Wednesday, October 29, 2014

How None of Us Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Ebola

I cannot believe -- and yet, I can -- how Ebola in the USA has been twisted into a political issue.

Leave it to the U.S.of.A., where all-or-nothing is the name of the game. Last week, if you're one of my "smart" and "rational" friends, you were supposed to post to Facebook at least once a day that the "panic" about Ebola was unwarranted and that you were far more concerned about (take your pick:) measles/flu/guns/unvaccinated children/marrying a Kardashian. If you were one of my wary-of-Obama friends, you were supposed to unleash a screed about federal/CDC incompetence and insecure borders.  If you were in New York, you were encouraged to be nervous and show your support for the mayor's swift action in response to the guy who rode the subway and bowled, because apparently liking the mayor is politically acceptable. But whoa, once the governor of New Jersey got involved with a detained nurse, it was time to start ranting about human rights, because Christie is apparently scandalous and likes to play with the forces of disorder, and traffic, for reasons best known to himself, or maybe he's just a Republican and therefore is surely denying someone of some civil liberty or other at all times.

If you were, say, me, and you had been following the Ebola-in-West-Africa story since the middle of the summer, fascinated by the facts (note: facts) since well before last month when apparently the "American people" "began" "following" it, and you had spent three of the formative Ebola-in-North-America weeks getting your news in the E.U., you might just feel a little bewildered, as you so often do, by your countrypeople.

I don't actually know a single person who is panicked about catching Ebola, but I do know a whole lot of people responding to "all" the "panic." For one thing, every journalist who writes a line like "folks are in a panic about Ebola" should be required to cite three examples of the alleged "panic" before continuing with the story. On the other hand, delightful stories about the good-humored cruise ship passengers, grateful for their vouchers and compensation from the "SS Ebola" that was not allowed to dock in Mexico, are much appreciated.

Now, regarding quarantines: you're supposed to pick a side here, too, of course, but all of the To Quarantine or Not to Quarantine talk obscures the actual issue, which is a lack of globally organized official universally enforced protocol.

As for Kaci Hickox, my goodness. Regarding how she comes across in the media, is this really the best she can do? My understanding is that she is trying to be some kind of light on a hill, speaking up and speaking out on behalf of all those (all? who?) who will come after and be subject to the terrible deprivations of human rights she experienced and blah, blah, blah. Well, I find her a bit annoying, to be honest. Why? Because I read her editorial. Her actual words (or, if ghostwritten, which I suppose is likely, the actual words she is claiming for her own). They were pretty terrible, those words. Lots of emotional manipulation (but, the C-minus kind, that actually fails to manipulate, thus not even rising to the level of a movie based on a Nicholas Sparks book) and a whole lot of intellectual disconnect, which is never exactly reassuring in a nurse. I mean, come on, lady. "What had I done wrong?" She said that a lot. "Wondering why this was happening to me." Are you actually serious? I mean, do you actually have any access to any media whatsoever? Yeah, uh, that's why this is "happening" to you, fresh off the plane from Sierra Leone. And just kind of by the way, leave your exhausting-layover-poor-pitiful-me -two-days-of-international-travel out of it. Because get over it. You're not the only person who has crossed an ocean and been tired upon arriving in your homeland. Enough. Whoever wanted a poster child for the Don't-Overreact-to-Ebola cause picked the wrong one. (Although, I am painfully aware that in a world where The Hunger Games and Gone Girl are considered to be well written, she might actually, tragically be the right one.)

I suppose there's nothing to be done if Amber Vinson and Craig Spencer and Kaci Hickox (oh, Andy, if you only knew how very many ways there are to get your fifteen!) want to be all defiantly cavalier about being out and about in the world, what with their professional know-how and their it's-so-hard-to-catch, and they want to go gallivanting off to bowling night and wedding planning weekend and other essential life events in the hours before they become symptomatic, but the disingenuous cries of what's-everybody-in-a-fuss-about have just got to stop. People are concerned (note: not in a fuss, actually, turns out) because they do not want a hemorrhagic fever that causes them to bleed and spew from multiple openings. They would like to just learn about interesting developing new stories in the world without having everyone falling all over themselves to prove that they are not hysterical by inventing more hysteria about the alleged hysteria. Being interested in Ebola does not mean "I am terrified I'm going to catch it," Wondering just what the hell a 21-day monitoring period consists of when it doesn't consist of, you know, monitoring is actually a fairly rational question.

And don't even get me started about the heroes. Actually, I'm a little shocked and awed (see what I did there?) by how quickly people have taken to this whole healthcare-volunteers-in-Africa-are-heroes storyline, particularly because of the word choice. "These heroes should be respected upon their return," intone the talking heads (and writing hands). "Heroes," says Obama. "Heroes," says Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois. Heroes, heroes, heroes. What must our military heroes be thinking in response to this outright theft of their moniker?? All those thousands and thousands of soldiers out there around the world "defending" "our" "way of life" from the people who "hate freedom" must be good and pissed that a bunch of life savers are taking their label away.

But are the healthcare workers really heroes? Really?  Well, maybe. Doctors Without Borders is one of the greatest organizations known to humankind. Important parts of my life have been inspired by it, clearly (I'll give the slow among you a chance to get your heads around that one). (Hint: scroll up.) But the barrage of heroes-heroes-heroes in the media is gross and unnecessary for the usual reasons: 1. It's being carefully applied, have you noticed?, to United Statesians who trot off from the United States to West Africa to help fight disease before returning to the United States where they should be welcomed by their fellow United Statesians. My goodness, why don't any other nationalities send doctors and nurses to West Africa...oh wait. Right. 2. Like so very, very many things that are uttered, it says more about the speaker than the person being described. Just like the patriotic hearts-a-flutter folks who dutifully thank the military heroes every other month when a national holiday rolls around (they're allowed to take Columbus Day off), these "health care workers are heroes" people say it and then feel satisfied, as if their work here is done, now that they've busted out the h-word. No need for actual thoughtful discourse or critical thought. "I like heroes! See! I'm a good person! Now, get me back to my high-def LCD air-conditioned gas-guzzling meat-eating gluten-free vacuous oblivious life."

By the way, have you heard? If we quarantine these heroes-- or even sometimes if we monitor them, depending on whom you ask -- when they return from West Africa, then this will deter other heroes from going to help. Because, you know. The people who volunteer internationally, the ones who have medical expertise and know-how and are willing and able to travel to the location of a disease outbreak and who spend time on the ground in West Africa..? Yeah, they're going to be okay signing on for all that, but shit, throw in three weeks of monitoring when they get back, in the comfort of their home, while they decompress from the trip? That's it, people! The deal's off!  What the hell? It's almost as if the people talking about what international volunteers think don't have any actual international volunteer experience or something...

I'll just be over here in the corner with people who won't call someone a "hero" if s/he loses his/her shit when faced with the prospect of a 21-day monitoring period and would actually let that alter his/her plans to travel to West Africa to help with this crisis.

But that's just this week's narrative. The previous two weeks it was all about travel bans. Travel bans bad, chanted the forces of smart/rational people (who know all about this because...well, anyway, they're bad). Deny the visas, chanted the forces of psychosis who don't seem to understand how life works, for example, that the consular process of getting a visa doesn't happen overnight, or even overweek or often overmonth, so the people arriving from Liberia today on a visa didn't apply for it this past Monday, okay?

I heard that British Airways suspended its commercial flights in and out of Liberia weeks before the Dallas saga began. Frankly, I found this the tiniest bit reassuring when I boarded a British Airways flight out of Poland a few weeks ago, in the midst of the EU diagnoses, unlike the Dallas-Cleveland Frontier Airlines passengers felt shortly thereafter. But the larger point is about this whole travel-bans-don't-help-they-actually-make-it-worse narrative that you are required to adopt if you want to be one of the cool people. Sure, piecemeal, unenforced, uncoordinated travel bans don't work. But truly enforced ones might, because a disease cannot spread if it isn't spread. Should we all be worried about Ebola spreading uncontrollably? No, in fact, we should not. Because contact tracing and proper protective gear and other accepted Ebola processes will work, if allowed to do their thing. But that's not a reason to pretend you know all about travel bans when you've never in your life considered them before this month.

I assure you, nay, I guarantee you that I am at least as passionately in favor of international travel and freedom of movement as you are. Let me tell you a little story. When I was in Cuba (behold! exhibit A in my see-I-really-mean-it-that-people-should-be-able-to-travel-wherever-they-want case), I was based in Havana but also traveled to other areas during my time there: Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Vales, the Isla de la Juventud, Varadero, etc. One place my travel companion and I wanted to visit was Santiago de Cuba, way at the other end of the island (near Guantanamo, for anyone keeping political score at home). Unfortunately, we couldn't travel to Santiago because there was an official quarantine due to an outbreak of I think dengue fever. (Forgive me, as I was still very much sinking-or-swimming in my Spanish and some of the talk about it involving the eye symptoms confused me, but I think it was dengue.) No going in or out. But we really wanted to go to Santiago...and how long does this quarantine last...and as a 22-year-old from the spoiled USA no one tells me what to do...sure, maybe those thoughts passed through my ingenue head, and guess what? Too bad. No Santiago travel. And guess what else? The disease didn't spread across the island. The outbreak was contained. And the sassy muchachitas had to live without Santiago on their itinerary. I'm just saying, maybe what we need here is the heavy hand of communism!

I'll let you all decide for yourselves how serious I am about that last part. I lived in China during a bird flu season, and hey, I appreciated the posters that appeared in my apartment building lobby illustrating hand-washing and how to properly deal with a chicken. Good lookin' out, man. I also had forehead-sensing thermometers pointed at me every time I crossed between the mainland and Hong Kong. I did not react by writing pitiful editorials demanding to know what I had done to deserve this fate. A few years ago, when I traveled to Tajikistan, it just so happened that there had been some cases of polio there. Polio? Who had ever thought about polio in the past decade? Turns out, Afghanistan (which helpfully borders Tajikistan), Pakistan, India, Nigeria, and a handful of other countries, that's who. Also WHO: a World Health Organization worker was deployed at the gate of our flight and we had to either take her offered up polio booster droplets (who knew?!) or waive the vaccine, attesting that we'd been vaccinated. You know what? That was awesome! I like when there are people in charge, and the people in charge are in charge, and not a bunch of jabbering minions who want to make sure they're on all the right sides politically but just end up saying a lot of stupid crap.

No one (that I know) is picking on anyone. No one is disrespecting health care workers. But frankly, all my United Statesian peeps who are so eager to talk about how "We don't have to worry" are just revealing that, as usual, their self-centered worldviews don't include empathy for thousands of people in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea who would possibly like to "worry" and make sure precautions are taken, and who may well be in favor of following protocols that might inconvenience someone just a teensy bit.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reflections on the Poland Habitat experience

What better way to take a final look back at my Habitat for Humanity experience in Poland than to interview myself? Let's see what I have to say...
(questions stolen from a totally different interview with a different person about a different trip) 

Why did you decide to travel to Poland with Habitat for Humanity? 
This was my fourth Global Village trip with Habitat. It's funny--I was initially looking at going to Poland when I first ever applied for a Habitat trip back in 2005, but a variety of things led to me not doing that trip and moving to Korea at that time instead. Then and now, I was into the idea of traveling to Poland, the land of one-fourth of my heritage and, specifically, my last name's origin, as it's a heritage my sister, dad, aunts, et. al. and I have always been aware and yet not aware enough of. My Polish great-grandparents came to the U.S. a little before World War I. Of course, since 2005 I have now traveled to Honduras, Tajikistan, and Cambodia for Habitat builds, and I have set a goal for myself to do more Habitat projects and to do them in different regions of the world. So, I've now done Central America, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe. My next volunteer trip will be in a new (to me) region.

What things did you like? 
Practically everything! Poland was such a pleasant place to be. Cool people, intense history, beautiful sights, EU progress, sooooo  much delicious food, stuff to see and do, cheap beer, I could go on... but I adored Warsaw, and I liked Krakow and Poznan, too, in their own ways, and the experience of visiting Auschwitz was mind-altering. And those were just my side travels; the actual build experience and the time spent with fellow volunteers and the Barka community were inspirational. I also liked the Palac Wasowo manor estate/hotel where we stayed and the wonderful Polish cats. 

What didn't you like? 
Thinking about where the outdoor cats spend the cold Poland winters. I suppose the hardy ones I saw are the ones who have survived thus's such a tough world we live in, not that some of us humans would know. 

What was your favorite experience? 
Of the Habitat build, probably the opening night barbecue at which the Barka community hosted us and we shared life stories and grilled kielbasa over the fire and learned about this inspiring organization's work (previously discussed here). Of Poland, it's hard to say, partly because it's weird to call Auschwitz my "favorite," but that was definitely a hugely meaningful life experience, visiting there.

Did you have any problems traveling in Poland? 
Hmmm... I'd say no. There were a few OK-let's-figure-this-out moments when initially using Warsaw's train transport, or buying bus tickets in broken-Polish-broken-English conversations, that kind of thing, but I found traveling in Poland to be really smooth and great.

What other countries did you visit and how does Poland compare?
On this trip, I just did a day in Berlin on the way and then a layover at Heathrow on the way out. I suppose we could discuss the needless complexities of Heathrow here, but let's leave that for another day! Comparing Poland to the other three countries where I've done Habitat builds, let's see... Poland is obviously less hot-and-steamy than Honduras and Cambodia, and less remote than Tajikistan. Unlike Honduras (and, to some extent, Cambodia), you aren't bombarded with what seems like wall-to-wall poverty and devastation at every turn. Poland and Cambodia have both been the site of recent genocides, and it is sobering to visit the sites and grapple with that history. Poland and Tajikistan are both relatively recently de-occupied by Russia/Soviets, and it's interesting to discuss that, although we were much more able to discuss that in Poland, for language reasons.

What image did you have of Poland before traveling there, and how did your image change? 
Gosh, it's hard to remember and conjure up my pre-trip visuals, now. I mean, the old notion of the Warsaw/Eastern Europe/gray-urban-landscape image isn't exactly what I would have predicted, but there was definitely something a little bit more sleek and gritty to urban Warsaw as opposed to arty/touristy areas of Krakow or the brightly colored almost sing-songy feel to the old market square in Poznan. I think I pictured some open spaces of farmland, and the reality of the countryside matched my image of that. Next time I go to a new country, I suppose I should write down in advance what I envision/predict and then compare it upon my return.

Would you like to come back? 
And how!!  I totally considered my trip reconnaissance and spent a bunch of the time plotting return trips with Brian and with my sister/Napikoski family. 

What would you recommend to someone considering traveling to Poland or doing a Habitat for Humanity build?
First of all, I totally recommend doing a Habitat build in Poland, as the organization there is totally helpful and great. Secondly, I do recommend doing a Habitat build, and my recommendation for those in general is that you have an open mind, get lots of sleep, work slowly and steadily, and talk to people, even with only a word or two of a foreign language. And I absolutely recommend Poland as a travel destination. It's affordable and easy, and there's so  much interesting history. Definitely do Warsaw and Krakow, but don't just do Warsaw and Krakow. Include other cities on your itinerary, like Poznan, Wroclaw, Bialystok, etc. See the countryside and national parks. And don't rush in and out of Auschwitz--stay the night in Oświęcem, so you can take all the hours you want visiting, and you don't have to do the end-of-afternoon bus scramble. The Hotel Olecki, which is right across the parking lot, is great and it was a good place to be able to sit and reflect on all you've just learned and experienced. 

Any final thoughts? 
Regarding World War II and the devastation Poland and Poles endured, just the usual: "When will we ever learn?"  At any rate, let's try to keep traveling and learning.
Also! I loved that everywhere I went in Poland, people love Chicago and basically consider it a Polish city (ha ha, but kind of true) and they also all said the same thing when I mentioned the city where my great-grandparents were born: "Ahh, Lomza? There's a famous beer made there..."

Friday, October 10, 2014

Transport Tales : Hazards of Leaving Poland

I wrapped up my stay in Lomza, city of my great-grandmother's birth, and headed to the dworzec to catch my bus back to Warszawa. I amused myself when I went to wait on the outdoor platform. I had my choice of benches and opted to sit next to the two men smoking instead of next to the one woman eating. I thought that not many people I know would make the same choice.

There's nothing quite like waking up to a 5am text that your noon flight is cancelled. There's also nothing like getting a voucher for a tasty airport lunch and beer to enjoy while waiting for your new evening flight. There's probably something like watching hours of continuous "Are we, the EU, prepared for Ebola?" coverage, but I'm not sure what that something is. A post-apocalypse mini-series script read through, perhaps?

By the way, the answer changes. It's alternately cautious optimism and steadily increasing doom saying. As I mentioned on Facebook, there's more than my survival-level Polish leading to a lack of clarity when a government minister says Poland is prepared for an outbreak and then an academic expert says Polish hospitals aren't prepared for Ebola patients.

What exactly is the proper response to seeing two security guards running through the airport? I mean,  at a full-out run/chase speed? Followed by more security guards, walking briskly? Followed by more uniformed people? Followed by every single passenger looking and neck-craning in that direction but unable to see what happened? Are we supposed to keep calm and go back to the ebola coverage? Or just go find some secondhand smoke to inhale?

Monday, October 06, 2014

When a Habitat build ends...what else begins?

Time passes interestingly when you're on a volunteer trip with Habitat for Humanity. In my experience, the first two days of the build always seem longer, as you sloooowly learn how to do what you're doing, work with new materials, work with new people, get accustomed to the work site, settle in to your accommodations and routine, practice the language, etc.

Our work, in progress
Then, the third day, often a Wednesday, all of a sudden the week seems to accelerate and the next few days go by in a blur. Regardless of the length of the build (mine have ranged, but usually the trip is between one to two weeks), the second-to-last day seems to go a bit more quickly in the afternoon, like all of a sudden it's almost time to be over. The last day often has a last-day-of-school feeling, although there's no pithy "See you next year!" tossed off in the yearbook signing, because there's a good chance you might not ever again see these people with whom you have worked, sweated, and broken bread.

I loved pretty much everything about Poland and traveling there, and turns out the Habitat project itself was also great. As I've previously blog-mentioned, we were building a house for a man who was part of the Barka community of Marszewo, near Nowy Tomysl, west of Poznan, Poland. We, the baker's dozen volunteers, worked with him, our Habitat Poland coordinator, our local construction supervisor, and several other locals. Besides our coordinators, only one of the local guys spoke English, so there was definitely some opportunity to practice my Polish here and there. To be honest, when I'm with twelve people who can't speak a word and only one other North American with any grasp of bits of the language (beyond those who had early in the week mastered "piwo" for "beer"), even my minimal skills could come off as impressive once in a while, simply for being able to ask where something is or tell someone I understand. "Ahhh, you speak Polish very well!" they would respond in Polish. Ha! Don't worry, they'd quickly realize the truth. But it's fun to have even basic conversations, like, "I like the cat." "Me too." 

There's Donna, up to her elbows in the mud tub
The whole mud-straw-clay mixture process was one of the dirtier jobs I've done in this world, and I think it will be forever embedded in my Habitat Poland t-shirt and the shoes I wore on the work site, so those might never again be fit for normal daily wear. Our site was really well organized, and I got to try a few different jobs during the course of the build. I enjoyed the inside wall sanding/smoothing work the most. But the whole week was great, and I enjoyed the tunes and language acquisition I got by listening to the Polish radio station, too! Once in a while, the guys had to unplug the radio from the extension cord in order to plug in a drill temporarily and I would be eager for it to come back on. 

And, I've already mentioned that the animals on this site were great: the three wonderful cats, the frolicking puppies (really, dogs, but I basically call any dog that I like a "puppy"), the goats who would come say hi when I walked toward their fence and said, "Hey, goats!", the poor pigs who live inside a pen their whole lives, the chickens with their daily greetings...

As I've told a few folks, I think it's really important to go work on a Habitat volunteer project, and not just because I believe in the cause of eradicating poverty housing. I spend a lot of time inside my head and/or staring at a computer screen, and I need to make myself go do real work in the world. Sure, for the physical exercise of it, but also for the mental. Get out of that inner space and out into the world. 

As the wise Girls sing, which I've surely quoted here before, "Now I know a refuge never grows/from a chin in a hand and a thoughtful pose/gotta tend the Earth if you want a rose." (that would be Indigo Girls from "Hammer and a Nail"--feel free to play it while you read this blog entry!) I've been listening to that song for more than 20 years now (um--gulp!), and I understand what Emily Saliers means when she looks back on her early lyrics and cringes and sees them as pedantic or wishes she could change them...but really, once you actually do "go out and get a hammer and a nail," you do totally get it, in a way that's even deeper than when you sat in your bedroom playing that song (on cassette) over and over as a teenager. I don't really think she needs to worry too much. I mean, lines like "even my sweat smells clean..." are still, well, true!

"Loft"-y concepts, indeed
And sure, maybe she would tinker with the words and the poetry, I get that, but to actually try to make your life more than a vision, to "get out of bed and get a hammer and a nail" on so many levels, is really a decent goal. Don't worry, Emily! Your youthful expression of this lofty concept still resonates. 

One thing we talked about in multiple discussions while in Poland, including one great dinner conversation with the national director of Habitat Poland, was the immense challenge of solving the housing problem. But another thing we talked about was how many of us on this trip have worked with Habitat for a while and we observe it changing and growing, something that is crucial to any organization's success and effectiveness. It's not all about getting out there (with a hammer and a nail) building a new house, but Habitat also does advocacy work, building with eco-friendly materials, renovations, and so on. I personally love that Habitat works to restore and renovate urban housing (including in U.S. cities) because I think that is what we all should be doing (hello, developers, are you listening?)  As someone who grew up in Phoenix, I have certainly observed the endless suburban sprawl, encroaching every month further upon the beautiful Arizona desert, while people demand more and more space (and then wonder why there are scorpions in their bathroom...)  I may hate millennials (that's a long-running inside joke; don't try to understand it if you don't understand it) , but if they as a generation (if) are more interested in neighborhoods in urban centers than driving to a subdivision every day, they've got one thing right, anyway. I would love to see a moratorium on new home construction (oh my god, you can just hear the heart attacks that economists and politicians would have upon reading that line) and a major societal push (with financial incentives) to build, restore, renovate, and live in already-existing neighborhoods, in cities that have deteriorated AND in cities that have grown by flying ever outward and eating up the land. 

(I might add that any of you who freak out about house cats killing birds and therefore advocate keeping cats imprisoned inside for their whole lives? might want to consider your !@#&%* subdivision's part in clear cutting and destroying birds' habitats, not to mention your endless malls and parking lots, and you might want to stop blaming the cats, who would much rather control the mouse population in the city for you anyway, and then everybody wins.)

Well, back to the U.S.A. I come with all my Poland and Habitat thoughts, and all my cares in the world. Gifts to bring, as Emily and Amy sing. Gifts to bring...

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Poznan, or
Go west, young/old Poland traveler

It seems that most travelers to Poland start with Krakow, Warsaw, and Gdansk. That's fine, of course, but they also tend to end there.
I hereby urge you, in the paraphrased words of my least favorite White House occupier of all time, "Don't forget Poznan!"

Poland has a really interesting history. Of course, I've been aggressively reading stuff from and about Poland in preparation for this Habitat trip, but I've found it worthwhile to explore, whether you think you have a reason to be interested in Poland or not. Interestingly, as the trip approached, I happened to be on FDR in my read-a-bio-of-every-president-in-order project, so I had tons of context for all the WWII  and pre-war history, and I also happened to have Holocaust- themed novels on tap by Styron and Amis in my A-to-Z project further reading, so I've been drowning in Auschwitz, which, frankly, I recommend. I mean, I recommend visiting there, and doing a ton of reading to attempt to grapple with it, because grappling with it is tough. But also, the preceding centuries of Poland history are equally fascinating and relevant to world history.

Poznan old market square, which around here we call a Stary Rynek
In some ways, Poland is like good ol' Korea, sandwiched between powerful and/or power- hungry empires that have invaded/occupied/partitioned/oppressed it over the years, but both Korea and Poland have managed to maintain their identity, culture, and language. Good job, guys.

Poznan is a very interesting prism through which to view all this. It has more of a German influence than Warsaw and eastern Poland, and it has a certain proudly-of-German-heritage-but-totally-Polish population and more people with German last names, but also it was the site of an insistent uprising in 1918, when independent Poland was being reestablished after many years, when the Treaty of Versailles hadn't done enough, and Wielkopolska was like,  Dude, we are Poland! Don't go putting us in Germany!

And for good reason, because this is basically where Poland started back in the day, by which I mean 1,000 years ago.
Where the goats do their thing
 Krakow is an old, pre-Warsaw capital, but if you want the site of the first stuff, the first cathedrals, the first dukes' and kings' hangouts, you need to check out Poznan (and nearby Gniezno).

And check out Poznan we did. Our guide, Simon, led us on a seven-hour walking tour. Highlights include:
*The old market square, bombed in the war of course, but restored and super cute
*The goats in the clock tower who fight when the clock strikes noon-- no, they're not real. They're a fun mechanical recreation of the two legendary goats who escaped being the meal at a royal feast
*A big ol' church built by the Jesuits in mega baroque gold and fake gold splendour
*Cathedral island, where even now, centuries-old secrets continue to be revealed
*St. Martin croissants, totally a thing in Poznan, which we learned to make in a very funny interactive show/demonstration that happened to end with me winning an extra croissant for coming closest to guessing the weight in grams of the croissant that we as a group made. Actually, the weight was between what I said and what another audience member said, but by The Price Is Right rules I win because the other person overbid.
I won!

*An imaginative and high tech experience at a museum that uses audio, visual, films, holograms, models, and more to explore Poznan history

And later, our new friend Piotr, the young Polish construction supervisor
A noble Poznan cat
on our work site who has lived in Poznan for seven years, showed us a night out on the town. Have I mentioned that there is a lot of beer in Poland?

Here's to another great millennium, Poznan!

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Working on a Building

On each of my four Habitat for Humanity volunteer projects, I have encountered a different style of house and different building materials.
Dennis surveys our work
Here in Marszewo, Beyond Poznan, Poland, we're working with clay "bricks" of clay/mud/straw that are big and heavy -- kind of the size of a breadbox, actually-- and that I probably should have taken a picture of rather than trying to describe. You can kind of see them in this picture to the right, there below the wood.

This is basically what I spent the first two days of the build doing, usually with Dennis as my partner, although on Tuesday afternoon I switched to working with Rick, and I noticed that I got a lot dirtier working with him. Rick apparently just likes to splash plaster and muddy water all over (me) without a second thought.

The upstairs scene
Of course, this upstairs work was nothing compared to Wednesday, when I moved outside to mixing. That involves pouring the clay mud liquid into a bathtub, adding straw, and mixing it together using our hands and arms, until it solidifies into the plaster we use inside for sticking the giant bricks together. It is impossible not to get very muddy during this task, despite the use of rubber gloves, and the cool, damp, gray weather kept the ground nice and muddy, too. This mixing is also a very muscle intensive job. Yea, workout!

This whole clay house thing, by the way, is very environmentally friendly, although some people in the area are confused as to why our homeowner wants to build using natural materials like they did 100 years ago or longer. Some other Barka people who have received land and will be building houses decided to wait and check out how this eco-house project went before committing themselves to the same kind of house. They remain a bit skeptical. We remain more than a bit muddy.