Sunday, 8-Jan. 2012. 16:04.
Quetzaltenango (Xela for short, pronounced Shell-ah), Guatemala.
I saw the one-line classified ad on the back page of Xela Who, “Quetzaltenango’s leading culture & nightlife magazine”. It read: Soy milk & cheese for sale: 19 Av. 2-14, Zona 1. The next morning, happily starting at the top of my day’s to-do list, I walked down 19th Avenue, reading house numbers in an attempt to make sense of the unfamiliar address syntax. A friendly man tapped me on the shoulder, and asked if he could help me, admitting that, with my backpack and tiny notebook in-hand, I looked like a lost tourist. I showed him the address and conceded that I was new around here. Explaining to me that the 2 is for 2nd Street, and 14 the house number, we turned back, around the corner and halfway down the block, stopping in front of a nondescript metal door just beside to his own laundry service – so nice of him to chase me down! The door of his neighbor was padlocked, but a small sign had a phone number, which he called on his mobile, explaining that he had a tourist looking for milk. In the meantime we waited in his laundry, I learned his name was Mario and met his wife, and within minutes Mona, the soy milk lady, arrived and took me inside.
She was awesome, a fit and vibrant woman of 51 years, but she looked at least a decade younger. We talked for a while, 30 minutes at least, about many things. I explained how I came to find her and about my excitement, but more interesting was her story, about her soy milk, the process of how she makes it by hand, and why: Because she likes to drink it; disdains the chemical and inhumane process by which regular milk comes to market; how it’s naturally rich in calcium – much more than cows’ milk, in which calcium is largely an additive! – which she needs a lot of at her age; that she takes pleasure to sell a liter of her healthier milk for 10 Quetzals, the Guatemalan currency, well below the market standard of 17Q for cows’ milk. And when I commented on how young she looks, and that it’s common for vegetarians (and especially longtime vegans) to age gracefully, she proudly gestured that all her girlfriends are quite fat, and that her grandmother always drank soy milk and lived to be 97. Gently correcting me when I occasionally fumbled to say things in Spanish, I learned about her language school, one of the first in town, and how business is slow lately, and about her two children who have grown up so fast, but have benefited much from having foreigners around for the last 22 years. Finally, she gave me tons of advice about what to see and do in Guatemala, drawing maps for me on her whiteboard, and helped me choose which volcano to hike (as there are a plethora in the area). I eventually asked if she had any of that “soy cheese”, to which she replied that she’d make me one, which I could come pick up tomorrow or the next day. And since I don’t have a phone, she even showed me where her house is, just up the hill. With a hug we parted, exchanged names, and I bid Nora thank you and see you later.
For only US$1.25, I got what was for me a life-giving (instead of taking), healthy and delicious local luxury, made with love by a radiant, intelligent and professional, inspiring woman, free travel advice, great conversation, and a friend.
I love when ‘business’ is personal. May we all enjoy our dealings, not for what they enable us to do, but for the pleasure of serving and sharing that which makes us special with those we whom we choose to share it with.