Traveling to another country and back in less than a week was not something that I expected to do. I was in my last quarter of college at UC San Diego, I was already tired, and the idea of spending thousands of dollars on plane tickets and souvenirs just didn’t sound like a smart decision. But as an only child with my closest cousin getting married, (after proposing to three different women in the past, mind you), I couldn’t say no. After one road trip and two bumpy plane rides, I was finally in El Salvador.
It is important to note that I have hardly been far from home. UCSD is only two hours away from my hometown and I make it a point to come down and visit at least once a month. Besides a new gas station and some re-set pavement, I have never experienced coming back to an entirely changed hometown.
But when I stepped foot in the country where my family was from, I suddenly felt like I had landed in an entirely new place. I hadn’t been to El Salvador in almost 10 years, and here I was, standing in a country I no longer recognized. My vivid memories of running around the streets drinking mango juice and eating pastries were tarnished when I spent a full 24 hours with extreme food poisoning. The house I had stayed in as a child was now being rented out and I could no longer recognize the newly painted homes. The market down the street with old smiley grandmothers that sold artisanal souvenirs and fresh seafood had replaced its products with cheap neon pink backpacks with Disney characters splattered on the front. For a split second, I began to see that El Salvador was not the country I remembered it to be.
Although the country I remembered no longer existed, the one important thing that remained was the people. When I was vomiting my brains out, my entire family stayed up with me even if they had plans the next day. My uncle drove me to the emergency room when I was not getting better and paid for all of my medications. My aunt took me by the arm after the wedding when I could hardly stand and directed me and my wobbly heels to her car.
The most memorable people I met came when we visited Conchagua, a small indigenous village sitting on a large hill about 15 minutes away from my mother’s hometown. Despite the fact that the history of El Salvador has often looked down upon the indigenous community, the people there welcomed visitors with open arms. My mom’s best friend, Lorenita, one of the most prominent members of the community, is someone I have always considered a hero. She was the only doctor willing to take me in when I faced an accident in El Salvador years before. She is one of the kindest people I have ever known, not just because of her eagerness to treat me, but also for her unconditional kindness to others. She had not seen me since I was four, yet she automatically knew who I was and treated me as if I was family. Her father, though a bit elderly, was equally as welcoming and gave me a big hug, thanking God that I was there. By surrounding myself with amazing Salvadorans who love their country, I was able to recognize the true beauty of El Salvador.
When my family and I left Conchagua, we drove around the town where my aunts and moms grew up. They laughed as they pointed at what was now a gas station, recalling the house that once stood there. They remembered their own memories of the way El Salvador once was, and as they indicated things that were no longer apparent, it became very clear that this feeling of change never truly goes away. Whether they left the country for college or to flee the country’s civil war, they had come back to a new reality of what life is now.
Whether we’re international students, from out of state, or live a small ways away, one of the first symptoms of growing up is experiencing profound feelings of change in our own homes while we’ve been gone. This can be unsettling because home is the place that feels most comfortable to us, and comfort can be found in stability. But just like my time in El Salvador, home is more than just a place. Home is where you feel best with others. The true beauty of El Salvador lies in the beauty of its people, and while we may have many reasons to wish for the simpler times of our past, it is the people that create the feeling of home that we all so cherish and need.