As a little girl, I looked forward to the first snow of the year with an excitement that sometimes bordered on the ridiculous. The first moment I saw flakes falling outside of my classroom window, I would rush outside silently and hold my face up to the grey-white sky. I’d dance around happily trying to get the fattest flakes on my tongue before reluctantly sneaking back towards class, the snow turning to raindrops on my hair instants after I entered the school’s stuffy warmth.
In El Salvador, I try to describe snow to children. I tell them its like falling pieces of clouds, cold rain drops that land like feathers, prisms of ice that disappear the instant they touch skin. They nod, wondering at the novelty of a world covered in cold and soon, overwhelmed by so many unimaginable details, they return to their play in the dirt, scaring chickens and climbing trees for mangos.
These past months I have imagined the storms of Kodiak, the record snowfall, the blanket of white settling over the spruce trees, dusting the ocean’s grey, piling over roads and cars and mailboxes. The dark of winter is slowly easing. The cold? Who knows how many more weeks it will last?
But our schools don’t close. Kids keep going to wrestling or music lessons or dance class. We hunker down, but we keep walking under the spit of winter. We have learned to survive this way and we do it well.
I sometimes wonder if maybe this lesson in surviving has penetrated too deep into my heart. Our island community thrives despite the hardships of weather and isolation, fishing demands resilience and unflagging energy; I seek out difficulty to prove that I can gut it out to the end.
This time in El Salvador started out as another kind of test, throwing myself into an adventure without much pre-meditation, hoping I’d stored up enough strength to conquer whatever a new country threw at me. I think I inherited this expectation, or more accurately, this desire for hardship, from my family and my town.
I came here valuing strength more than love, survival more than living. I grew up learning to do things right and well, no matter what the circumstances. No one had higher standards for me than myself. Those who knew me in grade school and high school can attest: I was an achiever and if I wanted something I got it done.
My goals for my months volunteering in El Salvador were characteristically idealistic. I wanted to see real change in the communities reflected through art. I wanted to become so fluent in Spanish that no one would ask me if I was a gringa five minutes after meeting me. I wanted to see young people putting aside their dreams to immigrate for dreams of investing in their own communities. I wanted to make a difference.
None of those desires were wrong, but I came to the tropics with the hunker-down approach of the north. This isn’t a country of gutting it out. There are no crazy three weeks of harried fishing and a long rest afterwards. This land is the land of getting by. Where tomorrow looks like yesterday and today could be 50 years ago for all the difference you see.
Achievement is not a concrete concept: some meetings a woman holds a crayon to draw a dream and the world tints rosy, others she sits and complains that the pineapple drink doesn’t have enough sugar, and that we’re all just wasting our time. Slowly, the coldness of my efficiency has melted in the hot Salvadoran sun. My agendas have failed; the strength I depended on has leached away.
Perhaps where we are forms who we become. To live here, I have to learn to shrug off the blanket of snow on my shoulders and step away from the independence and strength I cherish. I have to wait like a child in anticipation not for the snow to fall and the long test of winter to begin, but for a neighbor’s knock, a cornflower’s bloom, the sound of ripe avocados plumping on the sidewalk outside my door.
Today I was in the market with a friend who was passing out free bracelets for a political campaign. A little girl sidled up to us and stood staring at me for awhile before my friend noticed.
“She’s different-looking, huh?” he said confidentially to the child, “It’s because she’s from Alaska. That’s a place the furthest north you can go, where Santa Claus is her neighbor and the houses are made of ice.”
Her eyes widened and I imagined what I would do if I could. Disrupt the beauty of the tropical warmth for a moment, carry a cloud from far away and watch millions of snowflakes drift on the wondering, upturned faces of the market place. A kind of new beginning to my life here like a gift from the winters of the north.
Because before the slog of survival or the despair of unmet vision there is pure, potential magic whenever snow first falls.