A Volunteer Vacation - Trip report

Jul 3rd, 2003, 05:11 AM
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A Volunteer Vacation - Trip report

I was feeling a bit too comfortable with my abundant lifestyle, so I joined a Habitat for Humanity build in Portugal. This organization uses volunteers to help construct homes for a needy families.

Our team was composed of 8 Americans and 2 Canadians, ranging in age from two recent high school grads to our 53 year old team leader. We were a mix of students, a lawyer, a teacher and an ER nurse. A few members of the group had done previous builds in New Zealand and Alaska, but most were like me with plenty of enthusiasm but no construction skills. We quickly discovered that this did not matter as manual labor requires very little actual talent.

Our group stayed at a small inn and shared rooms. Mornings were a quick routine: we rose, pulled on the filthy shorts from the day before, and perhaps a clean t shirt, then met the public bus for a 20 minute ride through the rolling countryside to the worksite.

The clay block home we were building was one story with 3 bedrooms, a living room , kitchen and a bathroom. If all went according to plan, the Velosa family would be moving in by October. Mother, father and the 2 daughters were on the site regularly, working alongside us.

The Velosas present home was the size of the typical American living room. However this living room had a ceiling that was rotting and appeared to be caving in. The room had been divided by hanging bedsheets that formed two windowless bedrooms. Mrs. Velosa had made a slipcover for the sofa, and framed family pictures. The block outhouse was next to what I guess would be called the kitchen shed. I never saw a dining table, only a stove.

On the worksite, some of our team would mix cement, some would build block walls, some would dig foundation trenches for the back patio. We rotated as boredom or muscle aches dictated.

Lunch was served at the local restaurant, a 10 minute walk away. We all crammed around 2 picnic tables while the hanging TV blared a Portuguese game show. The neighborhood constuction workers and farmers seemed to enjoy this program, or perhaps it was us who provided their entertainment as they were clearly amused by our untidy appearance.

We dined family style on platters of steaming cod or chicken served with potatoes and rice, all washed down with orange Fanta soda. The Portuguese believe the midday meal must be hot, no matter that the outside temperature is over 100 degrees. I would have to say our most memorable meal was a chunky brown melange. It was called cow stew. Ahhh, beef, we repeated. We were again told this was not beef, but cow and there was indeed a distinction. In the land of people known as the Tripe Eaters, I made the personal decision to have a Magnum ice cream bar for lunch that day.
Queenie is offline  
Jul 3rd, 2003, 05:12 AM
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Continued -

In the late afternoon, we would wash the cement mixer and buckets, then meander to the bus stop. Dinner was often pizza , with the priority being speed rather than flavor so we could make our 9 pm. appointment with the pillow.

On the site we were supervised by a Portuguese duo: Jose Silva Luis whom we simply called ?Senhor?, and his gruff sidekick Manuel, who looked disturbingly like Moe from the Three Stooges. Senhor was in his sixties with a shock of silver hair, a sparkle in his eye, and amazing energy. Neither Manuel nor Senhor spoke English, but we did have an interpreter.

Most days I preferred to work on the roof as the view was magnificent : a patchwork of grape vines and garden plots leading down to a lazy brown river. Senhor showed me how to set roof tiles and stucco as he conjugated verbs in Portuguese and I repeated after him.

As time passed, we all settled into a familiar rhythm of building and sharing life in rural Portugal. We kept in the groove for 2 weeks as the house progressed with remarkable speed. I returned home with my body a mosaic of tan lines, scratches, and mottled bruises. It was a small price to pay for the extraordinary people I met and the lightness in my heart.

Queenie is offline  
Jul 3rd, 2003, 05:21 AM
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Thanks for sharing a wonderful report.
cd is offline  
Jul 3rd, 2003, 05:28 AM
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Hi Queenie,

Thanks for the report. I nominate you for Traveler of the Year.
ira is offline  
Jul 5th, 2003, 04:21 PM
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Queenie, you are indeed to be commended. What an experience!
LVSue is offline  
Jul 5th, 2003, 06:22 PM
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Queenie, that is a beautiful report. Would you mind telling us what you had to pay to go on this mission? I think you've sold me.
Jul 6th, 2003, 04:27 AM
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Queenie, you are my new hero!! Great idea on posting this unique traveling experience, how refreshing! You have actually inspired me in researching this a bit more. Please post websites, any link that would spread this wonderful work. I work as an engineer and know some great people that could also make quite a contribution in such a setting. Thank you, you are tops!
Jul 7th, 2003, 12:24 PM
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The Global Village link takes you to international projects and http://www.habitat.org/gv/schedule.asp lists the projects (according to the woman I spoke with, the project list for 2004 will begin to be posted in September with updates 1-2 times per week).

Queenie, what a fabulous report and very inspiring ... already completed my application and am waiting for the 2004 schedule. Thanks for the wonderful idea.
Chicago_Heather is offline  
Jul 8th, 2003, 03:09 AM
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Oh my, how embarassing. I am certainly no Mother Theresa type.

Guess I was getting a bit weary of the London and Paris trip reports...

There are often questions posted ?how not to look like a tourist? or ?where to go off the beated Path? On this type of trip, you really arent a tourist.

Thanks for the website, Heather - thats the one . Click on Global Village. I was able to sign up last minute - about 3 weeks before the trip - using just the telephone and internet.

The trips are all around 2 weeks in length. Cost varies, but mine was $1400, with $350 of that going directly to the Portugal affiliate for funding future houses. Most include a few days touring the area.

Finally, I wanted to add that you only work as strenuously as as you feel comfortable with. If you don't like heights, you don?t need to work on the roof. There are jobs at all intensity levels.
Some "jobs" involve playing games with the local children...
Queenie is offline  
Jul 8th, 2003, 10:15 AM
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hmmmm...this sounds like a good idea for us, too...now while we're in good enough shape to do this kind of physical labor....
uhoh_busted is offline  
Aug 4th, 2004, 01:43 PM
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Queenie, just wanted to thank you, again, for bringing this program to me attention. I'm signed up for a trip next March and am really looking forward to it.

Thank you!
Chicago_Heather is offline  
Aug 4th, 2004, 01:53 PM
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Sorry, Queenie, but you violated several rules of the Fodors arbiters of travel etiquette:

You wore shorts and a t-shirt in Europe.
You were with a group of Americans.
You declined to eat some of the local food.

This makes you just another bad American tourist, no matter what you say.

(Yes, I'm kidding.)
KT is offline  
Aug 4th, 2004, 01:54 PM
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Actually, PT is by no means the poorest nor most backward country one might visit safely and make a far larger difference.
mikemo is offline  
Aug 4th, 2004, 03:12 PM
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this is fabulous, what a wonderful thing to do and to "visit" also!
Some day , after the kids are gone, that would be a great idea, but as I will then be in my mid-late 50's , it is also good to know that one can have options as to their "work"
Thanks for sharing !
nanb is offline  
Aug 4th, 2004, 03:46 PM
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Wonderful!! Thanks for posting this
Scarlett is offline  
Aug 4th, 2004, 03:54 PM
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What can I say the others haven't already. It's a great idea to give back to a community and really help where it's needed! Habitat for Humanity is a great organization.

I can't think of anyone's "trip report" that would be able to top a working vacation or volunteer vacation like your's for a humanitarian or conservation organization!

divewop is offline  
Aug 4th, 2004, 04:14 PM
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Habitat is a worthy cause even here at home. We have willed our home to them because we have no children.
cigalechanta is offline  
Aug 4th, 2004, 04:50 PM
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What a great report! Thanks so much for the website, it is one for the 'favourites' list and a possible future trip ourselves.

Sue_xx_yy is offline  
Aug 4th, 2004, 04:51 PM
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Wow! Queenie, I'm in awe! Boy, do I feel like a slacker!

Sure, I work with the defenseless, demented, and dispossessed every day, but I do so entirely in the comfort of an air conditoned office and what's worse, do it for money.

Queenie, you have my deepest admiration and respect. Hard physical labor on your own dime and your own time is proof positive of a committment to ideals more comfortably (and more frequently) embraced in discussion than practice.

What a great feeling of accomplishment you've earned, a sense of deserving the things you have, and the space you occupy on this planet.

Good for you! You make us proud by association.
Croque_Madame is offline  
Aug 4th, 2004, 05:08 PM
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This is wonderful, Queenie, you have generated a few who will grace your steps.
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