Cultural Immersion Trip to El Salvador: Part 1

panchimalco woman
Woman in El Salvador. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

Years ago, I had the honor of working in the Communications Department for the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA). No other career move has had such a profound impact on me and my personal core values. As a part of my job, I traveled to El Salvador with an FSPA-sponsored ministry: Global Awareness Through Experience (GATE). The cultural immersion programs are rooted in Christianity but are open to people of all faith traditions.

Most importantly, GATE cultural immersion trips are absolutely life-changing. You simply cannot arrange for this sort of soul-deep work when planning your own trip. We connected with people on the front lines of gang activity, victims of torture, NGOs working hard to forge a better way of life, officials at the U.S. Embassy, and much more.

During my GATE cultural immersion trip to El Salvador, I kept a blog detailing the incredible experiences the pilgrimage afforded me, which originally appeared on the GATE website. I am republishing it here, with some edits, in a series of posts. Please note that this represents a time capsule of that visit, and some of the information shared here may be out of date. 

In a time when immigration, travel bans, and family separations of those seeking asylum top the news, I can’t help but think about the people we met in El Salvador, their openness to sharing their lives with us, the knowledge we gained about their experience as human beings, and the lessons, which stay with me even today. 

Global Awareness Through Experience (GATE)

El Salvador Cultural Immersion Trip

homes near san salvador rr tracks2
Some of the poorest in El Salvador live in tin shacks alongside the railroad tracks. Photo by Charish Badzinski.


Day 1

2:00 p.m.

After two flights, I have arrived in San Salvador! The first flight was a rather typical mix of Americans, with a few people heading for Central America, though I didn’t encounter anyone who was going to El Salvador. Then, in Houston, the plane filled with beautiful, Spanish-speaking people and their children. The kids had a particularly fun time, as they’d squeal and giggle each time the plane hit turbulence. I believe it may have been their first flight. A little girl was scared and stuck one row away from her mother, so I switched seats with the mother so she could sit by her daughter and comfort her. Then, I was seated next to a little boy who was nervous. I bravely told him that it’s just like a boat hitting bumps in the water, and then he smiled and seemed so much better. Hey, who would have thought I’d ever comfort another passenger? I’m typically the biggest Nervous Nellie on the flight.

When we landed, we could feel the humidity and heat spike immediately. Wow. To me, it felt heavenly. There were some long lines to get through customs, and I paid a standard $10 fee for a tourist card, and the woman who stamped my passport said, ¨Welcome to El Salvador.¨ Those words sent a thrill through me!

Next, I had to get through the bag check area, and luckily got the green light! So I followed the masses to the curb. There were no cabs in sight. Hmmm. I looked left, I looked right, and the suitcase filled with vitamins that will eventually make their way to a clinic in the area took on weight with every moment. Finally, a nice man pointed me in the general direction, and I was able to get a cab for $20 USD to the hotel. The expected rate. Ronaldo was my driver, and he didn’t talk much, but I’d interject my sorry excuse for Spanish every once in a while and he’d smile and respond (and often I’d have no idea what he was saying!)

Seeing El Salvador for the first time

boy with cows
Cows on the move in El Salvador. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

We sped past people sitting next to piles of coconuts, makeshift lunch counters, goats running on the loose and grazing in the boulevard, and jungle-like greenery. It’s so lush here, and it’s gorgeous in rich, lovely greens. Then, we started to pass homes. Some have bricks or concrete for the frame, the roofs comprised of corrugated tin. Parts of the bricks have collapsed on the majority of these, and sometimes wood has been pounded into place to hold things together.

I’ve seen poverty, particularly in rural parts of Mexico, yet this is entirely different. These are whole neighborhoods of families clustered in their tin shacks, finding their way to survival.

getting water Armenia 2
Fetching water from the well in El Salvador. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

We passed the Intercontinental, a behemoth of a hotel just a block or so from the family-run hotel where we are staying. Our hotel is the Villa Real Guest House, and it’s really quaint, clean and just lovely. When I entered to register (in Spanglish) the woman at the front desk paged someone who speaks English….Sara is her name, and I believe she may run things around here. She immediately embraced me. This, by the way, is a welcome I’ve never received at a hotel…ever. She showed me my room, which I will be sharing with another G.A.T.E. participant. It’s spotlessly clean and fresh and I have a feeling I will sleep very, very well here.

Not far from here are American fast food restaurants, automobile shops and more. There is also a strong local influence…family-run shops and restaurants. It is a great area in which to stay.

I’m getting eaten alive by the world’s tiniest mosquitoes right now, so I’m going to go in search of food and escape from these nasty little critters. Little do they know, Minnesota mosquitoes would consider them an appetizer!

Our official immersion begins tomorrow, but already I’m enjoying this first taste of El Salvador. Perhaps I can hunt down some authentic pupusas (a traditional food of El Salvador–see recipe below) tonight!


5:30 p.m.

Within just hours of my arrival here, our guide arrived as well. Everyone seems to love her here. We met the hotel owners, Sara and Alfredo, who are a stunning couple and so welcoming. While I know that El Salvador isn’t a dream destination for many people, if ever you are in the area, this hotel would be a great place to stay. The staff prepared some sandwiches to hold us over until dinner tonight and they tasted wonderful. They were simple, but fresh and delicious!

Delivering a donation for victims of human rights abuses

Our group leader had an important task to attend to: a generous donation had to be delivered to the Co-Madres, a group of mothers working for justice and closure for the families of disappeared loved ones. Many of these disappearances date back to El Salvador’s civil war, yet these brave women continue to fight not only on behalf of their loved ones, but also in the name of justice for families in other countries who’ve experienced the same crimes. We met three lovely women who were so incredibly grateful for the donation given to them; you could see the joy and hope on their faces for what this will mean for their cause. The cash will help finance a mental health program for families suffering in the wake of these atrocities. Were this donation delivered in the form of a check, the bank could hold on to it for three months without paying out cash for it, in a sense collecting interest on the organization’s much needed money. This way, the money will be able to be put to use, and not a penny of it will have to go toward transfer fees or other expenses imposed by financial institutions. It is a great gift they’ve been given, and I felt so fortunate to receive their hugs and kisses and sweet words of thanks, however undeserving I am personally for the gift.

While at the office of the Co-Madres, we met the last living founder of the group. She is an amazing woman. She announced to us some heartening news: on February 6, 2007 in France, the United Nations finally recognized the necessity of a convention making forced disappearances illegal. Fifty-seven countries signed the convention, after 26 years of struggle on the part of the Co-Madres to make it happen.

The importance of this could be seen in the eyes of the lone living founder of the group, a woman whose own 16-year-old son fell victim to these crimes. Clearly she does not view the victory as revenge for her own loss, instead, through an interpreter, she said, ¨The benefit is for all humanity in the world, after 26 years of struggle. It was worth the sacrifice.¨

To date, El Salvador will not sign the convention, and neither will the United States. It is believed the U.S. is unwilling to sign because the convention would render illegal many of the current U.S. war tactics.

In the office of the Co-Madres hangs a portrait of the son of the lone surviving Co-Madres founder, as well as some grisly photographs of the aftermath of these crimes. They show the bodies of those who’ve been abducted and tortured, often beheaded or dismembered. These images are carefully guarded by the Co-Madres. Firstly, they are proof of the horrifying deaths of loved ones, bringing about closure to those who so desperately need it. But more than that, because the El Salvador government continues to deny that these atrocities occurred, these photos are the last remaining proof the Co-Madres have in their fight for justice for the families of the disappeared.



making pupusas 4
A woman makes pupusas, a traditional dish in El Salvador. They were delicious. Photo by Charish Badzinski.


This recipe yields 12 cheese pupusas.

3 cups masa harina (you can buy this at many mainstream grocery stores now)

2 tsp. salt

1 1/2 cups warm water

1/2 lb grated Monterrey Jack cheese

1/2 minced green bell pepper

Vegetable oil for frying

Combine masa harina with salt and water until it becomes a pliable dough. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for one hour. Combine cheese and green pepper. Divide dough into six balls, and then divide each into four balls. Place dough on top of plastic wrap and cover with a second piece of plastic. Use a rolling pin to flatten it to a circle that’s about three inches in diameter. Repeat with each ball of dough.

Place two teaspoons of the cheese mixture in the center of each circle, leaving a 1/4 inch border. Cover with a second circle of dough and seal by pressing the edges together. Repeat with each ball of dough.

Heat a thin layer of vegetable oil in a skillet and cook a few pupusas at a time over medium heat for two to three minutes per side, or until golden brown.

This is sometimes served alongside a salad of onion, green cabbage, carrot, garlic, apple cider vinegar, dried oregano, salt and pepper.

Global Awareness Through Experience offers a number of cultural immersion programs to countries in Latin America. To learn more about these opportunities, please visit the Global Awareness Through Experience website or contact GATE directly.

charish hammock peruCharish Badzinski is an explorer and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to her clients.

Next stops: Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore and Thailand.

Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb

Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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