Cultural Immersion Trip to El Salvador: Part III

Day 3~June 14

4 p.m.

outside of hotel
Our hotel in San Salvador, El Salvador. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

We awoke to another beautiful morning in San Salvador, now joined by two new members of the group, two brothers from Texas. We ate a traditional Salvadoran breakfast of rice and beans mixed together, white, crumbly cheese known as queso fresco, fresh fruit and fried plantains which tasted faintly of cinnamon and sugar, though I’m not entirely certain how they were prepared. We are definitely not going hungry on this trip, which is in stark contrast to the people who live within the country in which we are immersed.

We are so rich, in so many ways, most of us can’t even see our affluence for what it is. We can toss down $50 for a single meal with our spouse. Here, it takes nearly two weeks for most people to earn that much money.

Before heading out to our first stop, we took time for reflection and guided meditation, led by one of the group leaders. You may have noticed by now that I rarely include names in my blog–that’s in part out of respect for the privacy of other participants and also in part because many of the people with whom we dialogue on this trip have received death threats because of the work they are doing, and some continue to be at risk.

Our morning consisted of a lesson in the history of El Salvador, offered by a man from an organization called Equipo Maiz, the Corn Team. Just as many faith traditions say we come from Earth, so the faith tradition here says people come from corn, hence the significance of the name.

Our teacher walked us through the history of El Salvador, dating back hundreds of years, covering the struggle of the indigenous people as they were pushed by the Spanish from parcel of land to parcel of land to no land at all. He then covered more recent history, including the Civil War in El Salvador, the roots of the struggle, and the outcomes.

city area near savior of the world
San Salvador is a modern city, with American chain restaurants, malls and more. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

Today, he argued, the situation for the people is even worse than it was before the peace accord was signed because of the economic situation of the people. An average factory worker here will make $157 per month, he explained. The business owner for whom he works skims $10 off that amount, to cover insurance. If the worker must take a bus to work, and most must take 2-6 to get there every day, that’s another $30 per month. The average family has five members, and a conservative estimate of financial need for that family is $650, according to our teacher. He explained that a Dominican economist estimated the need at $810 per month. The government in the last 10 years has raised the minimum wage only $5 per month. $5. We complain if we don’t get our 3%. Needless to say, even with both parents working, the income falls far short of the need for an average family.

Our teacher explained that this leads to several outcomes and concerns.

1) Common delinquency — a tendency for people to steal things of little or no value just in order to survive.

2) Youth gangs — thousands of youth join gangs and steal as gangs, because at least they can eat.

3) Migration to the United States. Our teacher said some estimates show 500 people per day migrate to the U.S., but he says that is a conservative number. And, he pointed out, if the leftist party does not win the next election in El Salvador in 2009, there is fear that number will skyrocket, no matter what physical barriers may stand at the border.

woman carrying maiz
A woman carries a bucket on her head in rural El Salvador. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

We lunched at a local place with humble wooden tables and a bathroom scene that I’ve become rather accustomed to….though it is not everywhere. There ARE many very nice, clean bathrooms in this country, but this one had no seat….no flushing capability (you must reach your hand into the back reservoir) and no running water in the sink. There was a sink for washing hands in the dining room area.

After lunch we went to POPS, a popular ice cream shop just two blocks from our hotel. Everyone was giddy with the joy of eating this ice cream! I had coconut ice cream, but they had many, many flavors and some members of the group have dedicated themselves to the effort of trying every single one of those flavors before the GATE experience is over.

Interestingly, two men with enormous rifles eyeballed us as we ate our ice cream. It didn’t feel unsafe, in fact the one guard in the dining area of the ice cream place actually smiled at me and said ¨Hola.¨ And yet, it’s hard to feel secure with so many guns around. Big guns….and they’re everywhere. Not concealed, just carried.

In the afternoon, we spoke with a Lutheran pastor and two young men who are working toward positive solutions for the situation of the people by offering programs to youth, women and children.

The young men spoke at length about the influence of gangs–one of the men said his family actually was forced to move from their home because of the pressure of gangs…they wanted him to join their ranks. They moved to San Salvador, where now this young man and the other work in a discussion group which gathers every Wednesday to talk about issues that affect them…issues like HIV, AIDS, machismo, self-esteem, economics and how to deal with those existing problems. It is a safety valve for them, they say, a chance for them to learn things they need to live life.

They also participate in workshops and learn stenciling, graphics, and music. The pastor said this type of work is especially important as the youth are the most vulnerable in society. The one weakness of many churches in El Salvador, he argued, is that they are working with youth who currently are members of the church, rather than looking outside its walls. As part of this program, they welcome the entire family in to the discussion. Statistics show 10-13 people are murdered in El Salvador each day, but the numbers are much higher, he said. Most of those who are dying are the youth.

The young men challenged us to start our own discussion groups, to go forward as messengers of peace and justice, and agents of change for our country.

So, the day was filled with heavy stuff and loads to think about. Some members of the group have been struck by how political our discussions have gotten; I suppose it is almost inevitable here that our discussions would go toward politics, and I had expected it, in fact.

Our dinner consisted of slow-cooked chicken with gravy for the meat eaters, with rice, salad and bread, and I was treated to an omelet with a local ingredient which often appears in pupusas, the owner of the hotel told me. It was green and chopped very small, so I can’t tell you what it looked like, but it tasted sort of like green pepper, though not as strong or sweet. It was very, very good. For desert, we had a sort of Neapolitan-frosted chocolate cake roll. Sounds much more confusing than it was in flavor!

After our group reflections on the day, a few of us headed to a restaurant next door, called Bucaneros, and drank the locally-made Pilsener beer, sat in the back yard surrounded by lit torches, and chatted about our lives back home. It was a nice way to release some of the weight of the day, for while it’s important to learn about the culture here, it’s also important to have time for relaxation and gratitude for what we have, and the journey of a lifetime we are experiencing.

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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