Okay, so it has been a while since the last blog – apologies to our faithful readers who have been wondering where we have got to. Working in the community, (Comunidad Maria Auxiliadora), from 8.30am till 6.30pm, seven days a week left us a little bit stuck for time to ourselves, or indeed to write a blog.
It has been two months since our last update, and when we left off last time, we had been digging and pouring foundations with the help of the local bowler-hatted women, and were getting ready to start building with adobe blocks, once we could afford to buy them – a quick thank you to those of you who responded to our last plea for donations in our last blog!
There are quite a few photos to bring you all up to date, so sit back and relax and have a flick through…. Starting where we left off – adobe blocks bought, earth pile ready for mortar – let’s build with some mud!
With some help from friends we’d met on the road, Daniel, Anders and Josefin, we quickly got off to a good start on the walling, Daniel being particularly keen to prove himself with a trowel and marathon sessions of adobe block-laying. Their stay however was short lived and before we knew it, we were back on our own, with the help of faithful Gustavo.
In these first few weeks we did have a few festivities to break up the work, including a Community Food Festival, a traditional dance evening, a Mother’s Day fete which also included traditional dancing performed by pupils from the school, then a visit to the water park and aquarium with our little ward Pablito, (aka Erick), depending on what mood he, or we were in.
Back to the building, adobe walls were steadily going up, and the old dilapidated roof came off ready for an impatient Chris to start erecting the new timber beams, with some help from Gustavo and Miguel. Only after much frustration and days and days of broken promises did Chris finally manage to get hold of a drill, enabling him to drill holes for the bolts, only to find there was no power supply from the house we were connecting up to. Hours later we managed to cobble together a ridiculously long cable with raw wires at the end that we could push into some open sockets in the local shop. Great!
To make up for the all-too-relaxed Bolivian attitude to most things, including trying to get a building built, the Community decided it was time they organised a community work day to help us. Excellent – some help at last! The highlight of the day being lunch, obviously.
As if working all hours God sent to try and get the library built wasn’t enough, we got landed with a few extra things to worry about … Firstly, a little straggly kitten was found sat on our doorstep one afternoon which completely put paid to any work that day. Animal rights dictated that we must abandon work for the afternoon in order to bath said straggly kitten, twice, buy and apply flea powder, and feed it some milk with a syringe. The little boy kitten, initially called Thomas, turned out to be a little girl, so had her name henceforth changed to Perlusa.
Perlusa turned out to be quite a character, settling into home life quite comfortably after living on the street for her first few weeks. She even learnt that going outside to the toilet was much more preferable to having accidents inside, after realising a tile floor cannot be scrapped up to cover said little accidents.
As if having to look after a little kitten, as well as try to build a library, still wasn’t enough, a few other things landed on our plate, pulling us in every other direction than the one road we needed to be going down…. However, in the name of architecture we duly agreed to give a lecture about ‘Historic British architecture and it’s preservation’ at the Cochabamba Architects Society, another lecture on ‘The architectural profession in the UK’ for third year architecture students at the University, a television interview on a breakfast TV chat show about ‘Architectural heritage in the UK and our work in Comunidad Maria Auxiliadora’, plus, design and draw up a sketch scheme for a new assembly hall and offices in the Community itself for the committee of Comunidad Maria Auxiliadora – ”…to be ready for the meeting this evening…!” What?! You’re joking – measure the site, design a scheme and draw it up all in the space of 4 hours…..?! That’s a yes then… Was this in the small print…?
Between kittens and TV interviews, we did manage to get some building work done as well. The architectural students visited for a day and we taught them how to mix mud and plaster the walls, using earth (clay), sand, straw and water. Of course, only after a good old lecture on traditional materials, thermal performance of mud and generally bigging up more healthy buildings, as well as the fact that these materials are much more affordable and easily obtainable locally. [Technical note no.1 for sad architects: First/scratch coat of render: earth (clay), sharp sand, chopped straw, to a ratio of 2:2:handful.]
On the work front, we also had some help from our friendly community builder, and a stray chicken that left us a few eggs to help us on our way. Before we knew it, the roof was going on and test panels for the top coat of plaster had begun. [Technical note no.2 for sad architects: top coat of plaster: earth (clay), finely sieved sand, lime (hydrated) to a ratio of 4:2:1 ]
With two weeks to go before our official opening, which had been scheduled to tie in with the monthly Community Asemblea meeting, things started to get a bit fraught. The floor slabs still hadn’t been laid, the low wall to the front hadn’t been finished, the plaster wasn’t complete, we didn’t have any door or window frames, never mind the actually doors themselves, painting hadn’t started and the chicken wouldn’t leave her roost.
We called for backup, and thankfully this time our plea was answered. Grober, our friendly builder, worked solidly for the last couple of weeks to help us finish, working on into the night. Another community work day was organised towards the end, so we had the team blitzing the place with limewash before settling down to another good hearty lunch. Paint dyes were mixed and within hours, the inside looked like it was almost finished, and the outside only looked like it needed another few coats of limewash to disguise the patchiness…. We’ll let the community deal with that….!
The big day arrived – Sunday morning, Community Asemblea. We were called up to accept and give thanks and be clapped at, before rushing off to frantically finish fixing the ceiling covering, signage and generally cleaning up ready for the bookshelves and books to be brought down…. All before the community descended for the ‘official opening’.
By 5pm, people started to arrive and we tried to stay calm. A quick scrub of the bottles while the book shelves were being stacked was all that was left, then we snook off to quickly change and were back as good as new within record time, ready to face the limelight! Speeches, cutting of the ribbon, gifts, drinks and dancing all ensued, bringing the community together in one big party, well on into the night…
During the final week before the opening, we did take the opportunity to sneak off into the City and do some sightseeing. Cochabamba is a gritty city, with tatty but lively buildings, full of hustle and bustle. The north part of the centre is new and flashy. The south side of the centre is where the markets are, including the Cancha – one of the largest markets in South America. Further south, into the Zona Sur suberb is where the guidebooks say not to go because it is dangerous. The south is where Comunidad Maria Auxiliadora is, and where we lived, so we had to throw caution to the wind and just get on with it. Needless to say, the ‘dangerous south’ is where the indigenous people live, in relative poverty compared to the affluent ‘fair skinned’ and gringos of the north.
Living in the Community and travelling back and forth to the centre, we felt entirely comfortable. Visiting the north of the city on occasion to go out for a meal, or see the sights made us feel much more uncomfortable. The people are all fair skinned, the lifestyle is like that of any other city in the world. We were surrounded by wealthy Bolivians and western tourists who gave little heed to the occasional indigenous street seller, car-washer or shoe shiner shuffling about the shiny streets. Having lived with indigenous people for two months, it was being in this highly racist environment of the north that made us feel uncomfortable, and not the trip back down into the south cramped-in in an over-crowded Trufi (mini bus), watching the hustle and bustle of the markets and the women and men trying to make a living. We feel privileged we got to see this side, this contrast, rather than just staying in a city and being a tourist.
We also managed a day trip out with our surrogate family, Maria Eugenia and Erick, out to Lago Angostura and then up to the statue of Christ , (Cristo de la Concordia), who overlooks the city of Cochabamba from atop San Pedro hill. Apparently Cristo de la Concordia is the largest statue of Christ in the world, (if the crown on top of Christ the King’s head in Poland is not counted!), standing at 34m high, plus a 6m pedestal…. Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro stands at a mere 30m, plus a 9m pedestal! Take that Rio!
So the library building is finished, sightseeing done, official opening done and dusted… the only thing we were then waiting for was the new suspension part for Chris’s bike. Surely we could have sorted that in the 9 weeks? I hear you say…
If BMW in Cochabamba hadn’t been so completely and utterly useless, only telling us in our 6th week that they couldn’t get the part that we had ordered and already paid for, then yes, we could have got it sorted sooner. But BMW didn’t take into consideration that we weren’t planning on living in Cochabamba permanently, they clearly didn’t see an issue with waiting for several weeks before finding out whether the part was available in the first place, nor is customer satisfaction on their list of priorities. So three weeks before we were due to leave the community and race for the border before our visa ran out, we were faced with the knowledge that the part we had already paid for several weeks previously, was not here and was not coming. Thank you Mr BMW Cochabamba.
Several fraught conversations later to our contacts in the UK, a new part had been ordered from a factory in Sweden and would be in the UK the next day. From the UK, it would then take about five days to reach Bolivia. Excellent!
Two days before we were due to leave the community: the part is still stuck in customs in Bolivia where it has been sitting for over a week. Frantic and angry phone calls were made, abuse hurled and bribes offered.
One day before we were due to leave: the part is out of customs but missed the morning flight to Cochabamba. Promised by 2pm. Then misses midday flight … HOW?! Promised by 5pm. Part finally arrives at 6pm, the day before we are due to leave. Chris then spends the next few hours on into the night fitting the part, ready for riding away early the next morning.
Lessons learnt – when dealing in business, don’t believe everything a Bolivian tells you. They only tell you what they think you want to hear, which is not necessarily the truth!
Wednesday morning, 4th of July, we loaded the bikes and prepared to make our leave of the community. We trudged our way down to the biblioteca one last time and said all our teary goodbyes to all our new friends and the families who have taken us in as their own. Someone produced a cake out of thin air with our names on it – awwww! – so we all gorged ourselves on a creamy-cakey breakfast while posing for photos with each and every person who had showed up to see us off, from the lady who owned the little shop, and her mother, to our best friends Gustavo and Ivan. It was very emotional, filled with sad goodbyes and entreaties to return to the community soon….
Then off we rode, leaving behind what had been our home for over two months, ready to face new challenges! The first of which was to get to La Paz, a purported 8 hours away, before nightfall.
Eight hours later, we found ourselves careering down the steep cobbled streets into the loud and busy centre of La Paz as night fall fell.
THANK YOU to everyone who helped make our time in Comunidad Maria Auxiliadora happen, and who generously gave donations to help fund the project. Thank you to those people who we know can little afford to give money away, but who still managed to donate a few pounds, and to those of you who are able to afford more and gave generously. We could not have completed this project without the help of every last one of you. So thank you.
You all helped turn this:
…. In to this:
And for those who did donate….
Paid a fortune for new suspension Chloe 0 v 1 Chris
Heated arguments with Bolivians held in Spanish Chloe 0 v 4 Chris
Stopped for speeding & paid extortionate fine Chloe 0 v 1 Chris
Consecutive days of work without a day off Chloe 21 v 21 Chris
Days almost quit out of sheer exhaustion Chloe 5 v 3 Chris
Dances danced on opening night Chloe 12 v 5 Chris