The heat rose up like a wall as I stepped from the plane, collapsing in on me, smothering down.
I wondered how I would cope.
In time I came to love that heat, almost as much as the big brown eyes of the little children that looked up at me each day. Expectant, hopeful. What have you brought me? What can you do for me? Where are we going?
And I did bring things, and play things, and go places.
I bundled those barefooted kids in the back of a pick-up truck and drove them to wild beaches. With terrible Spanish I begged store owners for free paint and painted almost-straight lines on rundown basketball courts. We played football together and drank ice-cold cola straight from a plastic bag and a straw – purchased for the princely sum of 10c from the old man and his cart. We ate cheap tacos from roadside stalls, and explored dusty mountain paths. And we sat doing nothing day after day after day in that heat, knowing that something big was happening between us.
In return they taught me their language, their culture, their ways, their worries, their pain, their joy, their generosity. It was a humbling experience for anyone, let alone that fresh faced college kid that had left Ireland hoping for a sun tan and a story.
A bond was built over those months, and when the time came to return home I couldn’t. And so I stayed, learning more, becoming more.
Then Christmas approached, and I knew my time was up.
One of my favourite little followers was a girl named Mia. She was about eight years old, but tall and wise for her age. She wore long tanned limbs and a buzz cut. On one of my last days in the town we sat together in the sunshine kicking around the dirt.
Mia lived in a small, dark room with two other families, about fifteen bodies in total. I told her I would soon be leaving to go home to my own family for Christmas. She asked me about them - did I have brothers and sisters? Where did we live? I supplied easy answers, enjoying reminiscing about home. The conversation soon turned to Christmas and she asked if Santa Claus came to Ireland.
Relaxed and happy in the sunshine I shot out the first answer that breezed through my young head – ‘Of course he comes to Ireland, he goes to every country!’
I watched the flash of hurt and confusion cross her beautiful eyes, and knew what her next words would be.
‘Why doesn’t he come to me then?’
The Gods pressed pause.
I was out of my depth.
I forced the words out and the tears back.
I left soon after, trying to arrange for some gifts to be left with her after I’d gone. I still have no idea if they ever made it to her.
And so I returned home to abundance and celebration, and Mia returned home to her concrete cave.
Life of course would never be the same again, and although I know I became a better person for the whole experience, I can’t help thinking that part of it may have come at the expense of one lonely little girl in Mexico.