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Executive Summary

I’m a 40 year old silicon valley high tech professional, working in Corporate Development / Mergers & Acquisitions, and running/building technology startups.  I'm taking 10 months off from work to pursue my dream of changing lives by giving back to the world community.  My goal is to build 35 permanent houses in Colombia for victims of the violence in order to take as many as 200 displaced people off the street for the rest of their lives and keep an untold number of kids out of a life of prostitution and sexual exploitation.

This blog will serve three purposes:  1) To keep my friends, family, colleagues, and the general public informed as to the progress of the project  2) To serve as a conduit for fundraising for all those who wish to help me change the world.  3)  Offer everyone a way to join me on my quest by signing up for my email progress report list. You can register your email address using the form on the right side of this web page. (I promise not to pass your email address to anyone else).

thanks, -dave

Your Donation Keeps Giving!

Naomi I'm excited to tell you that all your support for my Colombia project continues to give in many ways, and not just in Colombia.  Your generous support has compelled others, with similar heart and drive, to change lives.  My friend Naomi Gary is one of those rare people.  Please click here to see Naomi's website which details her project in Bolivia to build 15 houses and take 100 people off the streets.

My project in Colombia is complete; the families have moved in and the neighborhood is a thriving community - all thanks to you.  So please join me in helping Naomi do the same in Bolivia!  I'm very proud of her for taking unpaid months off from her job to make the world a better place, and we'll both be forever thankful if you can help her reach her goal.


The Ribbon-Cutting Ceremony

What an amazing end to the project this ribbon-cutting ceremony was!  Img_3233I arrived in Sincelejo last week to find this sign waiting for me, the houses decoratedImg_3270 with balloons and crepe paper, and the families amassed to celebrate the grand-opening.  Accompanying me was Andy Rebele, my gringo friend and generous donor who pleasantly surprised me by calling from Panama saying, "I'm in the area and thought I'd stop by..."  He  was immediately surrounded by a hoard of Colombian kids who now think that all Americans are at least 6'2" who sweat profusely in the 95 degree "winter cold snap".

Img_3291_big After spending some time introducing Andy to the families I spentImg_3266 awhile reacquainting myself with old friends I hadn't seen in a few months and taking group photos (which I refer to as the "Where's Waldo?" pics).  After 3 months in the states I was amazed at how much Spanish I'd forgotten, but it came back quickly and I managed to give a welcome speech to the group, expressing satisfaction to the builders for their finishing touches and reminding all the families Img_3328that I was there on behalf of 450 donors from 35 countries whose generosity made it all possible that they enjoy a better life.  Many broke out into tears and applause at this point since it's so hard for them to believe that people in the US, Europe, Asia, and Africa are even aware of their plight not to mention willing to donate money to help. 

Our first task was to reveal the map of houses with owners' names (until that point they hadn't known exactly which would be theirs) and watch with enjoyment as they excitedly ran to check out their new homes.  There was certainly a reward for many of them for "believing" since all along there had been no promise or contract that I would ultimately deliver the houses.  I was reminded that these are people who have had a lifetime of hardship and badImg_3238_bw luck, so when I knocked on their doors 9 months ago asking if they wanted a new house they had Img_2847reason to be suspect.  Over many months they put in hours of work at the site, fed me, and prepared for their new homes based on nothing more than a handshake and a promise.  So this day was equally gratifying for me to not only put them in new houses but also to reward them for putting their trust in me to deliver.  Andy and I spent the next couple of days in Sincelejo and were approached by dozens of people who wanted to add their names to the list for a house.  It was painful to inform them that the project was complete and I was going home, but I was happy to see the pride on the faces of those who'd taken a risk and believed.

Click here to see all the pics from the ribbon-cutting ceremony and the happy faces of just some of theImg_3387 200+ people whose lives you changed forever.  It's with sadness I write this, likely my final entry in this blog, not only because such a wonderful project has come Img_3293_big to an end but also because it means the end of the opportunity to easily connect with all of you.  In the end we raised over $175,000 which was 75% over my original goal, resulting in 35 houses built (10 more than I'd originally planned!)  For my lifelong friends and family who've supported me through "yet another wild project" I'm forever thankful, and to my new friends whom I've gained because of this project I'm truly speechless of your generosity.  Thank you for joining me (and enabling me) to change a little part of the world.  PLEASE stay in touch...

best, -dave

Technology Changing the World

Cisco_ad This is a special thanks to Crystal at Cisco for making HelpDaveChangeLives to be part of their "technology changing the world" campaign currently advertised in BusinessWeek, Wall Street Journal, etc. 


If you're reading this blog you probably know the story of my project in Colombia ad infinitum, however I thought you might enjoy listening to this podcast produced by Peter Shaplan on behalf of Cisco who is doing stories on how technology is changing the world.  The real stars are my friends Renee and Akbar who are interviewed, as is the CEO of, Matt Flannery. You don't need an iPod, just click here and it will stream to your computer.

Celebration Party

Thanks to everyone who made the party on the 13th such a great night!  We had over 200 people come by to celebrate and share in the success which they made happen.   Click here to see pics from Doug and Wayne who were kind enough to bring their cameras and send me their photos.  For me personally it was so rewarding to have so many people from different parts of my life together in one place.  It was also great to finally meet all my *new* friends (who'd donated and corresponded with me while I was in Colombia) and put a smile with an email address.  It's truly an example of technology enriching  lives through connection and interaction with wonderful people around a great cause...


PS  If you enjoy dining out in San Francisco then click here to visit Wayne's company,, the most highly-trafficked restaurant review website.  It's completely free, and so helpful that I promise you won't eat out again without going here first...

Week 18: The first families move in!

Dsc02064 Today saw the beginning of the culmination of 5+ months of hard work when the first 10Dsc02070 families moved in.  I wasn't expecting a party but they all arrived with food and festive attitudes so who am I to say no to boiled yucca and beer?  The looks on their faces were priceless as the women officially laid claim to their kitchens and the men proudly stood guard on the front porch.  As a self-avowed minimalist even I was envious of the 30-minutes it took Dsc02060 them to complete the move as they marched up the hill from their old barrio with all their possessions in just one armload.  It was mostly adults since today is a schoolDsc02056 day and one of my requirements for families to live here is that their children attend school full-time.  However we're going to have an official ribbon-cutting ceremony with all the residents when all 35 houses are completed in November but I wanted to share these pics with you now because it was such an amazing feeling to usher these incredibly thankful people into their new homes and give them the keys...

Dsc02053 I gave a quick impromptu welcome speech where on behalf of all my donors aroundDsc02051 the world I invited them to begin in a better life.  Given America's current negative reputation in Latin America I was further encouraged to hear the residents say their view of the USA had changed in light of 90% of the project's donations coming from  Americans.  I'll be forever grateful to all my donors who enabled me to come experience this feeling as America's goodwill ambassador.

Dsc02084 Now I need to start planning my return to San Francisco lest my friends, family, andDsc01976 colleagues forget who I am.  I'll be managing the construction of the remaining 16 houses remotely, letting my architects and project managers continue running the day-to-day tasks (ie the real work).  I'll be sending pics and updates over the coming months as I make sporadic long weekend trips to Sincelejo and drive the project to its ultimate completion.  Stay tuned for the final pics of a few hundred people moving in and beginning a new life!

Click here to see more pics of the families moving in!

Week 17: Incredible Progress!

Dsc02046 Dsc02044This week saw many exciting events: the arrival of the toilets, the connection of central gas, and the completion of the last set of roofs.  The electrical wiring continues as the final step before the first families begin moving in.  I'm constantly reminded how spoiled we are in the USA, such as when I asked my architect, "Are you sure one electrical outlet in each room is enough?"  His response, "What are they going to plug in?" was just such a reminder.

Dsc02020 The kitchens turned out really well.  They'll have two gas stove top burners, a bigDsc01958 sink, and sterile concrete counters on which to prepare their meals.  They won't be on the cover of Martha Stewart's magazine anytime soon but with a design optimizing for cleanliness to combat disease we're very proud.  The approach of using concrete for *everything* is new to me however I see the value and reason for it.  That said I'll be happy if I ultimately go to my grave without ever seeing another bag of cement or wheelbarrow full of concrete!

Click here to see more pics of all the progress over the past 2 weeks

The Toilets are here!

Dsc02016" The toilets are here, the toilets are here!"  The kids were very excited and, many of themDsc02014_1 never having sat on one before, came running to tell me of their arrival.  Oddly enough these toilets are the single most expensive and valuable component of the houses and we have to keep them under lock and key until after the families have moved in and are ready to be installed.  Which makes me wonder what a thief would do with 35 toilets...  The other exciting news was the successful installation of the gas meters and connecting the houses with the city's central gas line.  Central electricity and gas are such new phenomenoms to these residents that we have to teach them how to use it since it will be the first time many of them will have cooked over anything other than an open fire.

Click here to see more toilet pics :)

Another Vacation Recommendation - Popayan!

Dsc02004 For you more adventurous travelers I highly recommend the beautiful city of Popayan,Dsc02008 far off the beaten path in the south of Colombia near the Ecuador & Peruvian borders.  Needing a break from the heat I popped down here to see one of the most beautiful and treasured colonial cities in all of Colombia.  It is the capital of Cauca state,  founded at the foot of Volcán Puracé, in 1537 by Sebastián Belalcázar, a Spanish adventurer seeking the famed El Dorado. (Not to be confused with me, the gringo adventurer seeking Las Cervezas).   

Dsc01980 Situated in the Andean cordillera halfway between Bogota and Quito Ecuador, it soonDsc01991_3 drew settlers who established sugar plantations in the Cauca river valley. The mild climate attracted others and the town became an important religious center with many churches, monasteries and seminaries, as well as a prosperous trade center. Much of the activity of the area is recorded in the Popayán Papers, correspondence between the inter-related members of the local aristocracy, plus patriotic writings from Colombia's struggle for independence.

Dsc01982 As the economic importance of the town waned, Popayán lost business, but retainedDsc02000 its importance in religious and cultural spheres. The University of Cauca was founded in 1827, following the requirements established by Simón Bolívar, El Libertador, on the site of an indigenous village.  Today it has a population of about 200,000 and retains much of its indigenous people and culture.

Dsc01996 The colonial architecture remained intact until the devastating earthquake of 1983 leftDsc01990 only one of the many churches standing. A massive reconstruction effort followed, restoring the town to its colonial look in the monasteries, cathedral, colonial houses, streets and museums. Popayán is a Colombian historical site listed on the national registry, and an attractive destination, particularly during the famed Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations.  There are a handful of quaint old B&B style hotels in 100 year-old buildings plus restuarants where a steak, french fries, and a bottle of wine will cost you $10.  My kind of town...

Dsc02011The city is known as la ciudad blanca, "the white city" for obvious reasons. I'm writing this while sitting in the inner courtyard of my $4/night hotel, a 1885 buildingDsc02005 which survived the earthquake with only a minor 30 degree list to starboard.  Management addresses this problem by outfitting the rooms with beds that list 30 degrees to port...  And yes, there is considerable guerrilla activity in the area, but if you're willing to put up with this minor inconvenience you'll be rewarded with a 16th century colonial town all to yourself!

The Great Shoe Delivery: The Final Chapter

Here are some pics of the final stop for 30 pairs of new and used boots/shoes thatDsc01936 have traveled a long road.  Most of them had been in San Francisco on my friends' feet, or in the Dsc01932closet after only being worn once.  After a month waiting to be collected from Peter's living room I packed them into one giant dufflebag as my 2nd checked bag for my flight from San Francisco to Sincelejo. The first leg to Miami required some sweet-talking to avoid incurring an extra fee (I didn't realize how heavy 30 pairs of shoes are until I slung that bag over my shoulder the first time).  The 2nd leg, from Miami to Medellin, was eventful in that the bag didn't come off the plane with the others in Medellin.  I had to discreetly inquire if anyone had seen a giant bag of shoes since Dsc01937importing clothing & shoes is illegal in Colombia where they protect their textile industry with import restrictions.  I had no qualms about claiming on the customs paperwork that the shoes had no commercial value since I had in fact not paid anything for them, but it was a little tenuous watching the Avianca baggage handler walk around in front of the heavily armed customs officers yelling, "HAS ANYONE SEEN THIS GUY'S GIANT BAG OF  SHOES FROM AMERICA?"...while I was standing in the "Nothing to Declare" line.  They ultimately found the bag, and I got the lucky "green light" at customs so I just walked through without saying anything, staring straight ahead without making any eye contact. 

Dsc01947 But by then it was 10pm, and I'd been traveling for 13 hours straight, so I took a taxiDsc01944 into Medellin to find a hotel...ultimately finding one but absentmindedly leaving the shoes in the trunk of the taxi.  I spent some more time tracking the shoes down, got a few hours sleep, and then got back up to navigate to a different airport to catch a flight to Corozal (nearest airport to Sincelejo).  But since only puddle-jumpers fly into Corozal they refused to take the impossibly-heavy bag.  However Colombia is a problem-solver's dream since there's really no such thing as an absolute "no" here.  A compliment about the baggage handler's favorite soccer team (Nacional) and 30,000 pesos ($12) later my bag was being loaded onto the plane.


For these Colombian laborers a $100 pair of boots is equivalent to 1 month's wages,Dsc01939_4 thus the smiles of disbelief and happiness you see in these pictures.   Every pair of shoes has a story, including those donated by the kind family who'd recently lost their husband/father to a long illness and chose to donate his new shoes in a way that would truly make a difference.  For those who kindly collected shoes on my behalf, please forward this url to your donor-friends so they can see the joy they've created.  Sorry I couldn't get pics of all the new owners but they were so excited most of them ran home immediately to show their families.

(Julia: your gym shoes, which accidentally ended up in the pile of donated shoes, went to this little guy who is very excited to grow into them in a couple of years!   I owe you...)


We're past the 3-month mark and going strong!

Dsc01892 I feel like we're cornering the market on cement in Sincelejo.  Whenever I call forDsc01894 another order the guy says, "Davíd, como has estado?" (How have you been?) before I even get through my first sentence.  I guess I'm the only gringo in town ordering cement.  I'm also the only guy who thinks it's cool when the cement is delivered on a horse-drawn cart. Anyway we're pouring a TON of it now that we're laying all the floors in the first 24 houses.  Between this and the central sewer, the government inspectors were impressed with what we're doing to combat disease.  We've also completed the roofs on most of them so this little city is coming together well.  This week, along with installing the roofs, we're running all the electrical lines and installing meters.  Next we'll be installing the sinks, toilet, and showers before the owners start moving in and doing the clean-up and painting next week.

Dsc01908 The families have also been coming through and giving some personal touches.  Dsc01918_1 Here Isabel is designing in her head how this front room will suit her and her 2 boys.  What's most amazing is to watch a family of 5 walk through an 650 sq foot house and say, "Wow it's so big!" or "How will we ever fill this with furniture?" They must have lived in my San Francisco apartment in a past life...  It's also fun to watch little kids see an inside toilet or shower for the first time and then excitedly ask when they get to move in. My mother should have been so lucky to have me be excited to take a bath.  In fact my coworkers now would feel lucky if I took a bath.  Nonetheless this excitement on these kids faces are what I'll strive to remember when I'm taking things for granted back home.

Dsc01916 I'm squatting after-hours in a government building using their broadband.  No one Dsc01911 thinks to ask the only gringo they've ever seen if he's supposed to be in the building so I pretty much come and go as I please.  Being a gringo sometimes gets me mugged but it also provides me with reliable internet access, which is a price I'm willing to pay in this ever-connected world.  I'll post some more pics and give an update on the Great Shoe Drive later this week when I have more time...


The Great San Francisco Shoe Drive

Dsc01881 I've been back in San Francisco for 2 weeks pounding the pavement and knocking on doors to get my project onto television and into newspapers with mixed results.  This whole PR campaign stuff is new to me so what I've learned is that without live high quality video it's a tough story to sell because they're certainly not going to send anyone to Colombia to take footage anytime soon...  So we're making the best progress with newspaper and other print outlets.  If you know of anyone in this industry who might be able to spread the word please send them my way!

As for the shoe drive, all is going well thanks to Peter and the rest of my friends in San Francisco.  A recent drop-off-your-shoes-while-we-play-volleyball event put us over the 30 pairs I need to ensure everyone at the worksite has at least one pair.  And I'll be stuffing them into one very large duffle bag for my next return flight to Sincelejo so the shipping is now a non-issue.  All I need to do now is convince the workers to actually *wear* them instead of selling them...


New Goal!

Dsc01570 Or as they say down here during the non-stop World Cup madness: Gooooooaaaaalllll... 

Just as I had reached my emotional limit of sending homeless people away by saying, "I'm sorry we've already chosen the 25 families for these houses and you weren't among them", your generous donations topped the $100,000 mark!  In addition the US$ has really taken off against the Colombian peso, increasing by more than 12% since I arrived 2 months ago, such that the total cost per house has dropped to less than $4,000!  So I can't help but conclude that building only 25 houses would be underachieving given the vast support I have behind me, and therefore today I'm announcing the plans to build "Subdivsion II"

I've raised the fundraising goal to $150,000 in order to build a total of 35 houses, which in total will take approximately 200 homeless victims of  violence off the streets of Colombia.  We're nearly complete with the negotiations to purchase the land next to the current worksite and will begin breaking ground ASAP!  Umberto (architect and project manager) will be managing the expansion of the existing construction while I'm in San Francisco the next couple of weeks initiating a nationwide PR campaign to bring more publicity to this project and Habitat for Humanity.

I'm very excited about this expanded opportunity enabled by your generosity.  Please pass the word and know that your support is changing lives...


2-months in Colombia!

Dsc01776The end of this week marks approximately my 2-month anniversary in Colombia.  The luxury ofDsc01759 spending so much time in a foreign country getting to know these wonderful people and their culture is offset only by the sadness I feel in not being able to do more. It's truly painful when someone from the local neighborhood shows up at the site and asks, "Can I have a house too?"  How do I tell them that we've already chosen the 25 families and unfortunately they weren't among them?  I just keep reminding myself that together we *are* improving the lives of a few hundred people, and below I'll walk you through the progress we've made thus far in a sort of virtual tour...

Dsc01878_1The bathroom: This is the room I'm most proud of, for reasons you'd Dsc01754have to be here to appreciate.  In the states we hardly even notice our bathrooms, but here in barrio Alto Rosario, where raw sewage flows freely in the streets, a bathroom with flushing toilets to central sewer lines is simply a triumph of progress over disease.  And this shower will be the highlight of some lucky family's day when they soak under a cold stream of clean water.  The guys at the site should be so lucky when it comes to me and my lack of showering...

Dsc01752The living room:  Here's a picture of Isabel, future homeowner and mother of two little boys, in her living room watching the roof be completed.  Behind her is an enclosed patio, which will have a window through to the kitchen.  Often dinner is served outside to enjoy the (hopefully) cool evening breeze.  Also off the living room, next to the front door, is a terrace with room for chairs and a table from where they can look down the hill to the shantytown where they used to live.

Dsc01745The kitchen: Many of you will (rightfully) ask how I could possibly know anything about kitchens since IDsc01768 haven't cooked since sometime during the Reagan administration.  Thankfully I can tell you that much thought was put into designing the kitchens by our architects who have put full electric appliances, sinks, and running water into a room with direct backyard access to an additional laundry area and a sink.  All the sinks and toilets in the house will be connected to the central sewer line which we were very excited to connect to earlier this week.

Dsc01765The master bedroom:  On these houses this bedroom will overlook the shantytown of barrio Alto Rosario where many of these new homeowners used to live, which is quite fitting if you ask me...  In this picture Umberto, one of the architects, is measuring the window overlooking the barrio.  For smaller families (less than 5 people) the parents will get the bedroom to themselves.  For larger families of 5-8 people, some of the kids will sleep in the bedroom with their parents (not to mention in the living room).  While it might sound cramped to me and you it's a big improvement from their current situation - everyone sleeping on the dirt floor of one tiny room.

Dsc01824_1Dsc01813Click here to see more pics of the houses and all the progress we made this past week.  It was a particularly hot, sweaty, messy week of construction yet spirits on the site were amazingly high.  We've now laid the concrete foundations for all 24 houses, connected them all to central sewer lines, and have almost fully completed the exteriors of the first 10.  By this time next week we will have made great progress on all 24 and will be adding roofs to protect the kitchen appliances from the rain.

Other exciting news:  I've been invited to San Francisco (and possibly NYC) to do some media interviews, both television and print, in order to get more publicity for the project.  I'm not sure exactly when I'll hop back up to the states but don't be surprised if you bump into me walking around downtown San Francisco in the coming weeks.  I'll be the guy with the pint of Ben & Jerry's and a 64-ounce big gulp full of ICE!


MotoTaxi Ride

Many people who send me emails have questions about what Sincelejo is really like.  So I thought you might enjoy this creative way of seeing the town: from the back of a motorcycle taxi.

Click here to see my daily $0.40 ride from the worksite to my hotel downtown.  Suffice it to say they don't get many gringos on the backs of motorcycles making videos, so that explains all the stares you get as you watch this quick 90 second montage of the various neighborhoods I pass through everyday...


Weeks 5-6

Dsc01708Dsc01727_1You can really see the progress now as the worksite is beginning to transform from a field of dirt into a living neighborhood.  We've laid the foundations for all 24 houses and have completed the full exteriors on the first 10.  The families are spending more time at the site enjoying walking around and discussing where they'll put the furniture and who will sleep where.  Listening to these conversationsDsc01731 has taught me that apparently economic standing is not a factor in determining the likelihood a wife will tell her husband to move the couch back to where she first wanted it...  At full strength we're a work team of over 50 people moving dirt, mixing concrete, and building walls.  And, seemingly overnight, "winter" transitioned to summer so we've had cloudless 100+ degree days that even the locals admit is unusually hot.

Dsc01712_1I promised the team I'd shave off the ugly goatee you see in these pics when theDsc01738 water comes back on in Sincelejo (or the rain returns) so I'm hoping for power in town for the sake of everyone involved.  Originally the goatee was supposed to add a tough "don't mug me" side to my otherwise agreeable disposition but everyone says I smile too much for that to really work.  So instead it adds a gross "I badly need a shower" side.

Dsc01722Many of you have written that it pains you to see the pics of the workers swingingDsc01728_1 pick-axes in bare feet, so I'm happy to tell you that I'm working on some kind of "performance bonus" with help from friends in the states.  My friend Peter organized a boot/shoe donation party at Tony Nik's in San Francisco - clearly the most creative excuse I've heard yet to get everyone to come meet him at a bar.  Nonetheless the end result is that with Peter and friends' help we'll soon have all the workers in boots/shoes.

Thanks to everyone for your continued support - in many fashions - and please click here to see pics from the past couple of weeks at the worksite.


Week 4: Interviewing the families

Dsc01613I spent much of this week interviewing hundreds of families to choose the 24 whoDsc01618 will recieve the houses we're building.  Here's how it works:  There are over 3 million homeless displaced victims of violence in Colombia, and the government has a ranking system for them based on their need (# of children, hardships, etc)  The most needy comprise Group A, and from this group the government has an annual lottery to determine who wins a special "subsidiary" receipt.  With these receipts a family can approach an organization like Habitat for Humanity or the UN and request that a house be built for them.  Upon completion of the construction, the organization gets a refund from the government for approx $4,000 per receipt.  Of course only non-profit foundations such as Habitat and the UN are capable of building a house for $4,000 so there is still plenty of need even when the government is willing to pay.  Now how about everybody else?

Of course the number of families who win this lottery is a minisculeDsc01637Dsc01625 fraction of the 3 million homeless. That's where I come in.  In Sincelejo Habitat is building 76 houses for those families who have won the lottery...and I'm building 24 more for those who didn't.  I worked with the government to get a list of the people in Group A who weren't lucky enough to win a subsidiary, and this week I spent time getting to know them in order to determine the most needy.  What a heartbreaking job that was - of course they're ALL needy.  Thankfully I was able to rely on the local Habitat staff and other support organizations in the community who know these people best.  I decided to choose families from the Costa Azul neighborhood, the poorest low-lying area of Sincelejo next to a river/sewer which overflows its banksDsc01619 every winter and washes away most of the houses.  It's the most disease-ridden and temporary of all the homeless shanty town in Sincelejo  In short, no one needs a house more than these people.  The first couple of doors I knocked on revealed families intimidated by the presence of a nosy American asking about their well-being.  But word soon spread that I'm building houses for hard-working yet needy people, and by the end of the day I'd been welcomed into every home...and eaten enough fried plantains to feed an army.  They're all so friendly and hopeful that it breaks my heart I can't build them all a house...

Click here to see more of the families of Costa Azul who will be getting a house I'm building thanks to your generosity and support.  Together we're truly changing lives and making a difference!

Random Observations II

Dsc01472I went to see "El Codigo Davinci" with my 2 project architects last night.  Let's just say that the Sincelejo Cinemas don't have Dolby sound yet.  In fact what they do have is folding chairs, 2 home stereo speakers on the floor, and a home movie projector with a dim bulb.  It reminded me of those old science movies we had to watch in the gymnasium in junior high.  Except I never drank Club Colombia cerveza out of the can in junior high.  Bonus: I learned how to say, "Nice mullet!" in Spanish...

Another helpful Spanish phrase when you're 6'2" 205 lbs with a short haircut:  "I swear I'm not in the CIA".  I made the mistake of going to the US embassy in Bogota to register myself and read the security reports on Colombia's different regions, a standard service in US embassies around the world.  Colombia has the shortest report I've ever seen:  "You shouldn't be here. Anywhere."  No kidding.  And while the embassy itself is a massive fortress, the area around it is pretty sketchy.  So in retrospect I can say that registering myself for my own protection was much more dangerous than hanging out in mountainous jungle towns overrun with guerrillas and drug cartels.

I am the *only* gringo in Sincelejo.  I was reminded of that fact when I went to the supermercado and asked for sunblock.  That was stupid.  When the cashier finally stopped laughing he told me that if I promise to buy all 100 bottles he'd order a case of it.

Colombians are more attached to their cell phones than SiliconValley geeks, and the system here is very different.  It's free to receive a call, but to make a call you pay by the minute based on the time of day and whether you're calling a number that's with the same carrier as yours (cheap) or to one of the other two carriers (expensive).  So of course the obvious solution is for everyone to have one phone for each carrier thereby ensuring you can call anyone/anywhere for about US$0.08 per minute.  The downside is that when you meet your group of friends for dinner and everyone puts their phones in the middle of the table it's like being at an electronics flea market.  There's no room for any food, and good luck finding the phone that starts ringing...

Some guy on the street with a large stick was kind enough to lighten my load by removing the watch from my wrist and the 20,000 pesos ($8) from my pocket.  I didn't get a good look at him while holding my head in pain, but I can't help but wonder if he was the same persistent watch salesman on the corner who earlier in the week I'd told that I didn't need a watch since I already had one.  That was stupid.

Mototaxis are the best way to get around Sincelejo, especially between my hotel in downtown and the worksite at barrio Alto Rosario on the outskirts of town.  They aren't really taxis perse, but rather anyone with a 2-wheel vehicle who gives rides in exchange for money.  Most are just people who are cutting through town offering a ride in order to generate some extra cash.  But there are rumors that some of the them are kidnappers who take their unwitting passengers out of town at high speeds to be thrown into a pit until ransom is raised.  So my solution is to choose the old lady with the 1977 Puch moped that barely has enough horsepower to get her 85 pound frame moving.  You should see the look on her face when I drop my 205 pounds on the back, put my arms around her waist, and yell "Vaminos!" .  Even funnier is the look on everyone else's faces as she peddles (and I push us along ala Fred Flinstone) screaming through town at speeds reaching nearly 5mph... 

Travel Recommendation

Dsc01667_1Dsc01653_1Last Friday I decided to heed the advice of locals and get out of Sincelejo during the presidential election weekend since that's historically when kidnappings spike.  So I did the 3-hour drive to Cartagena and spent the weekend walking around town taking in the sights.

The city's official name is Cartagena de las Indias as it was founded in 1533 by PedroDsc01666_1 de Heredia as a major center of Spanish Dsc01660settlement in the Americas.  Many colonial buildings can be found in the walled Old City, including the Palace of the Inquisition, the cathedral, the Convent of Santa Clara (now an amazing hotel) and a Jesuit college. St. Peter Claver, patron saint of the slaves worked in and from the Jesuit college.  I believe it's the most beautiful colonial city in all of Latin America and you can spend hours just wandering around the old city getting lost.  The weather is hot (winter) and hotter (summer) so make sure you pack shorts and t-shirts...

An hour away by boat are the Rosario Islands which are great for sitting on the beach,Dsc01657 with your chair sunk in the water up to your waist, reading a book for hours at a time.  I did exactly that all day on Saturday and as such have no pictures to share.  It was nice to fall asleep and worry about nothing more than drooling on my new book.

Dsc01664Many of you will remember Cartagena from the movie "Romancing the Stone" with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner.  You're unlikely to see any crocodiles in the moat around the fort, yet I recommend Cartagena as a great travel destination for the more adventurous travel set!

Weeks 2 & 3 in Sincelejo

Dsc01588These past 2 weeks have been very productive, especially given that this comingDsc01529 weekend's presidential elections have spurred some extra "action" around town between the guerrillas and government soldiers.  Nobody seems to know whether it was a bomb or incompetence that blew up the Utilities building but the result is there was no water for 5 days last week.  Which is actually fine with me since I've completely given up on taking showers here anyway.  I'm completely soaked in my own sweat by 6:15am every morning  so why bother?  But at least now I have an excuse: "Those damn guerrillas..."  Today was the first time I had to get out of the car at gunpoint and lie spread eagle face down on the pavement while the military police searched our car. Apparently the IRA or Beider Manhoff has been sending mercenaries to train the guerrillas here to build bombs so my "I'm just a gringo" defense falls on deaf ears...

Dsc01527_1The first 3 "model homes" are progressing nicely so we started digging/laying theDsc01571_1 foundations for the next 12.  The team was kind to let the gringo take the first ceremonial swing with the pick but there's no doubt who's doing the real work here.  One interesting thing you'll notice in some of the pics (at right) is that the poorer workers from displaced families in the local barrio TAKE OFF their shoes while they work since they don't want to ruin their only pair.  So everyone here is swinging big pick-axes and pile drivers just inches from their bare feet.  It pains me to watch...

Dsc01600It's also unbelievable to watch them make the tools from the same material which they make the houses.Dsc01601  This homemade hack-saw is made of leftover rebar from the foundation work, the concrete spatula was a pancake spatula in a past life, and the cement sifter is the screen door off of someone's house (which he takes back home everynight).  We were fortunate to get a bulldozer for the day at a greatly reduced cost since the thought of moving all that land to create a level worksite was intimidating.  And we've increased the full team of paid workers to 25 and will likely double that next week.  While $7 dollars per day for back-breaking work isn't very appealing to you and me, they're lined up around the block for these jobs here.

Dsc01597The standard workday is to get up before the sun (and heat) and get as much workDsc01595 done before the afternoon steam arrives.  I've become friends with the locals in the barrio and like to play dominoes or shoot a game of pool in the afternoon.  They usually take me for a few thousand pesos ($1) each day which I wish I could tell you was my way of giving them money but in fact I'm a horrible billiards player and am actually trying to win.  There are a few places to play but I prefer the one in this pic because they have felt on their tables, however the barb wire against the back of your legs requires you to be careful when sizing up your shot.

Some exciting news beyond Sincelejo:  Because of your generosity ($70,000 and counting!) we've been able to get an audience with some key government officials to pitch an even broader role for Habitat building houses for the poor in Colombia.  Habitat is a relative newcomer to Colombia and until now has struggled to get traction/publicity within NGO circles.  We met with the office of the First Lady of Colombia who is responsible for many of the social programs in the country, as well as the Mayor of Cartagena who wants to help Habitat build 350 house there.  We're getting wonderful support from Accion Social, the social services arm of the federal government, to build schools and more services in the communities where Habitat is building. 

All this is possible because of 1) your generous support and 2) help from wonderful people like Jaime Echevarria who passed my blog onto people in his network.  You're making a difference on even a larger scale than you initially thought possible...

Click here to see pics from weeks 2 and 3 at the worksite


Smart Kid...

Sorry for the lack of posts but I only have dialup here in Sincelejo and it's painfully slow...when the phone lines are actually working at all.  However I just have to share this story with you:

As the only gringo in Sincelejo I attract plenty of people begging for money, which is hard because of course I can't help them all.  But last night a particulary cute little ~8 year old kid asked me for "una moneda" (a small coin) and I couldn't break his heart.  Yet at the same time I didn't want to reward him for begging so I told him if he swept up and threw away all the trash on the street in front of my hotel I'd give him 2,000 pesos ($0.75).  I was proud when he completed his thorough cleaning, afterwhich he was very excited to receive his wages for a job well done.  And of course I was feeling good about teaching him the value and reward for hard work.

Today I came downstairs for breakfast to find the street literally strewn with trash and about 10 kids hoping to know the reward for hard work.  So much for that idea...


Welcoming the families

Dsc01474For those of you not familiar with Habitat for Humanity its defining difference is that, unlike most other charitable foundations, we require the families to invest many hours of "sweat equity" at the site in exchange for giving them an extremely reduced mortgage on their house.  This way the people have both a physical and financial connection with their property and an increased sense of pride in ownership.  Yesterday I met with the first group of families who will begin working at the site this week.  The men will be digging ditches and carrying rocks; the women will be preparing the building materials; and the children will be clearing trash and running small errands.  Those with more construction experience will be on the primary project team.  And since it's a hot dusty tropical 100 degrees with nearly 100% humidity this is truly sweat equity!

In the morning I gave an introductory speech welcoming them and telling them about all of you in America and all over the world who care about their plight in life and are supporting them with your donations.  I wish you could interact with them the way I do so you can feel how thankful they are.  I put a quick snippet of the speech here so you can see their faces.  The poor quality of the audio is on par with my Spanish but you can see the appreciation in their smiles.  Please please please know that you're doing great work by helping in whichever way you choose!


Click here to see more pics of the worksite and with the families in barrio Alto Rosario

Click here to see a streaming video of my welcome speech to the families

Happy Birthday Mom!

Mom, I know you and dad are backpacking around the middle east right now so I couldn't phone to wish you a happy 69th birthday.  However the kids in barrio Alto Rosario wanted to wish you feliz cumpleanosClick here to see their gift to you!  If you listen closely you can hear them sing, "Feliz cumpleano a Pamela..."

Love you Mom.


Week 1 in Sincelejo

Dsc01385This has been a very productive week at the worksite.  With the paperwork for theDsc01388_3 purchase of the land complete we began clearing the land and preparing for laying the foundations.  Ultimately there will be 65 houses built on this land by Habitat once the funds are raised, completely filling this area in the picture(left) with houses for more than 400 victims of the violence.  Together you and I are building the first 24, and we're starting this week with these first 3 "model homes" with a smaller crew to test our designs before we roll them out to the whole worksite.

Dsc01448I've been spending my time with these amazing people watching how Dsc01451_1they build so much with so little in the way of resources and tools!  I find myself constantly thinking, "I wish there was one of those EZ Rental places here" as we haul rocks around in wheelbarrows and bend rebar around spikes nailed into an old tree trunk.  With these rudimentary tools we've managed to clear the land, dig the trenches, and lay the foundational rebar for all 3 houses this week.

Dsc01404I've also managed to take some breaks to get to know the people of thisDsc01432 neighborhood called Alto Rosario.  Because they know I represent the funding (from you) back in America they've been unbelievably welcoming as I stroll through their neighborhoods.  The majority have fled the war and they're happy to know that there are people from America and all over the world who care about their situation.  And I'm always a good source of laughter as they try to figure out what the heck I'm trying to say in my simple Spanish.  (Ever try to wax poetic on geopolitical economic forces with only 3 months of basic language studies?)

Dsc01454The weather here is unbelievably hot, which was my excuse for lacking energy until I found out it'sDsc01462_1 actually winter here now and won't really get hot for another few months.  I seem to be the only one who sweats profusely and I think they sometimes worry about my health as I pant for mas agua por favor! which comes in individual plastic bags. Luckily there are some "situational inefficiencies" that allow for longer breaks, such as when this heard of cows cut through the worksite.

I'll update the pics (at right) when I get some more time...and bandwidth.  Sincelejo isn't exactly Bogota so the telephone lines and electricity are hard to predict (apologies to those of you who haven't seen a response to your emails yet...)   So far everything is going well and on schedule, and we plan to have the first 24 houses done by the end of June thanks to all of you!


Observations on Colombia

Here are some random tongue-in-cheek observations, cut from my personal journal, on my experience here in Colombia.  Just to give you more context on what it's like being a rare gringo on the streets of Bogota...

The war here gets lots of foreign press, but I’m beginning to think that walking around Bogotá is much more dangerous. I'm certain that the crosswalks exist only in order to direct ambulance drivers to where they'll most likely find dead foreign pedestrians. I got in a fight with a taxi driver who just about ran me over as I was crossing on a green light. I don't know any vulgar insults in Spanish, and certainly none like he was throwing at me, so I translated directly the classic American "bite me" - muerdame!  Judging by the perplexed look on his face this has a completely different meaning in Spanish, although I don't care to know what.

Travel Rule #64: When you're in the busy downtown area of a city of 10 million people at midday and both the street and sidewalk are absolutely devoid of people and cars, you probably shouldn't be there either. Had I followed this rule I wouldn't have been tear-gassed. Apparently I stumbled onto a protest by students at the National University de Bogotá, but I was enjoying the empty sidewalks and window shopping a little too much to be thinking straight. That is until  the windows began to shatter, rounds of tear-gas fell all around, and the police in riot gear rushed by me as if I was just some stupid tourist. They've pretty much got me figured out.

I wonder if scientists doing DNA extraction and purification have found a salsa gene in Latin Americans, because I'm most certainly missing it. It doesn't matter where I am - a restaurant, bar, bookstore, etc - but when a popular salsa song comes on *everybody* jumps up and starts dancing. It reminds me of the time I was in Tajikistan and the local warlord walked into the bar.  I hate being the only person sitting down, but it's a choice of looking stupid sitting down vs looking really stupid on my feet.

I truly believe that people all around the world are the same...except when it comes to the size of my all-American bladder. The largest juice or soft drink you can buy in restaurants around here comes in a Dixie cup. It's like taking communion 3 times a day, "...the blood of the Father...Amen."  I'd do anything to find a 7-11 that serves a 64-ounce big gulp. Is it too much to ask for a Pepsi large enough to bathe in and with enough ice in which to pack my severed leg when I get whacked by a taxi?

I've determined that the name for the dance "salsa" was derived from how a woman's toes look after dancing with me. The Colombianos are so elegant as they float across the dance floor, their bodies moving as one. Whereas dancing with me is like maneuvering a full-sized refrigerator around a Tokyo hotel room. However it's done wonders for expanding my vocabulary with such useful phrases as "Sorry you're bleeding.  Hope you don't have to work tomorrow".

I'm learning Spanish from Sylvester Stallone. A great way to learn colloquial phrases is to watch American movies on TV and read the Spanish subtitles. And Sylvester Stallone movies are the best because he's such a horrible actor and speaks so slowly that I can keep up with the subtitles. But every once in a while when someone reacts with a laugh to something I've said I can't help but wonder if I talk like a Colombian Rocky Balboa.

Have you ever noticed that milk tastes different in every country? Why is that? Skim milk in Colombia should taste the same as skim milk in the states, but it doesn't. Maybe it's because American cows can't dance. Or maybe it's the Dixie cup.

I'm a fairly well traveled person, but it's amazing how often I take for granted the differences in cultures that exist...until I do something stupid. This morning I stopped at a gym near my hotel for a quick workout, first entering the men's locker room: a standard room full of toilets, showers, lockers, etc to change into my workout clothes. It wasn't until I had stepped out of my underwear that I realized I was the only naked guy in a room full of about 30 others completely dressed, all of whom were staring at me with the disgusted reproach reserved for exhibitionists at a family beach. Looking around, I realized that in Colombia guys who need to "go completely naked" in order to change clothes do so in a shower stall. So I quickly hopped back into my underwear. Too quickly in fact because I jammed both feet into the same leg hole, hopping around on one leg trying unsuccessfully to regain my balance, before I was ultimately forced to bend over and stabilize myself putting both hands on a bench, flashing my bare rear end to all, including most of the people in the aerobics room who now had a clear view through the propped-open door. This is the first time I can remember using the "I'm from Canada" ploy in a completely non-hostile situation.

Life in Bogota

Today is Sunday when seemingly all of Colombia stops what they're doing to take the day off to spend it with their families.  They have a strong family bond and loyalty here which I find admirable, something I'd like to take back to the states with me when I'm done.

Dsc01355_1Bogota is at almost 10,000 feet so although it's on the equator it's surprisingly quite cold.  The surrounding mountains receive snow and the climate in the city is cold and rainy.  Your can see your breath while you're reading in the newspapaer about the 100 degree temperatures 50 miles away.  Kind of like summer in San Francisco...  I spent the morning working on the project but my little studio "apartasuite" has no heat so I adapt by toasting my rear end over the oven while I work.  That's just a little context for you as you read my blog...


I spent the afternoon sightseeing in Bogota, which has experienced a revivalDsc01363 since I was last here in 2002.  The old historic quarter downtown, called the Candelaria, is much improved.  Shops and restaurants are returning and it feels much safer to walk around.  As further evidence there are fewer traces of military presence...except for these guys who let me buy them a coffee as they stood guard in the central square, the Plaza de Bolivar.  Dsc01377_1For you hearty travelers I highly recommend Bogota as a destination.  It gets much undeserved bad press but I believe that will change in the coming years.  The government has made it a priority to stabilize the cities and keep the war in the jungles and mountains.  So come now when you'll be the only foreigner in town!  Bogota is actually much like San Francisco: it has a cool climate which therefore puts an emphasis on cultural pursuits.  There is live theatre nightly, over 50 museums, and seemingly a university on every corner. 

Dsc01357And for you Gabriel Garcia Marquez fans you'll love to sit in the Cafe Pasaje where heDsc01358_1 was rumored to have written much of "Love in the Time of Cholera" while sipping on wonderful Colombian coffee.  Those of you who know me well know that I rarely drink coffee, but how could I not in the place where Marquez once sat?

I'll put some more pics of Bogota up in an album later...


Hello from Bogota

Dsc01350_1Just a quick hello to let everyone know I've arrived safely in Bogota.  The staff at the Habitat office here is extremely friendly and helpful, and after only one day I realize how helpless I'd be without them.  (Ever tried to consult a cell phone manual in a foreign language to swap out a SIM card?)  They keep telling me how wonderful my Spanish is - which is a clue as to how kind they are - although they got a good laugh when I told them I was pregnant.  (Colombian travel tip #17: "embarrazada" does not mean "embarrassed")

I'll be working out of this office through Tue and then heading to the worksite in Sincelejo.  Stay tuned for an update on fundraising, more pics of Bogota this weekend, and then a detailed update from the worksite next week!

Saludos, -dave

Who is Dave?

I’m a 40 year old Silicon Valley high tech professional working in Technology, Corporate Development / Mergers & Acquisitions. In my spare time, I’m an inveterate traveler who has lived in or traveled to over 120 countries, a volunteer pilot with Doctors without Borders, an active participant with the World Affairs Council of San Francisco, a competitive doubles volleyball player and marathoner, Junior Achievement mentor, and community big brother.

I’ve come to realize over the years how incredibly fortunate I am to grow up in a loving family with close parents, a big brother, a little sister, and now a recently added perfect little nephew. I’m the first to admit that much of my success in life is due to luck, born in the States where I was able to study and play without worrying about having enough food on the table, running water, and flushing toilets. As such, I’m passionate about helping those who are less fortunate than myself.

Why Habitat for Humanity?

Intuit_h4h_1I’ve been a 10-year volunteer for Habitat for Humanity along with other Intuit employees in my hometown of San Francisco and have seen the great work this organization does.  Habitat’s mission is to build simple affordable housing and give ownership to those who lack adequate shelter. Since its founding in 1976 Habitat has built more than 200,000 houses in over 100 countries providing shelter for more than 1 million people by working locally in communities to select homeowners, organize volunteers, and coordinate construction. Homeowners are chosen based on their need for housing and their ability to both invest sweat-equity and repay a greatly reduced mortgage.

However it was while in Afghanistan in July 2004 as a human rights observer when I was reminded byKhodads_house_1 an impromptu experience that putting a roof over someone’s head, giving them an Dsc00225education, and caring for their health, is the way to fundamentally improve someone’s life. I found that for the relatively small sum of $300 I could take the UN cook, his wife, and 5 children off the streets of Kabul and put them into their own home. (photo). Now I’m excited about doing the same thing on a much larger scale.

Why Colombia?

La_costa_nortaI was fortunate to spend three months in Colombia in 2002, and I fell in love with the country.  Colombians are a wonderful, beautiful, educated, and caring people, whose only real impediment to happiness seems to be the endless 40-year civil war between the government and the rebels, paramilitary groups, and drug cartels. 

The UN estimates that there are currently over three million displaced people from this war.  Most of these refugees move to larger cities in search of safety, but the men can rarely find work other than as street vendors, resulting in many women and children resorting to prostitution to supplement the family income. In addition, UNICEF recently listed Colombia as the South American country most dangerous for children, due to the prevalence of landmines.  Uncontrolled American and European demand for cocaine is exacerbating the problem by creating the revenue with which to arm the rebel and paramilitary forces.  The Colombian people deserve our help.

Why Sincelejo? Project Specifics?

Sincelejo_mapSincelejo, inland from the Caribbean coast and 2 hours from Cartagena by bus, is a common refuge for displaced highland people fleeing the violence.  70% of the peopleEdgar_i in this city are displaced and living below the poverty line. Most live in shantytowns of makeshift huts constructed of recycled garbage.  Disease is rampant due to the lack of basic sewer systems and basic hygiene.  It’s a steaming hot dusty place carved out of the middle of a tropical forest, where only the city center has any evidence of a permanent structure. 

My goal is to build 40 permanent houses for victims of the violence. This will take as many as 250 displaced Colombians off the street for the rest of their lives and keep an untold Img_0891number of kids out of a life sexual exploitation.  The houses will be 2-bedroom one-bath concrete units complete with a kitchen, running water, electricity, flushing toilets connected to central sewer lines, proper windows, and metal roofs.  They will be simple yet functional, constructed to last a lifetime.  While modest to you and me, this house will be a veritable mansion in the eyes of a kid used to sleeping in a hut made of flattened tin cans.

What can you do to help?

I’m raising a total of US$150,000, starting with $10,000 of my own money to seed the fund. In addition, I’ll be donating 5 months of my own unpaid time to direct the project. But I can’t do it all on my own. Please help me in the following 3 ways:   

1. Make a donation!  Here is what your gift will provide:

  • $4,200      will build an entire home to accommodate a family of up to 6 people
  • $1,000      is enough to construct a kitchen with a sink, oven, and stove
  • $500         outfits a bathroom with a sink, toilet, and shower
  • $100         supplies a complete roof to keep out the torrential tropical rains
  • $50           purchases a large window to keep out flies and disease
  • $20           hires a skilled electrician and plumber for the day

 Where else can such a relatively small donation have such a huge impact?

Your generous donation will go directly to Habitat for Humanity, which has created a special account for this project. 100% of your gift will go toward paying for building supplies and skilled labor. Your contribution is 100% tax-deductible and you will receive an official IRS receipt directly from Habitat for Humanity.

Click this link to donate via Habitat's secure donation page!

You can also mail a physical check to:
Habitat for Humanity International
c/o Tim Daugherty &
121 Habitat Street
Americus, GA 31709

If you mail a physical check please email me and let me know ahead of time since I'm keeping a close audit on the funds!

2. Please forward this url: to all your friends, family, and colleagues helping me cast a wide net to find those looking for a worthy cause to which to donate.

3. Add your email and click "go" at the upper right so you can receive my regular updates with pictures and stories about my experience. Also please add comments if you feel like it!

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I Hired an Electrician and a Plumber for the Day ($20 – 49)

Vicki Amon-Higa
Joan Bruemmer
Loren Cadena
Christin Carone
David Ferrera
Marina Franco
Wendy Greene
Jeff Growney
John Hamasaki
Linda Hirschhorn
Elsbeth Iannone
Brian Lindsey
Spike Lomibao
Christine Miller
Adriana Ochoa
John Ryan
Lisa Saginian
Jim Sherwin
Laura Sullivan
Theresa Thadani
Victor Valdez
German Varon
Reuben Welch
Deana Williams
Guijen Yang
Ekaterina Zakharenko

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