We have settled down to a routine here in Cochabamba, most of which involves attending language classes. A typical day involves getting up around six o’clock, studying a little, taking some time for reflection, getting dressed, and then heading down to the kitchen, where our desayuno, or breakfast, is already prepared. If we are not running late, we always sit down to eat the fruit, with yogurt and a sprinkling of a topping that we have been told is good for us. Cheese and bread are next, along with the coffee that we have been drinking since we woke up. After that, we bolt out of the house and walk to the MLI, taking care to avoid strange dogs, since we have been sufficiently warned about the predominance of rabies here. Most of the dogs, we know, and some of them bark at us because they know that is their role, protecting their casas. We walk past the homes in the neighborhood, all behind walls and fences. The gardens (jardins) are enticingly verdant with an abundance of flowers that we have seen only in pictures. The cobblestone roads, which we sometimes have to use when it rains, because the sidewalks are slick, take us to the main road, Avenue Circumvalacion, where we have to carefully cross the road at the red light, ignored by some drivers. Along the way, we notice that there are many restaurants, with beautiful gardens inside, interspersed among the homes. We hear that there is live music in one of these restaurants on Friday nights, and that the food is very good. We also pass photocopy stores, one bicycle store, and an Internet café. Our total distance to school is one half of a mile exactly.
If we are on a morning class schedule, we have two classes before our 9:35 break, when all students have coffee, tea, and bread during which time various announcements are made. Sometimes, a Wednesday lecture is announced—there is always a lecture on Wednesday afternoons after classes, when students learn about Latin American history, politics, and culture—or a new student is introduced. I am accustomed to being the oldest person in most situations, but at the Maryknoll Language Institute, I feel that I am surrounded by my peers, since it is never too late to learn a new language, take on a new direction in one’s life work, and be a missioner in Latin America. We return to our classes, full of bread, coffee, and tea. My fellow classmate and I have learned about the Cedron tree at the school entrance, which furnishes the leaves for a fragrant citrus tea, and we sometimes pick some leaves for a different tea experience. The last two classes of the morning somehow seem harder than the first two.
Classes end at 11:30, and I am always at loose ends. Do I socialize with everyone, or make my way to the student room, where many people are answering emails, visiting Facebook, or talking with family and friends, using Skype? I usually socialize and then rush to read emails before returning home for lunch. Lunch is a huge meal, called almuerzo (which the dictionary defines as a mid-morning snack, and one thinks of the Hobbits’ second breakfast). But no—it is the huge meal of the day, and one may anticipate spaghetti and meat sauce, steak and vegetables, chicken soup with large pieces of chicken in the soup pot, seasoned pork, minute steaks or fried chicken, or Cochabamban dishes, such as pique macho, a colorful stew made of chopped meat, various peppers, onions, French fries, and chopped hot dogs, among other ingredients or sillpancho, which is layers of rice, friend potatoes, and a thin piece of meat, topped with an egg. Lunch always comes with a variety of vegetables, potatoes or rice or both, pickled carrots, onions, carrots, peppers, and green beans. Someone always manages to prepare a fruit juice, made from lemons, water melon, or papayas.
Joel and I will inevitably head back to the Institute after our meal for more work on the Internet. Wednesdays are afternoon lecture days, followed by a social hour, where students may enjoy peanuts, chips, cheese and crackers, popcorn, all the goodies that are so plentiful in the States, and very appreciated here. Thursdays, our Franciscan missioners have an hour and a half meeting, with a check-in and a prayer service, which we take turns preparing. We light the candle that our mentor Fr. Ignacio Harding (Iggie) gave us. Clare presented a reflection on Henry Nouwen’s book Gracias, his journal on his days in Bolivia. My service was a reflection on the liturgical year and the ways that worshippers participate in Mass. How will we respond to celebrating the different feast days and seasons in a country where we don’t know the language? I asked my fellow missioners. After our time for reflection, there is a volleyball game, and I was foolhardy enough to join in last week. Some people went out for dinner, coffee, and ice cream afterwards.
Language school students may or may not get together on the weekends. Friday nights are popular times to explore the restaurants in the city. Last night, a group of students, Joel included, went to a restaurant called Casablanca, a restaurant not on the Institute’s “eating guide,” but all of us are venturing out to new places, where we feel the food is safe for our gringo consumption. I did not go last night. Feeling some low energy and very queasy in the stomach, I stayed at home and tried to learn more verbs, nouns, and phrases in Espanol. It was soothing to have the living quarters to myself. Andean music floated through my open window, and I recalled the band that played for the four groups of missioners who trained together for a week at Ossining, New York, where the Maryknoll school, Bethany, is located. Only one of the Maryknoll missioners is here at the language school, Mingh, and I am the lucky one who gets to take classes with her. As I review my Espanol, I listen to the music. This neighborhood, or barrio, is close, and one doesn’t mind hearing the music from bands nearby as people enjoy their weekend fiestas. I have even become accustomed to the inhuman voice of the fruit vendor calling out the names of fruits he has to sell over the loudspeaker as his truck travels through the neighborhood. Over the loudspeaker, the unearthly sound sends a chill up my spin, but the other day when I saw him selling his fruit, his very human appearance belied his sinister call to buy fruit. The parrot next door is a common recurrent sound. In the States, we are so intent upon our own rights to solitude and quiet, but here, it feels good to know that other people are buying fruit and enjoying their Friday nights with friends.
Tomorrow, Joel will go to buy soccer tickets with our host, Henry. One may feel guilty about enjoying the pastimes of the middle class, so similar to our own at home, but let’s face it, we all love soccer, and the family enjoys making us feel at home in our new country. Henry and Lily have even said that they may visit us when Joel and I go to Carmen Pampa to work (their daughter lives in La Paz); be that as it may, we feel very lucky to be able to converse with them even a little bit. We spent one evening this week just looking at weird animals on the internet, comparing the creatures that inhabit our respective countries: possums, bats, raccoons, snakes indigenous to each continent, some creatures that I have never seen before.
I want to include some pictures here of Cochabamba. The second Saturday when we were here, the Maryknoll Language Institute arranged for us a full tour of Cochabamba, which took us to visit the gigantic Christ statue on the hill over the city, many plazas in the city, and finally to a beautiful restaurant inside a kind of park, where we had a bountiful lunch alfresco or afuera with the other students. After almuerzo, I looked to my right to see Joel swimming laps in the pool just yards away from our dinner table. The park, or resort, was well landscaped, with soft St. Augustine grass underfoot. Exotic flowers lined the sidewalks, and parrots and parakeets peered at us from their capacious cages. Joel and Nora (fellow missioner) took some close-up pictures of the flowers. The setting was tranquil and beckoning. All of us were humble, grateful, in our moment of happiness and peace, knowing that we were privileged to have such beauty and food on this gorgeous day on the hills above the city so full of poor people.
Other pictures were taken by Joel on the Sunday when we met with Iggie at the Franciscan Social Center. We were invited by Iggie to visit the Center, and somehow managed to arrive on the day when all Bolivian schools, churches, and markets were closed, the day when the country celebrated the nation’s acceptance of its new constitution. The five missioners came to the Center, met with Fr. Edwin Quispe, whose parish in Cochabamba is flourishing, and watched the video he had made of his parish’s many activities. We went to Richard and Kristen’s apartment, where they lived when they worked in Cochabamba, and went through all of the boxes that they had left behind, full of CDs, DVDs, books, coat hangers, Spanish-English note cards (which I took) on handy rings, a cell phone that Clare is now using, pillows, bedding, a ziplock of Ibuprofen, and many other useful items. Seeing us look through these boxes of things that would be of use to us as missioners in the coming years, Iggie wished us Feliz Navidad. We found it imperative to have a picture taken of us in the main room where other missioners had gathered before our time, and then spent some time talking about our future assignments and learning more about the country we are becoming a part of.
The center was closed, but Iggie took us to the different sections where social services were offered. Clinics ranged from dental, to medical, to psychological. There was a meeting place for Alcoholics Anonymous, for alcoholism is a big problem here, a Comedor Popular, which is a kitchen serving lunch to many children and adults on Saturday at noon. Very interesting to me was the children’s burn center. Here children who have been burned and are on the road to rehabilitation are cared for as they wait for further treatment and surgery. Without proper care of the burn wounds, the burn victims regress and have to have repeat surgeries. But here, under the expert care given in the center, the children can be treated with dignity and respect while they are on the road to recovery. On the road to recovery? I asked. The best part is that these burns that have ravaged and disfigured the children can be treated, and I was told that after treatment, the children look as if they have never been burned.
I am caught up in learning the language, getting to know our host family, trying to get around in a city where no one speaks English, and keeping in touch with the people I love back home. After that, it is journaling, reading, personal reflection, and developing relationships with other people here, Bolivian, North American, or other. I have received some nice hugs from the grandson, Sebastian, and even got to play with some puppies at a home where we dropped off his mother and him for a play date. But I am continually aware of the many hungry stray dogs in this city, and even more aware of the underfed children and their impoverished parents. As I enjoy the good in life, I am always aware that somewhere others are going without. Even today, as our host family treated us to ice cream and empanadas at a city café, we were interrupted by a family of four, a mother and three children who held out their hands for money. I watched in silence as Henry got up from his ice cream and bought four empanadas for them. Lilly told us, they might get some food with the money but it will probably be taken from them by the father to buy alcohol. What kind of help helps? We missioners have learned to think carefully about this question. It was a good example for Joel and me, as we watched Henry buy food for the uninvited guests. All of us, then, were able to enjoy the beautiful day in good company, without hunger.