El Salvador 2014

For the fourth year in a row, a team of UBC Thunderbirds athletes, coaches and administrators are in El Salvador to build a home as part of the Habitat for Humanity Global Village volunteer program. The following is the first update from the team, courtesy of Sarah Casorso (women’s hockey) and Cara McCulloch (women’s nordic skiing).

For previous updates, please visit our main Habitat for Humanity page.

May 7
Today was a nice balance between work and play. We showed up at the worksite to find a daunting pile of bricks awaiting us. Our task for the day was to bring all of the bricks from the street to the house so that the mason could start building the walls. We figured the most efficient way to get the bricks up the stairs was an assembly line so we all spread out and began passing. We got about 150 up in half an hour and then we got to break to go visit the local school. 
At the school, we thought we were just going to go for a short visit to meet a few classes and say hello, but there were bigger plans for us.  All of the classes were dismissed and sent to the play court in the middle of the school to watch us play a 5-on-5 game of soccer against the school’s top soccer players. We had an audience of close to 200 children watching and cheering us on. Every time anyone would score the crowd would erupt with applause and cheers, regardless of team. After we lost, we got to go play with the kids during their recess. The boys learned how to whistle the El Salvadorian way and the girls learned the ‘onion game’ and some hand clapping games (kind of like the KitKat “Give me a break” one). Before leaving we bought frozen chocolate bananas and ate them on our way back to the work site. 
Running around with children for an hour was taxing, but back at the house we had an even greater challenge waiting: a couple thousand more bricks to bring up the stairs. As more jobs started opening up on the house construction our assembly line up the stairs started dwindling. By the end of the day we discovered that four people was the magic number. Instead of handing bricks we found out that throwing them was much more efficient and fun. Besides bringing bricks up, some other jobs consisted of sifting sand, mixing “cheazpa” (I call it “cheesepuff”, which is a type of gravelly cement that goes inside the brick holes), mixing another kind of cement called “messla” which is sandier and used to put one brick on top of the other and then, of course, there is also the jobs of actually placing the cement where it needs to go. By the end of the day we finished transporting about half of the pile of bricks and got two layers high on the house. 
May 8
We went back and visited the school again today except this time we went and played with a class that were ages five and six. We seemed to be a big hit with the kids, especially Marcus and Jayne who had children hanging off them the whole time. Before leaving we donated five little soccer balls to them. I wouldn’t be surprised if they could beat us in a soccer match. That seems to be the trend so far.
Back at the site, we finished bringing all the bricks up (quite a feat) and we completed the fifth layer of the house by the end of the day. The inspector came by to give it the okay. He also said “wow, that is the best looking Canadian crew I’ve ever seen, and so strong!” I know what you’re thinking… and yes we made that up. But we’re making progress! From the looks of it the hardest part is over. From here on there will be a lot of mixing ‘cheesepuff’, filling bricks with cement, and adding brick layers to the house.
Overall, I think we owe today’s success to Jose’s (the grandfather) playlist. Nothing gets you through the day like some Celine Dion, Whitney Houston and some 80s feels.
May 9
We arrived at the work site at 8 a.m., as usual, and got to work on the house. Luckily today there was no material to be moved up from the street so our arms and legs got a little bit of a break. Instead we worked until noon on adding layers to the walls. During our lunch break the boss joined us to say a few words about Habitat for Humanity and our impact. She gave a touching speech that seemed like it was straight out of a movie. Although she had lots to say, one of the most powerful things she told us was that the people in El Salvador have lived in poverty so long that they are starting to lose hope for a better life; she told us that by volunteering to come help build houses in the community, we are not only building a home for a family who needs it, but we are also building hope for the people. Her short speech was all we needed to hear to know that what we’re doing here is appreciated and well worth our time and money.
Around this same time we got a hit by an onslaught of torrential rain, which halted our progress for the day and almost flooded the site. Luckily we already had plans to make pupusas at 2 p.m., so the day was going to be short anyway. It turns out pupusas are actually really easy to make, and super delicious. It was an authentic El Salvadorian experience (plus a fun bonus is that they are safe to eat for all those gluten free people out there). To make them all you need is fine corn flour and water (which makes a dough), then you stuff the dough with pork, beans and cheese, and fry them on a hot griddle – sort of like an El Salvidorian pizza pocket. Some of us tried flipping them with just our hands like the pro ladies making them. Danielle got a little carried away and made one that was three times larger than they’re supposed to be, she wasn’t allowed to cook it and had to split it up…classic Lemon. While we ate and waited for the rain to cease some of the girls taught the kids how to say ‘hello’, ‘thank you’ and ‘how are you’. They were far better at learning English then we are at Spanish.

After stuffing ourselves with pupusas to an uncomfortably full level, it was time to leave. Upon descending the stairs down to the street there was yet another very large pile of sand waiting for us to move on Monday. Sarah came close to crying when she saw the daunting pile, but toughed it up (as hockey players do) and sucked back her tears.

After dinner, Katy showed us how to salsa a little bit. Turns out us “Gringos” can’t dance well enough by El Salvadorian standards. The one exception was Danielle, who was born with dancing hips and rhythm.
May 10
The beginning of our first weekend in El Salvador. We got to sleep in an hour today, much needed. We took our time at breakfast and at 9:30 a.m. we left to a nearby city where we went to a department store to buy some soccer balls for the orphanage we were visiting in the city.
The orphanage is right on the edge of the city. It’s a big plot of land enclosed by nine foot-high walls with barbed wire at the top which we were told is to prevent kids from running away. Most of the children in this orphanage had parents but were either abandoned or taken away from abusive houses. This orphanage is boys only, with ages ranging from 3-12 years old. When we arrived most of the boys came right up to us and said “hola” or “buenos dias” and gave us a shy hug. We went directly to the soccer field at the back of the property where we took our soccer balls and frisbees that we were donating and played for about 40 minutes until it started to rain. We then moved to a sheltered area where we continued playing, despite the small space. The kids loved Bill – I doubt if they’ll ever see a bigger man in their life! You can tell he’s a grandpa because he’s so natural with the kids; he didn’t even seem to mind that they treated him like a jungle gym. I think everyone got a lot of value out of this visit. Most of the kids were wearing dirty clothing and only had a pair of crocs as shoes, but we’ve never seen so many smiling kids in our lives. Occasionally one of us would try to catch our breath and stand off to the side only for a little boy would come up and hold their hand, offer a hug, or if they really liked you, a kiss on the neck. It seemed all the kids wanted was a little bit of affection and to know that somebody cares about them. When it was time to leave we gave them three bags of clothing along with the sports equipment. We also donated some boxes of toothpaste and toothbrushes, which was generously provided by Wesbrook Village Dental. It was hard to see how sad they were that we were on our way out. The older kids seemed to handle our departure pretty well, as I’m sure these visits are somewhat routine – we come, we play, we leave. Some of the younger kids, however, didn’t seem to understand why we were leaving them so soon. Some tears were shed on the drive back home, even by some of the toughest members of our group. I can only hope the kids got as much out of our visit as we did. 
On a happier note, we had a great night. We came back to the hotel after our orphanage visit and had lunch. At 2 p.m., we were supposed to play a big soccer game against one of the local teams, word on the street was that there was going to be a thousand spectators, but unfortunately we got hit by some massive rain and had to postpone. When the storm subsided, we went into a nearby town and crashed their Mother’s Day celebration. We got to buy a few souvenirs and we all dabbled in a little street ‘ponche’, a hot drink of milk, eggs and vanilla. We took a short stop at the supermarket, then we went back to the hotel to get ready for our night on the town. 
We went to a little bar called ‘Portland’, which was actually more of a restaurant. We made a dance floor and gave the people some cheap entertainment. Speaking of cheap entertainment, Sarah took over the bongo drums of the live band for about 40 minutes. If her career as a hockey player doesn’t pan out, she shows promise in the music industry. A night filled with lots of laughter and dancing put us to sleep as soon as we got back to our lodging.
May 11
Today we got to sleep in for the first time since arriving here (breakfast wasn’t until 8 a.m….woooo!). After a chill and relaxing morning, we left to visit a nearby town and see a completed house that Bill had worked on earlier in the year. The house was quaint and well built, and there are even plans to get it hooked up to running water. The lady who owned the house was super kind and welcomed us into her house with open arms and hugs.
After our visit, we returned to our lodging to eat a hearty lunch to prepare us for our challenging 15-minute hike to check out some waterfalls. The waterfalls were magical and an amazing experience. There were two water pools intersecting the falls, set against a lush tropical backdrop. Needless to say, we took a lot of photos including the occasional selfie… some people, however, (cough-Tori-cough) may have taken more selfies than the rest.
Tonight for dinner we decided to mix things up a bit and head into town to celebrate Cara’s last night here. The restaurant was called Sibarita, and considered pretty high class by El Salvadorian standards. A hamburger would put you back about $10, but would keep you full for days. Jayne’s hamburger-eating performance was the most impressive act of the evening (although some may argue she cheated by leaving half her bun). Overall, it was a nice relaxing end to the week and its evident we are all getting to know each other pretty well.