Monday, July 6, 2009

A view from the Cong Fu

They are constructing a building next door to my hotel, almost right outside my room, and I am watching it from my balcony. Like all VN buildings it is narrow and extends far to the back. Because it is also built into the hilly terrain of Bac Ha, there are two stories in the back below the one that will be street level in the front. You can see the storeys are supported by unmilled poles from one of the many deforested hillsides surrounding town. Today they are pouring concrete despite intermittent light rain and saturated humidity. Here’s how they’re doing it.

An ancient cement mixer throttles away at a small makeshift ramp at the front. From time to time it sputters to a stop, coughs, and gives up. A guy comes over with a big crank and winds it up like a Model T. Then the hive of workers also cranks back into motion. On one side of the mixer is a big pile of rough gravel, on the other a mountain of sand. A man shovels gravel into beautiful shallow woven bowl-shaped baskets, then he and the carrier together lift it high enough for carrier to swing underneath it, rest it on his head, walk the few steps to the mixer, tip it in and come back for another. The same process is repeated on the sand side. A man carries 10-gallon buckets of water filled from a hose across the street from which buckets are dipped and added to the mix in whatever proportions someone deems appropriate. One of them must be in in charge of the mix, but who knows according to what engineering principles: more master baker than science.

The mixture flows out to be shoveled by another stooping man into the waiting bucket of one of the two-person carrying teams. They lower their pole, unhook the bucketand if they are lucky the timing is right, someone else shovels it full. If not, then one of them bends over and fills it. Then they pivot, lower themselves to a deep squat and shoulder it, walk up the uneven ramp, tightrope across the naked rebar and deliver it to the men pouring the slab at the rear. Each trip will get incrementally shorter but the load no lighter. One of the teams’ bucket only gets about ¾ of a load because they are very slight people. One of them is a woman, possible a teenager, but I can’t tell because her conical hat is tipped low and she is wearing a cloth over her face in a futile attempt to protect against dust and fumes. Her partner is a whisper-thin teenage boy, possibly more like a child. Most of them are walking across the rebar and steering around heavy equipment in flop-flops; a few have rubber rain boots. No one is wearing a hardhat, though a few have green pith helmets. Most wear baseball caps. There is a choreographed beauty to this, and a egalitarian peasant purity that would make the socialist architects proud, I’m sure, but the ideological virtues are surely lost on those doing this dangerous, loud, filthy, and underpaid work. Is this someone’s house? A new hotel? Will someone make money with this building, whatever it is? Will they ever set foot in it?

A 10-minute break comes at 8:45. The mixer arrived on site at 4:45 -- I know because it woke me up. During the break the woman who runs the little shop next door serves them from a large jug of bottled water. Even local people can’t drink water that comes from the tap, if they are privileged enough to live in a house with plumbing at all. One thin middle-aged man retrieves the 2-ft long bamboo bong to dip in a bucket and have a hit or two of tobacco. A Flower Hmong woman walks up to the shopkeeper, her extravagantly colored clothes a contrast to the dust-coated workers, unloads fresh corn from her reed basket backpack, sells a few ears, loads up, and walks on. The mixer belches back into life and the rough ballet of shoveling, lifting, and toting goes on.

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