My husband smacked his hand on the table and exclaimed, "Man, that tastes like home!"
I laughed to try to keep a lid on the flood springing up inside, but it was too late to stop the tears. I offered no apology, nor was it expected. I had earned this moment… here… sitting in the middle of accumulated frustrations in a modern Burger King in the heart of a rainforest city, a little homesick at two-months-eighteen-hours-and-three-countries from home, surrounded by well-dressed people, the noise of children at play, and rows and rows of those little cardboard crowns.
Everyday I am reminded that what I see does not necessarily portray the reality of life as it happens here. Tonight, there was no more room in my heart to reconcile the great disconnect between the illusion of affluence surrounding me in that BK moment, and the chasm of human need obscured behind rusty corrugated metal walls all across this city.
The crowns. The children laughing all happy. That's what tipped the scale of my heart, first with thoughts of my own little people back home and how much I miss them, and then with thoughts of the the other child I saw earlier in the week wearing one of these same crowns.
The day was sticky hot and the grit clung to my neck like an unwelcomed hug. It was almost lunch-time as I made my way through the old city market, and the swarms of street vendors peddling assorted cut fruits, cold drinks, and plates of fried chicken and rice covered with loose plastic wrap. I concentrated between looking at my feet to dodge anything wet-smooshy-and-not-mine, and looking up to read the hand-scrawled names on the various buses awaiting passengers in the heart of the market. I needed the one heading to one of the villages on the other side of where I was going.
The guy barking destinations said this bus would leave in 15 or 20 minutes, so I climbed aboard to wait in the heavy heat. What little breeze stirred outside didn't bother itself with the inconvenience of moving through my space.
To take my mind off the swelter, I busied myself watching the scurry of the day-to-day market scene outside the smoke tinted window:
Children who should be in school peddled wares at the door of every transport vehicle; sellers lugged crates of produce on bent shoulders; buyers negotiated trades for roosters and laying hens, smelly fish, vegetables, and trinkets for someone back home; vendedoras with corn-floured hands paused to nurse babies and fan flies while a mountain of masa dough and raw chicken stood waiting beside an open flame, ready for the lunch trade.
And everywhere the sounds and textures and colors splashed eye-pleasing contrasts against the thick, soft dust of the street; against the dark, weathered wood and the backdrop of black mold covered concrete blocks. Sparks of life danced in young eyes, while lifelong weariness shadowed the countenance of others. My heart felt their heaviness, and I locked it away.
One by one the seats on the bus began to fill. The center isle soon crammed with passengers storing bags and counting heads of little ones in tow. Young parents cast a second glance my way as they squeezed by, and little ones peeked curiously from behind chocolate eyes.
Ambitious street vendors now mingled in the mix of onboard passengers and peddled their wares under every nose in a last-minute effort to move goods. As the bus belched clouds of black smoke and began moving through the market, the hawkers waited until the very last second, just as the bus lumbered onto the main street, before leaving us to settle in for the journey.
This is the everyday deal.
I didn't see them board, the princess and the King. She wore a pretty dress and that Burger King crown. Her dad sat beside her wearing a nicely pressed golf shirt and slacks. I thought of how girls her age back home would probably consider themselves much too old to wear a paper tiara in public.
Just then the breeze rustled through the open window, and her garland of princess-hood threatened to blow away. She grabbed it quickly and repositioned it as she carefully smoothed her hair.
It must have been her birthday to warrant such a special trip to the city… just her and her dad. How many hours had they travelled? She glanced up at him and smiled mostly with her eyes as he glanced down and smiled back at her. My thoughts wandered to trips with my own dad when I was a girl… riding in some old farm truck to town, and feeling like heiress to the throne with not a care in the world in his presence.
The dusty old bus jolted over another speed bump, and her hands flew to her head again. Crown secured.
That little fast-food cardboard marketing tool was probably destined for a very special place among a few treasured possessions, at least for a while. Rain, humidity or mold might eventually destroy it. Who knows? I wondered what she was feeling right then. What awaited her at the other end of her journey? What is life like in her village?
I know it is far different than what I imagine it to be from the city-side-out.
One thing is for sure, every girl should have princess moments, and the delight of dreaming princess dreams, and the fun of fully enjoying those moments that make memories for a lifetime without a second thought about anyone who thinks otherwise. And she should have the unrestrained joy and freedom of being secure in the presence of her dad, her King.
I thought about all this while I ate that hamburger-that-tasted-like-home, surrounded by people who seemed to be from any place but here. And I swallowed hard around the lump in my throat for missing all my peeps…
And maybe I helped myself to one of those crowns on the way out the door… just to remember to keep princess dreams alive.