What I Learned Building Houses in Nicaragua
It was January 2013—although it could be now —and seven of us raised $500 each to pay for bricks and cement. We left western New York for the small village of El Sauce, pronounced “El Sow Say” in the mountainous north-west corner of Nicaragua.
I left a week earlier than the group, whom I’d only met once at an orientation meeting in Rochester. I wanted to see the celebration of El Christo Negro, also called El Señor de Esquipulas (The Black Christ) which takes place on the third Sunday in January. The little town is transformed with thousands of pilgrims mostly from Nicaragua and Guatemala.
What I Learned Building Houses in Nicaragua
The simple grid pattern of quiet streets (but no street names), with the occasional cyclist or trotting horse, had changed completely in the time it took me to have a dinner of plantains, rice and beans. I stepped out of the restaurant into a thriving, bustling market of stalls, tents, carts and thousands of chatting adults and playing children. And I was lost.
Most of them had arrived on the ox carts that I had watched earlier that day lumbering down dirt roads and on into the town. These were patient, hefty, beasts attached to the family cart by only their horns. In some cases they had travelled nearly five hundred miles. Everyone was there to pay homage to the Black Christ, and to enjoy a week of celebrations.
I stepped out of the restaurant into a thriving, bustling market of stalls, tents, carts and thousands of chatting adults and playing children.
We, however, were there to build houses for the organization Four Walls which is a part of Journeys of Solutions. Both organizations originated to help realize dreams for decent lives. Four Walls specifically works with building houses in El Sauce—they go there on a regular basis—and Journeys of Solutions is explained best in their mission statement: “a non-profit organization established by fellow travelers to provide support for individuals and groups to launch their own volunteer grassroots projects. Projects may involve assistance with infrastructure improvements, health care, or education needs. It is up to you.”
The people I met in Nicaragua were some of the friendliest and kindest I have ever encountered. When my nose became infected with some sort of dermatitis the local doctor proceeded to treat me free of charge. I made a donation of twenty dollars which apparently covered the cost of my medication and more. This is, after all, a country where often people buy one aspirin at a time.
We were all boarded in the village of El Sauce with local families who were paid out of our fund raising for our food and lodging. There was running water but no hot water, which wouldn’t seem to matter because the weather was very warm. But, believe me when I tell you that that water was cold!
I stayed with a family who ran one of the local grocery stores. The cooking was done on an open fire in the kitchen. The kitchen had a dirt floor was open to the small courtyard and garden. I lived with grandma, mother, two young boys, a dog, a cat and a green parrot. The dog and cat wandered around at will and the parrot supervised life from a low stone wall occasionally walking sideways to avoid being smothered in smoke from the fire when the wind was in the wrong direction.
My biggest worry had been that my house would fall down but of course we had a mason who instructed us well.
In the morning we would walk about half a mile to the outskirts to the site where we were building our house. A lovely walk in the cool morning air past many stray dogs and villagers starting their day.
My biggest worry had been that my house would fall down but of course we had a mason who instructed us well. It was all in Spanish, but a couple in the group spoke enough Spanish to get us by and some of the locals could speak English. Before we left the states, we had been given a list of building words to learn, “el alicates” — pliers, “la pala” – spade, “el cubo” – bucket, but “sign language” was always a useful backup.
Of course, they could build the house without us, but the money we raised was invaluable as was the cultural exchange. We started with a dry, hard, bare patch of land and ended with a two-room brick house. We dug foundations, wired rebars, carried bricks, mortared walls, mixed cement, sorted sand from pebbles, mangled the Spanish language, and laughed and sweated.
In between all of this we hosed down the family pig tied up in the shade, whom we called Chancho (one way to say pig in Spanish), taught everyone how to play Uno and Hi-Q and painted pictures on scrap wood and metal. Paper is at such a premium that old school exercise books are used for toilet tissue. I had taken acrylic paints with me and even the adults had a lively time painting pictures. We had also taken balloons, small toys, hand mirrors, and barrettes which we gave to shy children on our walk back from the building site to the town.
Before we left we used the rest of the acrylics to paint, with permission, a mural on a local coffee shop wall. The café, like most establishments in the town, had green pet birds so they were included in the picture. We were told that business had increased because tourists now knew where to find the café and some of the locals wanted to hire us to paint other signs! But, our house was built and our time was up.
It is hard for us, from wealthy Western countries, to realize how many people manage their entire lives in conditions that we would not even contemplate for camping. Two room houses for a family of five made from the black, sheet plastic that we put on our gardens, dirt floors and cold water from a hose that runs into an oil barrel for all the washing, laundry and personal cleanliness needs.