“This is just like India,” I said to one of my fellow students as we stood waiting for our bus. Wild dogs scampered in the streets while drowsy cats slept draped over rundown steps. The realization that you are entering a new, destitute world where people live very different lives than your own dawns quickly as you exit the El Salvador airport.
Having spent a number of years living in India when I was younger, I felt as though I was the most prepared of my class for the trip. The other 23 students had never been to a developing country, and the cultural shock they experienced when they stepped out of the airport barely registered in my mind. I was confident based on my experiences in India that El Salvador would just be more of the same.
After all, I had seen poverty daily when I lived in India as it was literally my neighbor. Over the monkey-infested wall where I lived were dilapidated, makeshift shacks that housed families who struggled to stay alive. With plywood walls and plastic tarped roofs, their homes weren’t suited for the torrential rains that racked the city every monsoon season. Worn faces with even wearier souls went from car to car at stoplights, begging for a rupee or even its subdivision, the paise. So, with this as a backdrop, I radiated a detached assurance about being able to deal with the poverty that was to be part of our El Salvador trip.
When we arrived at what would be our home for the first week of the cultural immersion, our Salvadorian families greeted us with enthusiasm and hospitality. I had always seen poverty from a distance in India, looking at it through the car window or from my doorstep. However, now in El Salvador I was actually going to live in poverty—a completely foreign concept for me. Initially, my smug attitude about how El Salvador would simply be a second India acted like a vice choking off the value and depth of my experience. Eventually though, the reality of no running water and a hole-in-the-ground for a toilet served to break through my entrenched narrow-mindedness.
As the trip progressed, I saw everyone growing closer and stronger. They were building new relationships, their minds and hearts expanding. I felt like the odd man out and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t sharing in their growth. Finally, the night before we were to leave the village, I realized my error. The narrow and arrogant mindset I had been carrying with me had closed down any opportunity to enjoy my El Salvador experience. Sure, both India and El Salvador are poverty-stricken nations, nevertheless they each have their own history, challenges, beauties and blessings. How could I have been so ignorant to have pronounced them interchangeable?
By the time we toured El Mozote a few days later, I had opened my heart and mind to the Salvadorians. In 1981, the blood thirsty, U.S.-trained Salvadorian Army had massacred the entire town. I was profoundly affected by the gruesome atrocities and inhumanity that our guide graphically recounted. An untouched part of my psyche emerged. Never before had I felt so deeply for people I had never met.
I’m grateful for having had this epiphany and salvaging what remained of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. El Salvador did provide the expected gift of learning about a place and people much different from my own, however more generously it provided me with a life-lesson about the importance of approaching everything I do with the proverbial beginner’s mind and a sense of wonder.
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