When many Americans picture a lifestyle without paved roads or air-conditioning, it's natural that they might feel sorry for those living in a developing country, or want to teach them how to become what they view as "civilized." Our preference for civilization is so strong so that we forget the reason villages, towns, and cities came to be in the first place — to bring people together.
During the two weeks I spent working and living in the small Costa Rican village of San Salvador, I was overcome with the unfamiliar yet heart-warming feeling of community. Whereas our sixth sense is to always know the whereabouts of our iPhones, for the villagers, it's to love their neighbors. If we take a step back, we might just see that perhaps Americans are the ones who could learn something from these Costa Rican villagers.
The drastic difference in everyday cordial communication was most shocking to me. Never in the village would a local walk or drive by anyone without a sincere smile and wave, if not a friendly, "Hola." Be it one of their lifelong neighbors or one of us foreign volunteers, all were greeted as family. This treatment was a stark contrast from the snobby attitude we often see in Newport Beach. Living in such a rushed and impersonal community, it seems that after a while, we don't even notice the absence of a simple hello.
"American suburbs make people want to own their own land," my leader, Sara, explained. "Then they just don't talk to people."
This was an idea I kept in my head throughout the time I spent in San Salvador and when I returned home. The desire to have something completely to yourself creates a feeling of isolation from even the person you share a fence with.
The villagers do have their own houses, but what they don't have is the "mine" mentality. Doors and windows are always open to friends and neighbors for anything they need. My host family was shocked when I explained to them our lifestyle of doorbells and gated communities.
"Don't people get lonely?" my host mother questioned in amazement.
By far the greatest cultural gap between Newport Beach and San Salvador was the treatment of outsiders. All my life I have seen the dirty looks and harsh judgment that land on tourists here in Newport. Outsiders can be spotted a mile away by what they wear or the car they drive.
Despite how different we were, to the villagers, we were not tourists, but guests. For how little they had, it was incredible to see how much they were willing to sacrifice in order to make us happy and comfortable during our stay. Strangers would stop beside us as we made the mile-long trek to work and motion for us to hop in the truck bed. They knew where we were going and didn't have a moment's hesitation about taking us there.
I believe that the root of impersonal communities is greed. When people get greedy, they no longer are happy to share their home and possessions with their neighbors. In a wealthy community like Newport, we see a lot of cold shoulders and locked doors. In contrast, it was amazing to see what little esteem many Costa Ricans had for money.
"We are one of the poorest families in this town, but it doesn't matter because we have each other," one of the grandmothers said about her and her husband. For them, family is everything, and money is just something that keeps food on the table.
As the next generation, it is important for us to use our worldliness to see developing countries not only as places in need, but as places of cultural value. Let us not forget that when we are in need, it is our families and neighbors we will turn to. These are the lessons that can be learned from people who carry love in their hearts instead of money in their pockets. We have everything until we have nothing, and then we have community.
CASSIDY LUNDY is a senior at Corona del Mar High School.