El Salvador: The Stories Part I

Sentimental journalistic failure
by Hannah Wiest

I’m a journalist by trade; I’ve been trained to observe keenly and interview gracefully. But right now, as I speak with Jorge Ceren Ramos, the community leader for Campenaro Numero Dos in El Salvador, I am failing at the trade I spent so much time and money to learn.

I am sorry professors Smith and Gladney. But if you were standing here in my shoes, caked in mud and grease from a week of drilling water wells in this beautiful, devastated land, I think you may fail too. And if you allowed your skeptical journalists’ hearts to be cracked by the warmth and generosity of these beautiful people, I know you’d fail.

I did. And I’m glad.

With some effort, I ask faltering questions like, “So, ah, can you tell me what life was like before, well, ah, before, you know…” and “So, ah, how does the water make you feel? You know, the old water. Are you sick?”

With a little more effort, I see Jorge’s mouth moving, speaking a language I desperately wish I understood. And I have the sense to listen to the translation and write it down in my little reporter’s notebook.

“Life is so hard because we are drinking contaminated water,” Jorge says fervently. “Most of the children suffer with diarrhea. The nearest well with clean water is a 30-minute walk -- and the water jugs are heavy.”

“I bet,” I answer, hoping my nodding will convey that I sympathize with him for the plight of his people.

But how can I sympathize?

When I get a case of the runs, I grab some Imodium and go on with life. When Dani, the curly-haired boy I tossed a Frisbee with days ago, gets diarrhea, he is liable to become one of the 5,000 children who die worldwide each day due to the chronic illness.

When I am thirsty (Yo tengo sed), I fill a glass at my sink, usually tossing part of the water back down the drain.

As I feel myself struggling to relate, I look around for inspiration, some way to understand, but none strikes. Instead I feel overwhelmed and tired. I feel that the sun is hot and know that the hour is late. I hear my teammates bidding adios to Jorge’s people. It is time to go.

At the time when I, as journalist, should be connecting to what Jorge is saying, I am disconnecting. I nod as he shows me photos of men made lame and women made widows in the civil war that ended just over a decade ago. I ask a follow-up question. I write down his words of gratitude. But all the while, I can feel my heart crawling behind that wall that goodbyes build inside of us.

I throw up my defenses to protect myself from getting tethered to this piece of land and its captivating people. It’s something I’ve always done -- when traveling, serving in missions, or simply saying goodbye to a friend. It’s why I often avoid last hugs and last glances. It’s probably why I can play the role of objective journalist so well, understanding just enough to tell a compelling story without getting all sentimental.

But this time is different.

I do not have a flash of journalistic genius. No keen insights or penetrating questions come to mind. I am failing as team reporter. Then again, maybe that is what I needed to do all along…

“Hannah!” a small voice cries behind me. I keep writing. I keep disconnecting.

“Hannah!” the voice cries again. I tilt my ear toward the sound but keep writing.

Can’t she see I’m busy, God?

Can’t you see this is what you need to understand
, God retorts, as two arms wrap around my waist from behind, clasping brown hands tight over the button of my filthy jeans.

My mind goes blank. The force of the hug causes my pen to streak across the paper.

Stop writing, fool. You are here now; she is here now; she is the story.

I place my hand over her hands. We sway a little. And somewhere in the back and forth of that moment, my skeptical journalist heart breaks.

Two small brown hands will always bring me back to this moment. Two small brown hands have tethered me to El Salvador. And I’m okay with that -- as long as you forgive this sentimental journalistic failure.

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