“So, what church do you belong to?” Señor Concepcion, a broad-shouldered, elderly man asks me in Spanish. I hesitate, but not because I do not understand him. Do they even know about Jews in rural Panama? I respond meekly in Spanish, “I don’t belong to a church.” “Ah,” he replies with a slight nod of his head and pursed lips, trying to hide his disappointment. We sit in silence on for what seems like minutes. The only noise is a small rotating fan which clacks as it turns, blowing warm air into our faces. The wrinkled woman sitting on the other side of the couch breaks the silence and says to her daughter, Elena, “Kaleb is coming home from school soon.” I ask about the family’s five year old boy and the grandparents speak adoringly of their grandson. Soon, however, the conversation peters out again and the smile pasted on my face starts to hurt my cheeks.
When our “Global Works” group arrived in the small town of San Felix, Panama, we waited for our host families to pick us up, anxiously chattering. When a family arrived, a pair of teens from the group would roll their suitcases down the dirt road, following their Panamanian families to the houses they would be staying at for the next week. As another pair walked away, one of them looked back at our group as if to say, “If I don’t return, tell my Mom I love her.”
A short, middle-aged woman walks up with a wide smile and introduces herself as Elena. I am the only one who requested a solo home stay, so as we walk, I have no one with whom to share nervous looks. Elena asks me some questions about my family and tells me a bit about San Felix. I make a conscious effort not to look back at my friends. I try to respond, but I am no conversationalist in English, and having to speak in Spanish adds to the challenge. I end up just smiling back at her and nodding my head while trying to avoid the chickens strutting in front of us.
We arrive at a small house. After walking through an open cement patio, I find myself in a cramped kitchen with a square table and four chairs. The walls are stucco and painted a salmon pink. Elena opens a thin curtain and gestures to a tiny rectangular room. A twin bed takes up about half of the room. I lay my duffle bag in a corner and another fourth of the space is gone. When I walk back through the kitchen and into the living room, Elena’s father, Señor Concepcion, and his elderly wife are sitting on either side of a worn red couch, the space in the middle clearly for me.
A small boy dressed in a white t-shirt and khaki shorts runs into the living room and throws his red Superman backpack onto a chair. “Hola Mami!” He says in a high voice. Elena introduces us and Kaleb gives me a shy wave. Hoping to keep the awkward silence at bay for a little longer, I retrieve a large bag from my duffle and hand a present in penguin gift wrapping to each member of the family. Elena and her mother thank me for the soft bath towels, and Señor Concepcion flashes me a smile for his new Red Sox shirt. Kaleb unwraps his gift slowly, but as soon as he catches a glimpse of the Spiderman soccer ball, he tears the gift wrap with reckless abandon. “Do you want to go play soccer?” Kaleb asks me, already dribbling the soccer ball around the room. Seeing the looks of approval on the adults’ faces I say, “Por supuesto (of course)” and we run outside.
As we walk to the soccer field, the fresh afternoon air brushes our faces and the moist grass tickles and cools our legs. “You play goalie and I’ll shoot,” Kaleb announces. Taking a few steps back, he runs at the ball and kicks it, hitting me square in the stomach. We both laugh. After almost an hour of Spiderman traveling back and forth across the field, I realize that Kaleb is not getting the least bit bored. “Kaleb, you wanna do something else?” I ask hopefully. “Alright,” he says, “I’ll play goalie and you shoot.”
Each day I would leave with the other American teenagers to do community service work. But as soon as I returned to the small house, Kaleb would run to greet me, red soccer ball in hand. No matter how exhausted, I couldn’t help but smile and follow him to the field. On our last day in San Felix, I return from work in a torrential downpour. Kaleb is not deterred. He leads me through town to an open concrete floor with a tin roof high overhead.
The sound of the rain is magnified on the roof, rumbling like an earthquake. I try to punt the ball to Kaleb, but instead it flies straight up, wedging itself in between two metal beams in the ceiling. Tears start to fill the little boy’s brown eyes as he looks up at his lost ball. I walk over to him and get down on one knee so his small face is close to mine. “Kaleb, I know you’re sad, but whenever you see that Spiderman ball up there, remember me, and know I’ll be thinking of you.”
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