We recently wrapped up a build with Habitat Global Village near Yangshuo in southern China, just outside of Guilin. I had never done a Habitat build before so wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but we were both ready to get our hands dirty and make a contribution! We had been traveling in China for 6 weeks which had been an amazing adventure but being immersed in this community was something we were really looking forward to and the experience was more than we could’ve hoped for.
We wanted to work with an organization we could trust, and Habitat for Humanity had a long history, great reputation and fantastic infrastructure so we felt confident in the organization. Getting involved was actually quite easy! We applied online and shortly thereafter set up a call with the group leader. He told us a little bit more about his experience leading trips in China and after a few minutes determined he would love to have us join the team. Hooray!
Our leader was fantastic – he would send regular updates about the trip, getting visas, and the family we’d be building with. He was also very quick to reply to any questions we had and connected us with other team members for those that wanted to try to travel together before or after the build. Logistics in terms of meeting up in Guilin for transport to Yangshuo were also very easy. We met other team members and checked into the hotel. I was very surprised by the lovely accommodations though I imagine they vary from city to city.
The next morning we met our Chinese leader who gave a presentation about the family, Habitat’s history and most importantly – safety instructions! She explained we’d be outfitted with hard hats, gloves, and face masks but that we should look out for each other and said “don’t try to be Superman.” I really appreciated this and felt like we were in good hands.
We took a bus to the build site and spent 5 days working alongside local laborers and family members of the future resident, a 65 year old man who had suffered a stroke and was restricted to a wheelchair. He and his wife were currently living in a crumbling mud house on the property and we were working on providing them with a safe home with a solid roof, plumbing and a real kitchen.
The first day on the site, I was surprised that the walls of the house were already up! I think I assumed that we’d be building a house from scratch and would complete it in our time there. Not sure what I was thinking… this isn’t HGTV! Our role would be to build the brick walls for the septic tank & secure the roof.
I spent a lot of time laying bricks for the future septic tank (spreading cement is a lot Iike icing a cake!), while my husband used his muscle to hand mix cement, dig a trench, and secure roof infrastructure. We joined forces with other team members to hoist rebar onto the roof using a rope and pure strength, then tied pieces together with metal wire. We also moved piles of bricks and hoed in the Mandarin fields on the property. Volunteers ranged in age from 25 to 83 and bottom line is that there was something for everyone to do, no matter their strength or skill level. Our Chinese leader was there to translate with the handful of local laborers who were amazing. I couldn’t believe that they were working in flip flops but they really took us all under their wings and demonstrated what we needed to do, hopping in when needed for parts that required more attention or skill. I felt very confident that I was doing the work properly and that we were truly making great progress on the home.
That being said, I think our team of 21 volunteers was probably too big. We finished daily tasks quite quickly and sometimes ran out of things to do since we had used all the materials that had been delivered to the site that morning.
Aside from the build itself, I really enjoyed getting to know like-minded volunteers from around the US and Canada. We had all our meals together and many of us would hang out after dinner for a night cap. Again I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of what we were served — breakfast buffet at the hotel, family style lunch at a restaurant near the home, and family style dinners at a variety of restaurants in the vibrant area near our hotel. We also spent our final day together exploring some of the tourist attractions nearby which I think further connected us to the location and overall experience.
It was hot, there were bees, and the squat toilet was a 10 minute walk down the road. While we didn’t physically do as much as I expected we would have, we felt like we were in good hands and that we made a significant contribution to the project. It was such a fulfilling and emotional experience (for us and for the future resident) so we are currently looking into where we can do another Global Village build again soon!