Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Nov. 14/06

So, now the question "What does it all mean?" is rolling around in my head. It is not the most profound question in the world, but I almost feel like an TV evangelist when I am telling people about my experiences in El Salvador.

For the moment, it means that I have stopped my mass consumption tendencies in their tracks. My house is about 1700 square feet and the place is rather full of things. It is nothing for me to pick up this knickknack or that cute, but useless little thing when I am at work or out and about. I found 3 wax potpourri burners the other day when I was moving stuff in my kitchen (and some of you have seen how small that room is!)! I also discovered that I have 10 kitchen towels crammed into a drawer which is about 9 too many for the amount of dishes that I actually wash! My rough figures tell me that I might have a fighting chance at saving up tuition for a masters program next September if I sell off the extra junk (or donate it to the Salvation Army) and do not buy any more.

There is a great deal on socks at work at the moment and before, I would have scooped up all kinds of pairs because it is a deal. Tonight, I very politely admired everyone else's finds and walked away. I also put away a cross stitch magazine that I had been coveting and hoping to get for Christmas, but I do not need more patterns.

The other thing that has struck me as well is my renewed faith in humanity. I am a lapsed church goer, but I definitely felt moved in a small "c" christian way when I encountered the generousity, love and friendship shown to me by everyone involved in this trip. We can accomplish so much by dropping egos, accepting people for who they are and reaching out with friendship. Too often we let prejudice, stereotype, gender, language, culture and money form a barrier that we do not allow ourselves to see past. The reality is that a mother in China wants the best for her child, just like a mother in Canada, or El Salvador or Papua New Guinea. My hope is that I continue to carry with me the joys of reaching across those barriers with a smile and a handshake to make a new friend and to have my life touch that of another.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Freddy, Guillermo and Guillermo Jr., masons extraordinaire!

Me with the ninos!

The goodbye party.

Joanna with the ninos!

Our first day on site in Panchimalco with Frankie and Guillermo.

Thanks to John for allowing me to download these photos from his public album.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Nov. 12/06

Well, it really is hard to know where to begin because there were so many experiences crammed into those 2 weeks. I was really fortunate that I was travelling with some really fantastic people because we all supported each other and cared for each other as we went through all of this.

The first thing that we had to get used to, besides the heat and humidity, was the barbed and razor wire that was everywhere, including all around the convent where we staying. Then, it was the men with guns who also seemed to be everywhere. I was a little unsettled at one of the Mayan ruins when one of the security guards kept catching my eye and saying "Buenas" to me. There is something off putting about a man carrying a rifle or semi-automatic even if he is gorgeous! The traffic was something else as well, but I quickly learned to look out the side window if I thought that our driver was about to pass someone!

We went to see the tomb of Oscar Romero on our first day there. I had heard a few things about him and his role in the civil war in El Salvador and I felt very moved as I watched people pray to him. I had a similar feeling when we went to the Mayan ruins in Cihuatan. Standing out in the middle of the ball court, I felt dizzy at the thought that there was a magnificent civilization there a few thousand years ago.

The building of the houses was an experience that I have great difficulty in describing and I am so glad that there were others there with me because they know without me having to say how moving it was for me. We tried to leave our Canadian sensibilities behind as we walked into the barrio/shantytown, but it was hard to see people living in corrugated huts and outdoor latrines. Everything was walled in and behind barbed wire. As the week went on and we learned more about our masons who were supervising the build, we were amazed that these guys only make $6 a day for working from sun-up to sundown. Habitat for Humanity generally uses the same masons time after time unless the men move onto other jobs. The masons come from all around the country and HfH houses them wherever the building is being done. My chief mason had one of his sons working as his assistant and another son was chief mason at a neighbouring home. Guillermo, our mason, was awesome. It was not long before we were all laughing and having a great time despite our HUGE language barrier. HfH did provide us a translator so the question periods had to wait until Kendall made her way to our site.

One by one, the children slowly joined in. In my pidgin Spanish with my phrase book, I introduced myself to them all and learned alot of Spanish from them. It is not usual for women to do outside work at the home so the teenage girls were the last to join in after a few days of quietly and shyly watching us. The kids made alot of the work easier. When we had to move bricks, we all formed a line and passed the bricks along instead of having to carry them through the (hazardous and cramped) work site. It seemed like the smaller the kid, the more eager they were. The kids ranged in aged from 2-16 and they all chipped in. I know that alot of it was related to the novelty of having the 3 gringos around at their house.

For me, my relationship with the children is what truly makes the whole experience so special. I am a great believer in the importance of children and their role in the future so I worked hard to include the children by getting to know their names as soon as possible and using my phrase book to communicate with them. I had extra work gloves so the kids were always wearing the extras as they worked alongside us. One boy named Frankie was exceptional. He worked the hardest out of all of them and we were most amazed watching this 11 year old boy shovel concrete like a man. My hope for him is that he can afford to go onto university and that he escapes the drunkeness and joblessness that we saw amongst so many young men in that town because he is such a bright and compassionate boy.

OK, I will stop here for now so that I do not start crying (again) before I have to leave for work this morning. Yup! No rest for the weary. My co-workers have been working straight out while I was away so they are enjoying some days off now that I am back in town.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Nov. 11/06

I returned home from El Salvador on one of the most important days of the year in my life. I hope that all the Canadians reading this took a moment to remember those who have served in the name of our country.

In the past 2 weeks, I have added 3 more countries to my list: El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. And what an amazing 2 weeks! The team of Beth, Russ, Jay, Bobbi-Jean, Al, Ed, Joanna and me flew out of Moncton on Oct. 28/06 and met up with John and Elaine in Houston to fly onto San Salvador. We met up with a team of Rotarians (Bruce, Ann, Caroline, Craig and Suzie) from Yakima WA USA who were also in El Salvador to build 2 homes sponsored by their Rotary club.

There is nothing like bonding over a pile of chispa (concrete) being mixed by hand while the hot Salvadoran sun is beating down on you causing you to sweat more than possible. My Spanish was non-existent before arriving at the work site in Panchimalco, but through a combination of gestures, some phrases from my handy pocket phrase book plus some French that slipped out on occasion, we developed some hybrid pidgin language that allowed us to communicate with the masons and the families. The neighbourhood we were working in could be described as a shanty town with many of the buildings being made out of corrugated tin and having outdoor toilets. Stray dogs and chickens were everywhere!

We worked hard all week. I am sure that I lost at least 10 pounds that week between sweating like a firehose in the heat, sun and humidity (Whine! Whine! I am a Canuck after all and we think it is hot if the temp goes above 20C)and carrying more buckets of chispa and moving more bricks than I care to think about! The children were amazing as they worked as hard, if not harder than we did. One little boy named Frankie jumped right in a few minutes after we arrived and he worked alongside us all week. Not too many 11 year-old kids here in Canada are keen to shovel dirt all day or carry bricks and soil around and to do it with great pride in their work. The house was being built for his aunt and soon we had all kinds of kids ranging from 2-16 years old working alongside us. I quickly learned the Spanish words for brother, sister, cousin, aunt, uncle and neighbour! Our mason, Guillermo, and his son Guillermo Jr. had the patience of Job and a great sense of humour! Their work probably would have progressed much faster if they did not have to trip over and supervise the 3 gringos!

There were a lot of fantastic and touching moments. Every morning I waved hello to a family who lived up the hill from where we building. They would sit out and watch us all day, every day. The mother always called out "Buenas Dias!" to us and gave a big wave. I was so surprised to see her at the goodbye party and she came running up to me to give me a hug. One of my workmates got quite ill one day and it was so touching to watch Frankie take her by the hand to lead her inside so that she could lay down. Watching the kids pose for photographs and then to go running to see the digital images of themselves. Seeing the community mark the Dias de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and taking in the atmosphere of the street festival. Being blindfolded to hit the pinata (my years of tennis and softball came in handy there!) and breaking eggshells full of confetti over people's heads at the goodbye party (it took days to get that stuff out of my hair and clothes!).

Despite their troubled history and economic woes, the Salvadorans that we met are a wonderful people. I learned from them that life is not about the stuff that one owns, but how one uses and shares that stuff with friends and family. The love and affection that I saw and felt amongst them is more valuable than all of my assets combined. Suzie said it best at the goodbye party when she said to the Salvadorans, "You may think that we came here to help you, but you have helped us more."