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Highlights of our trip to El Salvador

Habitat for Humanity Build

For all of those of you who don't know about Habitat for Humanity, this is an organization that builds, with the help of volunteers, houses for people in need. We have been involved with Habitat for over 10 years now, ever since we lived in Vidalia.

What we like about Habitat is that the houses are not given to the needy families as a gift. The families buy the houses at cost and no interest over a period that varies (sometimes 15, sometimes 20 years). Also very important is the fact that the prospective homeowners need to put sweat equity (usually about 500 hours) as a downpayment, whether they work on their house, or somebody else's house. We believe that this is important as it empowers the homeowners and gives them pride about their home.

After the two major earthquakes that hit El Salvador at the beginning of this year (Jan 13 and Feb 13, 2001) there was a greater than ever need for decent, affordable housing in El Salvador. We thought about sponsoring a house and also combining a trip to visit Louise's (Lulu's) family with some volunteer work, helping build a house down there. The experience was better than we imagined.

We were working in a 5-house project with the Usulutan Affiliate in the city of Usulutan, a city of about 100,000 about 60 miles southeast of San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. Usulutan was greatly affected by the earthquakes, and even now, 7 months later, many destroyed houses are still just a pile of rubble.

Anyway, we started work on Monday morning, about 8:30 a.m., and by 9:30 a.m. we were already dying! Oppressing, muggy heat coupled with our lack of manual labor experience had us planning an early (long) lunch. Still, we worked on till about 11:30.

Click to enlarge The construction work organization is interesting. In this particular project the construction is divided into 2 groups. Two of the homes are being built near each other (2 houses apart) and the other three are relatively close to each other. So the prospective homeowners have decided to split up into two groups. The homeowners of the 2 houses close to each other form a group which will alternate working in their two houses, the others making a second group which will work alternately 2 days in each of the three houses of their group. The logic behind this is that all the houses will progress at about the same rate and all will be finished and dedicated around the same time. We got to work on three different houses, from foundation to about 8 rows of blocks each. We would have liked to finish a house completely, but that would take a few more weeks.

Click to enlarge One thing we really enjoyed was meeting the homeowners and their families. They are all so friendly and hardworking and generous, even though they have almost nothing. Isabel (at left) has four children, the oldest daughter starting her first year of Engineering. Click to enlargeGloria, a second homeowner, is a single mom with also 4 kids. And the third homeowner whose house we worked on is Guadalupe (at right), a young mother of two boys married to a policeman. They are building on some of her father's land. (I forgot to mention that all homeowners have to have a clear title - or deed - to their land. Of course this is a requirement for this particulate affiliate. It is not like that everywhere. For example, in the U.S. the prospective homeowners donīt have to own the land. It is included in the price of the house.). We also met Don Mario and his family and Sra. Juanita, an elderly lady, the owners of the other two houses (we never worked on those two houses).

Click to enlarge The afternoon work was more of the same as in the morning, mixing up cement (Jonathan became an expert, both screeding the sand and knowing the quantities to mix, etc.) and laying concrete block, then filling the cavities that hold the rebars with more concrete. These houses are built very well, with horizontal rebars tied to the vertical ones every other row of blocks. Of all the Habitat houses already built before the beginning of this year, not one fell down with the earthquakes, and just a few were slightly damaged.

The work was fun and interesting (at least the first couple of days, then it got monotonous) but it was also hard, so Lulu found any excuse to take a break. Around 2 p.m. a "minuta" vendor went by (minuta is shaved ice with flavorings on top), so she treated everybody at the worksite to a minuta. Soon nobody was working, all were enjoying their minutas. (When relating the incident to her Tia Sonia that evening, Tia Sonia commented that Lulu would soon be reprimanded for her revolutionary ideas!). Below you see some of the crew enjoying their break. The pix on the left shows Don Mario's wife and daughter on the left, and Gloria on the right. The second pix shows the two bricklayers hired for our group, Francisco (or Paco), the assistant on the left, and Paulino, the head bricklayer, at right. Guadalupe is behind. Third pix shows the rebel instigator! (As an aside, Paco showed a great knack for picking up English phrases. He says he would like to learn English and come and work in the States. Lulu promised to send some English tapes for him. He sure is smart as a whip.)

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Click to enlarge That was pretty much our first workday. We quit early (3:30) because we were going to spend the evening at Tia Sonia's beach house in Playas Negras (Black Beaches - see map) about 45 miles southeast of the worksite. It is about an hour drive (what with potholes and crossing a pretty large mountain, and actually getting lost that first night and ending in El Cuco), but it sure was worth it. First of all it was very nice seeing Tia Sonia again (left), and then, see below pictures of the view from her front porch, and imagine being lulled to sleep by the waves after a hard day's work. Stacy and David quickly took to the hammocks, and the meals that Tia Sonia had waiting for us everyday were delicious (lots of fresh fish and seafood plus mangos and coconuts galore)!

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