I woke up late with the sun streaming through my bedroom window and setting off an internal panic alarm somewhere in the vicinity of last night’s pancakes. I was halfway into a pair of chinos and shrugging into a wrinkled blazer while stuffing my feet into penny loafers when I realized it was Saturday. I wasn’t late to class after all, but I was up entirely too early for a Saturday morning. I looked over at my alarm clock. 8:15. I glanced past the alarm clock briefly and considered my rumpled memory foam mattress longingly. But the panic of thinking I was late for class had already jumpstarted a three-coffee equivalent of adrenaline in my system. Going back to bed would be useless. I grabbed a scarf out of the hall closet and went into the kitchen to inspect the coffee situation. There was still half a pot of yesterday’s French roast sitting cold on the counter so I poured a full mug and gulped it down before heading out into a nearly empty campus.
I walked out into one of those crisp May mornings that are nearly perfect with the smell of spring and freshly mowed grass and enough sunshine to offset the slight chill. I’ve always found it a tragedy that spring can’t last a little longer. I left my bungalow on College Avenue behind and headed to the student union to check my mailbox. Nobody was stirring as I took the shortcut across the quad and down the steps to the mailboxes. It looked like mostly junk mail and reminders about the seriousness of paying for campus parking tickets, and I began to separate the wheat from the chaff as I walked. I had a keen eye out for bills but it seemed there weren’t any. I maneuvered myself back across the quad on autopilot and was near the bottom of the stack when I saw a strange envelope. It was from a grant committee. I tore the end off the envelope to read the latest grant rejection. It began “Dear applicant, we’re pleased to inform you that you’ve been awarded…” Unbelievable. I had received so many grant application rejections that that I had really quit counting my academic chickens. Absolutely nothing had hatched—until now.
I got back to my bungalow and tossed the parking ticket reminders in the trashcan. I was having a hard time even remembering what grant proposal I had fired off to these folks. I re-read the letter carefully. In my hands I had a full grant to El Salvador for three months along with a substantial check. I vaguely remembered writing a grant proposal about studying the effects of U.S. economic and trade policy on our tiny Central American neighbor. I had gotten the idea after talking to a student from El Salvador late one night and dashing off a grant proposal. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I put the letter on my desk and went back to the kitchen for another mug of cold coffee. The realization of how my summer plans had just dramatically shifted began to sink in. This thing was actually going to happen.
Over the next three weeks I purchased my plane ticket and arranged to stay in the home of my Salvadoran buddy’s family in San Salvador. It was tough to pay attention during the last few weeks of class. I was ready for it just to be over and begin my El Salvador experience. I was starting to get excited and a little nervous all at the same time. I didn’t even speak Spanish. All of that time conjugating French verbs seemed sort of pointless now but I was hoping that it might give me a leg up with some quick Spanish acquisition. I bought a faded green Army surplus bag and had it packed to bursting. I even had malaria pills, which I had been assured were a necessary precaution. And so it was that I found myself on the way to the airport with far more clothing than I would ever actually use and loaded up with sunscreen that I definitely would need. Unfortunately sunscreen violated some kind of airline security regulation of which I was entirely unaware and my lobster-like appearance a mere three days later would represent the ultimate sacrifice to safer skies.
After an uneventful flight from Chicago to Miami and a brief layover, I got a brief overview of Salvadoran society on the plane flight from Miami to San Salvador. Instead of bored businessmen in grey suits and open laptops, the plane was full of Salvadoran families conversing merrily and eating homemade foods like pupusas and tamales wrapped in corn leaves. As we approached San Salvador the plane banked hard to the left, leaving the broad expanse of Pacific Ocean behind and flying low over the volcano-ridden coastline of El Salvador.
From my window seat the rolling surf showed white on the shoreline where the waves broke. When we arrived I made it through customs quicker than I expected and walked out into the dripping heat of a Salvadoran summertime. The brightly colored buses were blasting reggaeton music and little green iguanas darted around on the trunks of palm trees. I was surrounded by a blast of enthusiastic Spanish and I carried my faded green duffel toward the little Nissan pickup that was my ride and jumped in the open truck bed with five or six other folks for the ride into San Salvador. After settling in, the gentleman nearest me offered me a ripe mango and a bottle of cold beer. The hard part was over. I had finally found El Salvador.
Jesse Langley lives near Chicago. He divides his time among work, writing and family life. He’s an advocate for online degree programs and has a keen interest in blogging and social media. He also writes for www.professionalintern.com.