A Simple Gift at Easter

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The “floor flower”  (alfombra) we created at Maryknoll for Semana Santa

Another adventure. This one involving a ride in a taxi trufi to an unfamiliar area “off the beaten path.” (I now have a clearer vision of just what that term means.)

Since arriving in Cochabamba, I’ve been wanting to visit my Bolivian friend, Maria Laura, a tía (auntie) at the Villa Amistad for children. I met Maria Laura back in November when I visited Amistad and I have been praying for and writing to her ever since. Seeing her was at the top of my list during my six-week stay, but so far, I’d been unsuccessful.

In the first place, getting to Amistad isn’t exactly easy. Although public transportation in Cochabamba is cheap and easy to use, with buses, taxis, and taxi trufis (sort of like an old van or VW bus) running constantly throughout the city, there’s only one taxi trufi you can take to the outskirts where Amistad is located. Taxi trufi #119. And it doesn’t run very often. Apparently not many people travel in that direction.

I discovered this the first time I tried to take #119. As I waited and waited and waited on the main Avenida Simon Lopez, taxi trufis bearing every number BUT #119 passed by: 101, 123, 120, 118, 19. Their numbers just close enough to #119 to instill both hope and frustration in me as the sun beat down on my unprotected head. Within seconds of each other, taxi trufis with the same number passed by, only adding to my frustration. I finally gave up and took a taxi — a lot more expensive than the 2 Bolivianos a taxi trufi requires, but, hey, I wanted to get there sometime that day.

Maria Laura was not at Amistad that afternoon. But at least I got to play with the children. And I discovered that taxi trufi #119 really does exist because I took it back to the city. The key, apparently, is to have patience and perseverance.

On my second attempt, I was ready. Armed with the knowledge of how #119 operated, I waited patiently as, once again, what seemed like hundreds of other taxi trufis zoomed by. Finally, #119 appeared. I stuck out my arm and waved it down like an experienced Cochabambina. But Maria Laura was not at Amistad that afternoon either. She’d had to accompany a child to the hospital.

You might think my third attempt was the charm. And it was. But not without incident.

On the Saturday morning before Easter I tried calling the Amistad office to let them know I was coming. Nobody answered. I decided to go anyway.

This time #119 came relatively quickly.  A good sign, I thought. But the rickety van was nearly full, requiring me to sit behind the driver facing backwards. We soon veered off the main avenida and headed up the rocky dirt roads I’d come to recognize. As we drove along, I kept turning my head to watch for the Villa Amistad sign. It wasn’t until the driver parked under the shade of a lone tree and turned off the motor that I realized I’d missed my stop. He put his hand out, waiting for his 2 Bolivianos, expecting me to get out of his van.

“Do you know the Villa Amistad?” I asked him in my best Spanish. He did not.

“Do you know the name of the street it’s on?” he asked me. I did not.

He said some thing else in Spanish, and I knew I had to get out. I stepped onto this dirt road in the middle of who knows where, with no idea of how to walk to Amistad from there. Was I concerned? Just a little bit.

Then this woman in a white sombrero with black braids and missing teeth ventured over. Somehow she knew I didn’t  belong here. When I asked if she knew the Villa Amistad, which, of course, she didn’t, another driver overheard, and called out to me.

I finally make it to Amistad only to find that the guard at the gate won’t let me in. I’m not expected after all. And it’s Saturday, so the administrative staff isn’t working.

“You need to call the director on your cellular,” he says.

“I don’t have a cell phone,” I tell him.

He can’t let me in.

Then this little angel appears. Madelyn, one of the young girls who lives at Amistad and knows me from previous visits, saunters by, and I call out to her. She explains to the guard that she knows me and that it’s OK for me to see Maria Laura. He agrees to retrieve my friend and bring her to me.

What followed turned out to be my best Easter gift. Maria Laura met me at the gate. I got to embrace my friend. Touch her. See her eyes smile back at me. Ask about her health. Share some simple but precious words.

It lasted maybe 15  minutes. And then I turned and headed back down the rocky road to wait for taxi trufi #119. My heart full of joy. And fully aware of the gift I’d just been given to culminate Semana Santa in Bolivia.

 

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For the Love of a Child

 

Bolivian orphans but not the cuties I work with

Nearly a dozen orphaned babies. Another 14 or so toddlers less than 2-years old. Put them together with my desire to be una abuela (grandma) and you have the perfect scenario at the Solomon Klein orphanage where I volunteer two afternoons a week.

With only two women working full time to care for 25 or so little ones, it’s easy to imagine that diapers don’t always get changed immediately, tears don’t get dried, and hugs and loving arms tend to be in short supply. From what I’ve witnessed, the staff does a super job. But they can’t possibly manage all of the children’s physical and emotional needs.

Here’s where I come in.

Along with a few other Maryknoll volunteers and one tireless nun in her 70’s who shows up Monday through Friday afternoons, I help feed, hold, play with and care for these  children, many of whom have been abandoned at a very early age. One little angel was only a week old when he arrived at the orphanage after being discovered on the street. Unfortunately, his story isn’t unique.

And if it’s not a case of being abandoned, most likely the child was removed from a home where he or she was being abused. Apparently it happens a lot. About 150 children live in this one orphanage alone.

It’s a sad and difficult situation. But when I’m there, I don’t think about that. My only focus — who needs to be cared for in this moment? Whose nose needs to be wiped? Which baby can I cradle in my arms while she drinks from a bottle that is usually propped up against her mouth with her blanket because it is impossible for two women to hold and feed 11 babies while managing all their other responsibilities? Which toddler most needs to know that his cries for attention will be answered by a soft caress to his wet cheeks?

Actually I have learned how to tend to multiple pequeño niños while simultaneously soothing a baby in one arm. I’m amazed at what I can do with only two hands, two arms, one voice, and one heart.

And there’s something else I’ve learned. I’m here for another reason besides giving much-needed love and attention to these children. I’m here for myself. Because every once in a while when I look into the eyes of a baby I’m holding or stroke a toddler’s face and hair, I get it. The gift of Love I’m giving to these children is trying to get through to me, too. To the vulnerable, young one who needs to remember. It’s as if God is saying, “Do you see, this is what I long to offer you?”

Just as tenderly as I hold them, Loving Presence desires to hold me.

Sometimes I have a hard time fully taking that in. But this Love never gives up on me. Even when I’m so active or self-absorbed that I barely take time to be still and know.

Am I physically tired after spending 3 1/2 hours rocking, singing, cooing, caressing, playing, and listening to wailing children? For sure. But for the gift of healing, and the love  of a child, it’s more than worth it.

 

La Música de la Vida

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Blind musicians outside cathedral in main plaza

Another full day on the streets of Cochabamba where women openly bare their breasts for their hungry children. They breastfeed while walking, talking, carrying groceries, crossing the traffic-filled avenue, sitting on their mats selling their wares — whatever is needed while they tend to the most natural every-day activity of nursing their little ones.

Most people don’t even notice.  I do.

But that’s because I seem to notice everything here. It’s as if I have recently regained my sight. And all my senses for that matter.

I’ll be walking along and all of a sudden some unusual scent fills my nostrils. Maybe it’s the sweet smell of unidentifiable flowers. Or the overpowering odor of raw sewage that affronted me one afternoon. Worse than anything I’ve ever encountered. I literally couldn’t take a breath until our vehicle was a few blocks away. And the sewage was located right up the street from an elementary school!

Then there are the colors that pop into view at every turn.  Quechua women wearing bright pink shawls with multi-colored stripes that bulge with the weight of their cargo– usually a baby. The school girls in their sparkling white uniforms that look like doctors’ coats. Yellow, pink, and red hibiscus plants that line neighborhood streets. Grand green weeping willows that hang so low their delicate branches brush my forehead as I pass.

Green. It’s definitely the predominant color in this city. Islands of trees and green grass flow through the middle of main avenues. Parks filled with topiaries and vibrant plants appear everywhere I venture. Palm trees tower above the street life.

And what life there is in Bolivia!

It came to me one day while I was sitting in the garden at the Maryknoll language school. What the richness of life here is like for me.

It’s like a full symphony playing inside of me. Not just in my head. In my entire body. And it’s waking me up to the music of life. I pray my eyes remain open.

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Abundance of Contrasts

 

Houses across from my neighborhood park

Another beautiful day in Cochabamba.

Beginning my third week here, where the sun has shown every day, with brief showers passing through. The climate is ideal. Fruit is plentiful and sweet. Green mountains tower over rooftops in all directions. And I stumble across parks on my daily walks, no matter which direction, or how far, I go. An abundance of colors, odors, plants, and people confront me everywhere I turn. This city is fully alive with the richness of life — and all its contrasts. And I love it.

With so much to share and not much time to write — at least not in English — the best I can do for now is offer brief descriptions. Some of these really merit their own separate story, like my first experience using the public bathroom at La Concha — a huge, open-air market that stretches for miles and sells everything that you might want or need, from fresh produce to electronics. Let’s just say the public toilet there involves being very aware and open-minded.

Here’s a taste of my first two weeks:

The absolute beauty of the parks and the grounds of the Maryknoll language school. Both are your frequent hang outs. There’s something about being in the midst of such an abundance of flowers and trees.

Three things you can always find at those lovely parks: stray dogs, young lovers, and basura (trash).

The campesinos — poor indigenous who come from the countryside. Every day they’re out on the streets working, from morning until night, washing other people’s laundry and cars in the canal, selling their fruit or papas (potatoes) and carne (meat) from their stands, spreading their bright blankets on the sidewalk to display their wares, often with little children in tow.

Homeless dogs roaming the streets. One even walked up and down the aisles at church this morning. Guess he was hoping some good soul would have pity on him. I have no idea where these dogs find food and water.
Chicken at almost every meal — except breakfast. Meals usually consist of potatoes and rice, carne (meat), tomatoes and onions (which my host family considers to be vegetables). Whatever we don’t eat for almuerzo (the big meal at lunch time), is served again for la cena (dinner).

No salads. For health reasons, we’ve been told not to eat the lettuce here. For someone like me who’s accustomed to eating salads every day…let’s just say my body’s in rebellion mode right now.

Helado (homemade ice cream made from real fruit) sold throughout the city. It makes up for not being able to have salad. Sort of.

No hot water, except in the shower. But I am so grateful to have it there. If I can only have hot water in one place, that would be it.

Quechua women with black braids wearing white sombreros, their brightly striped shawls draped across their backs carrying babies hidden from view.

The Afro-Bolivian dancers we watched at a special celebration. I didn’t even know theses people existed.

Vendors driving slowly through the neighborhoods on Saturday mornings, calling out the fresh fruits they’re selling from the backs of their trucks: grapes, papayas, bananas, mangos. The mangos taste sweeter than any dessert.

More to come…if I can get the Internet connection to cooperate.

 

Quechua woman washing clothes at the canal under the bridge. The blue gate above is entrance to the language school.