My brain is buzzing but my face is calm. I’m helping an elderly client with a broken leg walk to his chair. He sits down next to his wife, across the table from a representative.
We’re in a bank; a very big bank where everything is tan. The floor tiles are tan, the kiosks are tan, and every square inch of wall space is a slightly duller color of tan.
I feel white. I feel out of place.
A good chunk of my week is spent frequenting banks, so I know it’s not that. There’s actually an air of confidence about me today: I’ve brought a whole family to open savings accounts including three clients. Six children tag along and take up most of the seats in the bank. The grandparents sit before me. The grandfather rubs the dusty cast on his leg and talks with the banker.
I feel too tall standing next to them. There are no more chairs, so I lean up against a pole and cross my arms.
The discomfort remains as I sit down next to the family. My brain is still buzzing. I assure them the process is painless and the next bank is even more accommodating – and hopefully less tan, I say under my breath.
I don’t know why I feel odd, but I do. We rally everyone to leave and I help the grandfather out the door. The sun is bright outside and the streets are busy. I lead the entire group to the next bank, walking in front.
My steps are heavy and loud. I feel foreign.
The next bank has green highlights and stark walls of eggshell-white. My expression is still confident, but the muddled feeling has grown. It takes twenty minutes before we get to the representative. I spend the entire time cracking my knuckles.
There are only two chairs again and the clients – an aunt and her niece – sit down side by side.
Instinctively, I go to the only thing in the room taller than me: another pole. This time I seat myself in a waiting-room chair with my back to the pole. I’m directly behind them and as the meeting starts, the feeling vanishes.
What happened? Suddenly my confident expression matches how I feel. At once, I’m proud of the work I’m doing. All of a sudden, my shoulders slacken in relief and my chest swells as fulfillment pours in. I’m thrilled to see two good, honest people each opening their first savings accounts ever at the ages of 24 and 43. This is great! It takes me a moment to understand why.
Simply put, I’m in the right place – literally. I’m in the back seat. I’m a facilitator and a friend. They talk with the representative and chat about this and that. When they have problems, they work to clarify the issue or the husband approaches and leans over to read a document.
I’m there to receive the nervous glance over the shoulder. I’m there to remind them of a phone number. I’m there to cover the $5 opening balance.
I feel normal. I feel in my place.
I remove my camera stealthily and snap a photo.
The truth is that everyone – myself included – dreams about doing something noble. I want to save someone from the grip, of one of poverty’s many arms and I want to feel good about it. However, if my uncomfortable feeling is any indication, that’s neither possible nor fulfilling. Progress grows in the same soil as its caretakers, not its benefactors. Development works from the ground up.
Sitting in the chair, I witness development.
I watch three people with the same culture, the same nationality, and the same language, work together to make themselves better off. And I do so from a proper vantage point. It just takes a set, physical position to understand it and see it for what it is.
It’s a really cool experience.
I want to bring you, the reader, as close to this moment as possible. If I could, I would tell you how they feel. What they experience. But I can’t and it would kind of defeat the purpose.
They open their accounts and make their first deposits. I shake hands with them and watch the entire family leave.
I feel awesome.
As I walk back to the office, I throw my hands up in the air and yell:
YES! like an idiot.
If anything, I’m extremely white, noticeable, and out of place, in this moment, on the busy streets of El Progreso.
And yet, I feel right as rain…