When I was single and still had the luxury of dropping out of real life for a few months to embark on new adventures, I went to Guatemala for five months and worked as a volunteer English teacher. They were five of the most bizarre, craziest months of my life, and I came home with lots of stories and new perspectives on life. I also came home with a few regrets.
I had been in Guatemala for several months when there was a holiday that gave us teachers several extra days off school. Several other American teachers and I decided to take advantage of the time off to travel, and somehow or another in the final days of our sojourning, we ended up in Chichicastenango, at one of the most famous markets in Guatemala. We’d been traveling for a week, and without an ATM nearby, my purse was near empty. After paying for the hostel we stayed in and food enough to last til we made it home, I had very little money left to spend. Nevertheless, the markets of Chichi are famous, and I was determined to find a souvenir to mark my stay there.
After browsing through several stalls, I came to one that had just what I was looking for. It was a classic Guatemalan embroidery of an array of Mayan symbols and pictures. The warm, orange fabric was crammed full of brightly colored quetzal birds, suns, moons, and men adorned in feathers. I loved the colors and intricate designs. I asked the price, knowing there was no way I had enough money with me to pay for it. Though I don’t remember the exact price, I know it was at least twice the amount of money I had in my purse.
Bear in mind that this wasn’t a tourist stop in Mexico, where the prices are ridiculously inflated on purpose, in order to give gringos the chance to barter. Though the man running the stall had probably upped the price when he saw I was an American, I knew the price he was asking was not much higher than what it was actually worth. The eagerness of the owners of the stand, a man and his wife, to barter with me was obvious as they dropped the price each time they saw me hesitate. Not wanting to raise false hope, I quickly showed them the contents of my purse. It was all I had I told them, not nearly enough to pay for a piece of a needlework that took many, many hours, probably even weeks, to create. I could see the disappointment in their faces, and I felt foolish. I never should have asked the price when I knew it was worth much more than I could pay.
Despite seeing the meager contents of my purse, the stall owners continued to haggle, hoping I might be bluffing with hidden dollars in my pocket. Embarrassed, I hastily let them know I had no more money and darted into the crowd, eager to escape the guilt I felt under their disappointed stares.
I had stopped to get my bearings, to decide which direction to disappear into the crowd, when I felt a tug at my back and turned to see one of the small girls, probably age six or seven, dirty and bedraggled, who had been milling around the stand near her mother’s feet. Without any words, she thrust the needlework in my direction with one hand and extended her other empty palm, requesting payment. In seconds I emptied the contents of my purse into her hand, and she darted back through the crowd to deposit the meager payment with her mother.
During my stay in Guatemala, I often enjoyed bargaining at the markets, listening in on locals as they bought produce, proud when I was savvy enough to pay the same prices they paid. But this bargain did not feel good.
Though I paid for the needlework, bought it fair and square as they say, it felt stolen. I paid probably less than twenty dollars for a piece of handiwork that someone labored arduously to create. It was not a fair price, and I knew that the only reason it had been sold for such a small fraction was the people selling it needed the money much more desperately than I did.
They were in need. I was not.
This experience has nagged at my conscience for over ten years now, and recently I decided that this Guatemalan needlework deserves a place on my wall. The woman who made it deserves as much. And I need the reminder.
In each of our lives we will encounter people living in desperation. Sometimes their desperation will be apparent – financial distress, loss of a loved one. Other times it may not be as obvious – depression, loneliness, crushed dreams.
The challenge becomes to look past our own wants, to recognize that sometimes we must put others first. To do this takes our time, to listen and observe. It takes mindfulness. It takes patience. It takes humbleness and a willingness to move away from “dog eat dog” into “love thy brother as thyself.” It takes kindness.
I say these things not because I have mastered them – anyone who knows me will know that is definitely not the case. I say them because it’s something I hope to become.
It will also explain, if any of you ever enter my home, the meaning of the somewhat-out-of-place Mayan needlework on my wall. It’s a reminder of a little girl and her family. A reminder that there are many people around me today whose desperation and need is greater than my own desires. A reminder of mistakes I’ve made in the past, and the opportunity I have to do better in my future.