There are things that I keep to myself. They’re not secrets, not forbidden, but they have a power in their sequestration that I am reluctant to leak through my teeth. I’m sure you have your own hoard, kept for your own reasons. I’ll share one of my things with you because you’re a stranger; I’ll never see you again to recognize that you hold something of mine. Perhaps I’ll be able to forget my loss in this case.
Walking down Santander Street in Panajachel, the main street where all the local highland Guatemalans come down to sell their goods to the tourists (who are mostly Latin Americans), my husband, Erik, and I passed a small boy, maybe 8 or 9, sitting on the sidewalk in one of those uncomfortable-looking kid positions only small, pliable bodies will volunteer for, with his legs both bent off to one side. His bare feet were crusted with dirt well below the cuffs of gray cotton pants. He sprouted little elbows from his shirt sleeves that gave way to twiggy forearms. He had four gold quetzales in his palm, and he was counting through them forlornly. That’s it; that’s all I saw. It hurt me somewhere behind my ribcage, and I treasure it for that. Four quetzales will buy a few tomatoes and some rice at a produce stall in another part of town, or two shoe shines. Is that why it hurt, for such a slim variable in a monetary equation? I don’t think so.
The boy glanced down the sidewalk, not to look at anything, but in a moment of the kind of thought where one’s eyes roll around unfocused. Somehow he was counting through his life in those coins, fingering his childhood, dulling the shine. I think for a moment everything was transparent to him. I think I witnessed a rare moment of lucidity, and the child glanced away in disbelief. He held the coins like a dead bird, fallen from its nest, touching its down without hope, suffering for the brief sight on his totality. “Don’t look, child,” I wanted to tell him. Don’t count.
In Central and South American countries, many children are working by age six or seven. Particularly in the towns that garner a lot of tourists, small children are shining shoes and selling all manner of things, some pushy and insistent, some so downtrodden and miserable that it makes me think of when I hitchhike, back home. All those cars passing me by with no passengers in them. Obviously there’s plenty of room in there and I’m a perfectly nice person, why on earth won’t they just stop and pick me up? So selfish, they are.
Then we were past the little boy, with new people before us. Tourists chattering by, their arms stiff with purchases. Mothers and daughters standing silently in their stalls, draping their merchandise over their arms. Grandmothers stoically eating fruit. Fathers scurrying down to the docks. Sons standing alone with shoe-shine rags eyeing other sons jealously who run through the streets in little squads clenching fistfuls of bottle caps. I stopped in the street, each one of my feet balanced on a bulbous cobblestone. Erik walked on. I didn’t know what to do. I thought about flailing my arms. I don’t know why. Stop! Stop! I yelled through my shaded eyes. I envisioned myself literally yelling it through my mouth. But the world’s too big. Santander Street’s too big. It’s inflated with the unbearable innocence of children.
I etched the boy into a spot in my brain where I knew he’d last. I don’t really know why I treasure the things that bring me pain. Maybe because if I was wrought with happiness, I’d be afraid that I already died and was in heaven, consigned to mind-numbing joy after joy. This way I can always feel the pressure in my chest and know that I have a fleshy heart, that I’m still alive in this imperfect world.
Erik finally looked back. I know he thought I was dallying to look at some more merchandise in my bargaining frenzy. And that’s fine. “A special price for you,” they tell me. I bought the little boy counting quetzales at the reasonable price of one moment of paralysis.
It’s me and this kid for a minute, and the rest of the world is a blur. If I don’t tell anyone about him, he exists only for me. We have some kind of intimacy, me and him—this window into all the things I find painful about the world. I can’t explain to you exactly what I find painful, but I can show you this boy. Here, this is it. And me passing by. I’m going to carry him around with me from here on out like a puppy on a leash, always beside me.
My husband and I walk to the edge of towns. We’ve walked to the edges of Cusco, Puerto Natales, Punta Arenas, Cotswald villages; in the cities we take all the subway lines and get off randomly. We walked all over the edges of Guatemala—in Livingston, Puerto Barrios, Antigua, Panajachel, various towns around Lake Atitlan. These are the times when we don’t carry a camera, and these are the roads laid down in our internal maps of the world, our maps of poverty and happiness. When people ask me about our vacations, what did you see? I don’t tell them about the outskirts, where Erik and I are the only foreigners, where the dirt roads give way to narrow foot paths into the jungle and people wander out back into the road with digging tools and loads of wood strapped to their backs. Or about the little girls in the narrow alleys learning to carry baskets of fruit on their heads, or the one in particular who let the big blue tub tip over and slip off so that all the tomatoes rolled down the cobblestones and bruised, sending her and her companion into a delirium of giggles and tears and fears of punishment; perhaps they would say that the white people reached in for a tomato and knocked the tub off.
I don’t tell about all the people we pass sitting, standing, or playing in the road who eye us passively, dispassionately, or suspiciously as we pass by in our shining white skins and $150 hiking shoes, until Erik gregariously says, “Hola!” and then all the faces crack so that their teeth hang out and they say back, “Hola!” I smile and wave sheepishly, and they wave back. I don’t tell, because I don’t know if these people have fingerprints, or if they cast shadows. The light was too hazy and diffused to tell. And those strange crunching sounds we overhear, are they really a Mayan dialect, or are they chewing through bones, like small endangered predators, bereft of habitat, hiding in the back of their cage?
There are labyrinths of small rooms with intermittent roofs that we briefly discern walking by, separated by scavenged pieces of corrugated metal, or narrow wooden poles loosely lashed together, or low, mud walls. What do you think of when I tell you that? Poverty. But taken from me, it’s without context, a context I can’t describe to you. You just have to walk to the outskirts. You have to smell simultaneously the ubiquity of the trash and the blooming flowers. You have to see the jungle on one side of the steep, rocky path, which is barely navigable by pedestrians and not by any bicycle or vehicle, and the green shack on the other side with a nice white sign proclaiming, “Dentist.” You have to touch the children. You have to look directly at people. You have to be nosy in a subtle way. And all that you get in return, you keep for yourself. Or at least, I do. If I tried to utter the real poignancy, my words would fall so far from my mouth, you couldn’t hear them. They’re not made to bridge such gaps; they’re far too narrow to walk on.
Here’s the first time I realized that I kept things to myself. We were stopped at some tourist way-station between Guatemala City and Panajachel—restaurants and gift shops in a little cluster. We were waiting to switch shuttles, Erik and I alone in the van, as the driver had gone for a drink. A slight Mayan woman approached groups of people in the parking lot holding smallish woven baskets in her hands. She said nothing, only held out the baskets. And was generally ignored. She would stay another minute after being brushed off before humbly approaching someone else. After a time, she gathered her two children from some corner of the parking lot I hadn’t before noticed, and came to sit in the grass beside our parked shuttle van. I looked down on them from my window.
The woman wore her traditional, patterned highland skirt and ornately embroidered shirt; her long, black hair was loosely pulled back with a purple tie. Her two-year old son, dressed in maroon sweats and black rubber shoes, crouched on the ground beside her. The woman’s arm fell loosely around his little body as he lifted her blouse and suckled at her breast. She tore a small clump of white food in half and split it with her other son, who was maybe 7 or 8, wearing a brightly colored and stained synthetic down coat, the sleeves ending somewhat above his wrists.
When the woman left momentarily, the older boy took care of the little one, carrying him back from the edge of the street he was drawn to totter towards. The older one sat his little brother down on the ground and began to fashion toys from the trash in the grass. They played happily until the mother returned. The older boy had dragged with him across the parking lot to this spot a sack on a long string. The mother now opened it to reveal sweaters for the children, a comb, and two textile squares. She bundled the little child in another layer of clothes, as the sun had fallen behind the mountains. She unfolded the textiles. Into one she gathered her baskets and deftly tied up the fabric into a neat bundle. Then the small child came to her back and reached up to her neck. The mother reached behind her and boosted him up until he could wrap his arms around it. Then she took the other textile and wrapped it around the two of them so that the child was bound to her back. She stood up, balanced the bundle of baskets on her head and took her other son by the hand. They walked out of the parking lot and up a steep hill behind the van, the soles of the woman’s bare feet kicking up small pebbles from the ground. The whole time they’d not uttered a word to each other.
I have an uncle who is an extraordinarily talkative person. He’s the first to admit he can’t be quiet. He’s cultivated a vast network of stories from his extensive travels around the world, from his childhood, from his experiences and knowledge as a high-ranking lawyer in the Navy, from every other thing that’s happened to him. He has an arsenal of opinions on everything. Yet, he’s never told his daughter that she wasn’t truly left for dead in a bucket at her birth, though this perception has largely shaped her. He hasn’t said to his brother, who could never understand why, that the reason he can’t do the intellectual feats of his siblings might be because he turned blue for hours at a time as a baby. But when my uncle tells me this stuff, I realize that everyone has their own black box inside their heart. I realize how encrypted each person’s text is. My uncle’s not exactly keeping things to himself, because he’s told me and maybe other people, but this discretion yields a certain kind of power. And I’ve told you now about the family outside our shuttle van, and it’s possible I’ll tell another person or two in the course of my life. But I essentially consider it something I keep to myself, and the one person I’ll never tell it to is Erik, because he’d pierce me trying to understand why it moved me. It would be the kind of hole, ever so tiny, that you can’t find a stopper for, and I’d bleed to death one drop at a time.
“So what is it about this quiet family?” you ask me now, thinking you yourself are not lethal. My friend was horrified when her husband told us the exact date and circumstance in which their baby was conceived. He’d ripped that right out of her box. That’s understandable; that’s personal. What about this family makes them personal to me?
This mother, this child, this life. Like some glint of sunlight on the crest of an ocean wave. Me. Like a hunter in a duck blind, sitting in my metal van, looking out through a clear barrier at that slant of light. When I grasp that they’re people in these lives I can’t fathom, that we’re cousins separated by time and custom, and that their material poverty is far more timeless than my material wealth, it humbles me. It humbles me so low I can’t breathe; I’m crushed into the ground like litter. And all I can smell is my own sweat. That’s a smell I don’t like to share with other people.
Twice in our lives, Erik and I have taken a kayak out into the ocean. Each time, we row out with exhilaration. Our strokes are easy, the rocking of the kayak as we cross the peaks and troughs of the water is somehow soothing, ancestral. A little farther, we say several times. Around the next point. Then we float for awhile, motionless, as if we are native to that ocean like some piece of seaweed. When we start to row back home, suddenly we don’t seem to be moving at all. We begin to exhale drops of panic. We’re rowing and going nowhere. Nothing’s comfortable, nothing’s ancestral. We have to put some muscle into it. “Stroke!” We dig into the water. We realize only then, between two ends of a useless paddle, that we have a home.
Maybe if we had a great store of food, I’d let the ocean keep us. We joked on the last occasion while paddling out, “Erik and Shara paddle from Guatemala to Brazil with only a 20-ounce bottle of water between them.” This is generally a funny experience, and when we tell other people about it we tend to understate the moment we spend in panic, a strange moment where the whole world suddenly sits down in their assigned seats and we’re the only two still wandering down the aisles.
These people that I keep to myself, they’re like arrows, a volley of arrows released at me from some source of benevolence, some kind schoolmarm who has thrown away her blackboard for these weapons. "You’ll pass," she says, "when you can’t get up." But is that right? Should I abandon my home? Keep rowing out to sea? And if I do, should I then tell you absolutely everything I see throughout the world so you can take it away from me? Like a photo steals a soul? If my little boy and my family are allowed to leak from my veins, the veins will eventually collapse and I’ll be left with no way for my blood to return.
While sitting on the ground in the central park in Antigua, waiting for the Good Friday evening processions to come through, Erik and I struck up a game of catch with a family of four children. Each kid had their own inflated plastic ball, and Erik and I each threw to two kids simultaneously in some kind of circus act with four balls flying through the air in all directions through the crowds of people passing on the sidewalk. But one of my partners was supremely interested in me. She’d halt the ball game from time to time to come sit by me and touch me and my clothes, my pocketed shorts and my maroon top, to let me talk to her in my language that she couldn’t understand and push her button nose, to stare, unabashed, into my smiling face and ponder the purse around my neck, the bag of souvenirs at my side, the camera in my lap.
There was a young man sitting a few yards away from me who watched us intently as we played and laughed. I caught him in my mirrored sunglasses. He sat on the curb of the sidewalk with a particular look on his face. “Don’t tell,” I whispered to him, because I recognized the danger – that once he absorbs me and my foreign life, it’ll knock the wind out of him if he ever tries to push me back out in words. “Keep this,” I assured him under my breath, and the girl thought I was murmuring to her.
“Que?” she asked me for the hundredth time that afternoon. I looked at her mouth full of baby teeth, the band-aid across the bridge of her nose.
“I know that man,” I said in English. I know those eyes. I know that stillness, know that I am bound to him along the silent edges of his heart.