Gift for life.

Gift arrive today.

What gift arrives today? replied Gwen, who recognised Wilson’s number but not the content of the message from the jovial and effusive charity liaison.

Arrive Gift today, make you happy forever.

Eternal happiness was not the first grand claim Wilson had made, but the transactions between Gwen and the children’s charity usually flowed in the opposite direction. Appreciation letters were common, especially approaching Christmas, but never before a gift. Thabani’s letter had impressed Gwen and Dara immensely, for its linguistic competence and the cute drawing of a tropical palm tree, despite the children’s home lying in the heart of southern Zimbabwe’s arid region.

He’s clever, Gwen had told Wilson.

No, is not Clever, is Thabani, he’d replied.

“You should give Wilson some lessons in grammar, and tactful language,” quipped Dara light-heartedly. The grammar lessons did not eventuate, nor did the sponsorship the couple had initially requested. They’d been matched with 3-year-old Rose and had been quite content. But they soon discovered that Rose would not be receiving their benevolence. When they contacted Wilson, he informed them Rose had never existed. Maybe they were thinking of Primrose, or her identical sisters Prudence and Privilege.

Sensing their disappointment, and determined to find a child to benefit from the couple’s goodwill, Wilson had messaged soon after,

You want Charity?

Us, charity? This wasn’t making any sense. Gwen understood the difficulty of communicating in a second language, her students faced it every day, but now Wilson seemed to be offering them charity. What is happening?

To be honest, Wilson, we’ve almost lost hope, they’d confessed after hearing the news of Rose and failing to secure another sponsor child.

No, not lose Hope, Hope and Faith I see today with my very own eyes, this I am sure.

Gwen was buoyed by Wilson’s irrepressible optimism and his continued dedication in undeniably challenging circumstances, and she and Dara were determined to provide an impoverished child with a better life. But even after endless trials and tribulations with their charitable efforts, they still had no idea why they would now be the recipients of a gift.

“Maybe it’s a thank you for the water pump we funded, suggested Dara. “or the equipment for the sewing and carpentry workshops. Wilson did say the sewing machines were ‘great for Blessing’ though I’m sure he meant to say ‘a grateful blessing’.”

“Perhaps, but why send us a gift, and how can Wilson be sure it’ll arrive today? Nothing sent between here and Zimbabwe has ever arrived on time.”

Then the couple heard a noise. A noise that would change their lives forever, just as Wilson had promised.

Ding, dong!

Gwen opened the door. Standing in front of her was not a harried delivery driver demanding a signature. At their door stood a shy young African boy gazing up at her with big, brown eyes.

“Hello, how are you?” he whispered.

“My name is Gift Matebe.”

Image: Jess Bailey

A trippy hippy island and a frightening encounter.

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The chants didn’t quite skip across the water, they bounded across the lake. The darkness served only to compound the spiritual bombardment emanating from the loud speakers on the shores of Lago Atitlan.

Our boat slid across the oil-slick bay, as if floating on a wave of divine inspiration. We disembarked and picked our way through the narrow lanes of San Marcos with just the faint light of a tiny torch, trusting that some form of higher being would guide us to our lodging.

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Our faith was restored after we reached our private little eco-cabin at La Paz Hostel. It was here that we drifted to sleep to the tunes of wellness zealots who had found a new home in San Marcos.

The wellness zealots woke us before the sun and we decided to continue our personal transformation with a session of Yoga before breakfast. Feeling aligned and centred, we set off for a walk to San Pedro and its famous market.

As we ambled along the winding road which hugs the shores of the immensely picturesque Lago Atitlan, past fields of crops and scarred hillsides not yet recovered from the recent hurricane, we pondered the presence of so many westerners chasing enlightenment in San Marcos. We questioned whether any of the local people shared the passion for self-awareness and the quest for a metaphysical metamorphosis.

We were soon to find out.

The walk and the views had prompted a degree of introspection among all of us, but we were soon rudely awakened from this bliss.

Two young local men emerged from the bushes as we rounded a bend. They greeted us, and we responded. They then demanded money. We politely refused. They demanded again, in a more threatening tone. Again, we politely refused, trying to hide the panic in our voices. The locals insisted, and produced machetes. Big machetes. They pointed the machetes at us and repeated their demands for money, cameras – anything. We backed off and as much as we tried to remain calm and assertive. We were genuinely frightened that the carefully-sharpened edge of their machetes could soon part us with our valuables, or something much worse.

We turned, quickened our stride and walked back around the bend we had just passed, checking continually over our shoulders to see if they were following. The distant rumble of a motor vehicle and the menacing swoops of birds of prey overhead were the only other sounds on this quiet stretch of road.

Eventually, we put enough distance between ourselves and the opportunistic locals, who disappeared into the bushes.

A farmer on a rise above the bend looked up and was surprised to see us round the corner we had passed but moments earlier. He asked us what happened and then offered to walk us back to the nearest village – displaying his own large machete. No thanks.

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Dazed, shocked, frightened and jolted savagely from our tranquility, we stopped and regathered. It was only through sheer fortune that we had not been robbed, injured or worse. It was also through sheer fortune that the distant rumble of a motor vehicle belonged to a taxi which pulled up beside us. We hopped in, relieved to be driven the rest of the way to San Pedro.

A brief conversation with the locals on the bus did little to settle our jangled nerves. They told us that even they are reluctant to walk that stretch of road because of the threat of robbery.

Not quite the serenity we’d expected.

Image: Rachelle Blake