After a week of ice-breakers, Spanish lessons, and 35-degree heat in San Salvador, we were ready to make it over to Santa Catarina Masahuat, our home for the next 11 weeks. It’s about a two-hour drive west of the capital up in the mountains. An overturned truck on the highway and one ill passenger meant we were delayed a couple of hours, so by the time we arrived in the community it was already dark. Santa Catarina Masahuat is a small town made up of 12 neighbourhoods. All of our host families are within walking distance from one another right in the centre. As soon as we arrived, and had unloaded our suitcases, it was time for us UK volunteers to go and meet our new families.

Layla and I were matched with a lady called Carolina and her husband Mario, and their two sons, Gerson and Marieto (Mario Junior). At first, establishing who was in our host family turned out to be harder than expected. The front room was full of people and the street outside was buzzing with kids playing football and families sitting out chatting. Despite having 12 hours of Spanish lessons in the orientation week, awkwardness was inevitable. A welcoming hug, some comments about the weather in very limited Spanish, and a few exaggerated hand gestures later, Carolina showed us our bedroom and the outside area where the toilet and shower are.  

Outside stove

One of the first things that struck me was that a majority of the host families have access to their own Wi-Fi, however none of them have constant running water. Every household has their own pila (water reservoir), sometimes more than one. Pila’s are essentially a small well with a tap that is filled every morning when the water gets turned on, usually between 6 and 8am. Carolina has three pilas; one for the toilet, one for the shower, and one for the kitchen. Next to the showers there was an open fire burning with two giant pots of what looked like rice milk bubbling away, ready for the morning; we got the feeling Carolina fed more than just her own family. She made us feel at home straight away; “mi casa es tu casa”.

For the duration of the cycle, a lady called Lorena is cooking us breakfast, lunch and dinner, and opens the front room of her house to us to eat in. She’s cooking for 10 of us in total, on top of feeding her own family, and running a small shop next door. She’s so welcoming and, like everyone else, patient with our Spanish. She always ensures we’ve got enough food and drink; coffee and tea, anything we need. She prepares all of our food differently to how she does normally using either bottled water or pila water through a filtration system - most likely installed because of us being here. Everyone so far has been so welcoming and enthusiastic about us being in Santa Catarina. It’s worlds apart from what we are used to back in the UK but we’re all feeling positive and excited about the work we are here to do!

Written by ICS volunteer Martha Baker-Woodside