My first real job was as a teacher of English as a Second Language. I had chosen the profession because it was an easy one wth which to travel. And the first place I wanted to travel to as an ESL teacher was Latin America.
I chose Colombia because it was one of the South American countries most receptive to foreign professionals and one of the most politically stable at the time. The latter fact was reassuring to my parents given that I was a 22-year-old kid bouncing off into the wild, blue yonder.
I went through a process of applying for jobs in cities across the country. I got offers from Bogotá and Cali. I chose a job in Cali simply because the climate there was fabulous. Since I was then living in Ottawa with its horrific winters, weather was a major issue.
What I didn't know about Colombia before I went there was the benevolence of long weekends that would become a delightful part of my life.
Colombia is a Catholic country, and Catholics have a lot of religious holidays. If one of those holidays fell on a Thursday or a Tuesday, we would get the following Friday or the preceding Monday off as well. In other words, we'd get a four-day weekend, called a puente, a bridge. I travelled much of the length and breadth of Colombia thanks to puentes.
During Semana Santa, the Holy Week leading up to Easter, the puente began a day earlier on the Wednesday. The puente of Semana Santa my second year there, I accepted an invitation from friends of mine who owned a restaurant in Cali to accompany them to a beach a boat's ride from the Pacific Coastal city of Buenaventura. They were going to set up a stall on the beach from where they would ply their cuisine to Semana Santa vacationers.
We drove to Buenaventura and stopped at a rustic retaurant to indulge ourselves its well- reputed sancocho de pescado. Sancochos are basically stews, and in Cali I had been underwhelmed by the chicken version of this dish. At that spot in Buenaventura, however, the fish version, made where fresh fish is obviously available, where each spoonful dissolved in my mouth in a salty, coconut-creamy succulence, was a spectacular experience.
While we were savouring our meal, a street kid selling chewing gum wandered up to us and, after verifying where we were from, began chatting with us. He told us that he had stowed away on boats leaving Buenaventura and landed in Nice, France, where he sold newspapers, Venice, Italy, where he shone shoes, and Barcelona, Spain, where he sold churros in the Parque Guelle. When he left us, two of my three friends scoffed at what they saw as his invented stories.
I, however, believed him.
None of us had been to either Nice or Venice, and I was the only one who had been to Barcelona – having spent my semester abroad there during my undergrad – and I knew the high improbability that a random street kid from Buenaventura would know of the Parque Guelle, let alone how to pronounce the name.
One of the reasons that I liked the film Slumdog Millionaire as much as I did is because it offers a rare depiction of street children as bright and resourceful and charming, like the ones I met on this trip.
We took a boat to the beach. I made a lame attempt to help my friends set up their stall, but surrendered to their efficiency born of years of practice. I sat down on a bench and sipped on a bottle of beer. A beach version of the street kid strode up to me with his bare feet kicking up sand in his wake.
“Where are you from?” His long-lashed caramel eyes had the frankness unique to intelligent children who have not yet lost their innocence.
I, being a life-long sucker for precocious kids, was immediately enchanted by him. “Canada.”
I picked up a stick and drew a rough map in the sand. He squatted and watched my hand as I drew.
“So, this is your country. Colombia.”
He looked up at me and shook his head. “My country is Buenaventura.”
“Well, Buenaventura is a city inside your country.”
He stood up so we were eye-to-eye. “My country is Buenaventura. Where's your country?”
“How'd you get here?”
“Plane. Car. Boat.”
“What language do they speak in your country?”
“English, mostly. Some people speak French.”
“Do they speak Spanish?”
“I don't know.”
“Teach me some English, then.”
His name was Alvaro. He was eight years old.
The following day was the Thursday of Semana Santa, a high-partying day before the sobriety of Good Friday. While I was no stranger to partying, something about the tone of that day on that beach alienated me, and my friends, running a brisk business at their stall, could not spare any attention for me. I was introduced to two Anglo-Canadian women, five or six years older than I was, who were close friends with each other and who lived in the capital, Bogotá, married to Colombians with whom they had children.
I was happy enough to hang out with them and their husbands, but when we gathered around a picnic table, right on the beach, I found their energy tense and their tone shrill with their husbands, who in fairness to the women, were not being particularly discreet in their examination of the bathing-suit clad female bodies streaming by.
“We don't care that they do this,” one of the wives, Cathy, explained to me in the Spanish she had learned to speak flawlessly over ten years of living in Colombia. Her brow was furrowed. Her gray eyes were angry. “It's just when they do it in front of us.”
I had no life experience then that would have provided me with a response to that.
Then Alvaro showed up, barefoot and wearing just a pair of long, black shorts. He positioned himself so that he was a few feet from our group, but directly in my line of vision. One of the Colombian husbands tried to shoo him away. I politely took my leave of the group.
“Come with me.” he said.
I followed him as he, sure-footed as a goat, clambered over rocks and then led me through a natural, narrow archway to a tiny beach where there was no one else. Just off the beach was a rock formation that made the waves break in chaotic ways. I sat on the beach and watched him throw himself into the waves, laughing with the abandon of childhood.
When we left, the sun was setting.
“Take me with you,” he said as we navigated the rocks on our way back.
“Wherever you live.”
“I live very far away.”
“I don't care. Take me anyway.”
“But, Alvaro. Your mother. Your father. They would miss you.”
“My mother died. My father would let me go with you.”
I could not believe that a child this lovely was not cherished by whoever was raising him.
“Let's talk tomorrow,” I said, as we arrived back at the main beach. It was quiet in the dusk, but strewn with the debris of an all-day party.
The following morning my friends told me that they had sold out the food they had brought with them the day before. They were ready to pack up and return to Cali.
Alvaro came to see me. He was wearing shoes for the first time since i had met him. Three other kids, friends of his, teased him about this. He sat down on a bench and kicked sand at them. They backed up, but continued to taunt him.
“That's my dad.” He pointed at a humble-looking man standing with others on the beach. “I pointed you out to him. He says you're very pretty.”
He hung his head and swung his leg. His friends, by now, had lost interest in teasing him.
“Ask him, then.”
“Ask his what?”
“Ask him if I can go with you.”
I squatted so that I was talking to his profile. “I can't Alvaro. I like you very much, but I can't take you away from your family, your friends, your world. I have nothing to offer you. I wouldn't be able to take care of you."
He began crying while I was speaking. When I was done, he turned his head and screamed directly into my face startling me so that I fell back. He sped off, kicking up sand behind him. I forced myself not to cry in front of all the people staring me while I collected myself, stood up and dusted myself off.
Over the next hour or so, as we finished packing up, loaded the boat and boarded, I didn't lose hope that he would calm down and come back. As our boat left the shore, I searched the crowd on the beach, hoping he would at least show up to wave good bye.