Portugal, the first four days

Ahh internet… It’s been four days since I was last online. A lot has happened, and my back is sore to prove it. This might not seem so summar-ary in length, but here’s a shot recap of what’s been going on with us.
Day 1 – Sunday

Sunday was brutal. In order to economize, our organizer booked us the cheapest tickets available with the Portuguese airline. Unfortunately, that meant being at the airport at 5:30, which meant waking at 4:00 am, which meant that most of us were pretty out of it for the actually travel portion of the trip. It’s a two hour flight from Paris to Porto, and another 2 hours from Porto to Braga by train. By the time we hit our hotel, it was around noon, which left us plenty of time to tour the city.

Braga is a city of about 160,000 people. Most of the houses are small townhouse style places with bright colours (either pain or decorative tiles) along the outside. The city center, where we are staying, is quite small (it feels like the downtown core of my hometown) and full of huge open spaces, churches and gardens. There are no sidewalks here, just one cobblestone street that snakes between all of the buildings. Because there aren’t a lot of cars people just walk in the middle of the street, which makes the street feel much wider than it would in most cities.

The other notable thing about this city is the prices. Compared to Paris, it feels like I’ve gone back in time 50 years. Two coffees and a tart? €1.55 (Paris Price: 6.50€). Dinner for two? €12 euro (p.p. 30€). A beer? That will be a €1.20 (p.p. 5€). We later discovered that we paid too much, most people drink beer at about 75 cents a glass. On our first day, we reveled in the prices as we toured around number the “snack” shops of Braga. This is a city that loves having a quick bite. For every Starbucks in Vancouver there is a pastry shop here.

So far, everyone here is loving the trip.

Day 2: Getting down to work

Day 2 marked our first day of work, as well as our first casualty. One of the people on the trip fell ill over night and spent the day sleeping back at the hotel. The rest of us drove about 30 minutes to the work site to get down to work.

The project we are working on is a small piece of a very large tract of land. The entire area is owned by a single family, split between several brothers and their mother. The plot that we are working on is a small percentage of everyone else’s land, donated to one of their brothers who did not have a stake in the farm and was suffering financial hardship.

We met with the receiving family that morning. Jose, his wife and two children (aged 10 and 13) are helping to build the house as well. Habitat requires that the people receiving the donation put in what they call “sweat equity hours” during the project. Jose is working on the site when he can get time off of work. His little boy helps out with some brick laying work when he can, and his wife, daughter and mother are cooking our lunches each day.

Lunch is always home made from their garden, delicious and massive; apparently the people of Northern Portugal are hearty eaters. One of the really cool things that I found out later is that we are actually paying the family for the meals that they cook, which means that they are getting a chance to earn for their work as well. We only pay a little, but for the two weeks we are here it ends up being the equivalent of a months wages at a minimum wage job, or 450€. Considering that the mother would otherwise not be able to work as she has to tend to the farm and kids, I think that this is actually a really great part of the program.

As for the work, well, it was definitely a good introduction to labour.

We are building a 99 square metre brick house. When we got there, the floor, walls, and roof had been roughed out. Our team split into three groups for the days work. The first group spent their morning digging trenches along the back of the house for the second group, who was setting up scaffolding in each of the trenches. The third group was in charge of carrying a pallet of cinder blocks up onto the roof. Sarah split her time between groups two and three. I spent my day digging, and breaking up the people sized chunks of granite that lined the hill.

The hammering work was great as a way to start as it helped remind us of the value of skill over enthusiasm. Our foreman came by at one point in the afternoon and said something to us in Portuguese that roughly translated to “You’re doing it wrong”. After we hammered away at the boulder 12 or 14 times a small chunk would come off. He picked up a hammer and shattered the whole stone in just two swings.

By the end of the day we were all bagged and went home for a shower and an early bed time.

Day 3 and 4: Roofing, flooring and mixing.

We woke up on Day 3 tired, but with still a little energy left. The casualty from Day 1 was feeling much better, but it seemed that the day had claimed someone new. I’m fairly certain that he had just drastically overworked himself – I watched the guy busting boulders for the first part of the day, and Sarah said that he was dead lifting huge bricks over his head all of the afternoon. Between the two, I’m pretty sure he blew out his abs and back muscles. With a little R&R he ended up fine for Day Four.

The rest of the group spent our day building support beams out of bricks on the roof, and pouring concrete flooring into one half of the building, which we finished on the fourth day.

Day four was February-in-Vancouver rainy, and nearly the entire group was inside finishing the floor from the previous day, or applying concrete to the walls. The concreting part was a blast – we picked up a gob of material with a trowel and flung it at the wall as hard as we could so that it would stick. Repeat until done. We were basically having a mud fight with the inside of a box – you’d think it would be no contest, but we all have horrible aim and there were a lot of friendly fire accidents. By noon, we were all covered from head to toe in concrete or freezing rain water. Graciously, the organizer gave us the afternoon off.

That brings us to now… We are heading out for dinner in about an hour with the head of Habitat Portugal. Rumour has that we are going out for Bar-b-q somewhere which will be awesome. Tomorrow is our first day off, and I think we will be heading out to the beach.

More updates to follow at an unknown point in the future.

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