“Papas, secos, heladitos, papa’s, secos, heladitos!”
“Potato chips, chicken, ice cream, potato chips, chicken, ice cream!”
This is the sound you are guaranteed to hear on a bus. Each time I am on a bus, whether I’m traveling or coming home from a day in Ibarra, vendors come on and sell food and trinkets such as these. Most of the time it’s food that you can buy for fifty cents should you be hungry, but on occasion there will be people selling movies, bracelets, tea, or the most interesting one by far, doing magic tricks. The way the words are said, for example, “mandarinas, mandarinas, mandarinas!” can be comical. They are sort of sung or put into a rhythm and I’m not sure if that’s a tactic the vendors use or if they do it unconsciously. Either way, the vendors have a tricky job. They step on to a bus unsure of whether or not people will buy their item or not – a risky way of making money.
Recently I was coming home on a bus in the middle of the day on a week day. As we slowed to a stop to let the vendors on the bus, I prepared myself for the rush of people and the smell of sometimes not-so-good smelling things. Normally you find middle-aged people selling things, holding large bags of food above their heads, in their backpacks, or on heavy racks. This time when the vendors came on I saw the usuals and then something not-so-usual. Coming toward me I saw one of the heavy racks with potato chips and peanuts on display but the seats in front of me blocked my view of the person. As they neared and other vendors moved through to the back of the bus, I found myself face-to-face with a boy who couldn’t be more than nine or ten years old.
“Papas?” He asked me in a quiet and timid voice, different from all the other vendors who seemed to be screaming about their food items. The only money I had was in my pocket and it was the coins I was using to get home.
“No, lo siento, pero gracias,” I told him, saying I was sorry but thank you. He moved along to the next person asking the same question in the same voice probably hoping for a better response.
At first I dismissed the small boy with the rack of food trailing behind other vendors, but the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. It was an afternoon on a Wednesday and while most kids were in school, for whatever reason this boy was not. His reasons for vending could have been anything – maybe there wasn’t a school near the pueblo (small town) we were passing through, or maybe he was helping his family make a few extra dollars, but regardless of the reason, I easily thought of other better things that boy could have been doing right at that moment.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen something like this. Every Thursday I come down the mountain for Spanish classes, taking the same route on the same road, sometimes even on the same bus. Every Thursday I pass the same houses with the same people walking past or working outside, and there is one house in particular where I always see all of the kids working. It’s mid-morning and instead of being in classes I see the mother (I’m guessing it’s the mother) with her fourteen-year old son and her ten-year old daughter (also guesses on the ages) working on the maize field they have, sometimes with baby pigs running around their feet.
Life here is different in that way. The maize fields come before school because if they didn’t, it would mean that after the 9 months that maize takes to grow, the family wouldn’t have that source of food. My students are sometimes late to class because they had to take the milk in to the tienda to be sold. Whenever we go on excursions as a family, sometimes my host cousin can’t go because he has to stay home and watch the animals. Things like this are things that I would never think of in the United States, things that didn’t seem important. Now I realize their importance; if my host cousin didn’t take the milk down to the tienda (sometimes he is one of my late students), it would mean $4 to $6 that my family would lose that day. While that might not mean much, to them it’s the difference of whether or not my host siblings/cousins can get to school that week. Before this year, $4 to $6 was buying lunch out with a friend; it means so much more to me here than it did back home.
So maybe that boy on the bus doesn’t go to school, maybe working as a vendor on the buses is his job. I also wonder if he knew he was going to grow up doing that, or if maybe he had a different plan for himself. Regardless of any of that he was vending for a reason, whether that reason be to make money, to pass time, or to stay occupied in some way. However, I took his life and compared it with my own for a few seconds. At his age, I was in school learning how to add and subtract which was something that I struggled with at the time, but it was nothing compared to getting on buses and trying to sell food to strangers.
The boy got off the bus following behind the other vendors with a few coins in his hand from his profits and before our bus moved on, I saw him standing outside counting up what couldn’t have been more than $3 in change. I didn’t really know what I could do for that boy, but it made me rethink my position as a volunteer teacher. Any one of my students could be that boy, but instead they are in school. While their education might not be fantastic, they are at least in a safe place for half of the day. It’s also hard realizing the differences in our lives; I didn’t grow up having to do things like that and yet this boy has to. It’s hard to see and wrap your head around, even after living here for seven months.