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Published: July 20th 2006
Nicaragua -Dec 2005
Sunset on Ometepe Island
BETTER REMEMBER THIS
You'd better remember this. Because people will ask you. Whether you want them to or not, they'll ask you how El Salvador was. And though you won't know where to start, you're going to have to have something to tell them. A shrug of the shoulders and "Good" won't be enough. So you'd better remember this. Open the parts of your mind you need, and work them over until you've gotten them just right. Then put what you know in a place that will be easy to get to. Deep, but not too deep. Just enough so that even though no one else can see it, you know it's there, and you can see it and feel it, and you know it makes up a part of who you are now, as well as who you were then, and it will be there for you when you need to speak of El Salvador.
Remember things like the clarity of the pinkish-purple horizon over the mountins after a four o'clock rain shower, cold and temperamental as broken glass. The thickness of a cane of sugar, so long and sharp your forehead feels sticky from commiseration
My Daily Sunset
Just over the hills of Jujutla
with Jesus. Tell them of the sound you hear only in El Salvador. The rattle of a crate of empty soda bottles strapped to the back of a bicycle. Or, the blaring horns of the bus announcing its departure at four in the morning. The different sounds roosters and chickens make. The light scratches of their claws on the lamina roofs, and the louder, deeper sounds during their morning feed. Time beaten out to the movements of even the tiniest kids, fluid as the country brush in the breeze of the inland trade winds. The way you can hear the neighbor's boy no matter where he is, always drumming on his empyt water jug. Tell them that just two days before, these same people had sung with such exalted majesty you thought God Himself had made his Second Coming right then to join in.
But don't forget how the stillness can surprise you at times. The quiet early morning when the cafetaleros (coffee pickers) disappear into the surrounding hills. Their legs long and bony, feet splayed wide across, toes clutching the earth, guiding them down dirt tracks and paths. Picture them hand-picking the beans clutching the inclined soil as
Jujutla -Dec 2005
Alison, far right, graduating to a big pichinga
they attempt to support themselves from falling.
Or the women balancing pots on their heads, disappearing into the corn fields, green and yellow. Remember that, so you can tell them how the women who can balance full pots of water and carry them home from the river without using their hands or spilling a drop are ready for marriage. The little girls begin practicing as soon as they can walk. Tell them about Alisson, your little host sister, who has progressed from a single matchbox, to a small basin to, these days, a tiny pichinga of her own. Burn her image into your brain like a brand, or the scars on the faces of old people, and remember what she was like when she was ten, since you won't know her when she's eighteen or twenty, and everyone should have someone who remembers what they once were.
And when they ask you, you can tell them of the milpas (corn fields) dug in anticipation of the afternoon rain. Furrowed in the morning before it gets too hot. The earth rich and black. Heavy. Smelling of decay. And generation. Riding the bus past fields of maize and beans, and
Usultuan, El Salvador
Picking mangos in the corn fields
cane so tall and sweet the bees hover around it for months before it's cut. And, of course, the countless dirt-faced kids who come out of nowhere to watch you pass. Pointing, yelling, chasing you with shouts of Gringo! Like a password, or a war cry. Floating through the air to the next village, where the next group of kids does the same thing. Staring with big, big eyes as you pass.
Remember simple, unaffected pleasures. Teaching a grown woman how to mathematically divide. And teaching another how to operate her stove without fear that it would burn the house down. The howls of stray dogs at all hours of the night. The way the chickens dance together, in the scorching heat of midday during the dry season. The innumerable cups of instant coffee you didn't want but couldn't refuse. The pupusas (corn tortillas stuffed with farmer's cheese and beans) and tamales you can't believe you crave.
Explain that to them. As well as the days and nights of frustration and lonely boredom when even screaming seemed like too much effort. The hours from six to ten that seemed to go on forever. And how you wished the
Straying away from our normal healthy cooking classes, Soraya learns how to make a burger.
sun would set so you could go to bed and sleep through the night and wake up in the morning one day closer to the end of all of it. Tell them about the confianza (trust, but it truly means soo much more), and the birthday parties, and the funerals where you hiked through the muddy corn fields in the middle of the night to sit under trees where the wails of women were as deep and loud as those of the earth itself when the Santa Ana volcano erupted blanketing your community with hot ash. The earth couldn't possibly hurt more. Tell them about the ache at the base of your spine and down both sides of your neck after a long chicken bus ride. And the long, long delays at the sides of empty roads where the bus has broken down, and everyone was staring at you, and you tried to pretend you didn't notice and it didn't bother you. Sitting in the middle of it all, rather bewildered. Watching and listening, and trying to get your bearings. Only to realize, once you finally thought you'd gotten the hang of things for good, that you just didn't get
Santa Ana Volcano
Spewing hot ash and boulders on Salvadoran soil
But you stayed for two years. And when they ask you why, you can tell them how the Scholarship Committee begged you not to go. How your friends took you home to meet their families. How your neighbors were always glad to see you safely returned from an adventure. How profusely everyone thanked you for the little you'd done for them, forgetting that you'd done it together.
Remember, so when they ask you, you can tell them these things. And tell them how you stood tall and looked those others in the faces as you left. Although it hurt you and them both very much. But take the gift of their pain, and yours, for that is love. And feel it as it was there, then. As you turned and left. As they stood there and watched you go.
And speak of how you thanked them.
Thanked them for teaching you how easy it is to laugh in so many languages. Thanked them for letting you in.
Until next time...
Ryan, from El Salvador
Next Up: The Netherlands; August 10, 2006
*Modified from WWS and RPCV M. Sullivan '92-'94
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