Monday, August 18, 2014

Our arrival in San Cristóbal de las Casas was love at first sight. A charming town amidst pine forest in a cool elevated valley, it’s an easy place to while away a week or more. We rented a rustic rooftop cottage with 360-degree windows treating us to spectacular views across the hillside and amazing sunsets from our covered patio.

Dozens of hip cafés and cozy bars crowd the several cobblestone walk-streets. Two churches are perched atop high hills at opposite sides of the city, their punishing stairs leading to scenic serenity high above the buzz of the town below. Organic produce markets and French pastry shops tempt passerbys with their delicious offerings of the day. And puppies! Seriously, every other person here seems to be walking an adorable puppy down the street. Pretty much sounds like a dream, right?

The only thing disrupting the bliss that is each day in San Cristóbal are the touts selling their wares up and down each block. You can’t eat a meal or sip a cup of coffee without being asked a dozen times if you’d like to buy a scarf, a hammock, a ceramic animal or a woven bracelet. And while the incessant badgering is irritating, what’s absolutely heartbreaking is how young some of these hawkers are. Tiny little girls in messy pigtails and dirty sweaters, begging you to buy something. Boys who you wish were at school, lugging baskets of gum and cigarettes up and down the block, hoping to make a few bucks. At the very least it gives you a twinge of guilt as you slurp down your frappaccino. At most, well, it makes you really, really sad.

Reece pointed out how patient and generous the Mexican tourists appear to be with these kids. He watched them buy stuff when they clearly didn’t want to, and give their spare change to beggars more often than not. There seems to be a real belief in “societal debt” here in Mexico, with people rarely passing up an opportunity to help someone less fortunate.

One night, while enjoying a stone cooked pizza and bottle of local wine, a boy of about seven approached the table next to us with his usual sales pitch. The couple spoke to him in Spanish so I didn’t catch the entire exchange. But what I did see is them ask the waiter for a small plate, and have the kid sit down to share their pizza. They ordered him a soda, slowly perused all of the items he was selling, engaged him in what appeared to be a genuine conversation. Could you imagine this scene back home? A couple on the Santa Monica Promenade, inviting a needy stranger to join them for a meal and a chat? Not in a million years. It was such a heartwarming moment, and humbling gesture to witness.

We’d already polished off most of our meal by then, but Reece was determined to follow that couple’s lead. So we set aside the last slice for the next hungry kid that came by. We waited. We paid the bill. And I’m not going to lie, the greasy slice of pepperoni began to beckon to me as the chance to give it away neglected to present itself. Just before I shrugged it off and scarfed it down, sure enough a small boy walked by and sheepishly pointed to the lonely piece on the giant plate. And it came as no surprise that giving it to him was more satisfying than any meal we’ve had yet.

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