Posted by: Clayton | August 3, 2011

the latino bonus

So………  writing has not seemed to fit into the fullness of my life here, despite being such a love, such a craving, such a central piece of the vision I hold of my future.  But I cannot begrudge the fact: the lives and ancient rhythms that are filling my days have a flawless, gentle quality I am not willing to sacrifice.

Here, though, is a little (true) story I felt the need to capture – an event that just broke across the lives of a family I’ve come to love….


At 4pm yesterday Rosa’s cow swallowed an unripe mango and choked.

Black and docile, as much pet as beast, the cow stretched her jaws wide and began to hack, eyes clouding with fear, head jerking forward with each attempt.  A sudden shudder slid through her and she reeled from the ground, snorting.  The fruit had shot up her nasal airway.

By the time Rosa’s husband and son arrived the cow was splayed across the mountainside wheezing, foam splattering from her mouth, eyes rolling and crazy, her whole face beginning to swell.  The men stretched her tongue to pour in oil, groped down her throat to their elbows, and then, as the first stars shown through, folded to the dirt and exhaled: the cow was dead.  She was weeks from giving birth.

Swiftly, sadly, Rosa’s son scampered down the mountain for a knife, light, and their horse.  When he returned the husband stared at their cow for a moment — Hija, they called her, “Daughter” — and then began to carve.  The innards stank, the fetus was wet and unwieldy.  They loaded the best meat and pelt onto the horse and at 9:30 began to lead him down the path.

Minutes later, as they rounded a dark switchback, the horse’s hoof slid out and he buckled, coming down hard on his side and then tipping forward, the weight of the meat seizing him into a slide and then an all-out roll down the ravine.  The husband — rope wrapped around his hand — went with him, skidding in an attempt to slow the fall and then wrenched arm-first into the tumble.  Twenty meters down they slammed into a gully.  The husband’s shoulder was dislocated, his face bashed in.  The horse’s spine — shattered.

Cow, calf, horse: gone in three hours.  Dairy, income, transportation, pride.  Gone.


Rosa’s eyes glistened with emotion and fatigue as she stepped onto my porch in the morning, a plate in her hand heavy with thinly-sliced, uncooked cuts of steak.  They’d lost a cow last night, she explained, but at least they hadn’t lost the meat.  Her hand stretched toward me: “For you,” she said in Spanish, her face lifting into a smile.  “I imagine that you know how to cook it nice and tasty in your American style, with tomatos and spices and everything.”  Then she glanced down and added, “I don’t know if you’d be willing to teach me.”

“Wait,” I began, stuck on her first point.  “Your cow died?  La Hija?!”

“Yes,” Rosa repeated, “but here are some pieces of the meat.  For you.  To cook.”  I took the plate absently, eyes widen by the news.  “I don’t know,” she started again, “if you’d want to teach me how to cook it with veggies and all.”

“La Hija died…” I murmured once more, not ready to move on from the sadness.  But Rosa was persistent: she wanted to learn, in the kitchen, in the midst of all her pain.

We set the meat marinating and left for her two-room adobe, Rosa sharing details as we walked.  It was devastating, the loss.  No more milk for the kids.  No more cash from loaning the horse.  No more help with heavy loads during the rainy season, when for months no vehicle can make it up the final five kilometers to our community.

Neither Rosa nor her husband had slept.  Her middle son — 14 years old — would refuse food all day.  Her eldest had gone in with them on the horse, helping pull together $250 for the purchase a year ago.  Rosa wept over the phone with him as she revealed what had happened.

“But the daily chores of life don’t stop,” she explained, looking straight at me, softly.  “You’ve got to keep going.”  She shrugged, then turned to serve me lunch.

As I ate, Rosa told me how Hija used to munch straight from her hand, the cow’s big nostrils blowing warm huffs that would tickle the thin skin on her wrists.  “It’s true, isn’t it?” she asked her husband as he stepped in slowly from stretching the hide with their son-in-law out back.  He began a deep, slow laugh and nodded, lowering himself into a chair.  His face was battered, his left hand gashed, his right shoulder immobile.

Rosa sat down next to him and — as he watched her — the heavy lines across his face loosened.  After a moment he said, “I feel for those who lose family instead of animals,” his eyes trailing away, his tone revealing how close his own family had been to losing him last night.  “I feel for them.”  He repeated the line three times over the next several minutes, tears nearly reaching his mustache before he smeared them away.  Every single member of the community lost family during the war.

Rosa pulled out a cream and began to massage it into his open wounds.  “Over twenty people hiked up the mountain at 10pm last night,” she told me, “bringing their mules and horses with them.  They came as soon as they heard what was happening, rushing to help the injured, haul the meat, hug the child.”  Rosa paused to pick a tick from her husband’s bicep, another from below his lip.  “Though our family has just lost an unbearable amount of money,” she went on, “we are giving away the meat, making sure that most of the thirty households in the community receive some.  It’s the custom here in this community – it’s always done when somebody loses a cow.”  I asked her to repeat that: giving away all the meat of a pregnant cow, for free?

Rosa nodded: “That’s called unity.”


El Salvador, it’s worth noting, has ranked as high as #4 in recent global studies of happiness and life satisfaction.  Despite the gangs, overpopulation, and natural disasters, despite the poverty, emigration, and ceaseless homicides, the people of this little war-pocked strip of land have smiled into the top third of every nation-by-nation survey done on the subject.  Researchers dubbed it the Latino Bonus: for all the indigence and violence that lace through Latin America, its citizens are generally more satisfied and happy than others.

But — at least in this community — that’s not because people pass the days lazing under cacti in the shade of their sombreros.  Nor is it because they stretch out each afternoon with piñatas and cases of cold longnecks, pushing back work ’til “mañana, mañana….”

No, I have found most villagers here gently fulfilled without ever seeming hedonistic or simple.  These families know hardship.  They know suffering.  They know what it is to stride the mountains shielding their babies from shrapnel, digging up roots to feed their loved ones, watching the Jute River surge red.  They’ve learned the sound of their children waking in the night because the tin roof is dripping on them again.  They have felt fear clench through their chest as they run from stalk to stalk, the morning’s storm having ruined their entire crop.  They’ve seen the impoverished monotony of the campo turn the young people’s vision north.  They know that agro-chemical companies prey on them, and that junk food companies prey on them, and that rich economies prey on them.

……….but they don’t seem to let that get in the way of their love for what is here.  Their love for who is here.  Positivity, hard work, human connection: they are choices people can make, priorities people can define and stick to.  Doing so is — undoubtedly — a form of courage, a brave, willful focus on that which is important.

What we are, they tell me here, is imperfect, poor, and beautiful, and we want to share in this with others.

Imperfect, poor, and beautiful.


As I stood to leave, Rosa’s youngest daughter brought out a box with baby parakeets.  They hand-feed the little birds several times each day, spooning a watered-down corn dough into their frantic beaks.  When the food comes near, the birds clamp onto the spoon and begin to shake spastically, spraying the dough all over.

“They’re really fun, aren’t they?” Rosa asked, eyes still glistening with fatigue and emotion but now bouncing with the rest of her head in imitation of the nestlings.  “They always make me laugh.”


Posted by: Clayton | April 17, 2010

their own little haven

You have to ford the river six times and hike up a mountain cowpath to reach my village.

Seriously: it’s a seventy-minute tramp that would rate as “moderately strenuous” in a U.S. guidebook.  And it would be there, in the book, because it’s gorgeous: lacing through stands of banana and mango trees, grazing by ancient cows with curled horns, descending into dark, musty jungles before cresting out into panoramic vistas of El Salvador’s north-central highlands.

But this is not a trail that people take on the weekend to grab some fresh air and exercise Pooch.  No: this is the path my villagers use to get home.  And anything you can picture yourself unloading from the trunk or back seat of your car after pulling into your driveway, well, the people here strap it on their back, or balance it on their head . . . and start walking.

I’ve been told that during the six months of rainy season the river grows ferocious enough to steal your baby, so you’re forced to say a prayer and twinkle-toe-it across the less-broken boards of the “hammock bridge.”  I crossed the bridge during dry season and admit that it’s already prayer-worthy.

I can also confirm that the trail is steep: your back begins to itch with sweat about sixty meters after leaping off the bus, and by the time you stumble out into our dusty plaza you’ve drenched your shirt and the top quarter of your pants.  The first villagers who see you will smile gently and ask if you’ve been swimming.

And you’ll smile back, knowing that they’ve hiked the trail hundreds of times before, and that they’re proud to see you sharing their lifestyle, and that they’ll probably follow up the question by asking you over to their house for lunch.

If they do ask, you should.  He will have harvested the corn, beans, and rice from their fields, and will have cut and hauled the firewood used to cook them from land an hour away.  She’ll have hand-ground the corn, patted out the tortillas, and roasted, milled, and simmered the coffee beans they grew in their garden.  He’ll have constructed the chicken coop; she’ll have collected and scrambled the eggs.  They’ll both have tended the vegetables and filled their woven shoulder bags with the fruit.  Other than the oil and salt, the meal will have come from their own hands, their own land, and the sun that we all share.

See, I’ve landed in a subsistence farming village nestled atop a mountain ridgeline — this will be my home for the next two years.  There are about 200 people here, and they breathe with the rhythm of the land and each other.  These villagers don’t use much money — the going rate to work on some big boss’s land is 5 bucks a day, and there aren’t any stores in town anyway.  Instead, they work their own land, the community’s shared land, and the land of their friends, relatives, and neighbors.  And every year around September they harvest the food they will eat for the next twelve months.  Which is to say, food that’s not from the supermarket, that wasn’t shipped across the globe, and that carries no additives, chemicals, or plastic wrappers.  It’s nature’s offering, sowed in and reaped from that soft hillside right over there, behind those avocado trees.

But yo, there’s more.  This is an impoverished mountain farming village without cars or a strong rate of literacy . . . but it’s more organized and proactive than any community I’ve known in the States.  No joke — I’m not romanticizing this.  The village was massacred and leveled to the ground on Valentine’s Day by (U.S.-funded) government troops during the civil war in 1981, sending survivors fleeing to the mountains for the next eight starving, horrific, corpses-filled years.  Then three of the original families pulled together the courage to move back and rebuild their lives here, and over the next twenty-one years their intelligence and pluck have transformed a burnt-out hillside into this bustling, self-sufficient community.  Check out this sampling:

  • Every week, each family here devotes one morning of work for the benefit of the village, helping with development projects or simply doing public space clean-ups.
  • Despite the lack of any stores or banks in town, there are seven different savings and loans groups: three women’s, three men’s, one youth.  These groups keep clean books and meet bi-weekly in a big circle of chairs in front of the communal house to collect money for saving and offer microloans.  The financial scale here is small: people save a buck or two a month, and the loans are to the tune of $15.  But those $15 can buy a couple tools he needs for the harvest, or some fabric she’ll sew and sell for profit, or, or, or….   And because they are borrowing the money of their friends and neighbors, every single loan so far has been paid back.
  • The school goes through ninth grade and has only two teachers, but in the past few years a dozen youth have been committed enough to their education to apply for scholarships and hike down the pre-dawn mountain to take the 119 bus to high school.
  • The village has a legally-recognized non-profit association that has helped land and ferry through dozens of intricate development projects: clean, free mountain water taps outside every house, two different sources of electricity, a collectively-run fruit export farm, a health clinic, a youth-directed computer lab, a town hall, composting pit toilets, tilapia farming pools, a communal kitchen and pupusa-vending stand, land ownership rights, a communal corn and coffee mill, countless trainings on topics such as how to make soap or fertilizer, and so many many other things.

Again, all this is happening in a village whose houses are made from mud bricks and have dirt floors, and whose families will go months straight with almost no source of cash income.  They are ignoring any handicaps and carrying out a conscientious and savvy plan of development: staying true to their roots and traditions while not allowing themselves to fall behind the global curve.  They are picking and choosing what aspects of modernity they want: solar electricity (yes), consumerism (no).  Organic farming innovations (yes), a hurried pace of life (no).  Democratic collaboration on projects (yes), guarded privacy and individualism (no).  Community-based micro-financing (yes), anything less than several relaxed hours spent with loved ones everyday (no).

It’s more complicated and nuanced than I’m making it seem, of course.  People are poor, the sun is hot, and many of the younger generation here would choose our lifestyle if they could.  But — unlike us — these villagers were not born into a situation that offers them that choice.  And instead of complaining, instead of moving to the city where they could emulate the West, they’ve created their own little haven right here, along this ridgeline, seventy minutes up from the nearest bus….


So, for the record, this is what’s going down in the forgotten, impoverished corners of the globe.  ..or at least in this little subsistence village in El Salvador.  No naked babies with bloated bellies: just a few dozen families joining hands insightfully to work the rhythms of nature and live their tranquil lives.

Posted by: Clayton | March 22, 2010

black with a breeze

(written from my training village in central Salvador, on the slopes of the San Vicente Volcano)

I watched la Niña Esthela split the neck of a chicken two days ago.

With her gold-rimmed smile flashing sweetly in the sun, la Esthela hauled the miss upside-down, knotted a rope around her ankle, twisted her head 720˚ clockwise, and finished her with a jerk and shy grin.  The chicken went crazy, of course, tearing loose from the line and sputtering across the patio until Niña Esthela thrust her underarm and roped her ankle again.  Still, she thrashed on for another 10 seconds, spasming against the wooden post, convulsing back into the air, flapping like a wino.  Donkey drunk on her own death.

Later, when la Niña Esthela had soaked and denuded the bird and was fisting out her innards, she found an egg inside.  There was a yolk floating in my sopa de pollo at lunch that day — the freshest I’ve ever eaten.

It’s now 4:30am as I scribble these words and the chicken’s bloodbrothers — still very much alive — have been announcing themselves for over an hour.  They quickly stir awake the neighborhood dogs, who quickly stir me from my sheets.  In forty minutes the Catholic mass bells will begin to pound; in fifty-five minutes the doves will start to coo.  By 5:50 other birds will be chiming in, and around 6:15am the dawn will break fully across my new Salvadoran pueblito.

But for now it is still black beyond my window, black with a breeze slipping in that smells of morning.  It’s my time to write, so I’ve rolled up the mosquito net and pulled out my journal.  I am happy.



…and I am here.  I mean, truly.  I am sitting in the pre-dawn breath of a Central American hamlet I now call home.  There’s an ox towing a family up the volcano behind me and a two-year-old girl who will bless my food in Spanish before I take a bite.  More: there’s a calmness that fills me as I fall asleep at night, and a patience that’s begun to permeate my days.  I am in full-on immersion mode, and, with at least two more years in El Salvador looking back at me, am heartened by what I see.

Soon the sun will begin to fold its way through the ripples of this valley, treading softly at first — a purplish lightening of the horizon beyond my window, silhouetting the shade trees that yawn across the kindergarten’s play fields.  In a few hours these fields will shake with young laughter and mischief, but for now the motion is on this side of the school wall, in the cobblestone street, where the campesinos have begun to wind their way up the green walls of the volcano to shoo any early-rising cows from their fields of sugar cane, coffee, maíz, and banana.

These campesinos — farmworkers — are clean and proud as they walk: their button-downs tucked in, their skin freshly rinsed, their heads always covered, their machetes slung over one shoulder in tasseled leather sheaths.  The women in their lives are striking too — skirts freshly pressed, faces clever but kind, muscles strong from use.  Many of them rose long before me to start slapping out tortillas de maíz, gathering fresh fruit from their trees, or putting together some other food that they can nestle into a huacal, throw onto their head, and stroll the streets selling at dawn.

Soon I, too, will lift myself from this bed, bathing my skin before buttoning up my own shirt, tucking it into slacks, and commencing with the morning chores: sweeping and mopping the kitchen tile, washing yesterday’s laundry by hand in the pila, skinning and gutting a large papaya for breakfast.


El Salvador.

It’s complicated, you know?  Your own gut-level feelings probably reveal the heavy-handed side of this nation, the past that’s pockmarked by colonialism, genocide, natural disasters, and civil war.

But that’s not what I see.  It’s not all that I feel from here, on the ground, in the balmy swirls of this morning.  Yes, the past is nasty here, nauseating.  Tears have come easily for me as I have listened to stories.

But the people remain.  The Salvadorans remain.  Despite the war, despite the hurricanes and landslides, despite the new perversity of gangs, despite the remittance money that is splitting towns in two, despite poverty and sickness and a national infrastructure that’s still finding its way . . . the people remain.  The families remain.

And you know, all things considered, they’re doing really well.  People here are happier than us, of course — it’s not just a saying.  And the happiness is neither shortsighted nor based on naivety.  No, it’s a nuanced decision people make every day to find things to celebrate, to spend quality time with family and friends, to not complain about their daily toils, and to be grateful — lovingly grateful — for the blessings they hold.  It is profound.

From the moment I arrived, people have been wrapping me into their lives without asking questions.  Food is for sharing.  Chairs are for offering.  Time is to be stretched out and made warm with camaraderie.

And, as sincerely as possible, I want to say this: it is an honor for me to be here.  It is an honor for me to rise each morning and find arms, homes, and hearts open to me anew.  By joining the Peace Corps I accepted this honor, accepted the opportunity to fall into this local rhythm, to learn from and love these people.  ..and — in whatever behind-the-scenes, facilitative way I can — to offer myself to their journey forward.

And so I will be paying attention — closely — and opening — slowly — to this world around me.  And I’ll be using this site to share any lyricism that wells up along the way.

If you have interest in this little nation, bless you: slap your email into the box on the right-hand column and let’s discover it together.

Regardless, you are beautiful: thank you for your respect and support.  There are many different ways to love the world.  For the next couple years, this is mine.

Pictures?  ¡Aquí!