I am a month behind in posting this, but I thought this lazy Sunday afternoon would be a good time to write about our recent trip to El Salvador. I mentioned in my last post that J and I have been blessed with the ability to travel. While he has seen almost all SE Asia now, I had the memory making experience of working in Edinburgh, Scotland for 18 months after graduate school. From there, I traveled to Germany with my roommate and through most of the UK.
Our recent travels to Laos and the Philippines left me with feelings of guilt. In Vientiane, we were lucky to add a bike tour into our itinerary that took us into the back roads of Laos. We visited and elephant sanctuary, which felt oddly, geared more to tourism than to animal welfare. We saw sign after sign left by World Vision and other humanitarian organizations as we passed through small villages where clothes are washed by hands, well water is scarce and satellite dishes balance precariously on metal clad roofs. In Manila last winter, I was shocked by the amount of children on the streets. I felt gloomy as we toured through historic sites wondering if this is truly what travel was about.
Who does it benefit? Do the dollars we spent on our activities and food benefit the wider community? In most cases, the hostels and guesthouses we stayed in were owned by ex pats. Our tour guides were local, but we never asked them about their wages. These are countries with a greater portion of their GDPs supported by remittance payments than by local economic development. I left those trips with a feeling that we needed to do more, or if nothing less we needed to gain a better understanding of what it actually meant to grow up there, to raise a family, and to live (or survive).
I began to search for opportunities to travel and give back. I wanted to spend time immersed in culture. I wanted to understand the political systems. I wanted to do something to help, and selfishly, I wanted to do something for me. I ended up at Habitat for Humanity's Global Village website, sharing all the info with J and Emailing team leaders to ask questions (mostly about my veganism and whether it might be considered insulting if I turned down meat).
In two short months, we had applied, completed phone interviews with our amazing team leaders (Ray and Dawn) and booked our flights to San Salvador. We stayed for two weeks and the build itself was 8 days including orientation, 5 build days, and R&R together at the end of the build. It has taken me a while to figure out how to put into words what the experience was like, but I will do my best.
After a rocky start and flight delays, we arrived in Sal Salvador to be greeted by a driver that took us to our hotel. We stayed outside of Sonsonate Province on a hillside and were driven to the build site each day in 2 vans. Our build site was in Quo Mango, a small rural dispersed village. We built a 400 sq. ft. cinder block home with two bedrooms, a den and a bathroom. A team of masons were on site and gave our team various tasks each day to make their work go faster and make more progress on the house. From mixing mortar, to hauling bricks, laying bricks and filling in ALL the cracks with mortar - our days were full, tiring and rewarding. We had guides provided by Habitat that answered any questions we had. While we sifted sand, I had the chance to talk with Jesus about the political system, the civil war, the gang activity (and recent truce), healthcare and so many other topics. He answered my questions with the honesty of an 18-year-old who had just begun his first full-time job as a translator. Those talks we had are probably among my finest memories.
We learned Spanish and the universal value of a smile. We learned to be patient when we didn't understand. I confronted my arachnophobia ever day including a scorpion that crawled out of a brick that I had lifted one morning. I learned how blessed I am to be able to choose what I eat every day and to be so selective. We saw the pride of a grandmother and the backbreaking work that it takes to run a household without modern conveniences. We shared laughter, hugs and tears at when it was time to leave. As clichéd as it may sound, that trip changed me.
I recently contacted our team leads about how I can go about becoming a team lead. I have always had the travel bug but now I might just have the habitat bug. When we returned home, we received letters from Habitat encouraging us to keep our good works going in our own communities. It is true. Until my next trip, I will continue to be involved in my City. To pay attention to what is going on around me and to be thankful for all I have been graced with.
If you have any questions, I would LOVE to answer them. If you have had a similar experience, I would love to hear about that too.