It was not really in the plans, but for a little while we ended up inviting a Salvadoran mom and a couple of kids to live with us in a place where we were staying. It was somewhat of an urgent situation, and one for which none of us was quite prepared.
Most people who know me also know that I am a tidy housekeeper. OK, my kids might say I am a little obsessive. It is true that as a Boy Scout leader I had the cleanest tent in camp, even with a dirt floor. One of my secrets: the throw rug. No matter where I am staying, tent included, I put a throw rug at the door and that is where the shoes come off. At home I actually keep a basket of guest slippers by the door (a custom borrowed from my daughter who spent some time living in messy Siberia).
So, back to El Salvador, where, of course, shoes come off at the door. I have observed that this is a pretty strange custom for most Salvadorans. It certainly was something new for the mom and her little ones who came to us from the most basic living situation. Leaving those muddy or dusty shoes (depending on the season) on the throw rug makes a big difference in the amount of floor mopping required, and this point ultimately was not lost on the mom or the kids. Whenever a knock hit the door, the kids would run quickly to welcome visitors with "come in, and take off your shoes!"
A few months ago, Mom and her kids found their own place to live. It's way out in the countryside. My husband and I went to visit. After a long drive in the hills, the last few miles on rocky terrain that might not actually be called "roads", we arrived. The little ones were super-excited, dancing around and giving us welcome hugs, eager to show us their new home. Outside the door I noticed some little pink flip flops, boys' sneakers and women's slip-ons. "Take off your shoes, " chirped the kids. Mom stood by the pila in her slippers, laughing.
Later that night, we walked up to a cousin's house for supper. Outside the front door, everyone paused to take off their shoes. "It makes cleaning the floors so much easier!" the cousin smiled. The woman said she had thought it was strange when her cousin required everyone to remove their shoes at her house, but then the woman tried it. Apparently now all the cousins and actually, most of the women in the community, use this custom.
My husband, who is sometimes critical of the clean freak with whom he lives, looked over at me, and I smirked back at him. I spend quite a lot of time working with church groups and people in the US who are in partnership or companion relationships with people and churches across town or across the globe. We talk a great deal about listening, learning, tasting, sharing. We use the words like "accompaniment," "mutuality," and "cross-cultural training." The idea is to build relationships in which we learn from one another and share and grow together.
I looked at my husband, sitting on a plastic chair in his stocking feet and said, "This is a whole new kind of cross-cultural training."