I was nervous on Monday. This was our first day in the village with the people doing actual work. After our bright and early breakfast, we loaded onto the bus and drove out to Getsemani. The ride was short, but eventful. As we turned off the main road and onto the dirt and broken concrete path that led down to the village, I came face to face with the first undeniable gang tags that I’d seen. On one side of the small road was a brick dividing wall, and every twenty feet or so was a message from MS-13 interspersed with hearts and initials professing the undying love common to teenagers regardless of their nationality. It was odd to see such images of violence and hatred from the gangs next to crude hearts and cartoonish pictures. After about a quarter of a mile the road took a steep dive that was nerve-wracking to say the least. Driving down a fifty degree grade or so on loose rocks, slick concrete, and dirt in a bus I really wasn’t all that confident in to begin with gave the ride the feel of a slightly out-dated roller coaster. You assume it’s safe because people have done it before, but it’s still a relief to get to the bottom.
The road took a hard right turn, and there was another massive section of MS-13 devoted graffiti. At first I was intimidated by these images, but as the week passed I became angry rather than frightened or nervous. They came to represent an affront to the character and nature of the people in the village, and even as an outsider they offended me. I refused to take any pictures of the graffiti because that is not how I wanted to remember the people or the place I had been invited into. I only mention it now to show that even in such a remote location, these evil organizations have tendrils that reach out and seek to infect the community. It’s only through the work of good people and the grace of God above that we can, and must, stop this.
At the community center, our team split into three groups; two teams to dig septic
tank systems and one to work on a foundation for a new home. I chose one of the septic tank teams since they were smaller and the work sounded more intense. Our teams walked through the village on the way to our jobsite, and I got to really see the people and the homes for the first time. It was clear which homes had been the result of the habitat program, with their neatly aligned walls of concrete block and corrugated sheet metal roofs. Each of the homes we passed, whether habitat-built or the more common and simple construction of sheet metal segments, bamboo frames, and stones to weigh down roofs had its own fence of some sort. Chickens scratched and pecked both in the streets and in the small courtyards behind the fences, and every now and then a dog would bark a warning at us as we passed.
Poverty is a word that is so abstract that it’s tough to really conceive of it in real sense. We think of poverty and all sorts of images flood through our minds from the man standing in an intersection with a weathered cardboard sign we pretend not to read to a haggard woman with newspaper wrapped feet going from trash can to trash can outside work looking for cans, bottles, or anything else she might be able to find and sell. We turn our faces away from it; close our eyes to it whenever we can. As a kid, I remember watching homeless people in Washington D.C. set up cardboard boxes over steaming street vents in the winter to capture the heat and stay warm. I wondered what it must be like to have nothing, even a place to lay down and be warm and I remember it made me sad, but in a distant way. These were people, but I never had to see them up close, never had to talk to them and hear their story.
They were people, but they were distant people.
In the village, however, I came face to face with poverty on a level that I had never seen before. Aside from the habitat-built homes, the average house in the village was four walls of corrugated metal and a roof of the same wavy sheet tin weighted down with bricks, branches, and stones. There was an ever-present sharp smell of wood smoke in the air wherever we went. Fires outside were used to cook, heat water for baths, and for the laundry as well. Shallow ditches ran next to the dirt roads of the village with cloudy water runoff trickling down hills. I had never seen poverty like this, where it was the normal condition of everyday life rather than the stark exception.
The simple and humble dwellings of the village belied the exuberant nature of the people who lived in them, though. All I saw on faces were smiles from the small children chasing each other, chickens, dogs, cats, and anything else up and down the dirt streets to the weathered and wrinkled elderly woman walking with a pan of corn balanced on her head. I’ve never been greeted with so many warm and heartfelt smiles from complete strangers in my life. There was a deep sense of pride
in the people as well, though not the over-bearing obnoxious kind of pride some people exude and which proverbially goes before most falls. This was a quiet, unassuming pride in keeping a home, growing a flower garden of vibrant blooms, and opening yourself to strangers.
When we reached the house that would be our work site for the next week, I got to meet the family that lived there. The couple was older, and their grown son (or maybe son-in-law…. I got confused on that point) was the one who had paid for the habitat home to be built. The block home had been finished by an earlier work group, but they weren’t living in it yet. The original sheet metal structure still stood at the front of the property with the block home in back. While we were working throughout the week, the family stayed mostly confined to the metal structure and occupied themselves with a seemingly endless cycle of cooking, washing, laundry, and cooking.
Our mason who would be overseeing the project and making sure we didn’t screw up too bad was a small-statured man named Salvatore (I really hope I’m spelling that correctly) and he had a younger assistant named Gustavo. After brief introductions with the help of Irene, our interpreter and motivational speaker, we got our first look at the job site. A large pile of dirt a little less than chest high covering a good twenty square feet sat squarely in the center of the work space and had to be moved before we could begin the project.
We had two shovels and two buckets to work with.
I grew up on a farm, so I am no stranger to hard work. I’ve helped barn tobacco, chopped weeds from acres and acres of fields, split firewood (and stacked, carried, and stacked it again…), and a thousand other little manual labor type things that only those who have lived on a farm before can really understand and appreciate. Our family had a greenhouse business after we left Nanny and Granddaddy’s farm, and that was no easier. I carried bags of fertilizer, bags of potting soil, trays of plants, etc. for years. I’ve worked at a Coca-Cola bottling company, as a shipping and receiving associate at a Belk store moving thousands of pieces of freight a day, and as a demolition specialist in the property insurance business. All of that to say that I’m no stranger to blisters, sore muscles, and sweat as a part of daily work life.
But, even with all of those experiences under my belt, I wasn’t ready for this job. By lunch time, I was out of breath, soaked with sweat, and exhausted. We’d managed to move the massive pile of dirt (and big rocks) out of the way so we could start the actual digging process. I must admit that, at this point, I didn’t know that much about septic systems other than the basic principle that water, along with other….stuff…..rolls downhill. Come to find out, though, septic tanks are not just single tanks. There is a system of cisterns that hold and then drain off the waste water to allow the….stuff….to be broken down by natural enzymes and bacteria.
Septic systems also involve several very large holes, and when you’re digging with pickaxes, shovels, and buckets the holes seem larger than the really are. Our mason laid out twine on the ground to mark off the three holes for the system we were digging. The first, and smallest, was about four feet per side and four feet deep. The next was about eight or nine feet on one side, five on the other, and a good seven feet deep. The last was a round hole with a diameter of around four and a half feet that, when finished, would be a staggering sixteen feet deep. Now, if you’ve never done this work before, those numbers don’t really sound that impressive or overwhelming. I actually remember thinking to myself when I first heard the dimensions that we’d knock the whole thing out by Wednesday (wrong).
When we broke for lunch, we’d barely started the large rectangular hole. Our team of five was exhausted, and every single one of us was soaked with sweat and caked with mud. All three of the holes had at least been started, but the large rectangular hole that would become our group’s nemesis of the week had barely been started.
By the end of the day on Monday my shoulders were burning, my sides ached, and my back was twisted in knots. And I stank….bad. The only upside was that pretty much everyone else was in the same condition. The ride back to the hotel was noticeably more quiet than the ride to the village that morning. We were all exhausted, and I think there was a collective realization, especially for those of us that were on our inaugural trip, that there were four more days of work left.
After a much-needed shower and a hot meal, I got the chance to sit down and grab some facetime with my wife. To be honest, I don’t remember the conversation per se, but I do remember the overwhelming feeling of distance between us. I was sitting in the lobby of the Hotel Casa Blanca with my wife and my two youngest kids squeezed into the tiny picture window on my phone. They were sitting on our overstuffed couch, in the living room, warm lights on all around them and the sound of the flat screen in the background.
My two year old daughter’s hair was wet from her bath.
I remember hanging up the phone and sitting for a long time on the wicker and upholstery couch. I don’t know why, but I had to fight back tears.