10-year-old Mayra and her family of mum, dad and seven children live 300km to the north of Guatemala City, and for some reason it takes 9 hours by car. So it was decided that rather than go all that way to visit her house and community, it would be better to bring her and her father to
When we met, I could tell Mayra was a troubled child, and her life is hard. She was tired, cold, nervous, overwhelmed and scared. She had no eye contact, no smile, no response. Even though she knew I was her sponsor, all she saw was this strange white guy speaking a strange language, wearing t-shirt and shorts in the cold weather, flashing around a big fat wallet and fancy phone (hey, I had to pay and take pics).
Spanish isn’t her family’s first language. They are Mayan, and they speak Q’eqchi, so that made Big Mayra’s (my translator) job a fair bit harder. I could tell this day was not going to live up to “my expectations” (like it’s about me anyway?).
Neither Mayra nor her father had ever been to the zoo before. She wandered around and stared in awed silence as she saw every imaginable animal up close for the first time. I kept my distance during this time. Whereas the other kids would reach for my hand or put their arm around me, there were no such movements from Mayra.
Big Mayra did a great job of moving things along so we made the most of every minute. There were lions, tigers, bears, elephants, giraffes, meerkats, monkeys, giant beavers, many kinds of birds, even an Australian section with kangaroos, wallabies and emus.
There was also a section of the park with rides, including a couple of rollercoasters, giant slide, trampolines and kiddie rides. I took her on the mini-rollercoaster and the giant slide, doing my best to coax or cajole some visible reaction of enthusiasm and joy out of her. While I’m sure she enjoyed herself, she didn’t show it on the outside.
At this point the attitude insidiously crept in – the disgusting, self-righteous attitude that silently demands grovelling displays of thankfulness and gratitude for a good deed done, and judges and points fingers when none is forthcoming “I’m doing all this for them, but….” I felt sick and quickly moved on from those thoughts.
After the incredible rollercoaster that was the first five child visits, I thought maybe being away from Mayra’s home and community may mean I wouldn’t have to confront the harshness of her life and reality. I was incorrect. The zoo and the city are obviously so far removed from their reality, and both Mayra and her father were clearly in culture shock. During the day details of their lives came out in brief little tidbits, and the more I heard, the happier I was that I didn’t drive nine hours to see it. Just being brutally honest there.
Mayra’s father told me his wife would have liked to come, but someone had to be at home otherwise their house would be broken into and people would take their stuff. They can’t even leave their house vacant without fear of being robbed! Many houses in their community don’t have proper floors, walls or beds. Mayra’s father shared he has trouble affording to send her to school.
I was told in many Mayan communities women are still devalued and considered inferior, which would explain Mayra’s demeanour – only speaking when spoken to and even then in one or two words, always looking to the ground. I only saw one or two smiles the whole day, and even then it seemed like a real effort for her, like it wasn’t a practised skill. In all honesty, from the little bit I heard of what her life is like, I don’t think she has many reasons to smile.
There was a Pollo Campero at the Park (three times in three days!) so we shared lunch and then I gave Mayra some gifts for her and her family. The necklace with the “Jesus” fish was quite fitting, because of the little I learned of the family, He is the only hope they have.
There were a lot of unknowns and unanswered questions from our day today. We didn’t really connect or engage. Was it a worthwhile exercise? So they’ve had a day at a zoo, now they go back to their same struggles and harsh reality, of which I still know very little, mainly because I was trying hard to not have to find out, after yesterday. So that’s my loss, I guess.
Mayra’s father and Project director were both very grateful, and expressed their gratitude several times. When we prayed, I left Mayra with “The Blessing” from the book of Numbers: May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.
I learned from Big Mayra after we had left the park that Mayra’s father had asked her to ask me for money to help his family. She wisely chose not to raise that issue with me in front of them. This “direct canvassing” is strictly against Compassion’s policies, and for good reason. I kind of felt awkward when I realised he had asked this and then been watching me shell out the cash for their transport and accommodation.
How do tie this up? I guess the reality check for me from today is that just because you invest in people, care for them and show them extravagant love, this doesn’t mean they will always react the way you want or expect. That’s part of being human and part of being in relationship with others. Grace, mercy and patience are needed.
This reminds me of God’s love for us. Imagine if he got grumpy every time we didn’t respond to His limitless acts of love for us? There would be no-one left! We then, need to treat others the same.