Sunday, March 22, 2009

Un Techo para mí País – Uruguay

2009 03 UTPMP Desarmar

One thing that I love with all my heart and soul about Uruguay is the non-profit organization called Un Techo para mí País – Uruguay. (The name means “A roof for my country” and we “techeros” say “Techo” for short.) Techo started in Chile and is now in 15 countries or so throughout Latin America. The organization builds very simple houses in the slums (asentamientos) to give families who are living in very poor conditions a sturdier home. These families normally are living in self-constructed houses made of whatever material they could scrap together, often referred to as ranchos. The idea is to give them a reasonable place to raise their kids – a house with a roof that doesn’t leak and a floor that lifts them up out of the dirt. (Often, when it rains in the asentamientos the houses are flooded and filled with mud, which leads to health problems among the families, especially the young, not to mention the inconvenience.)

I got involved with Techo in December of last year. I sort of joined in the offseason, so until now I’ve been helping out in the resources department (fund-raising) and I’ve participated in two “constructions.” The quotes are because these have been abnormal constructions. In a normal construction, a large group of people constructs anywhere from 2 to 10 or more houses in a neighborhood (barrio) – a two day process. In the first “construction” I did we deconstructed a house and reconstructed it in a different spot – all in one day. We started about 9 am and finished around 9 pm.

Yesterday, I participated in another “construction.” We deconstructed a house and sent it back to the warehouse. Both of the deconstructions were the result of a separation between the couples that had originally “bought” the house (the family pays 10% of the roughly $1,000 home). The owner of yesterday’s house was no longer living there and hadn’t made her payments, so the house will not be constructed until she starts to make payments.

In April I’ll be doing a real, normal, full-fledged construction, and will blog about it. Until then, check out the pictures from yesterday (click here or see slide show below). If you play the slide show in reverse you can get an idea of what a construction would be like ;) If you, your company, or someone you may know is interested in collaborating to fight poverty in Latin America, consider making a donation to Techo Uruguay. Contact me for more info, or check out the How to Collaborate section of the Techo website (in Spanish).

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Love: Living in one big small town

I love Uruguay for many reasons: beaches, steaks, dulce de leche, mate. But what I love most about Uruguay is that it feels like one big small town. You know how when you go into a Duane Reade in Manhattan, and after waiting, 10 minutes in line, you finally get to the cashier and the entire transaction takes place without any verbal exchange whatsoever? Most likely you won’t even get a smile. In fact, if a silent, smile-less transaction occurs, consider yourself lucky. Because most likely the cashier is jabbering to her coworker, bitching for 5 minutes about how her man doesn’t treat her right… and then she rings you up. It’s one of those mundane occurrences that remind you that the benefits of New York’s anonymity come at the cost of social capital.

Well… Uruguay is nothing like that. My experiences here remind me much more of that feeling you get when you walk into a barbeque joint in Taylor, Texas. That feeling of “I’m welcome here.” I can walk in here, put my hands on my hips and stare at the pit for awhile, watching the brisket and ribs and sausage smoke, or stare at the menu, and consider patiently all my options, and nobody is going to give me a dirty look, or tell me to hurry up. Even more, instead of ignoring my existence, they are likely to ask me how my day went, or if I want to sample the brisket. That feeling of being in a small town, of exchanging pleasantries with people you encounter in your daily life, of nodding or waving to the neighbors, of giving that guy you don’t know a hand, just because he needs one, that’s what Uruguay feels like.

My recent trip to La Tablada, a slaughter-house (matadero) in Melo, Cerro Largo, was one of those pleasant experiences that can only happen when you live in a big small town. One of those “I’m welcome here” experiences. The father of a friend of Noelia proposed that we visit the matadero to learn more about an industry that is so vital to Uruguay’s livelihood. Check out the video. [WARNING: If the process of turning a living, breathing cow into a steak offends you, don't watch this.]

Friday, September 26, 2008

Love: Being one of the few Americans who actually knows where Uruguay is

It’s not unusual to tell fellow Americans about my Uruguayan experience and have their first question be: Where is that? Africa? That’s not a dig at American’s close-mindedness, nor Uruguay’s obscurity, it’s just reality. There’s a little more than 3 million people in Uruguay. In the US, according to the United States Census Bureau, there are more than 16 urban conglomerations in the US with more than 3 million inhabitants. It’s an information overload issue.

Anyways, the point is, Uruguay’s obscurity means that I can probably say, without exaggerating, that I’m probably in the top 0.001% of Americans in terms of knowledge about current Uruguayan politics. That being the case, I took the liberty to share my thoughts about the recent change of economic ministers on a friend’s blog. Read here if you’re interested. 

Monday, September 15, 2008

Hate: lack of information available online

So this week there’s an “Energy efficiency” fair in the city hall here in Montevideo. Oddly enough I’ve been really excited about it for a couple weeks – attribute that to a number of factors: studied energy issues in Latin America at my last semester at SAIS, energy is a huge issue in Uruguay considering so much of it is petroleum-based and thus imported, the link between energy and economic development is so important, my own energy bills for a small studio apartment are outrageous, and let’s face it, there’s a lack of excitement in Montevideo, making an energy efficiency event a reason to get pumped.

So last night I’m surfing the web and find my way to the site of the host of the event and find their write-up about the event. Pretty good, has the basic information… there’s an event, it’s this week, and it’s about energy efficiency. Hmmm… what time does it start and end? Doesn’t say. What’s this? A course associated with the event on Monday from 8-12 am and 3-7 pm, “Architecture and Energy Efficiency”HHmasdlfjhlsdjkflsdaflksdfj. Hmmm… I wonder at whom this course is directed? Is it the same course at two separate times during the day? Or is it different information during the two sessions? Can you just walk up and attend the course? Or do you have to be registered? I wonder if it’s free. Hmmm… hmmm… hmmm...

Never mind, this is Uruguay, connectivity is growing rapidly, supposedly 200,000 DSL connections (in a population of around 3.2 million) but their internet culture is not like the US; sometimes you just have to go and talk to someone in person to get the information you need.

So up and at’em early this morning. Get to city hall by about 8:05. Hmmm… what’s this? There’s just a bunch of empty booths and one dude hanging up the sign of the host of the event. So I ask said dude, is there some sort of course at 8 that is related to the energy efficiency event? Ah yes, he says, are you registered? No, I’m not; I really don’t even have any idea what the course is about, just saw on the web that there was a course. Ah yes, it starts at 8:30, wait just one second and she’ll register you. Said she gets situated behind the desk, your name? OK, that will be 400 pesos (20 bucks), are you an architecture student? No. Professor? No, I’m a Fulbright scholar, just interested in energy efficiency. Oh, this course is for architecture students…

Ah hah! You see lady, I knew there was a catch, I just knew it. I was on-line last night. Yeah, on-line, the internet you know, Al Gore’s invention. I did my research ahead of time, after painfully navigating to information about this event, of which your organization is the host – there - is no “events” section of your website, just a “news” section – but anyway… that is irrelevant, I found the section with the information. And I saw that there was a conference on energy efficiency. Of course not surprisingly you didn’t put the time of the conference on the webpage. Which is annoying, and it’s annoying that I show up here at 8 am and there’s just a bunch of empty booths! But not all that annoying, I had a feeling things wouldn’t get going until later. But this thing with the course IS really annoying. First, why do you put 8 am if the course really starts at 8:30 and at 8 you haven’t even finished your mate and set up the registration desk? Why don’t you put Registration: 8, Course starts: 8:30. Huh? Would that be so difficult? And why don’t invest another three lines of text and put: this course is directed at architecture students or others somehow linked to the architecture profession. And by the way it costs 400 pesos. Huh!? Would that kill you!? Was your website host charging you by the letter and you thought it better to save the pesos than to provide me with that information!?

You see lady, what you don’t understand is that I’m a gringo, yeah that’s right, a Yaqui. Mmm hmm, you got it, the very same that ol’ Hugo sent to hell 100 times over the weekend. And I’m internet-spoiled. I don’t even use the phone. I make phone calls using the internet. Yeah that’s right, yes you can do that. Crazy I know, but it’s called TECHNOLOGY. And you see this culture of internet spoiled-ness means I want to go on-line, find information about your event, and know what time it starts, whether or not the course is useful to me, how much it costs, so that I don’t have to walk through the misting Montevideo skies at 7:45 am to be told that the most I’ll get out of this morning’s effort is a little exercise!

God how great it would feel to say that.