A Roof over my Head

January 1, 2011
By
I awoke to an unfamiliar Chilean man stepping over my sleeping bag. He had a large wooden spoon in his hand. “¿Qué hora es?” The words passively escaped my mouth and I was impressed that I could formulate a Spanish sentence in my sleepy, subconscious state. The man responded that it was four o’clock and we had two more hours to sleep. As I gradually became more alert, I felt tiny droplets of water falling on my face. The man plunged the spoon against the plastic tarp that lie overhead and a rush of water loudly fell to the ground. It was raining thunderously and our plastic roof wasn’t holding up well.
As I tried to fall asleep again, I jeeringly considered what a fraud it was to call this organization Un Techo para Chile (A Roof for Chile) when its roofs were obviously subpar. I sleeplessly passed the two remaining hours, fully aware of the rain seeping through the tarp, and then arose from my sleeping bag upon hearing blaring reggaeton music. The first work day had begun.
My squad and I, equipped with rain suits and rubber boots, piled into the bed of a red pickup truck and set off for the work site. My group mates conversed in rapid, slang-dominated Spanish. I was satisfied with taking in the hills and beaches of coastal Chile; the landscape was still a novelty to me and I was too unconfident to chat with my entirely Chilean squad. We arrived at a sandy plot at the intersection of the Andes and the Pacific. An isolated house, smaller than my bedroom, sat at the top of sand dune and we began the process of replacing it with a mediagua hut made of eight wooden panels. Three days later, Carlos, the patriarch of the house, snipped a red, white, and blue ribbon that bound the door of his new home. Carlos entered his sturdy yet humble mediagua house which was complete with an impermeable metal roof.
After just five hours of sleep, my squad and I returned to the pickup truck and ventured to another area to build our next mediagua. I was sent off to complete the menial task of searching for stones for the house’s foundation. An old man named Ignacio approached me and said he heard I was American. He proceeded to tell me some rather imaginative stories and tested his minimal English skills. I stifled my laughter and followed Ignacio as he pointed out his home. His house was smaller than a modest dog house. I glanced up to the top of the shack. The wood was decaying and some roof panels were entirely missing.
The trip was concluding and we nearly finished building our third mediagua. The family receiving the house brought us tea and cookies and informed us that they would be installing their own roof. They thanked us profusely and we left the worksite early.
We woke up early on the last day of the trip to watch the red and purple sunrise over the mountains and the ocean. A coach bus had already pulled up to the street beside our makeshift camp, a sign that we would soon be returning to comfortable urban life in Santiago. We huddled together and went around the circle sharing what the experience had meant to us. My turn came and I commented, “No hemos puesto el techo en la última casa.” We haven’t put the roof upon the last house. Although we had done as we were asked by leaving the house incomplete, the symbol remained with me. Every day, I think of the smiling faces of Carlos and Luis and Hilda and all the others who now live in the houses I helped build. At the same time, I remember that last mediagua we left roofless and it pushes me to continue helping others.





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