Starving Cows, Generosity, And Having Enough

The cows were standing in the middle of the road somberly staring at our car, famished, ribs protruding out, barely looking alive.  They clearly weren’t going to budge, and by the looks of them they likely didn’t have the energy.  I kinda wondered if they had just escaped from some weird bovine P.O.W. camp….

We were on the road that departs San Salvador Airport, and I had just flown in to teach a two week computer skills class to El Salvadorean government workers.  ‘Road’ is a very generous word, it was more like a series of huge potholes with a few flat sections.  

One cow then laid down right in front of the bumper, making her intentions clear.  Just then, a throng of people ran up to the car as they noticed a gringo inside and started shouting and begging for money.

This is gonna be an adventure…..



This is El Salvador, 1999. Their ugly and brutal civil war had ended only 7 years prior, and at the time they were one of the poorest countries on the planet, right up there with the worst of Africa and South Asia. Since I had grown up modestly by American standards I had never even flown on a commercial jet until a few years prior, muchless been to a third-world country.  Adventure indeed.


El Salvador, enough

El Salvador


Sure, I was raised on the gritty streets of Baltimore, but this was life on the other side. In the two weeks that followed I saw brutal poverty, squalor, and the remnants of war.

I dutifully did my job, teaching a wonderful group of folks the basics of Windows and Microsoft Office as they had just received computers from the US Government in an aid package.  They were green, but hungry to learn.  They thrived.

I wanted to soak up as much of the experience as possible, so in the evenings I’d wander outside the Zona Rosa which was the safe zone around my protected hotel that I was not supposed to leave.  It was guarded by military soldiers with AK’s, the rest of the city was lawless, not safe for a gringo they said at the embassy. I’d pass endless rows of wooden shacks with tin roofs and muddy floors that posed for ‘houses’.


San Salvador Zona Rosa

The Zona Rosa, 1999



Then something unexpected started to happen.  After a few nights of wandering and city exploration, I found myself becoming happier. Given what I was surrounded by, how could this be?

Well, the place exuded happiness in a strange kind of way.  The streets had this weird cacophony of sound that was a mixture of engines, music, laughter, and horns.  Festival-like, almost inviting, but full of soot as well.  For people who had so little and who lived in such horrible conditions, they mostly seemed happy.

Every cafe I wandered in to get my pupusa-fix was full of smiling people who only stopped their joyful conversation for a second or two to glimpse the out of place six-foot three gringo.  It was hard not to be happy along with them, it was contagious.

On the last day of class, my students presented me with gifts, which made me very uncomfortable.  Even though they had better jobs than many others in El Salvador, they still only made the equivalent of around $200 U.S. a month.

Word got out that I had booked a few days on the beach before I flew home, so they gave me a beach towel. This was a full-sized towel from one of the few tourist shops in the ‘richer’ part of the city.  It cost $16 US.


El Salvador Beach Towel

My Cherished Towel


After being grateful to tears and humbled, I found out from the interpreter that only two of the students paid for this. That’s $8 each, or about 4% of their monthly salary.

To equate the math to US levels, a person who makes $60,000 a year makes $5000 a month. So it’s the equivalent of a person making 60k a year giving me a $200 gift.  Yeah.  Mind you, my bi-weekly take home pay at the time was more than they made annually.

At first I refused to accept it, but after quickly seeing that it would upset them I capitulated. They also gave me handmade plaques and various arts and crafts as mementos of my trip. I left feeling amazed, and to be honest, like a horrible person.


El Salvador Ornament

One Of My Souvenirs



Besides demonstrating what true selflessness and generosity look like, my students and the people of El Salvador spent their time with each other, with their relationships.  You’d see them at every corner cafe and every dirt lot, hanging out, just spending time together.  Whether they were kicking an old, deflated soccer ball around or just sitting in a circle talking and laughing, they foster community.

Of course this was 1999 and before the wave of smartphone and screen obsession overcame us.  I can’t help but think that we used to be like this too.

Since then my journeys have taken me to Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, Kenya and Nepal, and many places in between. I’ve seen time and time again how people living in some of the poorest and most horrendous situations imaginable often appear happier and more content than the average couple in America with a 4000 sq. ft. house and two SUVs in the driveway.


Lake de Ilopango, El Salvador

Lake de Ilopango, El Salvador, 1999


In El Salvador I learned so many of the most important lessons in life.  About needs versus wants, about generosity, about what matters in life.  It showed me that I already have what so many unhappy 1st-world people don’t


That trip laid the groundwork to my ethos and helped me get to financial independence, I have no doubt about it.  I’ve been striving hard to live by the lessons I learned there, often falling way short. But I know I will continually turn to those lessons to make my way through life’s murky waters.

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53 Responses

  1. BusyMom says:

    That was touching. Liked the souvenirs. And the fact that you kept it for so long.

  2. Doc G says:

    I visited El Salvador three times in the early 2000’s because of a family member in the foreign service. We found the trips both scary and extraordinary for some of the reasons you mentioned. I love me some papusas.

  3. susanfiideas says:

    That is the best beach towel. I can’t imagine how it felt to have them give it to you. You make a good point about the importance of being the recipient of their generosity. That is a gift as well.

    I took a road trip to Baja a few years ago and I was frankly afraid of going, even though I live in the “gritty” streets of Stockton, California. We went through small towns and all of the people were so friendly. We would do a “head check” periodically as a joke. Yep, we still have not had our heads cut off. Travel on!

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Mexico still has the reputation of being super dangerous but I think it’s gotten better recently. Baja has been on my list for a whie now, seem like such a chill place.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  4. I studied abroad in Santiago de Chile, in a program that took place at one of the best universities in the country, and my host family lived in one of the nicest districts in the city. I was daily aware of how things were different between Chile and my super comfortable college life in the US but eh for the most part things weren’t too different (except for in the winter where there was no central heating anywhere!!!). But I was expanding my horizons and living in a culture with a lower standard of living than mine!

    It wasn’t until I visited Bolivia and Peru that I realized just how stark the difference between Chile and those other countries were. Wish I’d done those trips sooner instead of right before I left to go back to the US because they made me appreciate my life in Chile (which suddenly didn’t seem that different from the US in comparison) WAY more. I’ve got a lot more traveling to do in Latin America–it’s good to be reminded of just how great we have it here.

    The generosity of that gift is astounding!

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Wow that must have been such an awesome experience! I’ve been to Chile but not Santiago, I really loved it.
      Overall Latin America is my favorite region to visit. Be careful, the more you go the more you’ll wanna keep going back!

  5. Awesome post!

    The majority of problems that most people experience in the United States, would be considered absolute blessings in most parts of the world. We are very fortunate to live in such an amazing country, but the perspective you can get when leaving the country is life changing. The first time I traveled out of the country (Bahamas) for the first time and saw homes that looked like they were put together over night, it left a lasting impression. Because of that experience, I no longer get upset over the problems we have here in the states. The “problems” we have here are really insignificant in the grand scheme of life.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Perspective is everything isn’t it? Nothing like a trip to a poor country to make you appreciate how good we have it here.

      Thanks for the kind words!

  6. Happy New Year and looking forward to more great posts from you 🙂

  7. What a beautiful towel. There is something about going and actually seeing another place that gives you a different perspective than a thousand photos and videos could.

  8. Arrgo says:

    Sometimes an experience like that can really make an impression on you. When you see people in poorer areas like that and they overall seem happy and content, it makes you stop and think how ridiculous the things we worry about here can be. It also reminds me of something I read before about some of those rich hedge fund managers being miserable, comparing what they have to others, and always wanting more. They need the better car, a 2nd or bigger house in the Hamptons, etc. They are never content despite earning millions.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Yep, as I like to say, to be happy it’s best to “fall behind the Joneses” 🙂

      Thanks for the great comment!

  9. Steve says:

    we are very fortunate to live in a first world country, the generosity and friendliness of people living in poverty always humbles a person. That was an awesome post: Thanks for sharing !

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Steve – my apologies! WordPress marked your comment as spam for whatever reason so I just found it.

      Thanks so much for the kind words!

  10. Mr. Groovy says:

    Wow. Getting outside the US has a way of making one acutely aware of his or her excess. If one made a concerted effort to be “half normal”–that is, purchase a house that is 50% smaller than the typical new house, purchase a car that is 50% less than the typical new car, purchase sneakers that are 50% cheaper than the latest Air Jordans, etc., etc.–one would be more happy and more financially secure. Very sobering post, AF. Thank you.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Ha, “half normal”. That’s something for a lot of folks to strive for. Or as you say, Egotrage. Thanks for stopping by Groovester.

  11. Awesome! Reminds me of my first overseas trip to Peru, just a year after you took yours. A lot going on there as well, with Fujimori up for election and his eventual midnight escape. Like you, I witnessed a lot of poverty and finally saw firsthand what the term “third world” meant. Still, there was an inescapable optimism and hope. I don’t think the lots of the masses improved too much since then, but you definitely come away with a better appreciation for what you do have back here in the States.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Yea, Peru has had it’s share of political drama. I did a few weeks there in 2004 including the Inca Trail, amazing people and culture. I like the term you used – “inescapable optimism”…. that sums it up nicely. Thanks for the comment!

  12. mrdefinedsight says:

    Very touching about the generosity of the students. You obviously made a big impact on them. Isn’t it fascinating that some poor people would give you the shirt off their back but some that have all the money in the world don’t do anything? Thank you for sharing that wonderful story.

  13. Wow, this is beautiful. I really like your point about emphasis on relationships and how community was truly embraced in El Salvador. Thank you for sharing!

  14. Wonderful story. It’s amazing how some people give so freely, so happily. Love the towel and hand-painting on the souvenir.

  15. Beautiful post! I hope every day that I can find that type of community & optimism in my life. Latin America is on my Top 10 list of places I want to visit for sure. Perspective really matters, less can actually be more. It’s amazing how happy we can be with almost nothing, look at kids. They’re happier playing with the box a toy came in than the toy itself usually.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Definitely make time to get to Latin America. I’ve been to almost every Central American country and 4 or 5 South American countries and every time I’m there I seem to be happier. Those places just rub off on you.

      And so true, when I was a kid we seemed happiest in the tree in the backyard or just playing in dirt. Sure, video games are fun, but so are the woods!

  16. Great post! Traveling has a way of putting things in perspective; you learn about humanity and what’s really important. Well done!

  17. Evan says:

    This is an amazing story! I feel absolutely sheltered never even have lived in another state for an extended period of time nevertheless another country. Do you have any contact with your students?

    • Accidental Fire says:

      No unfortunately I never had any contact with the students after the class. It was just a matter of different cultures and life moving on. They didn’t even speak much English since 1999 was still the early days of the internet and they had so little access to education. I taught the entire class through an interpreter, but my Spanish got pretty good after that trip and another similar one to Colombia a few months later.

      Don’t worry about your lack of travel, I suspect you’re still pretty young and have plenty time to get out and see the world!

      Thanks for the kind words!

  18. Excellent post. Our time in Panama and Haiti have left us with similar feelings. Happiness and joy have little to do with finances. And seeing the people (especially the children) having so much fun in the midst of such poverty was a beautiful reminder that a bigger house or fancy SUV was not the path to joy.

    Traveling the world is a great remedy for many of us who mistakenly feel poor.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Nice – Panama is the only country I have yet to visit in Central America. A friend of mine has a house there so I have no excuse not to go!

      And yes, Haiti is the poorest of the poor… destitute poverty. Really makes you open your eyes.

      Thanks for the comment and for stopping by!

  19. Team CF says:

    Good post! Seems that those experiences left a mark (in a good way). Personally never spent time in South America (on the bucket list) but I did spent some time in Africa. Similar experience though!

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Yes, almost anywhere you go in Africa is poor minus a few small areas. I hope to travel there more in the future.

      Thanks for the comment Cheesy!

  20. Melissa says:

    Well-written and a welcome reminder than we can live on so much less, and we might be better off for it. Our planet would certainly be better off if we all learned to live on less!

  21. I’m always humbled when somebody puts our privileged life in perspective. Thanks for sharing. This was eye opening.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Glad you liked it Jason, I was more than eye opening for me at the time and writing the post brought it all back.

  22. Cary says:

    All these comments are awesome. Is there a way to require everyone to travel? I did 2 years of Peace Corps in a small village in Burkina Faso (West Africa) without electricity or running water and weeks on end where the only vegetable in the market was onions. Ten years later, I still appreciate cold crispy lettuce, clean feet, and drinkable water from the tap. And I will never forget the overwhelming generosity of my village neighbors who adopted me and shared their dinner with me every night.

    Thanks for sharing your story and making us all do a “huh–I guess things aren’t that bad, eh?”. I needed that reminder.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Wow, 2 years in Burkina Faso! I’m sure that was an incredible adventure! The longest I’ve done at one time in a really poor place is 4 months so you’ve got me beat by a long shot. Congrats to you and thanks for your service in the Peace Corps.
      Hope you still like onions 🙂

      If I ever have kids I’ll definitely make sure they get to travel to some wild places for sure. Thanks for stopping by!

  23. This post was such a great read and a very enlightening one! I would love to explore San Salvador one day thanks to your inspiring post!

    • Accidental Fire says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it Agness… I just checked out your blog and I see that you are a voracious traveler – you should definitely go!

      Thanks so much for the kind words!

  24. nice and so useful info.
    thank to the writer for sharing…

  25. Great story, thanks for sharing!

    The concept of Enough is really powerful. I wish western society would just think about it a little instead of being driven by the concept of more more more. It’s something I think about often and if I ever did have the motivation to try and change the world, getting people to think about “enough” is one of the ways I’d do it.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Yes. To give people in the western world a little slack, everything about the environments that western countries have designed is programmed to get people to think the opposite of enough – more. When folks are bombarded and indoctrinated into the culture of “more” from early childhood, that’s a hard culture to break.

      Thanks for the comment!

  1. January 10, 2018

    […] want a touching story of generosity and kindness? Go check out Accidental Fire’s post titled Starving Cows, Generosity, And Having Enough. The article really made me put some things into […]

  2. January 12, 2018

    […] Starving Cows, Generosity, And Having Enough/Accidental Fire “The cows were standing in the middle of the road somberly staring at our car, famished, ribs protruding out, barely looking alive. They clearly weren’t going to budge, and by the looks of them they likely didn’t have the energy. I kinda wondered if they had just escaped from some weird bovine P.O.W. camp….” […]

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