An Adventure in El Salvador with Habitat for Humanity

By Leslie H. Morley


YOU CANNOT FEEL THE HEAT OF EL SALVADOR in an air-conditioned room in the Sheraton Presidente, one of the capital city's swankiest hotels, so I stepped between the glass doors and out onto the balcony. It was warmer there, but all I could see of the city were the neatly planted flower beds, closely trimmed lawns and stately palms of the walled garden adjacent to that part of the hotel. The cicadas drowned out the sounds of the bustling metropolis below.


Already the vivid colours of the impoverished Salvadorian countryside were beginning to fade from my memory. From the hotel hallway I heard the muted voices of American servicemen, returning to their rooms from their bull sessions in the conference facilities off the lobby. I cast my mind back to the warmer days a week earlier when, with 19 other Canadian lawyers, I set out to build a house on the fringes of a village half an hour outside of San Salvador.


The project was organized by Ontario Superior Court Justice Robert Beaudoin of Ottawa, under the auspices of Habitat for Humanity. A dedicated humanitarian, Justice Beaudoin had invited lawyers in the Ottawa area, along with anyone else interested, to assist in the construction of 2 dwellings and, through meetings with lawyers and public officials there, to learn a little about the Salvadoran conception of justice. During the build, we stayed at the Centro Escobar Catolico Don Bosco, a hilltop Catholic retreat which, in its appointments, rivalled the Sheraton Presidente. From its grounds there were magnificent views in all directions of intensely cultivated land, punctuated with a patchwork of shanty communities, laid across the hills and rolling down to the Pacific.


Our first morning at the retreat, I awoke to a riot of bird calls, which was a pleasant respite from the exchanges of rival roosters that daily ejected me from bed in our accommodations in the city. At the Don Bosco the air was cool and a mist hung over the hills, adding visual mystery to my anticipation of the day ahead. That morning we were bound for San Jose Villanueva, the village where we would be building the houses.


We set out for the build site in a 23-seat Toyota bus. The bus driver, a youngish man with closely-cropped hair, a thin moustache and prominent ears greeted us with a wide smile, revealing silver-capped teeth. I noticed 2 bottles of cologne tucked in open view in a storage hamper, ready for use at a moment's notice. He nodded to each of us as we boarded, all the while talking in staccato Spanish to someone on the other end of his cell phone.


The driver had made the bus his own. The rear-view mirror was festooned with brightly coloured hair clips. From the inside of the passenger-side windscreen, several small stuffed animals hung by rubber suctions cups, and as we got under way, they swung to the beat of the Latin dance music the driver played on the bus's stereo system. Visible to all in a prominent position at the front of the vehicle's interior was a flashing blue neon light in the shape of a heart with the work "amor" written within it in pink illuminated letters.


On many of our trips to and from the work site, the driver was accompanied by his wife, who chatted away happily to us, and by his daughter, who smiled shyly while accepting every offer of candy proffered. Our commute had the flavour of a trip to day camp, with its loud conversation and laughter, the occasional stop for gum and soft drinks, and the sense of a full day ahead.


In this environment it was difficult to imagine that, the very same week, members of one of the El Salvador's pervasive gangs had stopped this very bus, and threatened those aboard if a protection payment was not made immediately. We were told that such threats were not idle, and that another bus driver had recently been doused with gasoline and set ablaze. One member of our group had formerly lived in El Salvador, and he opined, "I don't think things are better now than they were during the civil war." Indeed, the consensus of those I spoke with, including a senior government official, was that the political situation in the country was again deteriorating, and that all of the gains achieved as a consequence of the war were now, if not illusory to begin with, all lost.


The bus driver negotiated through roads full of humanity in movement: fully loaded dump trucks; couples on their way to work, snuggling in the back of pick-up trucks; brightly-painted school buses full of children with faces distorted as they pressed against the windows; motorcycles with 2 or 3 riders; 3-wheeled vehicles; and the occasional person on horseback.


Our drive took us between precipitous hills dotted with cell phone towers; past tiny houses made of concrete blocks that were more knocked down than built up; and around chickens, cows and other domestic animals, which seemed to prefer to be on the road than cooped up in their enclosures. As another mongrel loped towards the ditch, it occurred to me that in El Salvador even sleeping dogs cannot lie undisturbed.


The main road was 2 lanes wide, lined on either side with a grass verge, and with utility poles painted the red, white and blue of the governing ARENA party. There were few of the red and white tags of the left-wing FMLN in this rural area, where the fear of crime and the hope of patronage prevailed. Here on one trip back to the retreat, we saw a motorcycle lying askew, the driver prone nearby with his arm severed below the elbow, no doubt hoping an ambulance would arrive sometime. Not far away, street vendors sold orange juice and homemade furniture, while their neighbours returned home with their wares carried in baskets on their heads.


As we reached the crest of a hill, we passed the gated community of Miramar, with its grounds neatly coiffed in terraces to the summit. Overlooking us from there were neat white houses with red tiled roofs, all surrounded by a high stone wall, through which entry was possible only past a guard box containing sentries with automatic weapons. One could only speculate as to who lived in these communities, as entry was clearly not welcome, but it seems safe to conclude that, whoever they are, they are remarkable for their ability to live so lavishly in the midst of such poverty.


We descended from Miramar through a canopy of lush foliage to San Jose Villanueva. The sign welcoming visitors there was tacked beneath a much larger one announcing La Hacienda, another gated community, as if the village itself was an afterthought. As one studied the face of the settlement, it became clear how cautious its welcome was. The windows of the houses were barred, and all properties surrounded by walls or fences. Sidewalks were narrow and dropped off 2 feet to the street, and the side streets leading into the countryside were so steep as to induce vertigo. The grunt of pigs and smell of raw sewage competed for sensory supremacy.


At the edge of town, the bus could go no further and we had to walk from there the rest of the way to the build site. The cobbled pathway was as steep as a flight of stairs and wide enough only for one small vehicle to make the ascent. Assembled from field stone patched together with concrete by long forgotten campesinos, it extended about 1000 feet in the horizontal but five stories in the vertical. As we traversed its length, we passed house after house, structures of adobe, wood, concrete block or some combination, most with corrugated roofs and outdoor plumbing. Showers comprising plastic sheets stretched 3 sides around vertical supports adjacent to a rain barrel. Dogs, chickens and pigs abounded, wandering in and out of the homes.


In one rural community that we visited during the educational part of our visit, the village fathers (and one mother) were proud to tell us of their achievement in piping fresh water to their homes from a nearby river, the product of a year of community labour. Thanks to their efforts, women and children were spared long early-morning walks to carry water back to their homes. I found it difficult to imagine a more worthwhile project, and so was surprised to hear that the central government provided no assistance. Worse, we were told, by granting licenses to private interests to access the water supply, the government had in fact undermined the community's efforts.


We followed the cobbled roadway to the build site, which was at the bottom of the other side of the hill. The existing home was a rickety 2-room mud brick and wood affair with a roof that extended like an awning over what was otherwise an outdoor cooking and eating area. An elderly woman lived in one room and a young couple and their children in the other. Water was obtained from a nearby faucet connected to a pipe that rose vertically from the ground at the edge of their lot. The sanitary facilities were outdoors. The property was situated at the edge of the settled area of San Jose Villaneuva, and one could almost feel the press of the tropical foliage that surrounded the structure, threatening to reclaim it in the name of Mother Nature.


We were building a new house, this one for the young family, in front of the existing dwelling. It was to be made of concrete block. The 2 buildings would be separated by about twenty feet, a space which was currently occupied by a sand pile, bags of concrete, and the available hand tools required to complete the job. Looking at them, we were reminded that our labours were to be of the physical variety: carrying buckets of sand, stone and water and mixing them with cement on the ground. We were guided in our efforts by a crew of 3 Salvadoran tradesmen, who cheerfully directed us from their perches on the scaffolding surrounding the site. It was heavy work, but supremely satisfying to know that the young couple, who worked by our side, would have a healthier future with their children in a home that we helped them construct.


We returned the next five days to the site to complete our portion of the project, stoked with pride as we participated in the excavation of the floor, erection of the walls and installation of the roof. As the building took shape, so did our sense of the complexities and contradictions of this troubled country, so near yet so far from Canada. Indeed, while the distance from here to El Salvador can be crossed by a few hours in the air, once back on the ground it becomes clear that that distance is best measured in terms of the last century of social progress, a proud part of our history, but regrettably not yet of theirs.


Back in my room in the Sheraton Presidente, I reflected on the lessons of my first trip to the Third World. I concluded that it is true: until one is there, surrounded by the sights and sounds of the country, and immersed in its culture, one cannot begin to imagine the complexities that confront those there who seek reform, and the courage that it takes to press for it in the face of unrestrained self-interest. From my vantage point at home, like from the hotel room, the task can barely be conceived. I am thankful for the opportunity to visit this place and, by doing so, to better understand these challenges.

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