Are you my brother?
The man was squatting by a wall of crumbling rock. His toes, as if decomposing into dry gravel and harsh dirt of local roads, no longer look human. His feet, caked in old dirt and shod in a pair of ancient sandals the color of granite, look much too worn to have carried him to the spot by the wall on the outskirts of town. “How did he get here?” I wonder.
“A picture?” I wave my camera in a gesture universal to Western tourists traversing small dusty towns in search of cultural diversity. Or is it cultural awareness? It may be cultural effervescence, as it floats above heads of men slowly decaying into hopelessness of poverty.
The man turns his spent eyes in the direction of my camera knowing that I will pay a few coins for his efforts, and lifts the right corner of his mouth from the crust of disappointment his lips had formed years ago. There, a smile for me. I take a picture, and the man’s mouth drops.
“May I talk to you?” I ask.
“Yes,” he nods without looking, since my camera is no longer looking at him.
I walk over and squat by the wall next to the man.
It may have been my curiosity that eventually turns my monologue into actual conversation. I really wanted to know how the heck he got here, and although the man spoke some Spanish, he understood a bit more than he’d let on at first. His native tongue is Quetcha, the language of local Indian people, but he’s been around long enough to pick up some of my dialect.
Well, he came from a place three hours away. No, not a three-hour drive. Three hours of walking. His grandkids walk him here. They tell him to put on his good vest and this cap – and he points to the cap woven in the hot colors of the region – and take him to the spot by the wall to have his picture taken by tourists for coins. When are they coming to take him home?
The man shrugs. He used to be a farmer, but his grandkids took the land. I don’t command enough of his language to find out why, and it really does not matter to him any more. This is his land now, the spot in dry gravel by the wall, and he works it for the same reasons he once used to work his land. For his grandkids.
“Hey, you need any help?”
A taxicab driver pulled over and is now leaning out of the window in concern.
No, all is fine, I signal back, but by now he’s climbing out of his vehicle.
“Where do you live?” he asks the old man, and nods a “yes-I-know-the-place” in happy recognition.
“I come from the same town,” he says.
I tell him some of the story. The driver and the old man, animated now, talk for quite a while.
“And why are you here?” he turns to me.
What do I tell him, I wonder. That some time ago the Spirit of God stopped me in my tracks high up in the mountains and placed these people, my people, on my heart?
“I want to know how I can help him,” I say.
The driver, the old man and I then talk for a while longer until the old man feels comfortable enough to share some of his pain, and I feel comfortable to share some of the desires of my heart, and the driver feels comfortable to listen to our stories with compassion. We agree that the driver will drive the old man to the place he used to call home, and when I come back next year, he will drive me to the old man’s home. I will bring sacks of flour, sugar, rice and beans – and my camera. The old man, now resting against the wall in contemplation, gives me a curious look.
“Are you my brother?” he asks.
“Yes, I am.”