GPSolo Magazine - July/August 2006
Winter Vacation Rebuilding a Village in El Salvador
I sit at my desk 28 floors above the street and cars below, above the event billboard of the Hartford Civic Center, as the winter afternoon unrolls itself and the sun sinks lower in my window. My feet are up on my desk, next to a two-foot stack of files, and I lean back in my leather chair, staring into the black-and-white photograph on my desk of my partner and me in work boots and tank tops, sitting against a cinderblock wall in a small village in El Congo, El Salvador. A world set apart in black and white. A different time—and a very different place.
It was the second day of work, of taking shovels and pickaxes to the earth that spread below this small village that the Episcopal Church, through Episcopal Relief and Development, was trying to make livable in a world that truly wasn’t. We were hot, layered with sweat and dirt, and exhausted—but in a peaceful, exhilarating way. We had come on a mission from Connecticut to El Salvador to help develop and build one of three villages designed following a devastating earthquake that hit El Salvador in 2001.
The development was almost complete upon our arrival. Other groups like us had been traveling into this village for months and months, working for a week and heading home. Most of the cinderblock houses were erected, but much landscaping and trench-digging were still needed. Because of the unfinished state of things, most of the families that had been picked out to live in the village were not yet there.
The 50 or 60 cinderblock houses that packed the few dirt roads in this community were small, consisting of a front room, open to the elements, and then one or two back rooms where the families would sleep. There was no hot water, no running water at all. But these rudimentary homes were better than many we had seen on the way into the development. Once we left the asphalt highway and started up the dirt road to the new development, we passed a number of shacks that could have been built thousands of years ago, but for the corrugated metal roofs on a few. Most of the outer walls were made of mud and sticks. Some were of wood. Very young children were strewn around, filthy, playing in the dirt. The older ones, you know, eight or nine years old, were busy carrying either wood or water to the homes.
Our group from Connecticut numbered approximately ten: the minister of the Episcopal church that sponsored the event, his son who was a teenager, a second teenage boy, three or four parishioners, and a couple of us non-parishioners. (My synagogue had never sponsored such a trip.)
As we worked through the week, we would spend time in different places in the village. On one day, we had to dig trenches on the sides of one row of houses. On another day, we had to even out a lot where there was no house yet, only a concrete foundation. The highlight was the last workday, when we were called up to a house where a family lived. The man wanted help making a backyard out of the literal jungle behind his house. We used machetes and knives to cut down trees and then our all-too-familiar shovels and pickaxes. The man and his little six-year-old boy helped us, working harder than any of us. The gratefulness on the man’s face broke through the language barrier and we all understood.
At the end of the day, as we had done each day, we walked down the dirt hill to our barracks. We were grateful for the cold showers and the beans and rice that followed each day’s work.
After our work was done each day, or sometimes before it began, the priest in charge of the development, Father Ramiro, would arrive and proudly take us in a van to see parts of the country. As we left our village, we drove onto four-lane highways and passed malls and wealthy areas of the country. A tiny minority of wealthy people live off an impoverished majority. On one day, we visited a coffee factory where we saw a 12-year-old boy carrying 100-pound bags of coffee back and forth. Another day we visited some Mayan ruins that were only partially uncovered. (Money had run out before the excavation could be completed, and now donations were requested of visitors so the project could move forward.) We also visited a couple of schools. In El Salvador, the average length of education for the rural children who get to go to a school is 3.4 years. More than 17 percent of the population is illiterate. We met a clique of four high school girls who begged us to take them home with us to the United States.
I was startled from the girls’ pleas by an electronic beep—it was the telephone intercom on my desk. My receptionist wanted me to pick up line eight (a client looking for her settlement money from a small fender bender). I looked away from my picture, put my feet back on the ground and grabbed the phone—all the while looking forward to another vacation in El Salvador.
Sandra Rachel Baker is an attorney practicing with the Hartford, Connecticut, firm of Regnier, Taylor, Curran & Eddy. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.