foot-thick pillar, which took us 10 minutes.

Later in the day, one of my team members kicks a mason brick with soft shoes and it split in two. A few more kicks and the brick crumbled into several pieces. As we looked around the compound, we saw the same thing happening. A 7-foot tall brick wall was being constructed around the compound. Every 10 feet is the requisite vertical stabilizing pillar made of cement and rebar. Bill, the expert carpenter, tells us the rebar was put together hastily and was not well done. The pillars are meant to be sunk 3 feet under the ground for a wall that tall, but these stop at the ground. Bill tells us someone could hit the wall with a truck from the other side at 20 miles an hour and the entire wall (40 yards) would fall over en masse.

Brick buildings are supposed to be more stable than wood. Brick buildings are supposed to sway under severe pressure and not collapse. All around the complex, we can see pock marks from what looks like rocks being thrown against it.

Everywhere we drive, we see homes that crumbled in the earthquake. I estimate 1 in 10 survived. Even small, 10-foot x 10-foot homes are rubble. All around our hotel, we can see a dozen new brick structures going up that look like they are being built in the same, flimsy manner. Weak bricks, light cement and shoddy workmanship do not make a good combination.

Finally, we finished the gate project late in the afternoon. Because the original design was 4-inches too wide, the gates do not close completely. We decide not to cut 2 inches off the gate to make it fit snugly. We don’t think the Haitians will notice our gaffe

The heat isn’t so bad, but the humidity is draining. My goal is to drink eight 20-ounce Bleu water bottles, or 160 ounces, daily. My first day, I did not pee once. I get used to my shirt being soaked within 30 minutes of starting work. I keep a handkerchief around my neck and pour water over it throughout the day to cool off. I wear a golf cap to keep the sun off my head.

After one day, I realize how draining the heat can be. Even though I grew up in 110-degree heat in Arizona summers, we always had air conditioned cars, homes and offices to go to periodically. Every afternoon, I went swimming for 2-3 hours. The Haitians have none of those amenities we Americans have grown so accustomed to. Back home, I complain occasionally about our condo’s air conditioning system being busted. Never again.

The Haitians don’t seem to sweat much. Their dark skin equips them better for the horrible heat and humidity. They seem to drink far less water than we do, too.

At night, just before bedtime, I look around at the hills of this city of 150,000 people. During the day, I see remnants of homes (rubble, mostly) everywhere. At night, I see black and only a few, sporadic lights as I turn 360 degrees. There are no traffic lights, no city lights and no home lights, not even kerosene lanterns, to be seen. It is an eary.

Caption: Photo by Paul Phillips

Here we are with half of our completed gate with our two Haitian workers and one of our interpretors, Jean (far right). Most of the ideas came from Bill (to my left).

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