There is humanity to be found everywhere, often at the most unexpected moments.
I was with a tour group in a modest neighborhood of San Juan on a hot May day. We had just visited the home and workshop of a craftsman who made masks for revelers around the world, from Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras as well as local celebrations.
The others in my group decided to stroll several blocks to see some art galleries. I straggled along behind, taking more time than they did. Eventually, we became separated and I became bored. Like a sailor marooned on a deserted island — I was in Puerto Rico and I did not speak Spanish — I decided it would not be smart for me to wander off, have the group return and not know where I was. I decided to go back to the tour bus to wait my group’s return.
The bus was locked so I sat down on the sidewalk, in the shade of a huge mango tree, its branches spreading over the yard and sidewalk, offering shelter from the hot sun. I rested my back against the whitewashed wall of a modest home. It was cool in the shade and I sat there perhaps a half-hour, watching the occasional passing car or mother-and-child walking past me.
This was a working class neighborhood where dogs barked out of sight behind stone walls or wrought iron gates, where cars honked at unmarked intersections before speeding through, where the few people on the uneven sidewalk carried plastic shopping bags with local logos and walked neither fast nor slow.
I was dressed in my best American don’t-look-like-a-tourist wear — worn jeans, non-descript T-shirt, floppy hat, tennis shoes. I had my backpack beside me. I was hot and sweaty. I looked scruffy, at best.
After about 40 minutes, an old man, lean and worn, perhaps in his 60s, came down the sidewalk. We made brief eye contact. Each of us smiled slightly and nodded. The typical stranger’s greeting. He was thin and wrinkled. His clothes were well-worn, splattered with white paint. I guessed he was a painter or someone who did manual labor, perhaps the yardman or gardener.
He spoke to me in Spanish and pointed toward the house. I had no clue what he was saying. Probably he worked there. I smiled again, shook my head, turned my hands palms up — all to say that I did not understand his words. He tried again, smiling. I could see uneven teeth and he needed a shave far
worse than me.
He turned and walked through the gate into the courtyard of the house. I wondered briefly if the owners would mind my leaning against their wall. Would the old man tell them? I thought about getting up and moving, but the mango shade was just here. I couldn’t see similar shade anywhere else in on block. So I stayed put. In a few minutes, I saw a few familiar faces. My group began to return in two’s and three’s. As I stood up, I realize the man, the laborer, was standing next to me and he was handing me a bulging plastic bag. At first, I didn’t move. He smiled his uneven teeth and tan, bristled face, nodded to me, gesturing the bag into my hand.
I looked inside. There were dozens of mangoes, big and small, all damp from being freshly washed. “Thank you,” I said. “Gracias,” I managed to add.
So many thoughts went through my head and emotions through my heart. Did he think I was homeless, a man weary from a day’s work or perhaps a day of no work? Did he think my stumbling attempts to understand him earlier somehow
meant I wanted his mangos?
Or did he simply see a fellow human being to share the bounty of his tree with?
Then my group was around me, getting on the bus, blocking my view. “Hurry up. We’re late,” the driver said. And then, seemingly instantaneously, we were on the bus and pulling away from the curb., I looked out the window. My benefactor was standing just inside his gate, watching me through the windows as I stood in the aisle.
On the hour drive back to our hotel, I shared the mangoes with those on my tour. They were the most delicious mangoes I have ever eaten.
And that was my moment.