Lessons from El Espino

Day 1: Reflection by Rachel Wagster

Wow. As I look around and feel the warm Salvadoran breeze against my back, I am in awe. I feel so blessed to have made it to San Salvador. The day has been filled with laughter and smiles as we all anticipated our arrival in a new country. Getting to know the group members has been a rewarding experience within itself. Each person brings something unique, from Anna to her cultured, intelligent stories of world travel to Leah who documents it all. It is truly amazing that after weeks of planning, packing, and preparation we can actually say WE ARE HERE! Just as I typed that a gecko started chirping in my ear (it sounds like little kisses – besitos), I think they are excited too.

It is hard to put into words how exactly all of this feels viagra versand. Seeing all the locals waiting for friends and family at the airport portrays just how caring this place is. First stop- pupusas– and, whew! were they amazing. I recommend to anyone who gets the chance to try an authentic pupusa to do so ASAP. While we were sitting with the group at dinner, it started to hit me that we are here. There is so much I am looking forward to experiencing here, and I hope it doesn’t go by too fast.

I cannot wait to go to the community of El Espino and meet our students. I am thrilled to get settled in at our homes and meet our new families. I am nervous and excited to practice my Spanish with the Salvadorans. I am amazed at how much I have already learned, and hope to continue to learn throughout this journey, and long after. I am open to the new experiences that will happen over the next nine days. It is incredible that I can already see this experience changing us for the better.

Thank you a million times over to Anna, the FCE, Mesa Catholic, all those who donated, and all of those who support us for this opportunity. To everyone back home who may have been concerned, we have made it here safely. I miss my friends, family, and puppy back in Colorado, but I already feel like I could stay here forever.

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Pre-trip Reflection by Leah Jane Davidson: Seeing life through new eyes

In a mere two days I will be in El Salvador. I can smell the Central American air when I take a deep breath in…Of course, I’ve never had the opportunity to travel to Central America before so the scent in my nostrils is just my mind playing tricks on me. But I’m curious, what does El Salvador smell like? I can imagine the thick, heavy air hanging wet with moisture around my shoulders carrying the scent of the famous pupusas (which I hear are totally delicious and very similar to eating a stuffed tortilla). I can imagine the bright sun on my face as I take my first look around the town that we will be spending most of our time in, called El Espino.

I am thoroughly excited to participate in this adventure and I know I will return to the United States looking through changed eyes. Travel has a funny way of changing people for the better and I can’t wait to grow and learn with the other participants of the trip. It’s so interesting watching relationships blossom between people and I think I’ll have a few new friends when the journey is all said and done. But who wants to think about the end before the trip has even begun? Not me, that’s for sure! I want to be fully involved and present each moment that I’m gifted with in El Salvador.

In general, I’m most excited to speak Spanish with the local people, to try new food, and to visit the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Really, anything we do down there will be something I’m excited about. It will be interesting to test my Spanish skills once again. I hope that I’ll be able to communicate the way I’d like to–without too much struggle & strife–but I guess that’s all part of learning.

Ah, there’s so much to do before we go, but I let the pre-trip stress roll off my back and remember how lucky and grateful I feel for this opportunity. Two more days….. two more days….

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Pre-trip reflection by Kelsi Madrid: It’s almost time!

I cannot believe we are leaving to El Espino in a few days! The months that we have spent preparing for this trip have been so remarkable. I have learned so much and am very thankful for this opportunity and for everyone who has helped make this possible. So many people were excited for me and made very generous donations. I can’t even begin to express how grateful I am for everyone who has supported me along the way.

There are so many thoughts running through my mind knowing that I will soon be in a totally different environment and culture. Although it is going to be more difficult for me to communicate with the people of El Salvador because I do not speak much Spanish, I believe knowledge and love can be shown through other attributes.

We have been getting to know the scholarship students by reading their blogs and now we finally get to meet them and hear their stories in person! I couldn’t be more excited! I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a place with such poverty. I know there is poverty all around the world but it has always seemed surreal to me because I have grown up with endless amounts of opportunity, so it is hard for me to believe that people can live in such difficult situations like most of the people in El Salvador and I think this trip is going to open my eyes to a lot of things. I believe this experience is going to change my life and help me grow so much as a person.

Every day I think about how happy, thankful and excited I am to be making friends with these amazing people.

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Pre-trip Reflection By Benjamin Gemoya: Living the Dream

As the days get closer for our trip to El Salvador, my mind is just exploding with thoughts, nerves, and excitement. I am really excited to go on this trip for many of reasons—one is that I have never left the country and I am excited to see how other people have to live their lives in a different country. I am also excited to see all the students and families that we are going to hang out with and see what they like to do for fun or in their free time. I also can’t wait to try out the food. I hear it is pretty delicious.

The one thing I am nervous about is that I don’t know how to speak Spanish very well. I can understand but can’t speak it. So from being down there I hope that my Spanish will improve so that I can at least have a conversation with someone. My mom speaks Spanish but she never taught me while I was growing up and I really wish she had. Speaking a second language could take you pretty far in life, so I better get to learning!

I found out about this trip over the dinner table. We were talking about how fun it would be to leave the States and out of nowhere Kelsi said that she was going to El Salvador over Spring Break and that there was one spot open. So I jumped right on it, got a hold of Hunter and started fundraising right away. It was almost like a blind date; I had no clue what we were going to do, I really just wanted to leave the country and see what the world has to offer us.

In conclusion, this entire trip is going to be a life-changing experience for me, I hope. The reason why I say this is that I believe we all take stuff for granted and when I go down there I know they’re not going to have half the stuff we have here in the States. So it’s going to teach me that I don’t need everything in life, just my family and the little things. I hope this trip changes me as a person a tiny bit on how I see life.

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Pre-trip Reflection by Rachel Wagster: Together we can make the world a better place

In four short weeks we will embark on a journey to El Espino, a trip that will change our lives forever. Even though we are yet to go, I have learned many lessons in preparation for this adventure. First, I have seen the passionate and giving nature of those around me. I am eternally grateful to my friends and family who have helped me fundraise the money to make this trip possible. They have been more generous than I could have ever imagined. Since we’re on the topic, thank you for your interest in this experience. If it were not for the people involved with the Foundation for Cultural Exchange, none of this would be possible for the group or incredibly deserving people of El Espino.

I am flooded with feelings when I think about how soon we will venture off on this new experience. Anna, Hunter, and the entire group have been preparing us weekly on the culture, climate, and conditions to expect in El Salvador. However, I know there are some things they cannot put into words—and that is what the experience is going to be like. I am only told about the immense love and gratitude I will feel going down there (feelings on both ends). I could not be more thankful to meet the scholarship students, and learn all about their lives. They inspire me to work hard and appreciate life—another lesson already blossoming inside me in anticipation of the trip.

I hear stories of how beautiful El Salvador is, and also stories of how tragedy has struck so many in their country. It makes my heart ache for their struggles, yet I am eager to witness their beauty. There is tragedy in all countries just as there is splendor. We know that there is risk involved in going. However, this risk is one that needs to be taken (might I add we trust Anna’s judgment and experiences there to keep us safe). I whole-heartedly believe that going to El Espino is an experience I am meant to have in order to grow and become a better person.

It is truly an honor and a privilege to be adventuring to El Salvador. I hope to continue the spiritual and personal growth before, during, and long after this trip. I know that the people of El Espino will give me so much more than I could ever give them. Hopefully, one day I can repay them for their kindness and love. I am so excited to meet my family, and converse with them in Spanish. It is truly special that they will host me in their homes for an entire week. When I think of such selfless people it gives me faith. I hope that the lessons I learn on this journey can be translated into my passions back home, for the rest of my life.

I look forward to the life changing experiences and long lasting friendships to come. Thank you for your help, love, prayers, and support. Thank you for making this experience possible.

Juntos podemos hacer el mundo mejor / Together we can make the world a better place

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Pre-trip Reflection by Kailyn Miller: Filling an empty cup

My cup is empty, and I am more than ready to have it filled.

I am a returning El Salvador delegate, and even though I know what to expect from this entire trip, I still feel as though I am navigating uncharted territory. The individuals that I was blessed to interact with in El Salvador still hold a very prominent place in my heart. That being said, my spiritual cup is beginning to feel dry and I know that what I need is those people and that culture to help me feel whole again. I can smell El Salvador and I can feel the air and sun on my skin when I think about my previous trip. I can feel the love from all of the individuals who live there, and I am so eager to be surrounded by this love.

On my previous trip, I was very blind. I was blind to the culture and way of life, and I was blind to the love that I would experience. Now that I know what to expect, I feel that I can take less time taking in the “shock” of everything, and more time giving. I want to spend more time giving love and more time listening to everyone there. I feel extreme comfort in the thought of going back to El Salvador. However, even though I know what to expect and I am no longer blind, I am still in the dark. I am at a different place in my life this year compared to last, and I am worried about the emotional toll that this trip will take. It’s like getting hit with a bat. If you don’t know it’s coming, maybe you don’t really feel it and it will just knock you out, leaving you to recover. Now I am sitting in a chair watching this bat come straight for my face. This sounds incredibly morbid and terrible, but I can’t explain how excited I am. I can’t wait to see my family and to finally be submerged in this beautiful culture again. I can’t wait to live, at least for a while, in a place where loving one another is expected to be your top priority. I am also extremely excited to watch the same transformation that happened for me happen for our new team of delegates. I feel that we have an incredible team full of big-hearted, open-minded people. People who will absorb this beauty like a sponge and not reject it for its differences, or for the fact that there are negative aspects of the country. The truth is, danger and negativity are everywhere. Love is also everywhere, and love can also be spread everywhere. I want so badly for everyone to experience this language of love.

The trip to El Salvador can not get here fast enough. I am eager to experience the love, as well as the spiritual fullness. Though I like to think that I am very strong in my faith, being in this culture strengthens it, and my heart needs that. My cup is empty, and I am more than ready to have it filled.

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Resilience, Violence, and Juxtapositions

I am unsettled tonight. And I am rarely unsettled here. I just took one of the Xanax that I was given after the accident for nightmares in the hopes of calming my nerves enough to sleep.

The day was tranquil; I spent it with my goddaughter sitting for hours working at our makeshift office on a picnic table tucked beneath a low canopy of trees behind the house. Then we killed my phone battery gleefully going through pictures of the 8 years I have been coming here to their house. When day finally gave way to evening, I headed inside, content, to get ready to go out for dinner with my soldier friend. Instead I found a message from him that said, “Um, I recommend we don’t go anywhere today. There’s a country-wide curfew in effect. Just for today. Two buses were already shot up [with machine guns].” My soldier friend isn’t afraid of anything, so this was serious. A few minutes later, my local cell phone rang. Another admonishment from a friend: “Anna Maria, don’t leave the house tonight. The buses have all stopped running. People are scared. They’re calling it Black Friday.” It was 6:30 in the evening. It had just gotten dark.

Earlier in the day, I was getting ready to walk to a dear friend’s house for a visit, only to remember that he and his mother and sister were evacuated from the country earlier this week due to threats of extortion and violence from the gangs. These stories have become so commonplace that I am immune to their shock. But tonight is different.

What is happening tonight is called the Sombra Negra, or Black Shadow. The name is a throwback to paramilitary death squads composed primarily of off-duty police and soldiers that emerged at the end of the war in 1989. These vigilantes famously target criminals and gang members, citing the government’s impotence and unwillingness to enforce laws and combat illicit activity. Their modus operandi is to move by the cover of night, hooded and masked. They go to known gang members’ homes (remember, these are officers with access to intelligence), and, claiming to be police or the army, force their way in, then execute the gang members. Last Friday, the 18th Street gang imposed a curfew in a community and christened it Viernes Negro (Black Friday) and tonight’s Black Friday is in response to that. (This is an article that came out yesterday about fliers appearing on car windshields that said “Gang bangers and collaborators, your time has come. You’re going to hell, scoundrels. –La sombra negra” http://elmundo.com.sv/la-sombra-negra-amenaza-a-pandillas-en-ciudad-delgado. And this is one of the few times that I’ll ever condone the use of Google Translate because I don’t have the energy to translate it.)


Courtesy of elmundo.com.sv

The police have rejected the Sombra Negra threats, claiming that they are not real. They won’t go so far as to say that these vigilantes do not exist, though. I have personal knowledge of the Sombra Negra’s presence in this area and have even had conversations at length with members of these paramilitary forces. I choose to withhold judgment of the rightness or wrongness of what they are doing, but the positive that I take from what is happening is that people are getting fed up. Once complacency is broken, tolerance will cease and people will demand a solution. Don’t mistake my optimism for foolishness, of course, because I know the road will be long and likely bloodier. But there must be something that impulses change, and it is an awakening on the part of the people who are suffering under the thumbs of the gangs.

Following the cautions of my friends, Steffany, her boyfriend, Oliver, and I quickly grabbed a few quarters and walked him home, where I would buy a few little bags of water to get me through the night. As we walked, we saw a few busses pass by caravan-style, presumably seeking strength in numbers. They were all replete with passengers. This was the last run of the night, hours before the buses usually make their final passes. I could see the people’s expressions through the windows—faces drawn, brows furrowed. No one seemed to be talking or looking at each other. We reached Oliver’s house, bought the water, and headed back towards my house. The same buses that had just passed were now coming back the opposite direction. Empty. They had not continued along their routes, but rather had let their fares off at the edge of safety (on the road a ways below my home) and were returning a different way.

The silence now is eerie, except that it is not silent. What is missing is the roar of the trucks and buses that pass in front of our house all night long, the distant music that plays at all hours in neighboring houses, and the shouts of people in the streets. But in that void of sound, the pops and explosions in the distance seem to be more prominent and numerous than normal. Every unnerving rat-tat-tat-tat that perforates the stillness, every reverberating boom, every staccatoed flurry, sends my mind racing through a litany of violent scenarios. Of course, as I have been taught here, it always comes to rest on the conclusion that somewhere somebody is celebrating something, and the terror that is playing through my mind is, in fact, just the jubilance of fireworks.

Dinner tonight was one of the strangest juxtapositions of feelings I have ever experienced. The heightened sense of alarm we all had seemed to dissipate, or at least subside, the second we sat down around the table. Mamá even joined us tonight. Papá’s first comment when his plate was placed before him was that it was too much food. Then he looked up at me, smiled wryly, and said, “I’m trying to lose some weight.” (He’s nothing but skin and bones at this point.) After they prayed, we began eating and before long, heard an especially long and measured series of pops, the space between each shot too calculated to be fireworks. I looked at Vanessa and asked her if they were shots or fireworks. She shrugged and responded simply, “You never know,” though I think we all knew. [Steffany told me earlier about a bus driver and cobrador who had been killed a few weeks ago down the hill past our house on the same route the buses refused to traverse tonight. She awoke to the sounds of what she chalked up to fireworks, only to discover the next morning that it was the machine gun fire that had taken the men’s lives.] At that, dad took a sip of his atol and the thick film that had cooled on the top slopped out of his cup down his chin. He spit it to the ground and I looked at him with feigned disapproval. “One of my intestines came out,” he replied apologetically. The whole table erupted in laughter. A few minutes later, as I cleared the empty serving dishes to lure the flies away from the table, he motioned for my attention. He began waving his hands theatrically at the chair opposite him and with a flourish, threw both hands forward. Instantaneously, the chair jumped. Again, we burst into laughter at his childish trick. Mamá began telling stories of papá’s travesuras, or mischievousness, to the delight of the girls and me. By the time dinner was over, the Black Sombra was nothing more real to us than the boogey man or el mico.

This is the resilience that is so characteristic of the Salvadoran people. Uncertainty is a way of life. Danger is as much a part of the daily routine as getting tortillas for dinner. Yet inside the walls of this house, those things do not enter. Life simply goes on. In a country that was ravaged by a war that pitted neighbor against neighbor, in communities in which tattooed young men and women reign with fear and obedience, in a place where—when war and gangs mercifully avert their attention from you—Mother Nature is always poised to destroy your home and habitat with rains, floods, and earthquakes, in this place, people are kind, generous, and loving. Despite the triple-edged sword that hangs over their heads every day, the Salvadoran people are faithful, spiritual, and giving. There are no other people more determined, more admirable, or more humbling to me than the Salvadoran people.

As I sit here writing this, broken snippets of the night’s newsreel float into my bedroom from the ancient rabbit-ear-antenna television in the living room. Mention of bus strikes, the Sombra Negra, body counts, police responses, and admonitions to stay inside swirl around me, interspersed with the melodramatic sounds of telenovelas as my family flips through the channels. I am unnerved. But it is not for me for whom I fear. My heart breaks for this country, for my families, and even for the people who are causing this violence. My heart breaks because I know that my passport and US dollars will soon carry me far from this place and into safety while the people I love so dearly, so desperately, must carry on here with the daily uncertainty and anguish of this mindless violence. I feel no urge to flee, but I know I must return to my other home to continue working for this community and transmitting their hope and resilience to my home community. It’s so bittersweet to know I have to leave. But nothing will keep me from coming back.

Tomorrow is my godson’s 2nd birthday. I’m going back to the very place where I was robbed almost exactly a year ago, a place that is notorious for violence (and which I’m told is worsening). Rumor has it the buses will be on strike in this whole part of the country. What a contrast—the celebration of a tiny life against the backdrop of brutality.

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Morning musings, love advice, and a new student

Last night was a struggle to sleep. I’m not sure whether to blame the 5 cups of coffee I was served throughout the day, the mucky heat that made my thin sheet feel like a thick comforter, or the unrelenting din of dogs, roosters, and heavy trucks outside my window. My family has been up for hours, which I have been aware of since I started stirring around 5am. I got up just now to use the restroom and check and see if “water fell” last night (an interesting expression that refers to whether or not the excess water leftover from irrigation turned on to fill the pilas, or cement tanks, overnight, an unpredictable occurrence that seems to happen every other day or so). The tanks still have only a few inches of water, but somebody has already transferred a shower’s worth of water into a large bucket from the reserve barrels outside the bathroom for me to bathe. My papá, now eighty-years-and-one-day old, is out removing all the leaves and rubbish that fell throughout the night with his ancient rake. My mamá is in preparing breakfast while my little sisters/goddaughters Steffany and Vanessa sit at the table working on Steffany’s homework. The only thing that is striking about this scene is the homework; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the girls working so diligently. I fell asleep around midnight last night while Steffa still sat at the table putting together this big project. She is scheduled to graduate in November and, for the first time I’ve ever seen, is really taking school seriously.

Breakfast this morning was moved to the living room where there were fewer flies than the kitchen. Dad was there waiting for me, flyswatter in hand. Pobrecita the fly that lands near my dad—he goes through more flyswatters than anyone I’ve ever met. Yesterday he caused a “fly massacre” after the birthday cake was served. Mamá joined us for breakfast today—a rarity here. I almost melted when, after she sat down, my dad reached into his pocket, pulled out three small jocotes, and wordlessly set them on the table next to her. She just glanced over and smiled shyly at him. We ate quietly, all with one hand waving dispassionately back and forth over our plates to keep the flies away, while the candle lit to stave them off burned down to a nub. Dad asked when my real mom is coming back down to visit and we spoke briefly about my now defunct previous relationship. This led to wise and welcome advice about love from a couple who just celebrated 50 years of marriage. (One gem was, “Amor de lejos, para pendejos.”) They told me about how they dated for 7 years before finally getting married (my mom vehemently declared that dad would come visit her from his town but that “absolutely nothing else happened” before they married), and how they decided to wait to marry until they had the means to start a family. (At their wedding, the priest is said to have praised their patience and told the guests that this was a model couple made in God’s image.) Mom assured me that I still have time for love, since she and don Máximo married at the age of 30. I simply giggled and told her I wasn’t too worried about it. After all, I am practically married to this project and this community.

Yesterday’s birthday celebration was beautiful. The girls did a great job keeping our secret, and despite arriving almost 6 hours later than planned (in typical Salvadoran fashion, “We’re going to run a quick errand before we drop you off — we just need to go sign some papers at the bank. 5 minutes max.” turned into an odyssey around the capital), mis papás were surprised and tickled to see us pull up. I brought a cake adorned with 80 candles, which almost went up in flames by the time we had all the candles lit. The frosting became a pool of colored wax and the “Feliz Cumpleaños – 80” looked more like Chinese characters, but seeing my dad in his party glasses effortlessly blow out the small, raging fire was priceless.


Don Máximo blows out 80 candles on his birthday

birthday cake

My papá’s cake

Last night I had the honor of delivering the news to a scholarship applicant that she has been selected for a scholarship. This is a step in the process that the FCE has purposefully removed itself from traditionally in order to ensure that the community has ownership over the scholarship program and selection process, but Yessica Beatriz was a special case. We had a potential donor approach us a few months ago looking specifically to sponsor a nursing student and coincidentally the scholarship committee simultaneously approached us asking for approval to add a new, non-traditional student to the program. Yessica is a 24-year-old who began a nursing degree in 2010 but had to withdraw after her first year due to financial hardship. We typically only accept students as first-year high school students and commit to their full education, so Yessica would have otherwise been turned away, but the parameters of the donor’s nursing scholarship and the timing of this unusual situation were such that she was the perfect candidate. We presented her to the potential donor and trustees in March and received word last Monday that they unanimously voted to support her. She will go Monday to register and will begin classes on time in July. Her reaction to the news last night was so humbling and so inspirational. I hope to post the video shortly, once I have access to bandwidth that can handle an upload.


Yessica Beatriz and President Anna Stout

I’m hoping to visit some of our students today, though I don’t have anything officially on the schedule. Tomorrow is my godson’s 2nd birthday celebration in San Martin and I’m dedicating all of Sunday to the scholarship students, so today is uncharacteristically unplanned. The stubborn, impenetrable cloud cover today is keeping the heat at bay, but already I can feel the sheen of my perpetually glistening face in this thick humidity. Today might just be a day to spend aimlessly here at the house at the computer working on stuff for the FCE. Or, more likely, it will be the unpredictable and busy kind of day that always seems to present itself to me while I’m here. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about El Salvador in the past ten years, it’s that planning can be cumbersome (and more often than not simply sets you up for frustration), while spontaneity never fails to bring you rewarding and memorable experiences.

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