Monday, March 31, 2014

Arrival in the Amazon

Dianne is quite a trip planner and I was impressed by her abilities to use the Internet to completely plan a trip to a place I considered completely incomprehensible. There was ONE little glitch in arriving at the Amazon, though...

We stayed the night in Bogota. I slowly pushed 2, then 1, 1, 1, until reaching the correct number to call a taxi. We arrived at the airport, joined the relatively short LAN lines... and were told our reservation to fly to Leticia did not exist. WHAT? HOW? I couldn’t be angry with the sweet little clerk, but she was lost. We changed lines and approached the LAN office. After some discussion, we were informed our reservation had been canceled.

Cheap-O-Air might have lost some customers. We resorted, as all good Americans in this day and age, to the Internet. Ethan began polling the bank accounts. Tyrel was assigned to look up a website. I tried to get online to see what kind of fortune we’d have to spend on tickets now. Dianne pulled out all her trip reservation papers. We read. We reread. We looked. Finally, hidden amongst all the small print one finds when receiving an email confirmation of a ticket purchase... well below the list of passport numbers, flight numbers, prices, and links for seat assignments, we saw it - “unable to confirm reservation.”

Moral of the story: 
Read the fine print.

On to plan B. I have little patience with Internet and none whatsoever when it is slow. I returned to the LAN office line, asking if reservations were available and what they would cost. Imagine my delight when the total for all 4, on our same flight schedule, was $100 LESS than what we’d originally thought we paid online. Problem solved, God is good, we made it through security and to the terminal with time to spare.

That bit of time, however, was actually quite a nice little coincidence. Upon sitting to wait, Tyrel was immediately engaged in conversation by an English-speaking Colombian also on his way to Leticia. As it turned out, he was a pastor, the leader of the YWAM base in Leticia whose outreaches targeted the indigenous peoples up the river. His stories of praying for God to transform were great... My favorite followed his explanation of ma-te, a drink made from the coca plant which, apparently, in these communities, is intoxicating (though that is not true of all “ma-te”). Some of the Christians came to him and said “Pastor, you must do something. Our local leader is getting drunk on ma-te before he preaches. He preaches real good, but we do not like him to be drunk.” Anyway, as any YWAMmer knows, YWAM is a small world; once I’d mentioned working with YWAM at one point, we were invited to come to the base while in Leticia.

A view from the plane. Notice there are no roads - only rivers.
Having bought our tickets last minute, we were scattered all over the plane, but as it was big, comfortable plane and none of us had seatmates, the flight was pleasant. We walked off the plane and down the stairs, looking at a runway shorter than that of the airport in Santa Rosa. We walked into the airport, a big room with restrooms and a table where you had to pay your 20,000 peso tourist tax ($10). I’d worn a sweatshirt that morning in Bogota, and we’d all carried jackets. Walking off the plane in Leticia, I kicked myself for my own stupidity. Had I really expected to need a jacket in the jungle? And the extra pounds in my backpack were going to matter, as within moments I was sweat soaked from the heat and humidity.

The adventure was about to begin.
Where in the world is Tyrel Fuchs?

Monday, March 17, 2014

Eagle Scouts and Answered Prayers

As I am writing all of these fun and random facts and stories, I realize that I’ve not really explained how I wound up in Colombia this time around. Technically, I was a volunteer for an Eagle Scout project. I definitely fall into that category of persons who take upon the honor of volunteer without actually volunteering anything...

Last September, my friend Bibiana, whom I met while working with Formando Vidas, came to visit me. That just happened to be around the time that Tyrel, the youngest of my family of friends, was planning his Eagle Scout project. Long story short, the chosen project was a water filtration system for the ministry farm, the home where the children in long-term care lived. Tyrel’s job was to coordinate volunteers to get the task accomplished. My role as a volunteer? Well, I did give names, emails, and connections.

And then Boy Scouts of America had to make sure I was safe to spend time with Tyrel. I underwent Youth Protection Training (as a teacher I know nothing of this), and, of course, I agreed to not spend time around any child without a 3rd person around. Since Tyrel is so little and vulnerable. Also, I had to go to a doctor to make sure I was up to the strenuous adventures of this trip. He looked in my throat, took my blood pressure, checked my bmi, and spent 30 minutes telling about leading Cub Scouts. 

Although the project had originally involved ditches and piping, with which I could have actually assisted, it gradually changed form. The systems were house-specific, so they were basically a plumbing project Since the Fuchs were not tied to the public school schedule, they (Tyrel and his two parent volunteers) had the freedom to get cheap plane tickets, leaving earlier, returning later. By the time I got to Bogota, they’d found all the needed parts, mostly installed one system and were set to install the 2nd. After I spent one day visiting people in the ministry, they were almost finished with two systems and had all the plumbing installed for a 3rd. 

I was also informed they were God’s answers to prayers. Ethan fixed a roof, while Dianne fixed the children’s clothes. They were called a ‘gran bendicion’ (a great blessing) and a joy to have around.

And me? I just showed up, laughed, visited, translated a little. And we all decided that since we were already in Colombia, we’d have a grand adventure. Hence, we flew to the Amazon. But THAT is another story.

Eat to live, live to eat

The classic Fuchs story of traveling is that the boys are told, “You can eat when you get home. It’s cheaper.” No wonder Tyrel liked traveling with me. Especially in Colombia where I argued, “Actually, I think it’s cheaper to eat here.”

My Colombian friends tried to help. Bibi had ajiaco prepared for our Sunday dinner. It was the meal I’d eaten last in Colombia, this delicious chicken and corn soup with avocados the size of a cantaloupe sliced on top. Sunday evening she bought fresh bread from the bakeries for which Bogota is famous. Pan de coco (coconut rolls) competed with roscones (bread with arequipe) for favorite status, but there was nothing wrong with the savory pan blanda, especially when dipped in thick Colombian hot chocolate. The hardest of Colombian cheeses dropped to melt in chocolate was an extra treat. 

I wasn’t willing to wait for peanuts on the plane as my breakfast on Tuesday, so Tyrel and I began the great empanada adventure. We ate these meat filled fried pies three days in a row, providing a solid nutritional start to our day and trying to determine the best place to buy them. The airport did not win that prize (although the almojabana, or cheese roll, that we also bought there was definitely among the best of its kind). On Wednesday, we bought them from a stand outside a fruit market, while on Thursday we resorted to a street table, where a little old man with few teeth was frying them along with balitos of rice and chicken. The first balito was so delicious that we saved the other until after we’d finished our empanadas. Unfortunately, it was only partially cooked and, since we were at that point on a boat, we were stuck with the bad taste in our mouth for the next couple of hours.

Bogotan tamales are like masa with chicken soup inside, so when I spotted the squared and tied green palm leaves on the streets of Leticia on Wednesday, I was excited - then surprised. Even within the country, the contents of the tamal had changed: here I found shredded chicken and flavored rice. With only one spoon to share amongst the 4 of us, we dove in with our fingers. I felt Asian.

Our favorite food adventure took place outside of Leticia on Tuesday night. We were exhausted. Hot. It was almost dark and the electricity all along the road was out. We walked by one restaurant with a porch full of beer drinkers and decided to ask at the next, though it appeared that the family serving food off their porch had already stacked the chairs for the day. Of course they would serve us! the matriarch said, and for only 7000 pesos, she’d give us rice and some kind of meat... Actually, she went to cook and our food was delivered by a young man with no shirt and no shoes. It was well worth our $3.50 - sancocho (a plantain, potato, and chicken soup) that would’ve filled us alone, rice, fish (almost without a fishy taste), juice of some sort of jungle fruit (I thought it tasted like salad dressing, but I was thirsty!), and sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions. We had a candlelit dinner to boot, as our shirtless waiter brought us a candle stuck in a beer can. It only fell over once.

The juices in Colombia are unique, as one realizes even in Bogota. Juices made with milk, juices of lulo, guayaba (guava), granadilla... Juices in the jungle are even more unique because it’s likely you’ve never heard of or seen the fruits from which they are made. One night we were served juice and asked by our waiter if we could recognize the flavor. I couldn’t, though it bore a vague resemblance to lemonade. Tyrel did - it was copa azul, he said, the same fruit we’d been given to sample by one of our jungle tour guides. That tour guide had shown us the fruit. It grows on a palm, looks vaguely like a coconut, and is a cousin to the cacao plant. In fact, the seeds can be ground and used like cocoa. We just like sucking the juicy rich pulp. 

Juice can’t be unique unless the fruits are unique. I love granadillas, and I had the privilege of introducing them to the Fuchs: you bite the shiny orange skin and peel the top half off, then you sort of suck/chew through the inside, which has a texture resembling snot and a sweet, cold flavor that hit the spot the day we hiked in equatorial sunshine. We also saw acai. This is not, I don’t think, the same as an acai berry. In fact, when we asked the old man selling it on the streets of Brazil for a sample, it looked more like a carrot inside an orange peel. And it tasted. I don’t know. Maybe it tasted like salad dressing without the vinegar and sugar? I didn’t buy any.

Also in Brazil, we entered a chocolate shop. Even in Portugese, those are recognizable words. The chocolate was delicious (we passed on all the Hersheys brand candy), and Tyrel found a package of cookies very much like oreos with cocount filling for only 75 cents. Once we began filling the basket of the saleslady who attentively followed us around and proved that we actually intended to pay, they offered us tinto. As in Colombia, the tiny cups of black coffee had sugar, but unlike Colombia, the tinto was so strong, so rich, that the coffee flavor far outweighed the nasty sweet taste.

During our Amazon trip, we rode the boat across the river to Santa Rosa, Peru. Struck by the poverty of the tiny island community, we wanted to give our business to those working there - and I really wanted fried platano for lunch. “Platano?” the storekeeper/cook asked. “You only want platano?” She couldn’t believe that even tourists wouldn’t want something else to eat. Nevertheless, she served us a plate overflowing with soft slices of ripe fried plantain, along with juice. After we drank about half a glass, we wondered if the juice was made with filtered water. Nothing like testing your immune system - but she later reassured us that the water was bottled. Ethan also found tiny hot peppers on the table. I warned him that while peppers are not common, they are hot. After he ate one (with no platano left to follow it), he agreed.

We toured a bit in Bogota on Friday after our flight. I always have a hard time walking by the sugar-coated fried fresh coconut, but I did it. I was glad, because Fabian and Jessica decided to introduce the Fuchs to street food. Whole potatoes, sliced thinly and deep fried to make chips. Whole plantains, sliced thinly and deep fried to make chips. Churros (similar to Mexican churros, fried bread sticks rolled in sugar). Obleas - wafers spread with arequipe (caramel) and mora (blackberry) jam, then sprinkled with white cheese and topped with another wafer. It’s a wonder any of us were hungry when we finally made it to Crepes and Waffles for supper. Ethan was particularly adventurous here, choosing a Mexican crepe, while Tyrel stuck to a mozzarella/tomato sauce pita. And I was thrilled to discover Crepes had a new ice cream: not only could I get coconut ice cream with my choco rochelle (chocolate ice cream with crunch things inside), I could get the new kind in which the coconut was TOASTED. It was a delicious ending to a delicious week.


I’m glad, just a little, that the many changes coming now to Formando Vidas did not come to pass while I was there. They are changes for the better, I know, but I don’t like change. The 127 and the house next door will soon be torn down as the neighborhood is being overtaken by offices; the ministry has sold Torre Fuerte, my home for most of my time in Bogota, and it, too, will soon be gone. The Other Way is closed, and Luz y Vida is serving only as a center of continuing education. New aspects of the ministry have opened, the current outreaches are appropriately staffed, new homes have been found, and children are being reached - but changes were evident.

Even I could see many of the blessings of changes. I was excited to hear of C. and E., boys that I’d taught in the Other Way, then taught in the summer of 2010 when I substituted at Luz y Vida. They are in school, I was told, making the honor roll and receiving citizenship awards. They come to Luz y Vida daily for continuing education and their mom is receptive to those ministering to families. Their dad, a recycler who sometimes had the family living under his cart because of his drug issues, had originally said he took the boys to the ministry so they’d have a good example. Now he says that he wants to change and be that example. It is a start. 

I saw the babies, children taken into the ministry during my term at Formando Vidas, now 4 and 5 years old - secure in their home and able to laugh and talk and care for their own “babies.” I saw T., so full of issues 5 years ago, now relatively calm and cooperative, tho’ still mischievous. I wanted to hug S., still shining the same sweet smile and laughing spirit that had characterized her at age 8.  I marveled at L., gone from a reticence toward chores as an 8 year old to a young teen who argued that I couldn’t wash the dishes because it was her day to clean the kitchen...

And I played. I played soccer with J. On Sunday night after he returned from the parent visit - always stressful for both kids and staff - he, Tyrel, Dianne, Ethan, L., and I played boys against girls. L. yelled to coach me, not angry but somewhat disbelieving of the fact that I occasionally forgot which direction to kick the ball. She finally told me to be goalie. The problem with this was that my eyes saw the ball, but my feet did not necessarily move me into a position with which I could block it. Nevertheless, we girls had a fighting chance because J. did not like being removed from the top of his game. If anyone made a point or kicked the ball away from him, he suddenly realized he was hurt and lay down in the middle of “concha.” We played over, around, and without him until finally concluding that it was time to go in and end the day. J. was asked to put on pajamas, wash his hands and sit to eat. He argued that we would begin eating without him; we promised we wouldn’t and Dianne asked if he’d race the timer. Thrilled by this idea, he changed into pajamas in 7 seconds, but broke down crying over washing his hands because “the minutes go too fast.” His night ended on a rough note, but L. again demonstrated her maturity as she hung in through losing round after round of Dutch Blitz without ever whining - and glowed when she finally won 3 rounds.

On Monday night we played soccer again, this time only  J., Tyrel, and I. J. was his own team and was a better sport for most of the game, though if I tried to stop and talk to little M. who had her doll and was setting up “house” on the benches by the concha, she pushed me back over to him and he demonstrated some act of appreciation such as kicking or pushing me. Each thing he did to Tyrel or to me, we returned equally, resulting in J.’s confusion because no one was crying. When little B. arrived to play, J., jealous over the lack of attention, retreated to pout in the treehouse. Tyrel (called “enano” or “dwarf” by J.) sat to pout on the bench. J. couldn’t help but peek over and laugh. After our meal and clean up that night, J. grabbed me around the waist in the kitchen and drug me to his room, informing me that Bibi said I could pray with him. 

A far cry from not remembering me, J. had pointed out to Bibi the day prior the church to which I’d taken him when we lived in Torre Fuerte. That night as we began the bedtime routine, he told me that B. could NOT read THAT book because it was the book I’d brought a couple of years prior. After I assured him that it was not a problem, we read 3 Bible stories and talked about them (he was offended that the story said big fish and the author had drawn a whale), then we prayed and he rolled over to sleep. I couldn’t believe how peaceful he was - or how blessed I was to share the moments toward which so many had worked for so many years.

Language is culture? Or is culture language?

I spent the night in the 127, the office/dorms of Formando Vidas, awakening at what I thought was 6:30, utterly confused by the fact that it was still dark outside. This confusion was not cleared until about 7:45, when I encountered my friend Emily in the kitchen of the 127 house. She pointed out that I was completely ready to go - a full hour ahead of schedule. Apparently, although my phone showed it was picking up service in Bogota, it was actually still running on Atlanta time and had automatically “sprung forward.” At least we had a nice visit over breakfast. After 15 minutes of watching Fabian back the car out of the tiny yard (and being very glad we did not have to do this task ourselves), Emily did a fabulous job of dodging hundreds of cyclists traveling with us up the steep incline to the farm, as well as maneuvering between the passing cars sharing the two-lane road with said cyclists.

I was, of course, thrilled to arrive at the farm, and I’m relatively sure everyone was glad to see me. J. had a welcome sign for me, which he flung at me along with a scarf while yelling at random and running by to inform Bibi that he did NOT remember me... then familiar faces appeared, though they were in an unfamiliar place. :-) Emily and her husband Julio took the Fuchs and I to church in La Calera, the town near the farm. I had forgotten how beautiful the view, how steep the hills, how green the grass, how abundant the tiny roadside stands selling everything from aguapanela (hot water with sugar dissolved) to almuerzos corrientes (full Colombian lunch plates). Julio assured us that because he preached, the service was about 45 minutes shorter than usual. We found it just shorter than the normal 2 hours we spend going to 2 churches. I was thankful Emily was there to translate most of the service, because I found I’d lost the skill of simultaneously listening to Spanish and speaking English; therefore, we only heard every other sentence of the sermon when the responsibility fell on me.

After church, we were on a mission. While Julio finished his responsibilities at church, Emily and Dianne went buy gas and avocados (across the street), while Ethan, Tyrel, and I entered the gas station/hardware store to buy parts. Emily and I had just discussed how to say 3/8 in Spanish. Ironic, but neither of us had ever had the need to learn the term. Using gestures, numbers, and samples, I discovered that tres octavos was correct and after a description of light accompanied by several adjectives, I was reintroduced to the word for lightbulbs - which were only sold at the store next door. 

This adventure with lightbulbs really was the crown of the language episodes. On Monday, Dianne and I went to do some shopping while Bibi attended a Formando Vidas training. I’d known that finding hot peppers outside a fruit market might be difficult, but we succeeded in finding imports from Mexico in a modernized supermarket. We decided to just pick up lightbulbs there, and as we checked out, the clerk asked, “Las prendo?” I was confused. She asked again, opening the box and pointing at the lightbulb, then shook her head as if frustrated with the stupidity of the foreigner to whom she spoke. I concluded that prender had a meaning unknown to me, that perhaps it meant open or check, so as we picked up our bags, we double checked to be sure none of the lightbulbs were broken. I commented, “She asked about turning the lightbulbs on. I really don’t understand what she meant.” Just then, a voice spoke from behind, “Excuse me.” It was a young Colombian woman speaking English. “She just meant did you want to test the bulbs to see if they turned on. She has a place to do that because sometimes...” Dianne began to laugh. We thanked the young woman, returned to the register, and handed the clerk our bulbs. She proceeded to “prender” each one, using a socket at the register to to prove that each one was a good purchase.

I learned a lot of words on this trip, as you may realize in traveling, but I learned something more. Just because you know the words doesn’t mean you know the meaning. Culture is context.

To and From

This trip to Bogota was, in itself, educational. I decided that since I had ALL that time on the plane and ALL that time in the airport, I should read and discuss and act like an intelligent person. Meeting that goal was helped by my lack of computer and the Atlanta airport’s lack of free internet. It was not helped by great propensity for sleeping on planes, but that’s another story!

I started out by listening to The Great Gadsby on the way to Albuquerque. I was so engrossed that I forgot to call my parents. Oops. And so excited about finishing on the way home. Except that some component on my phone died in the Amazon, wiping out camera and audiobooks. I’m living in suspense... but I won't keep you there.

Be informed: no matter how early your flight, the Albuquerque airport is not open ‘til 4 and you cannot go through security until 5. The terminal is, however, quiet enough that napping is not a problem. Atlanta was somewhat noisier. I got plenty of exercise as I learned that there are two Starbucks in Terminal C and none in any other terminal (I had a gift card). 

While sitting in Atlanta, I finished Grass Beyond the Mountains. Exaggerated I’m sure, and written by a man whose talent is story-telling, not writing biographies, I was nevertheless fascinated by this tale of cowboys on the frontiers of northern Canada in the early 20th century. It made me think of a quote I’d seen regarding the weakness reflected in today’s men, the effects of a lack of physical labor and too much media interaction. I read about men who camped in below freezing weather, rode for miles and days to help their neighbors, and lived alone for months to care for an investment - and I looked around me at men who did nothing but play on their iphones, whose hands were softer than mine, and who were rude to those nearby. How much truth?

My international flight had no more leg room than the first flight, but it did have a screen and some shoddy headphones. I decided to watch The Hobbit in Spanish. Shoddy headphones did not make that a feasible option, so I tried English. That was only slightly better, and the movie was terrible. Terrible BECAUSE - it doesn’t end. It just stops. Now I am going to have to actually make an effort to watch Hobbit 2. 

Delta did redeem their airline reputation slightly this time around, although I still doubt I’ve seen another airline get the luggage out so very slowly. At least my luggage arrived! Fabian and Jessica waited patiently during the hour I stood and watched the carousel. How good it is to go to friends! And as we drove through Bogota, I was amazed at what changes... and what doesn’t.
Coming home was only slightly more an adventure. I’d stayed the night with my friend Caro and, reticent because we’d had so little time together, she put me in the taxi at 6:30. I arrived at the airport, maneuvered the lines to satisfy the government that I'd paid my impuestos, and tried to decide the best way to spend my last few Colombian pesos. I settled on some bocadillos for my students and an arepa for myself. Guess what? They don’t sell arepas in the international wing of the Bogota airport. Talk about disappointment...

I boarded in Bogota to confusion. A Colombian abuela was sitting in my seat. She’d moved there when asked by an English-only gentleman to see her ticket, as she was in his seat and he was going to go sit in hers. He wound up sitting in her seat, his friend in his seat, she in mine, and I in his friend’s. And it was a middle seat. But the abuela appreciated that I spoke Spanish to her and the friend appreciated that I sat in the middle, so they gave me the armrests and the friend told me all about their time as U.S. military in Colombia and all over the world (did you know that in Italy when you move out of your house, you take your stove, refrigerator, and cabinets?). We also realized that neither of us could identify the countries in Central America. Sorry, Mom, all the map labeling did NOT have a long term effect. I know what countries should be there, but I don’t know which one is which!

That was a long flight, so I continued to extend my literary base with Of Mice and Men. Actually, it was rather boring to start with, then a little weird, and I might have lost the inclination to finish had I been anywhere but the plane. BUT I did finish - and, oh, the character development that leads to the dramatic ending of this story of a foolish man and the friend who cared for him! 

Atlanta the 2nd time around held little appeal. I tried to read my Spanish novel... slept a little... watched a TV special on the need for clean water in the Amazon... yeah, I’d learned about that... I always think when I get on the plane to Albuquerque that I could not be more glad, and it was no different this time. Home to ice and clouds and snow. Home. And that is enough.