Homey smells of spice and roasting meat drifted in from the kitchens to blend with the clean tang of Clorox. I plunged my hard-bristled brush into the pan of bleach water on the table, sloshed it about, then trailed it dripping down to the plastic dining hall chair unfolded before me. The tiny ridges of the textured surface hid grime like the crescent-tipped fingernails of a mud pie chef. But a few quick, hard swirls from my brush transformed the dingy grey to a fresh off-white.
A caretaker passed by as I scrubbed away at a particularly well-used chair. She turned back to me and smiled.
“Trabajas con gusto.” You work with gusto.
I smiled back. “Si,” and nodded with a self-conscious laugh. “Gracias.”
Gusto, a word understood across three languages, means a hearty or keen enjoyment. It conveys passion: a joyful undertaking. Chair scrubbing is not an activity that elicits such a response from me, normally. But today wasn’t a normal day. We were spending the first of three mornings of service at FANLYC, a home for sick children, in Panamá City. There at FANLYC, kids who should be battling imaginary pirates and make-believe dragons are instead fighting infection and very-real cancer. Just upstairs from where we worked were children recovering from transplant surgery; children who were pinning their hopes of life on a recovery without infection. That thought alone made me scrub harder. Gusto, indeed.
Behind me, the cross-cultural sounds of a bustling kitchen played chorus to the Christmas music coming from the speakers tucked into the corners of the dining hall’s peaked ceiling. Children swooped in and out, ducking behind and around the legs of women who were moving with sure efficiency in the crammed kitchen. Some of my classmates shared the space, chopping carrots, and shredding lettuce from impossibly large bags of produce that lined the walls. On the bus later, some of them showed off carrot-stained fingers that wouldn’t fade even after a few washings.
In the open-air courtyard beyond the dining room, children played and laughed, delighted to have so many new green-shirted playmates. Some could converse easily with the kids, either fluent themselves or having enough memory from first-year Spanish to do the trick. Others relied on phrase-book standbys and expressive hands, which worked beautifully –after all, play and love are universal.
As are Chopsticks! The familiar dulcet tones sounded from the chapel’s small piano as one of my classmates, without need of words, taught a little girl to tap out the tune.
I snapped this photo before we left.
It’s one of many artistic touches that brighten the home and help make it such a cheerful place to be. My own classroom Spanish translated the words slowly, but once I’d read them all, they gripped me, and haven’t let go yet:
All children are valuable. Help us up if we fall, and if we lose ourselves, give us a hand. Give us what we need to grow up happy and strong, and care for us the best you can.