Sunday started early. Breakfast was served promptly at 6:45am, and it was tasty. During breakfast, Katy (Kah-TEE), gave us a brief orientation and introduction to the program. She went over some basic information for those of us, like myself, who were new to the Habitat Global Village project. Some of the stats she gave were just staggering. For instance, Habitat has built more than two hundred homes in this one community over the past few years, offering families affordable housing solutions that are far and away more advanced, hygienic, and safe than their previous habitations. Another stat that was very eye-opening was the fact that the average family in El Salvador survives on less than $300 per month. Even after seeing what I had seen on the road from San Salvador to Ahuachapán, the numbers were still difficult to believe and difficult to put into perspective.
About two thirds of the way through breakfast, our meal and orientation was interrupted by a parade of local school children down the main avenue of town. The youngsters, most from kindergarten to about second grade in age, were all dressed in various uniforms for their individual schools and they played instruments as they marched. Most of the younger groups had simple percussion instruments, but a handful of older youths had full brass marching band ensembles. They were all surprisingly talented both at keeping their pace while marching and while playing
their instruments. I spent several years in band through middle and high school, and performed in the marching band for two of the years I was in high school. Their performance brought back a slew of memories. I got a few pictures of the marching groups, but tried not to intrude too much and get in the way of the locals.
After the parade, the meal, and the end of our orientation, we attended a local church service that was absolutely amazing. I didn’t understand much of what was being said during the opening prayer/song, but one thing that came across very clearly was the intensity and the depth of feeling and faith these people felt while worshipping. The main pastor for the church said some kind words of welcome for our group and another from Wisconsin that would be working in the same village with us for the week, and then, as he was feeling ill, turned the worship service over to a guest preacher who delivered one of the most powerful sermons I’ve heard in a long time. The guest pastor spoke about the need for a strong family unit and the fact that society today seems to be trying to dismantle the basic nuclear family. He talked about the stabilizing influence that a full and functional family has on the lives of the children they raise, and how that relationship that is built between parents and children serves as the basis for all of our societal structures and the order of our society at large. The pastor defended the family as the basic unit of human relationship that was designed and ordained by God, and that is necessary for healthy individuals and healthy societies.
It was a message that would have been just as relevant and applicable in Charlotte, NC as it was in Ahuachapán, El Salvador.
One of the things that really struck me as the worship progressed was the sheer joy of the people present. They took the charge repeated over and over in the scriptures to rejoice and give joyful thanks to the Lord very literally, and they put it into direct action. The joy, the exuberance, the fellowship, and the intense faith all had a deep feeling of unashamed authenticity that is sometimes lacking in many of the churches I’ve attended here at home. There is no reservation or awkward self-hesitation in the people who worshipped in that church with us in El Salvador, only sheer joy and devotion to God with a pure honesty that was refreshing to experience.
After the church service, we headed to a park for a picnic lunch prepared and served by the translators and staff for the home office of Habitat in San Salvador. I felt a bit awkward being waited on by the ladies. I’m not used to being the one sitting and getting served when there’s meat to be cooked on the grill, and it made me a bit antsy. The food was awesome, and plentiful, with a healthy serving of mixed veggies, a sausage, a piece of grilled chicken breast, and grilled flank steak. It wasn’t until later in the week that it really occurred to me the level of extravagance that picnic lunch represented. Compared to the average meal for the people in the village, it would have been a feast. But, at the time, I was only focused on feeding my own hunger.
After the delicious lunch at the picturesque park (that I wish I’d taken more actual pictures of) we loaded back into the bus and headed out to do some shopping and sightseeing in a couple local tourist locations. I don’t remember the first town we stopped in, but it was the quintessential scene of an open air market in an underdeveloped nation. There were a handful of shops and stalls set up along the main avenue our buss drove in on, mostly dealing in larger items and antiques.
I stopped to browse at a few of them, and looked at some amazing examples of paleo and Neolithic tool sets. One vendor had an impressive mortar and pestle set of hard mountain granite that must have taken years to shape, even for a skilled stone mason in ancient times. There were also old coins, paper bills, lanterns, rusted cross-cut saws, and various other small hand tools and household items that, taken together, could have told quite a story about the history and life of people in this country stretching back decades at least.
Up the side avenues were more modern offerings from shop keepers who had moved some of their wares out into the street for the growing crowds collecting in the area of Ahuachapán for the coming festival celebrations. The avenue we walked up first was covered in blue tarps to provide shade and shelter from the sun, giving the area underneath a somewhat eerie blue glow. I was a little nervous stepping into the shadows beneath that tarp at first. Our group was clearly the “odd man out” as it were, and
The shop keepers and vendors offered everything from refrigerator magnets, to hand painted wood and leatherworking, to a vibrant green dress with hand-stitched embroidery. A few of the stalls had regular commercial items like belts, socks, bras, and other various trinkets, but none of them had the attention to detail of the hand-crafted items. And just about everything that was actually hand-made or crafted was a riot of vibrant colors and bold designs.
One of the few exceptions was a small clay nativity scene that I bought. It was made of the same fine-grained red clay that was all over the mountains and hills around the village. The manger was a small, hand-shaped cup of clay with tiny figures inside; an angel, a couple of cows, Mary, Joseph, and a tiny baby Jesus. The figures had been blended so that they seem to grow out of the manger itself.
For those that may not be aware, I have been collecting manger scenes since I was a small child. At one point I had them displayed in my parents’ house and there were dozens. I don’t have room for the whole collection at my home yet, but there are a few small versions here and there. This particular clay piece is now one of the first things you see when you walk through our front door.
I picked up a few souvenirs for the kids first, and then just walked around and tried to see as much of the small town as I could.
There was a horse giving rides to children in the public square. It had a kind of diaper fashioned from an old grain sack that I had never seen before, but it was keeping the village square free of dung. There were street vendors with food all over the place. Some of the smells were downright mouth-watering, but I’d heard enough cautionary tales not to try any of it. I have, at times, a weak stomach anyway and I didn’t want to test my luck thousands of miles from home.
The main site in the square, and really the entire village was the cathedral in the village square. It was the largest single structure I’d seen in the entire village, and it was definitely the best maintained. The white-washed walls were pristine, and the red trim was vibrant against it. I didn’t go inside to take pictures, though I saw a few
people doing so. I’m not sure why, but I’ve never felt really comfortable taking pictures inside a church.
On the way out of the first village, I found another peddler of antiques near the bus, and stopped for a look. I found and purchased a micro blade of obsidian for a quarter. I’m not sure if it’s an authentic piece, though it looks old and has tool marks from re-sharpening along one edge. The next village closer to town was Ataco, and we stopped there for more shopping. The small stalls and vendors surrounded the village square, for the most part, and lined a few of the streets immediately surrounding it.
Although they weren’t more than about ten to fifteen minutes apart, the two small villages had their own unique feel and character. In Ataco, there were more food vendors and open air kitchens along the avenues leading up to the village square.
The vendors around the central square had a much more industrious attitude and were actively hawking their wares rather than simply waiting passively for someone to show interest. I picked up an antiqued silver bracelet for Courtney with a carved piece of Jade as the centerpiece. And, at the same small stall, I found myself a blade core of obsidian that looked to be from about the same period as the microblade I had picked up earlier.
In Ataco, the plodding horse of the previous village was replaced with large trucks with beds that resembled a mockup of a streetcar, and they were loaded with passengers. Pedestrians apparently don’t have the right of way always in El Salvador either, as the party buses would move through the same packed alleys as the foot traffic. Sometimes they would even honk their horns to let you know they were coming.
After browsing and meandering around the open air bazaar of Ataco, we were all pretty well exhausted and ready to head back to the hotel and familiar faces. My first full day in a foreign country was coming to a close, and it had been non-stop from the moment I crawled out of bed. The one thing that kept rattling around in the back of my mind as we walked through the village streets and the open air markets was the uneasy sense of separation. I was surrounded on all sides by a press of humanity, but I felt like I was adrift and alone. Lingering glances from young couples as they passed, snickers from children, and the half-embarrassed nods I received after uttering one of the few simple sentences I know in Spanish (“No comprende”) to the vendors all underpinned the deep feeling of exclusion…of being the “other” in the crowd.
Looking back at the experience now, I’m very thankful that we had the period between Saturday and Sunday to acclimate ourselves to our new environment. I don’t know how the others experienced it, but for me it was very much like easing myself into a very cold swimming pool. You start by testing the water with your toe (Saturday). Then, once you work up the nerve, you step in up to your waist (Sunday).
But, at some point, you’ve just got to take a deep breath, and dive in….