The old van drove down the dirt road, kicking a steady stream of dust into the humid air. Inside, the atmosphere was stifling, the windows did not open wide enough, and the air conditioning was still broken. A bead of sweat traced a line down my face as I gazed outside, taking in the strange world of palm trees and new smells outside. I thought about home, where late November means cold, and usually snow. After what seemed like an eternity, the van entered the town, passing donkeys, chickens, little stores, and battered houses. The van stopped at a fork in the road, and we were greeted by a large group of people holding signs of welcome. Bienvenidos a Nahualapa, El Salvador.
To the other villagers, the sight might have looked comical, a procession of smiling children, friendly elders, and everyone in between leading the group of gringos down the road, and up the hill to the church.
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The church, our church’s sister parish, was nothing more than a dirt floor and a tin roof held up by fallen branches of trees tied together under a tree in the clearing. A little barefoot girl took my hand and pointed proudly at the church, yammering away in her native tongue, not aware that, despite my experience of four years of Spanish in school, I had no idea what she was saying. I waited patiently until she finished, then smiled and nodded. She smiled back, apparently receiving the response she wanted.
Over the course of the next few days, we slowly became part of the community. I met Wilson, a boy who had to quit school to sell oranges by the highway to support his family; Liliana, a girl who was living with her aunt because her parents had been killed; and Pedro, a leader of the community, who inspired the best in those around him. Everybody had a story to tell, and although I could not always understand, I was glad to listen.
Between helping organize a community garden to make healthy foods more readily available, playing games with the children, discussing micro-loans to start a community chicken business, and generally helping out where we could, there was never a shortage of ways to help. One of the best things we did was arrange scholarships through members of our church to sponsor the education of the children, giving parents the hope of a brighter future for their children. These families must pay for all their own school supplies, shoes and uniforms, as well as transportation to and from school. Education in rural El Salvador is free in name only.
When the time came to leave, I felt like I was leaving an adoptive family, and, despite our differences and the language barrier, I had a place in the community. I had some amazing experiences, from learning how to communicate using hand gestures and only the most basic Spanish vocabulary, to eating a chicken heart (it was surprisingly good). I wouldn’t say that it “changed my life”, but it was an eye-opening experience. I learned a lot, not only about the world that exists outside of mine, but also about myself, my ability to create a positive change in somebody’s life, and make a difference.
The spirit of the Nahualapan people was truly inspiring. This culture’s perspectives differ so much from our own. They have so little in comparison to me, and yet they seem infinitely more content and thankful for what they do have. They treasure their possessions, instead of thinking about what they don’t have and wanting more.
The Nahualapans are proud; they don’t want the relationship between us to be one-sided. Instead, they want our respect and partnership, with each side giving and receiving something to and from the other. They have so much more to offer than I could have imagined. What the Nahualapan people gave to me was an intangible shift in my attitude and a newfound feeling of gratitude. I have never felt as grateful for what I have, and the opportunities I possess, as I did on that Thanksgiving one year ago.