Monday, May 31, 2010

"Let no one shirk..."

I realize that I haven't talked much yet about the house-building in Tajikistan. There was so much more to the Habitat trip than the house-building of course, which is part of the point. For example, the man of the house where we worked? Could do the work of five of us, in less time. Maybe with one of his hands tied behind his back.

We were in the village of Shulonak in the Rasht valley, twenty minutes or so drive down the road from the Garm city center. (Don't forget that when I say "city" center I'm just teasing you a little bit. Besides the center, there ain't much city. I'll get the Garm pictures up here any day now so you can have a look.) This being a super-mountainous country, it's prone to earthquakes and has had some that damaged a lot of homes. It also happens to be a place where the mulberry trees grow plentifully. And just like that, Habitat is working with families to restore damaged homes, rebuilding the mud walls and reinforcing them with mulberry.

Tying the mulberry into reinforcing grids was my favorite job - because it was easier, I confess, than the other choices. The other choices required a whole lot of arm muscle and a whole lot of mud. I pitifully lacked the former, but was rather quickly plunged into the latter.

I spent the entire first day and half of the next day flinging mud at the wall frame of a house. This is not as easy as it sounds. You have to pick up very large clumps of heavy mud. You have to fling them - hard - with one arm. The mud sticks with a kind of spreading splotch, you hope. Sometimes it falls. Falling is not so good. It takes a while to get the hang of throwing the mud. After you throw the mud for a while, you start to empathize with baseball pitchers. If you're right-handed, like me, you feel it not just in your right upper arm but also in your left hamstring. You try to keep your form good so you don't also feel it too much in your back.

By the middle of day two, I pointed out that major league pitchers are usually given rest and not asked to pitch two days in a row. I was seriously in need of a bullpen.

But like I said, our homeowner shepherd, who was not out tending his flock because he was working with us on rebuilding and reinforcing the walls (his brother was substituting as the flock tender, we were told), was so much stronger than us it was kind of pitiful. He could cover a ten-square-foot area of wall in the time it took us to do two square feet, I swear. The first day he would watch for a bit, then step in to demonstrate his technique when he just couldn't take it anymore. Then he would go outside to put the mud-mixing crew to shame. I also tried my hand at that mixing job, the next day. Bad idea - that took even more muscle! I need to do some serious pull-ups before my next Habitat trip.

The homeowner's niece, who also lives around there with the family in the next house up the hill, was around a lot. She's about 18, and she brought us bread for lunch and helped watch the two small boys, and just generally hung around sometimes. On the first day, after a morning of building curiosity, she finally came up and started talking to me. Of course, she spoke in Tajik. I didn't have a flying clue what she was saying except I caught "Tojiki" (Tajik) and knew she referred to the mud and walls at some point. Mind you, I was working in a mud-splattered t-shirt and jeans, goggles, a backwards cap perched on my head, and sopping wet muddy gloves. I kind of looked like an alien, or possibly like someone fighting aliens in a terrible movie. After I summoned our translator, I learned that she was asking, "Why are you [a female] doing such dirty work?" Good question, sister friend.

Over the next few days we got to be pretty friendly with the family. By the third day, we were teaching our homeowner and some others to sing "Head, Shoulder, Knees and Toes." Not a particularly brilliant choice, but one that we all knew and it did have some English vocabulary-learning potential. He totally dug it. He requested it from us many more times that day and the next day. We even performed it for his wife and for the grandma patriarch of the family at some point. I also took my turn performing some classic Tajik song they taught me line by line. I bet I sounded like a total idiot. It was awesome.

The two young boys were adorable. They hung around a lot too, usually being cute, occasionally causing some trouble. The two-year-old wandered off at one point, making it all the way to the village school before niece went to retrieve him. The four-year-old schooled us all in donkey-riding. He also climbed the dirt mountain that awaited mud mixing, and then he began throwing big dirt clots around. Inspired, I grabbed one of the mulberry sticks and motioned for him to throw the clot my way. When I made contact, his face lit up and we had a new favorite game. I hope he gets to play baseball someday! He was totally into it. Maybe he should have been inside throwing mud with us, too.

So while this Habitat trip, much like my first Global Village build, totally reminded me how little upper body strength I have, it also reminded me that when it comes to traveling and exchanging interactions with people, there is always some "work" that any of us can do, despite our weaknesses.

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