I have a predicament with the term “life changing experience.” Besides being extremely clichÃ© and overused, it puts a label on the occurrence or adventure, thus dampering it. To describe the 17 days I spent in El Salvador is extremely difficult to do in words, but it is most important to explicate that the people I met and the insight I gained still affect me every day; and it was not just an event in my life that I have, or ever will, move on from. My travels to Salvador sparked my passions for speaking Spanish and walking with others.
On the 26th of June 2008 with International Partners (www.internationalpartners.org), I stepped onto a plane to return to a place that I hold so dear – a small, rural, progressive community in San Francisco, CabaÃ±as, El Salvador; where I would embark on another mental and physical journey. During my 17-day trip, which seems like such an extremely small number of days when I say it, I reunited with the large, generous family that I had connected with the year before—and the reuniting seemed as if no time had passed, but at the same time, so much had. When I learned that la familia EcheverrÃa wanted to host me again, I was thrilled. Over the year, we kept in touch through letters and phone calls.
In the lively place called Hacienda Vieja, community members accept us fully with open arms, smiles, and song. When I arrived there on my first trip in 2007, the welcoming children standing in the community’s center brought tears to my eyes. Noel Iraheta, a youth leader from Hacienda Vieja who became very influential and important during our time in his community, told me that our delegation’s presence breaks the monotony of everyday lives, and is thus a very special two weeks for the community.
The ambitious projects we worked over the course of the two trips were an expansive water project and a small road. The water project, whose purpose was to provide running water to Hacienda’s homes, consisted of digging trenches along the edge of the community, laying pipe, and building a water tank. The second year we took commands from community leaders to build a small road that would provide a small group of houses with road access. We hauled boulders to and from a truck, built a wall to contain the road, dug and transported dirt, and mixed cement. I became very fond of the last task – so much that my friends there called me “Mezcla,” the Spanish word for “mix!” The wonderful aspect of this trip is that the other delegates and I took complete constructional direction from our Salvadorian volunteers and leaders from the community. These brilliant folks masterminded the projects and we delegates jumped into the mix and lent hands. In now way was this time in Hacienda Vieja a delegation going to a poor, rural village to “help the people.” It is so much more empowering for everyone and respectful of our Salvadorian friends’ knowledge and gifts.
We are taught that people live differently in other parts of the world, but to experience another culture firsthand puts what we’ve learned, heard, and read into a much different light. The initial days of exploration in a new place are shocking, but the amazing thing about my adventure was that the daily routine quickly became natural. To be a successful delegate, one must be willing to adapt quickly to new completely situations and circumstances.
One aspect of life in Hacienda Vieja that struck me both years was the wonderful importance, but also crucial need for family; and a large family at that. The fact that there are always people around – close people, family members from the same parents and grandparents, is significant and comforting. In impoverished places it seems that family is the cocoon of protection and strength gives people the energy to work hard to survive. For kids, there is always someone to play with – a cousin or a sibling; and for adults, someone with whom to share struggle and hardship. The other need for a big family comes from the need for economic help – a father cannot provide for a family on his own, no matter how small the family is. Most people work for $2.00 a day – sometimes less – and this obviously cannot support a family. So, there must be sons that can work to contribute to the income. Girls cannot work because they go to school until sixth grade then stay home to help with cooking, laundry, and keeping the house in order for their brothers, uncles, and fathers who commit themselves to intense, demanding, physical labor from 5am to 5pm. In the hot, Central American sun.
But they smile. This ‘gente,’ people, young and old, smile radiantly, a joy like I have never seen anywhere else, on any other face. I would ask myself every day while I was there (and I still do now) how can there be so much joy amidst such daily struggles. It even got to the point that I forgot, could not understand how the EcheverrÃas actually lived in poverty. Because people in poverty don’t smile. They look sad and hungry and malnourished like photographs we’ve seen. My vision of struggling people was so different than what I was experiencing there that I did not know how to process it. I had to think hard, past the fact that our host families were happy and eating, I had to think of specific situations to remember their difficult quality of life. Rehana reminded me of five-year-old Stephanie who recently received a heart transplant with money raised by a former delegate. She had to remind me of Noel’s mother-in-law who did not have the money for reading glasses or medication for her sickness. And that children walk more than a mile to and from their rundown school. But they just keep smiling. This is how life is, so it’s accepted and no one complains. How can we call Hacienda Vieja “poverty-stricken” when there are riches of jubilance and faithful values?
These thoughts and situations still ruminate in my mind constantly, and I remember why I fell in love with the people of El Salvador. I was so frustrated with the short time of our trip because I wanted to continue to embrace the newness, stay there and fully interact in Spanish with friends.
During a group reflection with delegation and Hacienda youth leaders, my friend Greg mentioned that we took part in something so incredibly “human.” I thought the statement was beautiful. There is a truth to how profound yet simple human connection can be. And even though there may be a difference in language and skin color and history, a laugh, or taking a shovel from someone to give them a rest, or sharing a meal, or opening your home to someone else are the most simple and universal gestures. The world’s leaders must realize the human union and make their decisions according to peace, and to this truth.
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