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Tortillas, Stories, and Magic
How does one feel the loving comfort that can only come from their home town when they are in a foreign country, detached from everything they know and love? How does one remedy a bad case of home-sickness without a phone call or a letter? The answer comes in the form of a warm tortilla, a good joke, and a loving embrace; exactly what I found in the small pueblo of Las Pavas, El Salvador. For four days I broke away from my Traveling School group to work with The Peace Corps, an organization I have been curious about for some time. I traveled to Las Pavas with only one teacher, two classmates, and my giant red backpack. We met Emily, a Peace Corp volunteer from Tennessee, to help the people of Las Pavas. Little did I know how much they would help me.
I ate my meals with Beta, an elderly woman, and her family. I spent my time visiting the local school, participated in a cooking group and a girls group where I met a countless number of amazing people. I have not the space here to describe them all, but I will share with you some of the people who taught me lessons I will keep for the rest of my life.
White pants grip Natasha´s body as she moves along the dusty road alone. She is young, her body slender, and though her face always wears make-up, it never smothers her beauty. I think back to a few days before when I met her, a shy
barely audible as it passed through her lips. My equally shy return of,
¨Hola, ¿Como esta?¨ was met by a,
as Natasha and the rest of the girls made our way down the dusty road. Though not the most talkative girl in the pueblo, she is truly the talk of the town. Whispers fly behind her back, though no comments are made to her face because of who she is. If you ask the women of the pueblo about Natasha they will eagerly tell you in hushed voices about when she started dressing in girls´ clothing, wearing breasts, and calling herself ¨Natasha.¨ In a rural traditional Salvadorian pueblo, it is a miracle that gossip is the only response Natasha´s presence has stirred. Emily shared with us it would not be uncommon for her to be severely abused or even killed in other areas of El Salvador. As the town´s only trans-sexual, she holds her head high and stands stoic and brave day after day as she faces the scrutiny of her town.
Beta places a steaming bowl of fish stew in front of me. My excitement to eat this gigantic meal grows and I think of the time and energy it took for the flavors tickling my nostrils to be created. A fast, rhythmic voice from the kitchen shouts,
¨¿Queres mas?¨ When I respond with a
Beta proceeds to ramble off a list of everything edible contained in her kitchen. Beta defines herself by her cooking; it is who she is and what she is most proud of. She fed me her delicious food during four of the best days of my life.
Her eyes hold a gentle kindness, revealing a sense of genuine hospitality and openness. Her hands are worn, cracked, and aged; they are the hands of a woman who has labored for her family all her life. These hands have patted thousands of tortillas, comforted five children, worked long days in the fields with her husband, and tucked her grand children into bed every night. Her face is wrinkled, but smile lines are the most prominent features on her face. She survived a civil war, and early marriage, years of corrupt governments, and had to bid her four children farewell as they crossed into the United States. Beta has never stopped smiling through all of this, she knows the secret to life is to laugh a lot. She is not afraid to tell her stories, happy or sad, to her ¨four day gringa¨as she fondly called me. As I stand in her tiny kitchen, she jokes, laughing at my excitement as I carefully place a single round tortilla on the comal (a stone tortillas are cooked on) which she taught me how to make.
My friend, my companion, Miguel. Returning at noon each day from his work in the fields, his white shirt unbuttoned and loosely laying on his shoulders, he heads for his hammock. Using his age as his authority, he claims exclusive rights to the lone hammock, but he and Beta joke that he proclaims little else. They both know Beta rules the house. He eats his meals off a chipped, white chair, refusing to leave his hammock for a seat at the table. His mind is sharp; his eyes skim newspapers and books in his free time and he tunes into the FMLN´s leftest political news station at every meal. Though only formally educated through third grade he never stopped learning. I sit in a floral print chair across from his hammock for hours as we discuss the civil war in El Salvador, the U.S., and Barrack Obama. I smile to myself as Miguel curses under his breath at the mention of George W. Bush.
Kimberly Diana´s stained white t-shirt reads ¨Angel¨ and her red earrings almost reach her shoulders. As she turns to greet me for the first time, I am struck by the beauty I see in her chubby six-year-old face. She is shy in the beginning and hides behind doors, yet pops her head out every few seconds to satisfy her curiosity. After exchanging funny faces for a while, her shyness evaporates and she sits beside me, ready to tell me all the chistes (jokes), riddles, and stories she knows, sometimes with the help of Grandma Beta. The next day, I return for another delicious meal to see the smiling faces of Kimberly and Josue, her little neighbor. They sit Miguel and I down to an impromptu concert. They sing nervously in front of us, swaying back and forth to imaginary music. Song after song passes, each met with enthusiastic applause from Miguel and I, as well as spectators passing by. After the show, I get the privilege of an exclusive interview with the singers. Josue tells me about the toy electric guitar he has at home, but Kimberly interjects his colorful descriptions shouting,
¨You can´t even play it!¨
Josue casts a glare in her direction and proceeds to tell me about the flames painted on the handle as Kimberly rolls her eyes. I think of how young they are and how many people they have yet to meet on their journey through life. I only hope they will be lucky enough to meet people as kind and generous as the men and women I have met in Las Pavas, El Salvador.
Each member of this community inspired and surprised me in a different, fantastic way.
Natasha and her flowing hair, Beta and her warm smile, Miguel and his books, and Kimberly and Josues´ songs; each left a lasting impression on me. Natasha taught me never to fear who I truly am, no matter what the world may whisper behind my back. I will always remember Beta´s hospitality and enormous stacks of tortillas. Every time I think of her I will remember to smile and laugh more often. Miguel will forever stand in my mind as a reminder of the importance of education. With his gentle face in my memory I will never stop reading, listening, and searching. Sweet Kimberly and Josue reminded me of my childhood, they taught me to sing and dance. They brought back what my maturing brain had forgot; the importance of care free days full of silly shows and long, pointless stories. They, together with all of the children of Las Pavas, taught me the most important lesson of all; life does not move too fast, you make the choice to run through it. If you look at the world through the eyes of a child, you will see that the pace of life is perfect; and so it shall remain if only you start living in the now.