Friday, July 25, 2008

French Fries and Ketchup

Whether or not we pay attention to the Peruvians, they pay attention to us. I understood this when, out of the blue, Villa asked me why gringos like 'papas fritas' so much, and then he added, 'with lots of ketchup.' I couldn't offer a reasonable explanation (I could only laugh), but he helped me by saying gringos like french fries the way Peruvians like rice. It is a legitimate comparison. How funny that he would notice such a detail. I wonder what else he and many other Peruvians have noticed but not had the nerve to ask about.

At this point I have said my good-byes and begun the process of getting back to the States. The term 'gut-wrenching' pales in comparison to what I'm feeling. When I had the last of my things packed that are actually coming home with me, I walked into the kitchen to see Villa and Maria sitting outside in my rocking chairs while Ina fussed at the children for something or other. I had taken the time to fix my hair and put on a little make-up (something I rarely do there) and the first thing Villa said was, "en ingles, 'You are beautiful.'" I immediately burst into tears, not because of the sentiment, but because he said it in English then looked away. Maria and Ina cried with me; Villa wouldn't look at me because pools were beginning to collect in his eyes, and the macho in him wouldn't actually let him shed a tear (especially after asking me a few days earlier why women cry so much - another question for which I had no reasonable explanation). Minutes later the four of us and a slew of kids stood on the street corner just outside the Jardin gate saying how much we love each other and promising that the time would go by fast and soon it would be time for me to return.

I wish I could say I was able to collect myself after the motokar pulled away, but I would be lying. Maria insisted on accompanying me to the airport, which only made walking through the security gate that much harder. The whole crowd of people just stared at us - two women sobbing almost hysterically, holding onto each other for dear life. Everything in me wanted to tear up my boarding pass, turn around, get back in the motokar with her, and go straight back to the house. But it was not to be - this time…

The plane took off and I could barely see the jungle through my tears. I was leaving home.

Now, in transit, I want to go back home - not to my house in the States, but to the home I just left. I said in an earlier blog that the fear of moving to Iquitos to live and work was gone - that feeling was reaffirmed through my departure. I left most of my possessions at the Jardin. The only things I am bringing home are clothes. Somehow it creates a tangible connection to know that my personal stuff is still there, waiting for me when I get home again for my brief visit in November. Now I begin the process of praying and waiting for God to open the final doors for my move, as I know all too well that if I try to make things happen in my time rather than His, nothing good will come of it. I pray that He will move me soon.

For now, if I can't be in the jungle, I just want to hurry up and be in S.C. again. And I look forward to hugging and kissing my mom at the end of my journey...

Thursday, July 24, 2008

T-Shirt Testimony

Nothing says 'gringo' like a group of white people standing on a street corner, looking both helpless and lost, yet not too lost because none of them need look very far to find another individual proudly sporting the exact same t-shirt advertising the love of God for all the Spanish-speaking world to read - in English. Does this mean I truly have become a local? Whatever it means, I couldn't help but chuckle to myself as I traversed the main thoroughfares of Iquitos running errands this morning; that's when I saw them. They stuck out like sore thumbs. Having just read a book on cross-cultural ministry (which I highly recommend in my 'Good Reads' section below) the thought occurred to me that, as Christians, we like to announce our presence, drawing as much attention to ourselves as possible, whether intentional or not. In our culture, t-shirts are cool, especially when they identify us as part of an elite group such as a sorority/fraternity, athletic organization, or, yes, a mission team. I'm certainly not bashing t-shirts, as I have been an avid collector myself in years past, but I am giving voice to a frustration I experience with greater frequency in direct proportion to the amount of time I live here that begs the question, 'Would Jesus wear a t-shirt?' Trite, I know, but valid nonetheless. Please forgive my cynicism - it is my current struggle. Have no fear, God is working it out in me in sometimes very painful ways, lest anyone would think my sarcasm is going unchecked!

Another truth that is becoming more and more apparent is that you can't really get to know people unless you can talk to them. I have been building relationships here for 7 years now and each time I return they are strengthened a little more, not by virtue of the fact that I am here, but because I have a greater ability to communicate than ever before. Learning Spanish and being able to sit down with people and have conversations without the aid of an interpreter has changed the dynamics of every relationship I have here. It has peeled away many layers of surface judgments (on both sides) to reveal the depths of the humanness of us all. For example, I went to Pastor German's house this week for what would be my final visit of the summer. Enith, her 3 daughters, and I all sat around the table laughing and talking about how we need to lose weight and how hard it is to do. At Maria's house for my farewell lunch, her husband excitedly showed me the trophy he'd received the previous weekend for winning a tournament with his, as he called it, 'old men's soccer team,' while her daughter described her agony as a mother whose 11 month old baby will be having surgery in Lima next week because she was born without bowels. At Margarita's house, during my surprise dinner last night, we laughed at her daughter talking about the boy she likes. Later I was fussed at for taking her daughter's side regarding the benefits of sleeping late, which Margarita says is just plain laziness. We take conversations like these for granted at home, because if we don't talk to people there, it's because we don't want to. But when you live in a foreign city with an unfamiliar language, you begin to realize how valuable little chats are to the process of relationship building.

I have relished the moments over this past week that I have been here alone, during which time I've been able to get outside the 'commercial district' (so to speak) of Iquitos and spend more time in the true neighborhoods, observing families going about their everyday lives. I have seen families all sitting down together at the dinner table, parents disciplining their children, little ones arguing over whose turn it is in a game of marbles on the sidewalk, and adults sitting in their rocking chairs enjoying the company of neighbors. I am eternally grateful for these opportunities, because they have been invitations into real life here, not just the practiced scenes acted out for groups of gringos (and, yes, as much as we like to think otherwise, during the one week per year that our mission teams are here, what they see are carefully rehearsed scripts which allow us, in some ways, to see what we want to see rather than what is real). But these are all things that one can't possibly begin to understand without coming here to live, minus the clock-breaking, arduous schedule the mission teams are on.

My light skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes belie the fact that I am not a native of Peru - I have no need of duplicated garments to announce my presence. And I don't ever want to yearn for or need an audience in a church to share my knowledge of and love for my Savior; I hope the simplest of my everyday words and actions indicate that my true home is not of this world. Nathan exemplifies this in his Peruvian legacy. During the course of his time as an intern here, he had a conversation with Villa and a few others in which they tried to convince him that it is acceptable to have girlfriends in addition to his wife. Without being the least bit judgmental, Nathan explained to them that he loves only one woman that way - his wife - and he is committed to her because he believes that is what God wants. It was a quick conversation with high impact; Villa has not stopped talking about it. I cannot count the number of times he has said to me, "Nathan really loves his wife." I've tried to follow that up by saying he should imitate Nathan and love his own wife to that degree. Whether he hears me or not, because I am a woman after all and naturally I would say that, he definitely heard Nathan. There was no t-shirt, no announcement that he was the gringo here to teach the ways of God to the unsuspecting locals, no showy church service - there was simply a conversation between two men in which one man set the example for the other in a non-condemning, yet convicting way. Nathan has taught me more than he realizes.

Certainly I have gained greater acceptance from the locals, because time, language, and a shared love for the culture is making me one of them. The gringo groups, however, who come here now as part of the Amazon Mission Fellowship are slowly beginning to reap the same benefits. I have watched returning individuals from all over South Carolina, West Virginia, Missouri, and Pennsylvania being embraced more openly this summer in their respective sister churches, because they are no longer participants in the 'get in, build something, get out' school of missions. Instead, they are choosing the messier, more difficult way; they are getting involved in the lives of those they seek to serve and by whom they are served. The road they are traveling now will absolutely have some rough spots - maybe more rough than smooth lengths - but aren't those stretches of unpaved, muddy, hole-laden road the ones that really teach us who we are, who those we live and work with are, and ultimately, most importantly, who God is?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

No Water, a Strike, and the WPC Team

Two Monday's ago, after a long, hot day, I could already feel the warm water running over me as I prepared to take a shower. It was a feeling that was not to be, however, because when I turned the faucet there was no hot water; in fact, there was no cold water either. We were waterless. I grabbed my cell phone, called Villa and told him to get over here ASAP, which he did, but the news was not good once he arrived. It was 5:30 in the afternoon and there would be no more water at El Jardin until around 7:00 the following morning. It's not unusual to have water problems here from time to time - thankfully it was a week that Nathan and I were the only people living in the house; our guests were staying at the Hotel Maranon. Being the resourceful person that I am (as well as disgustingly dirty), I decided bottled water would have to do in this crisis. One bottle for soaping up, another for rinsing, and all the important places were clean until I could take a real shower on Tuesday.
(Photo - me, Todd, and Margarita)

That Wednesday the entire city shut down - no motokars were running, no businesses were open, the whole city was frozen - we were in the midst of a strike. The Saxe-Gotha ladies, Nathan, and I had hoped to continue working in the Iquitos church in spite of the strike, but as it turned out the morning was rainy, and when it is raining, there might as well be a strike, because most Peruvians aren't going anywhere. So the group spent the morning relaxing in their hotel until lunch time when Nathan and I walked to the hotel to get them. The streets were littered with shattered glass and other debris used for road blocks to keep any renegade motokar and motorcycle drivers from being able to get through; bonfires were also built in the middle of some of the streets as the people of Peru used the strike to air their grievances against the Peruvian federal government. Being the honorable people that they are, Ina, Maria, and Villa walked great distances to and from their homes that day to make sure we gringos were taken care of; I wonder how many of us would do the same…

Saturday, July 12 brought my Westminster mission team to town. What a treat to see those familiar faces emerge from the airport. Thus began a very busy week. Daily trips to Santa Clara included some incredible team devotion time, lead by Paul each morning, helping paint the church's exterior and windows, beginning an addition to the pastor's home which will house a screened-in kitchen and dining room for feeding the congregation, Bible school, playing with the children, nature walks, classes on being Presbyterian, and another round of spiritually stirring evening devotions. It was a perfect week - until Friday. At 7:15 a.m. I was standing at the hotel desk paying the final bill of the mission season, preparing to take my home team to the airport. This has been the year for flight problems, and today would be no different. I stepped out of my motokar only to be told that the 1:30 p.m. flight had been cancelled. Alice and I stood in line for what seemed like an eternity to get the group rebooked on the 6:10 p.m. flight to Lima so they could still make their connection to the U.S. at midnight. With a stack of passports and newly issued boarding passes in my hand, I lead my crew back to El Jardin for a luggage deposit and walk back to the Plaza de Armas for some lunch at the Antica Pizzeria. Shortly after 5 p.m. I kissed, hugged, and waved good-bye to my WPC team. Exhausted, I threw myself into one more motokar, nearly falling asleep on the ride home.

The weight of five consecutive weeks of mission teams descended on me; I was beyond thankful to go to bed that night without first setting my alarm for 6 a.m. I woke up just before 9 a.m. Saturday morning with the incredible feeling of being rested - a feeling I haven't had since I left home on June 9. After a bowl of the Peruvian version of Cocoa Puffs for breakfast, I sat down at my computer to catch up on the accounting that had piled up on my desk over the course of the past week. Ina and Maria arrived and began the unenviable chore of degreasing the kitchen and the gas grill after more than a month of continuous use. What happened next caught me completely off-guard

With my spread sheets as complete as they could be for the moment, I decided to get ahead in the packing process so the coming week wouldn't be so hectic, but as I pulled the suitcase out of storage, the flood gates opened and I collapsed onto my bedroom floor sobbing inconsolably. When I could breathe enough to talk, I called my mom, but by the time she answered I was crying so hard again that she couldn't understand a word I was saying. I blabbered to her for a few minutes and thought I had gotten myself together, but when I walked outside to pay Ina and Maria for the final time this summer I fell apart again. Being the true, considerate women that they are, they cried with me, assuring me that as long as they were alive I would always have someone to take care of me here, that they would count the days until I got back in November, and that they would be praying for the day when I didn't have to leave anymore.

Now, don't get me wrong, I knew leaving was going to be emotional; however, I did not expect the emotion to kick in until closer to my departure time. I think it is probably best if I bring this blog post to an end for now, because I really need to sleep tonight without being a congested, snotty mess, which will be the case sooner than later if I continue talking about this right now. (Photo - Tammy, or Tamicita as I call her, my Peruvian pup, napping outside the kitchen door)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Crazy Weeks

Life in the jungle has been extremely busy for the past two weeks. Last week's group required my constant attention and so does this week's group. Of course this week's crowd is my own WPC group and I'd much rather spend my time with them than sitting at a computer. We've had an absolutely fabulous week in Santa Clara so far. El Jardin is currently enjoying one big week-long pajama party as all the girls are living with me, while the boys reside in the hotel.

The Westminster crowd heads home on Friday afternoon, so soon I'll have more time to think, reflect, and write. There is a sadness to their leaving - not that they are leaving, though I will miss them; but, their departure is a warning bell that my time here is almost up.

Hopefully those of you who have become blog addicts will forgive me for taking so long to post again - but hang on, help is on the way this weekend!

Hasta el fin de la semana...

Monday, July 7, 2008

Day from Hell

Saturday, July 5 - 5:30 a.m. I am supposed to already be on a motokar headed to the airport with the departing group to get them on their flight. Instead, I sit straight up in my bed upon hearing Nathan knocking, telling me to wake up. I won't tell you exactly what I muttered to myself when, through the fog of interrupted dreams, it registered with me that I had overslept. Not to worry, though. Nathan had already put the five people staying here at the Jardin on motokars and was headed to the hotel to get the others. I threw on some clothes, swished a little Listerine around in my mouth in an attempt to kill the worst part of my morning breath, spit it out on the ground as I went out the gate, and off to the airport I went.

Here is what was 'supposed' to happen: Nathan and I would drop off one group (wait for them to get their boarding passes and say our good-byes), then run outside to pick up the incoming group. We would deposit the 'newbies' at the hotel until lunch time and return to the Jardin for a little morning siesta ourselves.

Here is what 'actually' happened: The Huntington, WV group checked their luggage, received their boarding passes, and bid us farewell. Nathan and I watched them pass through the security gate. We went outside, awaiting the arrival of the Saxe-Gotha group from Columbia, SC (they were disembarking the plane the others were to return to Lima on). We heard the plane approaching, then we saw it pull up, circle around, and disappear; it was too foggy to land. Immediately we go back inside the airport to retrieve the group to whom we said 'adios' only moments earlier. After standing in line for what seemed like an eternity, we learned that they had been rebooked on the 9 p.m. flight. WHAT??? Tired and frustrated, we picked up their luggage, put them all on motokars, and headed back to the Jardin. All the while my anxiety level is escalating because I am worried for the four people who were supposed to get off the plane that never landed. None of them have been to Peru before and I panicked for them, hoping they would just follow the crowd once they were back in Lima, get rebooked, and make the best of an uncontrollable situation.

Meanwhile, no one has eaten breakfast and it is nearly 9:30 a.m. at this point. So most of the group headed out to a restaurant for brunch, while others opted for more sleep in any space deemed suitable for propping up at the Jardin. Ina and I began stripping the beds, collecting dirty towels, sweeping, mopping, and cleaning bathrooms. There were a million things to do and I was trying to figure out how to accomplish it all with 13 unanticipated people underfoot. Nathan and I went to the Lan Airlines office to find out what flight our Saxe-Gotha group was rescheduled on, I swung by the restaurant to pay the bill, and returned to the house to continue the day's work. Ashley, the Huntington group's translator, went back to the airport just prior to the 1 p.m. flight to try to bargain their way onto the outgoing plane. She was successful in getting one person on it. At 4:30, the rest of us return to the airport. Ashley is still bargaining and manages to get five more people on the 6 p.m. flight, leaving seven of them still here. Bill, their trip leader has my cell phone and is talking to every known American Airlines and Travelocity representative on the planet trying to get the seven of them rebooked, because they are going to miss their flight from Lima to the U.S. Nathan and I stand outside waiting for our S.C. group - only two of them emerge from the airport. As it would happen, the other two managed to get on an earlier flight, unbeknownst to us, and are already at the hotel. Nathan rides the van with the two S.C. ladies, and I stay at the airport with the final Huntington seven until it is time for them to board the plane, after which I race to the restaurant where Nathan has taken the current group for dinner. It is 9:17 p.m. After dinner, we get Tammy, Julie, Sylvia, and Ken settled for the evening, and Nathan and I finally head home. Nathan isn't feeling well, so he loads himself up with cold medicine and goes to bed. As a means of releasing some of the tension and anxiety of the day, I do a little more house cleaning, since I'm still too wound up to go to bed. The one thing I can say for the Huntington group is that they were troopers; in spite of their plans being totally interrupted, they endured the day and the constantly changing travel arrangements with grace and patience. If I had to be in limbo with anyone, I couldn't have asked for a better bunch.

Just minutes after 11 p.m. I am sitting on the edge of my bed, setting my alarm clock, when my cell phone rings. Margarita is on the other end and she is frantic. She is around the block at the Fanning house (one of our rental properties) and tells me I need to come immediately. With no time to get out of my pajamas and into regular clothes, I step into my flip-flops, grab my keys, and out the gate I go, traipsing into the middle of the raucous crowd of teenagers who hang out on the corner every night, drinking at the bodega across the street, hoping none of them decides to accost me. I round the corner past the church and see two large tree branches lying on the sidewalk. As I get closer, I can see enormous scrape marks down the front of the building and the sidewalk is further littered with chunks of stucco. As it would happen, a 15 year old kid (most likely drunk) lost control of his car and plowed into the front door of our rental property. Margarita and I stand there and talk with Mr. Meza before hopping a motokar to the police station where they've already impounded the wrecked car and arrested the driver. Let me tell you, now THAT'S an interesting place to be at midnight on a Saturday night! As for the Fanning house - I'll have to let you know after a trip to the lawyer's office.

The clock glows 1:12 a.m. as my head hits the pillow. I start laughing as I think back over the day that was doomed from the beginning. Three trips to the airport, two different groups in limbo, and a car through the front door. That's when it happened - I heard a voice speaking. In my head? Out loud? In my spirit? I don't know for sure, but it was an audible voice and I recognized it, because I've heard it before - always at major turning points in my life since I decided to follow Jesus. Two simple words were all I heard: "It's time." I've known for six years now that the Lord was calling me to serve here. When I've allowed myself to actually think about living in another country, I've become frozen with fear. Other missionaries I've talked to have always told me not to worry, because when the time was right - the Lord's time, that is - I would know and I would no longer be afraid. They were right. I still don't know the exact time table for when I will quit teaching and come to live here; it may be as soon as next summer. But the fear is gone, and I know that with the Lord's help, nothing is impossible. How ironic that my moment of clarity came at the end of a day of uncertainty, full of events that were completely and totally outside my realm of control.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Then Sings My Soul…

Sunday morning was hectic trying to get everyone in this week's group and all their materials for the week's work projects ready to go to Gallito for church. I didn't want to find myself in the same place I had landed last week, so I opted to stay behind and worship on my own. With my Bible and Bible study book in tow, I perched at the table on the screened porch. From there I could be alone with God, study, and listen to the music from the service at the Iquitos church next door. I was enjoying soaking up the Word when suddenly I froze - yet another familiar tune permeated the air waves around me as the congregation on the other side of my porch sang How Great Thou Art, in Spanish, of course.
(Photo - Maria and Me)

I know I sound like a broken record, and at the risk of repeating myself for the millionth time, there is no doubt that the Spirit was moving all over the screened porch of El Jardin at that moment. Unless you've been here and heard it and felt it yourself, I cannot possibly describe to you what it is like to hear these songs. It is a moment when the hair on the back of your neck stands up (much akin to a territorial dog about to strike, only without the malice), goose bumps cover your entire body, tears well up in your eyes even though you don't have the slightest urge to cry, and all you can do is close your eyes, lift your hands, and barely mumble, "Thank you, God." Romans 8:26 says, "We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express." Thus the line, "then sings my soul."

My soul sang again Monday when I was honored with an invitation to little Maria's birthday party. Ina, her mother, has worked with the gringo groups here for years. Ina is a very quiet, reserved woman who is not just punctual, but shows up at the Jardin at least 10 minutes early every morning. She is a hard worker, doing whatever is asked of her, and frequently going the extra mile without being asked to do so. I've worked with Ina for several years now and have always made it a point to say 'thank you' daily, as this mission surely would suffer without her, and I've tried occasionally to chat with her, showing interest in her as a person, not just someone who comes to work here. I've never really felt like I was making any progress …until now. I was sitting at the kitchen table with my computer, entering info from a pile of receipts into the appropriate spreadsheets, when she almost whispered my name. I looked up to see the color flooding her face, working its way from her neck to her scalp, and, as she blushed as though she were ashamed to be making a request of me, she invited me to share in the celebration of her daughter's birthday with her and her family. I accepted the invitation and she told me she would return at 4:00 to pick me up. I continued my day with yet another enormous lump lodged in my throat, because I understood that this private woman thought enough of me to invite me into her world.

I was welcomed with open arms by everyone into the party. We sang Happy Birthday in both English and Spanish, little Maria danced and played with her cousins while Ina, big Maria (Ina's sister) and I rattled on as only women can do, getting to know each other on a level we had never broached before. Two hours later I needed to get back to the Jardin, because I had a hungry group of gringos waiting for me to take them to dinner. Ina insisted on accompanying me, just to make sure I arrived home safely. As I stepped from the motokar, handing money to the driver, she told me she would take care of the fare; I told her it was the least I could do for the pleasure I'd been given of sharing in her child's birthday. She nodded ok and her last words to me were, "See you tomorrow. Thank you for accepting my invitation."
(Photo - Maria - Cake Face after Blowing out Her Candle)

Like a bolt of lightning, it struck me that she had been so timid when inviting me because she was afraid I would say no. In spite of her fear, this sweet, kind, gentle woman (who has no idea how much I respect her) invited me anyway. Isn't that what God calls us to do as Christians? To invite others to know Him; to risk rejection; to forget about ourselves and take a chance on someone else for a change; to get out of our boxes and to release Him from the one we've placed Him in. Oh, that we would all be more like Ina.

(Photo - Ina with her Great-Niece, Samantha)

I saw God today...

Recommended Reading

  • The Bible
  • Serving with Eyes Wide Open - Doing Short Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence - David A. Livermore
  • Cross-Cultural Servanthood - Serving the World in Christlike Humility - Duane Elmer
  • Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) - Robert D. Lupton
  • When Helping Hurts-Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor...and Yourself - Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
  • Shadow of the Almighty - Elizabeth Elliot
  • Messy Spirituality - Michael Yaconelli
  • The Irresistible Revolution - Shane Claiborne
  • Peace Child - Don Richardson
  • If God Should Choose - Kristen Stagg
  • In the Presence of My Enemies - Gracia Burnham
  • Inside Afghanistan - John Weaver
  • Same Kind of Different as Me - Ron Hall and Denver Moore
  • Through Gates of Splendor - Elizabeth Elliot
  • End of the Spear - Steve Saint