I had trouble discriminating between the various sounds that greeted me when I woke up the first morning in La Hacienda. Ensconced in a rainbow-colored cot suspended over the mud floor of the living room of my “home” in this isolated Salvadoran village, I tried to pick out the onomatopoetic sounds of the nursery rhymes of my youth. Birds, hens, turkeys, and wild dogs welcomed daybreak with a cornucopia of noise.
The noise I heard most clearly was not native to the village. From a small battery-powered radio in the corner of the room, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” filled the house, giving me an unexpected jolt of Americana. My host barged through the kitchen door to the side of my cot, gestured excitedly at the radio and asked “Quien es? Quien es?” I told him that it was Bruce Springsteen. His eyes brightened. Later I discovered that “Born to Run” played on the radio every day in La Hacienda, often multiple times in an hour. My host had heard the song countless times without knowing so much as the name of the man singing it.
The day before, fourteen students and three teachers from Phoenix had left El Salvador’s capital and made a bus journey that covered more than half of the country. The farther from San Salvador we went, the more rapidly the vestiges of modern life disappeared. Trucks gave way to carts pulled by animals and women balancing baskets of produce on their heads, anachronisms on an eerily empty modern highway. The highway stopped before we entered the rural province of Morazon, a place still reeling from decades of civil war. An hour outside of La Hacienda we crossed a sleek bridge that had recently been rebuilt by a European non-governmental aid organization. All villages beyond that bridge lacked electricity.
On the night of our arrival, after my classmate and I had settled into our cots, our host placed a stool between the two of us. In a scene reminiscent of childhood sleepovers, he sat down and held a flashlight a few inches from the bottom of his chin. Without warning, he plunged into a description of his life during the civil war. I thought I had an image to keep up, that of the consummate investigative journalist collecting information for a story. I scribbled notes in my journal while translating for my roommate. Eventually, I realized that my full attention was more important than the hasty notes I could take home with me. I closed my notebook and listened as my expectations of the people I would meet in El Salvador were shattered.
My host shared his opinions on land reform, the election of Barack Obama and American foreign policy. Despite a lack of electricity and grueling hours spent harvesting crops in the town field, my host had an extraordinarily comprehensive view of global affairs. When I woke up to the urgency of Springsteen’s voice, a dichotomy emerged: my host was blissfully ignorant of the song on the radio but had closely studied the global issues that affect his community.
Our trip to El Salvador was led by FUNDAHMER, a non-governmental organization based in San Salvador. FUNDAHMER has Catholic roots but coordinates trips for an array of American institutions, particularly high schools and universities. My trip to El Salvador would have had a dramatic impact on my worldview had I traveled without other students, but the experience was amplified by the discussions I had with my peers throughout the trip.
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