HELEN HUGHES – Santiago de Chile – 2009

Under-employed and dipping into our savings for living expenses, I spend the day putting together a table with benches for the patio instead of snapping away at Prince Charles and Camila during their State visit to Chile. None of my media clients seemed to think it merited a day wage for me.

Cesar dismembered the wobbly old wooden picnic table we have had for 25 years and converted it into a bookshelf. The bookcase is rather rough and rustic, but sturdy. He said its wood was Douglas fir. Not the wood used during the Gold Rush years as ballast in ships returning through the Magellan Straits to the Atlantic, but Chilean-grown firs. He ought to know. Cesar is a typical Chilean maestro chasquilla, “an uncombed handyman,” a freelance expert at recycling whatever material is at hand into a new use.

(The inventive solutions people have found to the challenge of “home-made” housing always amazes me when I go into homes in poor neighborhoods like Cesar’s: cardboard insulation on the inside walls of wooden shacks, Styrofoam ceilings under tin roofs, colorful sheets of yogurt labels as wallpaper, tin sheets where tops for pop bottles have been punched out to hold the plaster on adobe walls, clear cellophane windows.)

Cesar is also a 21-year old kid, the father of one, and has earned his living at one thing or another since he was 9. He is now working with a carpenter who uses finer woods from demolitions, like the old ballast. The boards of the picnic table he didn’t use were his to keep.

Something about putting together the puzzle of the replacement table, a new aluminum one, is really satisfying. Getting the screws into the holes and tightening them with a little tool provided by the manufacturer is fulfilling. Finally, they stand in position just like the illustration in the instructions. It is my accomplishment for the day.

In times like these, it is important to have an accomplishment of the day.