Shorty usually staked a claim on the street in front of an Italian restaurant and market in the town plaza of Cusco, Peru. As we neared, he would emerge from the shadows shuffling towards us with box of chocolates in hand calling out, “Amigos, amigos!” We were easy money for Shorty. We always emptied our pockets for him and rarely asked for chocolate in return. Our change barely seemed sufficient compared to the joy that Shorty brought us with each encounter.
When we first encountered Alex, he was among a group of children selling postcards and chocolate bars to tourists on the streets of Cusco, Peru. One could not avoid being offered any number of items ranging from hand-knitted mittens and scarves to cigarettes and calling cards. We had been warned of the tenacity of these people and soon learned that “No!” rarely sufficed as an answer.
Alex was the youngest and smallest of the group. His straight dark hair fell over the tops of his ears, but was neatly cut in front. His cheeks were slightly burned from exposure to an unforgiving sun and his brown eyes sparkled with youthful curiosity. Alex wore loose-fitting sweat pants and a hooded sweatshirt that seemed to swallow his small body. We immediately pinned him “Shorty” as he was only half the size of his peers.
Greg and I exchanged smiles as we looked down upon this young, adoring child. He peered at us from waist level with his arm fully extended, chocolate in hand. Though we were growing accustomed to ignoring the offers of the countless vendors on the street, the brilliant sparkle in this young boy’s eye was simply irresistible. All we could do was laugh as the adorable boy held the chocolate bar snugly against my friend’s belly. With Shorty laughing and smiling amid cries of “Choc-o-late,” Greg attempted to thwart his efforts by placing his head atop Shorty’s head. It only made the moment more memorable as we watched the child half his size driving Greg backwards with a bar of chocolate and Greg’s hand atop his head.
On one occasion, Alex joined our group of American and European travelers as we left the pub. Greg and I welcomed him with resounding cheers, lifting the young boy high into the air and spinning him wildly as he erupted in playful screams. I watched the confused look on the faces of our company as Greg swung the squealing boy onto his shoulders and raced across the plaza. With his friends trailing jealously behind us, Shorty abandoned the evening’s work of selling chocolate for shoulder rides, belly tickling and fervent horseplay.
Though we wanted to think of Shorty as an innocent, happy child, we were reminded several times of the rough and tumble lifestyle that our young friend lived. I remember watching two of these street kids, barely ten years old, slugging it out on the street like boozers brawling at a bar and feeling fearful for my little friend. Was he capable of such wicked behavior and brutality? A child his age should be concerned with baseball cards and cartoons, not slug fests and swindling. Who would allow a child to be subjected to such dangers?
I worried that Shorty was raising himself on the streets like the packs of children I saw in the late hours of the night in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I had witnessed the delinquent behavior of these unsupervised hooligans, forced to fend for themselves though a life of survival on the streets. I had seen the shroud of hopelessness that hung over those disadvantaged children and I tried to dispel images of a teenage Alex intertwined in crime and drugs.
We struggled to accept our inability to change life for Alex. We spoke dreamily of taking him back to the States with us in order to offer him more opportunities than were presented by life on Cusco’s streets. It was never more apparent how powerless we were over the situation than those few occasions that we encountered a different Alex selling chocolate bars.
With his hair a mess, his cheeks red and swollen, tattered clothes and his innocent smile replaced by a desperate scowl, this Alex was less reluctant to accept our good will. Our young friend appeared to be suffering from lack of sleep. His friendly, attractive characteristics were gone, replaced by spite and scorn.
Sometimes we went days without spotting Shorty and it was at those times that we grew the most uneasy. I tried to avoid pondering the reasons for his absence from the street front outside the Italian restaurant and market. Luckily, Shorty always appeared eventually, reluctant to divulge much information about his whereabouts.
Over a three-week period, Cusco served as our base for trips to the Manu jungle, Bolivia and the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. When our final day arrived we found ourselves saying goodbye to a host of friends. None would be more difficult to leave than Alex. After weeks of joking that we would adopt him or leave him with a handsome gift, the time actually came to say goodbye.
Alex was no where to be found when we arrived at the Italian restaurant. We gave up our search reluctantly and I felt a tinge of sadness as we crossed the Plaza de Arms in Cusco for the last time without having said goodbye to our young friend. So you can imagine my delight when my ears picked up the cries of “Amigos, amigos!”
Our young friend scurried toward us with a glowing smile, gleaming eyes and his usual box of chocolate. When asked if he was hungry, Shorty nodded with enthusiastic approval. “Pizza, pizza,” he answered, motioning towards the Italian restaurant with its red drapes and signs advertising Italian delicacies. Without any debate, the three of us entered the restaurant, the smell of garlic and wine tickling our senses and Shorty grinning excitedly as he carried his box of chocolates to the table.
We learned a lot about Shorty during that last night together. Though he insisted his name was Michael Jackson, he still responded to Alex. He told us he was seven years old and had six siblings, all of whom work on the streets, the oldest at 26 selling walking sticks to tourists. We were pleased to learn that Alex attends school every morning in the mountains outside of Cusco where he lives. Then Alex brings his box of chocolates on a 75 cent cab ride down to the Plaza de Arms where he spends most night on the streets of Cusco until 1am before catching a taxi home alone.
At seven years old, Alex was fully responsible for himself during those late hours spent selling chocolate on cold, dangerous streets. I never saw him with food or drink in hand. He constantly ran the risk of being robbed of the change that he carried in his little palms. Also, he had to avoid the policia who more than once we saw him scurrying away from towards dimly lit alleys where he could easily disappear. As if the dangers were not great enough, Alex could be sure that after so many cold hours spent on the streets desperately attempting to sell unwanted chocolate bars, his parents would take from him every penny he earned.
As we watched Alex attempt to manage the oversized utensils, I felt a growing satisfaction in my heart. I took the fork from him and sliced his pizza into bite-size pieces admiring the feeling of great tenderness within. We had come to think of Shorty as a younger brother, a companion and a friend. His youthfulness reached out to us and we felt the desire to bring about change in Alex’s life. As we sat in the corner of that Italian restaurant watching a dirty and happy 7-year old Peruvian boy eagerly munching his pizza, drawing confused looks from staff and patrons alike, I realized that this moment alone was a gift to all of us. Alex glowed like a shining star as he commanded the attention of his restaurant. He was in the inside circle now sitting among the people who he had seen through the restaurant window so many times. No sum of chocolate or spare change could rival the throne on which he was sitting.
I had been in South America for over five months at that point. I had danced into the early morning hours in cosmopolitan Buenos Aires. I had shopped at traditional Peruvian markets with villagers from the high Andes mountains. I sea kayaked for a month through isolated fjords in Chilean Patagonia. I walked in ancient Incan footprints to the ruins of Machu Picchu. But never did I feel more satisfied as when I watched our young friend departing the Italian restaurant, his friends looking on jealously from lonely street corners, with his head held high and his small hands juggling his container of leftover pizza and a nearly empty box of chocolates.