On Sunday afternoon, Bruno and I went in a park, Paseo de la Costa, with our friend Roy. The sprawling park has an entire coast-bordering street closed off for the safety and enjoyment of rollerbladers, runners, and the like. The surf is glittered with zig-zagging kite-surfers and the grassy hills are blanketed with clusters of friends and family passing mate and keeping a keen ear out for when the ice cream/popcorn man rolls his bike cart their way.
As we walked to find our preferred place in the grass, I commented to Bruno and Roy, “It is wild to live in a country where although differences exist, everyone partakes in the same pastime — taking the folding chairs to the closest public green space to “tomar unos mates.” We walked passed all sorts of people — teens in that “hands-all-over-each-other” love, young couples guiding helmeted tricyclists, smartphone brandishing gaggles of girls, and seasoned slow-moving shufflers — but each group had a mate set slung around one person’s shoulder — almost to a fault. The presence of across-the-country commonality is what feels the most foreign to me — most unlike what I find familiar.
Later in the afternoon, as we sat circled around our own mate set, we looked up to the sound of clapping. It began scattered, but within a few moments the rising sound drew our collective attention to a trio walking between us and the coast. It was a woman and a crying child — maybe 5 years old, and an elderly man. My first thought, was “maybe he is a decorated veteran.” Or “maybe there is some disability I don’t see.” But the applause stayed within the beat of the start of a slow clap — steady and easy to follow. The applause moved with the three like a shadow. People were attentive-- standing vigil over this crying child and his accompaniment. Finally, a woman strode towards the boy — perched now on the elderly man’s shoulders. Her hands were stretched out until she held him. He stopped crying and we all stopped clapping.
I asked Bruno and Roy if they knew what happened, what it was all about. They both had never seen anything like it. My second source was Google. I skimmed a few ex-pat blogs to learn that on beaches in Brazil and across Argentina, this clapping to find a lost child — or more accurately clapping to alert the parent — is a time-tested strategy. A child goes to play in the waves and unbeknownst to him, he moves down the beach with the undertow and becomes disoriented. Whoever finds him first puts them on their shoulders and walks up and down the beach clapping. The crowd joins in to amplify the efforts until the child is returned to his family.
So later, when Bruno looked up from the conversation and asked, “is that boy crying because he’s lost?” We knew what to do. The couple next to us held the boy on their shoulders to make him the most visible — his toy dinosaurs clutched in each fist. And we began clapping, our eyes set on the lost boy to inform the others of the nature of our applause. The sound of hands joining the noise alongside us brought tears to my eyes. The beat, at first scattered -- uneven -- confused, soon swelled into a sea of clarity, one beat performing as an alert system, waiting for the parents to look up from their mate and check if their child had strayed.
As I listened to our field of fellow clappers my eyes searched for the parent and I thought of my single donation earlier that day which, compounded with more than a thousand other single donations, transformed into months worth of relief for Syrian families. I thought of my own upbringing in an individualistic culture and how this collective South American tactic was plumb brilliance. I thought of the teachings I grew up with — one Shepherd finding the lost sheep. No one ever told me what His searching strategy was. Growing up in the US, my imagination drew up one bearded man clutching a staff walking hill over hill in search of the sheep. It wasn’t too far off my rom-com, Knight-in-Shining armor fantasy. One man will search for me.
Our day at the park makes me curious of the one-man rescue team. Perhaps when an Argentine or Brazilian child listens to the story of the Lost Sheep, they don’t see the single shepherd. Instead, they hear the sounds of the fields clapping, or whistling, or lighting small fires to alert the network of other sheep-finders until the sheep is found. As a girl who sat among the swelling thunder of attention, I can tell you it is a rescue story with more than one child feeling found.
Home is in North Carolina. But, I take seriously Wendell Berry's imperative, "Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction."