Do angels get sunburn? Sounds like a deep philosophical question. It’s not, and the answer is yes, they do. Even in winter.
Fifth of January and the alarm went off early. Apart from an occasional early flight, my alarm clock doesn’t get used much (it retired about the same time I did, two years ago). It was still pitch black outside as I downed a quick coffee, swallowed a slice of toast, and drove past the Casabermeja bull with an almost-full moon behind it. The sun rose as I passed Málaga FC’s Rosaleda Stadium, and it was light as I parked near the dry riverbed and hurried to the portakabins of Los Ángeles Málagueños de La Noche.
The serious volunteers, those with far more commitment than me, were already there. Ana was wielding the slicing machine, Carmén was ferrying the slices of sausage and mortadella to where Mari-Jose was supervising the sandwich-making. On a separate counter, different volunteers made up the Muslim and vegetarian breakfast bags, avoiding pork and other meat products. I mixed the Cola-Cao hot chocolate drink and distributed cups to the volunteers before filling the jugs to take out to the gathering queue.
At 8.30 the breakfast queue began to file past. A bag of mixed sandwiches, a cup of hot chocolate, and a few loaves of bread to take away. Extra bread today as there would be no lunch. Although the sun was up it was a cold morning and people rejoined the queue a second time to get a second cup of cola-cao, receiving a sympathetic grin and half a packet of plain biscuits to go with it.
The usual volunteers’ breakfast after service was rushed. Today, everything was different. Sweeping up, cleaning the caseta, wiping down the service area, everyone was pressed into action. Barriers were reconfigured, and the families waiting with nervous excitement were shuffled round to begin a new queue beside the river. With space in front of the caseta, the first van arrived from the almacen (warehouse). Cisse was in charge today, and he directed operations quickly, getting carpet laid and then the first mountain of presents unloaded. Many children had delivered their letters to the Three Kings a few days earlier, and those children had a carrier bag marked with their names.
A tug on my apron. Milagro was a beautiful little girl of about seven, who shyly handed me her letter. “Para Los Reyes Magos” she said. In the caseta I opened the letter along with the other Tamara, my co-worker. Milagro had asked for some colouring pencils, a Barbie doll, anything connected with Monster High, and an iPad. A girl with class – not just ANY old tablet would do! We scurried around and found a Barbie doll. I added a little Barbie child’s handbag, a set of pencils and a drawing book. The other Tamara squealed with delight as she unearthed a better drawing pad with Monster High on the front. Milagro was in luck (albeit without an iPad this year). Hers was the last carrier bag to be added to the heap for the Kings to distribute.
Antonio, the president of Los Ángeles, arrived and, as always, got stuck straight in piling presents and moving barriers. I was introduced to him, and was overheard by a reporter from Diario Sur who pulled me away for a quick interview as to why an extranjera had chosen this particular charity with which to volunteer. A VERY easy question, fortunately, for my first ever radio interview in Spanish!
Now, the van arrived for the second time, bringing more of the precious gifts, as the queue grew and the children nearer the back looked anxious. The tables groaned under the
heaps of gifts. Boxes of chocolates and individually-wrapped biscuits were opened and tipped into trays. All was set. The loudspeakers announced the arrival of the Three Kings (two of whom were actually queens, though the big beards were a good disguise). The children who had written letters got their personalised carrier bags from the Kings, and everybody got three or four presents to take away, including extras for children who couldn’t attend.
At the end of the line of tables, handfuls of chocolates were tipped into waiting pockets or bags. A young volunteer asked me how we knew whether someone really did have three children waiting in a hostel, as the last person had said. “Nos importa?” I asked her – do we care? If someone will stand in line for up to two hours, whether it be for a breakfast bag of filled rolls, a plate of stew at lunchtime, or a gift of donated presents, they are welcome.
As the heaps on the tables diminished, more boxes were brought from the portakabin. Some of the best gifts, held back so that those at the back didn’t get a raw deal. A boy was searching for a football. Together we walked up and down the length of the tables without success. I told him that next year he must write to the Kings in advance. “Yes” agreed his father. “Though I truly hope we won’t be coming here for presents next year.” Then he apologised profusely, “I didn’t mean to be rude – it’s amazing what you all do. God bless you all, you really are angels, I’m sorry.” “That’s OK” I reassured him. “I understand. Best wishes for 2015, and I hope NOT to see you next year!” He understood my Spanish despite my foreign accent and laughed. “This must be the only place where people really value what you do, but hope never to see you again,” he said thoughtfully. He guided his son towards the chocolates, and the lad’s mood brightened a little. “But be careful” said his father to me and the other Tamara by my side, “You’re getting sunburnt.”
Nice guy. With all his problems, the scale of which we would never know, he still had it in him to care for the strangers who hadn’t been able to dig out a football for his son. I could feel the emotion pricking behind my eyes. “Wait,” I said. I dived into the caseta and launched into a complex negotiation with Mari-Jose, who I knew had tucked a football aside that morning for another volunteer’s grandson. I promised to replace it, if I could have this one now for the boy. She could see I was serious and she handed it over.
My nose was burning and my feet were screaming in agony after seven hours non-stop. Everything hurt. Then the boy saw me emerge from the caseta with a football. He looked at his father, not daring to believe ….. and when he slowly took it from my hands, as though it was worth a million euros, his eyes like saucers, barely able to stutter his thanks, all of a sudden nothing hurt any more.
© Tamara Essex 2015 http://www.twocampos.com
THIS WEEK’S LANGUAGE POINT:
Just a general tip this time. I was given a Spanish dictionary a couple of months ago for my birthday. Not a Spanish-English dictionary, just a Spanish dictionary. You look up a Spanish word, and in Spanish it explains the meaning. I love it! It is a massive step forward! When reading a newspaper article or a book in Spanish, and there’s a word I don’t know that looks important enough to be needed for the sense of whatever I’m reading, looking up a Spanish definition avoids translating back and forth into English, it keeps the flow, enabling me to continue to think and understand in Spanish. Wouldn’t work for complete beginners, but for anyone trundling along at my sort of level, B1 and working towards B2, I thoroughly recommend it.