It is the beginning August, I have been home from my adventure for 3 months, and have spent those months sitting at a desk, in front of a computer, wondering if it all really happened.
El Salvador was hands down my favorite country. It might be because I finally felt confident enough in my Spanish skills to make my way around a foreign country. It might be because I made a promise to myself to seek out adventure for the last 2 and a half weeks. It might be because I didn’t want to miss out on anything. Or, it might be because the people we met and walked beside were able to show us more grace than I had ever believed possible.
We worked with El Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (Center for interchange and solidarity) for the last 2 weeks of our trip and our eyes were opened every day to the hurt that this country has endured and the joy that these people have found despite it all.
We visited the Monsenor Romero community that was displaced after the 2001 earthquake. They were promised land and housing by USAID but when too many people came in for the prize, this community lost out. The government continues to tell the country that the people all have a right to their own land, especially if displaced from a natural disaster, yet the same government keeps coming up with ways to avoid giving these people what is rightfully theirs. They are currently squatting on the land that they hope to possess someday, trying their best to survive. Most families are lucky if each member eats one meal each day. They grow what they can to survive, but it isn’t enough. They have named themselves after Oscar Romero, a priest who died for the rights of Salvedorenos, and the government has chosen to use the name against them as it signifies the civil war that the government caused and refuses to take the fall for.
We spent an afternoon in a community known for its gang issues. The streets are patrolled 24/7 by soldiers carrying multiple weapons to try to keep the neighborhood safe. The children in the community are well cared for by a woman and her attempt to keep the youth out of the gangs. She created a library, a place where the children can come to learn and be safe, without opportunity to be recruited. We helped them cover up graffiti on the light posts by painting pictures of homes, communities, and animals. We played games. We told the children how wonderful learning can be and what a difference it can make in a life. There was no mention of the gangs. There was no English spoken. A few days later, the woman came to us, in a safe place, to tell us the real dangers that the community faces. A few women in the community make jewelry and sell it, but cannot sell any inside their homes, or to anyone who might tell a gang member about the business. If they are caught, the gangs will require a large portion of the profits and potentially ruin the business all together. She told us that many of the children’s siblings are gang members, waiting to initiate the younger kids. It is a vicious cycle. The soldiers have been sent to help, yet break down doors and enter without warning at any sound in the night, even if it is just a baby crying. They have abused their welcome. This community lives in fear of both the government and the gangs. There is little chance for escape.
We spent an entire day at a school for ages 2-6 for children whose parents need to work early and cannot care for their children during the day. These children are often neglected at home, have little to eat outside of school, and need special attention. Sagen, Bryce, Jenn and I were placed in the 3 year old room. We lucked out. There were two boys who couldn’t speak and one with serious development issues. The rest were normal as can be. The teachers are saints. In a room of 25 three year olds, one teacher manages to teach songs, stories, how to share, and how to love. These children were looking for love. After an hour of awkward tension, the kids began to warm up to. Alberto, my little guy, warmed up to me quick and was sitting in my lap within minutes of story time. He wouldn’t let go of my hand for the rest of the day and became quite jealous if I focused on another kid. I could tell that he wasn’t given too much attention at home. Another little boy, Geovanni, introduced us to a world where nothing is ‘theirs’. His mom had packed him fruit loops in his lunch, and when snack time came around, he walked to each of this classmates and offered to share with them. It was as though he knew that sharing and being in community with one another was the only way to survive in their circumstances, and he was only 3! This class was full of energy, but well behaved. They wanted love, and nothing more. It was so simple, but easily forgotten. I loved them all. I want to go back. They have my heart.
Those three experiences will be remembered forever. However, they might not be the most thrilling times we had.
On Easter day, many of us headed to the cathedral for mass. Getting downtown San Salvador was simple and after 4 months of figuring out a means of transportation, we felt like pros. Getting back to the hotel was another story. We asked about 6 people to point us in the direction of the bus stop. We waited for about an hour. Our bus never came. A friendly man and his young son offered to help us out and took us on a bus to the metro station to find us a bus home. He walked us to our second ride, talked to the driver, ensured our safety and said goodbye. We were feeling really good about the situation. Well, shortly thereafter, 3 men offered their seats to us girls. We thought, “Well that was nice! Not one person in all of Central America has done that. El Salvador is the best!” Little did we know, they were simply getting us out of the way. About 5 minutes into the ride, a song came on. 5 men began to sing along. One man pulled a knife out, right above Taylor’s head. 3 men then proceeded to hold two women at knife point in the front of the bus to steal their wedding rings and purses. All other native passengers sat perfectly still. The 10 gringos on the bus began to freak out. The gang members jumped off the bus and ran into a building, leaving us in a panic. One of the men who had been singing with them joined me and Alex in the back seat, worrying me to death. Don’t worry, our stop was next. None of us were hurt. However, Karla wasn’t lying when she said the bus system could be shady.
Danielle and I needed a day of mindless enjoyment…So we found the local mall and theater. We watched the Barcelona Madrid game with margaritas in hand, tried on too many outfits, and were the only gringos in an English speaking movie (with Spanish subtitles). We ate ice cream, listened to music, and had great conversation. It was a day of complete relaxation and bliss. A day much needed after all we had seen and done.
That, my friends, was El Salvador in a nutshell. There was so much more, but I don’t want to bore you. I will never forget those two and a half weeks. I will never forget those four months.
When I came home, I was scared. I was scared to be sucked back into a life that I didn’t always agree with or enjoy. I didn’t want to forget what I had learned and who I had chosen to become. I was scared that no one would want to hear. I was scared to feel alone. I was scared to enter into a job that requires me to dress up, do my hair, and work at a desk.
I’ve overcome it all. Although I have my days where I would give anything to go back, I know that what I am learning here is equally important. My job requires me to recognize the good that is being done inside and out of the US. I get to learn from brilliant people seeking to change the world every day. The skills I am developing will be able to send me back to the cultures I learned to love. I have maintained my desire to serve. I have continued working on who I want to be. I have not gone back to the things I did not enjoy before, yet felt I needed to endure. I have been able to tell my story, a story that continues to be written. I have community. I have a God working in me to make me the best I can be. I am blessed beyond imagination.
As the summer begins to wrap up, excitement enters my life as I think that in one year, I can go and do things that will change the world. I will have an endless number of opportunities and adventures to embark on. I plan to go and do, no matter what. I intend to live life to the full and enjoy God’s playground. I intend to serve and create joy. And I intend to learn how to do all of this through my community in Spokane, my community at home, and a God who teaches me always.
Thank you for walking on my journey with me. Thank you for listening. Thank you for being a part of my life. God bless.