John Pierre's Meal by Bob Lang
Wednesday night Paul Opp the director of the People of Peru Project took us out to a restaurant in downtown Iquitos for pizza. It was good pizza. I think every country I have been in has pizza, but each makes it taste a little different, and Peru has flavors that I really like. Paul also gave each of us one ticket that was good for a meal at one of the street vendors. We were supposed to go outside after we finished our meal and pick one kid to feed using our ticket.
Now every time we walk down the street we are surrounded by kids; trying to sell us something, or begging, or just looking. The hard thing would be that we could only pick one kid. (We could pay for more if we wanted to pay ourselves, but even we could not afford to pay for a meal for all of them).
I was walking with Shandra, Elizabeth, Katharine, and Benjamin down a sidewalk in the town center and I saw a little boy kind of skipping along by himself about half a block ahead. At the end of the block the sidewalk opened up into a plaza. Our group stopped to talk about what to do. That little boy was still nearby. He looked to be about 4 years old. He was wearing a dark green shirt, black shorts, and white converse tennis shoes. Benjamin asked the boy in Spanish if he wanted to eat with us. He didn't really respond, he just swung his arms back and forth. A girl of about 8 years old came over and started answering for him. We asked her if she wanted to eat with us. She said yes, but that there were five kids in her family including the little boy. She pointed to 3 other kids standing nearby. Since there we 5 in our group we said we would take them all. That girl immediately grabbed on to Shandra's arms. The other three older kids then grabbed on to one each of the other kids in our group. That left the little boy standing there. He looked around for just a moment and then walked over and grabbed on to my hand.
We had to walk about 5 blocks to where the street vendor was who would honor our tickets. We walked down the sidewalk two-by-two; each Peruvian kid holding on to one of the Americans. My little boy didn't really talk. The girl said his name was John Pierre. I asked him if his name was John Pierre and he shook his head up and down. He wasn't so much holding on to my hand as he really had just placed his hand into mine. He had made no move to take it away every since he had placed it there back in the plaza. I finally figured out that he had not clasped my hand as he was clutching something tightly in his fist. I figured it must be some little toy, but when I finally got a look I found that it was a cap from a plastic drink bottle. Maybe it was a favorite toy.
When we arrived at the food vendor we got the kids to each sit in a plastic chair. The older Peruvian girls started chatting lively with their new American friends. A couple of the kids even wanted to sit in their sponsor's lap. John Pierre just climbed up in his chair and sat there looking around quietly. His dark hair was cut in a long "butch" cut that looked rather stylish, and with his feet dangling down from the front of the chair his thighs were too short to let his back reach the chair back. He just sat there straight-backed quietly observing, and occasionally looking at me with big dark eyes. His right eye was a little swollen and red. Dr Eric took a quick look and said he had a viral infection that we usually call pink eye.
The food vendor was Elsa, a happy woman who was an acquaintance of Paul's. She had been warned that were would be coming. She had a red umbrella over a couple of tables and a fryer, surrounded by her chairs. Her menu was posted in Spanish hand-written on cardboard mounted on an easel. The menu tonight was fried chicken.
Elsa and her two sons had set out a bunch of small Styrofoam trays in which they had dished a large spoon of rice. Elsa was slicing whole potatoes into French Fries from pre-skinned ones she had stored in a bucket of water. After she sliced a couple of potatoes worth she dumped them into the fryer in front of one of the boys who was also frying chicken. When both potatoes and chicken were fried to perfection he removed them from the oil to drain for a moment. The other boy then put a large piece of chicken, a spoonful of fries, and a plastic fork onto each tray.
We could then exchange our ticket for one tray of food. I collected mine and handed it to John Pierre who set it carefully on his lap. He picked up his fork and started in on the rice. He ate a few spoonfuls, and then tried a French Fry. He apparently liked the fries best as he picked them up one at a time and ate them until they were all gone. JP did not say anything or even look around while he was eating. It took all his concentration to balance the tray and get the food into his mouth. After the fries were gone he tried the chicken. Apparently that was good too. He worked on the chicken until the bones were completely clean. He accidently dropped his fork on the ground during the chicken course, but his sister sitting next to him picked it up for him. He needed that fork to finish off the rice, and when the rice was all gone and the tray completely empty he pushed the tray and the fork off his lap and onto the ground.
Paul was not paying for drinks, but many of us were buying our kids Inca Colas, or other drinks. I purchased a plastic cup of fruit juice that was served out of a large Tupperware container with a spout on the side for one Peruvian Solis. Elsa filled the cup and placed a drinking straw into it before handing it to me. I handed it to John Pierre who carefully placed the cup between his legs and went to work sucking on his straw. It didn't take him long to drain the contents, and then the cup joined the tray on the ground.
His sisters had been talking and laughing as much as eating, so they were not done with their meal yet. So, JP just scooted himself back into his chair so that his back now rested in the corner of the chair back and the arm of the chair. His slightly bent legs stretched our diagonally across the seat. One arm rested on the chair arm, the other was stretched across the back. JP looked the perfect picture of contentment. He looked around one to see if I was still there. He seemed satisfied that I was, and just sat there.
Most of the other Peruvian kids ate only half or even less of the food on their trays. Then they politely asked for a little plastic bag to put their tray into for taking home. Apparently they are required to bring half of any food they get home for the rest of the family to share. One of the other Americans later told me that his little boy was stopped half way through his meal by his older sister who insisted he get a bag even though he clearly did not want to. I watched a couple of kids leave together, each carrying a plastic bag with their remaining meals. Just across the street they stopped and talked to a man standing there. They then handed him one of their bags and continued on with the other. Either their dad had been watching and waiting; or some kind of tax was paid.
John Pierre's brother and sisters each saved half of their meals, but JP apparently was under the age of enforcement. When JP's brother's meal bag was ready he came over and got JP out of his contented repose to go. Brother turned to me and waved while John Pierre never looked back, he just dutifully followed his brother across the street and down the block into the darkness, swinging his arms as he walked.
What was the point of this exercise? I don't know what Paul had in mind exactly. I am sure he wanted to demonstrate that there is no way that any of us can solve a problem like child hunger all by ourselves. It would have taken truck loads of Peruvian Solis to feed all the hungry children in Iquitos. But we could make a difference to one child, at least for one day. But somehow we had to be arbitrary and pick which one that would be, and somehow ignore all the other outstretched hands. Not an easy thing to do. How do you choose? Cuteness? Age? Dress? Gender? How hungry they look? How persistent they are?
I admit I chose a boy because he was skipping down the block ahead of me, and he was also four years old, which is an age I adore. That means I ignored all the others based on skippiness and age. But I had to choose based on something.
I hope I made a difference to John Pierre. I know I did for his stomach for one evening. Who knows, he could become the President of Peru someday, or maybe not. I will never know and it really wouldn't change the outcome of this experience. I do know that John Pierre made a difference to me.