Once in Bolivia, I was served in a restaurant by a pre-teen. The restaurant was filled with foreigners like ourselves, and she was struggling to keep up. Her outfit would have fit perfectly in a retro American diner, if it wasn’t so weather beaten, torn and covered in dust.
The girl buckled carrying bottles of one litre pilsners to the table for my friends and I. Awkwardly, she heaped the beers on the table. As she was fumbling, one slipped and rolled towards the edge. She snatched it, but only just. My fellow backpackers looked nervously at one another.
She filled our glasses, her tiny hands grappling with the oversized, slippery bottles. When she filled mine, it frothed, spilling everywhere. She looked exhausted. I thanked her.
An hour later, our meals came. Then, she charged us a completely different price to what appeared on the menu. She ended up with a sizable tip.
I couldn’t exactly place why I felt so guilty. Earlier that day I’d seen two small boys shepherding cattle to the village. The road was dusty, and the boys looked ill. In passing, I wondered how many days a week they were at school. More than the days they spent shepherding, I hoped.
However, the girl was different. Something bugged me deeply. Maybe my gripe is cultural. Back home, children often help out their parents around the house. Asking the boys to watch the sheep hardly seems exploitative. But, a small girl serving beer to backpackers? She’s not out in the sun all day, doesn’t have sole responsibility over the entire family’s livelihood and doesn’t she have to deal with the physical exertion of moving cattle. Instead, she puts drinks on tables, and takes money. While children help out on farms everywhere (to varying degrees), the idea of making them work in the family restaurant would seem abusive outside the third world. Perhaps it is.
Either way, I felt intensely unnerved by the experience. I couldn’t shake the image of that young girl piled up with oversized beer bottles. I felt embarrassed; for myself, and for her. She was so small, compared to the few dozen retired, overweight gringos. Everyone had to wait a long time for their meals, so each time a plate left the kitchen, the whole room stared it down. Like starving pigs.
Perhaps her job wasn’t so different to her brother’s.