At the very end of 2013 I started a project to help a Peruvian family I am friends with in Lima. Since meeting them on a volunteering trip in 2007 I’ve wanted to return and build them a house. On my first trip some friends and I had donated a small amount of money to provide them with a solid house. It was much better than the makeshift shack they had back then but it was essentially the same as a tiny garden shed and ever since I have wanted to return and improve on what we started. I wasn’t really sure how to raise the funds to build their new home, but the decision to return had been made (and I had already bought my flights) so I knew it was time to make my idea a reality. Having finally developed some confidence in my illustration I decided I would make a paper picture specifically for this cause and ask for donations in return for a print of the illustration. Lots of lovely people donated and the project is now complete! So, here is a little account and a few photographs to show how a few bits of coloured paper eventually led to a home for a family of three.
Hello wonderful friends, family and donors! At long last here is a very overdue update from my Peruvian house building project that took place during March and April this year. It’s taken me several weeks to digest just how special and life changing this project was for everyone involved and because of that I must apologise for the delay in getting this update out to you all – I just haven’t known where to begin. I want to start by saying an absolutely enormous thank you to everyone who donated – I don’t think I have the words to tell you just how happy you have all made Juana and her sons Jesus and Luis. They are so grateful, your donations have changed their lives in the most brilliant way.
I suppose the main thing to say is that THE HOUSE HAS BEEN SUCCESSFULLY BUILT! The Chunga-Chunga family have gone from a single room, sharing one bunk bed, with no running water or electric light, to a 3 bedroomed home with a plumbed in toilet, outdoor shower and running water in the kitchen too. They also have electricity, a solid floor, lockable doors and, for the first time ever, not just one but five windows! It really is a proper house far better than anything that they’ve previously called home. So here’s how it happened….
My first 24 hours in Lima were fairly challenging. Exhausted after a long flight I found the conversation with everyone on the first evening really difficult. Keen to improve my Spanish vocabulary as much and as quickly as possible I asked Juana what you would call the broccoli she was eating in Spanish. She looked at me and slowly said ‘broc-co-li’ – Perfect, I thought, this will be easy!
Enthused, I moved into the shanty town of Villa Maria the next day.
As a woman with absolutely no building experience, passable Spanish and only the bare bones of an idea about how we were actually going to make this house a reality, I wasn’t entirely sure where to start. Luckily, in Villa Maria they seem to share my ‘just get on with it and somehow it will all work out’ approach to a project and with the help of my friend Edgar, whose heart is the size of a house and whose voice is as loud as a foghorn, we were soon able to get a basic plan in place and start the work. We hired Kris, an 18 year old construction worker/electrician, to work with us for two weeks and worked out a budget. After our initial discussions it didn’t seem like the budget would quite stretch to what Juana had in mind for her house which was a little disappointing. However, I soon realised that the fourth bedroom (which featured heavily in the discussions and seemed absolutely vital to her future happiness) was actually intended for me to have as a permanent residence! So, having established that I was not in fact moving to the shanty town indefinitely, we were able to reduce the number of bedrooms and found that we had plenty for what they actually required. It was clear that running water was high on the ‘must have’ list. When I arrived Juana had very proudly shown me her ‘jacuzzi’, which was a plastic bowl that she used for washing up, washing clothes and bathing – but, a plastic basin filled from a temperamental tap in the main street isn’t really adequate for a family of three. As well as committing to running water and electric light we opted to buy a prefabricated house made from the best quality wood available so that the build could be completed as quickly as possible with minimal disruption to Juana and the boys’ work schedules. The added advantage of this was that I could be sure that the house would get finished whilst I was in Peru. Having seen plenty of half-finished brick houses in their neighbourhood I quickly realised that leaving them with an incomplete house would be the worst possible outcome and that in this environment solid timber would be more than adequate.
That night I stayed with them at their house, the three of them insisting they share a single bed so that I could have the other one to myself. I have to say that although the hospitality I experienced that night was second to none, my comfort was somewhat compromised by the fact that I was massively dehydrated; I had stopped drinking any fluids as soon as I realised that the only toilet they had was a tube in the ground lurking behind a plastic sheet at the back of their house. The next morning we pulled down the house (revealing several puzzled scorpions that I’d unknowingly been sharing my bedroom with) and rebuilt it on a spare plot of land nearby so that they would have somewhere to sleep for the duration of the build. I moved into the Quest Overseas School for the next 10 days which is where I had volunteered during my previous visit to Villa Maria in 2007. That day Edgar and I used every mode of transport available to us to zip around the local area pricing up the materials and getting quotes for the house itself. Things were starting to take shape.
Over the next few days we started buying materials, placed our order for the house and had the builders come and measure the land. I had my first experience of using a pneumatic drill to level the ground and prepare to lay the foundations but, having opted to wear sandals for the duration of the build, my career as a pneumatic driller was pretty short-lived! Instead I spent many hours carrying sand and cement down to the site and, though it was tiring climbing up and down stairs all day in the sweltering heat, the real challenge was doing so with the constant musical accompaniment of Corazon Serrano – Edgar and Kris’ favourite band whose four most popular songs were played on repeat all day through a pair of speakers barely worthy of the name. The main thing that kept our spirits up was knowing that Juana would be preparing a delicious lunch for us all to enjoy together. Every day we had two courses prepared from scratch in a tiny ‘kitchen’ which was in fact the dirty porch of a long abandoned hut. With just the ‘jacuzzi’ for peeling and washing vegetables, and the cooker, she made enough food not only for the 6 of us in the core building team but also for every single person that came to help us on site. It was fantastic to look around at lunch time and see up to 12 or 13 people tucking into something hot and delicious and during those lunch breaks the laughter in the group was often uncontrollable. It took a few days before I had any idea what was funny but after about day 5 I realised that if I just made a joke about someone being A) ugly or B) old, I could have the whole table in fits of hysterics.
As the days went by we started to see some real progress being made as the foundations were prepared, pipes were laid and the beautiful floor was completed!
There were several things that really tested my endurance during the project; travelling for over an hour each way to the bank most days in order to withdraw the funds without incurring too much of a charge started to feel pretty draining after about day 3. Spending hours buying materials and then having to transport everything home by taxi – none of which were keen to take us to Villa Maria – brought me almost to the point of throwing a tantrum on several occasions. Frustratingly, I couldn’t speak a word of English to anyone and this had a much bigger impact on my state of mind than I could ever have expected. Thankfully a little cat called Milo lived in the school with me so each night I’d witter on at him in English so that I could let some of the frustrations of the day out! Milo ended up being a complete saviour on one occasion by jumping on me in bed in just the right spot to click my back into place. I’d twisted it whilst carrying a sandbag and was contemplating how I might find an osteopath in a shanty town when in he came to save the day.
The biggest challenge of all came about 10 days into the build when it was time to go and collect the house from the carpenters’ workshop which is a 45 minute drive away from Villa Maria. The panels had all been built and were ready to be brought to the site and assembled by ‘El Maestro’ the builder (I never did learn his actual name) and his cousin. Edgar and I headed off in tuk tuk, then a taxi and then a mini bus to a dusty site at the side of the motorway where the workshop is located. Unusually, we were running pretty much to time and planned to pick the house up at about 11am in the hope that it would all be finished by nightfall so that we could go out for some well-deserved beers. We arrived to some puzzled faces as we stepped out of the mini bus: “Where’s your truck?” asked ‘El Maestro’ and we instantly realised that we had a problem. Despite the fact that he and his cousin were coming with us to assemble everything it was expected that we should provide the transport. We didn’t have any and we also didn’t have enough left in our budget to cover the cost of hiring anything. After about an hour of questions and trying to borrow a truck from another local carpenter we finally resorted to begging the local government to lend us one. With some pretty impressive persuasion from Edgar they agreed but we were told that the truck wouldn’t arrive until later in the afternoon. So we sat down in the dust and waited until the truck eventually arrived at about 3 o’clock. The truck drivers were clearly not happy about helping us and it took some strong words from their supervisor, who is quite possibly the manliest woman I’ve ever laid eyes on, before they would lift a finger to help us move any of the panels. And of course the panels didn’t fit. We’d got about three quarters of the house loaded on to the back before we had to admit defeat and off Edgar went with the first truck while I waited for a second one to come and help us with the rest of the panels. It eventually arrived at dusk after I’d spent two hours feeling like a minor celebrity as pretty much every man, woman and child in the area came to get picture of the ‘gringa’ that surely must be lost to have ended up this far away from Lima all on her own. When the transport eventually arrived it was clear what had kept it so long; it was a rubbish truck and that afternoon’s collection was piled high in the back. We unloaded the rubbish, loaded the panels, and then re-arranged the rubbish around them until we’d made everything fit. Then it was up to me to jump in next to the driver and direct him back to where we were building the house. Easy! Despite it being dark and none of the roads having any names I managed to get us back to Villa Maria. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself at this point and I think I actually high fived the driver before we both realised that the only access road to the site was blocked. The locals had decided to throw a street party that evening and we couldn’t get the truck past the stage, speakers and hordes of people that filled the street. It was going to take one final push to get the panels where we needed them. After rounding up a group of teenage boys with the promise of payment in fizzy drinks (which I think may be the most highly valued thing in all of Peru) we managed to carry the panels over the heads of the partygoers and down the steps to the building site. I don’t think I’ve ever gone to bed feeling so happy or so smelly. There were a few final tear-inducing hiccoughs the next day but within 24 hours of delivering the house it was finished and ready to become a home.
Throughout all of this we also had a second, smaller project on the go. The timber of the old Chunga-Chunga house was still in perfectly good condition and with a lick of paint could be donated to someone in need of a little space of their own. It was immediately clear to Edgar and I that Kris would be the perfect recipient as not one part of the house he shared with his mum and aunt was structurally stable or permanent – just a collection of hardboard and corrugated asbestos propped against itself and tied together with wire. We knew that the little wooden house would be a perfect bedroom for him and a great way for us to thank him for all his hard work in addition to his wages. Edgar seemed to think that the local mayor would have some spare funds that they could donate to us so that we could also provide Kris with a solid concrete floor instead of the bare earth he was used to sleeping on. So, off we went to the municipality office to meet with the Mayoress’ second-in-command, Doctor Roberto. I was ready to give up on the Doctor several times during the four hour wait for our appointment but eventually we made it into his office and I explained who I was and what I was there to do. He clapped his hands together and said he could help. Within minutes a group of about 10 men were in the Doctor’s boardroom listening to him dramatically recount the story of who this dusty English girl was and what she was doing in Villa Maria. Hands started darting into pockets and pulling out cash when Doctor Roberto announced that in return for 50 soles I would give everyone a kiss on the cheek, for 100 soles I would give out my telephone number and that for 200 soles I would go on a dinner date with the ‘lucky’ donor. I didn’t remember agreeing to any of that (and recalling my bedraggled demeanour I can’t imagine why it would have been an attractive proposition) but it was impossible to stop the Doctor in the middle of his act and as more and more people trickled in he took great pleasure in retelling the story over and over from the beginning. Hours later I had the money in my pocket but not before I’d done a circuit of the room, kissing each of the donors on the cheek – not sure if this is representative of Peruvian politics in general but it was certainly a unique experience and at least it meant that Kris got his floor!
After completing the house for the Chunga-Chungas and reusing the old house for Kris there was nothing left to do but a little bit of shopping to make things feel more homely and, of course, to throw a party to celebrate our achievements. My mum had arrived in Peru by this time and, those of you who know her will know that she’s the best person to beautify a house and have a party so I’m handing over to her to tell the final bit of the story…….
“Hi there everyone, mother here. Well I think I timed my visit perfectly. By the time I arrived (ready, willing and able to dig footings and do the odd bit of painting) the house was already up!! Juana (my namesake) hugged me like a bear, the two of us in floods of tears, as she told me over and over again that Holly was an angel sent from heaven. Juana is the most amazing woman. Her sons clearly adore her and she has devoted herself to giving them the best lives possible whilst living in the most dreadful of conditions. She is a four-foot-something dynamo of a woman, with a smile that could light a highway and the most infectious laugh I’ve ever heard. My main (and extremely important I might add) task was to choose the colour of paint for the house and, having deliberated at length and finally settled on a delectable cornflower blue, was bitterly crushed when it was decided it made more sense to give it several coats of weatherproofing varnish instead. But I was consoled somewhat when the cornflower blue was used to give Kris’s new house a facelift. My next job (and again I can’t stress the importance of this) was to help christen the house by smashing a bottle of fizzy drink over the doorway, which was successfully accomplished after several attempts with a hammer. Then the party began! Friends arrived, music was played, beers were consumed, salsa was danced, and everyone laughed and cried and hugged and celebrated the new house. I’m so glad I was able to see first-hand what all your wonderful donations have been able to achieve for this incredibly special family.”
I have to say that building this house has been one of the most difficult things I have ever undertaken but it’s also been the most rewarding – despite all the hard work I don’t think I’ve ever known so much happiness and laughter to fill a house! I can’t thank you enough for enabling me to complete this project and change this family’s lives, I feel so fortunate to be able to count such wonderful people as my friends and to have been able to fulfil the promise that I made to the boys when they were children. So thanks again from all of us…..
Holly, Juana, Luis, Jesus, Kris, Edgar and Joan.
Check out another of my Peru inspired illustrations, Inca Kings.