Thursday, November 26, 2009

Building with Celebrities

Many celebrities around the world are connected with Habitat and act as the organization's brand ambassador in every country that Habitat operates in. These celebrities help Habitat in increasing awareness of the global housing crisis, recruit volunteers and raise funds. This week was no exception.

Celebrity-in-Chief was none other than past US president, Jimmy Carter. Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter participate in a Habitat build each year - alternating between the US and an international destination. This is a special build for Habitat and is labeled as the Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter Work Project. The president was building house #40, which happened to be right across the street from our house (#27). Mona and I had the privilege of meeting him at the site. He chided us about the slow progress being made on our house but we countered by comparing the number of volunteers on his house versus ours!

John Abraham (popular Bollywood actor) is a spokesperson for Habitat India. He visited the site for a few hours but was unable to participate in the build due to illness. Another popular actor, Madhavan, spent a day building with us and sweated it out along with the rest of us. There were a couple of other Bollywood actors - Pooja Bedi and Jacqueline Fernandez in attendance.

Celebrities from other parts of the world were also in attendance and included Jet Li.

With all the celebrities in attendance, the media wasn't far behind and of course the president had an entourage of secret service and other staff present with him.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Build

The build was divided into three phases. The pre-build was the phase were the land was acquired, prepped and the foundation was laid for all the homes. We did not participate in this phase. Phase 2 involved the construction of the complete structure of the house. This was the part that got done during last week by us. The final phase would involve patch up work, installation of electricals and final plumbing work, which is expected to take another 2-3 weeks. When we arrived at the site, the foundation was in place along with a wall that was about 8 concrete blocks high.

The Wall

For the first day and a half, we were working on building the wall. The wall was made of interlocking concrete blocks of two sizes - a full block and a half block. There were two types of blocks - a regular block and a channel block. Regular blocks were used to build the entire block and the channel blocks formed the top layer of the wall. Concrete is poured into the channel which allows a structure to be installed on top of the wall. Building of the wall involved creating a section of the wall about 7-8 blocks high by laying the blocks and leveling them both horizontally and vertically as we went along. We had plumb lines and levels to help us measure and correct as we built. Once a section was created, we had to mix concrete and pour it into the holes in the block. The concrete then hardens to form a pole that holds the blocks in place and adds strength to the wall. After a wall has been put up and the concrete poured, a cement and sand paste was used to plaster the walls from the inside and outside. This helps to weatherproof the wall and also provides a smooth finish.

The Doors & Windows

Door and window frames were pre-built and ready for installation as soon as the wall was about 20 blocks high. The edges of the walls were the frames were installed had channel blocks. This created additional space for the frames. Nails had to be hammered on the outside of the frame at an angle about 10 cms apart. After that, the frame was gently lowered into it's designated space on the wall. After the frames were in place, concrete was poured into the channel. This eventually dried up and held the frame in place.

The Roof

Building the roof involved two different processes. First - we had to install the three trusses that would form the base of the roof skeleton. These are three triangular metal structures (extremely heavy) that are bolted on top of the walls. The bolts were installed atop the channel blocks and are held in place by the hardened concrete. Once the trusses are in place, long strips of metal (I forget the technical name) are bolted on top of the trusses. The roof tiles are then bolted to these strips to finish off the roof.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Organizing and Managing the build

Bringing over two thousand volunteers and workers to Chiang Mai for a week long construction project is a complex process. Habitat did a phenomenal job of organizing this event. The event took over a year to plan and organize and you could see the results. One of the reasons that we had such a great time was that a lot of attention was given to details and the Habitat team had gone the extra mile to ensure that all of us were comfortable during our stay here.

The build site was about 30 minutes from the city. Volunteers were staying at several different hotels. Several buses departed from each hotel every few minutes depending on the number of volunteers staying at a hotel. A police escort was available for the buses to ensure that we reached the site within 30 minutes. There was an army of Thai students who were available as a support team for the volunteers. It seemed like they were everywhere and always available when you needed somebody for information or directions.

Habitat went to great lengths to ensure the comfort and safety of the volunteers. For example, they knew that everybody would be dead tired after the first day of the build. Hence, dinner was scheduled at the hotel where we were staying at so that we did not have to travel after a long day of work. For the rest of the week, they had planned different experiences for dining and entertainment. There was something for everyone during each day of our stay in Chiang Mai. Breakfast at each hotel was served beginning at 5:30am in order to accommodate our work schedules. What was amazing was that somebody went to the trouble to make sure that breakfast was served at 5:30am on Saturday as well so that volunteers who were scheduled to depart early in the morning could have their breakfast at the hotel before leaving for the airport.

During the work day, there was an unlimited supply of water, cold drinks, sodas and snacks. A massive dining tent was setup to handle 500-600 diners simultaneously. All of us were assigned a different shift for our lunch breaks. Habitat had even setup a separate tent for social networking to allow volunteers to blog, tweet or update their facebook pages with latest news and photos.

Thanks to Habitat's careful and meticulous planning of the build event, every volunteer had a safe and fun experience.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Final Day

I really meant to post an entry at the end of each work day. But I was completely beat by the time the day ended and we invariably had some event that we had to attend in the evening. So I will be posting several entries over the next couple of days summarizing our experiences during the week.

Friday was the last day of the build and we are now on our way to Bangkok. By the end of the week, our backs were aching, fingers were hurting and legs were throbbing with pain. There are blisters on our hands and our bodies are sore. But there is one thing for sure - we will be back on another Habitat project whenever the opportunity comes up!

The past week was one of the most wonderful, fun and memorable week in our lives. It was a week during which we toiled like never before. Mona and I spent over nine hours each day moving and laying heavy cement blocks, mixing concrete and mortar, pouring cement and gravel, grouting walls, installing doors and windows, assisting with the installation of the roof, building walls etc. etc. For somebody who struggles with changing bulbs and hanging picture frames - I would say this was pretty impressive.

During the week, we met some amazing people and have made lifelong friends. On day one, we were a group of strangers from different parts of the world who traveled to Thailand with a common goal. By the last day, we were a tight group of friends who helped each other throughout the week and shared a little bit of ourselves with each other in the process. We came from different cultures and different backgrounds. We spoke in different languages (those who spoke English spoke in different accents!). But we all came together to build and help create a new beginning for a young Thai family. About twenty of us built a new house in five days. Two thousand volunteers created a community of eighty two homes. We can change the world and make a real difference. All we need is the desire and will to do so.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Project Habitat - Day One

Over 2000 volunteers started the build for the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work project - the Mekong Build 2009 at 7am this morning. Buses left from respective hotels between 6 and 6:30am for the site escorted by the police. We arrived at the build site and met the team at house number 27. Our team included members from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and United States. Julie - our team leader, incidentally was from Los Angeles. The partner family (the family that will be the recipient of the house) also joined us for the build along with several volunteers from Thailand. House number 27 was located across the street corner from House number 40 - the house that Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter were working on.

It was a fascinating experience! Today, the primary chore was masonry. The task was to build the walls on a foundation that was already in place and install the frames for doors and windows. We worked in intense heat. We were well taken care of in terms of supplies (caps, suntan lotion, tools, snacks, drinks etc.). At the end of the day, we were exhausted but had a sense of exhilaration when we saw the result of our labor. Our team was a bit short on volunteers and we are hoping that additional volunteers will join tomorrow.

We have made lots of new friends from around the world - folks with whom we are sharing a unique and once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Taste of Thailand

We arrived yesterday in Chiang Mai in Thailand. Mona and I are volunteering on a Habitat for Humanity build in this province of Northern Thailand. The project starts on Monday, so we have two days to explore and sight see.

Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand and is another foodie heaven - especially if you are a lover of Thai food. We had a great time eating awesome authentic Thai food. Our Lonely Planet guide had some great references for places to eat at and their recommendations have rarely been a miss for us.

Chiang Mai is a temple city with several old and new temples around the city built to honor and worship Lord Buddha (nearly 80% of the population is Buddhist in Thailand). Most of our sightseeing included visiting various temples.

Commuting is cheap, fun and convenient here with options ranging from regular taxis to tuk-tuks (a larger version of the India autorickshaw) and the red mini-bus (hop-on and hop-off).

This place is a shopper's delight and the Night market in town a must-see. A much larger and better organized version of street markets in India - you can buy practically anything in the Night Market at great deals as long as you have a stomach for bargaining with the locals.

Today was the opening ceremony for the project - a truly amazing experience. Over 2000 volunteers from over 30 countries have descended in Thailand to build 82 homes along the Mekong river. The Habitat for Humanity India contingent is about 20-25 member strong. Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter were present at the ceremony, which was opened by the Governor of the region. The ceremony was held in a beautiful botanical garden and included song and dance performances by local artists. One highlight was a food fair where all attendees could try local Thai delicacies.

Tomorrow - we wake up at 4:30am and set out for the build site by 6am. Stay tuned for live updates!