A country with one of the world’s highest murder rates, suffering under constant gang violence, poverty, and pollution, El Salvador is considered one of the most dangerous places to live. Nevertheless, in 2003, a twenty-seven year old Alison Ray buckled into a plane flying her to a new life in a country known as the “Land of Volcanoes” for its frequent violent earthquakes. Now the Seattle Academy Dean of Faculty in Humanities, Alison reflects back on her four years living and teaching in what she now sees as her second home.
Graduating from the University of Washington, Alison started her first teaching job at Woodinville High School. She promised herself three years. After three years, she would have to leave, even if she loved it. “I was really afraid to become a teacher who blinked and had been at the same place for my entire life and not seen other places or experiences,” Alison explains.
Her first job offer came from El Salvador. “I didn’t know what I was looking for,” she said, “And I had no reason not to go to El Salvador.” So with no knowledge of the country and her mother’s disapproval, Alison set off to her new teaching position.
Not surprisingly, she experienced significant culture shock. Looking back, Alison says, “It was hard at first, I cried myself to sleep for the first two weeks, just because I didn’t know anyone there and all of a sudden I had to make new friends, learn a language and new customs of a new place.” But just after the first hard weeks of being there, she met a fellow teacher from the U.S. “We were both from Seattle,” Alison recalled laughing, and they used to live only ten blocks away from each other in the same neighborhood. For Alison, this was just the start of making El Salvador seem just a bit smaller.
“We decided to go the beach one day,” Alison says, “A public beach, not a resort, but a beach where you would pay fifty cents for access to a crappy shower and a pool you’d never want to go into with wild pigs running around.” Immediately, they got swarmed. No one looked like them and as a result they got pulled left and right by El Salvadoran families trying to convince them to follow them.
After much persistence, Alison ended up following an elderly woman who promised coconuts, safety of their bags, and a nice cabaña; all for two dollars. “The family of the woman was really big and they were curious, gathering around us,” she recalled, “And one of the women started having this broken up conversation with me about where I was from and why I was here.”
The El Salvadoran woman had lived in the United States herself. She moved back to El Salvador because of a family illness, but her husband and children were still in the U.S. “I asked her where her husband and children lived,” Alison said, “And she said they lived in Tacoma, Washington.” The conversation turned to how Alison’s own mother lives and works in Tacoma. In response, “She told me that her husband had a tire shop in Tacoma,” Alison said, “And I asked her where it was.”
Forty-seventh and South Tacoma Way. “And I look at her and I say, ‘My mother’s flower shop is on forty-seventh and South Tacoma Way,” Alison smiles, “And the woman looks at me and says ‘I know your mother.’”
Alison says she knows coincidences are powerful things but she doesn’t try to make much of them. However, “That coincidence helped make that place smaller all of a sudden, when I was feeling really scared and overwhelmed,” Alison explains, “Because no matter where I am, there are connections at work. And those connections are powerful reminders that the world is much smaller than sometimes we think it is.”
Alison grew to find herself more comfortable in El Salvador than in Seattle. “It was simpler. Not in the cliché way where the people had so little and they were so happy,” she explains. “What I mean is that the people really did celebrate what mattered most and that’s the power of human connection.” Everyone would say, “Buenos Dias” as they passed another person on the street. There were no lines, people would crowd to buy groceries. On the bus, Alison would find herself pressed up against four other people.
As much as that would frustrate people, Alison says that allowed her to put life in perspective, recognizing that her life was more of just one of many rather than unique. “And that might seem pessimistic but I think that holds incredible value,” Alison explains. “To know that you are just one of many in the world gives you so much responsibility for your life.” She found it strangely comforting.
Now back in Seattle, Alison laughs as she tells about how she finds herself always standing too close to people in line or talking too intimately with people. Despite others being uncomfortable she says, “There is power in that sort of forcible connection with people and I don’t want to see that entirely leave my life.”
Pollution, poverty, and violence didn’t define a country for Alison. “I didn’t ever see El Salvador for its negative qualities, I always saw it for its positive ones,” she says. The extraordinary people and experiences defined it for her. The elderly woman grilling fish under the cabaña or the friendly stranger smiling and greeting gave Alison perspective on the celebration of life, not just as an individual, but as a community striving for connection with one another.