Little girls of Guatemala and how they stole my heart

We recently watched Living on One Dollar a Day on Netflix. It’s college students trying to live on one dollar a day in rural Guatemala and the green lush tropical imagery instantly took me back to our time there.

It’s the children of Guatemala though; that draw you in with dark innocent eyes, ever-present toothless smiles, clad in bright hand-woven clothes, that makes you fall in love with the country. When we visited Guatemala on our road trip south I didn’t have children, now I have two boys, and in hindsight I am glad, because of the happy demeanour of the children we interacted with I didn’t look beyond our small exchanges. I didn’t see the signs of malnutrition or the lack of proper footwear. I didn’t wonder about how their parents were feeding them or clothing them. I just saw their bright inquisitive eyes, heard their shy giggles and bought their handmade wares. I’m not saying we should look past all those things I just mentioned we definitely should not, but I know me and I can get caught up in things I can’t change for the better immediately. So maybe I’m not being completely honest with myself. I did think about those things but the overwhelming poverty was too far reaching for my understanding.  What I did do was small but after watching this documentary, humbling as it was, it made me realize what kind of impact those small things actually may have been.

We encountered a group of girls in one village on the shores of Lago Atitlan selling vibrantly coloured hand-woven bracelets and small wooden trinkets. Initially we waved them off as you are usually surrounded by gangs of children when you step off the boat and I just need space to assess the situation before re-entering the swarm on departure. One curious little girl followed us as we entered the village and watched the mothers laundering their linens on the shore of the lake.

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We slowly and casually walked through the town plaza and into a few shops vaguely aware of our miniature shadow. She was persistent and frankly eventually broke us with her shy giggly smile and hop/skip kinda walk. Eventually we sat down to order ice cream from a street vendor and my husband asked her, in spanish, if she would like to pick out an ice cream for herself. Her reaction was of disbelief, blinking rapidly she look from my husband to the vendor, back and forth, back and forth, seeing both men nodding she hesitantly walked closer to the ice cream vendor’s cart, no smile. She looked up again seeking permission from both men and was greeted with more nods but something inside her refused to believe. So I stepped up and picked out two I thought she might like and presented her the options. Slowly her shaky little hand reached out to lightly grab an ice cream bar whisking it away, big smile.

Now I’m sure this was not the first time she had every had ice cream but she certainly didn’t seem to understand a tourist buying her one she could pick herself. Once we also found our own fancied flavours and paid she seemed to relax and actually enjoyed it but of course she had been spotted and within seconds we had bought ice cream for 3 of her colourful, less timid, little friends as well. We also bought some of their trinkets for our niece back in Canada who was approximately the same age (5 yrs) at the time commenting on the similarities but also the vast differences.

That evening we decided to find a nice restaurant to eat our evening meal. One of their common delicacies is fried plantain which we had been introduced to at the border, but like anything in life some people do things better than others and the plantains we ordered that evening didn’t  remotely compare to our street vendor plantains at the border. Luckily we had a local woman approach our table in the hopes we would buy some weaving. We were feeling a little too over stocked in the hand crafted tourist trinket department so Ricardo let her down gently but I urged him to ask her if she would like a plantain as a parting gesture. Well, with no hesitation she grabbed everything on the plate swiping it into a basket at her waist as she turned swiftly to leave us, a little astonished. We didn’t mind, we would have been choking those plantains back, but she took the garnish and all in such haste it left us dumbfoundedly staring at the now empty plate between us .

When she left we looked at each other and, without the understanding I now have of what exactly a stack of poorly cooked plantains actually meant to her and possibly to her family, we kinda laughed at the absurdity of the situation.

Before we left the Lago Atitlan area we drove up the hillside and pulled off near the top to get a picture from a spectacular viewpoint of the lake which is where we met another little bright-eyed girl. In her too big ratty shirt she perked at the site of our struggling Westfalia climbing the hill and ran to the back of our van the minute we stopped. After we took our requisite photos with her standing close by in silence we turned to get back in our van both curious as to where her trinkets were stashed she blurted, in spanish, her “payment.” We looked at each other and again looked around, no trinkets. Thankfully for us my husband’s first language is spanish and after a brief conversation he informed me “we need to pay her for providing us a rock for our van” with a slight shrug. She had stashed a rock under the back of one of our tires so our van would not roll backwards down the hill. We paid her handsomely for her services.

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I urge you to watch Living on One Dollar a Day if nothing else it may give you an idea of how easily a small encounter can make a big impact or how the actions you think are inconsequential or automatic actually change the day in the life of a person, possibly their entire family, maybe just one day but at least it’s a change for the better even if it’s just momentarily.

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