|Lake Atitlan, Guatemala|
Your eyes are windows into your body. If you open your eyes wide in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light. But if your eyes are evil, then your whole body fills up with darkness
-from Matthew 6:22My eyes could not be moved from the man that moved through the crowd. There was something unexplainable that captivated my attention. Maybe it was how he held his time creased face, or it could have been the intensity of his gaze. Whatever the hold, I could not escape.
The sunlight seemed to beat down with an intentional focus on the back of my neck. As I looked down to rub sunscreen on my red skin I noticed the Guatemalan dust again covered the now worn leather of my boots. I had now felt the gravel of three trips crunch under the dark tread.
The subtle break of the water of the lake drew my sight up as I contemplated the horizon of water and mountain and sky. It was breath-taking here. A lake cradled among volcanos and sky. We stood in Atitlan, Guatemala, a type of setting storied in Middle Earth and Hollywood.
His back was shaped in a way that suggested years of hard manual labor. Looking at him I was sure that I could see the indelible force of endless loads. But the weight on him seemed more than this. His feet were covered with the remnants of what were once sturdy shoes. Now they were simply broken. His pants and shirt were torn and colored with days of toil in the landscape.
His hair had once been dark but was now worn gray with time. Stubble lined the creases of his face that spoke of a life hard lived. His eyes were vast, desperate, and arresting. I watched him as he moved from person to person, gripping three small knives in his right hand.
Street vendors were as numerous as the cacophony of birds in the trees. We had all been pursued with aggressive sales pitches and had wares shoved in our faces as the sun burned slowly over our heads. The day was now drawing to a close and as the crowds dwindled, the intensity seemed to crest along with the brightening line on the silhouette of the mountains.
I saw him as he was again rejected, waved away. I had seen him when we first stepped off the bus, and now two hours later he still made every effort to sell his knives. I only had a few bills in my pocket, but I realized that my feet were now carrying me towards him. He looked dejected.
I thought of parts of my own life when I had chased a goal and not been able to measure up. I remembered how I felt at the end of a day when all my efforts produced no results. And I knew that my perspective was no measure of his reality. And I stopped dead in my tracks as his head raised and his eyes met mine.
He began walking my way with the three small knives held up in his grasp.
The knives were in hand crafted leather sheaths, about 6 inches in length. The leather was worked with small nails and tied with bits of stripping. The blade was a rough smelt metal that was locally cast and appeared softer than typical steel. GUATEMALA had been inscribed on the side with crude instrumentation. While the leather work showed some skill, the artistry was in the wood crafted handles. One was a totem, the other an image of a man, and the last a bird. They were intricately carved out of a deep wood and accented with ornate detail. These were not the typical perfection of a retail knife, but they were unquestionably unique, and produced with a great deal of effort.
To my surprise, the man spoke broken english. As he stood close to me, I realized that his appearance and the presence of the three weapons were slightly alarming. He looked up at me and began to speak.
He explained that the knives were made by his son and that he needed to sell them. He said that he was hungry and he needed to buy food. I automatically doubted his story. I was an easy mark. An American walking around with a leather hat, a backpack, a shiny watch, and sunglasses.
I started to walk away... and then I looked into his eyes.
By this time, I had heard all the typical sales attempts to Americans... "special price for you," "business is business," "good quality," and even, "try it on, no cost to touch." But... I had not encountered the look of lost hope that snuffed out the light in his eyes like breath on a flame.
He asked me to buy them all. I told him that I didn't have enough Quetzal. He asked me to buy one, and asked me for 120Q. This was the equivalent of about $9.00. I knew that I didn't have that much left. I came on this trip with the barest of resources.
I was so torn inside. Part of me thought that he was just another man trying to scam a gringo, and yet I also found myself wishing that I had more money with which to barter. I told him I would give him 50Q. He said 100Q, and we began to haggle. The skeptic in me gained the upper hand and I waived him off and again walked away.
And again... I heard his footsteps behind me like I had hundreds of times with hundreds of street merchants... but this time I was compelled to stop and turn around.
I reached out and I took a knife in my hand. I felt the weight of it and imagined the small, dirt covered hands with broken fingernails that crafted it. I thought of the children in the village in Cerro Alto where we had been working, and I remembered their bare, broken feet. I decided that it didn't matter what his intentions were... it mattered where my heart was. It mattered whether I could demonstrate compassion.
It mattered whether the windows of my soul took in light or shuttered out belief in an embrace of darkness. I knew that I had to buy this knife.
We agreed on 75Q. I reached in my pocket and had three units of money: a 50Q and three 10Q bills. He saw me pause and immediately began to tell me that he could get me change. I waited as he began to frantically search his torn pockets and saw his breathing accelerate and his eyes widen as he found his his pockets empty. He began to turn as he asked me to wait... and I stopped him.
"Sir, how about a new price? I do not have 75." When I spoke those words I swear to you that it looked like a weight settled on his shoulders as his eyes closed and he audibly exhaled.
"Will you please accept 80?"
The difference of 5Q equals an increase of about 37 cents. This doesn't sound like much to me, I have found more in the bottom of my couch. But in this culture a man often works manual labor, with no work rules, for $5 a day. And that is only if he is fortunate enough to secure a job. Jobs are scarce. I have seen many people eat a meal that consisted of a single tortilla and a bit of fruit pulled from a tree.
As he began to cry and grasped my hand with his his own, I felt the windows of my soul flung open as the force to away my breath. I was overwhelmed by the gravity of the experience. I began to cry with him as I realized that I had nothing else to give him.
He asked them name of my wife and family so that he could pray for them. He asked me to pray for his as well. He thanked me for coming to Guatemala, and wished me a safe journey. I watched him as he turned and walked away.
Now, I can't tell you what he did with the money. I can't tell you that he bought food and took it home and fed his son. I simply don't know. It may be that he did exactly that. It may be that he used the money to feed an addiction. It may be that he pulled another knife out of his pocket identical to the one I purchased, pulled a "Made in China" sticker off the bottom and performed for the next mark.
But you read my story. You know what I believe.
And I can tell you with certainty that what mattered in that moment wasn't his intentions... it was all about my reaction.
We are what we do. This life we live is about how we respond and whether we allow our eyes to reflect the light that is in our souls, or whether we are simply full of darkness.
As for me... I know that I saw light in his eyes, and it illuminated my own.