MY landlord asked in Spanish if my girlfriend and I could be the godparents of his six-year-old daughter. I guess I didn’t really consider the responsibility. I only saw it as an adventure.
I said yes.
It wasn’t until we were on the way to the church for the baptism on Saturday night that I really even got to speak to my goddaughter. She stared out the window at the traffic pushing its way on-and-off through the narrow Trujillo laneways, in the backseat with my girlfriend Tiffany and I.
I remember how formal it looked, how nervous or vulnerable she was pretending not to be, in a white baptism dress and a garland of pink flowers on her head.
She spoke few words in English, maybe a ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’, but when we first met she did recite the Lord’s Prayer, at the request of her mother. But somehow, I began talking in Spanish. It was broken and clumsy and needed some work, but slowly the conversation became less awkward between an Australian and his goddaughter.
“Cuantos anos tienes?” she asked Tiffany and I. How many years do you have.
At first I didn’t understand, but it clicked in my mind, and with a proud ‘ohh. Entiendo!’ I said, happily, “Tengo Veintiocho anos.” I have twenty eight years. (In Spanish, think of external forces like cold and warmth, hunger and thirst, and the years you have as a possession, and not a statement of who you are).
“Te ves mas de treinta,” she said. I knew enough to know this meant, You look more than 30.
It was the first time I have been considered looking older than I am, but she was six, and I wore a tie, and had grown a beard. And my beard was showing the occasional gray hair.
There was another moment that really stood out to me in that taxi ride, during which the car continued to stop and start and push its way ahead of the disorder through the laneways. We were talking about kangaroos and koalas and crocodiles, although she only reacted to the kangaroos.
I said that I needed to learn Spanish.
“Por Que?” she asked. Why?
And maybe I was over examining the basic question from a young girl, but in that ‘Por Que’ I saw a girl in her own world that had continually been taught that English was the important language, that Spanish wasn’t as necessary, and that as a foreigner who already had mastered the one language, didn’t need Spanish. It made me sad.
“Porque todos aqui hablan en Espanol,” I said. Because everone here speaks in Spanish.
‘Ah,’ she said, and accepted the answer.
And that’s when we arrived at the Santa Rosa Church.
I have these doubts and wonder what it is I can do for a godchild when I return to live a world away. At the very least, presents for Christmas and birthdays are important, and so I think are the occasional letters.
By this action alone it is clear to me that I cannot just return to Australia with some happy memories and some stories to tell. I am collecting knowledge, but responsibilities too.
I have rarely been in a catholic church, but the last time would have been in visiting the second floor of the Church of Francisco in Cusco, with giant pillars and gold chandeliers, and wooden carvings that took decades for slaves to craft. Compared to that church, or even to the one on the hilltop of Huanchaco, this was a humble building. It was old, with remnants of the original painting on the walls, with the elaborate designs of the Mother Mary and of Santa Rosa and crosses in various shapes and forms around the building.
We stood at the front at the baptism bowl with the padre leading the service. Eight family members stood by the two pews recording the event on their phones. The padre spoke in Spanish and everyone repeated, knowing exactly what to say, and moved their hands to the signs of the cross in a specific order.
It was then clear to me that nobody had really considered the ignorance of a foreigner, standing at the front with everyone. It wasn’t only just the lack of Spanish. The family knew that. What they hadn’t considered, perhaps, was a foreigner who didn’t know how the structure of catholic ceremony worked. I hadn’t been actively involved since I was expelled from my catholic school in grade 4. These aren’t things you tell the parents and grandparents of your goddaughter.
But there was a powerful moment. It felt like it had meaning, the sort of intensity in which I now try to reach for my phone to collect it. My goddaughter stood at the bowl and the padre poured water down her forehead. I stood less than a metre away. She didn’t shy from the water. Her face was calm. It barely dripped. She stepped back, as did the rest of us, and then we held lit candles as the padre read to us in Spanish.
I’ve been thinking about my own baptism since Saturday night. It was a different sort of event. My family didn’t celebrate it, that’s for sure. They treated it like a 15-year-old getting a tattoo. Well, no, with a tattoo there would have been a reaction, and that is not the same as indifference.
There’s a church in Perth designed for suburbanite snobs to keep walls up and pretend they are better than everyone else around them, and my uncle and aunt took me there. I am glad they encouraged it because I wanted to do it for some time, but I sat in a bathtub full of water and in front of everyone in the church in swim shorts, and the pastor pulled my head into the water carefully. When I emerged the room cheered like I had done something great, and I suppose I wanted that feeling of acceptance from the crowd to last, like with my friends who sang with the band every Sunday.
New Spanish Word acquired: Bautizo