If you’ve ever been brave enough to venture off the beaten path to a developing country, then you will be able to appreciate the experience I’m having while spending six weeks in El Salvador. El Salvador is the smallest and the most densely populated country in Central America. It shares the Pacific coastline of the Gulf of Fonseca with Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Originally mainly agricultural, it is currently undergoing rapid industrialization.
It’s not really a country most people think to travel to, probably because of its past history. A brutal civil war raged there for many years and only ended in 1992. When I tell people I’m going to El Salvador I usually get asked two questions. Is it safe, and why would you go there? Well, if you’ve never visited the country, met its people and dipped your toe into the warm waters lining the miles of pristine coastline you wouldn’t know the charm and beauty of the place.
That’s not to say that El Salvador doesn’t have its share of problems. There are two classes here: the very rich and the very, very poor, and there’s really no middle class to speak of. As with any developing nation, the country has a pollution problem, you can’t drink the tap water and most buildings are either in a state of disrepair or half finished.
Cows, chickens and horses roam the streets along with stray dogs that people don’t treat like man’s best friend. People walk, bike and pile into the backs of pick-up trucks by the dozens to get where they need to go. An eighty-kilometre journey on the local school bus, which serves as public transportation, can take anywhere from two to three hours depending on how many people are standing by the road waiting to be picked up.
With all its problems and challenges you might think that El Salvador’s people would be bitter and angry about their circumstances. But that’s not what I see here. Recently Brian and I were at a food festival in a small town called Jayua. As we sat in the town square eating our frozen chocolate-covered bananas all I saw were happy, smiling faces. Three orphan boys sat staring at us while we ate our lunch. They didn’t ask us for money but when we were done they asked if they could have the leftovers. We gave them our half-eaten food and they thanked us.
The house we rent is in a wealthy El Salvadorian neighbourhood on the cliffs overlooking the sea, behind a security gate staffed by armed guards. The house is far beyond the means of most people who live in this densely-populated country of six million. Most people live in small brick shacks with metal roofs and sleep in hammocks. Houses are dotted along the highway and in the evening the road becomes the social hub of each area. Because the houses are built along the highway people hang out there in the evenings to talk to their neighbours. This makes for some insane driving conditions. There are very few street lights, lots of people and animals crossing the road and crazy drivers dodging in and out of traffic. Needless to say, fatalities sometimes occur.
Shopping in the outdoor market is the best experience. It’s crowded, noisy and hot with people yelling and buses honking. We walk up to the fruit and veggie stand and spend ten dollars. We feast on pineapple, papaya, melons, strawberries, bananas and a whole selection of vegetables. It’s ridiculous that at home we spend $12.00 for a pineapple and in El Salvador we get two pineapples the size of your head for 75 cents.
We also travel to the outdoor fish market, where the local fishermen pull the biggest shrimp you’ve ever seen out of the ocean and charge us next to nothing for them. We dine on red snapper, crab and other assorted seafood for just pennies a pound.
I look around and see only abundance, and yet the truth is that only the well-off or tourists can afford to eat like this. Most of the locals are barely scraping by.
For staples, Brian and I go to the local Super Selectos, which is like a Safeway. We spend just over two hundred US dollars for the month. Most El Salvadorians only make $100 to $400 a month and on our last trip we spent that in less than twenty minutes. I’m not sure if you fully understood the implications of the last sentence so let me repeat it: the average wage in this country ranges from $100 to $400 a month. A firefighter makes $400 a month. How would you survive if you only made $400 a month?
Granted, the cost of living here is far less than what we experience in the comfort and security of our own country but still, that’s not a lot of money for one person, let alone a family.
While I’m in the kitchen doing some work, Jessie (who comes to clean the house three times a week) sits down to talk to me. Jessie is twenty-six years old, has two children and another one on the way. Her husband works on and off in construction and she cleans this house when it’s rented. When it’s not rented she has no work. She makes $100 a month coming three times a week and spends about ten hours a day working.
Jessie speaks no English and my Spanish is not that great. I have Internet access so I go on Babel Fish, which helps me translate our conversation. I seem to understand what she says for the most part but holding a fluid conversation is a challenge. She asks me about my computer and how much it costs. I tell her $800 and her eyes widen. She would have to work for three years to save up enough money to buy it.
I quickly start to realize that although we are both women we come from such different cultures. Milk is too expensive for her. Buying fruits and vegetables is too expensive. I feel guilty because our fridge and cupboards are stuffed with food. I feel embarrassed and ashamed at the abundance we have. To know that this girl is raising two children, has a third on the way and lives on so few dollars makes me want to give her everything I have.
Jessie tells me that her husband is thinking of going to the United States to find work—illegally, of course. Remittances are a common theme in this country. Family members go somewhere else (typically the US where they can make more money) and send it back to their families in hope of providing a better life for them. I ask her how long he may be gone and she says, “Up to five years.” I hold back tears as I think about Brian being away from me for that long. I ask Jessie if she would visit him and then realize she could never afford the plane ticket.
Our brief conversation ends as we run out of things to say. We are worlds apart but there is an unspoken understanding between the two of us. She doesn’t think less of me because I have more material things in my life and I don’t think less of her for not having more. We are simply just two people sitting in a kitchen, learning about each other and our different lives. We share many smiles and a few laughs as we fumble our way around, trying to communicate. I leave the table feeling humbled by the experience with Jessie and the experience I’m having here in El Salvador.
This is my third trip to the country and the longest I’ve stayed. I feel like I’m living here and I’ve been able to absorb more of the culture and learn more about its history. I visited the site of the El Mozote massacre, which took place in the village of El Mozote in Morazán on December 11, 1981. There, Salvadoran armed forces trained by the United States military killed more than 200 and possibly as many as 1000 civilians during the Salvadoran civil war. A memorial was set up and the names of all the children killed were written on a wall. The whole place had a terrible vibe, which I felt in the pit of my stomach. You could still see the bullet holes in the ground.
The driver who took us to the memorial site, Francisco, had only read about the massacre in books. He could not afford the gas to travel the four hours it took to get to the memorial so he had never been there. This fifty-two-year-old man remembers those times very well. Seeing his reaction to the memorial was very powerful. I don’t think any of us had a dry eye when we left the site.
Brian, Francisco and I stayed overnight in a Comfort Inn hotel on the way there. It might have been a modest hotel by our Western standards but this was the first time Francisco had ever been in a hotel. He had never ridden in an elevator before, and we had to show him how to use his electronic key card to get into his room. At the full buffet breakfast in the morning we could just tell that Francisco was overwhelmed by the whole experience.
As I write this, I am halfway through my time here in El Salvador. I came here to relax, do some work and enjoy the sunshine and hospitality of the country. I will leave here with the memories of the people and experiences, counting down the days until I can return again next year. I’m not sure why this country has such an effect on me but it seems to have found a spot in my heart.
Let’s all take a moment to be grateful for the abundance we have in our lives, to acknowledge the people who choose to share their lives with us and to respect different cultures and situations. If there is one lesson I will take away from this experience it will be the lesson of kindness. No matter what the circumstance or situation, if we can treat each other with kindness then we will all be better off.