Building a school with plastic bottles may seem like a curious enterprise, but one voluntourism organisation is making meaningful experiences such as this a possibility. Emma Mackenzie rolled up her sleeves in the small Nicaraguan town of Jiquilillo to help make a difference.
The stars on the wall of the school were caked in cement. A hammer, a chisel and a few volunteers were needed to find those stars again. A quick bang here and there made the cement fall way to reveal the star-shaped bottoms of the plastic bottles. The twenty-six volunteers of GIVE Group Four stepped back and admired their handiwork in the twilight of the Nicaraguan sun. The remaining two hundred three-litre plastic bottles filled with sand lay just inside the school walls, waiting for the next group of volunteers.
Plastic bottles ordinarily wouldn't be the material that first comes to mind when building a school. However, each wall of this new construction in the small town of Jiquilillo in Nicaragua contains only sand-filled plastic bottles and cement to hold it all together.
Through a community recycling program run by the locals in the region over 15,000 plastic bottles have been collected, filled with sand and used within the school's walls. The construction began in Jiquilillo last year when the first group of GIVE volunteers came through at the end of May to lay the foundation. Since then groups of volunteers have come to the small town through GIVE's volunteer excursions to help build the school during the months of May to August.
When GIVE Group Four arrived for their volunteering time in the town the walls for the bathroom at the school were ready and waiting to be constructed. It was early rising for the volunteers each morning in order to get to the worksite by 8am. Once we arrived it was all systems go, mixing cement, laying down bottles, rendering the walls and filling columns with cement. We would try and get as much done as possible before the hottest part of the day set in.
GIVE works with three local construction maestros who are extremely knowledgeable about the ins and outs of the school's construction process. If the volunteers had questions on the best way to mix cement or how many bottles were needed for a certain area these men would always help us out. Even though there were a few volunteers who didn't speak much Spanish (including myself), we learned a few key words along the way and the maestros always had a smile for us when we spoke in our broken Spanish sentences.
For someone who has never attempted construction before, laying down bottles was a lot more complicated than I had anticipated. Each bottle had to be placed with precision, in a straight flat line and with the right amount of cement between them.
With around 50 bottles or so in each row of one of the bathroom walls, the volunteers would form a construction line; one person picking up the bottles (which were quite heavy) to pass to the middle man who would pass to the person laying it down. The maestros would line up each bottle against a piece of string to ensure they were all level. More cement would then have to mixed in order to fill columns and render the walls.
Mixing cement was also much tougher than I had anticipated. There were no machines available so a lot of shovelling and mixing of dirt, rocks and many 42.5kg bags of cement mix kept everyone busy. It was very sweaty work in the humidity and high temperatures brought on by the Nicaraguan summer.
When the sun began to warm up considerably the sweat and cement-covered volunteers climbed aboard the a truck to head back for lunch at Monty's Beach Lodge hostel. During the middle of the day the group relaxed a bit, napping in the hammocks, playing soccer with the locals or swimming in the gloriously warm Pacific Ocean.
In the afternoon half the volunteers would head back to the worksite to get sweaty and dirty again, while the other half continued to fill plastic bottles with sand.
It was a great moment when the local children would get involved and help the volunteers fill up the bottles with sand. It's nice to know it is possible to have fun and communicate with each other even if my Spanish speaking skills did not extend beyond "hola"!
After a hard day volunteering the nights would mainly consist of relaxation, games and watching the tropical storms across the sea with a refreshing Tona (the local beer).
With a hopeful completion date of late-August there were only a few more GIVE groups left to finish the school after our departure. This construction will develop into a secondary school specialising in marine mechanics, carpentry, business and hospitality which will allow locals to enter the workforce and help provide for their community.
Once the school has been finished the next goal will be to source teachers from the local community and surrounding cities. If all goes to plan, GIVE and the community are hopeful that the school will open early next year.
GIVE is very passionate about everyone having the opportunity for an education, which is why the cost of GIVE programs not only provides the volunteers with food and accommodation, but also aids in the continuous funding and upkeep of GIVE's initiatives in both Central America and Africa.
Growth International Volunteer Excursions (GIVE)
GIVE was founded in 2011 with an ultimate goal of creating sustainable community advancement within developing countries. So far they have projects and connections in Nicaragua and the Caribbean in Central America, and Tanzania and Zanzibar in Africa, with unique goals and initiatives for each.
The use of bottles for construction in Jiquilillo, aside from being eco-friendly, also demonstrates cost-efficient building techniques, helpful for low-income communities. The use of recyclable materials also helps the conservation of other areas of the community as it limits the amount of refuse that harms animals such as sea turtles.
Many of the schools along the north east coast of Zanzibar in Tanzania are overcrowded and dilapidated and over the next six years GIVE plans on supporting and funding the restoration of 15 schools.
"Our programs are still new and developing and at the moment we have planted that seed in the community, making connections with the local people," education coordinator and Nicaraguan guide Amy Mackenzie explains.
"GIVE sees that the way forward is to start from the ground up so the volunteers that are coming on our programs can feel really encouraged they are at the beginning of new initiatives that are going to be sustainable in the future."
Travel Projects travel tips for Latin America
Since 1999, Travel Projects have exercised their travel operations in a conscientious manner. Here are some of their best practices:
In hotels: Use water sparingly by taking short showers or baths and try to use environmentally friendly shampoos and detergents.
When out: Support local artisans and producers and eat at local cafes and restaurants. Donations to street children encourage begging so donate instead to reputable charities.
Reduce impact: Don't veer from paths in the forest or at sites of ancient ruins. It's also a good idea not to bring additional packaging when you travel – recycling in Latin Amercia is a little more primitive than at home.