So, starter for ten; who knows whether El Salvador is in Central America or South America, let alone point it out on a map? Well I?ll be the first to admit that a little under a year ago I?d have been hesitating slightly and my mum for one still seems to be convinced that I went to Ecuador this summer instead... But Latin America?s tiniest country definitely proves that the best thing comes in small packages.
As the well informed among you know, there have been groups of students travelling to El Salvador every summer since the 2001 earthquakes which devastated much of the country. This year the plan was to spend six weeks constructing six seismically-resistant steel frame houses.
Work and planning actually began way back in December 2006 when our main concern was how we were going to raise enough money to travel out there. In the midst of all the letter writing for company sponsorships, we managed to squeeze in some bake sales and a Hyde Park Relay. Thanks to everyone who sponsored us and/or bought our cakes because we also raised enough money to sponsor the construction of one of the houses, six sanitation units, drainage channels and wages for local labourers.
The village we worked in was chosen by REDES, our partner NGO. Santa Marta currently has a population of approximately 4000 people and is situated in the north near the border with Honduras. We were incredibly well looked after by the families we stayed with and by the local women?s association whilst we were building houses for some of the poorer members of the community. Living conditions were pretty basic with most of us staying in blockwork houses with outside hygiene facilities such as a pit latrine and bucket showers which were actually surprisingly refreshing after a hard day?s work. Personally, it took a while to get used to waking up with the chickens, dogs, ducks and various other animals. Sometimes it felt like they were partying all night every night but at least I wasn?t plagued by mice and the odd scorpion like some members of the group...
A work day typically began with breakfast at 7am and it became a long running competition to see who could get there the latest without being threatened with tortilla eating as a punishment. The Salvadorean breakfast consisted of frijoles (sloppy kidney beans), scrambled eggs, fried plantain and tortillas but since few of us could stomach it all, the women?s association kindly made us pancakes also. After breakfast we split up into three teams to tackle two houses each. For the first two weeks we worked on levelling the chosen sites and digging trenches for the foundations as well as carrying sand and gravel to the various sites in preparation for concreting. Each house was to have three rooms and an outdoor patio area for activities such as cooking. Even though each site only measured approximately 7.9x7.2m each, there was still a fair amount of excavation and the glaring sun coupled with the difficult ground material made it extremely hard work. As if the severe heat wasn?t bad enough, the torrential rain in the evenings was worse as it meant that the trenches would be filled up and require quite literally, manual excavation.
But we still managed to find ways to amuse ourselves even when digging seemed to last forever; Site Olympics was born much to the chagrin of our safety officer and some of us became so attached to our tool of choice (who would have thought a simple steel bar could command such devotion?!) that the ?Shotgun!? rule was fully used and abused throughout. It was also a brilliant opportunity to get to know the families we were working with particularly the children since pidgin Spanish did not seem to hinder communication with them. Their strength and optimism never ceased to amaze me as I watched them run shoeless up and down steep slopes carrying sand and gravel eager to help in any way they could.
When the trenches were finished, skilled mechanics spent a weekend putting up the steel frames and the non-vertically challenged among us managed to help put on the cement fibre roofs. These were chosen as they were lightweight and would be less likely to kill should the roof collapse in the event of an earthquake. The next step was to pour the concrete foundations and floor. This required all hands on deck since initially the concrete had to be mixed completely by hand. Using a volcano technique, sand, gravel and cement of varying proportions was piled up and shovelled into two separate piles before being combined again to ensure an even mix. Then a crater was dug in the middle of the pile and filled with water. Dry material from the volcano sides was carefully shovelled into the crater and along the rim until the volcano eventually collapsed and all hell broke loose as water flowed everywhere and the mix had to be continually turned quickly to stop it drying. The wet concrete was loaded into wheelbarrows and poured into the trenches to cover a metal reinforcement grid embedded into the floor where it was smoothed and patted down to form a flat surface. For the latter houses, a concrete mixer was hired to speed up the process and improve the quality of the mixture.
By now the bamboo for the walls had arrived in mass quantities and all of it had to be sheathed before it could be tied to the steel frame. The novelty of getting to use machetes soon wore off since the piles of bamboo didn?t seem to be getting smaller at all; by the end, digging trenches suddenly didn?t seem so bad after all. But getting to attach the bamboo and seeing the walls slowly build up was quite a satisfying experience as they really began to take shape. Unfortunately this was the last job that we could do as we had run out of time. On the plus side, the houses only required some plastering and fixtures before they could be habitable and we left knowing that we had done most of the hard labour.
Thankfully, the experience wasn?t all work and no play. After dinner some evenings we met with various groups in the village such as university students, the young peoples group, the history group as well as getting to play a few football matches. Through these opportunities we learnt about the people of El Salvador such as what it meant to live through a civil war and in a country on a political knife?s edge. Their passion and optimism was impressive as was their eloquence when describing particularly harrowing events of the past, which were especially sobering. Every weekend we had a chance to relax and travel all over the country, from the beautiful artistic, colonial town of §, to the beach, a civil war massacre site, a volcano and some Mayan ruins.
My most vivid memories of the project are not of the work or of the cockroaches but of all the people I had the pleasure of meeting and working with. During a lull in the work, when we as typical Imperial College-ers were feeling slightly fed up we questioned the reason for travelling so far to work as little more than manual labourers since there was plenty of local labour and we could have just donated all the money it cost to send us out. But we very soon realised that they were genuinely glad that we cared enough to be there and helping as well as showing an interest in their country and culture. El Salvador may not have some of the big touristy sights of its neighbours but it is definitely a country that can be experienced through its people ? you just have to spend some time living and working with them to truly appreciate it.
Special thanks to Seb and Alice for being such patient leaders, I know we were certainly a ?special? group in many ways. Thanks also to REDES and to all our sponsors. We couldn?t have done it without you.
If you?re interested in getting involved in the next El Salvador Project, please keep an eye out for more information later on in this term!