I just spent four whirlwind days in El Salvador, a country that until recently I associated mostly with its brutal civil war of the 1980s and, more recently, gang violence and immigrants fleeing to the north in desperate quests for better lives.
I was not there to vacation or visit friends or family — this was work. I was documenting the tremendous progress of a couple of nonprofits working in the country: The Fuller Center for Housing and The People Helping People Network. Having done this kind of thing before, I mostly knew what to expect — warnings not to drink the water, crazy traffic, folks not exactly adhering to strict schedules, and a lot of Latin music blaring from cars and houses.
And then there were the houses themselves. Of course, there were some decent homes in San Salvador, which looks a lot like an American city’s downtown with its malls, McDonald’s, Pizza Huts and even Starbucks. But once you get out of the heart of the city, many of the houses are actually shacks, sometimes entire communities of shacks thrown together with tin, plastic and bits of wood with entire families living inside with dirt floors and no sanitation. No matter how many times you go into these shacks, it’s always jarring.
But one thing is pretty consistent from downtown to the slums — the people are wonderful.
At one of the slums, a man named Antonio invited us into his tin shack with its dirt floor. He apologized for not having anything to give us as a thank-you for stopping by. He asked for nothing.
At San Vicente de Paul Orphanage, I braced myself for sad children who have been abandoned. Nope. They were joyful. That was before they found out we had toys and a pair of new shoes for each child. These 125 children were a family, a grande family.
At three different communities of safe, new homes, the children rejoiced as they received the simplest of gifts — soccer balls. No video games, no electronics, no fancy clothes … just soccer balls.
At PHP’s culinary school with a 97 percent job placement rate, students were happy to have strangers join them in decorating during a dessert class. A mother shared her deeply personal story of being supported through cancer treatments while she was pregnant.
The bus drivers were polite. The cops were kind. The hotel and restaurant staff members were friendly and helpful. Strangers on the street were quick with a “hola” and a smile. The country has its share of problems, but the Salvadoran people, in general, are its greatest asset and the reason people fall in love with the country when they visit.
Then, I flew home. That’s when the culture shock hits.
As usual, passing through U.S. Customs and trying to figure out which carousel my luggage had been secretly placed upon was a chore. The people in line were annoying. I wasn’t even out of the airport before folks started hitting me up for money. People at the grocery store grunted in disgust when they would dash out of an aisle with the grocery cart into my path, garnering a polite “excuse me” from me even when it was their fault.
There are poor people in America, but they aren’t Salvador poor. Their poor are more generous than our wealthy. (Actually, the poorest 20 percent in the U.S. also are more generous than our wealthiest 20 percent — by percent of income given to charity — but that’s a story for another day.) We complain about our 2,000-square-foot ordinary homes, otherwise known as mansions in El Salvador. We gripe about first-world problems like weak wi-fi signals and noisy icemakers. We gripe about inflation while filling up our $65,000 truck and buying steak for dinner. We don’t talk to strangers. We have more stuff and less joy. We get home and shut the garage ASAP.
That’s the culture shock for me. It happens every time.
If the average American were half as happy, generous and kind as the average slum dweller in El Salvador, we’d be doing all right.
As you consider your year-end giving, I encourage you to take a look at these two nonprofits:
A Charity Navigator 4-story nonprofit
My full story from a new 50-home community
Photo gallery from the trip
Click thumbnails to see full-size images.