Thursday, July 12, 2018

putting up walls

Slowly but surely, the walls are going up!

Block laying is tedious work. Each block has to be placed just so, tapping (or pounding) to level it, measuring and counter-measuring.

It requires attention to detail and a good eye. And strength. It’s hard work wetting and stirring the mortar and lifting the blocks. I only worked for three hours that one morning, and by the time I was done I had blisters on both of my thumbs. My hat’s off to the workers putting in ten-hour days!

Now that MDS is having volunteers to Ponce rent a car from the airport, logistics are so much easier. Everyone — both us and the volunteer groups — can be more independent. Volunteers get themselves to church, to our house, to stores, to the airport all by themselves. And in the evenings, if they’re not too tired (ha), they can explore, too.

Last week we had a group of five volunteers from our church community back home.

This week, two of the men from the previous week stayed on, and two new ones arrived.

Often Chiro and Lery will invite everyone over for pinchos, and one evening last week we (my family, the MDS volunteers, and another couple from our church who were visiting for a couple days, scouting out the island for a potential cross-cultural trip for the university) met at their place to hear their Hurricane Story. I translated for the group. (Chiro accused me later of not being accurate ... because I didn’t cry when he cried, the stinker!)

A brief synopsis: Maria, in three parts 

Part One: Wind and Sand
For roughly twelve hours, the sand battered houses and cars, stripping them of paint. Afterward, one half of a car would look fine, and the other half would look faded and torn up. The power went out about four hours after the storm started.

Part Two: The Eye
For a couple hours it was relatively calm. People stepped outside — the light was eerie and reddish — to assess the damage. They knew the second half of the storm was coming, and that it would be worse.

Part Three: Wind and Rain
During this part, there aren’t many photos — people were too scared to take pictures. This time the wind came from a different direction — whatever hadn’t broken the first time, now, weakened by the first twelve hours, snapped easily. In addition, there were dozens of mini-tornados. From their upstairs bathroom window, Chiro watched as one of the little twisters destroyed one of the enormous cranes at the dock.

But the actual storm was only the beginning. What followed were days of high-stress work: making meals, finding people, procuring gas and water and generators, handing out food boxes, problem-solving, taking people in, etc. All of it was intense, and on little sleep, too, but it’s when talking about not being able to communicate with their family that they tear up. That — the inability to communicate and the not-knowing about the safety and well-being of their loved ones — was the hardest part.

That evening with the volunteers, Lery showed us a video that her health department produced after the hurricane, detailing how the organization responded to the crisis. For Lery, working with her co-workers was both extremely challenging and empowering. They were prepared and they worked hard. It's something to be proud of.

But back to our volunteers! And the house!

My older son works full-time. We've considered sending him to one of the other jobsites to give him a change of scenery, but then my husband realized that he's come to depend on him too much, Sorry, kid, serves you right for working hard! And my older daughter usually puts in full days, too, though recently, under-the-weather with a cold and stomach bug (more appropriately called a “buggette,” since it was so minor), she took a couple days to be A Royal Layabout.

The younger two sometimes pop in to help (and my younger daughter was a surprisingly gifted block layer), but there’s not much for them to do right now.

The tasks — meticulous block laying and up high, on scaffolding — require more supervision, and my husband, his hands full enough already with managing the weekly volunteers, doesn’t have extra time for coaching (occasionally obstinate) children.

Next week we hope to finish the walls. Then, trusses!

This same time, years previous: roasted feta with honey, the quotidian (7.11.16), the quotidian (7.13.15), what my refrigerator told me, soft and chewy breadsticks, roasted cherry vanilla ice cream with dark chocolate.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018


Since the weekly volunteers arrive on Saturday, usually in time for a supper at our place and orientation, Sundays are left open for church, outings, and any spontaneous visiting that may occur. Nothing is ever really planned. Rather, it evolves as we go along. Take this past Sunday, for example. 

After church, Chiro invited our family and the four volunteers to come over for lunch. There’d been a bridal shower the day before and they had a bunch of leftover food to use up. Sure thing, I said, and I have some leftover salad in my fridge — I’ll run home and get it.

The salad transferred to a nicer bowl, I doctored it up with some more cherry tomatoes, and bunch of chopped boiled eggs, sunflower seeds, grated cheese, and craisins. I’d just bought a fresh pineapple the day before, so I snatched that up on my way out the door.

At Chiro’s, he was in the middle of re-cooking the leftover rice — his sister had tried to cook 14 pounds of rice in a large kettle and it’d turned out crunchy (as Chiro had warned her it would, he told me rather gleefully) — and making a pan of chicken with onions. They’d plunked a bag of dinner rolls and a dish of butter on the table for people to munch on while they waited. I chopped up the pineapple (it was disappointingly flavorless) and helped Lery wipe down the tables and set out the drinks. Lunch was served.

We lingered over the table in the cool air conditioning, talking about all sorts of things. For example, I learned that upon greeting their parents or elder relatives, children here, even grown ones, will say, BendiciĆ³n (blessing), and the adult will respond. Dios le bendiga (God bless you). This call-and-response is a sign of respect. They do it when they greet each other and or when they say good-bye, before bed and on the phone, too. A child who intentionally skips the blessing request is being disrespectful and rude and may, I've heard tell, have their phone confiscated.

My children (two of them, at least), in the meantime, had fallen asleep.

I’d been hoping to make sweet rolls that afternoon, so I begged a couple potatoes from Lery and set them to simmering while we talked. The potatoes cooked and mashed, we headed back to our house. 

Lery showed up soon after we got home. The volunteers were still at her house and the conversation had turned intense — politics — plus, she wanted a baking lesson. While I measured and mixed (and assembled a batch of granola on the side) she took notes and asked questions.

She took a turn kneading the dough, and then, while it rose, we sat in the hot kitchen, drinking water, and talking about life: marriage, work, relationships, etc.

The rolls shaped and in the pan, Lery headed home, and my husband and I made a quick run to the store. I’d promised Chiro a green smoothie experience and needed bananas, spinach, and canned peaches. I texted him a photo of the smoothie ingredients, and then, while the rolls baked, I ran outside to take some photos of the sunset.

I lost track of time, so the rolls got a little dark, oops. I glazed them and then texted a photo to Lery: You coming? Should I make coffee? 

Around eight, they showed up — their daughter, too — and we sat on the porch and visited. The mosquitoes came out, so we lit the citronela candle. My younger son drug some pots and pans out to the sidewalk for some late-night drumming (which we promptly shushed).

As Chiro and Lery were getting ready to leave, the volunteers showed up, so they plopped back down in their plastic chairs and settled in for round two. We got out the last two pans of sweet rolls, and the kids did a quick table clean-up and passed out cups of water. Crowded together on the twinkle-lit porch we told stories, joked, and argued over the origin of the word “gringo.” At one point — this was before the volunteers showed up, I think — Lery was seized with such a fit of laughter that she was rolling on the floor.

After several failed attempts at leaving, everyone made it into their cars. The older kids had put themselves to bed, and my younger son was asleep on the sofa. My husband and I washed up the last few dishes, showered, and, at eleven, finally crawled into bed. I was exhausted, but still buzzing from all the sugar and conversation. It took me a good while to fall asleep.

This same time, years previous: three things about writing, a tale, er, tail, splash, tempero.

Monday, July 9, 2018

the quotidian (7.9.18)

Quotidian: daily, usual or customary; 
everyday; ordinary; commonplace


Kicking back and relaxing, for reals.

Sun protection plus.


Wrapped in plastic. 


Now we know where we are.

Storytelling, the punk version.

Shootin' the breeze.

The night before Beryl.

This same time, years previous: the quotidian (7.10.17), the family reunion of 2016, the puppy post, let's talk, the quotidian (7.9.12), zucchini skillet with tomatoes and feta, rain, peanut butter cup ice cream.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

fresh strawberry cake

I miss cooking.

Most mornings, in the hurry-scurry to get to work, a bowl of cereal and granola is all anyone wants, and evenings are reserved for leftovers or silly suppers — because workers at the jobsite get a big Puerto Rican noonday meal, my family often isn’t hungering after a big dinner. When I do cook, it’s often for our family plus volunteers, so I keep it simple: spaghetti, roasted veggies and sausages, taco salad. It’s kind of boring.

Plus, there’s the heat to consider, though I’ve been doing my best to ignore it. When running the oven sends the kitchen temps soaring into the low 90s, denial is the best coping mechanism, I figure. But the sweltering heat does sap my cooking mojo. Even though I miss cooking, I just don’t have much desire to do it.


A Sweet Story

A couple nights back, all the facebook fussing got to me. Something about some sort of heatwave, I think. If everyone could go on and on about humidity and their desperate need for ice cream in a week-long (haha!) heatwave, then maybe it would be okay for me to throw in the towel for a night? It’d be ice cream, and frosty cold stuff, all night long, I decided.

First, I ran to the store for a box of popsicles for the worker people (and ate a coconut one). Back home, I made several blenderfuls of pina coladas, and we drank ourselves into ice cream headache stupors. Then I ran to the store for ice cream and returned home to eat my nutty buddy, mini ice cream sandwich, and mango popsicle on the hammock. (I couldn’t finish the popsicle, though — faintly reminiscent of a soggy creek bottom, and too sweet.) For a bedtime snack I had a peanut butter apple.

And wouldn’t you know, I slept soooo good that night. For the first time since we’ve been here, I didn’t even wake up when the garbage trucks did their slow, early morning roar up and down our streets!

The End


I tell you all this so that you might understand the enormity of the fact that 1) I experimented with a recipe for fresh strawberry cake, and 2) it was so good that I was compelled to blogify (like verify, but with a blog) it. After two months of not-hardly cooking, this is big stuff. Very big stuff.

The strawberries were from Sam's Club — the big fake kind that come in a plastic box. I’ve never purchased this kind of strawberry before (not that I can remember, at least), and I felt almost guilty, like I was committing a crime. But in the middle of a strawberry field-less city, hundreds of miles from my garden patch back home, there was no other option. And wonders of wonders, the strawberries actually tasted like strawberries — they were good!

I promptly started buying a box (or two) of strawberries nearly every time I went to Sam’s. We sliced and sugared them to eat with our granola. I made a strawberry shortcake to celebrate Kenton’s final week of work — the shortcake biscuits were anemic but no one seemed to mind. And then I spied an old recipe on Smitten Kitchen for a strawberry cake.

For years my mother has lectured me about the inferiority of baked strawberries. Strawberries, she insisted, were best, always and forever, uncooked: in pie, as jam, mashed with sugar and drizzled on ice cream, in ice cream, etc. If they must be baked, then they should be combined with something tart, like rhubarb or sour cherries — baked strawberries on their own were insipid and slimy.

But then I made this cake because Deb (and a bunch of other people) said it was wonderful. And it was! In the hot oven, the strawberries got all soft and jammy, and the flavor intensified. Some of the juices sank down through the buttery cake batter, turning the very bottom, in places, all caramelly and gooey. We ate our strawberry cake just as Deb recommended — with whipped cream — and it was perfect.

Fresh Strawberry Cake
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

6 tablespoons butter
1½ cups flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar, plus 2 tablespoons for garnish
1 egg
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 pound strawberries, topped and sliced in half

Cream together the butter and the one cup of sugar. Add the egg and vanilla. Add the dry ingredients and blend lightly, and then add the milk and mix well. Pour the batter into a greased 9-inch springform pan. (A double batch fit nicely in a 9x13 pan.) Arrange the strawberries on top, cut-side down. Sprinkle with the remaining two tablespoons of sugar.

Bake the cake at 350 degree for 45 minutes or so. (Deb says to reduce the temp to 325 degrees after 10 minutes, but I don’t think that’s really necessary.) Cool to room temperature and serve with whipped cream.

This same time, years previous: reflections from Kansas City, the quotidian (7.7.14), the quotidian (7.8.13), grilled flatbread, red raspberry lemon bars.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

pulling together

One of the best things about our MDS experience thus far is seeing how the local community has taken ownership of the project.

In our leadership training back in April, we were told not to expect much local help. Due to whatever disaster they’ve just lived through, the people that MDS helps are struggling both emotionally and physically. Their reserves depleted, it takes all their energy to simply live. It’s not our place to expect more from them. So when the locals started showing up to work with us on Nilda’s house, we were pleasantly caught off-guard.

Over the last couple months, we’ve had all sorts of people come to volunteer: teenagers and children, whole families, older women, a grandfather with his grandson, a father with his son, etc. Some pop in just for a few hours. Others show up one full day a week, several weeks running. Others work even more frequently than that.

When Rolando, our supervisor, shows up (he lives in San Juan), he’ll park his butt in a chair, pop in his earbuds, and then make call after tedious call to different businesses in search of materials. It’s an enormous help.

Almost daily, Chiro (Rolando’s brother) stops by on his lunch break to check on things. He takes photos and then posts them to the church’s WhatsApp group account. (Note: Everyone in the whole world communicates through WhatsApp — a super reliable and simple form of communication — except, naturally, the US.) Nearly every day someone posts something — progress photos, words of encouragement, jokes, requests for snacks/help/prayers — so it keeps the project in the spotlight and allows everyone to feel included.

Chiro on the left, and his father, Pastor Demetrio, shoveling cement

From the pulpit, the pastor encourages people to volunteer. This is our chance to put our faith into practice, he says. We ought to seize this opportunity to make the love of Jesus visible. And so people show up to work.

But they do more than that, too. They invite our children to the youth retreat camp (and then cover the cost themselves) and bring us hand-me-down clothes and let us borrow their furniture and invite us over for meals and drop off food. (One night we had a supper at the pastor’s house, and then migrated down the street to his son’s house for pinchos and then, when we finally got home, we found a box of pastries and some loaves of bread waiting for us on our porch, a gift, we later learned, from one of the church members.) In other words, they love on us again and again.

And again ...

and again ...

and again.

Nilda, on the left

Nilda, the homeowner, is in charge of cooking lunches (and sometimes suppers) for the weekly volunteers. MDS gives her the money to purchase the ingredients, but other women, on occasion, will step in and make a meal, often paying for the ingredients themselves.

Carmen, Nilda's sister, is one of our most energetic and consistent volunteers. She’ll often help Nilda prepare lunch, deliver it, and then stay to work for the entire afternoon.

And boy, does she ever know how to work! I’ve heard tell that she works some of the men into the ground.

Now that the project is up and running, and volunteer teams are coming weekly, the local volunteers haven’t been showing up quite as frequently, but even so, there continues to be an unusually high level of community involvement and hands-on support. It's so much fun, so energizing, to see them pull together. In many ways, they're the ones carrying us.

What a gift.

This same time, years previous: the quotidian (7.4.16), let's revolutionize youth group mission trips! please!, French yogurt cake, butchering chickens, in their words, raspberry lemon buttermilk cake.