An essay on a moment of connection, written and recently submitted for an Earth Charter thingy.
I spent the summer of 2007 as part of a volunteer group that was helping to build rainwater harvesting tanks, supporting a local women’s organization, and engaging in intense cultural exchanges in the Nahuatl indigenous village of Zoatecpan, Mexico. For seven weeks, I lived in a world where running water was non-existent, where I could knock on a stranger’s door and be almost certain of a warm welcome and a delicious meal, where I never woke up to blaring traffic but often to the sound of dogs breaking into our room and eating our food. I learned to change my clothes inside a sleeping bag for want of any other private space, to hitchhike in open trucks on winding mountain roads without getting carsick, and to find absolute peace sitting on a rock and losing myself in the stars above and the clouds below.
Some weeks into the summer, though, I was struggling. I was part of, and had been asked to facilitate, a group of nine volunteers from four countries; we were living in the same room and sharing all our chores but were not yet able to resolve, or sometimes even recognize, the intercultural and interpersonal differences that arose between us. In my head, I was straddling four languages—English, Hindi, Spanish, and Nahuatl—and experiencing something of an identity crisis. I was also quite unwell and could not handle the manual work I had signed up for. Meanwhile, back home in India, on another planet, my grandfather was dying.
Slowly, the tiny threads that had bound my life together seemed to snap, and different pieces—my family in India, my illness, my college life in the USA, this adventure I had taken on in Mexico—weren’t holding together anymore. I felt as if someone had ripped out the threads of a beautiful patchwork, revealing mere rags randomly placed together.
And then, that week above all others, my team had decided to work harder on our relationship with the village community. Another team member and I had promised to go to a local family’s house that night to learn how to make tortillas. Now, the last thing I wanted to be doing that particular night was make tortillas! But I had made a promise, and I wanted to be a responsible facilitator, so I went.
We walked into the small mud hut, and seated ourselves in the kitchen. A small light bulb hung in one corner, and our hostess showed us how to light the wood stove most efficiently. She handed out cups of steaming atolé, then pulled out the dough and began making tortillas. She was a traditional Nahuatl lady and wouldn’t hear of letting her guests work, even though that was why we had gone there! So we sat on her floor and talked to the rhythmic beat of her hands as she slapped the dough into perfect circles.
Her 4 year-old grandson, who loved chattering endlessly in an adorable mix of Spanish and Nahuatl, heard our voices and came into the room: he too wanted tortillas and atolé. He snuggled up to me and sat there for a while, slurping the sweet milky drink, messily scooping up the sticky rice at the bottom of his mug, then rushed to the other room and brought in his older brother as well. His mother, with her one-year-old daughter, soon followed. Then, the father came home from work, and we had a little party of eight, sitting around a simple wood stove in a mud thatched kitchen, and drinking hot atolé.
Dioselena, the baby girl, overcame her wariness of strangers and crawled up to me. Four year old Noah clung to me from one side, and his older brother, Israel, determined not to be left out, pulled my hair from another side. I bounced all three children around, laughing, as their parents and grandmother looked on. I threw the little girl into the air and caught her, over and over, until she couldn’t stop giggling. The two little boys fought over more atolé and offered me fresh, hot tortillas from the stove. Their parents chatted about life in the village, the beauty of the corn crop, and the fights that their sons got into. By now, the room was too warm and filled with smoke from the open stove, but the soft light and the genuine enjoyment of one-another’s company kept us from being uncomfortable. What was intended as a 30 minute tortilla-making lesson turned into three hours of laughter over a simple meal.
Later, as Noah and I sat down for a while on our way back to the schoolroom where my team and I were living, the little boy confided that he planned to go back to my country with me. When I asked him if he wouldn’t miss home and his family, he was silent for a long moment. Then he replied bravely, “Sí, pero aguanto” (“Yes, but I’ll bear it”).
With that child’s declaration, all differences of culture, economic class, nationality, gender, and age faded away. Suddenly, we were just two human beings, enjoying each other’s company, bound together by the simple joy of play. My own identity crisis as I struggled between languages and cultures, all the conflicts within my team, and even my need to be with my family in that hard moment, faded into the gentle knowledge that it was all okay because, at the end of the day, we are all in this together.
In the 7 weeks I spent in Zoatecpan, I learned more about life and love and myself than I had imagined possible in one summer. And the defining moment of my stay there is simply the memory of a four-year-old boy sitting with me on a rock, with miles and miles of cornfields around us, telling me that he can bear leaving behind everything he knows in order to be with me. That boy and that moment will forever bind me to Zoatecpan, to the Mexican countryside, and to every child and every adult in every part of the world who knows the joy of play.