Lessons Learned

Two years ago I knew very little about the country of El Salvador. I had heard of it but couldn’t list off any facts or history about the country. I knew roughly where it was located but wouldn’t be able to pinpoint it on a map without some serious searching. Now, however, that is not the case . After going to El Salvador back in January of 2018 my life has been changed forever. As soon as I arrived I knew I’d be coming back year after year. I can’t claim to now know everything there is about El Salvador. But this I do know – I have never in my life met people so loving, genuine, and selfless. I have now spent a collective three weeks with the people of El Salvador – three weeks that have felt like a lifetime. Allow me tell you about that third week.

Saturday, January 4th

The closest I get to what Christmas felt like when I was a kid these days is waking up knowing I’m leaving for El Salvador that morning. This year I could barely sleep, despite knowing I had a 3:30am wake up call looming. It didn’t matter. I woke up with a sense of anticipation and excitement that gave me all the energy I needed. I quickly got ready and headed over to Beth’s house so we could carpool with a handful of other people. We all crammed into the car with luggage overflowing, totally unfazed. We excitedly talked about the week ahead and all the people we’d be seeing again. I didn’t want to wait at the airport and sit on the flights. Could we just fast forward and be in El Salvador?

When we arrived at the airport we met with all of our other travelers, mostly returners but some first timers. We made our introductions and got some pictures out of the way before heading to our gate. The first time I went to El Salvador was also my first time flying. Now, however, I felt like an expert navigating the airport. We made our way through security and boarded our first flight down to Houston. Everyone was on the first flight down to Houston but there would be two separate groups flying down to El Salvador, with four of us arriving a couple hours before the rest of the group. I was part of the early group.

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Ready for El Salvador!

The first flight to Houston was uneventful but something truly special happened on my flight down to El Salvador. I sat next to an elderly Salvadoran couple. We spent a majority of the flight without any acknowledgment or interaction. Towards the end of the flight the attendants handed out forms that would need to be filled out for customs when we landed. I pulled a pen out of my bag and began filling out my form. As I was writing I noticed the couple next to me didn’t have a pen and weren’t filling out their form. When I finished I held my pen out, gesturing to them that they could use it. What happened next was completely unexpected. Instead of taking the pen the man instead held out his form and passport. I was confused, thinking perhaps he misunderstood. I wasn’t able to explain in Spanish that I was offering my pen so I continued to hold it out for him. He did the same with his passport and form, however. Then it clicked. He wanted me to help fill his form out for him. I took it from him, totally unsure if I was allowed to fill it out for someone else. Regardless, I began to fill out his form with the information in his passport. I completed everything expect the signature at the bottom (that’s where I draw the line).

About five minutes later his wife, who was seated directly next to me, pulled out a sleeve of crackers and began eating some. Then something else totally unexpected occurred. She held the crackers out in front of me, seemingly as an offering. However, she didn’t look over at me or say anything, she just kept looking forward. I hesitantly grabbed a cracker, not 100% sure this was in fact an offering. When I took it she didn’t act surprised and slowly brought the sleeve of crackers back to herself. Knowing I was now in the clear I ate the cracker. When I finished my cracker she held the sleeve over to me again. And so I took another one. This continued for another five minutes before I had to say uno mas. I sat there smiling. This was yet another example of the kindness of the people of El Salvador. I didn’t speak one word with this couple and yet I felt a connection with them.

We landed in El Salvador and the four of us (Bob, Elaine, Chrissy, and myself) made our way through customs and security only to discover that our bags did not make it on our flight and would be coming with the next flight, which was the one the rest of our friends were on. Since we had to wait for them anyway it wasn’t a big deal. Instead of sitting in the airport for a couple hours, however, we wanted to see if we could go look for food somewhere. None of us were all that familiar with the airport but we decided to go on an adventure to see what we could find.

We were allowed through the final phase of customs with the understanding that we could come back to get our bags when they arrived. We made our way outside when I looked back and saw a sign that I determined said something along the lines of “No re-entry.” That’s not something you want to see. We quickly turned around and went back inside where we were greeted by a security guard. We tried to explain to him that our bags hadn’t arrived and that we were told we could go back to retrieve them. The problem was that he didn’t know English and we definitely didn’t know Spanish. We eventually came to an understanding and from what I could gather he was telling us he would only allow us back one time. Lesson learned.

Now the four of us just had to wait patiently for our bags and our friends to arrive. As I sat there in the airport I reminisced about my first time in this airport. I’ll never forget the sensation of walking outside and feeling the warm air and sight of palm trees. A smile crossed my face. I was back again.

A couple hours passed before everyone else arrived. We eagerly grabbed our bags and made our way to the exit where we’d wait for one of my favorite people on the planet – Lynette. Lynette is our leader and guide for the week. She is the one that works with the people and tells us what our plan is each day. After about a five minute wait Lynette arrived with our rides and we loaded up the bus to make our way to our volunteer house and home for the week.

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Reunited with Lynette!

Driving through the streets of El Salvador has become so routine for me at this point. Let’s just say the traffic there is a bit different than it is at home. There aren’t as many street lights or stop signs, and even the ones that are present act more like suggestions than law. Cars are whipping in and out of lanes, people cross the street at random, and tailgating is taken to a whole different level. And yet in some weird way I felt safer on those roads than I do at home. In El Salvador every driver has to be alert and prepared to break at any moment. They’re not distracted by their phones like we are.

As we made our hour long drive home I thought about the week ahead. Each year I had come I’ve had a different focus on what I wanted to get out of the trip and what I wanted to accomplish. My first year I was all about the work. My sole purpose there was to work as hard as I could, digging out as many rocks as possible, and persevering through the tiredness. If I wasn’t leaving the worksite covered in dirt then that meant I didn’t work hard enough. I quickly learned that this experience was so much more than the physical work. I kept that in mind in year two, where my priority was to learn as much as I could about the history of the people and of Saint Oscar Romero. I wanted to be more mindful and aware of what the people I was meeting had been through. This year, during year three, my focus was much simpler – the people. I wanted to connect more with the people and build those relationships. Admittedly in my first two years I was a little timid and hesitant to step out of my comfort zone by conversing with the people. I know a few phrases in Spanish but not as much as I’d like. If I were to talk to someone I wanted it to be with a group of people so as not to have all the pressure on me. I was going to change that this year.

We arrived at the house and it was as if I had never left. This volunteer house truly has become my home away from home, a place where I’ve felt myself grow spiritually and develop stronger friendships. This place has brought me peace. Among the 25 people in our group only five were new, which meant a vast majority of us knew what to do and where to go. We unloaded the bus and I made my way inside with my luggage, soaking it all in.

We had some time to unload, claim our beds, and get settled before it was time for dinner. Our dinner for the night would be an El Salvador staple – rice and beans! I remember my first year taking a big leap in trying beans for the first time (I know, I’m picky). Now I loaded my plate with rice and beans.

That evening we all enjoyed each other’s company as we collectively shared stories from previous trips and talked about the week ahead. We were all talking about what we were excited about and looking forward to the most. It’s such a fascinating thing to look back on those types of conversations and then see what transpires. Not even we could anticipate the week we were about to have.

Sunday, January 5th

Saturday was our day to catch our breathe from traveling and just settle in. Sunday, on the other hand, was our day to jump in feet first into the week. Although we weren’t going to the worksite just yet Sunday was our first taste of El Salvadoran culture and adventure. The day began with mass at the church right around corner that we go to every year. Every time I go I’m blown away by the sheer beauty of the church, and more importantly, the faith of the people. The people in El Salvador just seem to have a reverence and devoutness that is rarely seen in the States. I also see something in Mass every year that I’ve never seen before. This year it was a cat just casually walking in and out of the pews, almost making it all the way up to the altar. All of us were astounded and amused, all pointing and laughing quietly with one another.  The people, however, were completely unfazed. Just another day.

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Mass

After mass we went to the town square to walk around for a bit and visit the cathedral. We took our annual picture in front of the huge Christmas tree before making our way to the cathedral. We went between mass times but there were still a number of people in there doing exactly what we were – taking in the beauty. It was evident again how important faith is for the people of El Salvador. Their Catholic faith isn’t just something they believe in, it’s something they live. While in the cathedral I saw something that brought this notion home. There was a statue of Jesus with his arms spread wide and woman holding holding one of His hands, looking up into his eyes. That’s faith.

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A beautiful display of faith

Lynette asked me to lead the group down to the basement to show them the crypt of Saint Oscar Romero. While I was certainly flattered she chose me I’d be lying if I didn’t have a little bit of fear that I was somehow going to make a wrong turn and get the entire group lost.

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Lynette explaining the significance of the crypt of Saint Oscar Romero

Don’t worry, I successfully made the one necessary turn and got the group downstairs. We made our way to the crypt, where we were shortly joined by Lynette. She explained to the newbies the significance of why we were there. While she was talking I was approached by a man selling Romero calendars. I figured, why not, and bought one.

 

 

After visiting the cathedral it was time for one of my favorite parts of the trip – the market. Admittedly, I had struggled at the market the previous two years. At the market we are told to haggle and try to get the prices down. The vendors see a bunch of Americans coming and know they can automatically double their prices. I think I maybe cut down a couple dollars collectively my first two times. This time, however, was going to be different. We set out in groups and made our way through the market. As I came across things I liked I’d ask how much (cuanto cuesta). My general rule of thumb was that if it were less than $3 I wouldn’t bother to haggle and would buy it for full price. For those items that were a bit more I’d start by knocking off a few dollars and they would naturally decline. Where I failed in years past is that I’d bite and just buy it for full price. I was now a seasoned veteran. If they didn’t agree to my suggestion I was prepared to set it back and walk away. It worked! I got quite the haul and was able to get some dollars knocked off. I didn’t set out with anything specific in mind but knew I wanted to get a little for something for people back home. I was pretty proud of myself.

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The market!

After the market we made our way back to the volunteer house for a quick lunch before getting back on the road. After lunch we’d be going to the orphanage like we do every year. We’d be going to a different orphanage, however. The one we typically go to was shut down because of its poor conditions, which sadly did not come as a surprise. We were assured that this new orphanage was much bigger and much cleaner. We were also told that there weren’t as many kids as the previous orphanage, which bummed us out a bit. Regardless, we were eager to go spend time with however many kids were there and make the most of it.

When we arrived there weren’t too many kids out and about like we were accustomed to. Rather, there were a handful of kids inside to play games. I had signed up to play soccer outside, so that’s where I went. We were initially only joined by one boy, Rene. He quickly proved his soccer prowess as we passed the ball around. Before long we agreed to get a game going. There was only one problem – our playing space was much too small for the number of people we had. We decided to count off into three teams, with the team that scores getting to stay. So we counted off and I was fortunate enough to be on the same team as Rene! The pressure was on, too, because I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of him (I can’t exactly say I succeeded).

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Soccer at the orphanage

We played for quite a while, with a couple other boys joining us throughout. Whenever our team sat I talked with Rene, along with Gloria, as the three of us tossed a football around. I attempted to ask him questions through broken Spanish (thankfully Gloria’s Spanish is much better than mine and was able to translate) and get to know him a bit. It was in those moments I was reminded of my focus this trip – to be more present with the people. My first couple years I would have been more concerned with playing soccer but now I was getting more enjoyment out of just talking with Rene.

Aside from spending time with Rene my other highlight of our visit was meeting one of the teachers at the orphanage, which also functions as a school. Again through Spanish I conversed with him, discovering that he and I were about the same age. He told me that they had sixteen kids there and that he taught computer classes. While on the surface we didn’t learn all that much about each other I felt like I got to know him better than some people I share a language with.

We spent a couple hours there before it was time to leave. We said our goodbyes, took some pictures, and began our trek back home. We had one stop to make on the way to grab some snacks for the week. Sadly, the best grocery store in El Salvador, Super Selectos, was closed on Sundays so we had to make an exception. We loaded up on junk food and I got my fix of Quesitos. On the ride back we all shared our snacks, passing bags all throughout the bus.

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Quesitos!

After a long day of adventures we were finally back at the house for the evening. We had a dinner of lo mein, rice and beans, and salad. That evening we were to be joined by an American journalist who now lives in El Salvador and covered the civil war in the 80s and 90s. Although he speaks to us each year every time is different. There is always something new to get out of it as he speaks about the immense suffering of the people and the impact it still has on them to this day.

Afterwards we had time to just relax before our nightly reflection. Our reflection provided us an opportunity to actually talk about what we were actually experiencing and think about the impact it was having in our lives already. We split into groups, with there being a different emphasis each night. This night we talked about our expectations for the trip and how we can push those expectations to the side and instead be present. Something Lynette said during reflection would go on to stick with me throughout the week. She said we weren’t there to be the saviors of the people. We were simply there to be their friends. That really put things into perspective.

It was crazy to believe that we were already two days in. Everything so far had felt very comfortable and routine. For the most part everything we had done in the 1.5 days was something I had done in previous years. While I certainly enjoyed having that familiarity I also missed the newness and awe of my first couple trips. I questioned whether the whole week would feel this familiar. It wouldn’t take long for those doubts to subside.

Monday, January 6th

I begin just about every day of my life with the same routine of eating breakfast with a cup of coffee. It’s one of those simple things that brings me peace. That is no different in El Salvador. I looked forward every morning to waking up, heading downstairs to get my bowl of cereal and cup of coffee, and sit in the dining room as people filtered in and out. I was especially eager this Monday morning. It would be our first day at the worksites.

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Morning coffee and breakfast with Gloria, Katie, Andy, and Beth

I was excited to return to our main worksite and see the progress that had been made over the last couple years. We were no longer digging and cutting grass like my first year. The houses were pretty much finished, with the focus now being on paving the road and digging trenches alongside for water to flow down. Not only that, but we had three electricians in our group that had a goal of installing electricity in four of the houses by the end of the week. We would also be returning to a project at a separate site where we’d be working on a digging down to replace a water pipe. Finally, there was a new project that we had never done before that didn’t require any physical labor. We’d be making house visits to residents in the village that weren’t able to make it out very often and didn’t receive many visitors. But more on that later.

I signed up for the water pipe project, mostly because it was one of my favorite parts of last year. I didn’t really know what to expect but I was excited to do some digging.

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Las Delicias

Before heading there, though, we dropped people off at the primary worksite and picked up some tools to take with us. There I had a reunion with two of my favorite people: Don Miguel and Don Luis. They have been our two foreman long before I started going. Don Miguel is one of the most joyous people I’ve ever met, greeting each and every one of us like long lost friends. Don Luis, on the other hand, is deaf and mute and prefers to mostly stand in the back. Spending time with them would be one of my highlights of the week, but again, more on that later.

 

Six of us loaded up the van and made the short trip to the water pipe site. The previous year we were starting from scratch and digging into previously untouched grass and dirt. This year we arrived to a spot in the street that had already been carved out. The locals already there working were pounding and carving away into the pavement. Our little spot was a bit confined, with really only space for three people to work comfortably. I was initially a little bummed about that because I wanted to work but it ultimately worked out well. It allowed for us to take turns and takes breaks as frequently as we needed.

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About halfway through the morning I was sitting at the edge of our hole with my feet dangling inside the pit. A couple men were walking down the street when one of them approached me. He put his hands on my shoulders and put his face very close to mine and began speaking. I obviously couldn’t understand what he was saying and turned toward a member of our group, David, who was fluent in Spanish. According to David, the man was asking for money. What made me sad, though, was a comment he made along the lines of “You Americans have more value than us Salvadorans.” Now, he very well may have meant that we have more money. But the way I initially took it was that he meant our lives have more value than theirs. That made me sad because it is so untrue but heartbreaking that there are people that do think that. One of the locals who saw the encounter reaffirmed that he was just a local bum looking for drinking money. Regardless of what he meant I now wanted to approach this week with a new mission: to make each person I encounter feel like they have value.

We continued on with our work day, with us rotating through different tasks of loosening up the dirt, digging it out, and repeating. One of the people we met last year, Nora, was there again and was now joined by her two sons. We got to talking to them a little bit when I decided to ask them a question. I asked one of them “Tienes otra hermanos?” or “Do you have other brothers?” I was pretty proud myself for thinking of this question. That’s why I was surprised by the very confused looks on their faces. Admittedly, I probably didn’t speak in flawless Spanish but I figured I got the sentiment across. Then someone in my group asked me where I got the number eight from. It was then that I realized that I actually asked “Tienes ocho hermanos?” That certainly explained their confusion, as there was no reason for someone to ask why they had eight brothers. Another lesson learned.

We worked for a little while longer before it was eventually time to be picked up to head to the community center for lunch. That is where we reconvened with everyone, and more excitingly, got to see some of the people we’ve encountered in previous years. It was all so familiar. As we were getting off the bus we were greeted by at least a half dozen kids. On the field outside there were kids running around and playing soccer. Inside there were even more kids, some playing Uno or Jenga, while others were their mothers. Speaking of the mothers and women, many of them were stationed around the large room with tables filled with goods for sale. I smiled.

We all ate lunch and swapped stories of our mornings. I ate as quickly as I could so I could head outside and play with the kids. Outside I met a little boy named Roberto, who was six years old. He and I passed a soccer ball around for a bit before I suggested he take some shots on me as a the goalie. Before long we were joined by Clara, who grew up in Las Delicias and was now one of our guides for the week. She wasn’t messing around. I don’t think I saved a single one of her shots. Regardless, I was happy.

After about an hour it was time to head back to work for the afternoon. This time

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Back at the worksite with David

we’d all be heading back to the main worksite in the village. When we arrived we were greeted by Don Miguel’s ten year old son, Salvador. Little did I realize at the time the impact this little boy would have on me throughout the week. I remember him from last year, but he was only with us for a day. This year he would be a staple each and every day.

I started working on the trench that was being dug on either side of the street. This would serve the same function as a gutter, allowing rain water to flow down these trenches instead of forming puddles in the street. We had to water it down, rake out and pile up the brush and branches that had collected, shovel it into a wheelbarrow, and go dump it. We all worked together to get this done, joined by none other than Salvador. He would be right there with us every day, working right alongside us.

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Salvador!

Little did I know, however, Salvador’s love for taking pictures. Whenever I’d sit down to take a break and he’d run over and want to take pictures with my phone. We’d a take a few selfies and he’d immediately grab the phone to start scrolling through. I showed him how to take different types of videos, including slo-mo and panoramic. When it was time for me to get back to work I’d leave my phone with him. That meant I came back to a barrage of the most random pictures and videos. I love every single one, even the ones of just the ground. I also taught him a handshake that Beth and I came up with. He LOVED it. Over the course of the week we probably did it north of a hundred times. In fact, that would become his greeting to me each time I stepped off the bus.

We were at the worksite for a couple hours before it was time to head back home. We said our goodbyes for the day and loaded up on the bus. I had a seat next to two of our Salvadoran guides for the week, Hiromi and Carla. I met with these two girls my very first year and they’ve been our guides each year. They, along with Clara, Pili, and Alejandra, were there to help us throughout the week. When we went to the market they helped translate, they guided us through the home visits, and they worked alongside us. During the ride home I talked with Hiromi and Carla about their search for jobs. Hiromi is a special education teacher and Carla is a doctor. They talked about how difficult it was to find jobs there in El Salvador in those two fields. And yet they didn’t complain or say “woah is me.” They kept a positive attitude, knowing eventually something would turn up. Otherwise, I showed them pictures of my niece, Lily, and of my girlfriend, Alyssa. When I showed them pictures of Alyssa they said “Ohh, muy bonita!” They said I was the “leader” of the group because I happened to be collecting everyone’s trash. It was a good bus ride.

When we arrived home we had some time to clean up before dinner. Showers there are all with cold water. It’s a little bit of a shock to the system the first couple times, but after a long, hot day outside it’s the most welcome thing in the world. Dinner that night was chicken, rice, beans, and salad. Much like every meal we shared, we all enjoyed each other’s company and swapped stories of the day. David gleefully told everyone of my “ocho” mistake from earlier in the day. We would go on to have a list of the best quotes of the week and that one would make the list.

That evening there would be a showing of a documentary about Romero. It was required for all the first timers to watch since it gave some much needed insight into the history of the country. For those of us that had seen it already, we all gathered outside and enjoyed the beautiful night. It was nice to just be with everyone and relax. I laid down and looked up at the stars. I couldn’t believe how quickly the week was flying by, a little too quickly for my taste. I needed to be more intentional about slowing things down and simply appreciating where I was.

After the conclusion of the movie was had a quick reflection and some time for silent adoration in the house. Afterwards there was still some time before we had to be in bed, so people spread out throughout the house. Some people went straight to bed, others went to play games, while a few took the opportunity to read or journal. I found myself downstairs with Katie, Emily H, Gloria, and both Davids. I wish I could recall all of the random conversations we had. What I do remember is how much we laughed. It was safe to say we were all slap happy. The conversation eventually turned on me. Throughout the week people lightheartedly told me I should either shave or get a haircut, so we talked about how I could improve my life in other ways. I should preface this by saying it was all in good fun and was a not a serious intervention. The conversation turned to cooking and what my diet was like. I said that I like to cook for people. That’s when Katie just about fell out of her chair. “When have you EVER cooked for anyone?!” That’s when we all lost it. I hadn’t laughed that hard in a long, long time. Our conversations, as random as they were, were community and joy in their purest forms.

Tuesday, January 7th

Today would be a little different than usual. Typically on the Tuesday of the trip we are back to the worksite and Wednesday we have an excursion day to rest up halfway through the week. However, our schedule for this week was predicated around the electricity project. Lynette knew a local electrician that was going to come and assist with the project so that he could complete it after we left. His days of availability were Wednesday through Saturday. In order to maximize our time with him Lynette decided to bump our excursion day up to Tuesday. It initially felt weird to be “resting” when we had only worked a single day. It wouldn’t take long to get into the spirit of the day, though.

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Patti chopping down some sugarcane

Before we left Lynette told us how she would be on the lookout for workers cutting sugarcane. If we happened to see that we would stop so Lynette could ask if we could help them for a few minutes and give us a chance to cut some sugarcane. She said this had only happened a couple times, so we figured it would be a long shot. But wouldn’t you believe it, it actually happened! We pulled over, filed out of the bus, and took turns chopping down stalks of sugarcane with the workers’ machetes. Not only that, but we got to try the sugarcane! We passed it around, literally taking bites out of it. It was delicious. It was a weird texture and consistency but it was so naturally sweet and tasty. It was definitely worth the detour.

Our first planned stop of the day would be in a town called El Paisnal. This is where a priest by the name of Rutilio Grande was murdered on his way to celebrate mass at a nearby church. Saint Romero was not the only priest that was assassinated in recent Salvadoran history. Far from it, actually. Grande was another major voice for the people in El Salvador. So much so, that if people were found with a picture of him they were automatically killed. As a result, not many pictures or portraits of him exist. Grande was a close friend of Romero’s and it was his death that really changed Romero’s perspective on the relationship between the people and the government. Although he may be overshadowed a bit by Romero, Grande’s impact on El Salvador was profound, evidenced by the fact that is currently in the canonization process.

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Two of our guides, Hiromi and Carla

After visiting Grande’s roadside memorial where he was killed we made our way to the church where he was heading. Although I had visited this church twice before it still brought me a sense of wonder and awe. We took a few minutes to take it all in and wander out into the courtyard, which, to me, is one of the most beautiful spots in El Salvador.

 

From there we made our way to Suchitoto, which is where we would spend the rest of the day. Our first stop in Suchitoto was in the town square where we had some time to eat lunch and do some shopping. We walked down the street to the shop that we visit each year. This shop was owned by friends of Lynette, who drew inspiration for their goods from their Mayan roots. Everything in the shop was beautifully and intentionally crafted. I didn’t have anything in particular I needed but I couldn’t NOT get anything. So naturally I bought three things.

With my bag of goodies in hand I went back to the square to reconvene with some of the others and eat lunch. A group of us settled down on a bench and shared our lunches together. We happened to be sitting directly across from a line of street vendors selling more trinkets and items than I could count. I wanted to buy everything.

A few people came out of a shop right at the corner of the square, saying it had a lot of really cool things inside for pretty reasonable prices. I figured I’d go check it out and see what I could find. Unfortunately, our time was running out, so I had to scarf down the rest of my lunch and be quick. I found a couple other things and was overall pretty satisfied with my purchases for the day. It wasn’t until I was walking out of that shop that I realized I left my bag of things I bought at the first store at the bench where I ate lunch. Not yet in a full panic I ran over to the bench, praying I’d find it where I left it. My heart sank when there was no bag in sight. I frantically pulled up the translating app I had on my phone to try and ask one of the vendors if they saw where the bag went. Before I could get that far Rodrigo called out to me to tell me it was too late. He told me to accept the fact that I wouldn’t find it anywhere out on the square, seeing as there was no way it would go unclaimed. Why? Because it was on the bus. As it turns out, Rodridgo himself saw that I had left the bag behind when I went to the second store. So he promptly grabbed the bag and placed it on the bus, maniacally sitting back and watching as my panic set in. Yet another lesson learned.

I returned to the bus to jeers and jokes from the others, embarrassed by my complete lack of awareness. It was alright, though. It all makes for a good

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Beautiful view from the boat

story, right? Regardless, I was ready to put that experience behind me and move on. Thankfully we were ready to head to our next adventure of the day, which would be a boat ride on the lake nearby. Much like I’ve said about things so far, the boat ride is something that I’ve done each year yet still blows me away with its sheer beauty. There’s nothing quite as relaxing as clear skies, cool water, green trees in all directions, and a breeze blowing through your hair. Pure bliss.

 

After our boat ride we settled in for the evening at a nearby resort. We had time to swim, play games, and simply hang out with one another. I will admit, though, it didn’t feel like we had earned this day of rest yet. That seemed to be the general consensus among the group. While we certainly appreciated this chance to relax we were all eager to work. In hindsight, though, I think this day of rest was perfectly placed. It gave us a little extra motivation to work a little bit harder and even pushed us to want to work on our last day on Saturday instead of go to the beach. Everything happens for a reason.

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Our view from the resort

We had our dinner and got to see our guide, Clara, show off her dance moves before we made our way back home. During our bus ride we played a game called Contact. I won’t even attempt to explain the rules but this was our go-to bus game. Although our bus rides were typically a minimum of an hour long they were still some of my favorite moments of the trip. They were opportunities for us to just have fun, laugh, and spend time together.

Before turning in for the night we had our nightly reflection. The topic for this night was, fittingly, rest. We talked about how back home we are so busy all the time that rest seems unattainable or even a poor use of time. This is something I needed to hear. Rest is necessary, even when it feels undeserved.

Wednesday, January 8th

I mentioned at the beginning that my focus each year has been different. My focus of this year’s trip was the people. I wanted to be more intentional in my interactions with the people I encountered. I also stated at the beginning that I wanted to do something out of my comfort zone. Today would be my opportunity to do just that. Instead of going to the worksite I would be doing house visits along with our guides Pili and Clara, as well as David. I honestly didn’t know what to expect. All I knew was that we would be spending time with people in their homes in Las Delicias where we were working. I was a little bit nervous. I obviously would not be able to converse with these people on my own and would have to rely on David to translate. I had also never actually been in the homes of the people before. I had seen them from the outside and seen how they live, in a sense. But I had never seen firsthand how they truly live.

We were dropped off at the worksite with everyone else before beginning our journey on foot. Our first visit of the day was with an elderly man named Don Lucio. When we arrived he was making a fire so he could brew some coffee. Don Lucio has a cleft pallet, and sadly has been ridiculed and made fun of as a result. To make matters worse, he doesn’t have a great relationship with his family, so he decided to live by himself. To put it lightly, his house was quaint. To be more realistic, I have been in closets that were bigger than his house. I was saddened to hear of his circumstances and see how he lived. But I could also see how much this visit meant to him. He was happy to have people to talk with, despite being rather soft spoken. I immediately thought of the people we pass on the streets back home that we don’t even look at. These people in many ways are invisible. But this encounter with Don Lucio reminded me that these people are human, desperately desiring even the smallest amount of acknowledgment and interaction.

We spent maybe 5-10 minutes with Don Lucio before bidding him farewell and making our way to the next house. Our next stop would be to visit another elderly man named Don Isaias. His house was considerably bigger, as he lived with his two daughters and their families. When we arrived we were greeted by four children. I felt like I stood out like a sore thumb, evidenced by their intense stares at me. I attempted to say “Como estas” and “Como se llama” to each of the children. They merely laughed. Talk about humbling.

Don Isaias was sitting in the back of the home, where the four of us gathered and found seats of our own. Don Isaias was practically the opposite of Don Lucio. Don Lucio was soft spoken and content to just be with others without speaking much. I’m not exaggerating when I say Don Isaias was talking from the moment we sat down all the way to our exit. It was nearly impossible to get any questions in. That was perfectly okay with me. He shared whatever stories came to mind. David was a champion as he feverishly tried to translate in real time. He told us how he came to live in Las Delicias, his life as a younger man, and how often the bus comes through the village.

The story that would stick with me the most, however, was an encounter he had with God. He told us how one day when he was working in the fields he was overcome with an unbearable pain in his stomach. He said the pain was so intense that he thought he was going to die. Through his pain he began to pray to God. He said he could hear God talking back, saying He was the creator of the world and of all things. In that moment his pain completely subsided. He told us that this was a miracle and that his faith is what saved him. That experience changed his life. I was blown away by his account of faith and trust in the Lord. How often do I turn to God in my own moments of pain, trial, and fear? Don Isaias will be an example of faith I will not soon forget.

It was time for us to leave, but good luck telling Don Isaias. Even as we stood up and started creeping away he continued to talk. He eventually stopped for a millisecond, long enough for us to say our official goodbyes. This interaction with Don Isaias made me think of the countless senior citizens that live in nursing homes that rarely have visitors. They have decades of life experience and stories ready to share with anyone that will listen. The unfortunate truth is that many of them don’t have that listening ear. I hope to change that for some.

Our final visit was with a mother and daughter, Magali and Oveli, and two little boys. They joyfully welcomed us in, eager for us to sit down and chat for a while. They had mango trees surrounding their little patio where we were gathered, and encouraged us to pluck some down for us to eat. They handed me a long stick used to pick them off the tree, which admittedly took me a while. They took the ones that I successfully knocked down, washed them off, chopped them up, and served them to us with some salt.

We spent the next half an hour or so joking around and laughing. They were an absolute blast. It truly didn’t matter if I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I could feel their immense joy. They told us how the food they make is so much better than anything we’d find at a restaurant because it’s real authentic El Salvadoran food. I felt so welcomed by them.

Then something unbelievable happened. I had noticed a picture of Mary hanging up on the wall. In an attempt to start a conversation I said, in broken Spanish, “I really like that picture. It’s very pretty.” Magali, the (grand)mother, asked me if I was devoted to Mary and I said I was. Then she offered me the picture. I immediately turned it down. The last thing I was trying to imply was that I wanted to take this picture from this family I had just met. I was only trying to make conversation in one of the simplest ways I could think. But she insisted. She said that I was clearly more devoted to Mary than they were so it would mean more to me than it did to them. My attempts to deny it proved futile, as her persistence wore me down. She picked it up off the wall, took it inside to clean it off, and gave it to me. I was overwhelmed by the kindness I just witnessed.

I tried to put it in perspective. I imagined if someone was in my apartment and said they liked something hanging on my wall. The last thing I would do would be to offer it to them. Yet here I was, the recipient of an incredible gift. This was yet another example of how the people of El Salvador have so little, yet are so giving. As we departed I told them that whenever I look at this picture I would think of them. And I meant it.

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The sights of Las Delicias

I think I had a smile on my face all the way back to the community center as I continued to process what just happened. What made the walk even better is that we got a bit of a bonus on the tour by getting an in depth description of all the different fruits, flower, and plants that were native to El Salvador. Not only that, but we got to visit the local school where a lot of the children go.

 

We met up with everyone else at the community center for lunch where we were again greeted by the children. I was quick to eat my lunch because I was eager to get outside and play with the group of boys kicking a soccer around. That is when I met Alex and Samuel, who were joined by Roberto. We kicked the ball around for a while before I suggested we play a game with the Americans versus the Salvadorans. They were onboard so I immediately ran to recruit some teammates.

Before long our game was underway and I was reminded of how over-matched we were. We had a slight numbers advantage but they had the clear advantage in the skills department. They had kids half the age of most of us and were still dribbling through us like we were stationary cones. But we played hard and even scored some goals to make it a somewhat competitive game.

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Roberto!

We eventually had to wrap up so we could head back to the worksite for a little bit. If I recall the Salvadorans won by a single goal, so I was proud of the way we played. We said our goodbyes for the day and loaded up the bus. We spent maybe an hour at the worksite. It felt weird because I had only spent a little time at the worksite. In my first two trips a majority of my time was spent at this site. I was eager to spend a full day here, if anything just to see Salvador, Don Miguel, and Don Luis.

 

We weren’t there long before we had to leave to go home. On the way home we made a quick pit stop at the lava rock field, which has been a staple of every trip. Since most of us had been there before our stop was rather short. One quick photo-op later we were back on the bus. As I’ve said before, these bus rides were filled with joy and laughter. At this stage in the week we were all comfortable, gradually building a sense of community with one another. The bus rides were essential to that growth.

Unfortunately over the course of the week there were a handful of people that were feeling a bit under the weather, with a couple having to stay back at the house. When we got home there was a small contingent of people that were going to find a pharmacy, as well as pass through Super Selectos to reload on snacks. At the last minute I decided to join, solely for the Super Selectos.

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Adventures in San Salvador with Rodrigo, Dan, Tony, Chrissy, Patti, Beth, and Katie

We spent about the next hour roaming the streets of San Salvador. The pharmacies were plentiful, but some were closed, while others didn’t have what our group needed. The longer we were out, the closer we got to the start of dinner at 5:30. Normally that wouldn’t be that big of a deal but tonight’s meal was special. We were having pupusas! All you need to know is that pupusas are a staple in El Salvador and are absolutely delicious. I only have them this one time a year and I didn’t want to miss out. Long story short, we got our medicine, made a quick stop at Super Selectos, and arrived back home. It turns out we were gone so long that our elderly vigilante had to go searching for us. Oops!

 

The pupusas did not disappoint. If I thought I loved pupusas, however, I was mistaken. I settled for three while one of our newbies, Andrew, set what has to be a record with eight! I’ve never been more impressed.

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Pupusas!

I was looking forward to that night’s reflection because it was my group’s turn to lead it. I had been reading a book about the life of Oscar Romero leading up to the trip and there was a passage that stuck with me. Essentially, it said that in the world there are terrible, dark things. However, these things cannot be addressed or fixed without sunlight. Sunlight reveals the darkness of the world so that it can be changed. Our approach to this reflection was threefold: how are we sunlight to the people of El Salvador; how are they sunlight in our lives; and how can we be the sunlight when we return home. We had a fruitful discussion about those three questions. I reflected on what had occurred already that week and the moments of sunlight. I wanted to be more mindful of opportunities to share this light through the rest of the week.

Thursday, January 9th

I was excited for the day ahead. It was hard to believe this would be my first full day at the worksite. In preparation I followed my typical morning routine – coffee and breakfast, make lunch, change clothes and brush my teeth, put on sunscreen and bug spray, and wait outside for our morning reading. It’s funny how quickly we adopt a routine even in a foreign country. We are creatures of habit and that is no different in El Salvador.

At the worksite I would be working more on the trenches running alongside the road. We had made some progress already but we needed to extend all the way up the road. As we pulled in there was Salvador, running alongside the bus, ready to greet us. As we filed out he greeted each and every one of us with a hug or a high five. He remembered the handshake I had taught him on Monday, having me do it with him about ten times in a two minute span. I said hello to Don Miguel and Don Luis and gave them each a hug. I was very much looking forward to working with them each today.

My first year I was so zeroed in on the work itself that I didn’t take much time at all to get to know these two men. I’m ashamed to admit it but I was hesitant to work alongside Don Luis my first two years. Don Luis is deaf and mute, making it even more difficult to communicate. I couldn’t rely on the translations of others to get a message across. I would feel helpless when he would prompt me to do something a certain way, not knowing exactly what he meant. What a self-centered attitude. I didn’t fully comprehend how difficult it must be for him on a daily basis. How frustrating must it be to know what you want but not be able to fully communicate it. There was something within me that was telling me to step out of my comfort zone and be with Don Luis, regardless of whatever communication barrier might exist between us.

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Chrissy and Sam enjoying some watermelon!

I grabbed my shovel and got to work. While some of us worked on the trenches, others were hard at work installing electricity into the houses. We were fortunate to be joined by a couple local electricians, as they offered their input. Not only that, but one of them brought watermelon slices to share! Meanwhile, Lynette, Don Miguel, Don Luis, Rodrigo, and our bus driver Roberto (who also worked with us each day) debated the next steps for the road and how the cinder blocks should be laid out. I found it amazing how meticulous they were. To the naked eye one might look at this quaint little village and see rudimentary houses and an amateurishly made road. That is not how the people saw it, though. They took on this task on with pride. They didn’t have the benefit of fancy power tools but what they had was skill and precision. In fact, that was one of the things I marveled at the most. There were several time where I found myself just admiring Don Miguel and Don Luis as they worked. Every pile of dirt they shoveled and spread went exactly where they intended. Every root was cut with one perfect swipe of the machete. In those moments I had to snap myself back because I would just be standing there and not working.

 

All the while I was right there working with Don Luis. The longer I did so the more I picked up on how he functioned and what he wanted. I also learned that Don Luis has a sense of humor. I had been working on spreading out a pile of dirt with him. Our pile was running low and needed to be replenished. A couple people had been bringing wheelbarrows full of dirt. Don Luis was trying to beckon one of them so they could refill our pile. Before he could get their attention they dumped their pile in a different spot. I exchanged a knowing look with Don Luis to indicate I had seen what had just happened. He simply shrugged his shoulders as if to say “welp” and smiled.

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Gloria and Don Luis

Later on Salvador and I did our handshake for probably the fiftieth time that day. This time, however, Don Luis saw and began laughing. For his amusement, Salvador and I did it again and received a thumbs up from Don Luis as a sign of his appreciation. I then decided to teach the handshake to Don Luis. He loved it. In that moment I questioned why I ever tried to avoid this man. I do have to admit, all I had to do was follow Gloria’s example. She was the one that really opened my eyes. She had told me earlier in the day of how she was able to ask Don Luis where he lived through hand motions. He indicated that he lived fifteen minutes away in the nearby mountains and that he walked to the worksite everyday. This was a beautiful moment of inclusion and acceptance and further proof that there is no language barrier that can’t be broken down by love.

 

It was not uncommon to be joined at the worksite by some of the children that lived nearby. This included two brothers, Diego (10) and Enrique (5). Each day they’d meander down to check out what was going on and would occasionally pitch in to help out as well. I had happened to bring a little mini basketball with me to the worksite today and I asked Diego is he wanted to play catch one time while I

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Diego hard at work

was taking a break. He happily said yes and we found a spot to toss the ball back and forth. After about five minutes I figured I should get back to work. I told him I had to go back to work and tried to leave him with the ball to indicate that he could keep it and continue playing. But what he said surprised me. He said he wanted to come work with us. He joined me along the trench with shovel in hand and helped me shovel dirt into the wheelbarrow. Before long Enrique joined in and the two brothers took turns taking the wheelbarrows full of dirt to the dump off spot.

 

We made quite a bit of progress before it was time for lunch. Today we wouldn’t be returning to the worksite after lunch, as we had other plans for the afternoon. We bid farewell for the today but I was already looking forward to seeing everyone the next day.

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Rodrigo in heaven

It would wind up being a pretty exciting afternoon at the community center. I again ate my lunch as quickly as I could so I could get outside to play soccer with the kids. What I walked out to see took me by surprise – a horse. Yep, there was a horse tied up near one of the girls. It turns out it belonged to one of the men in the village who was hanging out at the community center. He graciously let a few people from our group take turns riding the horse. It was quite an amazing visual to be playing soccer with mountains in the background while a horse ran through the field. Only in El Salvador.

 

We were in the middle of another Americano vs Salvadoran soccer game when somebody inside called out to me saying I needed to come quickly and that it was really important. I racked my brain trying to think of what was so important. As I jogged in it clicked – Cesar was here! Sure enough, I walked in and there he was. I met Cesar my first year, as he was one of our guides. His personality and joy are infectious and contagious. It’s simply impossible to be in a bad mood when Cesar is around. We gave each other a big hug, like the ones you give to friends you haven’t seen in a while. I thought about how much my life has changed since I first met Cesar. In many ways I was a totally different person. I like to think I’m a better person, somebody that is able to find and spread joy to those around me. I attribute much of that to Cesar.

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Americans vs Salvadorans
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Climbing the volcano

We chatted for a few minutes before I returned back out side to join back into the game. We only played for a little while longer before it was time to leave. As I mentioned, we weren’t returning to the worksite but instead taking a trip to the volcano! We had visited the volcano each year I’ve been but it’s still breathtaking. This volcano isn’t what you’d typically think of. This particular volcano is dormant, and instead of oozing lava it was covered with green foliage. As we walked up toward the top of the volcano I realized how much of a toll this week had taken. I was physically exhausted – but in the best way possible.

 

That exhaustion, though, hit me like a ton of bricks by the time we arrived back at the house. I was barely able to make it through dinner before I crashed and took a nap. The week’s work and adventure had finally caught up to me. I was probably down and out for about an hour before it was time for the nightly reflection. Andy kindly let me know we were about to start and I sluggishly made my way downstairs. As tired as I was I’m glad I made it down for reflection. Opportunities like these were so valuable. It was our time as a group to grow together as we talked about how we were seeing and experiencing so much of God’s love.

I didn’t make it too long after reflection. Despite my nap I was still dead tired. I have the worst case of FOMO, so normally I decide to push through. Tonight was an exception. I knew I would be much better off in the morning if I turned in early and got the rest my body so desperately desired.

Friday, January 10th

I woke up still a little tired but definitely rejuvenated compared to how I felt the day before. The early bed time absolutely paid off. Good thing, too, because I had a jam packed day ahead of me.

About half way through the week I had come up with an idea to make a video that we could use to promote the trip in the future. Within the video there would be clips of people talking about their experience on the trip and the impact it had on them. I was eager to begin filming today at the worksite. I was also very much looking forward to the work we’d be doing. We were pretty much finished with the trenches so today we’d actually begin working on the road. Essentially what that consisted of was mixing white sand with cement, which we would then spread out across the road. We would then take big tools called tampers that are used to flatten and smooth it out.

When we arrived we saw a familiar sight – Salvador running alongside the bus to greet us. This brought so much warmth to my heart. I said hi to my buddy and we did our handshake a few times before we were off to work. Our first step, as I mentioned was to load up white sand from a pile to take up to the road. I got to shoveling, with Salvador right by my side. There was a moment when Salvador moved to a different part of the pile. He beckoned me to come follow, so of course I did. I don’t think there was more than a minute that entire day where Salvador and I weren’t side by side. When it was time for us to start tamping the road, Salvador unsurprisingly wanted to pitch in. The only problem was that these things were heavy. When I asked Salvador to help me with mine he gladly obliged.

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Even when I took a break, there was Salvador. There were moments I’d grab him and lift him up in the air. I’ve genuinely never heard a more pure laugh in my life. This little boy had a permanent smile on his. He was also as clumsy as he was joyful. I can’t how many times he either tripped or hit his head on something. And yet he would laugh through it all.

We had also been teaching him words in English throughout the week, including hello, thank you, please, excuse me, and more. We also quizzed him on our names. Once when I asked him what my name was I was surprised by the answer. Instead of saying Drew he said “Rubio” through giggles. I obviously didn’t know what that meant, so I insisted “No, my name is Drew!” That was when Carla told me that Rubio means Blondie. So my name for the rest of the week was Blondie – and that was perfectly okay with me.

jdlcvjThe more time I spent with Salvador the more difficult I knew it would be to say goodbye. I would’ve spent the entire there at the worksite, playing and working with Salvador the whole time. But alas, that was not part of the daily schedule. It was eventually time to move on to the community center for lunch. Thankfully we’d be coming back to work after lunch, so I’d have more opportunities to spend time with Salvador.

Today’s visit to the community center would be a different than previous days. Instead of post-lunch soccer game we were treated to a break dance performance. One of our guides, Clara, was a self-taught break dancer and she invited a couple of her friends to come perform. We cleared the tables out of the way, sat together as a group, Americans side-by-side Salvadorans, and watched with our jaws on the floor. These dancers didn’t have the training that many people back home are fortunate to have. But what they did have was talent, and more importantly, passion. Much like the kids that embarrassed me on the soccer field, they didn’t need the technical training to show how gifted they were.

Although we didn’t get to play soccer for as long as we typically do I still got to play games with the kids. In particular, I played checkers with a young boy named Carlos. This was a nice change of pace from soccer. As if I needed more proof, our difference in languages meant little, as we were able to enjoy our time together through a simple game like checkers.

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The road starting come along

I’m not normally ready to leave the community center but today I was. I wanted to get back to Salvador. I wanted to make the most of every moment with him. We returned to the worksite and as we drove in it really hit me how much progress we had made. The road was actually starting to look like a road. I walked through each of the houses to appreciate the work of the electricians. I was also really excited about the prospects of the video. I had interviewed a handful of people that morning and was ready to get a few more this afternoon. These interviews, along with videos I had been taking throughout the week, should provide me with a lot of material.

 

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Working with Don Luis

The road was ready for us to begin laying down the cinder blocks. I again witnessed first hand how particular Don Miguel and Don Luis were. Every block had to be lined up flush against one another. They were perfectionists, but not in a way that was off-putting. If we made a mistake they didn’t scold us or give us nasty looks. If anything, they were more inclined to laugh as if to say “That’s okay. Let me show you.”

 

I took a moment to just observe the worksite. The area where we were working on the road was nothing but grass and weeds. The house on either side were nothing but untouched dirt. The spot where I was digging my first year to excavate was now a fully built house. I smiled.

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It was time to start cleaning up and as I’ve learned, there’s no such thing as a quick goodbye in El Salvador. I truly didn’t want to leave. But there was much more to do today!

On the bus ride home I had a really great chat with Detroit David. He joined us last year and is the nephew of our leader, Ann. We talked about life and what we wanted to do in the future. We talked about how similar our relationships were and what our girlfriends were like. The bonds that are built on this type of trip aren’t just with the people of El Salvador, it’s with the people we are on the journey with.

I got home and showered right away. Which was probably a bad idea, considering what was next on our agenda. A student from the university next door came over to give us some dance lessons. We gathered outside as our instructor, Amilcar, taught us the salsa and the meringue. My girlfriend, Alyssa, is a professional dancer and I knew I had to go all out. So not long after I showered I was again covered in sweat. We had so much fun, laughing at how terrible we were in comparison to Amilcar (no, I will not willingly put a video of that here).

I was about doubled over from exhaustion when it was mercifully time for dinner. I was happy to see that Amilcar would be joining us for dinner as well! Our evening was far from over after dinner. Some of my favorite people in El Salvador would be joining us. A local band comes and plays for us every year and they are always a blast. This year was certainly no different. Although we were all tired from working and dancing we were reinvigorated when they started playing.

This wasn’t just a sit and listen experience. Before long they had us up and dancing to the music. We formed a conga line and a limbo line. The laughter was just as loud as the music. Perhaps my favorite thing about this band is their authenticity. In between songs one of the band members would explain the meaning of the next song while also saying how much they enjoyed being there and how much they loved us. The feeling was certainly mutual.

It’s hard to come down from a high like that and completely change gears. But that’s what we did when we shifted from the band to reflection. We talked about how every year there’s a day where the group collectively “gets it” in a sense of finding a groove. We all agreed that today was that day.

Saturday, January 11th

I had been planning on waking up early all week so that I could see the sunrise. Unfortunately that was yet to happen – until today. I got my cup of coffee and went outside to the front patio. I was joined by Katie and Lynette, and we sat there talking about the week. I could not believe this was our last day here. I knew today was going to be a difficult day, as I knew how hard it would be to say goodbye.

Today was a unique day. We don’t typically stay all the way through Saturday, as that’s normally when we fly back home. However, the last two years the flights home were much cheaper on Sunday. Plus, there was no group coming in after us, so we had the capability to stay. Last year on Saturday we spent the day on the beach, which was the perfect way to unwind from the week. However, this year there was still a little more work to be done with the electricity. Collectively we felt like we had much more to give at the worksite. I, for one, wanted to see Salvador, so I was all on board with another day of work.

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Greetings from Salvador

When we arrived at the worksite the same familiar face greeted us. Only this time, Salvador didn’t wait for us to get off the bus. Instead, he climbed on so he could say hello and give hugs. When he got to me he grabbed my hand and pulled me off the bus.

 

Our morning would be starting off a bit differently. Don Miguel would be sharing his story with us. He would tell about how he used to be in the seminary under Oscar Romero until he chose to leave because of the impending war. He shared with us the horrible things he witnessed during the war. As he was speaking to us Salvador was standing in front of me with his hands holding on to my arms. I had my arms wrapped around his chest.

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Listening to Don Miguel’s story

One of my hands happened to be over his heart. I could feel his heartbeat. In that moment, as silly as it may sound, I realized that this little boy is human. Sure, we saw nothing but joy radiate from him. But he would go on to experience pain and sorrow just like the rest of us. We only got to observe a small snippet of his life. He would grow up to become a man, maybe have a family of his own someday. As we stood there I wanted nothing but happiness for this boy that had changed my life. As I felt his heartbeat I didn’t want it to ever stop or for his heart to ever be broken. I wanted to protect him from all of that. But then he would look up at me with a big smile and I knew he would be okay. I had seen this boy trip and fall countless times this week. He got up every time. There’s nothing that can keep him down.

 

yiouoAs Don Miguel concluded his story we went to work one last time. Diego and Enrique joined us right from the start. We went over to work on the dirt pile being used for the road. There were a lot of rocks in the pile that needed to be sifted out. We formed a pretty good routine of sifting out the rocks and taking the wheelbarrow back up to the road. Happiness.

I didn’t want this day to end. I wanted to stay there and play with Salvador, Diego, and Enrique. I wanted to continue working with Don Miguel and Don Luis. But the inevitable came. It was time to say goodbye. As I said, there’s no such thing as a quick goodbye in El Salvador. Everyone was taking pictures and giving hugs. I said gave a big hug to Don Miguel and said “Gracias hermano.” I said goodbye to Don Luis and motioned to my heart to indicate that he would always have a place there. It finally came time to say goodbye to Salvador. I told him “Tu es mi amigo favorito.” You are my favorite friend. He responded by saying I was his best friend. I almost started crying right then and there. My heart hurt as we drove away and they remained.

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Saying goodbye to my best friend

 

 

Our goodbyes were not over just yet, though. We stopped at the community one final time for a quick lunch and more farewells. There would be no time for a soccer game today. We went around and said our goodbyes. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of these children I would see again. If I don’t see them does that mean they’ve moved on to something better in life? Or something worse? I tried to push these thoughts from my mind and simply enjoy the moment I was in. A few dozen pictures later we finally bid our final farewell and got back on the road.

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Family
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King of the Hill (pun intended)

Although I knew this day was coming it didn’t make it any easier. I scrolled through the pictures on my phone, already reminiscing about these moments, yearning to be back. Our day was not finished, however. We had one more stop before going back to the house, something we had never done before – Mayan ruins. This is something I’m glad we got to do. Our time with the people may have concluded (excluding our guides), but our time as a group was not yet finished. We took in the beautiful scenery as we hiked up the ruins. There was nothing but clear skies. I could quite literally feel the light of God’s love shining down on me.

 

Back at the house we had one more meal to share – more pupusas! This was a special bonus, as we typically only have pupusas once. We also had one more reflection. I knew this one would be difficult. The reality that our trip was practically over would set in. We did an affirmation exercise in which we stood in a circle with our eyes closed. A few people remained in the middle and either indicated that someone showed them God or changed their lives that week by placing their hands on the person’s shoulders or head. The love in the room was tangible, something that could be felt.

At the conclusion of the exercise one simple question was posed to the group: where did you see God this week? I didn’t have to think hard to come up with an answer. It was easy – Salvador. I thought of all the little moments I shared with him and how loved he made me feel. I began to tear up as I reflected. As I started to share I was completely overcome with emotion, unable to finish my thought through the tears. Not very often in my life has something like that happened. It didn’t help that everyone else was crying as they reflected on the week that was. The girls that guided us throughout the week shared with us how much they appreciated and loved us only made matters worse.

Once everyone had shared we all went around hugging one another. Amilcar, our dance instructor, had spent the day with us and even he was overcome with emotion. Although he barely knew us, and vice versa, we still made an impact in each other’s lives.  I thought of how often I miss something special because I’m so concerned about something so unimportant or insignificant. This week I was able to live in the moment. I wanted to live like that everyday.

At the conclusion of reflection I got a few more interviews. I was able to get quite a few throughout the day and I was excited with where this video was going. Besides that, we had to start getting things ready for the morning. We had an early 3:30am wake up call, so the more we could have ready before bedtime the better. Everyone was in such a great mood as we cleaned the house and packed up. One more night of community. Joy.

Sunday, January 12th

I was shocked how easily I woke up. As soon as my alarm went off I got right out of bed. I got everything ready for the day of travel ahead. I packed anything I had left out, put all the things I was leaving behind in the community box, and ate my breakfast. We packed up the bus and said our final goodbyes to the girls, who stayed up all night just so they could see us off.

We drove away in the darkness of night, and just like that our trip was over. I again scrolled through the pictures on my phone, already eagerly anticipating next year’s trip. David played music through his speaker as he had been doing all week. There was a song he played that caught my attention. This song will be perfect for my video. I was looking forward to sifting through the videos and interviews. This would be a pretty cool way to remember the trip in the weeks to follow.

We arrived to the airport and boarded our plane. Our flight from El Salvador to Houston was pretty uneventful. Our flight from Houston to St. Louis, however, was an adventure. We had about an hour and a half between flights. That should allow us enough time to get through customs and security, with enough time to spare to grab some food for the flight. The problem, though, was that all of our bags took forever to come out. That spare time we thought we’d have had all but evaporated.

We speed walked through the airport and went through customs as quickly as we could. We then got stuck in a long line through security. In our journey through the airport our group had been split up into clumps. As we gradually made our way through the line we nervously checked the time. Our gate was naturally on the opposite side of the airport. When I finally made it through the line I met up with a few other people waiting for a train to come so we could get to our gate. There were about six or seven of us, obviously not our whole group. As we got off the train we noticed we had fifteen minutes until boarding ended. We power-walked our way through the airport. When we noticed boarding ended in three minutes we began to run. The whole time we were running we were laughing. With the people of El Salvador in our hearts, we were able to find the joy in our situation.

We made it to our plane with some time to spare and were able to catch our breathe. But then we anxiously waited for the rest of our group to arrive. Were they going to make it? Would anyone be stuck behind? Thankfully everyone made it, except for Jim and Ann, would stayed behind to say goodbye to David before he left for Detroit. Next stop, home.

Each year I’ve gone to El Salvador my experience has been vastly different. Although many of the sights and people are familiar I get something new out of the trip. As I’ve said throughout this post, my objective this year was to focus more on the people rather than the work or the history of the country. I’m happy to say I achieved what I set out to accomplish. The people there reminded me that the most important thing in life is love. It’s that simple. Showing love isn’t some materialistic concoction like we may sometimes think of it. Love is being present with the people you’re with and always looking for ways to make them smile. Love knows no boundaries. Love spans all cultures and all languages. Love is ageless and timeless. It doesn’t matter if somebody is your best friend or a complete stranger, they are deserving of love no matter what.

Shortly after I arrived home I determined that my New Years Resolution would be to live my life like Salvador. To love everyone so immensely that it brings undeniable happiness into their lives. To love freely, purposefully, and without abandon. To live like each moment is a true blessing and worth finding the joy. Salvador changed my life.

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I learned many lessons from so many other people, too. The people I met in El Salvador taught me so much about generosity, kindness, and selflessness. Everyone I encountered – the children in Las Delicias, the women in the village, Don Miguel and Don Luis, our drivers (Roberto and Edgar), our guides (Carla, Alejandra, Pili, Hiromi, and Clara) and everyone else in between are people I will never forget. And to the people I got to share this experience with – Ann, Jim, Beth, Katie, Tony, Bill, Sam, Emily, Dan, David, Rodrigo, Chrissy, Morgan, Ellen, Emily, David, Dan, Bob, Elaine, Andy, Patti, Grace, Gloria, and Andrew – I am so grateful God allowed me to serve alongside each and every one of you.

Until next year!

aoeru
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