Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ding, Dong the Alligator is Dead

Once upon a time, for whatever reason, my friend Todd Garrett decided that the water in the pond here at El Jardin (the Medical Missions property where I live in Iquitos) was lonely, so he purchased a baby alligator and put it in the pond to keep the water company. Yes, I know, your minds are rambling through the same list of rhetorical questions as mine, with the primary one being: Has he lost his mind? Needless to say, since June I have been on a quest to find and remove the creature. Naturally I was not about to perform the task at hand, so several days a week for the past 5 months I have said to Villa that he needs to take care of this. He has given me one excuse after another as to why it hasn't been done: too much water in the pond (he can't get in to look), too little water in the pond (it has dried up due to lack of rain and the alligator has buried itself in the mud), too much mud (he doesn't have any boots), and my personal favorite, he hasn't seen the alligator in weeks therefore it must be dead and/or gone (you can see the logic, right?). I bought him a pair of wading boots for the purpose of getting in the pond to search; we also have a machete and any number of other tools that could be used to remedy the problem, yet the excuses continue.

Even I know that the best time to locate an alligator is at night with a flashlight, so Monday evening, just after dark, I took my little linterna and traipsed to the back of the property where the pond is located. One quick sweep across the water with the beam of light and, sure enough, there they were - 2 little orange eyes peering at me. Elder Luis and a couple of other guys were hanging out at the church next door and called out to me, asking what I was doing. I told Luis that I desperately wanted to get rid of the alligator and asked if he knew anyone who'd be willing to come get it out (since Villa is obviously as much a fraidy-cat as I am). Luis asked if I had a bat or other heavy object (which I did) and said he could take care of the problem himself. So I ran to the gate to let him in. Fifteen minutes later, after a good whack on the head with a metal rake, Luis scooped the unconscious reptile out of the water, took further measures to ensure it was dead, then picked it up by the tail and promptly carried it out the gate with him and over to the church for everyone to see. And that was that.

Of course, when Villa found out the next day, he turned on the machismo and said he would have been able to get it too if he'd been here at night (at which time I reminded him that he spent 3 weeks of nights here while I was in the U.S. in September). He just laughed that silly little giggle of his and shrugged his shoulders. So now we're on to worrying about bigger and better things, such as how to make El Jardin more secure for me after the string of break-ins on this block over the past week. How's that for a cliff hanger?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Froot Loops and a Hummer

I leave Peru for a three week jaunt to the U.S. and return to find Iquitos has gone American! What??? Yesterday I finally ran out of what few imperishable food items that were left in the house prior to my trip (not to mention I've grown tired of odd combinations for meals, i.e. steamed rice and mushrooms w/soy sauce) and headed to the supermercado. As I walked into the once familiar tienda, I was greeted with sights of imported food items. There I was, surrounded by boxes of Froot Loops, cans of Hunt's Four Cheese Spaghetti Sauce, jars of Ragu Alfredo Sauce, packages of Old El Paso flour tortillas, cups of Jell-O Pudding (chocolate and vanilla), bottles of Hunt's Barbeque Sauce, bags of frozen chicken nuggets waiting to be tossed into the hot oil of a frying pan - all things I've never seen here before. I was so excited that my first urge was to grab 5 of each, whether I needed them or not; the reality around here is that just because something is in a store once, does not mean it will be there again (and there's always the possibility that it will never be there again). But I refrained, reminding myself that I have neither the money in my budget to purchase large quantities of pricey imports, nor the space in my kitchen to store such inventory. I will confess, however, that I did come home sporting Froot Loops, 2 cans of spaghetti sauce, and a jar of alfredo sauce.

While enjoying the sights and sounds of the city's streets on the motokar ride home, I was blown away yet again. There, in Iquitos, parked right in front of the El Dorado Hotel (five star that is) on the Plaza de Armas was a lustrous black Hummer with a wax job so perfect I could have used the driver's side door as a mirror. Unbelievable. To comprehend the shock value, one must have been here, or at least understand that this is a motorcycle/scooter/motokar city. In the past, only the wealthiest of people here could afford to own a car, and those were few and far between. One difference I had already begun to notice when I returned here in June after nearly a year's absence is that there are more cars on the streets than ever before. But when I say cars, I mean older model Toyotas, 70's era VW bugs, an occasional beat-up Nissan - that kind of thing. Only once or twice before have I seen what appeared to be a "newer" car here, and even so, it still was of the economy class of autos. Never a Hummer!

As I ate my lunch while watching a rerun episode of Two and a Half Men (in English with Spanish subtitles - YAY!), my previous excitement faded and my heart started to sink as I pondered my morning. Now, I know change is inevitable, and North American influence typically arrives everywhere eventually, but one of the fascinations this city holds for so many who come here is its lack of "connectedness" with the rest of the world. Iquitos is the largest city in the world that is not accessible by road; there are two ways in/out of here - plane and boat. Surrounded by rainforest, it is both difficult and expensive to ship imports here, and most major businesses find it more cost effective not to try. Evidently that is changing - rapidly. But I don't want to see a McDonald's here (what fun would there then be in getting to the Lima airport after 4 months of fish, chicken, and rice and running straight for a quarter pounder with cheese?), or an Ace Hardware, or a Gold's Gym (but say the words Target or Wal-Mart and I might be open to suggestion). I want the jungle to stay the jungle. Yes, it's hard to live life in a different culture; yes, there are times when I crave foods from home; yes, I miss the U.S.; yes, I wish I could shop in a 'regular' grocery store without making stops at 6-8 different little markets in order to get everything I need. BUT, all of these longings, these creature comforts, are part of what makes coming home for a visit so special, and the lack of these is what has always made Iquitos so mysteriously attractive to me. Here, in the middle of a city of nearly half a million people, you can feel so isolated, so far from what we gringos call civilization. Yet in some ways, there is more real life here than I have ever experienced before.

In his book Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson details the many lessons he has learned while living in and adapting to the Middle Eastern Islamic culture of Pakistan. Though he does not write from a spiritual point of view, he bluntly, unapologetically repeats the exact ideas that every book I've ever read on cross-cultural missions asserts. Mortenson says, "On their warm, dry roofs, among the fruits of their successful harvest, eating, smoking, and gossiping with the same sense of leisure as Parisians on the terrace of a sidewalk cafĂ©, [I] felt sure that, despite all that they lacked, the Balti still held the key to a kind of uncomplicated happiness that was disappearing in the developing world…" (120). Frustrated with Mortenson's egocentric, North American notion that his way was the best and only way, the man who came to be his Pakistani father-figure chastised him saying, "If you want to thrive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways…We may be uneducated. But we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time." Mortenson follows this up with, "We Americans think you have to accomplish everything quickly. We're the country of thirty-minute power lunches and two-minute football drills…Haji Ali taught me to…slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects. He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them" (150). I could copy similar quotes from dozens of books; the recurring theme makes a point we would be wise to pay attention to.

Mortenson's book, the Froot Loops, the Hummer, and my life here in Peru all mesh together in an odd sort of way. While I don't want the Peruvians to be denied good and right progress, I also don't want to see U.S. culture invade the jungle. Like the Baltis, the Peruvians in the Amazon are survivors - they don't need us to tell them how they should live. Perhaps we should follow their lead in slowing down and focusing on relationships. Ironically, many of the 2009 summer mission teams were privy to unsolicited lessons in this area when inclement weather or a lack of supplies brought their projects to a screeching halt, and they were left with no option but to spend time with each other and their Peruvian friends. Nevertheless, as I attend meetings of mission boards, missions committees, and mission trip leaders, I listen as, with renewed fervor, they plan their next projects. Not that projects are bad, mind you, but said projects act as the backbones for recruiting individuals to be part of the 2010 mission teams because, without work to do (and lots of it), churches and missions organizations find it difficult to entice people to give up a week of vacation to simply come and be. But in our U.S. culture, we (myself included) can no longer find the time to sit on the porch with our grandparents, or turn off the TV (and all other electronic addictions) and play board games with our kids, or play tag football with friends then sit, sweaty and tired, for the rest of the afternoon just talking - if we can't slow down for our families and closest friends, how could we be expected to make time for relationships with those whose enlightening perspectives we desperately need? Does this make anyone sad other than me?

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