Habitat for Humanity build in El Salvador

Published: July 22nd 2015
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Mayan site near San SalvadorMayan site near San SalvadorMayan site near San Salvador

On our way from San Salvador to Sonsonate
Another great Habitat build done and I am now back in Canada at the cottage for the summer.Thirteen people this time and it was an excellent group. In spite of the fact we only had 8 days, we were able to quickly function as a team throughout the trip and everyone had a great time.

Some of us (10 which turned into 9) arrived the evening before at the main airport in San Salvador. One member of the group who shall remain nameless fell asleep in the Toronto airport and missed her connection. After gathering everyone up, we were transported to the Morrison Hotel by van( about a 45 minute drive)

On the way downtown, we learned that the people of the city were in a major state of anticipation for the Oscar Romero beatification ceremony and that the streets would be blocked off tomorrow. Some estimates indicated 1.3 million people would be on the streets near our hotel. Katy, our Habitat guide, indicated we could attend the ceremony as it was only a few blocks from the hotel. ( She had special shirts prepared for us) Beatification is the first step to becoming a saint in the Catholic church.

So on Saturday, we got up, had breakfast and then headed out into the streets to get as close as possible to the site of the ceremony. There was lots of security including helicopters, soldiers, drones etc. but it seemed to be a pretty friendly crowd. The big ceremony took place at the city centre on a big stage with seating for the invited dignitaries. The event was also shown on big screen TVs positioned along the route. We viewed it on the screens as our invitations were apparently delayed in the mail?

One interesting thing that happened about midway through the event, was the appearance of a perfect ring/rainbow/sundog? around the sun. The symbolism was not lost on the crowd and lots of cell photos were taken. In any case, most of the team stayed for the entire event and some of us returned to the hotel. I also took the opportunity to get a sim card for my phone ($13 for sim card including 100 minutes -not Canadian prices) We also talked to a policeman who indicated they thought there were 300,000 people on the streets during the ceremony.
Road to the resortRoad to the resortRoad to the resort

Nice ride home every day

Later that evening the rest of the team showed up and everyone enjoyed a good nights sleep.

Sunday we loaded up early and headed out of the city to go to Sonsonate. Along the way we stopped at the San Andres Mayan archaeological site which was an excellent introduction to local history and culture. I was hearing lots of bird songs as we did the tour (Melodious Blackbirds) and also saw a Rufous Browed Motmot on the hydro wires as we left the site.

We had lunch at the Sonsonate Habitat office with the staff and had an informative orientation session. Habitat El Salvador seems to be a very organized and well run organization. We then drove through Sonsonate to get to the road up to our hotel which is located at a fairly high elevation and was about a 45 minute drive on a pretty good paved road.On the way we stopped at Juajua which is an artisans town with a Sunday market. The highlight was a huge Albino boa snake being displayed on a handlers shoulder. As he took it back to the the reptile place it apparently brushed
Alicantes ResortAlicantes ResortAlicantes Resort

High up in the mountains so it was cool at night
up against a non snake lovers arm-She had a major meltdown. The handler wisely set a departure speed record...

We arrived at the Alicantes Hotel Resort and checked into our rooms. After some hydration we all had a good spaghetti dinner. People are very impressed with the accommadation.

The next day being Monday, it was time to start the build. Before breakfast I did a quick birding tour of the grounds -lots of great tailed grackles, melodious blackbirds and a pair of spotted backed orioles. We had breakfast at 0600 and learned that one person had an infested bed. Not a great start but we changed rooms immediately and had the hotel do her laundry. To add insult to injury, there was a giant spider in her toilet in the new room...

As a result, we were a little late leaving but eventually got to the build site at about 9.00 AM. It was located in a coconut palm plantation and the new cinderblock home will be 300 sf. After the safety talk, we started work-lots of sand hauling, concrete mixing and floor tamping. The house had been started before we
Streak Backed OrioleStreak Backed OrioleStreak Backed Oriole

This one had a nest by the pool.
got there with about 4-5 rows of blocks in place. The temperature took some getting used to for most of us (at least 34C and humid) A great feature of this build is a nylon sunshade structure which allows us to have our breaks in the shade. The first day we worked until the first break at 10.30, then more work and a great lunch at 12.00 (chicken, rice and broccoli) Apparently broccoli is a national vegetable as we had it every day. This was not a popular thing with one team member who hated broccoli with a blind passion... We worked until 4.00 pm and then everyone gratefully climbed aboard the vans for the 45 minute ride to the hotel and the awaiting showers and ice cold cervezas.

The trip home takes us down a hill into the streets of Sonsonate which provides an interesting look at life in El Salvador. After leaving the city we head up the mountain and I think the elevation change was about 1000 meters between the build site/city and the resort. One interesting sight every day is the fire wood seller coming down the mountain on a type of trolley
Alicantes ResortAlicantes ResortAlicantes Resort

Garden area outside the restaurant
car, fully loaded with a gravity engine and shoe brakes. Also for those Canadian city commuters in Vancouver, Toronto and elsewhere who hate their transit authorities, you might consider the El Salvador commuter who rides standing up in the back of a truck...

The next day I was up at 5.00 to do some birding-still not sure about the oriole. We had a great breakfast and no one had any rom bug issues. We left at 7.30 and were hard at work by 8.30. There was lots of sand movement today as the delivery truck went up the hill to turn around and then basically could move no more(drive shaft?) We had to shovel the sand off the truck, then move it down the hill by wheel barrow to the house where it was used to bring up the floor to the correct height. Our interpreter (Sofia) did more than her share of work shovelling-great addition to the team.

Today we had a mix of clouds above us so the temperature was better. We were also provided with ice cold gatorade at break which was much appreciated. For lunch it was lasagna. The Italian
Our teamOur teamOur team

We are down in the pit- a typical Habitat digging job
influence on world eating habits continues...The skilled workers (locals who know how to build) processed some coconuts and we enjoyed the sweet liquid and the shaved coconut meat.

The buses were right on time at 4.00 and everyone was looking forward to the evening routine. However we had a minor delay due to a funeral procession on the road.

Day three brought us some extra warm weather which prompted our job foreman to introduce septic hole digging to our task inventory. This is a typical Habitat job which involves pick axes, shovels and pails to move the soil out of the hole. The hole needs to be about 3 meters deep and is about 4 metres by 6 meters in size-lots of fun. Luckily our local Habitat coordinator (Katy) provided us with her speaker system so people could take turns doing their personal Apple product playlists.

We had two people with mild heat issues as a result of excessive hole digging shifts in the hot sun. Our team doctor laid on the ice and everyone had rapid full recoveries. It was interesting to see the remedial procedure: 1) lay down on
crew at workcrew at workcrew at work

One of the best Habitat house projects in terms of build quality
back with legs elevated 2) drink LOTS of liquids 3) put bags of ice around upper extremities (head; torso etc) 4) rest . This was the only day we had bags of ice available so I suppose another option would have been to use damp cloths.

In the afternoon we had a cultural experience of the cooking kind-a class on how to make Pupusas. It is sort of a fried cornmeal dough thingy with a stuffing (beans, chicken etc) and is very popular in El Salvador. I am not sure the recipe will be added to my cook book.

We had another excellent evening at Alicantes. It seems a number of us have some serious addiction problems with respect to electronic devices. One team member even had vowed to stay off social media for the duration of the trip-This vow did not survive day two. However in fairness we did have some reporting responsibilities with respect to the build blog. Full reports were made each day on build progress and the status of our mascot (Bruce the Moose)

Day 4 was a major work day and I finally identified the resident
Our projectOur projectOur project

When we arrived , there about 3-4 courses of blocks in place
oriole which was a streak backed oriole. Very colourful... We did lots more digging, cement making, block stacking and generally helped move the project to the walls complete stage. We also did some more meaningful work in the septic hole. Today was a late quit (4.40) and then we did a stop at some roadside artisan places (baskets, carvings, furniture etc.) Some people got painted sunflowers made out of seed pod pieces? We then did another two stops including a roadside lookout and a local village, before arriving at the Alicantes.

Friday was the final part of the build so we only worked a half day. Typical work day except at noon when we stopped for the closing ceremony , the skies opened and we saw what kind of rain event that El Salvador can provide-basic wall of water. Anyway after a brief and moving ceremony with the family and Habitat ES staff, we made a run for the vans. The roads were totally awash with water and we sort of surfed down the mountain to Sonsonate, then up our mountain road/stream to the resort. After a quick shower, it was off to Ataco for another craft
Unique ChurchUnique ChurchUnique Church

One of the R and R stops
shopping extravaganza. I loaded up with some more coffee for the folks at home as well as nifty fish carving hanger for my renovated boat house wall at the lake.

We toured the Alicantes resort zoo ( not a highlight except for the macaws) and then had one (hopefully) last Pupusa dinner.

Saturday was our official build R and R day which was a bit underwhelming unless you were a history and catholic church buff. We spent much of the day in San Salvador at various churches - if we had a do over we would likely opt for the rural wilderness tour. We had our final farewell dinner with the group. The next day, the plan was for 7 of us to go to Suchitoto for an after build holiday as arranged through El Gringo, an American/Salvadoran tour guide.The rest of the group left on various flights to Canada.

The after build started with a van pick up in San Salvador at 0830. There was a marathon being run on the street in front of the hotel in SS so we had a bit of a walk to the van
View from El Tejado Resort View from El Tejado Resort View from El Tejado Resort

Our after build accomadation
but it was interesting to see the marathon start/finish in front of the hotel. Coincidentally, we also had a marathon on the streets at the end of our Santiago, Chile build last fall. after a short ride to Suchitoto we checked into the excellent El Tejado Resort (a great place to stay and highly recommended) It overlooks a lake and has all the creature comforts (pool, bar, restaurant, excellent rooms, friendly staff) and is within walking distance from the town centre.Apparently Suchitoto was the site of several mass killings during the civil war. It is now a small colonial town of 18,000 with a thriving art community. We all enjoyed a relaxing day after some shopping and exploring. Lunch including a beer and hamburger was $7.00.

The next day, we did a tour with El Gringo and learned a lot about civil war history in the Suchitoto area. Some of us (me) also did what was described as light birding. ES total to here is about 26. We then went to a textile weaving place and some art galleries. The weaving in the textile places is very labour intensive and the wooden looms probably represent
Weaving loomWeaving loomWeaving loom

Part of our after build tour
a very old traditional design. We also visited a pottery collective and confirmed many of the articles for sale in the shops are authentic.

After a late lunch in a hilltop restaurant , it was back to the resort for siesta.

The next day (Tuesday June 2nd) we went to another Mayan ruin site (Cihuatan) which had lots of birds including all three orioles (Altimara, Streak Backed and Spotted Breasted) This site also had a pretty well displayed Mayan ball field and some major temples. Our final stop of the day was at an Indigo plantation where we had lunch.Most of the group did Indigo dying but I did some more birding. In the evening we went to El Gringo's (Robert) Tex Mex restaurant for possibly the world's largest burritos.

Our last day started with a boat tour of the lake below the resort. We went early to avoid the heat and saw lots of bird life getting my total for the trip up to 42. The most unique bird was the White Throated Magpie Jay. The lake has big colonies of egrets,cormorants and night herons. The water was fairly organic
After build tripAfter build tripAfter build trip

Nice restaurant arranged through El Gringo
but we saw lots of fishermen diving and spear fishing. We did a relaxing day and the resort and returned to the Mariscal hotel in San Salvador at night.

The next day it was off to the airport at 7.00 am for our return to Canada. By 11.00 that night I was home and glad to be there.El Salvador has a bit of a reputation for crime and violence but we saw nothing of the sort during our entire trip. I think it is one of the best central American countries to visit and the people are very friendly and welcoming.


13th March 2016

Bruce the Moose
Glad to see he was there with you. We had an exciting time with him at the last build for Bruce the Moose in Slave Lake Alberta in late August 2015. Great build and lots of fun.

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