4,000 kilometers from everyone and everything I know, I lean out of the bus window and call down to the street.
“¡José Luís!” He stops, turns. Looks around. Finally spots me hanging over the hard metal bar of the window.
“¡Maya Papaya!” An old nickname from my childhood, stumbled upon by this thirteen year-old Guatemalan boy. After only two weeks working in the project, he’s already become my favorite. Our friendship began the day I walked him to the infirmary, his grimy hand finding it’s way into mine as we climbed the flights of the stairs to the nurse’s office. I swallowed my surprise at the contact, held his hand and asked him questions as we waited for the nurse. Never showing a sign of impatience, we waited until almost the end of the day, he calmly swinging his foot back and forth below his chair, me habitually biting my nails and forming more questions in broken Spanish. He replied to each with ease, used to interacting with volunteers. I learned that he was the youngest of three brothers, that his mom was thirty-two years old and his father was thirty-eight. He lived close to the project. Liked pizza and baseball. Not Papayas. I told him about my brother, my boyfriend, and my parents in the United States. That my favorite food was ice cream. That I didn’t like papayas either. He played with the official project badge hanging from my neck, and made motorcycle noises when he saw that my middle name was Suzuki. He sniffed, wiped his face on his filthy sleeve, and rubbed at his already-watery eyes. He had a cold, a bad one. Within a week it would be mine as well, but getting sick in the project is a given. I tried hard to stop biting my nails, and we played a few half-hearted games of Rock, Paper, Scissors, the Spanish translations indiscernible mumbles. From that day on he always greeted me with a high-five or a hug, proudly calling me Maya Papaya in front of his classmates.
Today is his birthday. He told me during lunch, and though by now I’m used to being pranked and teased, I believe him. Now he looks up at me through the narrow bus window.
“What’s up?” he says in heavily-accented English. Grins.
“Are you going to have cake tonight,” I ask, in Spanish. “A big party?”
“No,” he says, his tone and expression unreadable.
I think for a few seconds. Maybe it’s a stupid question. To children whose families who scavenge a living from of the Guatemala City Municipal Dump, foreigners ask a lot of stupid questions. But I can’t help but feel bad for the kid, now a teenager, who won’t have cake on his birthday. Conflicted as always in this country filled with contradictions, I swallow my pity and smile.
“Have a good night,” I say lamely. “See you tomorrow!”
“See you tomorrow, Maya Papaya,” he says, sauntering downhill towards Zona 3. He catches up with a few of his classmates, names and faces I’m just beginning to put together, and they begin to run, backpack straps and coats flying along behind them.
The bus starts up in a few minutes and heaves its way back to the freeway.
In Antigua, the tourist-town deemed “safe” enough for the volunteers, I get off the bus and walk quickly down the rough cobblestone streets towards my home-stay. If I hurry, I can go by the panadería and still get home with enough time to shower before dinner. I step cautiously into the dim interior of the bakery.
“Hola,” I call out. The sky outside is turning pink and puffs of smoke are drifting from the top of the volcano to the north, Fuego. The clouds have dispersed. Personally, I’ll miss the sound of rain on the tin roof as I fall asleep, but after watching last night’s local newscast, I know that my lullaby can be a death sentence for those on the hillsides.
A young woman appears behind the glass cases. She asks what I’d like.
“Tomorrow is my brother’s birthday,” I say. “He lives in Guatemala City.”
She gestures towards the cakes in the side case, great circles of fruit topped by puffs of fluffy white cream.
I shake my head. “No,” I say carefully. “Something smaller…” I survey the case directly in front of me, trying to figure out how the unfamiliar sticks and swirls of bread might taste. I made a mistake last week, buying what I thought was a baguette topped with salt. Back in my room, I crunched and swallowed a large column of very stale bread covered in sugar. It was crispy and filled with air and absolutely disgusting. I don’t want to make that sort of mistake today.
“¿Que es?” I ask, pointing towards a little pie on the top shelf. Maybe apple.
“Piña,” she answers. Pineapple. Huh.
“That,” I say. “And that and that.” I point towards a chocolate muffin (hopefully I’m not wrong) and a small piece of bread that I recognize as pan dulce from dinners at my home-stay. She tells me the price. I count out eighty cents worth of quetzales and leave the store with my prizes wrapped green translucent plastic. My host mother and her adult daughter Lily are watching TV when I unlock the heavy iron door.
“Maya,” my guatemadre says, “Where have you been?”
“I went to the bakery around the corner,” I say. “Today was the birthday of one of my students. He’s thirteen. I bought him a cake.” She smiles and I walk back to my bedroom. Tuck the pie into the front pocket of my backpack, so I’ll be sure not to forget. Then grab my towel and pad across the courtyard to the shower, praying for warm water.
The kids are lined up outside the project before the day begins. I wade through them, patting the shoulders to the boys I know and returning hugs from the girls in my class. I’ve grown used to the smell of dirty clothes and unwashed children and accepted reality along with their physical affections. Jose Luís is sitting on the cracked sidewalk directly in front of the project.
“I have something for you,” I say. “¿Te gusta piña?” I hand him the pie.
“Thanks,” he says.
And I know, really, that in the grand scale of human kindness this barely registers. Like dropping change in a panhandler’s cup, or buying organic apples, or writing a tax-deductible check at Christmas, the act means more to the giver than anyone else. With a firm American conviction that everyone should have cake for their birthday, I spend a quarter on a pie in Antigua and bring it to the nonprofit where I’m volunteering. I can’t adopt Jose Luís or even pay the monthly amount to sponsor him within the project. I’m not here to save the world or change lives. Humility and my own insignificance burn deeper than the sense of injustice I felt before I even walked off the plane.
But deep down, I hope that even if he doesn’t remember me, Maya Papaya, that he remembers the pineapple pie, eaten on the smudged steps for his thirteenth birthday. Because everyone should have cake on their birthday.