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  • Forgetting.

    I boarded the plane to El Salvador with one duffel bag filled with ibuprofen, hole-riddled t-shirts, and plastic mugs. “Presents” for the kids of Ignacio Ella Curia.

    My rickety bus entered the jungle mountain town. I saw wilderness. Sprinkled with concrete boxes boasting to be “houses” for families of ten. What I expected of one of the poorest Central American countries. A welcoming poof of dirt dust sprung up at me with each step I took towards the townspeople.

    The children were … happy. Frolicking through the filth they called home. The adults’ wise eyes betrayed a deep acceptance of life — they were not bitter. They were happy somehow too.

    I walked on their dirt floors and lugged jugs of water up mountainsides just for the privilege of washing my hands. I chased chickens for dinner, I sweat in the awful heat.

    But I shared in their joy — the kind of untarnished happiness that leaves onlookers mystified at its presence in such a hopeless place.

    I extended one of the plastic mugs I had brought with me to a tiny boy. I was embarrassed. I remembered glancing through the Dollar Store aisle back in Maryland, grabbing the first cups I saw — to get the errand over with as quickly as possible.

    His cracked lips twisted to the side as he shyly looked down at his grimy foot, flexing his toes. I wondered where his father was. Odds were he didn’t know either.

    The boy hesitated. He didn’t understand how he could be so lucky — he would now have a cup of his very own! He didn’t say anything. His fingers shook as he grasped the $1 mug in his hands. His little face peered up at me. His fathomless pools of eyes filled with tears. So did mine.

    I had never felt so guilty in all my life.

    I thought of the travel mug my mom handed me on my way to the airport. I had barely mumbled a “thanks.”

    I wondered how these people, so unfortunate, could live so fully. I realized I never wanted to leave this place. I never wanted to scrub the dirt off my feet.

    But I had to go home.

    And when I did, I found that my old life seemed silly. Seemed hollow somehow. I even hated it.

    I hated how my friends obsessed over what watch they should buy. I hated how they threw away food they didn’t “like.” How they complained about taking out the trash.

    But what’s worse is that I thought I was better than them.

    How could they be so ungrateful? I wondered how people who had seen all that I had could go back to their old lives. How they could forget. I refused.

    But something strange happened.

    The comforts of my old life swallowed me. And slowly, I was coddled back into ignorance. The soft pleasures of home washed away those uncomfortable memories of the terrible things I saw, little by little.

    And without even realizing it, I was one of them again.

    Years from then, as my head bounced against a strangely familiar smudged D.C. bus window, a memory came flooding back as crisp as the moment it happened.

    A little boy’s face shining with bliss, his tiny hand pressed against the window of the rickety bus before it pulls out of the mountain village for the last time.

    He whispers “see you soon” in broken English, believing so fully I was telling the truth when I said that I would come back one day.

    That I wouldn’t forget him.

    In that second I realized I had forgotten it all.

    And I could only hope that he had forgotten about me too.
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