I came to that conclusion while waiting for a bus on the side of the Pan American Highway, that piece of road that runs from somewhere up in Canada to the tip of South America. The bus stop is very near one of the few stoplights on the highway and when the light turns red, a group of street (or highway, I guess) performers runs out into the road and juggles, unicycles, plays Andean flutes, does backflips, or some combination of all those things. I'm standing there enjoying the show, when one of them turns to me and shouts, "Papa Noel! Papa Noel, give me a dollar!" I looked around. The other folks waiting for the bus did not in any fashion fit the description of Santa Claus, so my expert deductive skills figured out that he must have been talking about me. So, as this offender stood in the median and the traffic started moving, I shouted back, "Have you been a good boy?" He nodded his head, but I still threw him only a quarter because I knew in my heart he most likely was lying.
And that would have been the end of it all, except for that little boy outside the TIA store in Cotacachi a few days later. He was cute, as most Ecuadoran children seem to be and his eyes sparkled with mischief. He crooked his finger at me and I suspected that he would ask for a nickel or some other small denomination. But when I leaned down to find out what he wanted, he promptly pulled on my beard, squealed and ran, crying, "Papa Noel! Papa Noel!" Coincidence, you say? I think not. I feel I am now in the center of a broad South American conspiracy to profile me as the ideal Santa.
Perhaps I should be flattered. After all, to already be identified as a local after such a short time here, speaks to my ability to assimilate, doesn't it? It's just that, well, Santa? I want to tell that street performer, that little boy, and yes, later, that vendor at the Plaza de los Ponchos in Otavalo, that I have, in fact, lost about twenty pounds since coming to Ecuador, which should boot me right out of the Santa category and into, maybe, a charming sort of pudgy elf group.
But I think it's my hair. Whiter than I recall it being, and somewhat long in its present state. And my Benedict Arnold beard, that betrayed me when I was in my Thirties and has added insult to grayer injury ever since. Luis, who works for us, suggested I should go up to the top of Mt. Imbabura with my eight tiny reindeer and swoop down on Peguche with my sleigh loaded with gifts for young and old. This, of course, came on the heels of him telling me the sad story of his life and how, as a child, he waited and waited for Papa Noel to appear every Christmas night, but he never came, which I assume led Luis to believe that he had been too bad for a visit from the jolly man. He insists that his life would be better if Santa actually brought him a gift this Christmas. That mischievous twinkle, by the way, does not leave the eyes of those cute children, even when they have reached, say, the age of Luis. Incidentally, I am not climbing that mountain on Christmas Eve, reindeer or no reindeer. Alpacas or no alpacas, as the case may be.
I am avoiding red this Christmas, and sweets, of course. I will take long walks and eat less so that next year at this time, I can be better suited for the tiny elf category. "Look, it's that skinny gray American!" they will say. And I will grab my stomach, laugh, and shake it like a bowl full of low calorie jelly.