This is a memory from my trip to Guatemala in 2004. I wrote it several years ago and have come back to it.
I’m walking through a huge field of elote (pronounced eh-low-teh, meaning “maize”), with stalks reaching far above my head. Some of them must be ten feet tall. I am in Guatemala, and I am the only one on my team who speaks both Spanish and English, so I am voted Guide of the Day.
My team follows the young man whose family owns the field through a maze of maize, asking what this plant is and what this fruit is used for. They are thinking about how cool it is to visit something so unique; I’m thinking about all of the Central American snakes and spiders I’ve encountered in the past that could crawl up my legs at any moment.
We step into the middle of the field to marvel at a sort of peace garden. It’s hot, and I’m thirsty, and I’m hungry for the roasted elote that awaits us when we return to the family’s home. I want to climb the trees, just like I used to climb the mango and rubber trees in Honduras when I wanted to read or think or escape from the world.
We continue through the maze, and when we reach the end, we are greeted by a very old man in his nineties, standing in the doorway of his tiny, one-room shack. His face is tanned and wrinkled, and he squints at the sun through his blind eyes, as if he could see the color of its heat.
The man carries a cane, and he leans on it as we converse. We learn that he is the father of the field owner, and that even though he is blind and ninety years old, he insists on living alone in his shack on the family’s land. He tells us that he gets up every morning at 3am to pray.
I’m twenty and I’m lucky if I give God five minutes…I hold my thought as we work our way back to the house. I gladly accept my ear of elote and a cup of instant coffee and dig in. That is a mistake. This elote is nothing like what I remember from when I was younger. I spend the next half hour discussing with my group how to get rid of it without offending our hosts.
The time comes to leave, so I thank our hosts on behalf of the group. When the cook isn’t looking, I stuff my ear of maize underneath a mound of other ears, already eaten clean. The cook doesn’t even notice. I wonder what they’ll do with all the rest of the elote they’re growing. I’m just glad I won’t be here to eat it; I don’t know if I could pull off the ear-hiding another time.
I leave with my team, headed back to the children’s home in Chimaltenango, hungry, not satisfied, my uneaten gift buried amongst the ears that were scoured clean with thankfulness. I’m haunted by the image of a tanned, toothless blind man who sees more of God in a day than I do in a week.
Maybe God wanted me to leave hungry. Maybe He wanted me to remember.
I wonder how long He’s been standing in His doorway, waiting for me to come out of my maze.