Tough Life, Beautiful Life

It is nearly Christmas and I’m coming home for a short break in the USA later this week. In the meantime please read the following post. I now have a tab that links to my flickr page – go there to see the latest pictures. I hope to see you all soon!

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Have you ever thought about why you are who you are? Not the things that happened in your lifetime to shape who you’ve become, but the basic facts of your life – when in history you came into existence, where you were born (what country and community, and the circumstances of life at the time there) and what parents received you as their own (their characteristics and circumstances too).

If you have had a relatively privileged life it probably has a lot to do with where in the world you were born and your distant ancestors (or even your parents) and the hardships they overcame and the luck that came their way. That, and the advances in science and medicine.

I ask myself, “Why am I myself, and not someone else born to different parents from another part of the world at a different time in history, or at a future moment? Why am I not a short, dark-skinned young man from some island nation? Or a little Russian woman who died years ago? Or a soon-to-be-born baby in Asia?” What happened, besides the obvious mating necessary to make a baby, to have been born to my American parents, who were able to give me many opportunities in life, in a country that although not perfect is far advanced comparing it to many other countries in the world.

I don’t think there is an answer to this question, and I’m not sure why I bother to think about it. I suppose it is because I feel empathetic to those who struggle daily, especially those here in El Salvador that I see every day. Not only is it empathy, but it is guilt as well. Is it fair that I was born an American citizen? Or a woman at a time in the United States when women were empowered to take on the world, not just stay at home taking care of the house and kids?

Whereas most Hispanic people are shorter, darker skinned, with dark eyes and hair, where I live in the mountains of El Salvador there are many taller folks, with blue or green eyes, light hair (even blond and fire-red hair). Wandering in neighboring villages I often see men that remind me of my father – tall, light-skinned with light-eyes, with years of hard work etched in their faces and showing in their tired bodies – and I imagine him as a Salvadoran man. The climate in this part of the country is much more comfortable than in the low lands and the Spaniards who conquered the natives of this part of the world hundreds of years ago spent a lot of time in the mountains of El Salvador when they weren’t ruling their factories down in the lowlands. Their genes still show up in the people of today in this part of the country.

Had my Dad been a Salvadoran man, his work ethic would keep him and his family well-fed, but it wouldn’t get him the security and health that he has in his current life. As an American man who has worked hard and saved enough to retire, shortly he will stop going to work and find ways to fill his days. If he was a Salvadoran man he would spend his last days deep in the work that has filled his life – mending fences, bringing firewood home for his wife and their children, tending to the cows (if he is fortunate enough to be able to afford them), re-playing the cycle of crop production (preparing the land with a hoe, planting the seed, tending the crop, harvesting, hoping for a reasonable price at market if there is enough to sell, and starting all over) alongside the other men in his extended family. I see life here as simple and beautiful, but also as just hard and unfair. If they weren’t just getting by I might be able to see it some other way.

If there is a God then I’m certain that he/she/it wouldn’t put unbearable hardships on many people of the world, but give me the good fortune of having a chance to have a comfortable life. I am so fortunate to have parents who have supported me in every way possible. I feel prepared to take on the world, so prepared that I feel like my life is in my control for the most part. After nearly two years of living in a developing country and seeing how people struggle daily, I understand their unfailing faith in God. If everything were out of your control, wouldn’t you rather say it was God’s doing and not your own failing? In the same line of reasoning, it makes sense that many Americans feel that they don’t need God.

Where I have been living for the past nearly two years is a remarkable place with the warmest, hardest working people I have come across in my life. I live a lot like they do, and have come to love their way of life. I wash all my clothes, towels, bedding, and dishes by hand. I cook with the food available here, and enjoy the food villagers share with me when I visit their houses or give me to cook in my home. I spend a great deal of time chatting about nothing, just passing the time. But the truth is that there is a lot separating me from them, despite the obvious height difference and my glowing white skin. I can quit this life and go back to modern life in America any day I choose. I also have the luxury of receiving a check every month that covers my expenses (food, rent, trips to the pueblo, etc.) and knowing that Peace Corps is going to take care of my medical needs.

Medical care in El Salvador is expected to be limited, as there are many people, few doctors and the clinics and hospitals are far from the rural homes of many, and there are not enough funds to cover the needs of everyone. It is supposed to be free, but if there is no medicine in the clinic pharmacy many people are forced to scrape together money for medicine or make a journey to another clinic or hospital hoping to get help. Often they end up with nothing, convincing them the effort isn’t worth it – that it is better to just stay home and avoid the hassle. To me it is frustrating to no end, but to them it is expected.

About a year ago I experienced the flailing health care system of El Salvador, through a scary incident with my host mother Juana. On New Year’s Eve she got all worked up watching her teenage daughters dance (with boys!) and decided to sit down to rest. Her blood pressure must have spiked, or she had a little stroke, as she was unresponsive with her head resting on the table in front of her. I kept talking to her as I tried to hone in what could be going on. She had her eyes open, but they weren’t moving and she was drooling out of the side of her mouth. She had a pulse and was breathing. As I’m not a doctor I didn’t know what was happening to her or what was going to happen next – if it would get better or much, much worse. There was nothing I could do, and with it being nighttime the clinic in the closet village had been closed for hours.

We all got lucky that night. She amazingly came to after a couple of minutes, although it seemed like much longer. Shortly after I thought to call a nurse that lives in a nearby village. Her advice was to buy her a pill from the little store in our house and give it to her with lots of water. I later found out the pill was Valium with b-vitamins for extra oomph. I lay awake that night and many nights afterwards waiting for someone to cry out that it was happening again, but they never did.

What happened to her is not clear still as I’m not a doctor or nurse and the doctors she did talk to after the fact didn’t seem too concerned. It is just normal they said, that a mom gets so worked up that she just becomes unresponsive for a couple of minutes. Even Juana wasn’t concerned about it. For months afterwards I lay awake at night awaiting the worst and she was fast asleep, as were her kids and husband. It took a lot of urging, but I forced Juana to go to the pueblo clinic to get checked out shortly after the New Year. She is a young-looking fifty years old but was barely moving up the hill to the bus stop. She walked so slowly that we nearly missed the bus. I had never seen anyone labor so hard to put one foot in front of the other.

At the clinic in the pueblo, we waited for 3 hours and she was seen for three minutes. I insisted on going in to observe and was shocked at what the young doctor didn’t do in the consultation. But what can be done in a few rushed minutes, when dozens of others are waiting to see the good doctor before lunchtime? All he did was take her blood pressure and prescribe her medication. Very high blood pressure, dangerously high. Take this prescription and be on your way. He told her to come back in 2 months to see if the medication was working. I insisted that two months was too long, and that she go to the clinic in the nearby village at least once a week to see if the medication was working, but she always had some excuse and not once made the 30-minute journey on foot.

She was given medication that didn’t work well enough for how high her blood pressure was. It lowered her BP enough that the constant headaches went away, and that was good enough for her. But it remained dangerously high. More than once her medicine was changed after many months of use and realizing it wasn’t working. Some days she left the clinic with no medicine and had weeks without medicine, or made the journey on foot to the nearest village in Honduras, where they usually have medicine to give patients. There is no reason why she hasn’t had a stroke or some other serious attack on her body in the past year.

My host mother and all poor people in this country and other poor parts of the world accept the poor health care they receive. They have more faith in the natural remedies their ancestors have been using for centuries, in the little old lady that comes to rub your pain or sickness away and in God anyway.

I don’t know what it is like in other parts of the world, but I imagine it is much the same in many poor places. El Salvador has many major problems. The minimal quality health care is just one of many. Big businesses are changing the eating habits and agricultural practices of many, without taking responsibility of the current and future consequences. How can a person work to get ahead, or even just cover their basic needs, in a world where they have very little power or opportunity?

If I wasn’t me, but say a 22-year-old Salvadoran woman living today my life would be very different. I would have been married (or more likely accompanied, which is usually a commitment two young people make because their first child is on the way), with about 2-4 children, spending my days caring for children, washing the laundry of the entire family, carrying water and firewood and preparing food to nourish my family as best as I could. It would be a daily struggle and a very humble life centered around the extended family of myself my partner. We would live a small room in his parent’s home. My man would work in the fields as they almost all do, cultivating the food that sustains our family and hopefully brings a little spare change into the household.

After seeing their daily struggle for nearly two years, it is no surprise to me that people from this part of the world risk their lives to find work in the United States. It does break my heart that as kids as young as 6 ask me if I think they’d be a good worker over there, as they say referring to the US, or when a young man on the community leadership asks if I can help him get a visa to work in the US, or at least help with the money required to do so. The truth is that I have the luxury of detouring my life for a few years to try to help them improve their lot, but they are so busy just getting by that they don’t have the time or energy to help themselves or each other.

The journey itself to the US is a difficult journey, one that rarely goes smoothly and often brings malnourished and exhausted people into a foreign land. If I were Mexican, Guatemalan, Honduran or Salvadoran I would without a doubt make the journey to the US as an illegal or undocumented immigrant, however you prefer to say it. The people from those countries have the advantage of being relatively close to the US, or at least connected by land where there is a border with holes. These countries statistically have larger numbers of their citizens living in the US than other countries more distant and not connected by land. For a peasant in the developing world, finding work in the US, although very dangerous and unwelcoming, has been a reliable way, the only way really, to do better for your family for many years.

The problem is that we as sheltered Americans have a hard time imagining ourselves as anyone else. We like our protective bubble. Nor do we want to believe the problems of others far away have anything to do with ourselves, our lives, our families. But if we could imagine a much different life, a life that reflects back on the tough early years of American settlers, I don’t doubt for a minute that if any American changed places with someone from my village or any village in the developing world today that they wouldn’t choose to do the same for themselves or their family. Why accept your hard fate when there is a chance to do better?

Immigration is a complicated issue and I’m not saying that America should be open for all, but I do think that a new system needs to be in place to allow more work visas given to those wanting to work in the US. It is pretty obvious to me that the current system isn’t working, as people keep going illegally and working illegally.

I try not to talk much with people here about the journey to El Norte, because it breaks my heart that all the work I do here won’t change their decision to go or stay. The distance, and especially their inability to visit once they’ve made it to the US, ruins their close-knit families. Villagers sometimes ask for help soliciting a visa, wanting to go legally to the US. I tell them it would do no good because the truth is that you have to be too old to work and/or financially well off to even get a chance to step foot on American soil with permission. The US fears that allowing anyone, especially those on a tourist visa, is opening themselves up for overstayed visas. A fear very real considering the hardship people go through to get there illegally and the lives they live if they choose to stick it out in their native land.

From both sides of the border, from here in El Salvador and from the US, I have seen what it is like to have your family torn apart when members leave for the US. Can you imagine your son or daughter leaving at 15, accompanied by a few relatives or strangers, for a distant land, not knowing when or if he will return? Or your mother leaving you as a newborn and not returning for your high school graduation? Can you imagine knowing your child is making this journey, thinking of all the horror stories you’ve heard of the past journeys from family and friends? For the sake of their worrying mothers I wish the young people from the developing world had a chance at a good life without feeling the need to make this horrific journey. I think empathy is the first step in being able to solve this complicated issue. The second step, well I’m not sure what that would be.

About Sara Gale

In March 2011, I started my two-year service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in El Salvador. I am a Rural Health and Sanitation volunteer living in Chalatenango.
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