4 Things You Learn Your First Time Abroad
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Politics and Activism

4 Things You Learn Your First Time Abroad

What my trip to El Salvador taught me about happiness, communication, and humanity.

4 Things You Learn Your First Time Abroad
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Last week, I wrote about student trips abroad, which made me nostalgic for my high school trips. I thought back to my first time out of the country, a school trip to El Salvador, and realized I learned a lot that I still use today. Here are my biggest takeaways from that trip. Cliché as they are, hopefully they remind you of the lessons you’ve learned and/or inspire you to go someplace new!

1. Happiness comes from community, not wealth.

Before I went abroad for the first time my junior year of high school, I already knew what I wanted to do in life. I “knew” that people across the world were poor and miserable, so I was going to learn how economics worked and fix the economies of third world countries. Sounds pretty simple, right?

Imagine my surprise when I arrive at the tiny, rural, impoverished town of Cinquera, El Salvador and found that, much to my dismay, the poor villagers I had come to save were already happy. In fact, they were happier than me, and happier than anyone I knew. How could this be? They were so poor — aren’t they supposed to be miserable?

It’s a common belief that money doesn’t make you happy. Instead, happiness tends to come from doing what you love or from the people around you. What many don’t realize, at least before they visit another country, is the impact of this truth. Thus, an impoverished community built so that citizens interact with each other often will be happier than a group of upper-middle class kids from loving families in less-than-communal suburban America.

I’m not going to recommend any specific policy or personal changes based on this lesson, but if you’ve been abroad and noticed this, you’ve hopefully thought about how we build our communities and prioritize our lives.

2. Soccer, music, and poop jokes are universal forms of communication

There’s about a 1 in 4 chance you went to a country that didn’t primarily speak English on your first abroad experience. You might have had some level of knowledge of the language there, but between cultural and language gaps there’s a pretty good chance you had to figure out how to verbally communicate with others.

When I went on my trip everyone had taken at least a couple years of Spanish, but no one was beyond a basic conversational level. During the home stays, a lot of what we said to our hosts was lost in translation, so we had to come up with others ways to bond with them. In Latin America, the easiest choice was football (not the American kind). It may seem like a way to pass the time rather than a method of communication, but at the end of the gringos v. locals street soccer matches (games so energetic that I ruined my sandals), there was a clear connection between us and our hosts. With the exception of saying the few Spanish words I was confident were relevant to the game such as “¡Aqui!” (here), “¡Izquierda!” (to the left), and “¡¡¡¡Goooooaaaaallllll!!!!” (goal).

We found music to have the same effect. On the last night, a drum ensemble performing a Brazilian style of Latin percussion came and demonstrated for us and let us join in. Despite not speaking, there was an immediate connection made among those drumming and those dancing when one of us would change the beat.

The final connection actually came from Guatemala, but I had to slip this in: When mixing the sloppy, brown clay with which we built the ovens, just the word “caca” (poop) was enough to send the little indigenous girl there into laughing fits. Let's face it, poop jokes are funny everywhere.

3. People often do bad things because they lack the opportunity to do good things

On a more serious note, you probably learned this one if you went someplace with a history of violence and studied its causes. One of the most eye-opening things we did in El Salvador was visit a prison. Gang violence is rampant in El Salvador — it is the second deadliest country in terms of homicides per capita. The prison we went to was split between the two primary Salvadoran gangs (both of which American policies directly and indirectly helped create, but that’s a story for another time). At the prison, we conversed with a bunch of 18th Street affiliates. These guys were covered in tattoos, many had violent criminal records longer than my arm and most had no chance of getting out or even facing a fair trial because of the constraining Salvadoran judicial system. And get this: They were also some of the sweetest kids I’ve ever met.

How were these guys so nice? Maybe they actually reformed in prison. Maybe they were wrongly arrested/convicted and never meant to join the gang/commit the crimes in the first place (could have happened, but not for all of them). Or maybe they weren’t inherently bad people, but actually just driven to the life of a gangster because they saw no other opportunities. That’s actually what the leaders of the two gangs said in an open letter to the Salvadoran government: None of the people in the gang wanted to be there, themselves included, but that given the lack of economic opportunities they had, they were driven to a life of crime to support themselves.

As before, I won’t make any specific policy or personal recommendations based on this realization, but hopefully it changes the way you think about the criminal you see on TV or the bully at your school/workplace.

4. Culture and scenery vary but we’re all innately the same.

These are some pretty starkly different lessons, but they all boil down to this: We may seem different because of how we were brought up or what particular qualities we possess, but we’re all more similar than we are different. I didn’t think I would have much in common with the woman in the remote village of Cinquera who fought to overthrow the fascist military junta controlling El Salvador, or the little indigenous girl living in a corrugated tin house, or the murderer with roman numeral for 18 tattooed across his entire face. Most surprisingly, I didn't think I would be able to relate to the students at the University of El Salvador. But when I met them and I learned about the history behind them and the truth behind their choices I came to understand this truth for myself.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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