The Culture of Hospitality

At home, the homeless are almost always strangers to be avoided, but in El Salvador, as is probably true of other developing countries, the homeless are friends and neighbors to be cared for.

Whenever I walked the dirt paths of my community, I would often come across a frail elderly woman with a toddler. I was amazed that the toddler was made to walk so much, and that the woman spent little time at home. I assumed the lady liked to chotiar, visit her friends.

One day, after expressing my curiosity during a house visit, I was told the child had been left in the woman's care without a cent of financial contribution from the parents. The woman did not simply spend her time visiting friends, as I had initially assumed, but was relying on the culture of hospitality in order to survive. Hospitality came to her in the form of a cup of milk, an egg, or whatever foodstuff a host had to offer. (I, too, was the recipient of such generous hospitality.)

Before COSing, when I visited my friend Leti, I found that she had converted her empty chicken coop into a shelter for an elderly gentleman. A chicken coop seemed like an inhumane place to shelter someone, but I soon learned that no other space was available.

Leti explained that the old man had no one in the world to care after him, which moved her to assume the responsibility. The man was immobile, could barely speak, rarely felt hungry, and could not keep himself clean - the man was waiting for death. When the time came, as regulated by custom, the whole community attended his wake.

These observations made me wonder how the old woman, the toddler, and the  old man would have fared in the US under similar difficulities. It didn't take me long to realize that they would have been part of the invisible sub-population we categorize as homeless. In that instance, I became homesick for El Salvador, a country I had come to respect and love for its open-hearted culture of hospitality.

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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.