BEGGING FOR MONEY OR FOR LOVE?
Spending the day in the splendor of the Andes mountains was bliss. Being close to the heavens away from civilization and lightheaded from near asphyxiation cleared my mind. Maybe the lack of oxygen in my brain made me think less and feel more. My heart was ripe for the miraculous and so… I unexpectedly found love that evening down in the city.
It was our last afternoon in Mendoza, a beautiful province of Argentina I had never visited before. Since we had already enjoyed a city tour, a bike ride around the vineyards of Maipu, and gone up to the base of the Aconcagua, we were ready to find a nice coffee shop to sit outdoors and enjoy the warm summer evening. My sister chose a wooden table tucked away from the pedestrians to be less exposed. She pulled out her bio-med research papers and I pulled out a pen and a wonderful book titled “The Call of the Sun” by Surja Green.
As soon as we sat down, two bodies approached our table and I looked up to find someone who could not see me. He was an older man with thick wrinkles of sunburned skin and then his sunken eyes touched my heart. How could I expect this man to work and support himself? I wondered if there were any governmental agencies that could help this handicapped man. A young man with a humble attitude stood holding his arm to guide him and ask for money. I gave them two argentine pesos and thanked him for taking care of the man. They left behind a small image of a saint and as I tucked it inside my book I felt blessed.
My eyes locked with my sisters and we engaged in powerful silence. Then she commented how many handicap people we had seen those last few days. Confirming our flexibility to concentrate, our heads snapped back into their reading position. Two paragraphs later, a young boy (probably six years old) wearing an argentine soccer team t-shirt showed up trying to sell a sewing kit so I put my pen down. “Do you play soccer? What position do you like to play?”, I asked him. I could see the wheels gently turning inside his head. His clothes were soiled and as he looked down at his fidgeting hands I saw a spark of light in his eyes. “Do you like to score goals or play defense?”, I encouraged him. Timidly he told me he liked to play forward. Then he jumped back into the conversation saying he didn’t play anymore. I asked him why and he explained that he didn’t have time. His parents told him he had to work on the streets until late every evening. My heart contracted learning that his childhood was being hijacked by his own family. I suggested he could always find time to play with his friends and his face gave away a shimmer of hope, I sensed he got a glimpse of the magic of running behind a ball with his buddies.
The waiter invited him to leave and placed our wraps and drinks on the table. As I was pouring my tea into the cup I observed policemen hanging out by the fountain and I got the sense they were socializing. A police car had been pulled up onto the pedestrian street. Not only were they not doing their job, but they are also breaking the rules of transit? Then I noticed the musical instruments: a trumpet, tubas and trombones… a brass band!? There’s money for policemen to have a show on the streets but non for a handicapped blind man? Policemen can be musicians but children can’t play soccer? It seemed that life could be shamelessly unfair.
I had managed to advance a couple of pages when a discouraged woman walked up to us with a handwritten note on a ripped carton. I wanted to keep on reading but her presence was determined to be acknowledged. She was staring at my sister who was reading her message and I caught her taking a deep gulp and observed her nervous presence. She was probably lying and suddenly I was intrigued. My interest lured her towards me and she pointed at her mouth and ears, nodding her head. She was indicating that she couldn’t talk or hear, which became slightly absurd as I questioned her who wrote on the carton and she pointed at herself. She could read and write and understand me even though she was deaf and mute; that’s possible. I asked her if she had children and she communicated with hand gestures. Her mouth was sealed tight as if she were holding a secret. I gave her my last two pesos… I would have to pay for our food with my credit card anyway. She was dishonest with us but I understood she thought she needed to do it to survive, not to hurt us.
By then I noticed my sister’s face of disbelief, she was having the same difficulty I was. Neither of us could manage to give our bland creamed chicken wraps another bite. We had originally wanted a sandwich but this was the last option they had left today. How could they be so repulsive? While we actively waited to get the waiter’s attention to change them for something that would appeal to our palates, a chubby boy walked by our table and stopped to stare at our food. He realized we had pushed the plates away and asked if we were going to eat them. I could not help but offer him mine. Maybe I was too spoiled to enjoy the food but for him, it was a gift from above. He piled up my cut-up wrap on a napkin while his eyes steadily devoured them; then he asked me if he could also take my sister’s. I told him he had to ask her and she looked up from her paper and nodded in approval. I suggested he go sit down somewhere to enjoy them. He graced me with a peaceful smile and headed contently towards dinner.
Two women sitting beside us, laughing at our situation, told us that we should ignore these beggars, otherwise we would be unable to eat or do anything. I knew that if I lived in this setting everyday I could become numb like them. In fact, that would be necessary to be able to sit there regularly without interruptions. Our situation was different because it was an exception; I didn’t want to encapsulate myself in my own fairy tale world ignoring poverty, hunger and disabilities. In that energy, we kept luring these neglected citizens who approach us drawn by our vibration and our warm attention.
We were distracted listening to the brass band when he approached us. “Senoritas! Would you like me to take your blood pressure?”. An older gentleman in a fuchsia polo shirt stood elegantly tall beside us offering to be of service. He had the dignified presence of a doctor on call. His black bag, his tan bald head, and the nicely trimmed mustache were reminiscent of another era. We kindly declined and as he walked away we couldn’t help but laugh at how our mom would have loved to meet him. She expertly keeps track of her blood pressure and that of anyone else who is feeling tired or anxious.
The waiter finally remembered he was serving at our table. His face went blank when we shared that a boy took our wraps, he probably felt we were naive and helpless. We just smiled back and told him it was fine. Then we ordered ham and cheese croissants knowing that it’s practically impossible to go wrong with those. I turned around in my chair to see where the noise was coming from. A dirty barefoot little boy was kicking an empty plastic bottle around and under the tables. Everyone was ignoring him and suddenly I had the feeling he was a vision, just for me. “Hey, come here!”, I called to him in a warm tone. As he approached I saw his face was smudged with dirt and his filthy t-shirt was inside out. His feet were rough and exposed to cuts and germs. This kid was about my oldest son’s age and I realized how abandoned he was. How he also abandoned himself. “Cutie. Where’s your mom?”, I asked him. He shrugged his shoulders as if there was nothing in this world he could care about. “You should take care of yourself”, I told him from my heart. I suggested he wash his face, put some shoes on, wear his clothes the right way. People would be more open to help him out. Accustomed to being ignored by life, he walked away, and my gaze was lost watching this five-year-old roaming the street alone as if he were emancipated.
The former soccer player came back to our table. He was chewing on the edge of a pack he was selling and spitting the pieces of carton on the floor. I joked with him that there were other ways of attracting girl's attention and so I managed to steal a smile from him and his name, Ezequiel. My sister stopped her reading and focused on showing him how to spell his name on a piece of paper. His brother Miguel arrived and stood at the other side of our table, he confirmed he was almost fourteen years old and the eldest of seven siblings. When I asked him if he went to school he told me there wasn’t any room there for him. Then he told me he actually thought he would feel lonely if he went. I told him that it was important to study to be an independent man and have a job. That way he could be free to maintain himself and not be begging for money on the streets. Work, I explained, is satisfying because he would feel useful. He confessed it was embarrassing to have to work; that made me realize that the environment in which he was brought up wasn’t going to help him grow. I explained that it was more distressing to rely on other people feeling sorry for him. “I recommend going to school and if you don’t, buy a book and ask people on the street to help you decipher the words”, I suggested. “That way you’ll learn to read and they might be more likely to support you”. He agreed that made sense. We talked for another fifteen minutes about life, he asked me many questions about myself, and he wanted to discuss love and relationships. Before we parted, I gave him the only cash I had left in my wallet. A twenty-dollar bill. I asked him if he knew how many pesos they should give him in exchange and he was right on it. “Mam, I wish you and your family all the blessings in the world. I hope you get everything you never had before. I promise I will use this money first to buy a book and a pen. I will never forget you”. I know he was speaking straight from his heart; that was our language.
Suddenly, it dawned on me that all these people are just begging for love. More than money, they need inspiration and hope. It’s essential for them to see that their own efforts can make a difference in their life. We can make an impact in theirs by being there to guide them. I understand that giving money is not the solution… I only proved to them that their begging activities are fruitful. I meant no harm. With the New Year only two days away, I set out a new intention; to make room in my life to be of service to underprivileged individuals.
Love, light and laughter,