The Boy in Santa Marta

Beach in Santa Marta

The last couple of days, I’ve been thinking about a boy I met just over a year ago. We didn’t exchange anything like words, but there was another sort of exchange, one that is hard to describe. But I’ll try…

I’m sitting on the seawall of a Caribbean beach; not a fancy resort beach, but a public beach in the heart of the Santa Marta. It’s a gorgeous, glorious morning despite being as hot as hades, and I’m just feeling relieved it isn’t as blasting hot as yesterday – yet.

I’m alone because Brad is swimming. Various people wander by, and then this boy comes up and sits on the sand about ten feet away from me. He looks around 16 years old, and he’s truly dressed in rags. He’s as skinny and sick looking as some of the homeless dogs we’ve seen around, and almost as thin as the dead dog we passed on the street the day before, it’s ribs like hoops rising above its sinking body.

I am nervous. People who are desperate, do desperate things. People who are in pain, hurt others. I have a daypack that carries things this boy can sell to buy food, or drugs, or whatever he desires. All he has to do is grab it and run. No way can I stop him.

And then he looks right at me with the most haunted eyes I’ve ever seen. They simply defy description. A passage from Graham Greene’s book, The Quiet American, explains better than I can:

Suffering is not increased by numbers. One body can contain all the suffering the world can feel.

I simply can’t imagine the things this boy has gone through, the horrors he’s lived. I feel like my heart will break for him. I wish I had money to give him, but I’m not carrying any.

He motions to me, and I realize he’s asking for a drink from my water bottle. I toss it to him, and he gulps down about half of it, then carefully replaces the lid and goes to toss it back to me. I shake my head and motion that he finish it. He gives me a smile in thanks, then downs the rest. A minute later, he gets up, nods and smiles goodbye to me, and continues down the beach.

What I still don’t understand completely is why this encounter struck me so hard. Giving a homeless boy a bottle of water? It seems like nothing, and I’ve given to a lot of homeless people. Why does this time stand out?

I think it’s because of the exchange between us.

My gift to him was water and kindness and truly “seeing” him, and I believe he recognized and appreciated that.

His gift to me was a profound example of extreme courage, and a simply bizarre strength and resilience that left me in awe. So many of us in his situation would dissociate and go numb, or become bitter and hard. There was no numbness in his eyes. No bitterness. He was just quietly, openly bearing the pain in his life.

Even now, that encounter makes me cry. I hope and pray that his life is better now. I hope and pray that if it hasn’t gotten better, that he is strong enough to bear it. I know I’ll always be grateful for our encounter, and I’ll always remember him. True courage is a hard thing to forget.

Cuidad Perdida or Bust

Mules passing me on the chalk trail.

Mules passing me on the chalk trail.

I seriously thought I was going to collapse. Hills should not be this high or this steep. Three hours up? In 35 degree C  heat? With no shade? Come on!

The rest of our small group had shown us their backs a while ago. I’d already guzzled most of the water by the time the trail turned to white chalk dust, reflecting the heat back into my beet red face. Dust poofed into the air at every step, sticking to my sweat and coating my heaving lungs. And yet, there seemed no end. Up, up, eternally up.

Earlier that afternoon, we started the three day hike into Ciudad Perdida, a “lost city” in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. It had been a wonderful day. Meeting our hiking crew that morning and driving out to El Mamey, the town with such a bloody history it was nicknamed El Machete, where we would start our hike. The peaceful little village that greeted us did not live up to its past reputation, thankfully. We’d seen a massive iguana (or I think it was an iguana – it was a huge lizard in a tree, anyway) and the two snow capped peaks in the Sierra Nevadas, the two biggest mountains in the world at sea level. Incredibly impressive!

The hike itself started out easy-peasy, with gentle uphills and the occasional downhill. It was hot, that was for certain, but it was also shaded. The surroundings were beautiful and exotic, creeks bubbled past, strange fruit hung on trees, and the flowers… oh, the flowers! They’d drive me to poetry if I wasn’t careful.

Anyway, it all seemed amazing, even for a little while after the gentle slope turned into a not so gentle slope. Then the shade vanished, the sun got hotter (I swear), we hit the chalk dust – and the hike became a trudge.

Brad stayed with me, encouraging me and dutifully offering to carry my pack every once in a while. No way, I thought. I’d rather die, right here, right now. I may be suffering the ego-beating of being agonizingly slow, but to have someone carry my pack? No way, dude.

Just a random awesome flower in the jungle.

Just a random awesome flower in the jungle.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to carry it?”

“Yeah (gasp) I’m sure (gasp, stumble).”

Trudge, trudge, trudge.

“Here, let me take your hand.”

“Aw, you’re so (gasp) romantic.”

“Uh, yeah.”

Pulls me up the hill.

“You know, I can carry your pack for you.”

“Grrr.”

Waits one minute.

“Do you want me to?”

“I’m (gasp, pant) fine.”

“Okay, just let me know.”

Washing off the dust

Washing off the dust

Well, I must admit, the time did come, and then I had the added pleasure of seeing him carrying both our packs up the last of that massive hill without even breathing hard, as I panted and wheezed alongside.

But you know what? That was an amazing day. I loved the challenge and the exertion and the heat and the wiping of dusty sweat out of my eyes and the chalk breathing – and later that day, washing said dust/chalk off in the river while getting nibbled on by little vampire fish.

That hill was a profoundly satisfying experience. I may not have conquered it in style or even reach the top with my own pack on my own back, but conquer it I did. And that makes me happy.