Monday, February 28, 2011

El Salvador - Part 4 (last one!)

The view of the Pacific Ocean from the balcony outside our room.
Our last 24 hours in El Salvador were spent at a beach resort in Playa Pimental. It was soooooo relaxing to just "chill" for a while before going back home. In fact, one of the first things I did (after booking a massage!) was to climb into a hammock and take a nap. I fell asleep to the swishing of the palm trees. It was awesome.

Rancho Estero y Mar - the back side.
The place where we stayed is called Rancho Estero y Mar, and it's now on my list of places I might disappear to, should the need ever arise. It's only about a half an hour drive from the airport, and is relatively quiet and uncrowded - at least it was when we were there.

One of the many capuchin monkeys at Rancho Estero y Mar.
There's lots of wildlife here, and we saw everything from alligators to toucans. But the species that captivated my attention was cebus capucinus -- the capuchin monkeys. There were warning signs all around their cage, telling us not to get too close: apparently they're excellent pickpockets and will take sunglasses, cell phones, basically anything that's loose, on your head, or in your pockets. S leaned in to take a photo and one of them flew out of nowhere and grabbed her hair. (It has hard not to laugh.) Their little hands are like tiny people hands, with thumbs and everything, and they're so agile. Even their faces have a sort of human-like appearance. They remind me of tiny old men. Obviously, they're very smart. One of them spent several minutes with a pair of sunglasses, staring at his reflection as if he were a primate Narcissus. And there was a Mommy with a five day-old baby on her back. So cute. I could have spent hours watching these guys.

Mommy & baby
I'm so glad we had the opportunity to decompress before the long journey back home. It was just what we needed. And the massage was awesome! It was in a little hut right on the beach, so I could hear the waves of the ocean. Forty-five minutes, Swedish, for $15. Wowwwwwww!!!

Sunset on Playa Pimental.

We had a wonderful experience in El Salvador, and hope to go back again someday! If anyone out there would like to chat more with me about this experience or get more info on Charlotte Habitat, send me a message and I'll share what I know.  Now, back to reality! :-)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

El Salvador - Part 3

House #1- "before" - and all the dirt/rocks we had to use to level out the yard between the two houses.
House #2 - "before".
Monday, Valentine's Day (14 February) . . . "Man, it's a hot one. Like seven inches from the noonday sun." 90F/32C and we're using basic tools and our own bodies to sift sand, move blocks, haul water, move dirt and rocks, tamp dirt, mix cement (chispa!), and pass buckets back and forth to each other.

Every few hours, we stop what we're doing for a few minutes to drink some water and apply sunscreen. Sometimes a cool breeze blows down from the mountains. It feels nice until you realize there's dust in the breeze and now it's sticking to your sunscreen. By the end of the day, you've got so much dust attached to your face, lips, and arms . . . well, let's just say it's a good thing you didn't pack exfoliant, 'cause you won't need it.

Yet there's no reason to complain, because . . . well, it feels good to be out in the sunshine. Away from the office. Away from the stress of work projects and deadlines. If you ask me, people weren't meant to be indoors so much. Certainly we weren't supposed to sit in front of a computer all day. And night. :-)

For the most part, my jobs on Monday were: 1) sprinkle water on the dust to keep it down when the wind blew; 2) sprinkle water on the cement blocks, because it helps the mortar to stick; 3) carry blocks from the big pile to the house; and 4) use the homemade tamper to tamp down the dirt when we evened out the yard between the two houses. By the end of the day, I was exhausted, and I had hot spots (but not quite blisters) on both my hands.

How the masons placed the blocks over the rebar. No ladders!
Tuesday was more of the same, only I took a couple of turns hauling water. The locals make it look easy carrying around the 7.5 gallon jugs of water on their heads (Look Mom, no hands!) but I struggled. I pulled up several containers of water from the well. Yes, it was a "real" well - a hole in the ground, with a bucket attached to a rope. Heave ho, heave ho, until the full bucket of water came back up. Then I'd have to pour that into a big drum. THEN put the jug into the drum to fill it with water. THEN carry the jug to the work site and pour it into another big drum.

I will never, ever take clean water for granted again. Or complain when the water that comes out of the faucet is too cold. Or too hot. In fact, I may never complain about anything, ever again.

By the end of the week, I was a wirecutter extraordinaire and a tamping expert (we had to add dirt to the floors and tamp them. And add more dirt and tamp. More dirt. More tamp. Times infinity.) Oh, and just so you know . . .

This is a tamper.
And this is what tamping looks like.
There were a couple of diversions. For example, one day our local Habitat hosts brought a grill, set it up, and some of us learned to make pupusas. They're really easy to make, and so yummy when you eat them hot off the grill.

Making pupusas.
We also visited a second community, this one just outside of Santa Ana. The new homes are quite lovely, and many people have planted flowers and trees in their yards. We were told that things grow quickly here. 

One of the many pretty homes in the second community we visited.
Another day, some of us stopped work early and we drove the 5 miles or so on the Pan-American Highway from Candelaria de la Frontera to Guatemala. (I think Guatemala was my 35th country, but to be honest, I've kinda lost track already.)

On the border.
We didn't finish the houses, but by the end of the week, we definitely could tell that we had made progress. Actually, we were told that our assistance shaved off a couple of weeks from the entire process.

House #1 - "after".

House #2 - "after".
The masons and the landowner seemed very pleased with our work, and on Friday night we had a closing celebration at the Habitat office in Santa Ana . . . complete with a mariachi band!

There will be at least one more entry on the trip . . . but it may be a few days before I can post it. Thanks for your patience! :-))

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

El Salvador - Part 2

Majestic trees up on the hill in coffee country near Apaneca
So after a wonderful afternoon meal at El Jardin de Celeste, we drove to Apaneca to go ziplining. This is something I've wanted to do for a long time, and I was all psyched to go. But I chickened out at the last minute, worried that I might do something to exacerbate the problems I've been having with my hand and wrist. (Go ahead, call me a wimp if you must.) Instead, I joined the two others who opted out, and we stood at a point overlooking the town and watched our peers zip down the mountain.

The place overlooking Apaneca where we watched the zipliners.
The zipliners started out on a short "training course" to learn how to steer and brake. In all, they came down about a dozen lines, flying over the canopy of the rain forest. One person in particular had a really great time, as evidenced by the joyous cacaphony displayed in this short video (you may have to watch it several times. You may choke from laughter. I'm just sorry it's such a short video, but it's all my little camera could pick up.)


It's kind of funny that everyone else was silent while they ziplined, but not this noisy person. Yes, someone obviously had a very, very good time. :-)

After returning to Apaneca, we climbed back onboard the bus and went to the colorful town of Concepción de Ataco (Ataco, for short -- see the very last photo in this entry, below). This was our opportunity to shop. S bought a beautiful shirt and scarf, and I bought several scarves and a table runner.

Some of the beautiful textiles for sale in Ataco.
The "tourist" part of our trip continued on Sunday, when we drove from Santa Ana to Lago de Coatepeque, a beautiful volcanic crater lake. After another wonderful meal at a restaurant on a pier (you could see the clear water of the lake through the cracks in the flooring), we went on a very relaxing boat ride. The weather was perfect that day . . . but now that I think about it, the weather was pretty much perfect (if a little warm) most days we were in El Salvador.

Preparing for the boat ride on Lago de Coatepeque

There were many beautiful homes on the lake, such as this one:

One of the many lovely lakeside homes.
I mean, really, what's not to like?
Lago de Coatepeque from the mountain road. Breathtaking!
After we got back to the hotel from our lake adventure, we had our official orientation. It was nice that we had a couple of days to see part of the country and get to know each other as a team. By the time we arrived to the work site on Monday morning, we were ready to work.

Our days started early. Breakfast was at 6:30, after which we'd all meet on the hotel roof at 7:10 for our daily meeting. The vans picked us up at 7:30 for the 30 minute trip to the work site. Most days we worked until 16:00 or so.

Beautiful mural on the side of the building in Ataco where we shopped.

We worked in a town called Candelaria de la Frontera, which is along the Pan-American Highway close to the border with Guatemala. There were two houses, one at the front of the property and one in the back, that were being built for two sisters. Their mother was the landowner, and she as with us during the days while her daughters worked their jobs. By the way, part of the deal with getting a Habitat house is that the homeowner or someone in their family has to provide some sweat equity. Also, Habitat houses aren't free. The homeowners buy the houses and they have to qualify by having a certain monthly income in order to make payments. What makes it viable is that the price of the house is lower because of the cost of materials is lower, and because so much of the labor is from volunteers. (I'm just adding this here because until I started volunteering, I really wasn't sure what the deal was.)

OK, that said, I'm going to end this entry now and focus the next one on the actual construction process  . . .

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

El Salvador - Part 1

El Jardin de Celeste
I'm still trying to process our recent trip to El Salvador. So much happened. We saw so many things and met so many wonderful people. We formed new friendships. We worked our butts off. We played. We relaxed. Hopefully, we helped. Definitely, we learned. Honestly, I don't even know where to begin!

So let's just start at the beginning. We left early in the morning on Friday, 11 February, flying from Charlotte to Houston and then San Salvador. Our first stop after we left the airport in our bus was at a pupuseria (a sort of restaurant where pupusas served - don't worry if you don't know what pupusas are right now, I'll explain in a future entry). A little girl, no more than eight or nine years old, wanted to sell us some nuts in plastic bags. At first, she wanted $2 per bag, but when there were no takers, she lowered her price to $1. She was just the first of several young entrepreneurs we'd meet during our 10 days in El Pulgarcito.

El Pulgarcito is the nickname for El Salvador. It means "little thumb." El Salvador is sort of shaped like the little part of your thumb. If you don't believe me, just bend your thumb a little, and then look at a map of El Salvador, and you'll see.

All along the road from the airport to San Salvador, there are these fruit stands. Some of them are right next to each other, and they all seem to be selling the same thing, so you wonder what the point is. The road to San Salvador is a good road (better than in Costa Rica, according to one of our group members) and it's impossible to stop looking out the window. As we got closer to San Salvador, we all started seeing familiar sites: McDonald's. KFC. Pizza Hut. Wendy's. Texaco. Exxon, or maybe it's still called Esso there.

There's a huge, modern mall near the highway in San Salvador, with a multiplex cinema and lots of shops. We didn't stop there, though. Instead, we did our shopping at the hardware store. On our list? Buckets, trowels, and shovels. We bought a bunch of them, and each person chipped in $10 to pay. (We would leave them behind at the end of the week.)

We spent our first night in a swanky section of San Salvador, not far from embassy row and the international schools. Our hotel was really more like an inn, and by that I mean that it was cute and quaint.

The hotel where we stayed the first night in San Salvador.
Friday night, we met Patty, our local volunteer coordinator. She took us to a nice restaurant called Típicos Margoth, where we had an amazing spread of food that included: yuca, plaintains, black beans, soft cheese, tamales, and the best tostadas in the whole wide world. Seriously.

The best tostadas in the whole wide world.
On Saturday, we traveled the Pan-American Highway from San Salvador to Santa Ana (where we checked into our hotel - the Hotel Sahara) and beyond to Ahuachapán. We stopped by one of the communities where Charlotte Habitat has a presence, and saw examples of both old and new homes.

This is an example of an older-style house that is made from sticks, mud, and occasionally plastic sheeting.
This is one of the newer homes built by Habitat. It's made of blocks and cement, and is reinforced with rebar (which is particularly helpful when you live in an earthquake-prone area).
We met some very friendly people in this community, including an elder who happily showed us the new community garden that will eventually provide the residents with a place to grow some vegetables. We also met a young family who received a micro loan to help them start a rabbit business.

After visiting the community, we headed up into the mountains toward Apaneca. Along the way is a lovely hotel and restaurant called El Jardin de Celeste. Here we were treated to another excellent meal (probably my favorite of the trip). I had something called a Plato Típico or "typical meal" of grilled beef, chorizo sausage, rice, salsa, soft cheese, black beans and sour cream. I also had quite possibly the best coconut pie in the whole wide world, which sadly, I neglected to photograph.

Plato Típico . . . YUM!!!
In the next entry . . . read all about our ziplining experience. Quite possibly, if I can figure out how to upload it, see (or at least hear) a video. And read about our relaxing day at Lago de Coatepeque, a volcanic crater lake. Coming soon!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Back in the USA

We're back from El Salvador. I'm sorting through my journal (which I did the old fashioned way - on paper) and the 500+ photos we took, and will have some blog entries to share soon!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A new adventure

A few months ago S & I decided to do some volunteer work with our local Habitat for Humanity. I blogged about my first experience in Fear Not The Nail Gun (which if I had to do over again I would have titled If I Had a Hammer. Maybe next time.) Anyway, we've had a blast working with Charlotte Habitat, and decided to join them on an upcoming trip to El Salvador. We started out by going to an informal "info session" at the end of last year, and it wasn't a difficult decision once we met the group leader and another person who'd been many times. The reservations have been made and the plane tickets have been bought. The trip is a go.

Last night, we had our first group dinner at a local Salvadoran restaurant and met several other people who are going. Most of us sampled El Salvador's most famous dish (pupusa) and drank Salvadoran cerveza. Dinner was muy delicioso . . . and quite cheap (both of us ate for $12.40, including tip). I'm definitely going back to this restaurant.

The volunteers range in age, experience, and background. Most if not all have international travel experience. At least two have Peace Corps experience. Several have been on previous trips to El Salvador with Habitat, and it will be our volunteer coordinator's fourteenth trip. There were some very interesting stories and tips shared around the table. :-)

Looking forward to this new adventure! Will tell you all about it when we get back.