How I Spent my ICS Volunteering Placement in El Salvador
2015 has already been possibly the best year of my life and I owe most of it to my volunteering experience in El Salvador.
How did it all happen? I finished university in July 2014 and moved back home as an unemployed graduate soon after. I considered myself lucky if some of my job applications even received a rejection letter. I always kept volunteering with ICS (International Citizen Service) in mind thanks to the recommendation of friends, and in October I finally completed the online form, the first step of a process that would be well worth it.
Even though my group received pre-departure training, we knew barely anything about what our project would be like. The only certain piece of information was the name of the community that would host us: Santa Marta. It was the 8th of January when I flew from London to Houston and then San Salvador with the rest of my team, twelve volunteers in total.
The first few days were spent in the capital, perhaps to help our transition be more gentle. After a day or two of orientation, the Santa Marta volunteers joined us to get to know each other and talk about the project. Meeting the seventeen young Salvadorans we would be spending ten weeks working with was an interesting and awkward experience: communication was a bit fractured, especially since many of us knew Spanish only from Duolingo, if at all. Latinos are well-known for their friendliness though, but people from Santa Marta? They’re special. They share a history and a reality that unites them in unbelievable strength and passion to achieve their common objectives. In just a couple of days spent together in a hotel, our fellow volunteers made us feel welcome in their community, even before we reached and knew it.
In those days we learned about the recent civil war that affected the country from 1979-1992, between the military of the Salvadoran government and the guerrilla groups that would become the present major left-wing party FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional). The war is over, but the feeling of conflict still hangs in the air, and many issues remain unsolved. While the rich and poor divide is still widespread, new problems have arisen, like gang criminality. Concerning poverty, the community of Santa Marta does not have access to running water, good paved roads or trash removal services and suffers from severe pollution. These are only some of the reasons our volunteer efforts focused around the environment.
Our main project was the construction of an environmentally friendly reception centre for tourists on top of a small hill. This building is one step in the promotion and realization of the historical route of Santa Marta, aimed at remembering the brave guerrillas and the terrible consequences of the war on the community. Pretty much every day, from 8am until 5pm including a lunch break, we performed physical work under the heat of the summer Salvadoran sun. Collecting rocks and forming human chains to pass them up the hill became a much-dreaded activity after long, arduous mornings; carrying buckets of sand was probably my least favourite activity, but I learned to enjoy it once I managed to carry them on my head; digging with the pickaxe became a challenge against the strength of my arms; and the final decoration of the bio-construction was a welcomed inclusion of my artistic side.
These were not the only tasks: there was also digging, hauling water, cutting, collection of bamboo and plastic and glass bottles, the making of eco-bricks (and passing them up the hill too), the fixing of the path, and painting. And this was only our main project!
Complementary activities included talks in the school for children, talks for adults, a cleaning campaign, a radio spot and an eco-festival. Although it was not necessary that the whole group participated, each activity needed planning. It came to a point when I wasn’t even sure why I loved El Salvador so much, since 90% of our project was hard construction work; but then, again, I do know why.
As I mentioned, physical work every day can become monotonous. What really made the experience special was the personal achievements and knowledge acquired thanks to our fellow volunteers, host families and the whole community opening their doors and memories to us. Never would I have thought that 10 weeks would be enough to share and learn about culture, history, daily life, hopes and dreams. We learned to appreciate what we have by working alongside our new friends, who need to overcome many challenges to achieve their goals. Getting an education is often something we take for granted, but not so in El Salvador, where only one public university exists; physical work in the corn fields rules, so artistic careers are not valued; and making it as a woman is far more difficult, due to a prevalently sexist society.
Once in country, I realised how this, out of the other destinations offered by Progressio, was the perfect match for me. It fit with my Politics, Philosophy & Economics degree and finally allowed me to experience the practical side of learning, rather than feeling the frustration of not making any difference while I was studying. Living with host families gave us access to plenty of stories about the civil war and refugee times, and it is an honour to have contributed to the historical route of Santa Marta and to be able to share this story.
I consider myself fortunate to have witnessed the determination and strength of incredible people and learn from this unique experience, people who welcomed me in their home and whom I can call friends now. After my placement, I cannot recommend this experience enough, despite all the health issues and fatigue that may come with it, because that does not diminish the level of cultural depth it offers.
*Special thanks go to: ICS UK, the Progressio ICS staff in the UK and El Salvador that has made it all possible, the community of Santa Marta for welcoming us and making us feel at home, our facilitator Ana Maria for being an inspiration and an incredible woman, my fellow volunteers from the UK and Santa Marta, and our two great team leaders.
The blogs written by me and Progressio ICS volunteers of cycle 5: