I memorized all English-language warnings before I left. Keep your important documents in a money belt close to your body. Bring change so you don’t have to pull out a large bill. Don’t wear jewelry or nice clothing. Carry your backpack on the front of your body so it cannot get yanked or cut away. Never walk alone. Don’t hang your camera around your neck. Never leave your hotel at night. Yet, there I was, in a town square, snapping pictures of a church when I realized I had lost my friends. I was alone in a strange and dangerous city.
I sat down on a bench hoping they would find me if I just didn’t move. Despite my dirty-hostel-staying hair and complete lack of jewelry, I was approached by everyone: the lady with the watermelon slices she carried on top of her head, the man with heavy blankets draped over his arms and his shoulders, the guy pushing a homemade, rather broken cart full of candy, the woman with an overflowing handful of plastic bags filled with juice. And I rigidly refused each of them, covering my money belt and hiding my camera (in an inconspicuous plastic bag.)
A young boy approaches me and asks me what I am doing. I guess he’s about eight years old wearing clothes he can grow into. I tell him that I lost my friends. “They will come back for you,” he assures me. “Don’t be scared.” Its adorable, his concern for me. I’m surprised that he can read my fear. My pale skin and weird hair did not frighten him away and this immediately puts me at ease. But then he asks if he can shine my shoes.
“No,” I say, trying to smile, “These are sandals. You can’t shine sandals.” I wanted him to go away, but I wanted him to stay. I wished he was just a kid. I could not, with any sense of justice, let this child shine my shoes. “You will see”, he says, “I will make them beautiful. Please.”
My heart became lead when I handed him that filthy sandal.
But then I thought of the many times when I, as a kid, would earn a quarter and run with joy to the store around the corner to buy some candy, remembering how it felt to skip back to my street with a little brown bag stuffed full of glorious, sweet, colorful sugar. While he scuffs and wipes, I try my best to talk to him about kid stuff in broken Spanish. He kindly corrects my words without judgment, like no adult ever could.
Another younger boy comes over, his brother. He seems shy or suspicious of me and sits a safe distance away, sneaking glances in my direction, but never making direct eye contact. I don’t blame him; I don’t look like anyone else around here. How old is your little brother? “No sé”; I don’t know. Well, how old are you? “No sé.” When is your birthday? “No sé”, he shrugs casually.
My friends find me and the boy is genuinely as happy about this as I am. Even the tiny one lets out a sly half-smile. We pour coins into their hands, more than the cost, but much less than we could spare. And we ask, “What are you going to buy?” He looked up, smiling huge, the way I must have smiled on my way to the candy store with a quarter, and he replied, “I’m going to get shoes someday”. My eyes dropped and for the first time I noticed his bare feet. And my head just remained fixed in that downward position. He did not ask to shine anymore of our shoes and he just walked away across the hot cement with his wooden kit in his hand and his silent little brother a few paces behind.
I realized then that all the fear-inspiring travel warnings I had been adhering to had ironically been what robbed me. Holding on so tightly to what I possessed, I missed the chance to appreciate what I had, what I had to share, and what I had to learn. This little man showed more compassion and humanity to me than I had offered anyone that day. That shoeless boy with no birthday changed my life.