Thursday, August 6, 2009

Cultural Musings

The culture here is something I have always thought was beautiful. I think that was more because of the differences between these Bolivian cultures and my own than for the cultures themselves. The truth is that I don’t know much about the actual cultures. There were many things I didn’t know about Bolivia before I first came here in 2007. In fact, the only things I remember knowing were the geographical location of Bolivia and that they speak Spanish. I didn’t know about the incredible diversity in land and climate here. I didn’t know that there are nine departimentos, which are similar to, but larger than, most states in the United States. I didn’t know that the city of La Paz is also within a region called La Paz, and within that region there are the Andes mountains, the high plains called the Altiplano, a tropical region called Las Yungas, and more. I didn’t know about the Aymara people or the Quechua people, the two largest people groups found in Bolivia, nor where they could be found. When I left in May of 2007, I still wasn’t aware of the other people groups in Bolivia. Now, I must say I still don’t know much, but often learning something clues you in to the fact that there is still so much more to learn. I met and loved one family from the GuaranĂ­ culture near Argentina. I am familiar with a couple other names of cultures and languages spoken here. I have heard there are over thirty people groups here, and I believe they each speak a unique language. No, Spanish is not the only language spoken here. Most people here seem to understand if not also speak at least two languages. I didn’t know who the president was when I came in 2007, and I still must say I don’t understand all of the things happening in, around, and because of the government. However, I know where my friends stand, I know most of what President Evo Morales stands for, and I know now where I stand in relation to his politics.

I am getting a better idea of many general things about Bolivia. However, the culture itself here in Caranavi still baffles me. It is so easy to look at my friends here and say that I love them, but at the same time, I must admit that I don’t know much yet about where they come from, why they do what they do, how they might think, and what kind of things go on in their homes and towns that are different from the experiences I had growing up.

This week I was witness to more culture here in Bolivia as we celebrated Bolivia’s Independence Day, celebrating the time when Bolivia won its independence from Spain. August 6 is the actual holiday, though the celebrations lasted a week or more. We live 3 km (by switchback roads, not as the crow flies) above the town, and most of the noise of the town doesn’t get to our house, though it definitely rises up to the house at CEC that faces the town directly. These last two weeks were full of marching bands practicing and the unmistakable pounding bass of party after party. I grew up in a town where parades were organized so that the streets only closed down once, the people only came out to watch once, and the marchers only dressed up once. However, here the parades seem a bit different. One group at a time might go out into the streets, or it could be more. People can all see because almost everyone seems to live in the midst of things. Cars don’t get mad at the hold up. They either wait, creep around the marchers, or find an alternate route. Another thing that I didn’t know was that many parades are held for a cause. Some parades are held simply to celebrate a holiday, a life, etc. However, many parades are held in honor of a virgin of the Catholic church or the Pacha Mama, which is the Aymara (I think) word for Mother Earth. The people of Bolivia have many folkloric dances. It seems most come with their own story, their purpose, their costumes, their music, and their rhythm. I have so much to learn. It makes me hesitate writing on the subject. What does it all mean? Why are they dancing? What do the costumes mean? Do the dances and costumes still mean these things, or are they just celebrating things of the past? I don’t have any answers, but I can say that I saw a dancing competition in a full soccer stadium this week. Thousands of folkloric dancers, traditional costumes, talented musicians, and interested spectators. The large groups entered one at a time, the band did a number, the dancers came across the field and went around the track until they danced in front of the judges and continued off the field. Then a new type of music began with a new band, new dancers, different costumes, and a completely different style of dance. It was very interesting and very beautiful.

I am reading Jeremiah right now, which is a book in the Bible that never made much sense to me until now. As I read in the mornings on a bench that allows me to see the gorgeous mountains, feel the morning clouds, and hear the rush of the river below, the boom of the parties continuing into the morning, the trumpets of the Bolivian National Anthem, and the beat of the bands tirelessly practicing, I just stop and pray for these people. Is this place like the places in the Old Testament? In many ways, yes. The idolatry here is obvious. It is less conspicuous in the United States, until I consider that wealth, possessions, and status are also idols. I am learning that the Bible truly is timeless. I don’t know what to make of any of it. I know that I love many things about my life here. I thank God every day for the amazing view and a safe, gorgeous place to live. The cultures here, like the dances, are many, and they are each unique. I have a glimpse into the Aymara culture in Caranavi, which is probably very different than the Aymara cultures in other parts of the La Paz region and Bolivia. I can’t say much about it because I still don’t know much about it. I can only look at my friends here and acknowledge that they are dearly loved by God. I can commit to asking more questions and spending as much time as possible with the people here. I can also decide not to judge and condemn them in my ignorance, pray for their salvation through my Savior Jesus Christ, and look at my own idolatry, sin, and meaningless tradition.

As someone said, we are celebrating independence in a place that isn’t truly free. In order to gain freedom, we must recognize that true freedom doesn’t come from politics. Freedom comes from making ourselves slaves for Christ and receiving a mysterious and all-encompassing forgiveness from God through Jesus Christ.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

4 days in Rurrenabaque

After an eternal night on a swaying bus, constantly waking up aware that I could easily fall out of my chair without armrest down the stairs leading to the door just to my right, I finally woke up to see the beginnings of a sunrise. Glorious. Oh, the wonders of a sunrise! I haven’t seen a true sunrise in ages. The sun rises behind our home, behind the hills, and behind the clouds that accompany every morning in Caranavi. However, today the sun rose across a flat horizon marked only by palm trees. The sun rose orange and fiery declaring war on the darkness. My first experience in the tropical flatlands of Bolivia. Finally I have arrived in the infamous Beni about which I have heard so much. Today is a grand adventure. Today I arrive in Rurrenabaque with a group of people from Holland and a few others from Bolivia. Today we will rest and vacation, and I love every minute of it.

Another sunrise, another beautiful morning in the Beni. I woke up early to take part in this sunrise from our terrace on the roof. Orange and angry, the sun rose despite the ominous clouds. Bread and coffee for breakfast and then we loaded into four large jeeps. A 2.5 hour ride over one of the four flat, straight roads I have seen in Bolivia. We arrived at a river that looked like most other rivers I know. Calm, green water lined by tired green trees. We loaded boats made from trees whose sap is so poisonous is burns you instantly. Antonio guided us down the river, our eyes peeled to see which animals would share the river with us today. I have seen many animals from behind a fence, cage, railing, or glass. This time, there are no barriers. Me. A boat. Alligators. Piranhas. I love it.

The first animal we see apart from birds is a dead alligator floating upside down. We take pictures and move on. Soon we see live alligators, lots of exotic birds, and the largest rodent in the world, the capybara. Pink dolphins (the adults are a light pink, the young are gray) swim and play with us in the river. Piranhas lurk, but we don’t see them face to face. Turtles seem to sun on all the banks. Birds of all shapes, sizes, and colors rest in trees, soar through the air, and fish for lunch. A vulture pecks timidly at the water. A blue-winged bird dries its wings after a successful hunt. The largest bird in the Amazon was spotted a few times, probably as large as a seven year old child. My favorite animals were monkeys by the treefull. Little squirrel monkeys who knew they were cute came as close to us as they could get in hopes of finding some food.

We search for animals in the water, on the banks, in the trees, in the air. Everything we see is a habitat. Enjoying the boat ride would be wonderful enough. The cool breeze and warm sun are perfect. Everything is perfect. It was drizzling in the beginning, but not for long. No, this day couldn’t be better.

After three hours on the water, we arrive at the camp where we will sleep. Everything is on stilts because during the rainy season the entire region in flooded. The buildings are half wood, half screen, allowing for the sights, sounds, smells, and temperatures to surround you even while you sleep. We eat wonderful food while the rain pours down, and wait in the hammocks to see if it will stop raining enough to go alligator “hunting” at night. It does. We take our flashlights and shine them on the banks. Soon enough we see reddish orange eyes glowing back at us. We get close to a couple alligators and I start thinking about the absurdity of this. It’s pitch black, the night has just begun, and we are aggressively intruding on alligators who aren’t in cages. They seemed to be peace-loving tonight, and we just looked at each other.

The rain brought with it a cold front that left the rest of our trip in very cold, rainy weather. However, we were still able to do almost everything we had planned to do. We had to skip the sunrise boat trip due to rain, and piranha fishing was canceled because piranhas go to deep waters when it is cold. We did have a monkey jump onto our porch during breakfast, though! Back out on the boats in the morning, all wrapped in our blankets, we were still able to find yet another species of monkey who raises its eyebrows in hopes of finding a mate. More dolphins swam with us, and we reached a wider part of the river where the dolphins like to play. All of a sudden there are dolphins everywhere around us and we pull to one side just to watch. Finally one of the oldest women in our group gets up enough nerve to go swimming with the dolphins. (Remember, it is freezing outside.) Soon after, I jump in as well. About six of us swim with the dolphins, who seem to enjoy playing with us. One circles me and nudges me three times. Loving the thrill, shaking from the cold (though the water was much warmer than the air, which added a jungle-like mist), I enjoyed every minute and then got back into the boat. I was shivering so much I could hardly get my warmer clothes back on. On the ride back to the camp we saw many more capybaras and flocks and flocks of birds, but most of the animals seemed to be hiding from the cold.

The adventure continues during the jeep ride back to Rurrenabaque as the now very muddy roads cause our jeep to slide all over the road. We get a flat tire, but get to stop next to two more of the largest birds in the Amazon just hanging out by the road. When we make it back to our hotel, a warm shower awaits, as well as beds with blankets! It is usually very hot here, but not for us. It’s probably only in the fifties, but absolutely everything is outside, with large windows, or without any true protection from the weather.

An early departure awaits us on Saturday. We couldn’t go home Friday night as planned because the roads were impassable due to rain. About an hour into the trip on Saturday, we find a place where the road is still impassable. One by one the cars pass, or try to pass. Some get stuck and must somehow find their way out. Then the next car tries its luck. We have a heavy, large bus, which, after waiting two hours, is able to make it through without getting stuck. We only fishtailed a little. The drive home was amazingly beautiful. Farms, flatlands, flocks followed by hills, valleys, and dense fog. Bolivia’s landscape is much like the scenery in L o r d o f t h e R I n g s. Breathtakingly beautiful, but not without its risks and challenges.

30 days and they are gone

30 days and then they’re gone. The students came and went in this CEC course. Juniors in high school from La Paz, all from the same school. They cook, they clean, they do manual labor, but most importantly they learn about God, spend time with God, learn about serving and serve each other. The month flew by for me, and just as I was getting to know them, they left.

Some friends from the January course came to talk with them, enjoy the CEC, and see old friends last weekend. As the CEC students left on the morning after the graduation, we cleaned, cooked, and made the beds ready for the next group, coming in one hour. It was a whirlwind, and then there were 23 people from Holland and Germany here. They have done amazing things for the Casa de Esperanza. They came ready to play and ready to serve. In less than a week there have been dancing classes, painting classes, construction in three places, water tanks fixed, parties to pamper and express appreciation for the those who work to keep the Casa running. I have gotten to know some great Dutch and German people, and I have also enjoyed spending more time with the kids at Casa. Translating is interesting. They are translating Dutch and German to English (almost all of them know English), sometimes directly to Spanish, or we are there to translate the English to Spanish. I need a bigger vocabulary to successfully translate.

The group of 23 comes with 23 sets of gifts to share. Some work in construction. Some come ready to work, some ready to play, but all come with a unique gift to share. This has been a theme that God is showing me lately. We all have different gifts, and God has brought so many people together here with unique gifts to share, perfect timing in which to share them, and the ability to fit a need or the courage to grow to fit a need. Sometimes it is frustrating when the gifts…and lack of gifts…clash. However, I am finally starting to realize that God knows what he is doing.

Selfishness Explored

Few recognize their own selfishness.

Parents recognize it. Families recognize it. Friends recognize it. Teachers recognize it. Even strangers can recognize it. However, it is rare that we recognize our own selfishness. Of course, one might be eager to recognize it in others and perhaps willing to acknowledge a singular act or thought of his own as selfish, but to truly identify, declare, and own one’s state of selfishness is altogether different. It is a humbling process. I have prayed about being more humble. This is likely a necessary part of the process, as I find my pride and selfishness to be raging right now. Yes, I have often prayed about being humble and tried to root it out-theoretically. In the process for striving for a genuine humility, pride and egocentric behaviors become a loud annoyance… but the annoyance is easily forgotten as I go back to the comfortable and self-satisfying ways that selfish philosophies allow.

No, I do not readily admit my selfishness. After all, having people serve me my whole life must be merited, right? Huh. A defect of the culture that demands perfection, cleanliness, beauty, and rapid service. Maids change the beds, machines wash the clothes, waiters serve the food, factories process and can the food. What have we done to ourselves? In making everything easier and faster, we have lost the community it takes to cook and clean up a meal, the perseverance it takes to keep laundry clean, the foresight it takes to plan for meals without a refrigerator to keep the leftovers.

For me, the pride may be centered a bit differently, but its root is just as strong or stronger than that of most. My pride isn’t obvious to some, perhaps, but those who know me best will note it nonetheless. This is the first time I am seeing it in its depth. This selfishness, this concept that the world revolves around me and others should serve me simply because I deserve it, is overwhelmingly obvious in a time of service here at the CEC. I’m tired of serving; I want to be served. I’m tired of working; I want to relax. I’m tired of cleaning; I want someone to do it for me.

People have served me my entire life. Machines have also served me my entire life. Not being able to find the right kind of jelly on a shelf full of 100 flavors and brands something to complain about to everyone that will listen. The miracle of the post office system, which allows me to send anything I want to any place in the entire world, is clouded by the nuisance of 15 minutes waiting in line. Dealing with someone who demands their way angers me, so in my anger I demand my own way from the next person I meet.

Things could have been much different. Who would I be if I had not been born in the same place and time? I could have been born on the floor of a mud-brick home. I could have lost most of my brothers and sisters, or perhaps a parent from preventable diseases or lack of food when instead I am surrounded by more food than I could ever eat. Maybe I never would have learned to read, never getting the chance to go to school due to lack of a teacher in my town or maybe lack of money. Maybe I would know nothing of the world except my own town. Perhaps I never would have even seen an airplane nor ridden in a car. I’d walk everywhere and work all day just to be able to eat a bit, but there is never enough to fill my stomach. I will never save what little money I make in a day as long as this hunger keeps biting. I eat what is in season, what is available at this week’s market. The cold creeps in at night, so I cuddle closer to my brothers and sisters who share a bed mat made of palms with me. There is no steady job to be had, not for someone without an education, and no education to be had for the kids of someone who can’t get a job. No, to be educated means there must be enough money to send the child to school, to buy the books, to pay the teacher, and to lose the child’s help in the fields. For me, this freedom will likely never come. Oh, how I long to go to school. Maybe someone in my family will be lucky enough to have someone somewhere pay for their education, and then that person can teach me. I have no choices because of something I didn’t choose-where and when I was born.

That could have been me. I was one of the lucky ones born into a wealthy family…one of the lucky ones who went to school my whole life, got chubby on ice cream and cookies, flew across the country by airplane to visit loved ones. One of the lucky ones who eats more than once a day, who eats until I am satisfied. However, I don’t deserve anything. The fact that I was paid with a little piece of green paper that is worth more than most money in the world wasn’t under my control. The fact that I paid for something with the same little green paper that is given some arbitrary value doesn’t make me more deserving than the beggar I didn’t even notice on the corner.

Few recognize their own selfishness.

Maybe it’s time we start.


Entitlement. Think about it. You and I don’t have the right to anything. The attitude of entitlement does nothing good for this world. So what do you think you’re entitled to?

To be fair, I thought I should answer the question.
Time. Personal space. Sleep. Water that’s available. Water that’s clean.
Food I like. Media that works.
Easy access to comforts or even necessities (nope, not my right).
Communication with loved ones when and where I want.
The list continues…

And you?
Machines to do our laundry? Someone else to clean our house, clean our dishes, make our food? Fast internet? Your own car? Cheap prices? A home? A warm home in the winter and a cool home in the summer?

These are all things I have thought about this year in Bolivia. I continue to feel entitled. I hate that I feel entitlement. I hate entitlement.