Saturday, February 21, 2015

Farewell to El Salvador

With the time on the construction site finished, we took a day today to experience a bit more of El Salvador.

Our day was a tour of various towns along the Ruta de las Flores. The route is named that in honor of the large number of coffee flowers that can be seen in their season. The combination of altitude and volcanic soil makes this area of the country a prime coffee-growing location.

So we were able to stop by several small towns, both to do some shopping and to check out these very pretty locales. And in the first place we stopped at was also home to a cultural center where they are working to save crafts and ways of life indigenous to the area that were very close to dying out.

After lunch we had a tour of a coffee mill. The owners also run a coffee farm, but this tour focused on the operation of receiving the coffee from other farmers and preparing it for sale (and probable export). We were all a little surprised at the intensive labor involved. While the mill had a lot of automated equipment (dating back to the 1930s), manual labor was needed to pick, test, dry, sort, and move the beans around. El Salvador has suffered from a disease of the coffee plants for the past few years, so even though this is in the harvest season, they only had about half as many workers as usual.

At the end of the tour we had the chance to try some of the coffee, made using a cotton filter. There seemed to be some mixed results of this tasting, though the divide largely fell depending on if you drink coffee or not. ;)

After the tour we made our way back to San Salvador for our closing ceremonies and to brace ourselves for the return to the frozen North.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Construction Day 5: All Good Things Must Come to an End

Alas, today was the final day of work on the site. But good news! The regional construction supervisor said that we had done such a good job that he canceled our flight back on Sunday!

But seriously, as part of the day's final farewell, there were several representatives of Habitat for Humanity El Salvador, and everyone was extremely happy with how much we achieved in our time here. We hate to say goodbye, but we can go home knowing that we put a family well on their way to a safe and quality home.

We only worked half a day today, but we got another two courses laid, bringing our total up to 4! The septic system folks were waist-deep in the second hole, so they also made some wonderful progress there.

Lunch was a delicious steak and sausage, cooked by one of the Habitat staff. And after the meal we had a small ceremony, where we gave some small gifts to the family and the masons and got a certificate and HFHES calendar. Our mason was Mr. June!

The big surprise for the group was a mariachi band [photo]! They came and played a few songs, and much of our group was enticed to dance. Yes, there is video (perhaps to come later). The kids also enjoyed a Tinkerbell piñata!

When we were finally done with our goodbyes, we headed to the nearby town of Ataco for some shopping, sightseeing, and a drink or two. It's a pretty little town, just right for an hour to relax.

A few notes from earlier. First, our hotel has a menagerie. There are monkeys, an ostrich, deer, and more. It's a little odd, but kind of cool at the same time.

Second, Sarah was able yesterday to visit the medical clinic. It was a day of appointments for pregnant women, and the doctor let her sit in on a few visits and see how he works. Sarah hopes that she can set up a return visit, either through her school or by herself. This is a great idea, and hopefully it will work out!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Construction Day 4: We Have a House!

Well, the start of one, anyway. The morning started off making the mortar to lay the blocks! By the end of the day we had two full courses (rows) of block laid. So once we got started on the building, we move fast! Our mason, Dagoberto, and his two helpers, both Jose Antonio [photo], are extremely great and very patient with us. Through the week we've been able to draw them out to joke with us, too.

When building, the masons lay the blocks, and we come behind them and fill in between the blocks. There's also another type of mortar that goes inside the blocks, and we do that, too. We are a full-employment operation [photo].

The heartbreak of the day was when the folks digging the septic tank hole were told, just as they reached the bottom of the meter-deep hole, that they needed to dig a second hole bigger and twice as deep. After crying a bit, the crew took a deep breath and got going.

The family we are building with is a mother, Ingrid, her husband, Raimen, and their son (Estuardo, age 9) and daughter (Yesenia, age 4). They currently live with the father's mother, Isabel, and his sister and her family. Raimen works in a bakery during the day and so we only see him for a few minutes each afternoon, but everyone else (other than the little girl) works pretty much all day. Many of the days this week are school holidays, so Estuardo and his younger cousin, Victor, are amazing workhorses all day. Seriously, they frequently demand more sand to haul and yell at us when they think we're slacking.

The family lives adjacent to the building site, so even after the house is finished, they'll all basically still live together.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Construction Day 3

The thing about building a house literally from the ground up means that the early stages are a lot of work with almost no visible progress. So despite our industry over the past few days, our pictures don't look incredibly different.

Still, we are making progress! Before we got to the site we stopped by the community of Getsemani, the neighborhood in which Habitat and two partners, including Thrivent, have worked to build houses and improve the lives of the entire community, not just the Habitat families. They have initiatives for education and health, and have also helped form a cooperative for economic improvements. The co-op makes micro loans and has several money-making enterprises, including cooking and making various crafts.

But on the site, we made more cement for the foundation, and worked all the way around! This means we are set up and ready to begin laying blocks!

Speaking of blocks, they were arriving just as we did. Due to security, we couldn't leave the blocks on the street. So we formed a conveyer line to hand the blocks over to the worksite. With pretty much every family member helping, we moved almost all of the 1,275 blocks in!

And the group digging the hole for the septic system is close to being finished, too. It's becoming more of an effort to get out of the hole!

A brief note about the weather. During the day it's incredibly sunny and warm, but our site has lots of shade and a pretty good breeze. It cools down quite a bit at night in our hotel, and tonight there is a stiff wind that makes it feel quite chilly.

Construction Day 2

With the foundation dug and some of the foundational concrete poured, we worked before lunch to finish that first layer of concrete. This required some massive mixings on the ground [photo]. Watching concrete being mixed by had is always an impressive sight, and this operation was incredible!

We split up more after lunch, some of us working on setting up the rebar for the foundation and the walls, others digging a massive hole for a septic tank, and the third group moving more sand from the street to the site. This last group had some extremely energetic helpers, both from our family and from the neighbors [photo].

Our hot showers (and we have awesome showers at our hotel) felt great. But as hard as we worked, we had a wonderful day working and playing with the kids, the family members, and so many others. It's always powerful to be reminded that people are people (and boys are most definitely boys) all around the world, no matter the country or language.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Construction Day One--Life in the Trenches

We had our first day on the site today, and it was a doozy. We had been warned that we would be digging the foundation, and that was the case!

Some of the foundation trenches had been at least started, but we had to get in there with picks and shovels and keep it going. [photo]

Meanwhile, half of us were attacking a giant pile of dirt that we need for the construction. But because of the geography of the site, the truck couldn't dump the dirt where we needed it to be. So, bucket by bucket by bucket, we moved that giant pile up to the house!

Lunch was provided by women in a cooperative in the Thrivent Builds community in the area. They also make various crafts to sell, and have an agreement with another cooperative to sell locally grown coffee!

But it was a great day. We met our family (many of whom, including the grandmother and. 9-year-old, worked alongside us all day) [photo]. Our masons seem to be nice, and even cracked a smile at jokes about swimming in the "pool" made when we were mixing concrete. And by the end of the afternoon, we had finished digging and poured the first few batches of foundational concrete!

Morning snack: yogurt, in all sorts of exotic flavors
Lunch: chicken, rice, vegetables, and tortillas
Afternoon snack: watermelon

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Group Has Landed!

Our flight was bumpy, but we made it! We even landed early, shocking the Habitat staff.

The weather here is perfect, a beautiful 85 with a comfortable breeze. So for all y'all up in Boston, yes, we're bragging.