12 March 2004

El Sal - Week 2 of 5

Construction continues on the chapel/sewing house. The first floor walls are up all the way around and they are beginning to put the supports in place for the second floor. All the block, aggregate, cement, sand, etc has to be carried up a flight of stairs from street level in 5 gallon buckets on the shoulders of the workers. And all the dirt dug up (by hand and shovel) for the foundation goes down the same way. They mix the concrete on the ground…so many buckets of aggregate, so many sacks of cement, so many of sand. It’s heavy, manual labor and they work from 7am until about 4pm with a half hour or so for lunch…7 to noon on Saturdays.

The walls are very solidly built. There is rerod running vertically through the walls at regularly spaced intervals. They lay the layer of mortar then drop the cement blocks over the rods and set the blocks in place. Every 2 courses of block, they run a horizontal rod and wire it to the verticals. Then they pour cement inside the blocks to make a solid wall. All of that is to help stabilize the walls for the earthquakes that are common in this area.

The beams are manufactured on site from rerod and wire. Each beam is made up of 6 lengths of rerod and shorter pieces of rerod that have been bent into square “rings.” The rings are wired to the lengths of rod at evenly spaced intervals. I haven’t measured them but it looks like about 5 or 6 inches. It makes the beams slightly flexible but very strong. After they’re in place, they build forms around them and fill them with concrete. They expect to have construction complete by the end of April.

To really put all of this in perspective, the head foreman gets paid $95 per week. The masons get $65 and the young man doing mostly the grunt work of toting, fetching and hauling gets $35 per week. These wages are typical for this area and this kind of work.

Festivities for the “Fiesta de Patronales” (Patron Saint Festival) continues. Last Saturday Bob and I walked up to the soccer field to see some of the action there. By the time we got there, the games were over for the day but we were just in time to catch the parade of queen contestants. Various businesses and groups sponsored contestants and turned pickups into parade floats for them. The parade ended up at the town square where they had set up a stage (complete with little cabanas and a waterfall) where they would have the final presentation and crowning of the queen. Matt and John and I went into town to catch the queen contest. Time is a very nebulous thing in El Salvador…The crowning event was supposed to start at 6. It finally started around 7:45 and by 9:30 we gave up waiting to see who would be crowned and went to visit Haydee. Around 10:30 when we headed back to the Parish House, it sounded like they were still going.

This weekend things really kick into high gear. I don’t know when the actual day is, the celebration activities last for a couple of weeks. The town square is filled with street vendors, carnival games and rides, and lots of activities. It’s pretty much like a small-town Iowa Fourth of July celebration (that lasts 2 weeks) or a county fair. Except they do the fireworks at 4:30 am. Daily.

In the high school, Facho and I handed out the letters written by the Spanish students from North Polk High School. At first, Facho gave the students a choice about whether or not they wanted to get a letter…most did but some didn’t. We had one girl stand up and read a letter aloud, then everyone wanted a letter. I’ve already received a couple of replies to take back to Iowa with me. They have until I leave to get me their letters. Have I mentioned that time is somewhat nebulous here?

Salvadoran Observations for the week:

The big thing I’ve noticed this week is the different way that Salvadorans view time. A prime example of this is something that happened this morning. I went to the school to catch up with Facho and ran into the principal. He asked me to come to his office where he and the computer teacher showed me the ID cards they are making for the teachers and computer room monitors. He said that I need a card too and need to come in on Monday morning to have my picture taken. I asked what time and they all laughed and said “This is El Salvador.” ‘Monday morning’ is a close as they expect to get.

The other thing is how different the high school here is from what I remember when I was in school. There is no attendance taken at class, no hall passes or monitors. If the teacher is sick or out for whatever reason there is no class. The students are free to go play soccer or whatever. Students may arrive 15 minutes late for class and it’s not commented on. However, the classrooms are kept locked between classes and the entire school is surrounded by a wall and chain link fence. The only access to the school is through the front gate which is also locked except for when students are arriving in the morning or after lunch when teachers and the principal monitor their entry. Students are free to leave whenever but if the gate is closed they have to knock for admittance if they want back in.

Classes are loud, chaotic affairs. There is constant noise from outside the room and inside the room is rarely quiet. People talk over each other all the time. If you wait for a break in the conversation to say your piece, you’ll never get it said. That last part is common to other cultures as well but the overall level of ambient noise throughout the day is something I’m not used to. Radios and music are played at what I consider ear-splitting volume. All day long you can hear music from at least one and sometimes as many as 3 different locations…all competing with each other and at a volume that makes the speakers crackle and distort. Pickups drive around the city with loudspeakers on the cab blasting advertising for the festival activities or goods for sale. Some street vendors set up large speakers and aim them out toward the street. Roosters crow from the wee hours until full light. In the cantones where there is no electricity, there is still some noise…children playing, roosters, birds in the trees, etc but the overall volume is much less.

I’m looking forward to our visit to the canton of San Francisco this afternoon.