Sunday, November 15, 2009

GSBS Relief and Aid Trip

Thanks for everyone who has contributed money to Good Smoke Bad Smoke!

Thank you to Darren, Brenda & Sean, Jeff & Kath, Tracy & Chris, Ian, Caroline and Mom & Dad in their and Misa's name for sending the money. And thanks to Rob, Jin, Warren, Tom, Pierre, Rey and Yung Suk for agreeing to send money which I look forward to getting soon.

That is a commitment for about USD1,150!

I heard from my friend Eric that his housekeeper’s (Maria) family’s pueblo was badly hit by the storm. I also found out that the seven homes in the little community all cooked with wood so this was a perfect opportunity to both provide a gas stove and to help in disaster relief.

My son Elliot was visiting and he wanted to help so went back to the store ACACSA (Asociacion Cooperativa de Ahorro Credito y Comercializacion Salvadoreana de R.L.) and told the cashier that I had purchased a stove there a week before and wanted to speak to the manager or owner. She had a suspicious look on her face and asked why. When I told her that I wanted to buy ten stoves for hurricane relief, her expression changed completely and she called the manager down. It took a while but he finally came down and I explained that I wanted to buy at least ten stoves and could they give me a discount or maybe a free stove or two. He said he had to ask upstairs first. I thought they might give a volume discount but didn’t think the disaster relief argument would work but ... they came back and said they would reduce the price! In the end, I saved $35 dollars and was able to get 10 stoves for $300. They also gave us some free water to drink! I got them to agree to this price if I could get the money to buy more stoves. Thank you ACACSA!
The guys at ACACSA checking and packing the stoves.
So speaking to Eric and Lizette, we agreed to head out to the pueblo on Saturday. Elliot was down for only 4 days but he thought this was something he wanted to do (instead of going to the beach to surf or to the countryside to do a zip-line trip). Lizette had a contact at Tropigas and asked for a deal for us so we looked all set.
25 lbs of Maseca, 40 lbs of beans, 40 lbs of rice, a few pounds of candy and 5 gallons of cooking oil. And garlic ... can't make beans without garlic.

Saturday morning was a little complicated since Fatima had to go to three different places for work. MJ dropped her off for her first class and then I had to run out to pick up some car parts for Cuba that were brought in the night before from Guatemala. The guy delivering them went off a highway under construction in Santa Ana and flew 25' down a ditch ripping the axles off the bottom of his newish pick-up truck. He was able to climb out of the ditch with the part in his hand and was brought to a hospital in San Salvador.
Elliot, Angel and Maria Jose loading the truck.

Then rush home to wake up Elliot and head to Pricesmart (the Costco here) to buy rice, beans, corn flour, oil and some candy for the kids. Then head over to Eric’s where we were going to leave from. Lizette went with Angel (Eric’s driver) to get her father’s pick-up. There was some debate whether I should take my Sentra or not but we decided on the two pick-ups. Then we had rush over to where Fatima was so she could take the car to her next studio class. There was a bit of a delay so we didn’t get picked up and on the road until 11:30 and the traffic was really bad. We had to head to the big Tropigas depot in Soyapango to get the tanks before they closed at noon. We didn’t make it on time but they called Lizette who told them that we were fighting traffic to get there as soon as possible.

Sara at Tropigas kept the office open late for us on Saturday.

I was in one truck with Angel, Elliot and MJ and he took a bunch of back streets to get there faster and Sara was kind enough to wait for us before she left for the day. They agreed to sell us 10 tanks, regulators, hoses and clams for $35.50 each so we saved about $8 per unit from the regular price. That’s more than I expected. One problem was they thought I was going to pay by cash or cheque on pick-up but I thought I was going to be invoiced and could pay later at a bank. A few calls were made and they agreed to wait until Monday for payment.

So we loaded up the tanks into the pick-up and then met up with Eric who was in his truck with Lizette, Maria and the two rug rats. We headed past Illopango and turned north at San Martin on the road to Suchitoto (a lovely old town on a volcanic lake that has some lovely inns and restaurants). About halfway there, we turned right at an unmarked dirt path. Then bumpy roads covered in rubble with deep ruts carved by tons of rushing water. Up and down hills and around blind corners, the occasional unpainted house made of cinder blocks showing through light forested areas on the slopes of some big hills.
No road!

Then we turned a corner and the road dropped sharply down to a sandy area and ... no road. Instead a wide shallow river where a road and a stream used to be. It was probably originally about 15' wide but now was about 60' wide. You could see where the storm tore away at its banks and made a wide flood plain. Luckily, another pick up truck was in front of us and we saw where he drove through so we knew which way to go. And very luckily, I didn’t bring the Sentra which couldn’t have made it through there.
Bus!

We crossed and started heading up and up and up. Some very sharp inclines with the mostly dirt and stone road cut through some thick rock, mostly single lane, with a lot of erosion from the rains. We were going up one of many steep sections when Eric, driving in front, came face to face with an old school bus coming down! We both had to back up until we found spots where we could safely stop to allow the bus to pass. We were on a slope with a lot of rubble and the bus came down past us and started sliding sideways towards us! Angel gave it the gun and we got past it without scratching Lizette’s Dad’s brand new turbo diesel Hilux.

Pulling up to the last of the road ... and a closed education centre.

Carrying the 50 lb propane tanks down to the pueblo

After about 15 minutes of hills, we finally got to a small settlement that looked to be abandoned. We overshot the turn but Maria backed us up and we turned left up another dirt and unmarked path. Only a few minutes and we stopped at a "Save the Children" education centre. A few minutes later, some kids showed up and I asked them if this was their school and they said no. I asked if it was still open and they said no. Too bad, the funding must have ended.
The kids bringing down the stoves!

We had come as far as we could by truck and Maria went to tell her family that we had arrived. Oddly, I was getting great cell phone service in the middle of nowhere. About a dozen people arrived and they started carrying down the stoves, propane tanks, food, and donations of clothing, shoes and toys. The little kids picked up the stoves and some very small and slight women took the 50 lb tanks on their heads! Through a tiny gate and down a sandy path and then down a very steep dirt incline through some trees that had seen tons of water flowing down from the storm and ending at Maria’s mother’s house.
Lizette with a stove and me with rice, beans and oil heading to the pueblo

Pacita previously had a small house with a three (?) room house made of adobe. After the storm, she was down to one room which was missing one wall completely and had no door on the other wall. I touched one of the half crumpled walls and the dried mud crumbled in my fingers. They had one bed and a few plastic chairs in the one room that Pacita and her four children shared. Maria, the eldest, lived and worked at Eric’s house going home on the occasional weekend. Pacita’s husband was defending their little community from a gang and was killed for it.
What is left of Paz' adobe house ... one room and one bed for her and her four kids

I explained that I had some great friends living abroad that contributed money to help them out. I explained that the gas stoves were easier to use, would improve the air quality in their houses, reduce pollution, eliminate the need for them to cut and carry wood, and reduce deforestation. Pacita, who was speaking for her community thanked me and said that it was wonderful that people outside would help them out. She told me that two president’s ago, the government had a program where they could register for housing aid. So they paid $80 to register and never heard from anyone again! I asked her if they cut their own wood and she said that they actually bought it and spent $0.25 a day. This is more than the gas would cost. The gas costs $5.10 and will last from 5 to 8 weeks.
The rest of the food stuffs coming down the path ... most of the bags weigh 40 lbs

I also took out the rice, beans, corn flour, oil and candies and asked Pacita to distribute it evenly and fairly in her community based on need. Most people in the country are able to grow most of the food they need - beans and corn and sometimes rice. What they can’t grow they can trade for. I asked Pacita where her fields were and she said some miles away. She would grow crops and give about 20% to the landowner in rent. But this season, the entire crop was ruined. I think the 40 lbs of beans, 40 lbs of rice, 25 lbs of corn flower, and 5 gallons of oil will last the 7 households about a week (the oil longer of course), depending on the size of the households and there were a lot of kids around. I don’t know what they are going to do when this food and their savings run out but I will follow up through Angel and Maria and will bring more food out if necessary. They had almost nothing! They do have electricity but not all the time. I didn’t see any other furniture that had survived but for some homemade tables made from bamboo and an old fridge. I didn’t see any toys and or TVs. I am sure they could use everything and anything.

Eric connecting the hose ... but that's what she said

Eric suggested that I set up one tank so they would know how to do it. Pacita said Jose was handy so I showed him how to hook up the hoses and put on the clamps. I asked Pacita where she cooked and she took me to the back where there was an in-tact cooking room - tiny and dark, about 5' x 6', and despite just having some embers going, was filled with smoke! There didn’t seem to be any vents for the smoke to escape and I couldn’t imagine what it was like when she was actually cooking. We hooked up the system and using some matches, I lit all the burners as we all cheered.

Old cooking system ...
new cooking system!

They did have quite a bit construction materials purchased over the years - narrow cinder blocks and some terra cotta roof tiles. The storm scattered a lot of it but they dug it out and cleared the area. They need maybe $2,000 for the concrete, rebar (absolutely necessary in this earthquake prone country), and manpower to build the house. I think Eric is raising funds for this and his parent’s church in L.A. are taking up a special offering for the community. I don't think this pueblo is getting any aid from the government or any organization.
Maria, head sandwich maker. Her little sister, head sandwich nosher.

Lizette brought food to make sandwiches and we all had lunch together.


Group photo! Jose beside me, Maria in front of him in green, mom Paz seated beside her, Angel with the blue cap with MJ, Eric and Elliot to his left.

After a group picture, I got assurances that the stoves would be shared out and the food divided fairly and we climbed the hill for the last time. All the kids and Pacita came up with us and I asked how many times the kids climbed the hill each day and they said about 8 to 10 times. All the gringos were winded from the one trip! Pile into the trucks and back out to the main road.

The last climb for us for the day. Eric and MJ coming up.

Thanks again for all your contributions. And if you come down to visit, pack and extra bag with everything. Thanks to the guys at ACACSA and Sara and Elizabeth at Tropigas. Thanks for Angel for driving and helping with the planning. Thanks for Lizette and Eric for introducing me to these people and for arranging for the gas and the vehicles for the trip. Thanks for Elliot and MJ for helping out and taking pictures.
If anyone else wants to donate, USD65 or CAD70 will purchase one gas stove, tank and hardware and can help one family enormously. Please contact me by E-mail.

After doing this, I feel great but now I feel like I have an emotional investment in this community, Canton de San Francisco de Candelaria or the Municipality of Saint Frances of the Candelmas. Big name, tiny pueblo, big hearts.

Some videos of our trip out of the Canton.
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