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March 13, 2024

Global Village Reflection: A whole is greater than the sum of its parts

By Alexa Johnson

Written by: Rebecca Heslin Haller

The lush landscape unspooled out the window of a white passenger van headed east on El Salvador’s CA-2. The San Salvador volcano, looming high above the eponymous capital city’s skyline, grew smaller in the rear view mirror as the city’s bustling streets were replaced by rolling hills that sparkled in the morning sun like emeralds. It was the first Sunday in November and Habitat Charlotte Region’s first trip back to El Salvador—where it’s provided financial support and participated in nearly 70 builds, impacting 1,469 families, over 30 years—since the pandemic grounded volunteers across the globe four years ago.

As we drove farther away from the city that more than a million people call home and made our way down El Salvador’s mountainous spine toward our home for the week in San Miguel, it was as if we’d trapped some of the city’s frenetic, excited energy inside with us when we’d shut the van’s doors after loading up earlier that morning. The soundtrack that began to play as the van rolled eastward, carrying us south of Lake Ilopango, itself a former volcano, and closer to the coast, started off as quiet introductions and whispered pleasantries while some tried to go back to sleep and others gazed out the window. It didn’t take long, though, to pick up in pace and volume as 13 volunteers, in town for a weeklong build, swapped stories and laughs from projects past.

This was my second international trip with Habitat. In 2019 I was lucky enough to join Habitat Charlotte Region in Cambodia (photo, left). I knew going into this trip, just as I had my first, that it would be a life-altering experience, the kind of trip with the power to shake you to your core and leave a lasting imprint. But unlike last time, I was now privy to the fact that said imprint would come, in large part, from the other passengers in that van. Within minutes of our three-hour journey to San Miguel that morning, my back was to the window and I was deep in conversation with my friend Susan. We hadn’t seen each other since Cambodia so we spent most of the first leg of the trip catching each other up on all the unexpected twists and turns our lives had taken, as lives are wont to do, since 2019. As someone who loathes small talk, I find the instant intimacy of these trips to be a salve of sorts for the soul. Something about knowing you’re about to spend the next week getting back in that very van as the dirtiest and sweatiest version of yourself tends to fast track that in my experience.

“Which volcano is that?” Bex, our team leader, asked the Habitat El Salvador team with us in the van. I turned to look out the window at what she was pointing toward, that delicious, childlike feeling of awe rising in me like the majestic mountain in the distance. I have a lazy tendency to unfairly credit the mere act of travel with being the singular source of that warm, lava-like rush of wonder, as if ink left by a rubber stamp on the page of a government-issued booklet could possibly hold that kind of power. When international travel all but ceased several months after returning home from that Habitat build in Cambodia, it didn’t take me long to remember that the stage of life we most closely associate with wonder is, at least in my case, the one that involved the fewest passport stamps: childhood.

In the early days of those four years of dormancy between Habitat trips to Cambodia and El Salvador, I remembered a practice I picked up during the long van rides between where we were staying in Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city, and our build site of writing down things I observed out the window. Rice drying on blue tarps in front of homes. Dogs riding on top of rice sacks piled high in the back of a truck bed. People texting while riding four-or-more deep on the back of motor bikes. Small children sleeping on the floor of a market. It didn’t matter where I was necessarily, what mattered was noticing the wonder and humanity within each of those tiny micro-moments of life passing by outside the window.

In those dark, early days of the pandemic I spent a lot of time scrolling through notes and photos of my time with Habitat in Cambodia on my phone, a window in and of itself, wondering and worrying about the people I’d met there just a few months earlier. How was the family we’d worked with faring? Was their small sky-blue home—the color they picked out for their new one-room structure made of brick, concrete and drywall with the metal roof we’d spent a week building with them in the sweltering heat—protecting them? One day I pulled out a notebook and started jotting down my observations for a few minutes each morning. It became a ritual that felt more like a magic trick at the time, instantly pulling me out of my head and back into the world I felt so cut off from, just as it had on those dusty rural roads outside Battambang.

A voice from the front seat brought me back to the present on that warm, sunny day in El Salvador. I didn’t catch the answer to which volcano it was outside the van’s windows, and I don’t know which of the women from Habitat El Salvador the answer came from, but I did notice in that moment that our trip was led by all women—Bex, Vanessa, Flor, Francis and Magali—which felt notable and left me with a sense of pride at the opportunity to be a part of it. I also hadn’t realized until that moment that El Salvador is known as the land of volcanoes, with around 170 total and close to two dozen considered active in the last 10,000 years. We just so happened to be heading toward a town that sits at the base of its most active one.

El Salvador, the smallest country in Central America, about the size of New Jersey, and the only one without an Atlantic coastline, is located on the Pacific Ring of Fire. There’s a palpable energy there, which could be explained by it being the region’s most densely populated country or by its propensity for seismic activity due to its location as the meeting place of three tectonic plates. As a kid I was fascinated by tectonic plates—I think Ms. Frizzle and the Magic School Bus played a heavy hand in my intrigue, which, come to think of it as I write this now, may also explain, in part, my excitement every time I board a Habitat van. There was something about these disparate pieces of a much larger whole coming together beneath the surface, and the interconnectivity of it all blew my little puzzle-loving brain at nine years old just as much as it still does three decades later. It’s the same thing that draws me to Habitat’s international trips—not the tectonic plates but the people from all walks of life coming together, people who may not have otherwise crossed paths without Habitat, but whom you just inherently know were meant to be in your life, to build something special, something important, something beautiful: a home for perfect strangers in another part of the world, strangers who don’t stay that way for long, strangers you carry in your heart before you’ve even met and for far longer after you have. It’s the soul’s form of seismic activity that shakes me to my core.

In the van that day and for the next five days we had Bex, Crystal, Susan, Rick, Abdue, Alan, Malyn, Vince, Charlie and Patty* in town from Charlotte; Fred from Wilmington, NC; Beth and Gail from San Francisco; Flor, Francis, Vanessa and Magali from El Salvador; and myself from Washington, D.C. (*It’s important to note Patty is actually from El Salvador and worked with Habitat for many years there before moving to Charlotte, as I know all too well my new favorite surprise-song-loving Swiftie and karaoke-singer/performer will have something to say if I don’t drop everything now to clarify that.)

“How many of these trips have you been on?” I asked Crystal as we got out of the van to stretch our legs at a gas station. Nearby, a woman was selling water straight from coconuts and bright red lychees spilled out of plastic crates by the side of the road under a makeshift tarp tent. It’s a common question on the first day of a Habitat project, not because it’s a competition of who’s been on the most Habitat trips or builds, but because it’s an easy way to start connecting the dots between group members. Habitat volunteers weave this beautifully intricate web and I love little more than tracing each thread to uncover the expected and unexpected ties that bind and bring it all together. Crystal lives in Charlotte and works at the Habitat ReStore there, which is where my mother was volunteering when she signed the two of us up for the Cambodia trip that Bex also led in 2019. Alan, another Cambodia alum, volunteers there, too. Susan, who I gabbed with on the bus, met Gail, from San Francisco, on a flight years ago and that same gift of gab resulted in a new Habitat volunteer before their plane’s wheels touched the ground. Now Gail’s wife Beth trades her stethoscope for a shovel and joins her on trips. In other words, Habitat Charlotte Region can do in one or two what takes Kevin Bacon six.

Each morning for one week we piled in the van after breakfast and headed to the build site. We passed the shops, markets and restaurants opening up for the day. We went through the roundabout where there’d often be goats or cows grazing in the late afternoon. We looked out the windows and held our breath as we crossed the Río Grande de San Miguel to see the impact of the previous night’s downpours and tried to gauge how muddy our worksite would be that day, how much of the previous day’s work would be washed away, how many buckets of the heaviest, thickest muck imaginable we’d fill while forming a single-file line—lovingly called the bucket brigade—and passing them up one by one to be dumped off site. Rainy season on a construction site, nevermind one near the country’s most active volcano, proved quite the reminder of the impermanence of it all. But you’d never know it inside that joy-filled van full of boots caked in the previous day’s mud and laughter that only ever stopped for sleep (and pupusas).

At the end of the week, before loading back into the van and leaving the worksite for the last time, our team’s resident reverend, Abdue, put his booming, pastoral voice to work, speaking over the sounds of children playing nearby and dogs barking in the distance.

“We can put up walls, we can carry bricks, we can put up a roof, we can put in windows and doors,” he said. “But a home is a place of love. A home is a place of safety. A home is a place where a family can grow, share and expand.” The whole, in other words, is greater than the sum of its parts.

Earlier in the week, while seeking refuge from the sun, Abdue and I got to talking about our lives and what had led us to our work with Habitat. As we stood under a canopy of trees, I listened to his stories with rapt attention—a challenging thing to do while cutting rebar with bolt cutters. He told me about the day he took his son to see the parsonage belonging to the church where he was pastor. He described watching his son’s eyes grow large at the prospect of living on such a grand property. We already have a home, son, he told him. We don’t need all of this. Abdue’s eyes lit up as he told this story, the way I imagined his son’s had that day his father shared his vision to sell the entire property to Habitat, in effect turning one vacant house into affordable homes for more than 30 families.

As we got into a rhythm of cutting rebar that day, the cadence of Abdue’s storytelling serving as our metronome, I was struck by how small each steel bar is in proportion to the job it would go on to do in reinforcing the foundation of our new Salvadoran friends’ home. Later, after all the speeches had been given and all the pupusas devoured, I realized it’s only when those individual pieces are used conjunction with one another that a true strength emerges. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I took one last look at the worksite before we climbed back into the van for the last time, one by one, together.

The inside of a van might seem like a strange place to center a story about an international Habitat for Humanity build, but in my experience, that’s where magic lives. Although we’re all there volunteering for our own unique reasons, collectively we are there with the same goal in mind: to help others help themselves, a purpose made possible by Habitat. It’s just a bonus that we reap a Vesuvius of benefits from the experience ourselves. We get to use our hands and get out of our heads for a bit, working alongside people seeking to improve their living conditions for themselves and their families. We may only cross paths for a short time, but like lava flows down from a volcano, enriching the soil for the future, the experience leaves a permanent imprint on the lives of the homeowners and on us, the volunteers, the passengers in that van.

Rebecca Heslin Haller, a writer living in Washington, D.C., is working on a memoir called Lies I’ve Told My Therapist.

If you are interested in participating in a future international volunteer trip, sign up for our trip interest list here.

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