Saturday, October 25, 2008

Last Days in El Salvador

The last two days here have been a combination of hard work, celebration and sad good-byes. I've been a little out of touch since the Thursday update, because 8 of us, including me, got a little case of Montezuma's revenge. What did we ever do to him?? I was better by Friday morning after a very long night. Anyway, we aren't here to talk about bowel function, so let's talk about work instead.
By Thursday, we had finished the trenches and were ready to pour the concrete into the trenches for the foundation footings. So, how did we make the concrete you ask? By hauling the gravel, sand and bags of Portland cement, dumping them in a pile, mixing it by hand twice, adding water and mixing again, that's how. Let me tell you that this is hard, hard work, but the final result was pretty darn cool.

The next step was to form a bucket brigade to help fill the foundations. By Thursday afternoon both sites had the trenches full of cement. We had our regular helpers, Ingrid, Rafael and Mauricio, on site to add assistance and to just increase the cute factor by about 100%. Rafael is such a hard little worker and tough. He could carry the cement buckets just like the rest of us. A pretty amazing 8 year old, I should say.
Here I am carrying Rafael back to the work site after lunch. Notice his little boots. He knew were concerned about him hurting his feet when he was carrying bricks, so he showed up Thursday with a pair of rubber boots that were obviously too small for him. So, an interesting thing happened with Rafael on Friday. Our local Habitat affiliate contact was on site with us and Rafael sat down with Katie from our team and said to Katie in Spanish "Tell me a story." Sweet. So, Katie with the translation help of Luis, told Rafael about Jack and the Bean Stalk. When they got the part about Jack waking up to find the giant bean stalk, Luis asked Rafael what he thought Jack did next and Rafael said "He started picking beans for his family." Katie continued with the story and ended it with Jack ending up with a goose that laid golden eggs after the giant fell from the sky and died. Luis asked Rafael again what he thought Jack did with the goose then. Rafael responded "He gave it to his mother for dinner." I don't even think I can explain how deeply this touched us. Here is this good little boy who couldn't focus on the idea of riches provided by the golden goose, but was focused on the next meal for his family. Katie also got the okay to bring Rafael a new pair of shoes that day- some red Converse low tops. Cute. Luis explained to him that he had earned them for his hard work on the site. Rafael responded that he would like them but that he hadn't done enough yet to earn the shoes. We made sure his brother Mauricio took the shoes for him. I will always, always, always remember this sweet little boy.
Friday was our last day on the work site. We worked only a half day, but got to see the wall so of both homes start to rise from the ground. The masons Raul and Jacob are incredible. They were picking up the bricks single handed, lifting them over their heads with one hand while bending the rebar with the other and sliding them down the rebar to the ground. Crazy. We were thrilled to see the walls start to go up. I can't explain how exciting that was. Silly, but true.

After lunch, we had our closing ceremony with the families and the others in the village who came out to help. We were thanked for our efforts, but I can tell you that we are the ones walking away with so much more than we gave. This has been one of the most humbling and spiritually enriching weeks of my life. It was so hard to leave behind the work we had started and the beautiful friends we had made. We were all just completely blubbering messes as the van drove away from the work site for the last time.
Friday night we drove through a hell of a thunderstorm toward our day of rest and relaxation on the coast at the Hotel Pacific Paradise in Costa del Sol. We had a fun day relaxing around the pool, walking the beach and napping as needed. Tomorrow is our travel day back home. Thanks for reading my updates on this trip. It has been hard to translate the experience into words but I hope you've gotten a sense for it. See you soon!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Yet More Greetings From El Salvador

Hello again! Yesterday was another completely amazing day here. Our teams switched work sites, so each group would have an opportunity to contribute to each home. Our team moved from the more remote site to the site in the center of the village. Oh, forgot to mention that the village name we're in is Bolanos. It would be the equivalent of a distant suburb of Santa Ana, probably 15-20 miles from the center of Santa Ana.

In case you had any doubts, I'm not just standing around taking pictures. I'm actually working. These were taken at the beginning of the day when we were all relatively clean. By the end of the day, our team was covered in the sand/cement mixture that we were using all day. Gritty.
We got a little surprise when we arrived on site today. There is no shade from trees at the site we were on today. So a neighbor saw all the gringos suffering in the hot sun and let the family borrow this parachute like thing. After we left the site on Tuesday, the families cut a big bamboo pole and positioned this giant umbrella over the work site held in place with the pole and multiple ropes. It was a huge help today.

A load of lumber arrived at the work site today and wa la! Creativity!

This is 8 year old Rafael. He is a pretty smiley boy, but when I asked to take his picture he said okay then got all serious on me. So, I've got one shot of seriousness, then this shot that I got after acting sufficiently like a buffoon to make him smile. He was helping the team on the more remote site. Rafael is the little brother of Ingrid who was helping us with the wheelbarrow in yesterday's post. Rafael was barefoot and without gloves all day and carrying 35lb cement blocks on his shoulder. We tried to give him gloves at least, but he didn't want to use them. Our Habitat contact explained to us that Rafael helped to build his own family's home and is very proud of his experience. We were worried about his feet getting hurt, but his sister Ingrid told us that his last pair of shoes got worn out and he doesn't have any shoes to wear. Rafael, Ingrid, Blanca and Mauricio also don't go to school. The older kids are needed around the house and we understand that they can't afford the uniforms. How sad. One of our team members Katie is going to leave a pair of sandals at the site when Rafael is around to see is he might take them. We are told that he would probably refuse them if they were offered.

This is Natalie and her posse. The girls in the village just LOVE Natalie. After work the kids took us on a walk around the village to show us their churches. I've never seen kids so enthusiastic about their churches. It was a great walk and interesting in that we got to a part of the village that obviously had more wealth, but was only about 2 blocks from the sites where we are working.

It was Diane's Birthday today. Our team leaders had informed the Habitat affiliate of this and asked if they could arrange for a cake. Instead they went all out and prepared a lunch of traditional indigenous soup and smoked chicken. Then after work, the local families had arranged for their children to sing Feliz Cumpleanos for her, followed by hugs from all the kids. It was very sweet and Diane was incredibly touched. Diane's crying got lots of our team crying, then some of the kids started crying and it was a big blubbery sweet mess.
Part of the after work activities was an inter-cultural exchange. The local families prepared traditional foods including pupusas (a filled tortilla), cooked yuca root (yum!), papeles (I think I spelled that right), and an amazing hot pudding. Again, we were completely spoiled. For our part of the presentation, we had prepared some pictures and did some talking about the seasons we experience up north. Everyone was really, really curious about the snow and got a big kick out of the snow angel picture. We also sang some seasonal songs.

Part of the birthday celebration included a pinata. As you can see everyone got their turn to swat at it.
This Hedi Daniela, the daughter of the family we are building for. Cute, eh?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Further Greetings From El Salvador

Yesterday was another great day on the build site. After our workout the day before, our bodies were more accustomed to the labor and the day flew by. We spent the day finishing the trenching and rebar. At the very end of the day we learned how we'll be mixing the cement for the concrete footing- by hand in a concrete basin we dug into the ground and lined with hand mixed concrete. I'll show you some pictures of that later.
This is little Ingrid, who is 10, helping us on the work site. She is the sweetest thing. She comes around about mid-morning and helps us pick dirt and rocks out of the trenches. No one has asked her to help, of course, but she is right there. She is really curious about us- particularly the American versions of our names. The name Michael puts an odd expression on her face, but when I translate to Miguel, she gets it. The woman helping her in the picture is named Tara. We were wondering why every time she introduced herself to locals by saying 'me llamo Tara' they would give her a look like she was joking. So, today we looked up Tara in my dictionary and it means 'defect.' Sweet. These people are probably thinking to themselves "Why does this gringo lady have such low self esteem?" So now she is saying "Tara like Sara" and they don't wince as much.

At our lunch break, we walked Carlito, the son of the owners of one of the homes we are building, to his school. So, here is another gratuitous shot of how darling Salvadoran children are. Not only are the adorable, they are all sweet and polite, even with each other. We were talking last night as a group about how kind Salvadorans are with each other, at least in the village that we're working in. There are no parents hollering at kids ever. Older siblings willingly watch the younger siblings without fuss. Kids play cooperatively with each other and the hyper-must-win competitiveness that we see in the U.S. just isn't there. Everybody gets their turn to be the winner. Oh, and they are so soft spoken compared to us. We sound like we are speaking in bullhorns. They get their points across with fewer decibels.

The women of the family we are building for are spoiling us with this kind of fare for lunch. That potato you see was the best potato I had ever had in my life. We were all trying to figure out what magic they worked on it.

Here is what we accomplished by day 2 on the work site. We had all the trenches dug to their full depth. You can now get a real sense for how small the home is by the size of the rooms. Three gringo ladies virtually take up all the space in the room on the right. Let me tell you though that the families that are going to be occupying these homes are so very proud of them. It really makes me think again about how much we have and question how much we need.

Another gratuitous shot of cute Salvadoran children. These three stopped by to visit us a few times yesterday. We love it when the kids come by so we can underwhelm them with our Spanish skills and they can laugh at us. They are wonderful kids. I'm still amazed how much can be communicated with gestures and facial expressions.
This is a shot of the trenches we were digging. They are about 28-30 inches deep. You can see the difference between the mud/clay layer and the stone layer. I guess the other work site is having some trouble reaching the stone layer. So instead of getting to stop at our depth, they need to go down a full meter in depth. Yikes.

I was so glad when this truck pulled up to the hotel. We see this brand of bread/pastry in Mexico and I'm endlessly amused by the name.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

First Work Day in El Salvador

Hola amigos! On Monday, we had our first day on the build site. We first met with the families that will be working with us on their future homes. They were such sweet people. It was interesting because throughout the day, we met more people in the neighborhood and most were related in some way to the home owner families. I guess this isn't unusal for extended families to stay together in the same neighborhood. The children were delightful, they were shy and curious at first, but later couldn't get enough of us. Even though we couldn't speak the language as well as the locals, the universal language of gestures and facial expressions went a long way.
This is what the work looked like on our home site. The part of the group I was in started the morning by digging the exterior trenches that will serve as the foundation of the house. This was no easy work. The first foot of the soil was heavy and wet from all the rains recently. After the first foot we hit rock- a composite that looked a lot like a limestone/sandstone mix. We had to pick-axe our way through another foot of that to reach a depth of just over two feet. It was slow, really hard work. We had to learn to pace ourselves, but compared to the two local workers we looked like slugs. These two guys were in their 50's and stopped only twice that we saw to take about a 3 minute beverage break and that was it. Very impressive.
Another part of our group, cut, bent and tied rebar into the framework that will go into the trenches. We rotated duties in the afternoon so I got to try this for a couple of hours. Again, not easy, but satisfying to see the rebar go from long lengths to 1 foot sections to bent usable pieces that were wired together to create a form.
This was how far we got by the end of the day. All four exterior trenches were pretty much finished. The two local helpers at the site were there before we arrived and stayed after we left. It would surprise me if they finished the interior trenches while we were gone. They rock! Oh, I forgot to tell you about the house itself. The houses are 450 square feet with two bedrooms, a kitchen and a living/dining room and depending on the terrain, may or may not have a bathroom. So, yes, these trenches mark the entire foundation of the home.
When we got back to the hotel at 4:45 we set off on a quick walking tour of Santa Ana. This is the cathedral of Santa Ana. Very lovely. We also saw the opera house, then went for gelato at Helados Sin Rival. Tres Leches gelato. Yummy.

My favorite street sign in Santa Ana. I'm guessing it means Mujeres X-ing. Women, it appears that drivers are to pay attention for you crossing the street. Men, all bets are off. You're on your own.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Greetings from El Salvador!

Hola amigos! We made it safely to El Salvador on Saturday. At the airport we met up with Luis Fernando, our Habitat for Humanity assistant coordinator, who piled us in to a van for our ride to Santa Ana. On our ride, we got to see both the extreme wealth and extreme poverty of the country. San Salvador has a very wealthy section with three large upscale shopping malls in a row and a very Americanized feel with a Citibank tower, familiar fast food, familiar advertising. That section of San Salvador, with a population of 2 million, was small compared to the middle class, working class and un- or under employed sections of the city. On our drive we observed home constructed of just about anything- tin, scrap lumber, plastic sheeting, cardboard. They try to keep the side of the major highway clean and neat, but you didn't have to look far off the highway to see why we are here.

After a great night of sleep on Saturday, 4 of us took off walking at about 7:30 a.m. on Sunday morning to see if we could get a sense for the city of Santa Ana. The hotel we are staying in is in a pretty commercial zone, but not like in America. The shops are more of a street market setting. So, I'll get the embarrassing part of my day over right now- I fell into a manhole in the middle of the street that didn't have a cover. We were crossing and looking at the street signs and down I went. I didn't go all the way in, but my right leg went in all the way. Fortunately, I ended up with only a bruised up knee and some scrapes. Whew! Here are some pictures of the market:

After breakfast, the team went to Cristo Rey Lutheran Church to attend services. This was an experience that I couldn't have predicted. The church was tiny and in a fairly run down building, but was really full of life. It was the pastor's birthday, so the women and children put on the service. It was amazing. The sermon was all about social justice for the poor and similar themes. Addressing poverty was at the heart of this church as many of the members were un- or under employed and living in difficult circumstances. The pastor gave some closing remarks in which he said that there are many pictures of angels, but that today there were angels of heaven in the church. When we realized he was talking about us, there wasn't a dry eye among us. He then asked for a show of hands in the congregation of about 50 of who was going to help us at the build site on Wednesday. About a third of the hands went up, which was incredible. Here are some pictures from the church service:

That's all for now. Today, we will be going to the work site. There was a slight change of plans because of the heavier than normal rains. So, instead of working on a community center as we had planned, we will actually be working on 2 family homes with the families who will own them. Even better. Hasta luego!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Adios! Parting Thoughts.

Well, tomorrow is the big day! I'm finally as packed as I'm going to get with one big fat suitcase and one shoulder bag. Not bad for me, since, historically, a week in Puerto Vallarta requires two decent size suitcases and a shoulder bag. El Salvador is about getting dirty and maybe getting a few blisters to go along with the dirt. Now that I'm done with work for the week, I'm pretty excited about going. I'll try to blog and post pictures occasionally. I'll be back on the 26th. See you then!

On Tuesday, I've been asked to give a reflection at our team meeting in El Salvador about Community and Culture. I'm bringing a picture I found in my parents' things of the whole Highland Ladies Aid and am going to talk about that. I think I'm related in some way to about half of them. When I think of the phrase "It takes a village to raise a child" I always think of the church ladies at our little country church. They were the ones who taught Sunday School, kept the church fed, made the world relief quilts and generally were kind of the soul of the church. The picture looks like it was taken in about 1994 or so. Sadly, so many of the women, including my mom are gone now. Pretty incredible, but I'm going to pay tribute to them on this trip. I know they would approve, though they wouldn't want such a fuss made over them.

I had a strange dream last night in which my dad appeared. It was one of those oddly disconnected dreams with no particular linear action. In it, my dad was old and not well. It seemed like we were taking him from place to place, yet he was too ill to be taken there. At one point he fell down and I got down and held him. He told me he was ready to go. I told him that was okay and that I loved him. Remarkably (for my dad) he told me he loved me too. It was strange and sad. It seemed like we wanted to keep him around longer than he wanted to be around. I guess maybe that is the message- that he was indeed ready to go when he left us this summer. I really miss him and have been struggling to come to terms with the end of the story of my parents. I'm choosing today to think that this dream may have been a little gift from him.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

One more day...

Just one more day before I'm off to Santa Ana, El Salvador to do a build for Habitat for Humanity. We'll be working on a community center in a Habitat neighborhood that currently has about 60 or so Habitat homes. Very exciting. We leave Minneapolis at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday morning (!!) and will be in El Salvador by noon. Needless to say, I'll be a little crabby; so I'll have to watch myself around the nice(r) Lutherans.

Getting prepared to leave at work has been nothing short of a nightmare. My employee C is still out recovering from surgery. I've been flying solo for the last 6 weeks and it is starting to take its toll. I talk to C a lot though, which is a great mental break. She suggested that I could get lucky in El Salvador if I pick up a tape worm. She said her mother knew a woman who's son got a tape worm and lost 60 lbs and didn't want to give it up because he could eat whatever he wanted. Sign me up! I doubt the story is completely true, but it is tempting. I told C that I would get down and drink from a puddle next to a dumpster just once to see what happens. Anyway, tomorrow at work I have a list of about 10 things to finish before the end of the day, then I can leave. It will be tough but I don't think I'll be staying too late.

Packing for this trip is particularly challenging. The gay gene for over-packing is very strong in me. So, it goes against the foundations of my genetic coding to see the provided packing list saying to only pack 2 pairs of shorts and 2-3 shirts and 3-4 underpants with a note in parenthesis that says "the hotel has a laundry service." Hmmmm. What if I get grease on my shirts and the hotel doesn't pre-treat?? That would be wrong. What if I poop my drawers (it could happen- think Montezuma and his penchant for revenge) and the hotel won't wash my poopy pants? Oh god. What ever am I to do? I think I need to sleep on this and try again tomorrow with a little bit clearer head.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Happy Birthday, Hugh!

Today is the birthday of a fine piece o' man and a pretty good actor- Hugh Jackman. Happy Birthday, Hugh. Call me, ok?

So, a little unrelated story but related to the name Hugh. About 10 years ago when I lived in lovely East St. Paul, there was a rash of horrible misspellings on garage sale signs. I'm sure it started with just one sign in a prominent spot and spread like wildfire with people who drove by saying to themselves "Jeez. I must have been misspelling it all these years." So, for an entire summer, East St. Paul was having HUGH Garage Sales instead of Huge Garage Sales. I was a little embarrassed to say the least.

My Sunday Morning

If you like, you can play this while reading. Me'shell Ndegeocello has been the soundtrack to my morning. Some days I can think of little better than a hot lesbian playing the shit out of her bass guitar. On my way to the farmer's market this morning I had her cranked in my car and caught myself feeling a little silly when I sang/shouted along to the lyric "I need some black on black love, baby." Oh well. I doubt she intended a chubby, middle-aged white guy to be singing along, but there it was for all the universe to hear. Here is the song God, Fear, Money:

I've been a little out of touch lately except to post about how pissed off I am about the presidential race. I can't even think about the congressional race between Norm "I'll feel you up" Coleman and Al Franken. Norm grossed me out years ago when he was still the Democratic (yes, it's true) mayor of St. Paul. He had a hideous reputation for being really, really handsy with women, which my co-workers at the UW could attest to. Anyway, he's running some ugly attack ads against Franken, that fortunately are backfiring in the same way that I hope Palin's attacks on Obama will backfire. It just goes to show that Republicans will say or do ANYTHING to get elected, even when those you pick for VP have been shown to abuse the authority of their office. Sadly, most Americans still buy in to the politics of fear and divisiveness.

My trip to the farmer's market was great this morning. Sadly I can't go as early as I once did because, god damnit, it is still dark at 7:00 a.m. It seemed to happen so suddenly this year. *hmpf* Anyway, I picked up a bag of Honeycrisp apples, a dangerously delicious loaf of Pumpkin Swirl bread from Great Harvest bakery (which, try as I might, I can't stop thinking about), and some fingerling potatoes. I nearly kissed the old Hmong granny who sold me the potatoes because, not only were they gorgeous, they were- get this- PRE-SCRUBBED!!!! I love her.

When I got home, I cut the last of the rosemary and oregano, chopped up some leeks, drizzled olive oil in the bottom of the crock pot, dropped in some of the herbs and leeks, a frozen sirloin roast, my potatoes, topped them with the remaining herbs and leeks, ground some fresh pepper and set the crock for 8 hours on low. Easy peasy. I heart my crock pot.

With the change of season, I need to pay attention to the onset of my winter depression. The sun goes away and I am toast. I have a light and can exercise and take supplements, but it can still be tough. This winter will be particularly challenging because I am trying it without anti-depressants. In May, after 20 years on anti-depressants, I decided it was time to try a holiday from them and have been off them ever since. Summer is easy though, winter we shall see.

The last several weeks, I've been teetering at the cusp of melancholy as I go through some of my parent's things that I brought home with me. I asked for and got all the family photo albums and scrapbooks (minus those that the entitled one just came in and took for himself. Karma comes around. Ouch.) and was tasked with scanning in the pictures, editing them to improve color, etc. and distributing them via CD to my siblings. It's been tough. I found a newspaper clipping from our small town paper announcing the housewarming party for my parents as they moved in to our family home back in 1958. I found some pictures of my mom hidden in a scrapbook of her high school graduation cards that I had never seen. I also found out that my mom had done a bit of traveling before she got married, that she probably talked about, but sadly I probably wasn't paying attention. I try hard not to have regrets and to focus on the time we had together, but its hard.

Enough for now. More later on my new vehicle purchase and how I, surprise that it may be, can be a customer from hell. With a smile of course.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

He's An Arab

Watch this all the way through. First McCain gets booed for trying to calm down the frothing rabid masses, then has to diffuse a question from an idiot who thinks Obama is an "Arab." This is your base? Oh, and this all happened in Minnesota!! Lakeville, in fact. I'm so proud.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Oh Joy

Someone didn't screen their VP candidate very closely. Too bad. Karma sucks. Given a little more opportunity she WILL be Dick Cheney in a dress.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Did I hear that right?

Joe Six Pack?
C'mon. Joe Frickin' Six Pack?