As Viktor climbed from the busy, smelly, dirt road onto our luxurious bus and offered a huge, weathered smile from under his colorful hat, I racked my brain for conversation starters.
What questions should I ask?
How can I get him to just tell me stories?
What does he have to teach me that I don’t even know I still need to learn?
Does he even speak Spanish?
I offered him a piece of chocolate, but that was as much courage as I could muster. He smiled and thanked me, but it got me nowhere in my quest for friendship. In fact, it took him about 10 minutes to eat the 1-square-inch piece of chocolate, and I was sure I’d blown it. He probably hated chocolate. There went my chances of learning some long-awaited gem of wisdom.
We were on our way to the “Parque de las Papas” to learn about all of the genius behind these villagers’ potato-farming techniques. Viktor lived near the park, – around 14,000 feet high – and he was going to accompany us on our visit. I couldn’t wait to hear what he had to share in his humble, joyful way, and I hoped the students were feeling the same excitement. Up until this point, we had been enjoying a comfortable, safe, relatively insular experience. We had been in an isolated compound of a hotel, and most of our time was spent in Spanish classes with the same classmates we had back in Colorado. This was the first time we were going to have the opportunity to really spend some time with someone who looked, acted, dressed, and lived so differently from us.
I was excited for the students’ openness to connect with someone so different from them, and I couldn’t help but think this would be a valuable lesson and experience to take home to our divided country.
After passing the third sign indicating we were – again – entering the potato park, the bus finally stopped and we were welcomed to the farm. The next several hours consisted of detailed explanations of the entire potato operation – from the governmental infrastructure to the meticulous agricultural practices.
As we listened to our guide explain the different techniques they used to keep parasites from ruining the potatoes, my mind wandered to the small houses dotting the hillside above our heads. I was proud of them for their agricultural innovation, but I was more interested in knowing how they lived day-to-day.
I wanted them to know that their international recognition for potato production was not what made them worth our time.
I wanted to learn their secret to their pure, unwavering joy. I wanted to discover their strategies for being so loving and generous, despite having so little (by our standards). I wanted to hear more about their use of different words for “family” to describe their communities. I wanted to meet their children and hear what was important to them. I wanted to know them as people – not just as potato farmers.
I wanted to learn how they so consistently, humbly, and willingly kept the divine at the center of their lives. Even as they excitedly shared their potato success, they were not glorifying themselves. They had elected Apu as their mayor, after all, and the Apu (the sacred mountain) got the credit.
As we pulled away and waved goodbye to our proud potato-farming friends, I yearned for more connection. I wanted to ask them the real questions. I wanted our students to see their lives.
It turned out, I did learn something from Viktor, but it didn’t take a conversation with him for it to happen (another lesson in itself). Everyone has something to offer. No – everyone has a TON to offer. I think part of me has always felt this, but I have never so strongly desired that others see it in themselves.