¡Uno, dos, tres! The words had scarcely passed my lips when the beaming school girls arranged themselves and anxiously awaited the next click of my new digital camera. These photogenic pre-teens were not elite Covergirl models; rather, they were the lighthearted orphans who stole my heart at the Hogar de NiÃ±as Manchen, in Guatemala City, Guatemala. Our day was drawing close to an end and dozens of giggly girls felt dressed to kill, showing off their new Sketchers.
As the girls made a few more adjustments, I lowered my camera and took a minute to reminisce back to the first few moments when I reached their playground, my stomach rushing with waves of nervousness and exhilaration. I remembered how the energetic girls slowed down their game of tag and how the rickety swings squeaked as they lost their momentum. Puzzled countenances turned our way; the children weren’t aware of the visit that our American shoe delivery team had so long anticipated. Nevertheless, within minutes my team and I had delivered new socks and tied on fresh-from-the-factory shoes on their mud-spattered feet and grateful smiles spread rapidly. Hugs were hastily exchanged and the aura of fun and laughter resumed. However, instead of playing tag again, most girls had opted for a photo shoot and I was more than happy to oblige.
My hungry palette for exquisite cuisine was satisfied in Guatemala City, approximately an hour from the forests of Antigua. By day, I had been handing out brand new tennis shoes to orphans all over the central region of Guatemala. But at night, I was submerged into grand festivities that the natives hardly gave a second thought to. Mmm! A spicy caldo, or meat stew, served with fresh black beans and a refreshing horchata rice drink emits an unbelievably surreal taste when you’re surrounded by the melodies of a live mariachi band hundreds of miles away from the American coast. Guatemalan folk music filled the cool evenings, and a blanket of stars danced with each twinkle.
I smile to myself when I flashback to one particular night in which I made fresh tortillas in a local restaurant. Standing next to a professional, I sheepishly worked the sticky dough into something resembling the expert tortillas I had been enjoying so far on my stay. Once the dough was worked to my liking, I surrendered my tortilla patties over to the observing cook. She delicately placed them onto the massive iron stove that stood with authoritative presence in the center of the dining area. As the tortillas rose up and crispy brown spots surfaced, I looked on quizzically. Even though I only had one year of Spanish under my belt, I understood the reassuring words of the merciful tortilla maker. Although not entirely presentable, my tortillas were very much edible. Our group posed for a few pictures and headed out onto the cobblestone road and into the buzzing nightlife, munching on warm tortillas and exchanging jokes the whole way.
I don’t think it would have mattered where in the world I was that week, I realized how little it takes for strangers to find common ground and how much that common ground gives back. As much as I like to think I helped those precious orphans, I can genuinely say that they’re the ones that helped me. Now all I have to figure out is how to answer the little brown-eyed girl who tugged on my pant leg and questioned, “¿CuÃ¡ndo regresarÃ¡ usted?” When will you be back?
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