Volunteer Travel – Building Houses in Tijuana, Mexico

categories: mexico travel

chris tijuanaToday I woke up in Silicon Valley but two weeks ago I woke up on a volunteer trip. These days were quite different.

Today I woke before the alarm went off with thoughts of work and what I had to accomplish today.

A couple of weeks ago I woke to what I thought was the sound of a cement mixer. It turns out it was simply the snoring of my trip mates. I might be forgiven the mistake about the cement mixer if you understood that we had just spent two days working in Tijuana with the sound of a cement mixer as the main accompaniment. I got out of bed slowly with muscles still sore from the last two days’ work. My right thigh and biceps were the most sore but fortunately, my back was still in working order.

Today I got up and put on my jeans and a button-down shirt which is the Silicon Valley equivalent of dressing up for work.

In Tijuana, I put back on jeans which already had 2 days worth of cement on them and a tee shirt which was a veteran from one of my other 14 trips down to volunteer in Tijuana. The shirt is good for little else other than a return trip. The old sneakers I wore would see their last duty before being discarded. They had been saved from the trash at home for just such a trip as this. Completing the outfit was a green bandana that would keep the sweat and especially the cement dust in that sweat out of my eyes.

Today I ate a leisurely breakfast as I read the morning paper.

Two weeks ago it was a quick breakfast as we arose before the sun rose to get out to a work site an hour away across the sprawl that is Tijuana. That day’s task was to pour the cement roof of a family’s house that had been prepared by one half of our group two days earlier. We had a shorter workday because this was our last day and we assumed it would take more than 30 loads of concrete to finish the roof. Each load had to be mixed and then lifted by hand in buckets up to the roof.

Volunteer Travel - Building Houses in Tijuana, Mexico #travel #trip #vacation #mexico #tijuana #volunteer #volunteeringToday I drove the 15 minutes to work in the suburbia of West San Jose.

In Tijuana, we wove in and out of Tijuana’s very dynamic traffic trying not to lose the truck we were following which was from Esperanza. Esperanza (Spanish for hope) was the organization we had been working with for this long weekend volunteer vacation. We also tried not to lose the van behind us with more volunteers from our group since we had no idea where we were going except that it was somewhere in the east. Sleep was out of the question as we bounced along Tijuana roads, and these were the paved roads. The houses as you get further and further from the downtown area become increasingly improvisational in construction. It is easy to assume a brand new barrio is years old when it is built with old materials like used shipping crates and old garage doors.

Today, I started up my laptop to read my email and catch up with the information needed to be the VP of Engineering and Operations for a Silicon Valley internet company.

Two weeks previous my workday started with lifting 110 lb bags of cement from where they had been stored to a position nearer the mixer. Water was positioned and the first batch of 6 buckets of rock and 5 buckets of sand stood by for the first load of the mixer. One mixer load weighs on the order of 500 lbs when those materials are combined.

Today I had a staff meeting where we went around the table with my staff and discussed the status of various projects.


cement-lineIn Tijuana, the mixer roared to life as the first batch of concrete was prepared. It was dumped into a large trough which was built from two plastic barrels attached end to end and opened at one side. Our scooper was positioned with a bucket in hand to scoop about 2 shovels full of concrete into a waiting bucket. The bucket was passed hand to hand in a line of people snaking up a scaffolding and onto the roof. My job was to stand at the base of the scaffolding lifting the bucket up to someone waiting on the scaffolding. The mixer did not stop until the roof was finished. I held my position until I could not lift my arms over my head when I shifted to a different job like catching the buckets thrown from the roof. The catcher is a job guaranteed to cover you in concrete and guaranteed to leave your hands sore if not bruised.

Today I went out to lunch at a BBQ place with my co-workers as we often will do on a Monday.

A couple of weeks ago I found a shady spot in a sand pile and enjoyed a Manzana Lift (a Mexican apple soda) while we enjoyed our best meal of the week. We had carne asada with fresh tortillas, guacamole and salsa. There are few if any meals that taste better just as there are few sounds that sound sweeter than when the mixer finally stops. Behind us was a house. The house still needed work but now had a roof to keep out the winter rains that would start soon enough.

What I do once a year in Mexico is a break from my daily routine. It is a break from my usual travel. It is hard work. It is dirty work. It is fulfilling work. I plan to return next Fall.

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Chris Christensen

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast. He has been a travel creator since 2005 and has won awards including being named the "Best Independent Travel Journalist" by Travel+Leisure Magazine.

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Tom Hoegel


Nicely put Chris! Thanks for being such a dedicated veteran of this trip.

Peace, Tom

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