Tales of a traveler

Published 10:00 pm Saturday, September 20, 2008

Looking out the window of a tourist bus and down at the people below is not the way Ruth Overstreet prefers to spend her vacations.

Of course, she has been a bus tourist and enjoyed it, but if she can have her “druthers,” she would rather be out among the locals where she can absorb the culture.

That’s why Overstreet often takes working vacations with volunteer organizations.

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She recently returned from Cambodia where she was a member of a volunteer work group with Habitat for Humanity. The trip to Cambodia was the second Habitat for Humanity working vacation that Overstreet has taken this summer. The first was to Paraguay in June.

“I like working vacations because of the closeness you have with the people of the country,” she said. “That’s the best way to learn about the country and its people. And, too, I like to think that maybe I’m doing some good along the way.”

Over the years, Overstreet has taken several working vacations with Habitat for Humanity and likes “working” with that organization.

“I look on the Internet to find the projects that I want to apply for,” Overstreet said. “You apply directly to the project leader and he or she is the one who makes the decision as to whether you are accepted and you are not always accepted. Those who are accepted pay a fee that includes all expenses and a donation to Habitat for Humanity in that particular country. You also must pay for your transportation. So, actually, you pay to work.”

Overstreet volunteers for Habitat for Humanity working vacations because she has a wealth of experience in building houses. She built her home in Springhill with the aid of books and magazines. So, she is one up on most members of the volunteer work group.

“Most of them have never mixed mortar or laid bricks,” Overstreet said. “They get a quick lesson and it’s off to work.”

The Habitat for Humanity project in Paraguay was completed during the two-week period the group was in Encarnacion.

“There were eight local brick masons who worked on the project, so our work group was basically responsible for keeping the brick masons supplied with bricks and mortar,” she said. “The worked moved right along. The house was brick with a tile roof. It was relatively small, with two bedrooms and a living and kitchen area but it was nice. It had running water and electricity and would have cost about 2,600 U.S. dollars.”

The work experience in Cambodia was vastly different. The two house sites were located on a rice paddy and were extremely wet. There were only three local brick masons assigned to the projects and everything had to be done by hand.

“In Paraguay, we had an electric mixer for the concrete but, in Cambodia, we had to mix the concrete by hand,” Overstreet said. “We had to haul everything by hand. We would form a line and pass materials for one person to the next. We even hauled rocks for the floor that way. And, the temperature was high and so was the humidity. It was hard work.”

The Habitat houses in Phnom Penh, Cambodia were even smaller than the one in Paraguay, probably not more than 14×20 feet. They were brick houses but had tin roofs.

“We piled rocks on the ground to make a firm base for the floor,” Overstreet said. “Then cement was poured over the rocks. The houses are tall so that a sleep loft could be added if the family could afford it. And, the houses were not built to keep the roaches out.”

The Habitat houses in Cambodia didn’t have running water or electricity and had squat toilets.

“A squat toilet is exactly what it says it is,” Overstreet said, with a smile.

The two Habitat houses in Cambodia would have cost about $1,500 each in American money. One of the houses, was for a family of three or four with a total income of $480 a month. The other was for a family of nine with a total income of $540 a month.

“The people in the areas where we worked were farmers and they were very poor,” Overstreet said. “The farmers in Paraguay grow soybeans, wheat, corn and barley. In Cambodia, they primarily grow rice and some fruits. In both countries, they are glad to have help in building their houses. Help means that more people can have better places to live.

“A lot of people live on platforms on the ground with roofs made out of whatever they could find,” Overstreet said. “They don’t own land so some people had put up shacks on the side of the road. A lot of people live on the streets, even families. So those who can afford a Habitat house are very fortunate.”

Overstreet said the requirements for owning a Habitat for Humanity house are the same worldwide.

“You have to be able to pay back the loan,” she said. “These houses are not free. If you cannot make the payments then you cannot be approved for a house.”

When Overstreet’s group left Cambodia, one house had been completed and the other was going up.

“Work was very slow because it was done by hand and, then too, we had inexperienced people laying bricks,” she said. “It was hard, tiring work.”

But volunteering for a working vacation is not all work. There are opportunities for cultural experiences and a few side trips are planned.

After about 10 days of hard “costly” labor, the volunteers are treated to a day or two of R&R.

“When we were in Paraguay, we visited Iguazu Falls in Argentina,” Overstreet said. “These falls should be one of the Seven Wonders of the World. There are hundreds of them and it’s an incredible sight.”

Overstreet had visited Iguazu Falls on a previous trip but said there was much more water this trip so the falls were even more spectacular.

In Cambodia, Overstreet skipped the side trip to the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat.

“Angkor Wat is very impressive,” she said. “

For hundreds of years, the ruins were covered by jungle growth. When they were discovered it was a great find. I’ve seen the ruins several times so I decided to stay behind in Phnom Penh and visit the Royal Palace Gardens and the National Museum. I’m glad that I did. What I saw was very impressive. Almost unbelievable.”

Of course, Overstreet did a little shopping on the side and picked up mementos for herself and a few things for her children and grandchildren.

Back home now, she has begun to contemplate where she will go next. But one thing is for sure, her plans will include another working vacation.

“With working vacations, I hope to do some good,” Overstreet said with a smile. “I hope to help a little. Maybe I have.”

Overstreet has been taking vacations, both working and pure pleasure, since 1989. She has traveled to countries in Southeast Asia, South America, Africa, Europe and Central Asia. She has toured Australia and New Zealand and every state in the United States except a couple in New England.

She has no favorite country but she does single out Colorado as the prettiest state.

“The Rocky Mountains in the West really stand out and the Appalachian Mountains are pretty, too, but not as impressive as the Rockies,” she said. “Every country and every place is special. I want to see them all.”