When I first arrived in El Salvador last July, I instantly felt at home with the welcoming and charming atmosphere, being able to connect with the people and really experience the real world was a definite eye opener. It was captivating to see first-hand the cultural differences between the UK and El Salvador. Two completely different parts of the world coming together and working as a team just shows no matter where you live, that friendships can last no matter where you come from.  I found that out when I lived and breathed a completely alien environment.

I was terrified to go away from home, as I was worried if I would be able to last without my home comforts, my friends and family. But, as you can see, I did pretty well! What I am trying to say is, it doesn't matter if you're rich or poor, all that matter is who you want to be and what you want to do with your life... I chose to leave my lifestyle behind and to experience something completely different and I can proudly say I would do it all again, the cultural differences were hard at first, but as time went on their culture became a part of me, I knew about zero per cent Spanish when I arrived and about 10 per cent when I left, which made it difficult to communicate. As I was part of a team, communication was a big part of being able to listen to each other and to work together, thankfully my fellow UK volunteers understood and translated for me.

I have to say Arcatao, the town we lived in, as well as the rest of El Salvador, is a beautiful and historical place. The people who lived in the town taught me the real meaning of generosity. Walking along the streets smiling and saying "hello" to each other is not normal in many parts of the UK, whereas a smile and a "Buenos dias" goes a long way in Arcatao, as everyone is your friend or "amigo". It's just normal and shows respect to your fellow neighbours. One of the cultural differences that shocked me, but I loved at the same time, was that everyone, even children, would ride on the back of trucks jumping in and out without it stopping. The freedom and the atmosphere was amazing. 

As it was rainy season over there, it was the season of thunderstorms and constant bursts of rain, but that wasn't a bad thing as the dark sky would light up with purple and blue colours. It was beautiful to watch, just memorising. I have to say, I was dreading the weather thinking, oh no am I coming from a rainy England to a rainy El Salvador! But this rain was warm and enjoyable. 

I met friends for life through my ICS placement and I am proud to say they are my family, both the national and the UK volunteers. They are all great role models who have huge hearts and care about making a difference to our world. You can't go away from home to volunteer and last the full 10 weeks if you are a half-hearted person. I realised that as soon as I got to know each and every one of them. They actually care and wanted to help and that's why we worked together so well. We did come across some issues, but together we conquered them and became stronger.

The people of Arcatao showed me the differences in our countries, as I learnt that England might have its issues but we are very lucky. Aractao isn't a rich place and they rely on the weather and the crops for food and money, so when the weather is too hot or too wet and the crops are ruined they lose their money and that can be disastrous. They all work together to make sure they survive and each and every one of their jobs are extremely important. They do everything by hand and make do with old trucks that have been recycled from North America. They build their own houses with no machinery, but with their own hands. They mix their own cement, they truly are hard workers. 

And the way they go about work is motivating. In the most difficult circumstances, their mindset is how can we fix this or how can we go about that? The national volunteers here are hardworking, as well as thoughtful and caring. They’ve grown up to enjoy the little thing, not expecting too much, which we sadly tend to do sometimes. We forget that there is always someone somewhere who works just as hard as we do but get less for it. We could take a page out of their book, by living for the little things, recognising that with hard work and determination we can get more out of life than we realise we could. For me, being in this kind of environment has opened my eyes and mind to different possibilities. Just being surrounded with young people who want to help and change for the better, just goes to show that no matter where you live or who you are or how much money you have, you can make the tiniest change, which can result in a big difference for whoever it helps. 

My favourite part of living in Arcatao was living within the community. We were welcomed into their homes with open arms. We all loved living with our host families, they taught us so much, each of us learning about the community we lived in and were blessed with their own stories. My own host family straight away took to us, they welcomed us with open arms and told us if we needed anything to just ask. Our host mother, my 'mama', treated us like we were her own daughters, giving us a hammock, chairs and a stove so we could make hot drinks. They would come and sit with us and we would get to know each other and we all laughed and laughed. My roommates knew Spanish, making it so much easier to talk to our family. They taught us that family isn't just blood, but it's the connection you share.

Written by ICS Alumni Jess Morton (July - September 2016, Arcatao, El Salvador)