A Working Vacation

After 9/11, a fun-filled holiday didn't seem quite right for one couple. Their solution: Trading their beach towels for cement trowels in Costa Rica

By Sara Fitzgerald
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 8, 2002; Page E01

On the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, my husband and I attended a performance of "Cinderella" by the Ballets de Monte-Carlo, then capped off our last day in Madrid with the singing waiters at the Cafe de l'Opera. In a cocoon of foreign travel, half a world away, we remained oblivious to the tragedy that had unfolded back home just a few hours before.

When we finally caught up with the news -- a full day later -- the thought of visiting museums, shopping for souvenirs or snapping scenic photos seemed pointless, even sacrilegious.

The questions persisted as Walt and I headed home two weeks later. How could travel abroad still be meaningful in a world at war with itself? Was it possible to be more than just another "ugly American," spreading tourist dollars on a carefree vacation-time binge, when we traveled overseas? Seven months later, I was ready to test one answer: a trip to Costa Rica with Habitat for Humanity International.

If you grew up in the 1960s, as I did, the Peace Corps still retains some element of exotic fantasy. However, the fantasy dimmed some when one's avocation did not seem to be particularly useful to the developing world, and things like spouses, children and mortgages made it difficult to simply pack up and leave.

But a two- to three-week trip performing menial home-construction labor -- now that seemed doable.

Since it was founded in 1976, Habitat for Humanity has brought potential homeowners and volunteers together to build more than 125,000 simple, affordable houses around the world. Although Habitat is a Christian ministry, it is nonsectarian when it comes to the volunteers with whom it works. In 1988, it established its Global Village program to offer volunteers short-term opportunities to work with its overseas and domestic affiliates. The program now offers 365 trips a year to more than 40 countries. About two-thirds involve groups from colleges, churches and service clubs; the rest are "open registration" trips, made up of interested volunteers who meet when they are ready to start work.

When we checked the Habitat Web site in January, trips were planned to Africa, Central and Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia and the Pacific. The Costa Rica trip appealed to us because a) the dates fit our schedule and b) it was a country on our list to visit. The trip was to be led by Ally Morgann and Shauna Mathis, a mother-and-daughter team who would choose our group team members and manage all the logistics.

Our group of 19 comprised six men and 13 women (14 Americans and five Canadians). About half of us were over 50, including Walt and me; six were in their mid-twenties. Included on the team were a firefighter, a doctor, a research analyst for a New York investment bank, a college administrator and a federal employee. There was not a professional builder, carpenter, mason, plumber or electrician in the lot. Tool Time

Be flexible. Be patient. Manage your expectations.

Those were the messages drummed into us in the weeks leading up to our trip. Costa Rica has six Habitat affiliates; we'd be in Cartago, the colonial capital, a city of 120,000 about a half-hour from the modern capital of San Jose. That meant suburbs instead of jungle, a tetanus booster instead of an inoculation for malaria.

Nevertheless, I was determined not to be sidelined by sunburn or insects. Following the advice from Habitat, I purchased insect repellent with DEET, a wide-brimmed hat and a couple of long-sleeve shirts with UV protection built-in.

There was something liberating about the fact that we didn't have to plan what we were going to do or where we were going to stay. All we had to do was show up and do what we were told. And, I reminded myself, if the accommodations turned out to be awful, or the work too exhausting, it was, after all, only five days of my life.

Preparing for the worst meant being pleasantly surprised. The Hotel Dona Ines in San Jose, where our group met for the first time, turned out to be a quiet, charming two-story inn. After one night, we moved on to what had been described as a Catholic retreat center between San Jose and Cartago, where we would stay in gender-segregated, dormitory-style accommodations. Instead, the Escuela Social Juan XXIII turned out to be a training and conference center. Our dorm rooms opened out to an attractive garden courtyard with towering palm trees. At night, the hilltop site offered a beautiful vista as the sun went down and the lights of San Jose came up.

And "roughing it" actually added to the fun. The women held a daily "shower lottery" to determine who would get first crack at the four showers in our community bathroom, "electric" showers that turned colder the stronger the water pressure -- and sometimes suddenly in between. At night, we sang Girl Scout camp songs and said good night the way TV's Waltons did.

Monday morning arrived, and with it anxiety as we walked down the hill to one of our construction sites in Tres Rios. Walt and I had expressed a willingness to be on separate teams; mine was driven by bus to the second site. Both were located in dusty suburban neighborhoods carved out of old agricultural lands. Schools and shops were nearby; a vacant lot tended to be used as the neighborhood dump yard.

Because we'd be working primarily with concrete, we practiced the vocabulary from a pictorial cheat sheet: "trowel" was la cuchara, "cement" was mezcla, concreto was "mortar with more rocks."

The building materials for an 800-square-foot, three-bedroom Habitat house in Costa Rica cost roughly $5,000. Our $1,120-per-person participation fee had covered food, lodging and travel within Costa Rica with the group (airfare and excursions were extra) -- and included a contribution of about $350 each that went toward the purchase of building materials. Together, we had more than covered their cost. In other words, our leaders assured us, we had already helped out simply by showing up.

But none of us came to sit and watch. At Walt's home site, where the family of Ronaldo Anderson Brown and Mayra Baquedano Caceres lived, the job of the day was to transfer piles of gravel and sand dumped by the roadside to the construction site, roughly 20 feet straight up a hillside. The answer was a bucket brigade, which over the course of a day or two developed into a highly efficient human machine. By the end of the week, that crew also dug holes for a septic system and helped pour a concrete floor.

Meanwhile, at the home of Ananias Blanco Hernandez and Avexali Mesen Villanueva, an older couple building in nearby San Diego, foreman Jose Sanchez quickly put my team to work. Job 1: Digging a deep pit through heavy red clay for the septic tank. Two of the women were pulled aside and taught how to spread mortar on the exterior of a wall of concrete blocks. The rest of us took turns hacking with shovels or pickaxes in the hole, then dumping wheelbarrows full of dirt into a nearby empty lot.

To qualify for a Habitat home, families are required to donate their own "sweat equity." For the Cartago Habitat affiliate, that means two or three families working at the same time on each other's homes, rotating one week at a time at each site. On days that a family has committed to working, one family member or representative must participate. A family does not get to move in until everyone's home is finished. When a brigade like ours shows up, the families split up and work at their own sites, to provide enough tasks to keep the volunteers busy.

With my limited Spanish, I found it hard the first day to carry on a conversation with Avexali as I helped her dig out the subfloor of her house. And besides, conversation slowed the work, and I didn't want to be labeled a slacker in my first hours on the job. Back to "the pit" I went.

By the afternoon, the mortaring crew had learned enough to teach more of us how to wield a cuchara. Over the course of the week, we were coached on the informal formulas for mixing cement and water with gravel, dirt or sand to make concrete, mortar or a finishing coat. Everything was blended by hand, with shovels and trowels and buckets of water.

We broke at noon for a lunch of sandwiches, mangoes and melons, cookies and soft drinks. Throughout the day, we admonished each other to drink plenty of water and take breaks to reapply sunscreen. We also discovered that a few of us loved to sing, and, in spite of an age span of roughly 25 years, had enough of a shared repertoire (Broadway, Motown, oldies, country) that we could carry on for hours.

We wondered if the Costa Ricans thought we were crazy.

Hot, tired and sweaty, I was ready for a nap when the bus pulled up at 4:30 to bring us back to our dorm rooms -- until I drew No. 1 in the shower lottery and gleefully ran for the bathroom. How tired was I? Right before bed, I slathered every muscle with Ben-Gay liniment before realizing it was the Benadryl anti-itch cream I had brought for bug bites.

One Big Mound of Gravel

The next day, to no one's surprise, we all ached. On top of that, my thighs were covered with bluish bruises, apparently from resting the wheelbarrow handles on my legs when I had tilted it to catch the dirt flung out of the pit by a teammate. Fortunately, our group included a young occupational therapist from Canada who volunteered to lead 10 minutes of morning stretching exercises.

The big event at my site that day was the arrival of a truck that dumped a load of sandy gravel. Then Jose informed us that the pile needed to be moved about six feet up onto the property.

We were a bit suspicious that the job was designed to keep us out of his hair so he could get his "real" work done. Nevertheless, the project required the accumulated brainpower of a half-dozen Americans and Canadians while we debated and tested the most efficient way to get the pile moved.

At night, various group members explored the cantina down the road, a ping-pong table in the rec room and a computer with that invaluable gift to a foreign traveler -- free Internet access. It eased the homesickness of the National Hockey League fans from Canada, the baseball fanatics from Boston.

There was only one cross-cultural problem: We couldn't figure out how to produce the "@" sign on a Latin American computer keyboard so that we could send e-mails home.

By Day 3, our Spanish was slowly getting better -- which meant some of us could actually converse with our Costa Rican co-workers. We asked Ricardo Antonio Solano, the other workman at our site, if he knew any of the songs we were singing. "La Bamba?" "Livin' la Vida Loca?" The "Macarena?"

Nothing was familiar.

Then we hit on the one song we could share.

"Feliz Navidad, Feliz Navidad . . ."

Forget the phrase books that teach you how to catch a train or summon a waiter. We were focusing on the essentials.

"Usted es cansado?" one of the Canadian women asked, probing for his marital status.

"Un poquito," he replied.

"A little?" she asked. "How can you be a little bit married?" Then she shook her head, realizing her mistake. "I mean 'casado,' " she laughed. "Married, not tired!"

By late afternoon, our work ethic broke down and we mingled with the neighborhood. A soccer game developed in the playground across the street, and the more agile of our group drifted over to try to score a goal against the young Costa Ricans.

Finally, the day arrived when Jose declared "No mas." The hole for the septic tank was deep enough.

The tank did not arrive on the back of a pickup truck. Instead, Jose clambered down into the pit and began building it out of concrete blocks. I felt like the scrub nurse to a skilled surgeon, refilling buckets of mortar and lowering them down to him in the hole, then threading cinder blocks over the supporting rebar.

The wind whipped up, blowing loose clay into his eyes.

"Here," I said, offering my sunglasses. He accepted them graciously, flashing a smile.

"Ricky Martin!" I teased.

When the tank was finally finished and the cement top was smoothed with a professional worker's precision, he backed away and gestured. Yes, he would let us give in to our urge to leave our mark in the wet cement.

That night, a special dinner was organized by the Habitat affiliate. We were presented with certificates of appreciation and, better yet, homemade certificates that Dixie Anderson Baquedano had created on a computer between her classes at the National University. Her father spoke movingly in English about what his new house would mean to him and his family.

He concluded by saying: "A friend is not someone who merely wipes away your tears. A friend is someone who does what he can to keep the tears from forming."

A Lasting Impression

The house would take a bit longer to finish, a month at least, probably more. At the end of our last day, we presented Ananias and his son, Heyner, and Jose and Ricardo with carpenter aprons we had autographed. I gave Jose my sunglasses, so the sand wouldn't get into his eyes the next time he had to build a septic tank. We swapped phone numbers, addresses and hugs, and then it was time to go.

Our bus waited at my husband's home site while his team said their goodbyes. I knew that all of them had come to feel particularly close to Ronaldo and Mayra and their five children, who pitched in after school each day. The team members had been overwhelmed the day before when one of the professional workers, Jose Gomez Quesada, had presented each of them with a medal he had won as one of Costa Rica's top marathoners.

Now, when they all huddled for a final, long group hug, my tears finally started to flow.

That was probably the most unexpected surprise -- that in such a short period of time, we could draw as close as we did, not only to the Costa Ricans we met but also to the other American and Canadians on our teams. They had become friends we knew we would stay in touch with and friends, with whom, yes, we could envision joining on another Habitat build.

A few weeks later, I received a surprise in the form of a letter in Spanish from Agnes Villalobos, a young woman who had dropped by our work site, spent three hours helping us dig and then came to our farewell party. She summed up those bonds when she wrote: "I send greetings to you and all my true friends whom you came with, [and am] so happy that in fact you were a true family."

I left my handprints in the concrete lid of a back-yard septic tank in Costa Rica. And this year, that was souvenir enough.

Sara Fitzgerald is a freelance writer in Arlington.

Details: Global Village

The Global Village program of Habitat for Humanity International currently sponsors trips to more than 40 of the 86 countries in which Habitat operates, including the United States. Typically, trips involve groups of 10 to 20 people, traveling 10 to 20 days.

According to Global Village director David Minich, 60 to 65 percent of volunteers on Global Village's "open registration" trips are women, and most volunteers are between the ages of 26 and 59. Participants are expected to be in good health.

Closer to home, Habitat is constructing the Global Village & Discovery Center on a six-acre site in Americus, Ga., the organization's headquarters. About 40 houses representing different construction techniques from around the world will eventually be built.

FEES: Costs vary. For North Americans, trips to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean are generally the least expensive, costing $1,200 to $1,700 per person, including airfare. Trips to Asia, the Pacific islands and parts of Africa usually run two weeks and cost $3,200 to $4,000, including airfare. A $350 per person "donation" is included in the participation fee, which underwrites most, if not all, of the costs of construction materials.

Meals, lodging and in-country travel for the group are covered for the length of the scheduled trip, but expenses associated with items such as guided tours are additional.

Volunteers generally make their own travel arrangements, in case they can take advantage of frequent-flier miles and other discounts. Habitat can suggest the names of travel agencies that provide discounts for mission trips.

LODGING: The quality of accommodations and the element of adventure vary from one trip to the next; they can range from thatched jungle huts and shelters without running water to low-cost institutional housing. Team leaders and Global Village staff can help potential volunteers find a trip well suited to their needs and interests.

OTHER HABITAT PROJECTS: For the past several years, former president Jimmy Carter has led an annual work project that bears his name. This year's "blitz" to South Africa in early June involved thousands of volunteers who built 100 houses in the Durban area in just five days. Details: www.habitat.org/jcwp. Through the RV Care-A-Vanners program, recreational vehicle owners can arrange to travel in small groups to work on Habitat houses between vacation destinations. Details: 229-924-6935, Ext. 2446, www.habitat.org/gv/rv.html.

TO APPLY: Interested parties can submit an application to the Global Village staff that will be distributed to leaders organizing trips, or they can directly contact the leaders of a particular trip. Details: 800-HABITAT, Ext. 2549, www.habitat.org/gv.

-- Sara Fitzgerald

Other Volunteer Opportunities

In addition to Habitat for Humanity, other organizations that offer volunteer trips include:

o American Hiking Society (800-972- 8608, www.americanhiking.org). One- and two-week trips to preserve U.S. trails.

o Amizade (888-983-4443, www.amizade.org). Service projects in Asia, Australia, South America and the U.S.

o CEDAM International (914-271-5365, www.cedam.org). Diving expeditions to study marine biology and archaeology.

o Cross Cultural Solutions (800-380- 4777, www.volunteerworkabroad.org). Humanitarian trips in eight countries.

o Earthwatch Institute (800-776-0188, www.earthwatch.org). Data collection alongside scientists on eco-expeditions.

o Explorations in Travel (802-257-0152, www.volunteertravel.com). Short-term ecological projects in nine countries.

o Global Citizens Network (800-644- 9292, www.globalcitizens.org). Tolerance and peace-related cultural trips in Africa, Latin America and among Native American tribes.

o Global Service Corps (415-788-3666, Ext. 128, www.globalservicecorps.org). Working and teaching opportunities in developing countries, organized by the Earth Island Institute.

o Global Volunteers (800-487-1074, www.globalvolunteers.org). Work with locals on projects they determine to be most important, such as job skills or health care.

o Health Volunteers Overseas (202- 296-0928, www.hvousa.org). Health-related programs for medical professionals.

o International Volunteer Programs Association (212-807-8686, Ext. 150, www.volunteerinternational.org). Links to organizations with volunteer vacation programs.

o Oceanic Society (800-326-7491, www.oceanic-society.org). Whale-watching and other marine life observation and data collection.

o Passport in Time (800-281-9176, www.passportintime.com). Archaeological and historic preservation programs by the U.S. Forest Service.

o Wilderness Volunteers (928-556-0038, www.wildernessvolunteers.org). More than 40 week-long service projects on U.S. public lands.

-- Elissa Leibowitz
2002 The Washington Post Company