Well the trip is over now. I got back into JFK International Airport at 5:30 am and was back in Amherst by 11 am. Uruguay was awesome. I’ve never participated in a trip like this before. Usually my traveling is done in a selfish and vain sort of way. I go to the places that I’ve always heard about and wanted to visit, and it’s all for my benefit. No one else gets anything out of my trip to Paris or Rome. But this time, I feel like I was really able to make a difference and do something good with my time traveling. Not only was I able to get something out of the trip, but I did it while giving back.
I traveled with ten other UMass students to Montevideo, along with 20 other students from the University of Illinois and Yale University to participate in a program though Hillel Uruguay. The program was run by Un Techo para mi Pais, a program that has volunteer work throughout South and Central America. Un Techo para mi Pais, which means A Roof for My Country, works with donations from local companies and volunteers to help build emergency houses for those in need. The houses aren’t meant to be permanent, and there are other steps to help the families get into permanent housing and get on track.
Without getting into the logistics of the entire program (which I’ll be doing in an article later this week for GoNOMAD.com), I just want to talk about the experience in general. This was my first time in South America, and as such, everything was new and exciting. Montevideo was a quiet city with a vibrant night life and friendly population. The people we worked with were great and fun to be around, and the people we encountered helped us all get a better appreciation of not only life in Uruguay, but of the lives we have in the United States.
Some people brought up the contrast between working with the families for 12 hours in the heat, then retiring to a nice catered dinner and a very nice hotel for the night, while the families had to stay in their shanty houses and eat their malnourished meals. It is a big contrast, and though we try to help and make their lives a little better, at the end of the day we still get to leave the slum, and they don’t.
Still, I feel that every person, no matter what his or her background, has their own ideas of what is right and important. For the American students who have never had to go without meals because there was no money, we quibbled over who got first shower and who would sleep on the cot for the night. Most people wouldn’t be able to handle living in the houses in 24 de enero, the barrio we worked in. Most wouldn’t be able to live in the new temporary houses that we built either. But looking at the joy in the faces of Richar, Richar Jr. and the other children whose house we constructed, I realize that there is more to a house than just the walls, floor, and roof.
The new house is roughly the same size as the older one. Yet now instead of five people sharing one room to sleep, cook, and live in (which by American standards is no bigger than a garage), they’ll be able to have a bit more privacy and spread out. They can now begin to work towards getting out of the ghetto and finding a more stable place to live.
24 de enero is the type of place that you’ll see on TV with a missionary asking you to send money to. But there are no cameras or washed up celebrities promoting the cause, only the young Uruguayan volunteers and the groups of American students who have been coming for the last few years. I’d like to think that the thrill of seeing a new house built for them, playing with foreigners and new digital cameras, and piggy-back rides and impromptu soccer games are memories that will stay with these people for the rest of their lives. I know they’ll stay with me.
That’s why I went there. I didn’t want to just build a house and leave. I wanted to build a house and leave an impression. I wanted the Uruguayans to see that we’re all in need of a house, a handshake, or the passing of a water bottle between co-workers, even if only for two days. I’d like to think it was a success. Maybe we could have done more and built a permanent home. Maybe we could have picked up all of the trash in the barrio. But the point was never to fix their lives for them. The point was to get them started on the path to helping themselves.
Life moves much faster up in these parts, but the sun still sets at the same pace in Uruguay as it does in America. Tonight, the family gets to sleep in a new house, on a path to a permanent home away from the slums and dirt. And though to most Americans it may still seem like they’ve got it bad, the sun hasn’t set on them yet.