Christmas Miracle in the Andes (page 4)
Christmas Miracle in the Andes
page 1, page 2, page 3

     Guillermo and I have turned around in our walk and are nearing the inn again. The front windows bear the faint glow of dying fireplace embers. The children have already gone to sleep.
     “With that money,” Guillermo says, “I bought my first cow. And I bought the materials to build this inn. All of it came from a sidewalk, this money. A sidewalk.”
     We step through the front door and feel the warmth inside. “That,” Guillermo says, “is my miracle.”
     The story has left me bewitched, my mind in a happy spin. But now it is time for bed inside this giant Christmas wonder of an inn.
     “Sleep well, Señor Mike,“ Guillermo says. “We will speak more tomorrow.” “Feliz Navidad, Señor Guillermo.”
     The next day I rise late, wondering if the events of the night before were a dream, a fairy tale. But Guillermo and family are still here. It’s Christmas morning, and they are soon giving me coffee and a sweet, fried corn bread called bunuelo.
Later, Guillermo tunes his transistor radio to a Catholic Mass being broadcast out of Bogota, and the family gathers round. There is no Christmas tree here and no evidence whatsoever of gifts having been exchanged. Nor is there any palpable letdown hovering in the air, that Christmas ether of dashed expectations common in affluent countries after the inevitable dissatisfaction with things.
     The day is a leisurely one, and I spend it all with the family. Guillermo Jr. and I chop wood for the evening fire. Guillermo Sr. helps Gemri with his homework. Dorys cooks another handsome meal. The family is happy today — and very, very wealthy. Less really is more. Stripped to its core, Christmas is slower, deeper, bigger. I feel fully present for the holiday for the first time in years.
     But I can’t shake the impulse: I want to give the family a gift. My cultural background leaves me feeling incomplete unless I wrap something up and hand it over. I’ve never spent a Christmas in my entire life, I realize, without giving at least one small thing to somebody.
     But I have nothing except what’s in my wallet. I’m traveling light — and nothing’s for sale around the lake on Christmas Day. The next morning, Guillermo hands me a bill for three nights’ stay totaling all of $18. None of the food has been included. I hand him the equivalent of $30, intending that he take it all, but he promptly returns it.
     “Please, Guillermo,” I say. “It’s a Christmas gift. This is a tradition in my country.”
     “But you have come here to escape your traditions,” he says.
     Before I can protest, he continues. “You have noticed that my wife does not live with us. She had to take a distant job in another village to help earn money for the family. She could not come home for Christmas this year. You, too, are away from your home, and we have taken care of you. Maybe that means people where she is are taking care of her.”
     I nod that I understand just as the children step forward to say goodbye. It’s strange, but I feel as if I’ve known this family for many years now. They’ve taken an ancient celebration and made it new for me by, ironically, omitting everything new and modern and so making the holiday recognizable again.
     I lift my backpack to my shoulders, ready to leave.
     “We weren’t expecting you,” Guillermo says. “Don’t you see? You were our miracle this year. You came at Christmastime. You somehow found us. There’s nothing left for you to give us or us to give you. It was a nice holiday that way. Don’t you think?” I nod again — and wave goodbye.
  This essay is from Mike Tidwell’s recently published collection of travel stories, In The Mountains of Heaven: Tales of Adventure on Six Continents.
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