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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.