When I was 17 years old, I almost died while on a plane returning home from Central America.
We were flying directly over the Bermuda Triangle (of course, right?) when the plane started experiencing major turbulence. At one point, the plane suddenly plummeted downward as every passenger on the aircraft collectively screamed. Thankfully, the pilot regained control of the plane shortly after, and catastrophe was ultimately avoided.
If anything, this near-death experience was symbolic: as a result of my trip, my old self had died. My new self was ready to be born.
It was August of 2013, and I had been participating on a school-sanctioned mission awareness trip in the country of El Salvador. I, along with several other students and teachers, had voluntarily given up a week of precious summer vacation to build several simple homes for impoverished El Salvadoran families. Due to the nature of this task, I had assumed that the purpose of the trip was to help these families to improve their living conditions, while simultaneously being reminded of how fortunate I was to have been born in the United States
While this is true, the very people we were sent to aid ended up helping in ultimately more valuable ways.
The trip defied all of my previously held expectations. Throughout the course of my stay, I met dozens of poor families living in and around the cities of Santa Ana, Ataco, and San Salvador. It amazed me that they were neither miserable nor complaining about their situations; instead, they exuded constant joy. The poverty in which they lived was shocking, it’s true, but the shocking thing I experienced was the undeniable faith and love that the Salvadoran people harbor in their hearts. Every person I met was quick to offer their hospitality, love, and friendship – for example, while attending a church service in Santa Ana, I was embraced by every single community member as an expression of gratitude for the work my group was doing. It was a sharp contrast to America, where there is an abundance of financial and material riches, yet, none of the immense spiritual wealth that the Salvadorans possess. During the trip, I experienced the most peace and joy I have ever felt. I’ve never known a greater sensation of happiness than when I was living with and learning from the Salvadoran people. This experience truly changed almost everything about me: my worldview, my relationships with others, and my inner beliefs and values. Over the course of seven days, it was as if my entire self completely transformed. I became someone who had a strong awareness of the world, who knew the true meaning of happiness. The value of travel and spending time experiencing other cultures became abundantly clear to me. As I am writing this, exactly eight months after returning from the trip, I can say with certainty that I have never been the same.
Since it’s been exactly eight months since I returned from El Salvador, it’s also been exactly eight months since that terrifying experience on the plane. Truly, almost dying that day was oddly appropriate for me. It signified a change in me that could never be altered or reversed, a change that I am confident will remain in me for the rest of my life. I’ve come to the realization that traveling is an invaluable experience that really can provide new ways of looking at the world. I will forever be grateful for that trip to El Salvador and all that it has meant to me.
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