|El Salvador - A Journey of Change
Article for The Revenue Canada Employee's Digest 2002
“Look there... that’s the dirtiest child I’ve ever seen.” Joseph clutched my head and turned my face in the
direction of the brightly painted autobus that had just pulled up to the corner.
I saw the young boy for just a moment and he was gone from my view, having stepped onto the bus to beg for
change from the passengers. He was about eight years old, perhaps younger; it was hard to tell. He was
barefoot and wore only a scrappy pair of shorts. He indeed was dirty; it appeared as if he had stood in a puddle
and someone had poured slimy mud over him. I saw that child for just a brief moment, but that one moment is
etched into my memory like a photograph; it has transformed my perspective on life forever.
In 1999, just four months after Hurricane Mitch struck Central America, I had an opportunity to visit El
Salvador. Joseph, a Canadian friend of mine was living in Ciudad Delgado, a low income suburb of the capital
city, San Salvador. I had been planning to visit him in January, but when the hurricane struck, my plans changed
from a holiday in the sun to that of a servant: to aid the victims in any way I could.
Arrangements for places for me to live and work had been made, but when I arrived in El Salvador, I learned
that the road to those areas had been washed out by musdslides. It was too late to accommodate new plans, so I
found myself helping the people right there in the neighbourhood.
I met Dario at the local church, “Iglesia de Dios Manantiales Vida Eterna” (Flowing Rivers of Eternal Life). He
taught at the school that is housed in the upper rooms of the church. He could speak some English, I could speak
a little Spanish, and we both had dictionaries and good miming skills. We were able to converse about the
customs and daily life in El Salvador. He told me stories about the war which had ended just six years earlier. He
pointed out building that had been damaged by gun fire and places of refuge where people would hide if they
were being threatened. He and his friends protected me - they escorted me wherever I went. Even though there
is very strict security, (a very visible army presence, police patrols in public places, private security guards with
shotguns, machine guns or machetes at every gas station and grocery store) San Salvador is not a safe place for
anyone to be wandering alone in, especially at night.
I got to meet some amazing people in remarkable situations. We spent a couple of days preparing and
delivering food to the “railway people”. Even though a brick and tin house might only cost a few hundred dollars
to buy, many families are too poor to own or even rent their own homes. They will find an unused area of land on
the side of a mountain or beside the highway and set up a home made of anything they can find - tin, wood,
cardboard, chicken wire, whatever might keep the walls together and the rain off their heads. The railway people
that I visited had set up their homes right beside the tracks - so close that when a train passed by they could put
their hands out the front door and touch it. There was no running water or toilet facilities. They would have to go
to the common pump and carry back vases of water on their heads. As for sewer and drainage systems, the wells
alongside the tracks became the gutter for all kinds of waste water.
I was shown produce refiners - a dairy where they made cheese, a bakery with a huge outdoor brick oven, a
sugar cane factory, a brick manufacturing centre. All the work at these places was done by hand, very often a
woman’s hand. At the dairy, women would milk the cows, boil down and process the milk, then press the cheese
into crudely constructed moulds. At the sugar cane factory, the men would harvest the cane and boil out the
sugar in gigantic cement urns. When the sugar cooled, the women would form it into balls, wrap and bind it in
cane leaves. At the brick manufacturing centre, straw, sand and clay were mixed and poured by hand into
moulds. The bricks were to be used in street and housing construction.
I was taken for a walk through “Centro”, San Salvador’s downtown district where the crowds were dense and
every step taken brought new and unique scenes. Everywhere were people with baskets and booths and crudely
constructed stalls offering anything and everything for sale. At one table you could buy hardware, such as
hammers and nails; the next stall sold nothing but watches; the woman with the basket was selling freshly plucked
chicken (at least you prayed they were fresh - I unfortunately suffered the effects of a not-so fresh chicken for a
few days). Brightly coloured autobuses wound their way through the crowds. Men pushing handcarts and women
chatting to each other as they carried on business and children chasing each other through the streets made
Centro a loud, noisy place. The smell of car exhaust mixed with the odour of meat and beans and pupusas frying
on portable grills (the fast food outlets of El Salvador) was interesting and exotic.
As beautiful and friendly as the people and places were, I found myself anguishing over the poverty that I
saw. I saw men who had been injured during the war begging for food and money on the streets. I saw children
who couldn’t afford to go to school, selling pencils and cheap trinkets to motorists stopped at traffic lights. I saw
so many people living without adequate food or water or shelter.
When I saw that dirty child on the street, I realized for the first time how fortunate I am. I realized that just by
the happenstance of being born in Canada, I am one of the most blessed people on Earth. Yes, we have poverty
here. Yes, we have problems with the health care system. Yes, we have potholes and lousy highways. But we
also have programs in place for people who are having problems making ends meet - with our welfare and
Employment Insurance systems, no one has to go without food or shelter. We have a public health system, so if
you are poor or even homeless, you will be given aid. We have schools so that every single child, not just the
privileged few, will get an education. We have public libraries and parks. We have government sponsored
entertainment, such as fireworks and ballet in the park.
Here in Canada we take it for granted that the food we buy in the market place is clean and safe. There are
health regulations in place to make sure of it. We have learned that proper food handling is essential to physical
well being. We’ve had the Canada Food Guide drummed into our heads from an early age and we know that we
should eat certain foods to maintain good health. We have had the opportunity to learn these practices through
television, educational programs, public schools and through a broader socialized health care system. Our
Governments, no matter what we may thing of the individual members at any given time, have taken care of us
and educated us in these matters.
Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the people I met and the things I saw. I grieve for that child in El
Salvador. I wish I could have hugged him. I wish I could have told him that I cared. I wish that I could have
cleaned him up and fed him and given him enough money to live on until...when? Until his father or his mother
got a job? Until he got a good education? Until he grew up? Until El Salvador was a safe, clean place to live and
grow? I wish.....