A Circle in the Dirt, and a Handful of Bottle Caps
For many of us, our childhood was a time spent goofing off with friends. It was a period in which going on adventures and diving into our imaginations replaced the bills, responsibility, and the world of adulthood which surrounded us but remained in our peripherals until we got older. On a LiveDifferent Trip in Mexico, it is not uncommon for our work site to be surrounded by energetic kids waiting to play. In an area in which many are struggling day to day, and poverty can be seen all around, the kids serve as this reminder of our own childhood and the universality of a child’s imaginations and joy for laughter and play.
On a four day build, the hardest part of the day may be spent playing with the queue of smiling kids waiting for piggyback rides, to be spun around, or thrown in the air. You might opt to go start framing or tar the roof because you need a rest! But of course this is a task we embrace, and the smiles and laughter which fill the worksite makes the lower back pain from four kids hanging off you totally worth it.
Unfortunately, not every child is able to enjoy their childhood to the same extent. More than I anticipated when I first came down to Mexico, some of the children we met may have been young, but they carried themselves with the maturity and resolve of a person way ahead of their years. For a variety of reasons and circumstances, these children have to grow up, and grow up fast. When you first meet one of these kids, it stirs up a mixture of emotions. When you see them taking care of their siblings and interacting with us and the other kids around them with such maturity and responsibility it can be very humbling and inspiring. On the other hand, seeing a child who has to shoulder so many responsibilities at such a young age can be difficult.
While down in Mexico, I had the privilege of meeting such a boy. His name is Ernesto. He is the older brother to three adorable sisters, and he is eleven years old. When we first met he had the presence of a parent, but with a circle in the dirt and a handful of bottle caps I saw him become just another energetic kid filled with laughter, and I gained a new friendship I’ll never forget.
I first met Ernesto when we went to share dinner with the family we were about to share our five day adventure with. Immediately you could tell that while the picture on our wall said he was eleven, the boy standing in front of us shaking our hand was a boy ahead of his years. While we all sat in a circle eating pizza and getting to know each other, Ernesto sat on the edge of us observing this new sight. Over the next two days, Ernesto walked around the work site watching us, reviewing the process and the build like a foreman at a worksite.
While other kids got tickled and spun around, he took the hammer we gave him and quietly worked alongside us. When he finished the task he was given, he would give us a quick nod as if to say, “ok, what can I do next?”
I still remember one moment when we were all chasing the kids around trying to catch them as they tried to jump on our backs or tickle our sides, and Ernesto watched over them like a parent at the park, making sure no one got too close to the edge or got hurt if they fell down. He cared for his home and his family, but also for everyone else around him. By the fourth day Ernesto had begun to open up. His strong handshake at every greeting and farewell was replaced with the high five and fist bump we received from the other kids. He showed us how to shoot a slingshot and even had a competition, and smiles and chuckles began to make their way into our daily interactions with him. However, it was when I obtained a few bottle caps that our friendship completely changed.
In Mexico some of the kids play a game with bottle caps. You draw a circle in the dirt while each player “bets” as many bottle caps as they want and everyone else matches them and places them inside the circle. Using another one of your bottle caps, you flick it with your fingers to try and knock as many of the others out of the circle as you can, and you keep the ones you do. When I showed Ernesto my handful of bottle caps I had accumulated, he ran into his house and pulled out his significantly larger collection. With a smirk, he nodded me over to come and play. Something in his face told me I was in trouble. Ever get that feeling that you were about to get taken to school? We played for what felt like hours! I must say, given all we had was bottle caps and a circle in the dirt, it was a lot of fun! We both played like kids, amazed at the good shots made by one another, laughing at the horrible misses, and egging each other on to bet more bottle caps. We even drew a crowd watching us as other volunteers and Ernesto’s family joined in on our laughter over the missed shots, lost wages, or triumphant wins.
It became quite obvious however that there was a reason Ernesto had such a large collection when my handful quickly dwindled down to just two! By the end of the day Ernesto was the new proud owner of what was once my collection of Coca Cola bottle caps. He jokingly poked my pockets as if to see if I had any more to bet, and I would turn out my pockets as he laughed and shook the stockpile he had accumulated in his pocket. I am twenty-two, and he is eleven, but it was on! I promised him I’d be back tomorrow with more bottle caps ready to play, and he smiled and just rubbed his hands together like he was already counting the bottle caps he would add to his pocket.
After rummaging through the recycling bin at our house, I was back with a vengeance on dedication day! When I saw Ernesto standing with his family in front of their house prior to dedication, I looked at him and shook my pocket full of bottle caps and the bright smile on his face quickly turned to a devilish smirk as he rubbed his hands and pulled out a handful from the abundance in his pocket, ready to whoop me once again. As I said before and I am sure he thought it too, once again, it was on! After the dedication and the delicious tamales the family prepared us, I found myself in a familiar spot behind the house, drawing a circle in the dirt and flicking our bottle caps to see who goes first. Even as he finally opened up and we played our game together, as a testament to his mature character even at his young age, Ernesto would give some of the other kids his bottle caps so that they could join in on the fun. It was a very inspiring sight. We spent the rest of the day flicking bottle caps together, game after game, until our fingers got sore. We both won games, and lost a few. When Ernesto would lose a game in one of his first shots and I would gain all the spoils, he would simply laugh at his gaff and joyfully throw a few more in the circle to play again. What started as one or two, quickly turned into three or four bottle caps being thrown into the circle as we jokingly teased one another to bet a few more. More than I’d care to admit, I would throw down four bottle caps in confidence and walk away empty handed and the sound of Ernesto shaking his growing collection behind me. We played for almost the entire time we were there, and we both got our chance to just hangout, have fun, and play like kids. When finally it was time to leave, I walked over to Ernesto and gave him the remainder of my bottle caps and he flashed his big smile we had become accustomed to the last few days and thanked me.
Who would have known that two people could have so much fun with just a handful of bottle caps that otherwise would have found their way to the bottom of our recycling bins if we had been back home? It was almost hard to believe that the boy playing and laughing with me and the other kids was the same boy who stood quietly on the edge watching over us on the first day we met the family. While Ernesto was a very mature boy and carried on his shoulders responsibilities most kids wouldn’t have to face, like all the other children like him, he is still a kid at heart. Despite his mature demeanor and strong presence on the first few days of the build, he was still a young boy and he loved to have fun.
In their circumstances, these kids are made to grow up so fast and it seems almost easy sometimes to forget just how old they really are. However, every child deserves to have the same childhood we are privileged to have, memories, filled with the fun and laughter and play that many of us remember so fondly and hold on to. Playing with Ernesto, getting to know him better and forming a friendship with him was one of the greatest memories I have from my trip. Even though he is half my age, I can still look at him and learn lessons of responsibility and caring for others, while not forgetting how to have fun and enjoy life. This was one of my most precious memories that I have taken home with me from Mexico and as silly as it may sound, I may not have gotten to experience this friendship, have so much fun, or meet such an inspiring and amazing individual, if it wasn’t for a circle in the dirt and a handful of bottle caps.
– Andrew, LiveDifferent Intern, Mexico 2014