El Salvador Community Trip - Rob's Journal
Rob Granner - Thrivent Financial Representative, Chicagoland Region
Due to the recent financial crisis, it had felt a little inappropriate to be leaving my office. I even predicted to a couple of clients that the time would come when this team of financial representatives would all wonder what we were doing in El Salvador when our help was needed at home in the United States. From this low point, after this very exhausting first day, the people and possibilities are coming into focus and I find that my expectations have increased dramatically.
After we all met at the airport in San Salvador, we loaded into two vans and drove about an hour enroute to our hotel before stopping at a fried chicken restaurant called "Pollo Campero." The meal was of fast-food variety, but tasty. Here we first received the news that nowhere in El Salvador are we allowed to place toilet paper into a toilet. It is rather to be placed into the waste-paper basket nearby – our first real-life example embodying our team's motto of "FLEXIBILITY."
The pace of this first day has been relaxing. After re-loading the vans, we completed the trip to the Hotel Sahara, which has turned out to be much more than adequate. I have two roommates (most have only one). We do have an air conditioner, and it seems clear that we will appreciate the cool air more and more this week. The temperature is in the mid 80s, but dry in this part of the country.
We had our orientation to Habitat for Humanity El Salvador on the roof after unloading our bags. Here we met Luis Fernando, our first contact from Habitat El Salvador. Luis Fernando gave us an overview of Habitat El Salvador's home-building efforts over the last 16 years and some statistics on the country. As some point, the general practice of taking siestas was questioned and we received our second surprise – Salvadorans apparently don't often take siestas! This was a bit disheartening since everyone likes an afternoon nap, but we were soon on to dinner, which seemed almost gourmet. We enjoyed a couple of cervezas, including "Pilsener," a beer of El Salvador. In good spirits, we headed back to our final group meeting on the roof. We broke into small groups and discussed our hopes and fears for the week. Fears ranged in my group from personal safety to health risks. We agreed that we were here because of our hearts of service and it simply felt good to be helping others, especially doing the work ourselves. We hoped that the seeds planted within us by this experience would continue to grow within us for the rest of our lives. The short time we've spent together has already created enthusiasm and gratefulness that we work for an organization that would provide this type of opportunity to work and grow together.
We arose at 6:30am, rotated through the shower, and dressed for breakfast. I slept like a rock after being so exhausted – better than I have in a month! We ate leisurely and waited until well after 10am, socializing in the sunny courtyard of the hotel until the vans arrived. We worshipped this Sunday morning at "Cristo Rey," a local Lutheran church. Everyone on our team was surprised by how dilapidated the building and surrounding property was. Friendly Salvadoran people and animals began to accumulate and were at ease with our group of strangers. Pastor Carlos emerged from a nearby house and walked up to me with a warm smile since I happened to be on that side of the yard. He and his wife, also a pastor, led us in worship. Pastor Carlos gave us a historical perspective of Cristo Rey Lutheran Church and then the older children appeared in elaborate costumes. Their performance was marked by many hand gestures, which seemed to show sensitivity, humility, and deference to God. We all sang songs in Spanish with help from hymnals and those sitting close to us. When "A Mighty Fortress is our God" was sung, everyone could hear the hearty voices of the Americans – it was really fun! Even with the language barrier, I felt a strong spiritual connection and common ground with these people. Adults and children were warm and sincere, giving hugs freely and interacting with us comfortably and patiently.
After the church service we drove to a volcanic mountain with a huge crater lake called the "lago de Coatepeque." We stopped for a panoramic view and then headed to a villa property on the lake. The grass lawn was neatly kept and a keyboardist was playing American dance music. Some of us hadn't even crossed the lawn before starting to dance. Here we relaxed and ate a cookout meal of chicken, steak, and pupusas – a native fry bread served with salsa and coleslaw. After this, most of the team went for a boat ride. I chose to swim in the crystal clear crater lake and relax with a few others from our group on the veranda – the weather was so pleasant, sunny with a gentle breeze – we were completely content. During this time, Ana Maria, a primary contact from Habitat El Salvador, talked with me personally and at length about her county, culture, work, and home life.
We headed back to the hotel, but stopped in the Santa Ana main square so we could see some of the city on foot. We entered an enormous Catholic church under renovation. When told by a self-appointed tour guide with a hopeful look that the church was continually doing fund-raisers for the renovations, one of our team's members asked if they had tried BINGO—it usually works well in the United States!
We had a simple dinner of pupusas at the hotel and then had our evening group meeting on the hotel roof. The focus for today was faith, and it was easy for us to find meaningful things from our day together that resonated with our own faith. We ended with a prayer by Oscar Romero, a priest martyred in the 1980s for speaking publicly against injustice in El Salvador who is now being put forth as a candidate for sainthood.
Our first workday – we were all anxiously awaiting the work for which we had come. I was impressed by the quality of construction and the aesthetic sensibility of the duplexes' design in the community so far. Concrete sidewalks and wide roads gave a spacious feel to the neighborhood. The primary activities of day one involved excavating dirt from room floors of the community center, felling an enormous Cabala tree by hand and removing the stump (with 2 axes, some rope, and a bit of ingenuity); and clearing the brush and tree-overgrown plot for part of the soon-to-be-constructed Thrivent Builds Worldwide El Salvador Community of up to 75 homes. The tree removal, in which I participated, provided a central activity that allowed us to relate to the participating families and local workers. We enjoyed a lot of joking around as well and an unending series of problems to be solved together, without the benefit of a shared language. Everyone seemed relaxed and willing to let the circumstances slow the pace of work without losing enthusiasm. A small group eventually left to purchase a chain saw after a collection had been taken to shore up the tool supply. Though the chain saw would prove useful from the beginning, the "tree fellers" who remained redoubled their efforts to bring the tree and root system down before it arrived – to preserve the integrity of a completely manual process. With the fortunate intervention of a member who hailed from a US town claiming the title of "National Tug of War Champions," our team pulled the tree down with the tool van in sight! It was a glorious moment that we won't soon forget.
The field clearing came with the day's only two injuries which both resulted from simply pulling weeds. With the volume of person-power, and the grit and determination of the workers, a truly impressive section of land was cleared by the day's end.
We all worked very hard to continue our momentum. We also hope to get the gas-powered cement mixer working (there's no spark coming from the spark plug currently). Our goal is to have the machine running by Wednesday, but we may need a little luck.
Dinner was again exceptional at Hotel Sahara. Our group meeting was focused on relationships with local people, and specifically our experiences in working through communication barriers. We used peanut M&Ms in a creative way to share some details of our personal lives with each other.
Cristina, the site architect, led a very thoughtful devotion after the usual breakfast at the hotel. She told a parable about a man made of salt who seeks to find the ocean to be part of something bigger than himself. It was a lengthy yet poignant story.
Accomplishments for the day included getting the cement mixer working! The electric switch was the primary culprit, which we "jumpered" with bailing wire and athletic tape, necessity being once again the mother of invention. The pull cord that had repeatedly broken was replaced by one made by a local Habitat family that was in the rope-making business – and this was the one that resulted in the final triumph of man over machine (or at least man getting machine to work). In addition, cutting up and removing sections of the large tree that was felled on Monday and digging out the surrounding area was accomplished. Other work detail involved supporting the local masons in building tiers of cinder-block walls on one end of the community center. Some jobs were broken down into manual steps that could feed the process with a steady stream of appropriate length re-bar, separated the correct amount etc. along with carrying cinder blocks and buckets of cement to the scaffolding.
Today the removal of stumps that would create the legendary "Stumping Fields" by week's end was started in earnest. This onerous task involved digging the root systems of perhaps a hundred middle to large-sized stumps by hand. Thrivent Financial's executive leaders on our team were assigned to this detail – quite a show of leadership! Cristina shared that the rest of the fields for the 2009 Thrivent Builds Worldwide El Salvador Community would be cleared before more Thrivent member volunteers come down in 2009. Future team members (including by some of us who plan to return next year!) will be able to build homes in this field with Salvadoran partner families.
Today it is clear that there are no easy jobs and many had to learn to pace themselves. People who live in the community stopped by in an increasing amount today. Our Santa Ana Habitat affiliate provided an excellent and savory lunch. Our group is so diverse, and the interactions have started to deepen with much comedic potential in the circumstances and logistics of our project.
This was an amazing day. Like it or not (we had plenty of opinions on both sides of the fence), Barack Obama was elected President last night – a historic moment. After our breakfast routine we loaded up our three vans and headed off to the worksite. Our morning devotions involved reading scripture in both Spanish and English, followed by a prayer. From the beginning, the day was hotter than previous days and the air more still. Three work centers included the cinder block building, digging the rectangular area out for the rest of the community center foundation and floor plan, and the vast stump/root extracting process that was going on at the 2009 project site. All activities were physically challenging in the heat. So far our project has had only one casualty to sickness – a member seems to have come down with a digestive infection and is taking the day off, with antibiotics and bed rest. The group worked hard today and made good progress. We really have been productive each day – amazing what our "office fingers" are capable of.
A pastor from another church that participates with Habitat brought his wife and children to the site today. He led our devotions at lunch, and his daughters joined in the work. We also had several members of Cristo Rey join us for the day as well. Added to the locals, the site was more populated than it has been. A new character appeared on the scene today – a 12 yr old named Alex, who worked hard hauling wheelbarrows of dirt. Rather than get tired, Alex ended up with hard-hat, gloves, and sunglasses so he could work as efficiently as everyone else. When he wasn't working, Alex kept supplying a number of people with water, fruit, and even candy. I thought to myself, "This is how you turn out a Luis Fernando – start early" - an impressive child! The group continued to have fun with words and names. For example, there were two "Juans" present today – "this Juan" and the "other Juan."
We closed up shop at about 2:45pm, though several of us felt the effects of heat exhaustion and quit at about 2:30. At 3:00 we started preparing for our first El Salvador fiesta. This was truly a special event, to which a large crowd locals showed up. We helped prepare the pupusas and tamales and snacked on them while kids (and adults) dispatched three piñatas. Our group sang a rendition of "Day-O" with lyrics about needing a roof because of the heat." Our words were "Techo, Te-e-e-e-cho. Necesitamos un techo!," meaning, "Roof, roof. We need a roof!" After the buffoonery of the chicken dance, we danced meringue, salsa, and some swing. We then smashed colorful dried eggshells on each other's heads, photographed beautiful children, and purchased coffee and string-bags from the community disabled resident (who had a good day of business). We had a true party, which we hope to continue on Friday. Dinner was excellent, and our group meeting was focused on the culture of El Salvador. Tonight we kept the meeting short and ended with a devotional reading and a circle prayer.
Though it has been just a few days, relationships are continuing to deepen for me as the week progresses. By building relationships with a group comprised of outstanding people who work for Thrivent Financial, working to the point of physical exhaustion each day building affordable housing in a country with hundreds of thousands of people in poverty, and then being exposed to the culture and fun of a new country, this trip has become one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.
After breakfast we loaded the vans and headed to Tezumal, a site of ancient Mayan ruins. We walked around the site and found a few bargains at a nearby shop. We reached the worksite by about 10:30am and after our devotions, picked up where we left off. The digging out of the community center foundation was completed and the trenches and column support holes were begun. A couple more tiers of brick were laid on the initial portion of the building and the "tamping" of the dirt floor of this section completed, using concrete tampers and the brawn of several good men and a woman. Some in our group played wheelbarrow games with the kids to their great delight.
We finished just before 4pm and headed back to the vans and the hotel for cleanup and dinner. Back at the hotel and before dinner, a few of us gathered to practice singing a few songs that we plan to share at Friday's fiesta. At 6:45pm we headed out to dinner at "Los 44," a nightclub venue where we started dancing immediately as we waited for the food. We all enjoyed the meal and I danced until I was soaked with sweat. I am thoroughly exhausted and plan to sleep soundly until 6am again (6 hours). It's been another wonderful day of not thinking about my business and instead engaging in this remarkable experience.
Our last workday, and it's only until noon! I am close to my physical limit, but the morning routine is now comfortable. Virtually the whole group was focused on the foundation trenches for the community center, and digging commenced after our group devotions, led once again by Cristina and Luis Fernando. This time, tears started to flow for a couple members of our group, and Cristina joined them as she continued to share folkloric "Tale of Three Trees." She went along with touches of comfort from Luis Fernando.
The day was hot and still again, so we watched our limits and liquids carefully. By quitting time, we had reached the completion of the trench system, which would provide the support foundation for the rest of the community center.
Though I was exhausted, at noon I knew that a couple of days of nothing but fun and games were planned. As we washed up and gathered together, an elaborate cookout of world-class vegetable soup and whole roasted chickens was laid out for us on a festive tablecloth. After this, our group went into the trenches one last time, as the sun reached its peak, for our final group photo. We then assembled at the daycare entrance to have our final fiesta. We shared three American songs, which were performed by about a third of us. We sang, "Let it Be," by the Beatles, "Ripple," by the Grateful Dead, and "Amazing Grace." I was then shocked when an 8-piece Mariachi band, in full formal dress, appeared out of nowhere. I particularly enjoyed "kicking up the dust" a little. I love to dance and have been given several opportunities throughout the week. The beautiful women from both countries contributed to the dancing spirit.
We said our goodbyes to the Habitat El Salvador staff, masons, and local people who had worked along side us, and made our last trip back to the Hotel Sahara. After showering, packing up, and checking out, I waited in the lobby with a new friend from our group while most members walked and shopped at an artisan market a few blocks away. At 5:00pm two tour buses arrived and our group and all our luggage were "packed like spoons" into them. We left for San Salvador and the Hotel Pacifico, located on the beautiful white sand beach of Costa del Sol. The trip took 2½ hours, while we got to know each other even a little more. This resort is a significant step-up in accommodations, with the Pacific Ocean close by, along with a large, clean pool, and nicely landscaped walking paths. We enjoyed a late dinner, and most consumed a fair amount of alcohol, which on completely empty stomachs did not take long to improve our outlooks. With our workweek behind us, there was soon no doubt – we had really landed on our feet at this resort. We joked around, talking until midnight and then called it quits – another incredible day!
I slept in for the first time – until about 8:00am. Most of the group was up, but breakfast was served until 10:00am so I was okay. There were many recreational activities available in the area, from shopping to jet skiing and sea fishing. I chose to lounge around in a hammock, swim in the ocean, and drink margaritas. The ocean was delightful, with a pleasant temperature, wave level, a very fine white sand beach and few people about. Later we played beach volleyball and moved on to our 5:00pm meeting. This meeting was important, and a good time to really recognize the exceptional experience we have had. As a Thrivent Financial representative, I spoke up in favor of taking personal advantage of the tremendous opportunity Thrivent has placed before us over the next couple of years in El Salvador. I sincerely hope many of us will either lead or participate in another builds trip in 2009. At this moment, I felt more proud to work for Thrivent Financial than at any other time in my 10-year career.
Dinner was next with the prize menu item being an excellent Bouillabaisse. A three-piece band with 2 exceptional classical guitarists played local music during the meal. One group member, who had found some notable bargains on El Salvadoran jewelry in San Salvador, offered a beautiful silver necklace at auction to raise money for Habitat El Salvador. The final bid was over $1,000, which Thrivent will match – a good show of generosity. After dinner we met again to continue to reflect on our experiences, and to offer a personal thanks to each group member. We then had our final devotions and a "spiral hug." Individual hugs—and some tears—were then shared by all. That feelings had grown to such a level over just a few days was a testimony to the power of our trip.
Some team members left before sunrise, but the majority of us loaded our bus at 11:00am after breakfast and a couple of hours of free time. I found a few friends and we walked along the beach and went for a final swim in the Pacific Ocean before showering, changing, and packing. We used and enjoyed every last minute of our time at this resort. I had some luck on my return flight, the second leg from Miami back home to Chicago being delayed, as I would have missed the original flight due to a lengthy immigration and customs process. It would have been better to plan a 3-hour layover at the port of entry.
This trip came at a time in my life when I needed a new focus for my faith and fraternal involvement, and I feel that I was led to this to fulfill that need – a real answered prayer.
Way to go Thrivent Financial for Lutherans!!!