I realized this week that I haven't actually described the neighborhood where I'm living this year. Ooops!
Monte Sinai and the surrounding communities were formally farm land. Settlement began when plots were sold cheaply and illegally to people seeking work opportunities closer to the city and to indigenous people who came from the mountains. Over the past 5 years, thousands upon thousands have come to call this place home.
Housing? Most of our neighbors live in cane houses. Many are built on stilts to avoid flooding during the rainy season. There are also a good number of cement block houses. These are seen as a status symbol and a major step up. Families save for years to start building a cement house, and even then it often takes years to complete. The insides of homes vary. I've only been in one house that did not have at least a couple of beds that people shared. Most have a fridge, an electric stove top (having an oven is less common), a TV, and plastic tables/ chairs. We know a few who have invested in computers, and one family that has a projector to watch movies on the wall.
Utilities? There is no running water in the community. The water people do have is not very clean and comes from "tanqueros" (trucks) that drive around during the day honking, filling up big plastic barrels outside peoples' homes. A refill costs $1. This seems cheap, but those living in the city pay far less for their water. Our volunteer house has a large cistern that pumps H2O and allows for showers and sinks, a luxury not available to our neighbors. Electricity is currently pirated and subject to frequent black outs. The longest we've gone without power is 10 hours (it actually went out Halloween night and stayed out until the morning-spooky!), but we've heard that in the past and during the rainy season it's been much worse and has stayed out for days at a time. This is terrible for businesses like restaurants, stores, and cyber cafes that rely on electricity to function (think refrigerators and food spoiling). There is a power plant close by which may soon start supplying energy to the neighborhoods. Families would have to pay, but it would mean a more stable and less dangerous connection.
Roads? Most roads are unpaved and in terrible condition. They turn to mud in the rainy season and make it difficult for cars and buses to pass (One really great thing is the public transportation- buses are frequent and only cost $.25!). There are a few main roads that are now paved and make travel much easier (especially for the great number of commuters who work in the city- a 2 hour bus ride away).
Overall, things are improving little by little it seems. There is more police presence. Garbage trucks enter the neighborhood twice a week (there was no trash pick-up previously, so people burned or threw garbage on the street). More businesses are cropping up too. At least two new internet cafes have opened within walking distance in the last few months. Progress.
However, there are many other issues that make life difficult. Drugs, alcohol, gangs, domestic violence, and machismo are very present in the community. Unemployment or unstable employment is also a major reality. Many of the men or fathers work in construction or other manual labor jobs that are unreliable and don't provide steady income. Discipline is mainly physical. Kids frequently talk about their parents hitting them.
But to end on a hopeful note, a non-profit called Hogar de Cristo is doing fabulous work in the community. One of their offices focuses on community organizing (my housemate Katie works there). There are currently groups of community members forming and growing, taking leadership roles and seeking ways to improve the quality of living here. This same non-profit also organizes women's groups (Bernadette works in this office) that meet to form relationships, talk about issues like family and self-esteem, and seek to empower women who are commonly confined to the home. There is also a group for senior citizen's rights that is working on giving attention and encouragement to the elderly in the area who often go forgotten. Good things are happening. People are working together for change.