Cultural Immersion Trip to El Salvador: Part IV

June 15

7:48 a.m.

You would be amazed at the work ethic of the people at this hotel. They are here every minute I am awake. I spoke with the hotel owner about this and she said when they have a group staying with them, they have staff work extra hours. These people are working at least 15 hour days, six days per week, always with a smile and a cheerful greeting for me. I can’t imagine I would exhibit the same cheerfulness for $157 dollars per month, in fact, I know I wouldn’t.

Being here makes me sometimes feel like a very petty and selfish person….it comes in sharp pangs, then flashes of indignation–we work hard for our money! We deserve what we’ve earned! And yet, the disparity is so shocking here, so core-rattling that it forces some difficult questions: are we not one people? Are we not all made of skin that can break and bleed? Do we not all share the same hopes for ourselves: a safe home for our family, food with which to nourish our bodies, reasonably good health, the possibility of improvement for our situation, a small amount of dignity to prop us up when we are faced with challenges that life will inevitably deal us? How, then, to carry these thoughts back with me on that plane that carries me to a land of so many riches we take for granted and turn it, somehow, into good?

This morning one of the cooks allowed me into the kitchen to see what she was preparing, then allowed me to step to the back porch of the hotel, overlooking a valley and many dilapidated buildings.

¨Casas?¨ I asked.

¨Si,¨ she responded.

I turned on my video camera to capture them on film, shacks which look like little more than rotting wood beams supporting tin roofs. A rooster crowed. The sun streaked across my lens. I couldn’t speak, as I realized, very likely, this same cook who is working these long hours to provide me with fantastic, healthy meals, likely goes home to one of these shacks. Maybe not….but someone does….many people do…

It’s been a fascinating day. We started with morning reflection and prayer, as every morning begins, and I wanted to include the text of our reflection from this morning, though many of you may have read it before. It becomes particularly poignant when digesting the complex feast of this cultural experience.

The Final Analysis

People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered;

Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;

Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;

Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you.

Be honest and frank anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous.

Be happy anyway.

What you spend years building, someone may destroy overnight;

Build anyway.

The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;

Do good anyway.

Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;

Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.

You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God;

It never was between you and them anyway.

              – Mother Theresa of Calcutta


With those words, and fueled by a breakfast of fresh fruit, beans or turkey ham, toast and cheese and veggie omelets, we headed, for the first time, outside of San Salvador to the country. It felt great to leave the dark plumes of smoke from the traffic and breathe instead some fresh country air.

I must mention that by 8:30 in the morning, I´ve already sweated through my clothes. The humidity and heat can take your breath away….but I love it.

We headed north to the town of El Paisnal, where we visited a memorial site on the side of the road marking the spot where Rutilio Grande was killed. Rutilio Grande was the spiritual advisor for Oscar Romero, the much-loved Archbishop of the common, poor people. It was the death of Rutilio Grande which led to a spiritual awakening for Romero. After Rutilio Grande´s murder, Romero denounced his rich friends, including the country’s president, and began to speak out about the rights of the poor, shining light on the social injustices of the peasant economy.

We then visited the grave of Rutilio Grande, housed within a small, but beautiful church in El Paisnal.

A priest spoke with us, along with another group, about the deaths of Romero and Grande, in addition to speaking about the current state for the poor in El Salvador. He told us that Rutilio Grande used the bible to teach literacy to the people and had a large group working in El Paisnal to educate the people. Within six months people were learning to read and write. What’s particularly interesting is that he used common items to help the people learn…a tortilla was shaped like the letter O. A horseshoe represented the U. Sugar cane represented an I. He argued in favor of the education of the poor, and the work of Rutilio Grande and Oscar Romero, explaining that God is a God of liberation, and does not support oppression of the people.

But it is not that simple in El Salvador, as evidenced by the murders of these holy men and countless others. Priests who follow the teachings of Oscar Romero are exiled. So, even though many priests believe in Oscar Romero´s teachings, they must abide by the teachings of the archdiocese, which is led by an Archbishop who is Opus Dei.

The morning’s conversation was interactive, and covered a wide variety of topics, from trade agreements with the U.S., particularly CAFTA, to the perception of ¨The American Dream¨ as something Salvadorans believe they can obtain if they cross the border to the U.S., and the challenges that raises for both of our countries.

He also touched on violence in El Salvador, and the perception of that violence. He said he once invited attendees at a conference in San Francisco to visit his country, and one individual asked how it would be possible, with all the violence in El Salvador. This priest said–never before has his country attacked another country, never before has one of their boxers bitten the ear of another boxer, their university students don’t kill each other, their country has never started a world war, has never organized a military training academy in Panama to teach torture techniques (he’s referencing the School of the Americas). Both Romero and Grande were killed with bullets from the U.S. In a 12 year civil war, $1 million per day went toward military spending for the military government in El Salvador from the U.S. So, whose country is more violent? The priest stopped speaking at that point, and the room became silent.

I will mention this, because I think it’s extraordinarily important: while the people of El Salvador, particularly the poor, take issue with U.S. foreign policy and believe that CAFTA benefits only the rich and the landowners here, they are careful to separate the people from the government. I have never felt any animosity toward any member of our group from anyone in El Salvador. Quite the opposite; they welcome us warmly into their humble offices, their churches, and their villages. They engage us in dialogue, and only want us to hear their side of the story, one which has been largely ignored by the mainstream press. Indeed, they have a great deal of respect for the people of the United States, and have told us so, but they do not respect our foreign policy.

The priest concluded by saying ¨We know what we are supposed to do according to the Gospel, but we do not do it, because it is not in our best interest.¨

As we headed out of El Paisnal, we had to drive around several cows who had decided to take a nap in the middle of the major roadway.

We drove through a huge market at Aguilares, and people swarmed around us.

We lunched at a popular local food chain, Pollo Campero, which served primarily chicken. The space was filled with locals. As we approached the building a small boy came up to me, trying to sell me some juicy-looking tomatoes, and I had to decline. He had adorable, deep dimples and the sweetest face. He was one of three children who approached us near the restaurant, all peddling small items ranging from water to vegetables. We’ve been told that many Salvadorans will take out a loan at an interest rate of 20% per day in order to buy goods to sell on the streets. You see them everywhere, on the boulevards on busy highways, on the sidewalks….everywhere. I don’t need to tell you that this is a difficult way to get ahead, yet in a country with a poverty rate over 70%, where 3/4 of families cook over burning wood, this–selling in the streets–is considered work.

We had a short break, and I decided to walk to the Metrocentro, the big mall about two-to-three blocks from our hotel. There’s a coffee shop there, and I thought a nice coffee would help me process all of this information, which frankly often becomes overwhelming. I find myself feeling rather ignorant sometimes…uneducated….but I figure going on this trip is a great way to educate myself and open myself to a new understanding of our world.

boy juggler cu
A young boy in San Salvador, El Salvador, juggles in front of traffic, for tips. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

Anyway, I needed to sit in a clean cafe and enjoy a taste from home, so I went for coffee. As I crossed BLVD Los Heroes, a young boy juggled three balls furiously in front of the traffic, stopped at the red light. He then went from car to car to collect change. I gave him a bit of change and took his photo. I think it’s particularly compelling, because this child could be on any street corner here. It is so common to see people working for small change, begging for it, at the stop lights, that it’s easy to become jaded, to be blind to it. But when a young boy, barefoot and dirty, has to juggle to raise money for his family, it’s hard to turn away.

Well, I sat in the cafe and enjoyed my coffee and watched people selling goods to drivers who passed by, everything from small plastic bags of water to flags of El Salvador, and I watched the well dressed and well fed parade down the street as well and the guard with the rifle at the doorway to the mall, and tried to make sense of it.

I had an inspiration then. I thought maybe the little boy would like some ice cream…and a little bit of money to give to his mother for food. Maybe it sounds ridiculous, maybe he hadn’t even had a suitable lunch, but I just thought maybe this little boy never gets ice cream, and maybe this would be the one day where he has a happy story to tell his mom when he gets home. I looked outside the mall; he was still there. So, with this crazy thought in my brain, I hustled to the grocery store and bought an ice cream bar covered in chocolate and nuts for him.

But while in the checkout line, I noticed the time on the register monitor: 2:45!!!! The bus was set to leave for our afternoon program at 2:30!!! How had time gone so fast? I ran the previous events in my head….the walk to the mall, stopping to watch the boy, drinking coffee, buying ice cream. I hoped that the clock was wrong, but rushed out of the mall.

I handed the little boy the ice cream bar and a bit of money, “for your mother…..for your mother”.…I said….”for food.” I said this in my awful, butchered Spanish, but he seemed to understand. I ran across the BLVD of Heroes, and up the hillside to the hotel. A car pulled in front of me to enter a gate, honked its horn and waited. I was losing precious seconds!

I walked in front of it and then I heard a voice….”CHARISH!”

It was the bus! The whole group was in the bus and coming the opposite direction in traffic, so they opened the door for me and I stepped on the bus and all was well. They worried that I’d become lost in the city, or worse…..but no, I’d just been lost in my own mind.

In the afternoon, we chatted with a Sister about AIDS and HIV in El Salvador. As far as the AIDS epidemic is concerned, El Salvador is a country on the cusp of an explosion. This Sister works at a clinic in El Salvador that tries to head off the problem before it explodes. They face many challenges, ranging from attitudes toward women, to rampant infidelity in relationships, to molestation of children, to the legal brothels that operate, to bisexuality–something that is practiced, but rarely discussed. There is a saying here, ¨For every Salvadoran Man, there are seven women.¨ There is another saying, ¨There is no Salvadoran man who is faithful to his wife.¨ You can see how deep this problem is set within the culture of this society. She estimated that 1% of the population in El Salvador now has HIV or AIDS. Many don’t know it, and are spreading it to multiple partners.

To demonstrate the spread of AIDS and HIV in the country, she used a palm full of 20 coins and marked three with an X. We tossed them on to the floor, and if the X came up, we theoretically contracted the disease. It was an interesting exercise.

This presentation, to me, was the most hopeful so far. Clinic workers from this organization travel to parishes throughout El Salvador to educate the people. They also journey with people who learn they have AIDS, help them obtain medicines sometimes, even help them deal with their own mortality. They also provide food to those infected, as poor nutrition can speed the incubation of the disease. With 72% of the infected patients served by this clinic earning less than $100 per month, this is help that is desperately needed.

Dinner consisted of tilapia in sauce, salad, rice and garlic bread. I got a special dish of green beans in cheese, formed into a patty. It was delicious and so unexpected. After dinner, we requested a bit of scraps from the kitchen for the resident turtle, Manuelita, and watched her devour it. It was great entertainment!

We wrapped up the day by discussing what we´d learned and sharing our thoughts.

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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