It is the rainy season in Guatemala. Day after day brings a drenching, bone-chilling wetness, and sometimes I order coffee just to wrap my hands around the mug and then touch them to my face. It is the second week of a three-week Spanish immersion program, and I ache for familiarity. For the food and words and people I know.
I feel foreign.
During the 10 o'clock descanso, my 30-minute break from class, I cut through the park at the foot of the church of La Merced and head down the Calle de Arco into Cybermania, where 'N Sync or Mambo #5 blares overhead, and I have a card for 360 minutes of Internet time.
The kid my housemates call Shoeshine Boy always sits in a doorway near the church, where he plies his trade for three or four quetzales. But you can talk him down, so he clears maybe half that, about 20 cents U.S. a shine. I wear brand-new K-Swiss tennis shoes every day, bought especially for my trip, so I have no need of his services.
My first real contact with Shoeshine Boy came when he ran up behind me to tell me that my backpack had come dangerously undone. I zipped my bag and thanked him as he stood there expectantly. I thought briefly about giving him money, then shook my head. Kindness is its own reward, I think to myself. Isn't that what I try to teach my kids?
The next day, I see Shoeshine Boy standing across the street from his usual perch and wave him over. "Ven aca" ("Come here"), I say, and hand him a quetzale. "Esto es para ayer" ("This is for yesterday"), I tell him. For warning me to zip my bag. In my house, I may teach my children that kindness is its own reward. But my children are warm and fed. And the Shoeshine Boy has no shoes of his own.
Antigua is a scenic, old, bustling city. Money and labor and heavy woolen ponchos all trade at a steady clip. But Guatemala's 36 years of civil war, which ended in 1992, have pockmarked the landscape with the widowed, orphaned and alone. It is a country of simple, unyielding reality.
You work, you eat.
But sometimes, just barely.
I tell my housemate Dennis, a 29-year-old Coast Guardsman with a quick wit and a casual disdain, that to appreciate Guatemala, he needs a paradigm shift. Needs to wrap his mind around a different reality. What I didn't realize was how much I needed to do the same.
One day after lunch, Dennis decided to bring Shoeshine Boy a slice of pizza, making sure it was hot. "Gracias," the child said, then asked for a Coca-Cola instead.
They say the rich aren't like us. But that's not true of the poor. They are our mirror image. We want them to be humble and grateful, to make our giving uncomplicated. But sometimes they are ungrateful or angry or tired of being poor. And sometimes they don't even like pizza. The next day, I decide I want to buy the child a sandwich. I get him a Coke instead.
I start talking to him. Which is how I find out his name is Luis Arturro. He is 14 and smallish, still a child, really, but on the brink of manhood.
Whatever calcium reserves the body stores up for a lifetime of straight bones and strong teeth, Luis has used up in his first 14 years. His clothes are tattered and smelly. Dirt is caked under his fingernails and talonlike toenails, and his teeth are missing or decayed.
He is, I believe, the dirtiest child I have ever seen.
I give him his Coca-Cola, and he kisses my hand deeply and smiles his Jack-the-Pumpkin-King smile, and I fight the urge to run and disinfect my hand.
It helps when I remind myself that Luis Arturro is a human being.
He lives in a village near Antigua with his mother, two brothers and a sister. He dropped out of school after the first grade. He says he has epilepsy and takes medicine to help prevent his recurrent seizures. My housemates say they saw him sniffing glue. I begin to talk to him daily, practicing my Spanish and paying him in advance for shoeshines I promise to return for when I have shineable shoes.
And I scold him, warning him repeatedly to cease and desist with the full body hugs he is fond of locking me in in the middle of the calle. I think maybe he does this because day after day, he sits in the shadow of a Catholic school, where pretty, uniformed teenagers whisper secretly, kiss openly and dream of a future together. Or maybe just 15 minutes.
Luis is the right age but in the wrong world for these kinds of hormonal exchanges. In his world, "school" consists of writing drills in a blue composition notebook donated to him by a shopkeeper. "Debo banarme, peinarme, y lavarme los dientes" ("I ought to take a bath, comb my hair and brush my teeth") is the practice sentence someone has written for him. A sentence he has rewritten a dozen times. That's school and I guess, this week at least, I'm his girlfriend.
Two days before leaving Guatemala, I ask my professor for a field trip, a campo de trabajo, and we head to the market. There, we bargain hard. Two pairs of pants, a pair of men's boots, two shirts, a five-pack of underwear and a dozen pairs of tube socks. I get them all for $40.
Then I find Luis.
"Estos son para ti," I tell him. These are for you. And for a moment, he says nothing. He just keeps looking at me and smiling. And since I am trying not to cry, I scold him. "Mira en las bolsas," I command. Look in the bags. He takes a cursory look, then grabs my hand and tries to get me to touch his heart, which he tells me he wants me to feel because it is very happy.
It rains my last full day in Guatemala, !que sorpresa!, but Luis, who typically vacates the doorway in a hard rain, is sitting in his usual perch. He keeps turning his head, sweeping his eyes from one end of the street to the other. Looking for me, I think.
He spots me and waves excitedly. He is wearing his new shirt, new pants, new shoes, then unzips his fly to show me his brand-new underwear. He is grinning from ear to ear. And he is very clean.
"Tu eres muy guapo" ("You are very handsome"), I tell him brokenly, even though my tears make it difficult to see.
As I head back to my house, past San Sebastian park, I can't stop thinking about Luis. And I wonder what he will eat and what he will do and what kind of man he will become. And I wonder how much it would take to feed him and buy him books and send him to school each year. Then I wonder how much a new set of teeth would cost, because kids can be cruel and I don't want him discouraged from learning by taunts about his unfortunate smile. Then I have to wonder: Would he really spend the money on teeth? Would he really go to school, and stop sniffing glue? And what about his mother and sister?
For a moment, it all seems so overwhelming.
For a moment, I wish that the poor weren't just like the rest of us, with complicated needs and wants and personal shortcomings. And that somewhere in the world, there were a place where poverty was simply a matter of not being able to buy shoes.
But once again, it helps to remind myself that Luis Arturro is a human being. And even if I can't "solve" him, sometimes it's enough just to help. I came all the way to Guatemala to learn that.
All of a sudden, I don't feel so foreign.