Thoughts on El Salvador

Since I got back from El Salvador, I seem to be having a lot of trouble re-adjusting. There are a lot of potential reasons for this and as usual I have spent too much time over-examining most of them. There were a lot of thoughts and feelings compressed into one week. It never seemed like there was time enough to process them regardless of how little I slept.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I have made more progress on the thoughts than the feelings side of things. While some of my thoughts follow below, my feelings are proving more challenging. Coming to terms with all the places inside me that were affected is turning out to be a slow and difficult process. As the days fall one after the other some clarity emerges but much confusion remains. Fortunately, that does not stop me from having plenty of thoughts to talk about.

Most of the thinking I have done has been about the differences I saw in the culture there.

It is very hard to visit a place like Central America and not be struck by the pervasive poverty. While we have poor in America we keep them pretty well segregated for the most part and we tell ourselves that being poor in the US is basically like being middle class in many other places. That’s quite possibly true if you look only at cash flow but ignores a lot of issues related to dignity and opportunity. Not having been poor myself I can’t be sure, but I suspect that being at the bottom of the scale can suck pretty much everywhere.

In El Salvador I spent a lot of time with people who had very little by our standards. People who, if they have work, make less in a month than I make in a few hours. A direct comparison is difficult since terms like middle class don’t translate so well into an economy where the concentration of wealth is so dramatic, but even they were not the poorest of the poor there. They were mostly well fed, their kids had clothes and were mostly in school. They all could have used a set of clothes or shoes but no one seemed to mind all that much. The lived in mostly concrete block homes in various states of repair and got their drinking water from shallow hand powered wells. I heard a few radios but didn’t notice a TV. No one seemed to have a car or a truck.

Over and over again I was impressed with these people. The community has no real clinic but does have a few health care workers who worked so hard with so little that you didn’t know whether to be inspired or embarrassed. Same for the teachers in the school. At my kids school every classroom has an LCD projector driven by a new Mac computer. Their school didn’t seem to have electricity (the school bell is an actual rusty metal bell) and they are lucky to get pencils and paper. The school “cafeteria” is a wood fired outdoor stove which cooks essentially the same thing every day for the kids. None of this seems to affect the dedication of the teachers or their pride in the students. I have no idea how well the kids would score on the WASL.

As I said there are people much worse off than these, but even so despite the fact that the life in this community is hard (very hard by our standards), I would not describe the people as anything other than happy.

The whole experience drove home for me the point that in many ways our greater material wealth does not help and even works against us by crowding up our lives with things, activities, and opportunities with all that serving as a shallow replacement for community.

Despite having much grander homes, wider streets, and developed parks, many US neighborhoods are mostly dead except for a few walkers and the occasional car driving into the garage with the door shutting behind. If you want to hang out with a neighbor you call them on the phone to see if they are busy and possibly even invent some kind of reason to get together. This simple idea might come up against any number of obstacles or scheduling conflicts. Unlike much of the world we seem to put a lower and lower value on simple interaction with people.

Instead we are overly focused on Mass entertainment. Perhaps that’s the main substitute we have for community. We bind together as groups of “People who watch Lost” to keep us from noticing that we are drifting further apart. No society in history has ever had access to so much mass produced entertainment content available 24/7. Video rental, Satellite TV, iPods, and Video games ensure that we always have available some experience that was created for us to consume it. When we do step away from the TV our TIVOs dutifully record anything that might interest us so we don’t have to suffer 1 minute without a designed stimulus. While there is nothing wrong with entertainment, at some level it moves from simply being a break from the stress of your life to a way of avoiding your life entirely. Of course the people on TV have more interesting lives that we do. After all we spend much of our time just watching TV.

With fewer opportunities for packaged entertainment and no money to “shop for fun”, people in the community where I was spend much of their day outside where the other people are. If you want to be with other people you simply walk outside. Feeling part of a community is much easier in that environment, especially for someone as cripplingly introverted as me.

Another difference I found had to do with risk. Despite the best attempts of our government to convince us of the contrary, we are really pretty safe here in the US. El Salvador on the other hand is becoming the murder capital of Central America. Several people had stories about murders that had taken place nearby and in the last few weeks. While the civil war has been over for a while, gang and other criminal activity is on the rise. This rise in violence will continue to be a major obstacle for any prospects to improve the local economic outlook or to get more foreign investment.

Just like with poverty though there is another side to this danger. While people there are concerned about real dangers they seem to be less obsessed with safety in other things. In the US now it is rare to see people ride in the back of a pickup but there one commonly sees a pickup with its bed full of people standing up traveling down the highway. While I’m not sure that’s such a good idea, it does tend to remind me that perhaps we are too over conscious about safety and being prepared. We raise our children in a controlled environment of play dates and after school activities. In America to play soccer little kids need matching uniforms, shin guards, individually wrapped snacks and beverages, a ride to a game which might be hours away and a 1 qt Naglene water bottle. Where I was the kids just needed a ball.

I don’t know anyone whose kids roam as freely as the children I saw in El Salvador or even as freely as I did when I was kid for that matter. Children in America seem to have an abundance of possessions, activities, and opportunities but little freedom. I remember once having to actually explain to my boys that the whole point of having woods behind your house was so you could play out there and do things your parents didn’t really want to know about. It is no wonder why so many kids find the Internet such a compelling place to explore things, while all the while their parents are happy they are safe in their room.

Are we adults really so different? Despite our much greater level of security, we often fear potential crises in our financial situation. We stay in jobs we don’t like, doing what we don’t believe in often not to meet our needs but to preserve our spot on the current rung of the ladder we keep trying to climb. We allow ourselves to become what we hate in order to achieve things we never really wanted, because stopping feels like weakness and that weakness might cause us to lose out. It is not that we don’t have it better. It just seems like our greater wealth should allow us to make alot more choices based on freedom and happiness than it does.


It is of course possible my view of all of this is over romanticized by my experience. Or maybe it’s just the lingering effects of the hallucinations I had from the feverish illness I brought back in my stomach. I’m not saying I want to trade places with the people I met. I do appreciate the civil pleasures of hot showers and flush toilets but it seems so clear to me that overall as a culture we lost something on our trip up Maslov’s Hierarchy. Somehow, I don’t think the perfect form of Self Actualization is having a larger house, the most interesting Netflix queue, or getting the best deal on a progressive scan LCD HDTV set. Maybe the biggest takeaway for me is wanting to try for something more.

Perhaps the Dalai Lama says it all a lot better with a lot fewer words:

“It is fascinating. In the West, you have bigger homes, yet smaller families; you have endless conveniences — yet you never seem to have any time. You can travel anywhere in the world, yet you don’t bother to cross the road to meet your neighbors.

“I don’t think people have become more selfish, but their lives have become easier and that has spoilt them. They have less resilience, they expect more, they constantly compare themselves to others and they have too much choice — which brings no real freedom.”

While all of this sounds like a rant it’s not really how I think of it most of the time. I often try to seek out the negative but hopefully I’m doing it not to dwell on the bad but just so I know where the potholes are. Your mileage may vary.

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