First World Problems
Sofia Cole has always been able to get anything she wants through begging, flirting, and shameless manipulation of everyone around her.
Sofia doesn’t think that Dad sending her on a gap service year to Guyana to address how “spoiled” she is will change any of that.
Sofia just might be proven wrong.
Sofia’s had a really rough year – busted for cheating at prep school, dumped – dumped! – for the first time ever, and her new non-profit working stepmother is turning out to be an uppity bitch.
She deserves to treat herself. But when she throws herself a birthday party with 20 of her closest friends in Paris and (accidentally!) maxes out her dad’s credit card in the process, he’s had enough of her attitude. As punishment, he switches her planned gap year touring Europe to one doing community service work with the evil stepmother’s relief organization in Guyana.
The rural village of Dabu needs help in every area from education to getting safe drinking water. But Sofia’s more concerned about her roommate Callum, the gardening expert, who calls Sofia “Princess” and scoffs at her distaste for sweaty, muddy, iguana-eating, outhouse-using life in Guyana.
Eventually, life on the equator, her work in the village, and especially Callum – with his brooding eyes and bewitching New Zealand accent – start to grow on Sofia. Life is rough in Guyana, but it’s roughest on the girls, whose families are too poor to send only the most promising boys in school. They’re trapped in a cycle that will keep them from ever making a better life for themselves, or for the village. Worse, Callum doesn’t seem to think any of the changes Sofia envisions are actually necessary.
Determined to change the girls’ futures, she comes up with a strategy to help them and, ultimately, the village. But what starts out as a plan to convince Callum and her father that she’s fallen in love with Guyana, turns into the realization that maybe she’s falling for Callum, too. And that by changing these girls’ lives, she might also be changing her own.
As we approached the rainforest, it became apparent how thick the leaves were.
We stood at the edge, and I peered inside. There were countless shades of lush green, with leafy filling on all sides from the floor to as far up as I could crane my neck. Triangle-patterned trunks arched into the cloud-studded sky, waving palm fronds and dangling coconuts over our heads. The sounds were the buzzes and chirps I heard from inside our house, but amplified times ten. This was certainly not a place anyone would go to have some quiet thinking time.
I held back a whimper. “Are we going in there?” Playing up the scared girl usually made guys feel more masculine, more needed.
But Callum just raised his eyebrows again. He had to be giving himself a headache. “If you want to make a phone call, yeah. We have to go in there.”
Ugh. I just turned up the smile and put a little more skip in my step. “Oh, it’s fine. I’m just glad you’re here.”
He tilted his head. “Okay.” Then he started down the path. Occasionally, he would glance back as I stepped around mud puddles and over logs, then quicken his pace in response. Well, whatever. I’d done enough jogging on treadmills and sweating on ellipticals and stationary bikes that I at least had the stamina for intense hiking through the freaking rainforest.
That’s when a shrill, high-pitched shriek stopped me in my tracks. It was directly overhead and sounded like the cross between a woman screaming and a fire alarm, and it could only communicate one thing: I had to get the hell out of here.
Terror thundered through me. Suddenly my boots felt stuck fast to the mud, and my eyes darted back and forth, searching for the source of the horrible sound. About twenty feet above me, a hairy black demon-creature with ridiculously long limbs, a yellow face, and beady black eyes stared down at me, then shrieked again. I shrieked right back.
“Shit!” Callum hissed.
“What? What did we do?” My words came out in a panicked, breathless rush.
“No, literally. Shit. Monkey shit! Let’s move!” Then he hooked his thumbs around his backpack straps, leaned in, and plowed down the gloppy, squelching path.
At least my boots were made for this sort of thing. Probably. Tiny globs of stinky brown paste slammed into my arms, flattening against my skin. Adrenaline twisted my stomach tighter and tighter as my leg muscles burned, trying to keep up with Callum. If someone had asked me to imagine my worst personal hell, it wouldn’t have been nearly as bad as this. A sob worked its way out of my throat and that started the tears flowing.
I’d remained stoic the entire time I’d been here, but something about having monkey shit smeared on my arms and in my hair left me completely undone.
I could barely see with the tears streaming out of my eyes, but I followed Callum’s every move as he darted past large leaves. He held their large stalks back for me, and I stayed close on his heels so they wouldn’t thwack back in my face. Everything was a blur of green and black and the brown of the trail beneath my boots—thank God for those boots—and the surround sound of monkeys screeching ringing through my ears. This was one of those sounds I knew would haunt my nightmares. I just had to hope that the smell wouldn’t transfer as well.
After a few more seconds, the space around us started to get brighter and brighter, and the screeching receded. The combination of sprinting and crying had left barely any space for air in my lungs, so when Callum finally stopped in a clearing, I stopped, doubled over, and hungrily gasped for air. I rested my elbows on my knees, too exhausted to even think about standing upright again to reach for the water skin in my pack.
I let my vision fill with the tall brown and green savannah grass. A few seconds later, the mouth of a canteen, top already screwed off, appeared before my eyes.
“Two things,” Callum said in an uncharacteristically gentle voice. “Breathe deep into your belly, and drink as soon as you can.”
Slowly, I unfolded myself to stand upright, startled at how close Callum stood to me. His hand floated, open, near my upper arm. My eyes flicked to his hand, then up to his eyes. He was waiting to steady me if I fell.
I swallowed hard, trying to bring some moisture to the dry rasp in my throat. “Thank you,” I managed before I tipped some of the water from his canteen over my tongue.
He nodded. “You okay? The altitude change can be killer, even if you are in good shape.”
My lungs were finally filling again. “I’m okay,” I wheezed and glanced up. “How much farther?”
“Not too far now. I brought you through the shortest part of the forest. Thought it would be easiest, between the humidity and trying to avoid snakes. I guess it’s also the most monkey-infested this time of year.”
“Nice planning,” I mumbled, picking up the end of a chunk of my hair and pulling it in front of me for inspection. The stink flooded my nose. “Oh, God,” I said, dropping it and turning to the side.
“Yeah, they got me, too. Nothing can really prepare you for a literal shit-fest in the jungle.” His eyebrows knit together, making a wrinkle of concern above his nose.
He glanced at me as I pulled up to my full height and put my hands on my hips. I tried to keep my heavy breathing not-so-obvious, but from the look of concern on his face, I wasn’t doing a great job.
“You’re okay, right?”
I looked up and nodded. When my eyes finally connected with his face, I saw the humungous monkey pie sitting right on top in his floppy hair, like one of the British Royal Family’s fascinators.
A laugh bubbled up in my throat, and I knew before I even tried that there was no way I could stifle it. Callum caught on a split second after my smile started, even though he was still clearly confused. “What? What is it?”
He looked behind him, then down at his shirt, but by now I was laughing too hard to say anything.
Then he raked his hand back through his hair, right through the glob of poop.
Watching his face transform from confused to horrified was possibly the most satisfying part of this whole thing.
“I may have been freaking out about monkey shit in my hair,” I giggled, “but you didn’t even know it was there!”
A blend of mortification, disgust, and anger flashed over Callum’s face. “Aw, this is… I mean, I’ve had it on my clothes before, but… I was just going to swipe it off with some leaves, but now…”
My giggles were irrepressible. Callum looked like he had been finger painting with monkey poo. It made the comparatively tiny globs of it in my hair seem like a minor nuisance.
“Shit!” he said, still holding his hand in front of his face and looking around helplessly.
“Literally,” I giggled. He looked up like he was planning to be annoyed with me, but as soon as he saw my face, he cracked a smile, too.