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Still recovering from a traumatic civil war, divided by class and political strife, El Salvador was as far from the established gringo trails as you’d imagine. So I wondered if a development mission to explore school partnerships, and crawl beneath the epidermis of a country, might provide something beyond most travel experiences.
Our delegation hooked up with our NGO guide, Manny, who could’ve been everybody’s favorite uncle. He shepherded us to farmer coops, community associations, schools and villages.
This included San Jose Los Flores, a politically left wing mountain village. The rampant garbage, cratered roads, and the lack of government services suggested indifference on the part of the then ruling ARENA party.
In Canada community and solidarity are concepts often associated with social activism. But here the locals told us these have been means of survival. Much of the population, including children, was emptied and massacred during the war. Nevertheless people returned, re-tooled and re-built. The schools are poorly equipped and staff under-trained. Yet the kids showed off an organic garden with more pride than they do their jaw-dropping soccer skills. Yes, the town is crumbly. But people sat, ate and played outside—together. They didn’t approach us with a wish list. They spoke of economic autonomy, sustainable growth, self-respect.
The ongoing challenge was a Canadian gold mining company that had been granted rights to dig out much of the surrounding area. In return the locals were promised the dream life of iPods, HDTV and Walmart. The locals responded by constructing a massive crucifix, then marched in the thousands to the highest hill and figuratively stuck their birdie at the man.
Would we do that? Could we say no? We assume no one can. That everyone defines and commodifies happiness our way, omitting spirit and soul as we go.
One group member was no different. At every stop, he made us unload bags of presents, school supplies and cash and dispense it like a Santa Claus training video replete with photo op. We’d done this everywhere until I felt sick and slipped away, and waited in the van. Manny was there. He’d lost family but not hope and optimism in the war. He sensed my discomfort. I told him I didn’t want to be in any newsletter pretending that I’d just saved some wretched souls. He nodded, then told me I could go home, that I understood El Salvador.
I’d learned more about the world than I had during travels through dozens of countries. Driven by do-good, feel-good, charity-driven ideals, we’ve managed to delude ourselves into believing we have the answers though we haven’t even learned to listen, let alone ask the right questions. We fail to see that the best we can do is partner in sustainable, equitable development, that we can share the taxi but not drive and operate the dispatch.
Eventually the gringo trail may come to El Salvador. But for now, it inspires heaps more than anything most travel brochures show.