In the last few days I have seen the town of El Sauce in a truer light. Mind you, I have never looked upon El Sauce with naïve partiality; however, with the commencement of latrine building, all of the town’s myriad flaws and imperfections, as well as unexpected kindness and understanding, shot to the surface and slapped me in the face.
Day one of the latrine construction training started off more or less okay and ended more or less okay. My neighbor, the local latrine “expert” turned out to be off on measurements for the rebar by an entire 30 foot length of rebar. In total, that’s just about 1000 feet for all of the latrines. Also, he reneged on his previous claim (pre-budget) that PVC elbows were not necessary, approaching the matter in a typically machista way and feigning that it was my error. He also chose to joke, in front of everybody, that I obviously can’t distinguish between r’s and d’s because I mistook his pronunciation of codal for coral. I chose not to tell him that I can’t actually understand half of the things he says because he mumbles, but rather took this as another machista jab meant to make me look bad because I’m a woman in charge of a construction project.
Day two. The PVC tube did not fit onto the toilet. The men approached this dilemma in a bullheaded charge, jamming a burning log into the tube to widen the end. Eventually, they realized this approach was clearly not working and moved on to another task. About this time I began to worry. I called the hardware store owner who agreed to change the tubes and also to send us PVC elbows and extra rebar in exchange for rock, thereby solving our material issues. Satisfied, I returned to the training and slowly began to comprehend that things were not going smoothly. People started to critique and point fingers.
Furthermore, it became very apparent that not everyone participating in the training was gifted with the same aptitude for construction. One of the younger participants is the town’s notorious marijuanero or pothead. As the other men were busy forcing the flaming log into the PVC pipe, he was on the other end joking about smoking it. In that particular incident, I’m not sure which of the men came out looking more intelligent. One man, after the day concluded, came to my house to inquire about measurements and our conversation went like this:
Him: So, the concrete slab is 3 feet?
Me: Yes, it’s actually 90cm by 1m.
Him: Okay, yeah, so it’s 90cm².
Me: Actually, it’s 90 by 100cm.
Him: So, 90cm². Okay.
Me: It’s 90 by ONE-HUNDRED.
Him: Like what? Show me with the measuring tape.
Me: Here is 90 and here is 100cm. So, it’s 90cm on this side and 100cm on this side. I’ll draw you a picture.
Him: So, it’s 90 cm on this side. And, on this side?
Me: One hundred.
Him: (Looking at the picture which was labeled on only two sides, not four.) So it’s 90cm wide and 100cm long, but what about this side?
Him: And this side?
Him: And this side?
Me: It’s a rectangle.
Incredulous, I labeled all four sides and wrote a note explaining the rectangular shape of the slab, hoping that someone else in his house would read it and explain it to him. And, I realized that placing the remaining construction into the hands of the trainees was out of the question.
Also, I started to understand just how complicated coordinating a town project can be when you throw in unaccounted for town politics and animosities. My community partner, Juan Carlos, explained to me that the neighborhood where we were doing the training is known as the Barrio Rojo (Red District). He said this with a knowing nod and a chuckle, as if I should have understood the exact meaning of Barrio Rojo. I assume that red was meant to have a negative connotation. Repeatedly people told me that I’d have to watch out for the Barrio Rojo and the Barrio de Abajo (Lower District), spouting out the same two phrases: “Esa gente no sabe agradecer.” (Those people don’t know how to be thankful.) and, “Cuesta trabajar con esa gente.” (It’s hard to work with those people.)
Word started to reach me that some people had no intentions of returning extra materiales. One family said that they were planning to hide whatever was left over. How, I’m not sure, as 6’ x 4’ pieces of tin aren’t easily “lost”. Also, more than one person kindly warned that it was likely that someone would break into the house where we were storing materials to steal them.
One evening I returned to my house, appetite gone, sat on the floor in the dark and momentarily cried until I realized it wasn’t worth it. For a few days I was on the verge of being distraught, wondering what on earth I’d spent the last, somewhat miserable year doing if, in the end, people were going to be so greedy and ungrateful.
The elderly next-door neighbor attempted to single-handedly combat the bitterness being displayed by some members of her town with a steady flow of food which she sent over with a renewed vigor comparable to when I first moved in. She even sent me an entire pot of coffee, with sugar and creamer already added. Her daughter and co-coordinator of the project, Juana, also helped me immensely. When some families started to complain about the quality of the materials, other people expressed their regret with words, reassuring me that at least some people in El Sauce are compassionate and understanding. Some have gone above and beyond to let me know that they appreciate my efforts. One woman in her one-volume (extremely loud) voice—my sister accurately described it as sounding like a chipmunk—berated the ungrateful people in her town and said that she knows that God will reward me because I am calidad de gente (a good person) to the point where I was almost embarrassed.