Sitting alone at a restaurant table for four, I felt isolated enough. The frightening realization that I couldn't communicate in Guatemala only sharpened the feeling. My husband had established me at a language school the day before and then left for business elsewhere in the country. I was on my own. It was a stretch for a Midwestern US gringa, out of place and conspicuous in this common café.
So I had chosen a spot near its open entrance door, where I ate looking outward into the sunshine. But my decision to turn my back on my fellow diners made me the first target for a tiny, indigenous woman in traditional garb who entered from the street with an outstretched hand, a baby on her shoulder and a toddler in tow. Shocked by this sudden, unexpected personal encounter in a public place, I stiffly shook my head just ever-so-slightly, indicating "no" with eyes wide. But as she moved on, I shifted a bit in my chair to see from the corner of my eyes what the other diners would do. The men at the table next to me extended some small coins to her, as did the next table. I had seen enough.
My eyes dropped before me. There the remnants of my noon meal lay disheveled. I had saved the largest piece of chicken to take home for later, along with a pile of tortillas I was equally unable to consume. I don't need that food, I thought. A plan emerged. I began wrapping it in paper napkins, watching meanwhile for her exit.
As she passed me on her way to the door, I signaled to the little entourage. Wordlessly, I offered the food, letting my face communicate my somewhat embarrassed intent. Realization dawned on her. Now her eyes were the ones to widen--with amazement and joy. Her face melted in gratitude. Our eyes met in a moment that seemed to last longer than clock time.
But then another shift in mood again caught me off-guard. The woman hesitated and smiled as if to say, "Please don't think me greedy." I realized to my horror that she was shyly indicating that she would be pleased to also receive the chicken bones from my plate.
Floored, I scrambled to wrap them too, and hastily placed them in her hands. I don't remember that we were able to say much to each other. She was effusive with "Gracias" and with smiles. Then she turned to go on her way. Her boy was still in tow, like a little duckling, directly trailing her.
Even in his scramble to keep up with mom, he managed to turn his head backward to me as he exited, beaming me a smile that filled his little face. Ten years later, the memory of his awe-filled eyes can summon tears. With a child's unvarnished simplicity, he broadcast an unmistakable departing message: You must be a really wonderful person!
In his gaze, I realized that this had been, for them, an act of unparalleled generosity. I felt affirmed--and yet at the same time inadvertently exposed as fabulously wealthy, and thereby, perhaps somehow condemned. They, in turn, had gifted me with a dining experience that I hope I will never forget.