It was way back in the previous century when I volunteered for the first time in my life. Before volunteering, I was always too caught up in my own life to worry about other people. I had just finished college and was working in a literary agency off of Union Square, living the young, single, New York dream. I had an apartment, independence and a career with no debt, when I realized that that dream was not mine, and that things were looking pretty bleak and lonely, despite the security of a salary and health insurance.
The routine of being “successful” is just as dull as being a nobody in the background. We follow a dream put in front of us by society, parents and friends and can only challenge it if we ever “wake up” to discover our own path. With these seedlings for thoughts, it wasn’t much of a decision when I had to decide to move to another part of the world or stay in NYC and work in an office that never appreciated the effort and passion I had for my own labor. I couldn’t appreciate the money, or the goals, as a young idealist who was more than an accounts receivable/ payroll ledger keeper.
So I volunteered for the Peace Corps and was sent to live in El Salvador for two and a half years. Volunteering meant I would be taken care of, but I wouldn’t get rich. I would have the best health care the American government could afford, but live in a life threatening environment. I was still in my 20’s, had a bulldog attitude to never quit and absolutely no responsibilities to hold me back. Off into the unknown, I would do something for others.
So my plights and obstacles were so numerous they could be written in a pretty thick book, but that is another story. I am writing about being a volunteer.
I was sent to a small village that was being resettled after a 12-year war. The people in this village were farmers with little to no education. They were in charge of their own plots of land and homes that were made of mud bricks called adobe. There was no electricity, no phones, no running water and no roads. It was hard work to live there. Hard work meaning, sweat, blood and tears to gather and eat food; Hard work meaning, having to swim across a river with your clothes in a plastic bag because the rope bridge went out the last storm.
I would always joke to my parents, in the letter I would write, back in the states that if they wanted to get in touch with me they would have to send smoke signals. It was always hot and dry or hot and muddy. There were bugs that bite and suck. There were snakes that hid in the bedding. There were packs of dogs that would pester your unguarded food. There were scorpions plentiful and cranky in every nook and corner. Despite the inhospitable environment, there was work to be done.
I was sent there with little to no training about how to do my job while suffering from an inconsistent ability to speak Spanish. Yet, I was a college graduate who was probably the most educated person for miles. My volunteer assignment was to teach agro-forestry. This is a type of sustainable farming that uses multiple crops instead of just one. The purpose was to supplement diet and provide a consistent product (regardless of the wet or dry season) to sell. The sustainability aspect was fundamental because these citizens had little to no money for investment and everything had to be done with that in mind and practicality. The goal was create options for nutrition and income for farmers who had very little of either.
These farmers, who lived a million miles away from civilization, only planted corn. They did this year after year since the times when the Bible was written, probably. It was the staple food and the tortillas they make in El Salvador were often the breakfast, lunch and dinner for most of the poorer folk. Corn fills you up, but there is not much taste or nutritional value to it. I tried the corn diet for a month or so (tortillas morning, noon and night) and couldn’t stand it. In fact, I remember gathering up the nerve to talk Don Victor, my 50 something year old neighbor one night, and asked him at what point in his life he decided that tortillas were the most boring of foods ever. He laughed knowingly, giving me an eye of desperation, when his insulted wife threw a carefully planned ball of maza (corn) at me. She was insulted at my audacity, and as someone who didn’t have to eat the corn every day of my life, I pretty much deserved getting hit. Fact is, these farmers didn’t have money for anything else but what they grew.
The team who introduced me to the job pretty much dropped me off, said good luck, and we’ll see you in two years (if you are still alive by then. (Si Dios quiere!)). I did my research through living (and dying of multiple food related illnesses) in this village for six months. I realized I had to be a salesman to farmers who were younger and older, men, women and children. I was the ‘Gringo’ who was going to try and sell them how to be farmers with diverse crops.
The cultural differences were a huge obstacle. First, no one shows up to meetings on time. They usually come 2-3 hours late if it’s not raining. If it is raining, maybe 4-5 hours later. People are traditional and very conservative about their farming. So when a Gringo from NYC showed up at their door selling farming ideas, I didn’t realize that I had failed before I even started.
To me, I saw their problems of money, education and diet and knew exactly how to cure each one. In fact, I could teach them how to do what I knew and what I didn’t, because I had education and imagination. I was raised in a society of American imagination, possibility and drive. Our disparity between cultures, which I am still trying to figure out, is something that came from my parents and my American inability to accept failure and poverty through passivity. Flawed as this perspective is about wealth and nationality, it drove me to preaching empowerment to as many people as would listen.
After about another 6 months of swinging and mostly missing with all these farmers, I had to reevaluate. I could talk, plead, bribe and feed as many people I wanted, but it would not be sustainable. They needed to learn that there was a better lifestyle then the one they were living.
My best friend in the village, Mauricio, was an 18-year-old son of a farmer. He had about 5 or 6 brothers and sisters and his prospects were looking pretty much the same as his father’s and his father’s before him. He was supportive in my experiments as a farmer and would often teach me about life and culture of the village. Together, we decided that we would create a model farm and call it ‘Gringolandia.’ (Author’s note: people back then were not as PC as they are today.)
The process was simple and genius, a failure and a success. It was beautiful and ugly. So many contradictions I could explain. We worked hard for an entire season clearing land by hand using a machete and cuma (Koo/ma) (Salvadoran blade). We used seeds from fruits we bought and ate from the town. We made fertilizers and pesticides by hand from recipes that would make a billy goat puke and bought nothing from any farm store. We cleaned, we killed pests, we fought off hungry children and wild packs of dogs (yes dogs will eat fruits and vegetables when hungry). And at the end of the season, we had a really productive plot of land with over five different crops all producing at different times of the year. We sold and ate everything with profit. Mauricio gained weight and always had some money in his pockets. (Author’s note: I didn’t calculate how many working hours we put in. I also did not calculate how much money we brought in from sales.)
This was one of the hardest jobs I ever attempted and even though it highlighted my lack of farming skills, it showed that where there is a will there is hope. I remember having a group of farmers check out our work, to see what I was talking about. The young farmer, Mauricio, was also preaching as if he was the choir and was as passionate as I was. We shared the sweet organic papayas we grew and everyone swore they were good. And yet, there was no buy in. The people still planted corn. The kids still ate corn morning, noon and night. There was no agrarian revolution or cultural shift that empowered a people that were certainly lacking from the downtrodden identity they were shackled to.
I, on the other hand, had gained a certain type of respect in the village. I was the crazy Gringo who lived in this village for years and had proven that when you mix water and dirt from a place and drink it, you become one with the place. (You also get sick for months with a list of stomach ailments modern medicine can’t keep up with.) Those farmers couldn’t imagine why I volunteered to live with such hardship, when they might have given up anything to get out of it.
I volunteered to try and do something, to inspire people, and to make change against the most terrible of odds. This act of volunteering was perhaps one of the greatest accomplishments of my life, and yet, I left no legacy of it and changed no one but myself. (Mauricio doesn’t farm, but works in a restaurant with his aunt in Washington D.C.) I changed to understand people and their complexities, I grew to realize that there is a bigger world out there with problems that cannot be fixed no matter how many people try and help, and I became a better human being by giving up my comfort, and my time for the benefit of others. In the end, the irony of volunteering was that I had gained even more than I had ever given.
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