El Salvador Day 09 – There and Back Again

We have returned stateside, safe and sound. There’s not a lot to tell about this final day of the journey, but here’s a little peak into how we traveled home and how I felt being back in the US after nine amazing days in El Salvador.

“Rise and Shine and Give God the Glory, Glory”

We awoke in the 3:00am hour, most of us having taken time to pack and shower the night before. With so many new gifts, repacking became a little adventure unto itself. Many of us brought extra bags or split up luggage with others who had extra room. Tim got clever and put his gifts in his suitcase and his clothes in a garbage bag (he had sneaking suspicions the flight attendant who give him a flippant look when he brought it on the plane may have put a hole in it on purpose but we’ll never know…). I ended up leaving two small bags of laundry with Cristina as a donation to make room for the gifts I purchased and am hopeful my clothes will come in handy for someone.

There was a little drama, too, in that the second van didn’t arrive to take our luggage. Our guest house hostess, Betty, volunteered to drive her pick-up truck for us, though. Somehow, we heaved all of our luggage aboard and headed out to the airport. Sara and I had a fulfilling conversation about married life and what it’s going to be like back home on our drive and we have solidified a powerful friendship we wouldn’t have had if it wasn’t for this trip. For all of the powerful experiences the group has had, it is the lasting friendships which will hold those memories dear and our hearts accountable upon our return to privileged life in the US.

The redundancy of security checkpoints in San Salvador was frustrating, in that we had to show our passports to check in, then to enter security, then to enter the waiting lounge. Oh, and if you wanted to leave the lounge to see the mural down the hall depicting Romero with children – the mural President Funes stood in front of at the unveiling, asking for forgiveness on behalf of the Salvadorian government for the killing of Romero – then you had to stand in line and once again show your passport. It didn’t help that it was early and (I can’t speak for anyone else) I was grumpy, I suppose. Thankfully, the mural itself took away much of my stress and it’s photo-realism style really captivated me.

From San Salvador to Houston

I slept. That’s about it.

The Customs of Customs

Being my first time out of the country (aside from going to Toronto before one needed a passport to enter Canada), I wasn’t quite sure what to expect at customs when we arrived in Houston. We had to pick up our checked luggage and then bring it to customs and I wasn’t sure if they’d open it up and unwrap all of my gifts to see what I had. I didn’t know if I’d have to pay some sort of duty tax on stuff. So I stepped up to the counter and spoke with the young woman working who asked for my passport. Our exchange went something like this:

Me: This is my first time through customs.
Her: You’ll be fine. Passport, please.
Me: Here you go.
Her: Thank you. Do you have any fruit or vegetables with you?
Me: Four packs of bubble gum.
Her: Okay. Here’s your passport. Good job. Welcome home.

Nate the Master of Going Through Customs, 1.
Nate the Tackled at Customs for Saying the Wrong Thing, 0.

As for our luggage, we wheeled it throughout the airport and gave it to a few officials who put it on a fresh set of conveyor belts to be loaded on our next plane. I was once again frustrated by the amount of redundancy in how many times we flashed our passports at a security checkpoint but again, I didn’t sleep much and had to do my best not to appear grumpy in front of security personnel.

Airports Are for Sing-A-Longs

Houston saw us parting ways with those in the group who had destinations other than Minneapolis, namely David flying into Denver and Jon flying into Omaha. Our group slightly paired down, we ate in the airport food court. You know what’s not really good after a week of homecooked pupusas, soups, and tortillas? A personal pizza that’s been sitting under a heat lamp in an airport food court.

After lunch we had a seat at our gate for about an hour before boarding. In an attempt to stave off boredom, the “youth contingent” of Sara, Jenn, Tim, and me broke out my ukulele and had some pop song sing-a-longs and then got a little bold. We swept over to where Professor Chris was sitting and serenaded her with the first first and chorus of “Lean on Me.” We ended up getting a little applause and Chris was crying out of either embarrassment or happiness or more likely a combination of both.

Soon afterward, we boarded the plane and I was once again asleep.

Quick Goodbyes, Wonderful Hellos

Chris was right to have us all say ‘goodbye’ to each other the night before because once we hit baggage claim we were out the door one at a time, beginning with Kathryn whose fiance Jeff was right there to pick her up. Someone was there to pick me up, too, a police officer who gave me a two-minute stern talking to about leaving my luggage unattended while I said ‘goodbye’ to people in the group. But someone else was there, too, my wife, Kelly.

Hugging her close after nine days away was amazing and we spent much of the evening talking about the trip (and dolling out gifts). Kelly did have to leave for a few hours for a meeting she couldn’t get out of which meant I had some time on my own to get reacquainted with the US.

Walking Through Privilege

Most everything we did that night or that I did on my own made me compare and contrast the poverty I’d witnessed and the privilege I was living in. For example, the first landmark I really noticed after Kelly and I left the airport was the Water Park of America. All I could think about was the water shortage in El Salvador. It didn’t end there for the rest of the night.

After Kelly went to her meeting, I got in my van and drove to downtown Hopkins to get some dinner. A few observations on what went through my head:

  • I drove a three-mile radius in under five minutes in a vehicle in perfect running condition. This week, I’ve walked in two marches at least that distance in solidarity with the Salvadorians for hours.
  • I passed by a gas station where regular gas cost $2.899. Gas in El Salvador is $3.489.
  • I bought a meal for $10,. That’s the equivalent of two working days under the El Salvador minimum wage of $5 per day.
  • I saw a handful of teenage young men outside a movie theater, all on their cell phones, joking around. Two days earlier, I saw children dressed in their Sunday best carrying banners depicting the visage of an assassinated theologian whom they’ve never met, held high over their heads for hours while walking in the hot sun.
  • I saw a police station, quiet as can be, and thought about how hidden the average US police officer’s sidearm is nearly invisible.
  • I didn’t see a single armed private security guard. No shotguns slung over shoulders, no rifles gripped in steady hands.
  • When I arrived to buy my meal, I started, “Hola, er, hello,” and “Grac– thank you,” and even said “Si” once or twice.
  • I arrived back home and flipped on our large-screen TV, sat on a clean, comfortable couch, and ate my $10 meal.
  • When I used the bathroom, I not only ran my toothbrush under the tap, I could put paper in the toilet without worry.

It’s been strange to do things “the American way” now. To be able to brush my teeth using water from the tap without worrying about disease. To turn the key in the locked door to our underground parking garage and knowing my vehicle and home are safe without the need for heavy metal gates and spooled razor wire. To sleep on our new, plush Queen-sized bed and clean sheets. I felt a mix of guilt and shame. Guilt, in my asking myself how I could do all of these things when so many in El Salvador who cannot do them. And shame, in asking myself how could I do all of these things now that the veil has been pulled from my eyes.

Eventually, I had to forgive myself. My changes and ability to change cannot come all at once and certainly not my first night back in the US. It’s going to take time and it’s going to be challenging. And I’m not sure guilt and shame are the feelings I need to drive me toward improving my life and the lives of Salvadorians. I believe what I need is desire and drive and courage and faith. Right now, what I need is sleep to help fuel those things and so that’s what I’m off to do now, but do stay tuned, dear reader, as I and others on the trip share more as we see you in the flesh.

Expect more to come on this blog as I share resources with you, explore post-trip readings, and continue to process the experience. But for now, it is time to rest.

Thank you for reading,

Nate Melcher


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