16 May 2002

Habitat for Humanity

Up at 5:30. I was the last to shower today.

I’m not feeling too lively today…digestive disturbances…and didn’t do yoga or eat breakfast.
Giovani washed Bob’s truck…it needed it after the dusty roads to San Felipe…and drove us to San Salvador. We stopped a couple places enroute to get mangos and melon.

Checked into the International Hotel and Alvaro met us for lunch. It was so good to see him again!

He joined us for our visits to Habitat for Humanity and the handicapped computer place.
At Habitat we met with Alfredo Castro. They have projects in 8 departments (states). There are regional committees who select the families that get the houses. It’s a 6-month process to select them and they generally try to do about 10 homes at a time in any given community to cut down on materials and effort. The selected families come to the office in San Salvador for orientation. The family must own the land and have some regular income. Construction is concrete block although it is being modified now to be more earthquake resistant. The whole community is involved in the building.

Delegations that work on the houses get ½ built units to finish. The projects are always new construction for dwellings…never refurbishing existing structures or building community buildings. The family pays $20 to Habitat in a sort of “loan”. Habitat started in El Sal in 1992. This June, they will build their 2,000th house. It costs $3,500 for a house with an outhouse, doors, windows, etc. The minimum age for Habitat workers is 15 (with guardian) or 18 (without).

15 May 2002

Beach trip

Beach day! Vamos al Playa Cuco.

It’s about a 2 hour drive to Cuco Beach on the southern coast. Giovani drove us and several of the parish team. We arrived at our own “little” cabana off the beach where we would spend the rest of the day. The gringas changed into our suits and we walked to the shore. There was a strong wind move the fine, ash-gray sand around and the waves were rolling in. It was a very broad, flat beach with occasional palm frond sun shelters.

I went out in the surf with Kelly and Julie came out later. The Salvadorans stayed in the wading zone. Cross currents and backwash was strong. I needed a hand from Kelly to get back on firm footing in the shallower water.

I flew my pocket sled kite from the sun shelter. Kelly went for a run down the beach. Julie and I went back to the cabana…neither of us could really afford to stay out in the sun.
We lounged in the hammocks and chatted until lunch was ready…fried fish, veggies, rice, tortillas and beets.

Kelly and I played “pool soccer” with the parish team in the cabana pool…women against the men. The men were soundly trounced. Forget the fact that there were 5 of us and 3 of them…
We sang in the bus on the way back and stopped in San Miguel for gas and drinks.

Back at Fundavita we did some packing to get ready to leave the next day then walked to Hayde’s house for supper. Hayde and her daughter, Milagro, had been in Des Moines in ’99 so Millie could have surgery to correct a problem with her feet (the tendons in her calves were too short and she couldn’t stand flat footed or walk very well). They stayed with the Hoffmans…good friends of Lynn’s.

We had an absolute feast…platters piled with chicken, salad, pupusas (Hayde runs a pupuseria in Berlin), avocado, beets, rice, jocotes (little fruits with a pit that taste like green apples but without th astringent quality), horchata (the rice drink), etc.

The mayor of MU and his bodyguards showed up later but didn’t eat. He and Bob and Giovani shared some of the J&B the mayor had given Bob. I think it was the first time I’d seen the mayor “cleaned up” and not ‘being the mayor.’ It was interesting…

We walked home in heavy, heavy fog…very unusual for the area. It had rained briefly but rather heavily while we were eating.

I had a headache and went to bed almost as soon as we got back. I got up to pee at 3:30 and there was no power but it came on shortly after that because the yard light was shining through my window before I got back to sleep.

14 May 2002

San Felipe & Mercedes Umana

Can’t even tell it rained last night…it didn’t make a dent in the dust.

But the water is running and we can take showers and fill the pilas. I washed some clothes and put them on the line to dry before we left for San Felipe (where the water tank project is).
At San Felipe we met one of the teacher’s (Mario – whose English was very good) and some of the children from the school. We saw the soccer field that had been created with help from 1st Presbyterian and the site where the water tank will be build.

The main source of income in this village is working in the fields for the big land owners (at 25 cents per day).

We met with the community in the school. The school has 6 grades, meets 5 days/week, has 4 teachers (2 men and 2 women), and 117 students.

This is the community that cornered Bob to press for emergency medical transportation after one woman in childbirth died while they were trying to carry her town.
  • They asked us to take word back that they need clothing and shoes for the children
  • One woman asked for scholarship money ($120/year) for uniforms and schooling for her children…otherwise they would never get past the education of the local school.
  • They asked for seeds and fertilizer to help with planting the crops.
  • They asked for help paving their road to facilitate connection with town and cut down on the dust in the dry season.
  • They have electric lines in place in the school but no solar panel to provide the power. They would like to have power so they can access educational programs that are broadcast on national TV stations to augment the education in the school.

Bob had told us about a midwife kit that he was delivering to the community…they were going to have a dedication celebration for it…. But as he was on the way there, he was met by a man whose wife was in labor and needed it immediately. While we were there, we met the woman and her baby and the midwife. The midwife kit contains string, special scissors, alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, and cotton balls. The midwife also wants Mercurochrome, pre-natal vitamins, latex gloves and masks.

On the way to the midwife, we were met by a family who wanted to show us their little girl. She’s 3 years old but very small and cannot walk or talk. They wanted a wheelchair for her. They had another child who died at 15 of apparently the same thing…it sounds like some sort of degenerative genetic disease. After she got too big to carry around she basically could only lay on the floor. Because of that, they are fairly desperate to get some way of having this child be more included and have a more humane life. The cargo container (still sitting in port….) has wheelchairs but they are adult size. We thought maybe a stroller would be more child-friendly…will try to get one for next trip.

Back to Fundavita in the back of the truck. The dust on the road is incredible…I was standing in the back and watching the dust roll away from the tires as if we were driving through water. Everyone was covered…when we got back, everyone cleaned up and washed clothes before having lunch and heading out to Mercedes Umaña.

We started to wash our own clothes but Maria Elena apparently couldn’t stand to watch our feeble efforts and insisted that she liked to wash clothes. The process is very hard on the clothes but the results are extremely impressive.

At Mercedes Umaña… The library is coming along…it needs a roof. They’re hoping to have that completed by the end of the month. They need a special roof (a type of laminate) to keep the building inside cooler (for the computers…and people and materials). Tile is coolish too but is more fragile and susceptible to errant rocks and prone to leaking.

We saw the clinic expansion project…it will more than double the clinic size and provide some separation between some of the functions…giving patients some more privacy and the staff a place to meet away from the clinic and patients. We toured the rooms and met the dentist, doctor and staff. The doctor looked at Julie’s finger and prescribed antihistamines and a hydrocortisone cream. They wouldn’t charge her but we gave them $5 as a donation to the clinic.

We saw the park improvements and some street projects.

The mayor gifted Bob with a bottle of J&B scotch. We figured it was an olive branch as Bob said relations had been strained.

We met with the mayor and some of the council. We presented the money we raised with our El Salvador dinner and I gave him the money the Engstrom’s donated for their library. We invited the mayor to go to the beach and supper at Hayde’s with us the next day but he said he had to be in San Salvador for a meeting. He might join us for the supper though.

It was great to see some of the people we met the first time…the 3 Musketeras, the mayor, Jesús and Doris, Diña, etc. Wilfredo is off to university in the city.

On the way back to Berlin (out of the way, actually, but no matter) we took a woman home below the geothermal plant. It was a lovely little valley…the sort of place I’d seek out to camp in. Living there would be a different story.

Back at Fundavita, we saw Elena’s son Andres. They said he’d fainted at school the day before but was ok. Kelly said he’d been anemic.

After supper, we hear the Parish Team’s personal stories from the war.

Chepe couldn’t get work as a tailor so went to the fields to cut coffee. He heard that his father and brothers had been taken by guerillas. 4 days later his father and 2 of the brothers had escaped and returned home. The 3rd brother was with the guerillas another 2 months before he got away. He was trained in 1st aid and worked for the Red Cross for 5 years (1980-1985) in Berlin. As a part of the Red Cross, he wasn’t on either side but had to be neutral.

Miguel was 4½ when the war started. The guerillas robbed their farms and took their animals. His mother was assassinated. The family had to leave their home and go hide in the mountains. When he was about 14, he was captured by the guerillas. One of the soldier-captors was a girl he new from school. She asked him if he really wanted to be a guerilla and he said no. She said she’d help him get away and did. In 1986 he was captured again by the guerillas and again ran into the same girl. She helped him again but it took 3 months to get away. At 16 he was captured by the army. He and his father were forced to cut coffee and destroy roads. He believes that his community is desperately poor to this day because of the ravages it suffered during the war.

Blanca – the war began for her in 1979. She was studying in Berlin. It was not so bad for people in Berlin as it was for those in the country. She worked in social and health services. In ’82 she went to San Salvador to study. The army told her parents that they were all guerillas because the children were all in studying…learning is leftist. She wasn’t afraid of the guerillas and didn’t like the army philosophy. She says that poverty is nothing new in El Salvador. There was poverty and corruption before too. Poor people have always been taken advantage of. Life is worse since the war. Before there was at least work…even if the wages were low. Now the guerillas (FMLN) have pressured the owners to pay more, raise minimum wages and unionize. Poverty is just as bad as before, only for different reasons and is increasing.

It was an intense evening. Andres was dropping in his seat and we decided to call it a night before we got to Milagro or Maria Elena’s stories.

13 May 2002

Coffee processing & NGOs

Got up, showered, did yoga, had breakfast then off to the local coffee cooperative.

The coffee is all locally grown and processed. The harvest starts around November and may go into January. The kids get their “summer” vacation from school during this time so that they can work in the fields.

We saw the processing room where the coffee is roasted, ground and bagged. First, Ricardo had to clean out the roaster. He said they do this every 2-3 batches because ‘basura’ collects and if they don’t clean it out, it can catch fire. It takes about 10 minutes to clean out the equipment and 40-45 minutes to roast and grind the coffee. They will roast and grind to customer specifications. He had Styrofoam coffee cups stacked around with samples of roasted beans so that customers can specify the darkness. He also had small jars of grind samples.

The raw beans are dumped into a hopper and then piped up to the top of the roaster by a flow of air. The roaster is gas powered and when it’s up to temperature, the beans (about 50 pounds) are dropped into the roaster where they are heated in the rotating drum. Ricardo uses a tester scoop thing to check the process. When the beans are the right color, they are dropped into the mesh-bottomed cooling vat where they are stirred by a rotating paddle. Air is drawn down over the beans and through the mesh to help the cooling process. When they are cool, they’re run through the grinder and bagged. They sell the coffee for $1.70/bag…either ground or beans.
Then we walked to the Cordeco office. The office is a sort of an umbrella organization of NGO organizations work through to provide human and social services for the people of the community. The organization started during the war when they had to work in secret. After the peace accords, they opened the office in Berlin. They have a board of 9 volunteers. Some of the groups they work with are:

Procomes – agriculture and community organization – They help people get loans to buy seed and fertilizer. Most of the people will plant crops on about 2 acres. The average family (that has land) will have 3-5 manzanas (about 6-10 acres), generally 1.5 or 2 of those manzanas will be farmable. They plant corn in May and harvest in November. They plant beans in mid-August and harvest in November. They have very little livestock. Almost no one has horses anymore…anthrax killed almost all of them in the past year.

Fundesa – focus on housing issues – help people with lining up the money and materials to build their houses.

The women’s paper coop is also there – they collect paper, plastic and aluminum for recycling. The focus of this group is on environmental issues but they also try to earn money through recycling the products. The paper they collect they make into piñatas (newspaper and some of the plastic) or reprocess into handmade papers that they use to make cards, boxes, bags, etc. They don’t make much money at this. Local people see it as “made from garbage” and don’t value it. They still do it because they believe it’s the environmentally responsible thing to do but the coop has dwindled to about 6 women because it just doesn’t make much money. They also do a lot of educational workshops in the schools about environmental issues.

We looked at their paper and products and thought some of the handmade papers that had leaves and flowers and the like in them were beautiful. We bought several sheets to sell at the Latino festival later this month. If we can demonstrate a market for it, they may actually have an appreciative outlet for their efforts, make more money and not spend the time making and decorating the cards if people just want the paper. We’ll see how it goes.

I bought a note pad and several bookmarks from them while we were there.

They took us on a tour of some of the Fundesa housing projects in the works in Berlin.
We walked back to Fundavita for lunch then went to San Francisco for the solar panel dedication.
They were very excited about the panel. We had a microphone and speakers for the celebration…not that they needed it, but they’d borrowed it from the mayor’s office, probably because they could. There was prayer, reading of the Word, sermon, singing, we sang and played our 2 songs, and had refreshments. Then most of the people left and we met with just the community council.

There are 82 families in the community and they would all like to have their own solar panels. They can’t have electricity run to the village because most of the people don’t own the land and all the projects require land ownership. They don’t have much money but are willing to provide all the labor they can. Bob is working with Miguel to get the project sponsored through our Session to the national level.

The advantages they see to the solar panel they have: they can have all-night vigils in the church, meetings after dark, the microphone/speakers (which they’d like to have of their own), and it allows students who have to work in the fields during the day to study somewhere after dark. Otherwise, they’d have to buy candles/oil or (more likely) not study at all. And there are no health issues with exposure to the lights as there can be with the soot/fumes from fuel oil, candles or fire as well as reducing the eyestrain. The panel project has served as an example for the people here and in other communities and has brought the community closer together in working on, learning about and sharing it. The panel is guarded every night by 2 people to make sure nothing happens to it.

Some general wants/needs/issues
  • Water is still a critical issue here. The Swiss and El Salvador Red Cross is working on a project to get water collection barrels for each family. A communal water tank project is not possible because of the lack of land ownership (85% do not own their land). They would like a total of 35 barrels for the community…but at this point, they could get maybe 15. The negotiations right now are on how much money the community has to kick in.
  • They are interested in solar ovens and dryers. They are interested in the health (not breathing cooking smoke) and cost (don’t have to buy or scavenge wood, doesn’t deplete the environment) benefits. Some have been made at Fundavita but they don’t have any yet. Need money for materials. The mayor of the municipality has said he would support 25% of the project (a solar oven for each family) if they can get the money for the rest of it.
  • They need a latrine for the church…and others in the community. Currently most homes don’t have one. They are gathering info on who needs them, how many need to be build, etc and are working with organizations to get this done.
  • They’d like to have land for a soccer field to be shared among the 4 casarios in the area as a way to help keep the youth from crime.
  • They’d also like better musical instruments for their worship and celebrations. The guitars are very old and have been repaired by whatever materials they have on hand, the bass is strung with twine, the keys on some of the stringed instruments won’t stay etc.
Back at Fundavita we had supper then spent time with Bob talking about the day. I think we helped put into perspective some things that had been bothering him, gave him some ideas about how to maybe deal with future delegations, etc.

Went to bed at 8:30. It “feels” like rain and there is some thunder and lightning in the distance. The rainy season is overdue and the people are very concerned about whether they will get enough rain to support the crops. Right now there is no soil moisture so they can’t plant. It did rain a little after we went to bed but not much.

12 May 2002

Pottery & Fundavita

I slept great until the roosters started crowing…2am. I put in earplugs and went back to sleep. Got up around 6, showered, yoga-ed and then went down for breakfast…huevos rancheros, pan, frijoles, platanos fritos, juego, café and té. Then we loaded up in Bob’s new pickup for the trip to Berlin.

One person could ride up front with Bob and the other 3 were in the back with the luggage. He had some plastic chairs we could sit in but we decided in fairly short order that it was better to sit on the bed directly where you were out of the wind. However, the main mode of transportation for Salvadorans is to stand shoulder-to-shoulder (and standing on the tailgate and/or sides) for however long it takes.

We stopped at Ilobosco (a ceramics artisan community) to shop a bit. I got a sun plate (~$4 I think), a round-bottomed, terra cotta vase with a ring to sit it on ($1.70), a Noah’s ark ($4), and a bead bracelet ($1.50).

After Ilobosco, I rode in the cab and Bob and I chatted about a lot of things related to Westminster’s work there, his work, the people and personalities, etc. I asked him about things we heard about the first time we were there and what the current status was…mainly if the geothermal plant had done what they talked about the last time (provide transportation for medical efforts to the remote villages), concerns about water quality and contamination, etc. He didn’t know anything about the geothermal thing and we talked a lot about the water issue. I told him about the water quality monitoring project I had done with the Sierra Club and that I’d check into the kits we used. There was a lot of interest in maybe getting some so that people could determine for themselves whether the water was good. They don’t trust the info they’re getting from either the geothermal plant or the government.

Arrived at Fundavita in time for lunch then relaxed in the backyard hammocks for a while. We practiced our songs for the San Francisco dedication. I did some yoga on the patio. Then we walked to mass at the local church.

I didn’t understand a word of it. Last time (when I hadn’t been studying Spanish for 6 months…) I at least got the gist of what the sermon was about. With this guy, I wasn’t getting anything. I was sitting next to Bob and asked him if the priest was talking “at” the parishioners or if he was actually trying to connect and be understood. Bob said it was a very academic presentation and that it was most likely way over the heads of most of the people there. He wasn’t getting a lot of it and, in fact, fell asleep for a while. This is the priest who despises poor people and has made it very difficult for the parish team to work in this municipality. They pretty much have to do their work in spite of him when he’s supposed to be their guide.

We headed back to Fundavita for supper and an early bedtime. I sent an email to Del & Robyn to ask them to let me know how mom’s surgery went (tomorrow) and that they could send the info to Bob’s address.

11 May 2002

Arrival in El Salvador

It was raining fairly heavily as I arrived at the airport. The unstable weather made for an extremely rough flight to St Louis…pretty close to the roughest I’ve ever been on. St Louis to Miami was much better and Miami to San Sal was perfectly smooth.

Arrival at San Sal was pretty uneventful. There was a slight altercation with immigration. Lynn and Jane were charged $10 for the tourist card and Julie and I weren’t. Lynn was questioning why they had to pay and we didn’t. But none of the officials there spoke English and my Spanish wasn’t up to dealing with it. Eventually they had about 5 immigration officers there, all of them speaking Spanish and us not. Eventually we gave up and just wrote off her $10.

Met Bob and Giovani outside the airport. We drove to the International Hotel and checked in. We settled in for a bit then walked to La Ventana for supper…a place Bob described as a “yuppie place” but it fit the bill as it had a variety of food options and wasn’t expensive.

The music was too loud (typical of the culture) and the place had a LOT of art work on the wall. Most of the ones in the room where we were eating were huge paintings by the same person who did the ones we saw at the Jesuit college chapel the last time we were here. I thought they were an odd choice for both locations. They were mostly stark, sketched images of nude, dead bodies riddled with bullet holes…men and women piled haphazardly, sometimes bound hand and foot with barbed wire. Images to dine and pray by… But I guess it shows how deeply the war colors their world still.

We walked back to the hotel and called it a night.