He was only 14 years old.
This child, who barely came up to my shoulder, was running amongst our three tables. He carried with him a large tray, loaded down with fish, vegetables, and meat.
He was our server.
I can’t put into words what I felt when our bus pulled out of Tiger Leaping Gorge and into a lonely roadside motel; the only color in its dusty parking lot being the Tibetan prayer flags hanging from the “Hotel” sign. Upon entering the dining hall, to the many apologies of my tour guide, who said that this was one of the better, cleaner places to eat out on the road, I was met with this young boy, most likely Tibetan, wearing a Denver Nuggets jersey. He gestured us to our three tables and then ran out the back way to what I assume was the kitchen.
We all sat down, ready to eat off our plastic wrapped plates (which we all re-disinfected), and watched as the boy ran back into the room, balancing his oversized serving tray loaded down with 3 sets of vegetables, soup, and meat in his hands. He served us all quickly and quietly, lighting a candle on the table to dissuade mosquitoes and flies from the food.
I could tell that we were all surprised that this kid was our waiter.
Watching him run around, moving and clearing plates of food to make room for more food, I suddenly felt incredibly overwhelmed. This boy, who was so polite with dealing with our group’s infinite requests, was 14 years old. He ran back and forth from our tables to the kitchen (and this was a particularly hot and dusty day); he greeted new customers and showed them to their tables; he climbed behind the restaurant’s bar counter, searching for what I can only assume was soda for customers.
I found myself comparing who I was at 14 to this boy. I didn’t have to work at 14. I was told to study, to not worry about things like making money. I was never loaded down with food to give others. I never had to serve anyone.
I never had to worry.
For a moment, I wondered what the 13 year old boy on our tour felt like, knowing that he was given the opportunity to travel the world, while a boy who was barely older than he has to work in a restaurant on a roadside motel.
Granted, this boy’s family might be the owners of this motel, but I was still so impressed with this boy’s politeness and cheery demeanor. It has to be hard for him, living in the middle of nowhere on a hill, where the only people who stop by are on the way somewhere else. And while he seemed cheery and energetic, there was still this air of loneliness around him.
Sometimes I felt as if I forgot that my server was only a kid, but then I’d be reminded when someone asked him for something, like more tea, and he’d answer in this wispy, slightly hoarse voice. His was the voice of a boy who was on the brink of puberty, whose voice hadn’t completely cracked yet, but at the same time sounded much older than the body that it was coming from.
The thought crossed my mind that I should stay there. I wanted to get to know this kid, help him somehow, watch him grow up and maybe go to university. I suddenly felt as if I wanted to be his surrogate older sister, or maybe bring him another basketball jersey from a country that is only seen through the occasional Hollywood movie or website. I felt for this boy, for his situation, for his possible loneliness.
I wanted to stay longer. I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to be part of the daily life of the motel. I wanted to know the name of the place I was at.
But the tour was leaving. I was being herded back into the bus, leaving a trail of food carnage and dirty dishes for this boy to clear away. I took a backwards glance at this roadside motel as it, or we, disappeared into the distance.
Sometimes I regret not getting a photo of our 14 year old server, of the dining room, and of the hotel. But then, at the time I felt as if recording this experience in a medium that was not memory would have ruined what I felt at that instant. The picture would have captured what I felt then, and maybe my memory would think to let go of any feelings I had, as these feelings would have been transfered into an image, not the situation.
I’ll never forget that experience, of eating “farmer’s food” at a roadside motel, of being served by a boy who looked too small to lift a chair.
Of having what was the best meal on the entire trip.