A couple of years ago Emily posted a blog about the young children who work in the streets of Trujillo, Peru in order to help their families meet their basic daily needs. In July, during the world cup this year, I was out running some errands and decided to eat at a restaurant so that I could continue with the errands and not have to go home and then turn around and go back into the city again. Besides, the restaurant had a TV and the world cup was on, Costa Rica vs. Netherlands. Why not take a meal break and enjoy the game. I ordered the daily special, a plate of chicken fried rice that came with wonton soup. I was shocked to see the tremendous plate of food that was put in front of me. It was enough to feed at least four people. I ate all I could and when I was done, it looked as though I had barely touched a grain of rice. I was just deliberating what I was going to do with all the leftover food, when at that very moment, a small boy walked into the restaurant selling candy. He said that he hoped I would buy from him because he was hungry. I took it as a small gift from God when he told me he was hungry. Now I had someone to help me with my meal. I asked him to sit down and join me.
The invitation surprised him and he looked at me as though I was joking. When he saw that I was serious, his face lit up, his eyes got big and an uncontainable smile spread across his face. He took no chances, sat down quickly, and dug into my leftover plate of food, in hopes that I would not change my mind. He politely introduced himself, Jahn, age ten. Jahn ate as though it was his first meal in a long time and like it would likely be his last for a good while. He ate so fast I was afraid he was going to choke, so I offered to buy him a pop. By then he really couldn’t contain his smile. He had a look as though he had won the lottery. Jahn’s reaction reminded me of my childhood in Venezuela, of my life in the orphanage and the week I ran away with my older brother, Wilmer.
When I was eight years old and my brother twelve, we ran away from the orphanage we lived in called Manzanita. At this particular orphanage there seemed to be an over abundance of children and a lack of staff and food. I remember the sensation of always feeling hungry and hardly ever receiving positive attention. When someone did something bad, we were all lined up and slapped in the face to discourage other children from bad behavior. My brother and I dreamed of a better, happier place outside the fences of Manzanita where there would be enough food to fill us and a place where we would not be hit. We made up our minds and decided it was time to leave. To do so, we stole a mattress from the orphanage and sold it to a neighbor in order to have a little spending money on our journey. We then stole two donkeys, hopped on, and off we went. We eventually ditched the donkeys and hitch-hiked on a tractor.
During this particular week, we lived in the streets and begged for food. Most times we did not get good responses. However, towards the end of the week, when all we had eaten for several days was some bread we stole from a bakery, an incredibly generous woman came out of nowhere as though she was an angel. She offered to bring us a plate of food the following day. The next 24 hours felt like an eternity as we eagerly awaited her return. She arrived as promised, and we were like hungry dogs salivating at the meal that was to come. It was the best black beans, rice, and fried plantains I had ever eaten. It was given to us with such love that even the thought of it makes me a little emotional. Just like Jahn, we too ate our meal with such enthusiasm as thought it would likely be our last meal for awhile.
Jahn told me about his life between mouthfuls of rice. He and his 13 year old brother live alone in one of the most poverty stricken, dangerous areas in the outskirts of Trujillo, Peru. His brother works full time at a shoe factory so that Jahn can go to school during the day and sell candy in the afternoon. I was impressed that he goes to school considering his parents live nine hours away, in Lima, where they live with their other eleven children. Jahn and his brother are left alone to fend for themselves in the middle of the brutal realities of poverty, far away from all family members. As he shared, I noticed he never loosened his grip on the plate of rice and never set down his fork. It made me remember when I had a taste of what it is like to be so desperately hungry. The big difference is that I only lived the life of being hungry for a small fraction of my life while he lives it on a daily basis.
While growing up in the various different orphanages in Venezuela, during most school summer breaks, my three brothers and I would all reunite and “vacation” at my grandma’s house. It was a bitter-sweet time off from the orphanages. It was sweet because I was able to be with my brothers whom I longed to be with every day in the orphanages since they lived in separate orphanages, due to our age differences. I was the youngest and it always felt good to be under their protection. It was also a bitter “vacation” because my grandma had a habit of hitting us with a belt to get us to do what she wanted. During our “time off” at grandmas, she made us work by going to the market and offering to carry people’s groceries. Aside from that, we begged venders to give us the spoiled food they were going to throw away so that we could eat. If we wanted meat, grandma made us hunt pigeons in the back yard with rocks and sling shots. Being on “vacation” at my grandmas house was truly a bitter sweet time if my life. Jahn’s story took me back to a time of my life where my brothers and I in a different, milder way also had to fend for ourselves if we wanted to eat.
When Jahn finally let go of the plate of rice, he looked at me in the eyes, and thanked me. He then proceeded to ask me with an eager smile if he could take the remaining food for his brother, so that he could eat as well. I was deeply touched to see that he had purposefully left some food to share with his brother, despite his own insatiable hunger. Jahn packed up the rest of the food, stood up, thanked me one more time, and then off he went to sell more candy. It was an unexpected yet amazing visit with Jahn, a happy, polite, determined 10 year old boy who fights on a daily basis to meet his most basic needs. That day Jahn reminded me of what I seem to forget at times, to never take food, the most basic thing in life, for granted.