Esmeralda, the “llama girl”

Isla del Sol, Bolivia

Location No.: 83

Time spent there: 2+ days 05/13/17 – 05/15/17

Esmeralda is 9 years old, she lives on Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) on Lake Titicaca. She is a brave human. When I grow up I want to be like Esmeralda.

The first time we saw Esmeralda she was walking with her llama, Albino and her 5 year old cousin through the narrow streets of her island. I thought it would be a great photo since I was walking behind them and pulled out my phone. She spun around immediately before I got a chance to snatch the image and eyed my phone fiercely while I tucked it under my arm. We started walking together.

Me: That’s a cute llama you have there.

Esmeralda: Do you want to take a photo with my alpaca for 2 bolivianos? By the way its not a llama, it’s an alpaca.

Me: We are poor travelers so I don’t have any money.

Esmeralda: Can you buy me some papaya then?

Me: I already told I don’t have money.

Esmeralda: Do you make and sell jewelry then? Or do you sing for food?

Me: Mmm.

Esmeralda: You must be hungry then.

She stops and pulls off her “aguayo” (a rectangular carrying cloth widely used by people in the Andes) and retrieves a small bag with a snack.

Esmeralda: This is “jampi” (dried and toasted fava beans). This is natural food, this is important for children to eat. We grow these beans on the island.

She handed us two beans each and proceeded to explain how they are toasted. She only had six beans for her snack. My heart melted.

We walked with her for a while longer and chatted about everything and anything.

Esmeralda: (picks up a colorful bug from under a rock) I’m going to make good money today. When I find this bug I’m lucky and tourists take lots of photos and give me good tips. One time someone gave me $100 dollars.

Eventually we parted ways and the first thought in both of our minds was:

“We need to find some papaya for Esmeralda”.

Turns out that most of the store owners didn’t even know what a papaya was and getting a papaya on this island was impossible. We mentioned the encounter to the owner of the hostel we were at. Her daughter is Esmeralda’s classmate. She told us that Esmeralda’s dad had left the picture  a few years ago and that her mother isn’t the best parent either. Sparing the very sad details, she hasn’t been dealt the best cards in life.

However, Esmeralda is an industrious little human and she supports herself by letting tourists take photos of her with her alpaca. She works in the afternoons after school and all weekend to buy her own school supplies and clothes with her earnings. Tour guides also know her and make sure their groups stop by to meet her; aware of her situation they often bring clothes or toys for her. The hostel owner mentioned that Esmeralda had to repeat third grade because she is a slow learner, struggles at school and doesn’t receive help at home with her homework. Regardless, Esmeralda struck me as an incredibly bright, smart and unique individual.

After learning all this and not finding any papaya, we decided to give Esmeralda a small monetary gift. We spotted her walking home with her alpaca a few hours later and I ended up spending the next hour or so sitting on a cobblestone street playing with her, Maribel and Bertita and making videos. She is actually quite the filmmaker.

I never saw her again after that afternoon and didn’t get to say goodbye. She wasn’t around before we left the following day. When talking about Isla del Sol with fellow travelers I always ask if they met her, or if someone is going to travel there I ask them to make sure they look for her and tell her we said hi.

I think of her often and I hope she is doing well. I wonder who she will become when she grows up.  I hope life is as generous to her as she was with us. I hope she will one day live somewhere with lots of papaya. I hope she is safe and I hope she is loved on some level. I hope to see her again.

IMG_3603
This is the only photo I have with her. She wasn’t as serious as she looks in this photo.
IMG_3523
Albino, the alpaca, not a llama.

PS: Unfortunately this free blog platform doesn’t support video files. If I start taking this blog more seriously and switch to a better platform I’ll post some of the videos Esmeralda took.

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