Like 20 James Browns …

by Dave on October 27, 2009

Construction Next Doors

Slinging 'Crete for The Man

Kopandol is a small neighborhood just south of Kathmandu, but it’s a happening place right now. It’s a little like Mount Royal in Calgary or the West End in Vancouver – close to downtown, but quiet and comfortable. Oh yeah – and expensive. We’re lucky to be here because a lot of the rest of Kathmandu is crowded and noisy (comparatively speaking, of course. Ask Annalise about last night’s dogs).

The neighborhood is undergoing some transformation. Local landlords are building new houses and apartments for well-heeled expatriates and local professionals. There’s some serious construction just next doors, in fact.

We watched a concrete pour the other day and it highlights how different things are in developing nations. For those of you who have lived in Calgary recently, you’re probably regrettably familiar with gravel trucks, construction cranes and concrete pumps.  In Kathmandu, we might have a handful of these things, but most construction is performed with a walking tractor, a concrete mixer and many, many pairs of busy hands.

A lot of stuff is built from concrete here to avoid fire and resist collapse during earthquakes. There have been four or five workers next door preparing the pour on the third floor of our neighbor’s new house for the last few weeks. The preparation crew has been hauling and tying rebar for days. Finally, someone who looked like a supervisor came by to crawl over the structure and give it the thumbs up. The next morning, a crew the size of the Motown Revival arrived to for “the pour”.  “The schelp” is probably a better word.

Around seven, the fellas got geared up. Thank goodness there’s not much heavy equipment on job sites here because there’s not much safety equipment either. Work wear consisted of garbage bags and plastic sheets formed into aprons, gloves and, in the case of one saavy worker, gaiters. While the concrete mixer, only slightly larger than you might rent from Home Depot, got warmed up, someone collected a stack of about 20 metal pans.  Like cheap woks without the handles, the pans were for moving the concrete from the mixer on the ground, up two stories of bamboo scaffold to the third floor.

Then the chain gang started. Once they lined up and started passing the pans back and forth, it was evident that they had done this before. On the ground, after the crew’s only woman checked the mixture of the concrete,  it was shoveled from the mixer into a pan. Then the full pan started its journey – slung up the scaffolding, passed hand to hand and then across the new floor to the back corner of the building. At times, it fell apart as a pan got dropped, or some other problem stalled progress. At other times, when the pans started moving in unison, it seemed carefully choreographed.

A dynamic forms amongst men when they do things together and it was evident here. Despite the heat and the labor, the crew was cheerful as they fell into their practiced rhythm. The younger guys all wanted to demonstrate their strength and vigor (especially when we arrived with the camera) while the few older and more experienced men tried to keep things professional, minimizing the spills by encouraging everyone to maintain the rhythm of the pour, passing the pans smoothly and consistently. They were clearly the hardest working guys I’ve seen in the construction business, but everyone kept it light with smiles and jokes.

The third floow was probably 800 square meters so the chain gang went on for about 5 or 6 hours. We left for errands around 9:30, and when we came home in the early afternoon, it was about 27 Celsius. The pace had slowed somewhat and there were a few more supervisors, but the chain had shortened considerably, Things were still cheerful and upbeat.  Very soon, it was finished,  everyone disappeared and our street was peaceful again.

No one has been back to the site since. It’s probably just like home – the contractor has done enough to keep the owner quiet for a while, so they’re catching up on other jobs.

The intensity of labor here is remarkable. Sometimes I wonder if we form unfair impressions of developing nations, thinking that the progress of these places is the result of people being lazy or dumb. If that’s the case, we’ve lost touch with how things used to get done. No concrete mixer, no Putzmeister concrete pump,  no construction crane and no rubber boots  – there simply isn’t enough money, space or resources to have these tools here. Just a lot of people here who all want to contribute, who want to make a wage for their families. So they work at whatever comes, whenever it comes.

Just like this bunch of guys, all together working like 20 James Browns.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Shirley Robertson October 28, 2009 at 5:20 pm

Well said!!!

LeeAnne November 1, 2009 at 11:40 am

What a terrific sight that must have been. Great story telling, Dave. Thanks for sharing!

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