FROM READERS: My bus brother

Monday, December 24, 2012 | 10:00 a.m. CST

Mel West is the director of PET Project in Columbia, an organization with a goal of giving the gift of mobility around the world. This post first published on his blog on October 13, 2011.

On a crowded bus in San Jose, Costa Rica, March, 1986: 

My brother and I rode together for many blocks, our hands grasping the overhead rail of the swaying bus. His hands were thick with the calluses of hard work, with broken nails and a missing finger. His arms were deeply tanned and scarred. The top of his head came to a bit above my shoulder, and our bodies frequently touched as we sought to keep our balance on turns. We had never met before and will likely never meet again on this Earth. Our only conversation was a simple "Bueno dia" and a few words about the weather as I sought to practice the Spanish language I had come to Costa Rica to learn. 

As we rode I put together his story in my mind. He had been born into a poverty in rural Costa Rica when I was about ten years old. He married a senorita from a neighboring community and they began to raise corn, beans and children. His farm was too small, and the competition from imported corn and beans was too severe. They were forced from the land and moved in a barrio in San Jose. Two more children were born for a total of five. Twice dirt-floored lean-to's of tin and tar paper were added to their small house. A simple wire provided electricity for one light bulb and a radio. A homemade mud stove with space for two cooking pots stood in the corner of the room used as a kitchen, burning the pruned coffee plant wood brought home by a son. 

His job at the sawmill paid the equivalent of about $2.50 U.S.dollars a day. The last child was born with a birth defect and the mother cannot work. My brother has a third grade education and both his sons have had to quit school at the age of 12 to help support the family. One works on a coffee plantation, pruning the plants for $1 a day, while the other washes dishes at a restaurant for a similar wage. With a family income of about $900 a year for the support of seven persons, they live with pride, dignity and poverty. 

The blue jeans he has on today, scrubbed clean, pressed, and with many patches, are one of the two pairs he owns. The other he reserves for church and special occasions. Each night his wife washes and irons dry his work pair. His father was poor, he is poor, and his children will be poor. No amount of hard work has changed that, nor will it change it. 

Beside him I stand - educated, affluent, and with children who are educated and affluent. I have money in the bank, a more than adequate home, and a secure future. Had he been born in a farmhouse in Missouri, and I been born in a farmhouse in Costa Rica, he would be me, and I would be him - and we would still be brothers.

A Jewish proverb asks the question: "When is it the light of day? Is it when we can see a camel coming and know it is a camel? Is it when we see a tree and know it is an olive tree? When is the light of day?" The sage answered: "It is the light of day when you can see someone coming and know that they are your brother or sister."

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising Editor is Joy Mayer.

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