20 days. It had already been twenty days. Twenty days in Medellín. Twenty days surrounded by the fungus-covered lime green walls of my private room at the back of the Black Sheep hostel. Twenty days of backpackers shuffling in, shuffling out, flirting, searching, flailing. Twenty days of scorching hot afternoons and buckets-of-rain evenings.
And twenty days of muttering the same three words while fingering the sleep out of my swollen morning eyes.
“Buenos días Olga.”
“Buenos días David, cómo estás?”
“Bien gracias. Cómo estás vos?”
And that is it. Every morning, without modification, the same for twenty consecutive mornings. For some, consistency trumps creativity. Even her inflections never changed, always with a hint of half smile, an accent of enthusiasm on the second syllable of my name – so characteristic of Paisa affability.
Olga is the maid at the Black Sheep hostel. She is slightly younger, but just as frumpy as her name makes her out to be. She sits with her legs apart, her elbows resting on her knees, the steeple of her pressed-together hands supporting her double chin. Olga works six days, sometimes seven, a week. When the toilet is clogged, you go to Olga. When you need your clothes washed, you take them to Olga. When the trash needs to be emptied, you gesture it to Olga. And you smile, awkwardly, before spinning on your heels to find something to do, someone to talk to. But you do not know Olga’s name. You will only be here three days after all. Besides, what would you possibly talk about?
But today Olga does not say that she is “bien, gracias.” Today she says “pues, no sé”, well, I don’t know.
Over the next week I will give four presentations in two languages on two different continents. I will take five flights. I will not sleep. And I am not ready for any of it. So, still rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, staring into the blue glow of my always-on laptop, I consider not taking the bait, not asking her what’s wrong. But I’ve taken an immense liking to Olga. When Revaz introduces himself as my friend, Olga says, “oh, I’m also David’s friend, isn’t that right David?” And that makes me chuckle.
“What’s the matter Olga?”
“Today is my birthday.”
“Excellent! Then why such a sad face?”
Sullenly she looks down. “Sometimes, some people spend all their lives concerned about others, but then no one else ever takes the time to think about them.”
Immediately it all became so clear. I didn’t know the specifics – whether her entire family had forgotten her birthday, or just her co-workers, or the whole world, but I did understand the core emotion running through her veins. It is something that we all feel, almost every day. That we think about, that we do more for, that we are more concerned about our friends and our family than they are for us. Deep down we all fashion ourselves unrewarded burning stars of unrequited love and kindness.
Olga’s eyes turn glossy and her chin quivers. She wavers her hand in front of her mouth as if she had just eaten spicy food and a barely audible “how embarrassing” slips out as she darts around the corner.
What do I do? Chase after her? Hug her? Take her out to breakfast?
I do nothing. I add more slides to my presentation. Thirty minutes later a skinny British girl hands Olga a bunch of dirty clothes with an awkward smile.
The presentation is complete. What a huge relief. Olga has been avoiding my eyes all day at the hostel. I decide on a bouquet of flowers. I only have 45 minutes until her shift is over. I run to the neighborhood supermarket as the late afternoon’s first sprinkling drops of humidity start to dot the sidewalk. Inside the supermarket is a madhouse. Old women reeking of generic perfume, young product promoters pushing samples of this and that in every aisle. Rich kids rolling around on their damn skate-shoes while their parents babble away on their cell phones.
I feel my blood pressure rising. I become extremely irritated. And when I see the length of the check-out lines I consider saying fuck it, no flowers. Then I remember Olga’s glossy eyes and the British girl’s awkward smile and they both irritate me too. Why am I doing this? I wonder. Why am I buying these flowers when it doesn’t even make me feel good. And it probably won’t even make Olga feel any better. What if I am embarrassing her?
At the end of each month the regular shoppers of the local supermarket receive their frequent shopper points and they come ready to haggle with the checkers over how many of their points they can use at once. They yell, yell, yell. Then give up and laugh.
Except the woman in front of me isn’t giving up and she isn’t laughing. She is at least 60 and I’m overcome by an immense desire to push her. Push her out of line. Push her out of the store. Push her all the way back to her apartment. The young and beautiful checker, however, isn’t getting upset like me. It is as if they have been waiting all day, maybe all their lives, to have this very argument about how many frequent shopper points can be used during one single purchase. I look down at the bouquet of flowers feeling more dejected and resigned than I’ve felt in a long, long time. And I wait.
I walk back into the hostel feeling slightly better. I suppose I have to – you can’t hand someone a birthday bouquet of flowers with a frown.
“Is Olga here?”
“You just missed her – she just took off. Who are those flowers for?”
“For Olga. Today is her birthday.”
“Ahh, you just missed the cake we had to celebrate too.”
“So you all knew it was her birthday?”
“Of course! Why do you ask?”
“She just seemed so sad today.”
“Well that’s Olga, that’s her way of being. She’s just a sad person.”
We cut a coke bottle in half, fill it with water, and put the flowers in the cleaning closet where she’s sure to see them.
The next day I wake up early, my last day in Medellín. Rubbing the sleep out of my swollen eyes I see Olga in the hallway. We go through our routine. Our four daily lines. And then she matter-of-factly says thank you for the flowers and starts mopping the bathroom floors before everyone else wakes up.