I finally arrived in my new home-away-from-home, Guajoyo: nestled in the lower region of the Lempa River in the San Vicente region, where corn and sugarcane stalks outnumber people, and where October through April is a dustbowl and May through the end of September is a torrent of rain and heat. The highway from the capital to Guajoyo is lined with makeshift coconut stands, where the whack of a machete invites the cool refreshment of a recently plucked coconut to cool your parched throat, and now that mango season is drawing near little mango stands are beginning to line the highway as well. “Dame ryd!” (pronounced “dah-may rie”) is shouted from pedestrians hopeful for a pickup to slow down enough to hop in the back. Turning down a dirt road you begin to pass through similar communities one by one — I would list them here but haven’t learned the names yet — until arriving at Guajoyo, hardly distinguishable from the other huddles of cinder block homes of other communities to the untrained eye.
We arrived perfectly on time, one hour after we had planned on arriving. The community council, called the junta directiva, was ready to greet me and dive right into a community meeting. From all the meetings I have been to, I am amazed at how long it can take to say something very simple. To begin this meeting, the president of the directiva offered a 10 minute description of the items outlined in the agenda, then explained to us the first item: introductions. After his introduction of what is an introduction, each person offered their name, their role in the directiva, and similar offers of themselves and their home to me as a friend and visitor in Guajoyo.
The group is made up of men, women, and youth, some of whom are elected members of the directiva, others who represent specific committees. I am constantly impressed by the presence of women and youth in these decision-making groups in El Salvador. It seems very true to say that this country is carried on the backs of the women, who since the war have outnumbered men, even in birth rates now, well after the war has ended. There were also at least 5 representatives of the youth committee, recognizable as ‘youths’ only by the absence of age on their faces, because otherwise they carry themselves as dignified individuals charged with the maintenance and growth of their community — because that is what they are. The thing that Salvadorans have figured out is the simple fact that if you want something to happen, the surest way for it to happen is for you to do it yourself. This came out of years of the government failing miserably to do what it was supposed to do, of the rich people who ran the country making promises to fix roads, rebuild communities, provide healthcare to the poor, and ensure that workers benefited from their labor on the land and never fulfilling any such promises. If you wanted fair distribution of the land, you got together with your neighbors and figured out a way to divide things fairly. If you wanted an irrigation system, you worked with your neighbors to build one. And that’s just that.
After the welcome, I was invited to give the first of what would be many speeches of gratitude, of explaining who I am and why I am here. I emphasized that although I’m going to help in the school and with the youth scholarship program, I am here to learn from this community that has achieved so much. We spent the rest of the meeting working out some details, and hearing some beautiful speeches from a few community members about the hardship they have been through to arrive where they are today, and how proud they are as a community to share that with someone from outside, to show off what they have created and to share those areas where the struggle continues.
We walked a few hundred feed down the dirt road that runs down the middle of the community to the house of Don Antonio and his wife Candida, where I will be living these 5 months here. Buildings in El Salvador are very much connected to the outdoors, with open windows and well-ventilated spaces replacing air conditioning, but even more so here in the countryside. Doors are left open, and shady areas in front of the house are where most of life happens, and where neighbors will come and go constantly throughout the day. A cluster of people from the community stayed with us in the shade in front of the house for a while, chatting about this and that, while I got settled in my little room. The family all lives in one shared open space — a large room with sheets dividing it in half. One half houses the row of cots and hammocks where the family sleeps, the other half is the living room of sorts, with the TV, another hammock, and a refrigerator.
To insert a bit about myself personally, I am a busy body; my idea of resting is to cook a big dinner or go for a long walk. The concept of sitting still has always been foreign to me — until now. Although everyone wanted to invite me over for a refresco or to go walk around the community, they also all wanted to let me rest. So this weekend my days generally looked like this: wake up, eat a slow breakfast. Sit in the kitchen and chat for a while. Poke around in the garden or chase some chickens. Sit in a circle following the shade as it moves across the ground. Start cooking lunch. Eat lunch. Lounge in the hammock until you realize you are asleep, and then stay there for an hour or two. Take a bucket shower. Maybe go for a walk, which mostly is made up of walking 15 yards or so from house to house where you stop to sit and visit, and maybe suck on some fresh oranges. Start making dinner. Eat dinner. Stay at the dinner table for an hour or so digesting and chatting. Go to bed at the ripe hour of 8pm.
I cannot emphasize enough that time is different here. And how beautiful to be a woman in this culture!!! The women are the arteries of the community, connected to one another over fences and over Saturday mass and over the man who walks down the main road selling shrimps or shaved ice. While the men leave during the day to work in the sugar can or corn fields, the women stay back and do everything else, and they get to do it in the most together way imaginable. And to be able to stop during the hottest part of the day and enjoy a hammock and a cold bucket bath, there is nothing richer! Of course it is all idealized in my foreign eyes, and this is a very hard life, but the truth is that people are so happy here. They have not yet forgotten — like so much of the world has — that being is so much of a greater calling than doing, although both exist in the same moment.
I can’t lie, I was terrified my first night in Guajoyo. Right as I turned off the light in my little room I saw a huge insect that looked like a mix between a spider, a crab, and satan, hoovering on the wall just above the head of my bed. The thin planks that are nailed up around a patch of concrete floor that make up my room provided little buffer between the sounds of creatures poking around outside, nor did they let in whatever slight cool breeze might have relived the still heat. “What have I gotten myself into?” I thought to myself over and over until I finally fell asleep. 5 months seemed like a very very long time.
But quickly I started getting used to this new home, and now, spending the day in Poligono Solidaraidad (a slightly larger community off the highway, just 20 minutes from Guajoyo) I actually miss the rhythm of life in Guajoyo, and the hammock under the mango tree. Even Emily, the 4-year-old and youngest member of the family, was confused about my leaving this morning. “Y la muchacha, mama?” she asked “And the lady? When is she coming back?” The rhythm of it is comforting, the simplicity and the satisfaction of filling a day doing things that are tangibly useful, like going to the community mill to grind the day’s corn from which to make tortillas and papusas.