Our tour guide was prattling on and on and on. The sun was making me sweat and I felt so tired. I really needed a drink.
‘Mum, I’m thirsty. Can I have some water?’ I whispered loudly to her.
‘Hang on, he’s nearly finished…I hope,’ she whispered back. I was so bored. We were in Egypt listening to a tall Egyptian man talk about the tombs of some old Kings or something. I would much rather have been back at the hotel pool cooling off in the deep end. I really needed a drink–now.
‘Mum, I’m desperate.’ I pleaded. She sighed, reached into her bag and pulled out a warm bottle of water. Blech. ‘It’s warm.’ I complained.
‘I bet those kids over there wouldn’t moan about a nice bottle of mineral water being a bit warm,’ she whispered at me, whilst pointing in the direction of the mini-trains. I glanced over at the kids standing around. I hadn’t noticed them when we arrived.
One of the boys caught me staring and wasn’t afraid to stare back. He looked taller than me. He had worn sandals on his feet and faded blue track pants with a tear in one knee. His t-shirt was filthy and sat lopsided on his shoulders. He gave me a chin tilt as a bit of a ‘hello’ I think, then turned to his friends. Soon they were all checking me out. I could feel my face blush.
‘Mum, where are their parents?’ I asked her.
‘Probably working in the markets or down at the fishing boats.’ She said, trying to look like she was interested in what our guide was rambling on about.
‘But, why aren’t they in school?’
‘Look, we’ll talk about it later. Pay attention, this is educational.’ She nodded in the direction of the guide.
I tried to pay more attention to the guide, but he was seriously boring. I stole a glance over at the local kids again. A mini-train full of tourists had just arrived back from the tombs. Suddenly the kids came alive. They were approaching the tourists like a team of ducks to a loaf of bread. The tourists were doing their best to ignore them, but it wasn’t making much difference.
I saw the boy with the lopsided t-shirt artfully flash a concertina of postcards. He had one hand out and was talking rapidly. The tourist was blatantly ignoring him and focussing on reaching the information centre. The boy removed his pleading look from his face and returned to the rest of the tourists. Another kid was dangling bracelets and necklaces, whilst another was playing some sort of string instrument made roughly out of wood. They were following the tourists right up to the doors. I noticed that some of them were lucky enough to be given some money in their hands, but very few actually managed to rid themselves of their product. With the bulk of the tourists swallowed up by the information centre, the kids were shooed away from the doors by the security guards. The boy in the lopsided t-shirt looked a little dejected. Why weren’t they in school? Don’t their parents care? My parents were so strict about school, that I had to go even if I had a cold.
The boy caught me staring, which I had forgotten I was doing. To my horror, he started heading over in my direction. I moved closer to Mum.
‘What’s the matter? The talks over and we’re going onto the trains now. Come on…’ she said, expecting me to follow her.
‘Hello. American?’ the boy had reached me before I made the safety of the mini-trains.
‘New Zealand.’ I said. No point in being rude.
‘Aahh, New Zealand. All Blacks. Hobbit.’ He looked really proud of himself.
‘Yeah. I have to go…’ I said quickly as I tried to get by him to the trains. Mum had spotted that I was stuck, but she didn’t seem to be doing much about it.
‘No. Don’t go. You buy cards to send New Zealand?’ He dropped down his display of postcards like a magician in a magic show. They were faded and dusty. He couldn’t seriously think that I would want to buy those.
‘No, sorry. I don’t have any money.’ I said, walking a bit quicker.
‘Yes. Yes you do. You have nice shoes,’ he said. ‘You have clean shirt. You have clean pants. You wear nice hat.’
I stopped. These old shoes? They had holes in the toes. My shirt? I’d been wearing it for three days straight. And my pants? Okay, they were pretty cool. Cargo shorts with big pockets for my cell phone and MP3 player. The hat was a Nike too. I suppose he had a point. I still had no money on me though. I found some courage from somewhere and decided it was my turn to ask a question.
‘Why don’t you go to school?’ I boldly asked.
‘School? I make money. Help my mother. She is sick,’ he said. Was he telling the truth? If my mum got sick, I wouldn’t have to stay home and make money to help her. Well, obviously dad is there–but still.
‘But won’t you get in trouble?’ I asked, incredulous. He laughed.
‘Trouble? Look at us. So many. We have to work. No work, no food. No food, no…’ then he dramatically grabbed his throat and faked a collapse. It was quite comical and I couldn’t help but laugh. He opened his eyes and laughed with me.
‘Lily! Come on, the train won’t wait for you!’ Mum was calling me. I smiled tentatively at the boy in the lopsided t-shirt and ran to the trains.
‘I wait for you here!’ I heard him calling out.
‘You shouldn’t be talking to those boys Lily,’ Dad said, leaning around Mum to talk to me.
‘Yes she should. It broadens her horizons. Makes her realise how fortunate she really is,’ Mum intervened, looking at me rather pointedly. I didn’t say anything. I still couldn’t believe that that boy–who can’t have been much older than me–was forced to work in the heat, selling rubbishy postcards for barely any money–all so he could feed his family. It didn’t seem right.
‘Do you think that what he said is really true?’ I asked Mum.
‘Well, that depends. What did he say?’
‘That if he didn’t sell his postcards then his family would starve. And that’s why he isn’t at school.’
‘Yes, probably. A lot of children here have to go out onto the streets and work. Their parents probably are sick–or worse, dead–and they have to fend for themselves. Or their parents earn barely anything doing what they do and need a bit more cash to help them all survive. It’s a different world here. A different system Lily. You don’t know how lucky you really are.’ Dad tapped her then and pointed out some uninteresting hole in the side of the huge peanut butter coloured hills. I felt all funny. Wrong or something. I mean, I was complaining about warmish water. I was standing there fantasising about being back in the cold hotel pool. These kids…
I obediently walked around the tombs, feigning interest. When we piled back onto the min-trains, our guide had an ‘important message’ for us.
‘When we get off, they will try to sell you all sorts of junk. It’s just rubbish, it’s not real. Please walk on by and ignore them. They will soon leave you alone.’ He smiled reassuringly and I noticed a few people in our group tuck their bags around to their fronts and check their pockets were free of valuables or something. It made me feel a little sick to be honest.
He was right of course. As soon as the mini-train stopped the kids came in swarms.
‘Nice bracelet? Pretty in your hair.’
‘Listen. Lovely music,’ the string player said.
‘Postcards to send home to America!’ the boy in the lopsided t-shirt called. I think I spotted him at the same time as he spotted me. He came over grinning.
‘Hello New Zealand. You have money now?’ He had a nice smile and I couldn’t help but smile back.
‘Lily, come away from him,’ Dad said. He grabbed my arm and dragged me toward the safety of the information centre.
‘But Dad…’ I began.
‘No Lily, you can’t go giving your money to these kids. You can’t help them all.’ Dad said.
‘Where you going New Zealand?’ I heard the the boy in the lopsided t-shirt calling. He didn’t sound so happy anymore. I turned to see him.
I’ll never forget the look on his face. It wasn’t hate, or even envy. It was simply a look of understanding. It was like he just accepted that this was how it was. He didn’t look down about it. Just resigned to the fact. He gave me a tentative wave and then turned to wait for the next arrival of tourists on the mini-train.
I couldn’t stand it. It was hot, maybe I was delusional or overly tired from the heat I don’t know. But I couldn’t go, not yet. I wrenched my arm free of Dad and ran back to the boy in the lopsided t-shirt.
‘Hey, Egypt,’ I said.
‘New Zealand!’ He replied. He looked genuinely surprised to see me standing in front of him.
‘Ah, I have an idea. I don’t have any money on me…but I do have this nice hat,’ I took off my Nike hat and gave it to him. ‘I also have a clean sweater in my backpack,’ I fished it out and handed it to him too. ‘Maybe you have a sister who’ll look better in it.’ I told him.
‘Thank you. Thank you so much.’ He looked genuinely grateful. It made a tear come to my eye. These were just old clothes I was traveling with. I wanted to help him more.
‘Um…’ this was hard. I knew I had to do it though. ‘I have this too.’ I reached into the left hand pocket of my cargo shorts and searched around for my most prized posession. ‘You probably won’t be able to use it yourself–cos the battery will die and I don’t have the chargers with me…but maybe you could sell it or something…’ I suddenly felt shy and a bit foolish. I felt myself faltering and started to return it to my pocket. Suddenly, his hand was on mine.
‘New Zealand, you are very kind. I don’t want your special toy. That is yours. The hat and the jersey are very, very kind. Thank you New Zealand.’ Then he bowed his head to me and turned and ran over to the concrete wall where other kids were sheltering from the sun. I watched as he approached a small girl and gave her my sweater. She threw her arms around his neck and they hugged. Then he pointed at me. The girl came running over. I couldn’t move.
‘Thank you Zealand!’ she said. Then she ran back to her brother. I waved and ran to my own family waiting by the information centre.
‘Why did you give away your good Nike hat? You begged me for that last summer!’ Dad scolded. ‘And that hoodie was a present from Aunty Carol. What is she going to say when she finds out that some ruffian in Egypt has it?’ He was not happy.
‘Darryl, it was her decision. We should be praising her for her thoughtfulness,’ Mum said to him, just loud enough for me to hear.
‘She has to learn that she can’t save the world Liz. Look at all those kids? We can’t have her thinking that she can help them all! We’ll never get back to the hotel.’ He was oddly cross with me.
‘Well Dad, I made a difference to those two didn’t I?’ I grinned at Mum. Dad sighed and put his hand on my shoulder.
‘I guess you did sport, I guess you did.’ He ushered me inside the cool, air conditioned building. We sat and had fresh orange juice and muffins. I couldn’t stop thinking about the kids outside. I know I can’t save them all. I’m just a kid myself for goodness sake. But, I know I did help the one boy in his dirty t-shirt. Even just a tiny bit. And I’d like to think that made a difference to him and his sister today.