Explaining a developing country to someone who has never seen one is like teaching a blind man to paint. He can hold the brush and imagine the colors, but the abstraction can never be actualized to intent.
It takes a certain level of visionary consciousness to appreciate the beauty, honesty, and devastation that oozes from every cobble and crack. Quantifying impoverished localities means awareness—open eyes, open ears, and open heart. Awareness is not pity or shame, sorrow or sympathy. It’s an agreement to see and appreciate the world around you from outside the comparative lens. It’s quiet observation, nurtured by a respectful curiosity. It’s sharing in the enthusiasm, friendliness, and sociability expressed by those struggling under the poorest circumstances. Most of all, it’s feeling awed by a cultural community where poverty, devastation, trust, and goodwill thrive in tandem.
Unfortunately, this state of mind is not fundamental or inherent. It takes commitment and reflection, as well as a passion for being informed. It’s been my experience that most travelers remain disengaged, despite total immersion in a developing culture. They flit from one visceral encounter to the next with hasty unaccountability. Their days are scaffolded to fulfill one self-gratifying agenda or another; they do not hear, think, or see beyond the tragedy of foregoing first-world conveniences. Every exposure and observation, for them, is colored by contrast to their own perception of what’s right and normal.
Embracing twilight from a terrace in rural Guatemala, I witnessed one of the worst examples of this disenfranchised perspective. It was close to 9pm and most shopkeepers were rolling down their gates after a hard day of work. One booth remained open, manned by a girl about 12 or 13. Her frock, sandals, and emotive gaze were as dirty as they were colorful. As I studied her, a group of American tourists surged up the lane—three teenage boys dressed in Lacoste ducked inside her booth and peevishly rummaged through her goods. They snickered, playing with their smartphones and shoving each other into her carefully arranged wares. None of the boys offered a glance her way, as her mouth sank into an expression of gritty fatigue.
Laughing, one of the boys stepped backward and tripped over a vase. The group turned to stare as hand-painted shards splintered across the pavement. For a moment, the boys just gaped in silence at the wasted terracotta. They looked at each other, then the girl. She didn’t make a movement. Her jaw quivered. Suddenly, one of the boys shrieked and took off down the street. The other two followed—they broke into peals of giggles, their voices echoing through the night air as they caught up with their group.
I dropped money on the table, grabbed the basket of rolls, and ran out of the restaurant. She was in the street, sweeping up the shards with tears rolling down her cheeks.
“Let me pay for the vase,”I said in Spanish. I shoved a wad of bills into her tiny hands.
She tried not to accept it, but after a few moments she gave in and took the bills from me. I offered her the rolls from the restaurant and she gingerly accepted those as well. We sat in silence for a few minutes, enjoying the moonlit tranquility. Her native language was Kaqchikel, a spoken language indigenous to the Mayan people, but eventually we were able to share a few thoughts in Spanish. I learned that she works every day from sunrise to sunset, earning money to care for seven younger siblings. Her one wish was to go to school, but for the time being her family needed her income to subsist. Despite it all, she was optimistic. Happiness isn’t conditional, it just is. In just a few short minutes, she showed more courage and heart than anyone I’ve ever met.
In this moment, all the tyrannical urgencies of life were extinguished and I could see things exactly as they were. For every act of blind, unaccountable disrespect, I hope that as we evolve as a people and a species, there is always someone watching. Someone who cares.