Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Least of These

Last Saturday, as I walked out of the Cathedral after the funeral Mass for Father Gregorio Iriarte, OMI (Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate), a beloved educator, writer, and human rights activist in Bolivia, who had been deported from Bolivia many times during its dictator years, I came upon a young man who had passed out on the sidewalk outside the church. It was 12:00, and he was struggling to recuperate from the night before. I watched helplessly as he tried to recover the pink ice cream that had spilled from his overturned plastic cup. Still lying on his side, he leaned over, trying to follow the stream of ice cream with his straw, sipping it from the dirty pavement.  

I had seen many young men passed out on the streets in the city. Some of them were sleeping off the alcohol from the night before, while others were debilitated from sniffing glue—borrachos (drunks) and cleferos (glue sniffers). I have even seen the street boys’ dogs passed out from sniffing glue.

I walked on, though, for I was used to such sights, and the young man would probably come to his senses and go on his way.

The next day after going to an early Mass in our neighborhood that celebrated 200th anniversary of the Sisters of St. Joseph, I was returning home and saw something strange just beside the curb of Guayacon, now a busy street since it has been paved. It looked like a pair of bent knees jutting up from the pavement beside the street curb. I hoped that what I was looking at was not human, but as I came closer, I saw the rest of the figure. Yes, it was a young man, about fifteen years old, passed out beside the curb of this busy street. Accustomed as I had become to seeing young men passed out in the streets of the city, I mentally registered what I had seen and passed on.

Three minutes later I stopped myself. What are you doing?  Are you just going to hope that a car doesn’t run over him

So I turned around and just stood by the boy. At least no cars would run over him if I were standing there.

He wouldn’t and couldn’t wake up. Dressed in a turquoise-blue tee-shirt, with a black jacket and black jeans, along with a silver-studded leather belt, also black, he did not look like a street boy, but a middle-class kid who had just not been able to make it home.

It wasn’t long before the family who lived in the house in front of the curb came out, and we somehow got the young man to a safe place, sitting on a rock, leaning against the wall surrounding their house. We could hear his cell phone ringing in his pocket. If he could only come to his senses, someone would come to get him and bring him home.

What surprised me was that I did not immediately go to help the boy. I had simply walked by, hoping that I would not read in the papers the next day that a car racing by had run over him. Later that day, I talked with a Maryknoll sister who told me that she had had the same experience, walking past a young man passed out in the road, but then stopping herself.

Have I become callous to these sights? Or do I simply feel powerless to help? The least I can do is stand beside the person passed out on the busy street to make sure that no speeding cars run over him.  After that, well, maybe I will know what to do next. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Why I Like Living in Zona Sur

When Joel and I returned to Cochabamba from Carmen Pampa nearly two years ago, we decided that the least expensive housing option was a two-bedroom house in the South Zone (Zona Sur) of Cochabamba. I recall my first exposure to the South Zone when we missioners were cabbing out to Laguna Alalay, to work towards getting our visas. As the cab took us closer to the South Zone, it was like going into another world. The buildings resembled a movie set from a wild west town--no pavement, few windows in the buildings, and dust everywhere. The red-orange bricks were stacked up like children's legos.

Now, the South Zone is my home, and as I walk my dog in the neighborhood, I take note of the spots of beauty around me, the flowers someone planted outside their house walls, the trees that spring up here, that flower in shades of lavender, gold, red and orange.

Everyone's house is behind a protective wall, but some larger homes rise up to five stories--it is not true that the South Zone is home to the poor  alone. We have homes ranging from hovels to mansions with leaded beveled-glass windows and wooden-inlaid doors. Sometimes the house's windows are the last touches to be made to the house, but when they are finally paid for and placed inside the walls, they may be stained glass of intricate design.

Avenues have been paved. At the left is a picture of Guayacon Avenue fifteen months ago before the road was paved. Guayacon is a long road that goes to the mountain separating our neighborhood from Sacaba, where Joel and I teach in the prison Abra. Someday there will be a tunnel between the two towns, saving a lot of time and gasoline for motorists.

The next photo looks west and was taken today, after Guayacon has been paved, two new stoplights hanging strategically in the busy intersections.

On Guayacon, the median of the road is now a long storm drain, so that the run-off water in the rainy season can be captured and used later in the city during the dry season. There is so much water in the rainy season that washes down the streets and sometimes comes into our houses. The reservoir for the city water is many miles away, near the town of Tarata, and our own lagoon is dying as In his blogs, Joel has remarked on the year-long paving project in our neighborhood. It has taken a while, but  in the past month, even the longest algae and reeds fill up the water basin. Many people are worried about this, and our taxi drivers say that work is being done to restore the lagoon to its former ecological balance.

One of the entry points for water passing into the storm drain
 on Guayacon Avenue.
Last night when I was coming home, a taxi driver began complaining about how the officials within the districts of Cochabamba pocketed the funds made available to them for municipal works. I pointed out that in our neighborhood, a new social center was being constructed, not to mention the new street lighting that was installed, making it safer to walk at night (not that I do this).

His response was similar to my own: we live in the former neighborhood of Evo Morales, and this neighborhood has indeed become a model for the poor neighborhoods in the city. For the past year, the city workers have transformed rock and dirt into beautiful green spaces, with flower beds lined with thorny plants that discourage the invasion of dogs. I couldn't believe that the little sprigs of grass on the desolate vacant lots  could grow into lush green spaces. If you build it, they will come: families with small children come out to enjoy the swing sets and monkey gyms. And with every park there is a large threatening sign warning that anyone who throws trash on the ground will incur a multa, or fine.

As for easy living, we have a tienda down the street where we can step out to buy bread, milk, butter, sugar, flour, raw peanuts, and eggs--not to mention laundry detergent, sponges, dish detergent, bleach, and toilet paper. Just a couple of houses down the street we have a butcher shop, where we can also buy vegetables and spices for soup. Across the street is the hairstylist, pedicurist, manicurist, and vendor of large bottles of cold Coca Cola.  I have had my hair cut there, but mostly go for pedicures, as well as for conversation.  The owner fills me in on everything going on in Bolivia from politics to the breaking news. Her daughter takes English classes at my house on Saturdays, and is in the process of finishing up her law degree.

Claudia feeds our Cocker, Blondie, when we
are away on trips. Claudia is about to
complete her law degree.
I can buy vegetables from some fairly large shops if I go to Guayacan, two streets down, where we also have a good medical clinic and pharmacy. Just a little farther if one turns left on Guayacan to Los Angeles, we have the La Salette Church, the big one. The smaller chapel where we attend Mass on Sundays is in the other direction.

We live in Barrio Magisterio, which was originally blocks of land bought by and for teachers. Our street is called Colibri, which means hummingbird. Yes, we have a lot of hummingbirds in our yard. The neighborhood next to ours, close to the lagoon, is called Exaltación. It has its own chapel called Exaltación.

The neighborhoods have anniversaries every year, celebrating their origins, kind of like birthdays, which Bolivians love to celebrate. I attended both celebrations of both neighborhoods. First, Magisterio had an anniversary. We received a communicado on our front door, which informed us that we had to clean our sidewalks and streets before the big day. We also were to march in the parade, as well as being present for the neighborhood party. On the Sunday when the big party took place in our cancha, basically the large soccer court with attendant bleachers and a pavilion over it, we all gathered for Mass before the dancing, food, and other celebrating.

The Mass was not perfect. The sound system functioned only sporadically. The presider, a former La Salette priest who had once been a beloved priest in the neighborhood, read page after page of his homily, but no one could hear him. When Mass was over, he began  talking again ex tempore about politics. All of us were inclined to be respectful of this well-intended priest, but when we had finally been released from his homily, and then Mass was over, we actually did want to go on to other things. It might have been different if we could have heard what he was saying, though.
When the current priest came in his SUV to pick up the older man, the party got under way. As is usual in Bolivia, the neighbors had been practicing their dances for a few weeks and were ready to perform. I took a few video clips of the children dancing.

Later, when the spectators began dancing too, I was invited to dance. Seeing that there were many older people out on the dance floor, I consented. I had a bit of trouble catching on to the dance steps, but little by little, I got the rhythm.

Weeks later, after my neighborhood birthday party, I discovered that the Exaltación barrio was having its own birthday celebration, in the same week that our neighborhood church was celebrating its own anniversary. I was determined to be a responsible church member, so I went to a large circle of women gathered at the back of church after the service and volunteered to be a working member of the group. As it turned out, I was volunteering to be a Tinku dancer. Because I never understand schedules here and never get it right when people tell me what is going on, I did not know that I would be performing the Tinku at both the anniversary of the barrio Exultación and at the Talent Show that was part of the tridium of the La Salette anniversary.

Be that as it may, I spent many hours practicing the Tinku, wishing that I had had a personal trainer, but in the end, I was no worse than anyone else in the dance troupe. The Maryknoll sisters and volunteers (the sisters' house is next door to the church, and the short-term missioners live behind them, just a block and a half from our house). We learned the Tinku from the teen-aged girls in the parish, who made the dance seem modern. The rest of us, Maryknolls, one Franciscan, and the middle-aged moms of the parish, worked pretty hard at this. The Bolivianas, admittedly, were excellent dancers, and were very patient with those of us who were at best mediocre.

I have pictures of us in our costumes (trajes). I had a great time dancing--my second time since doing the Moronada in Carmen Pampa.

Maggie (Maryknoll sister) and I were Tinku partners

Living in the South Zone has enriched my mission experience in Cochabamba.  We live out here close to at least three orders of sisters, the Maryknolls, the San Jose Sisters, and the Santissimo Sisters, as well as the La Salette Church. I worked in the apoyo escolar for the first year when I was here, taking an eight-month break, and then going back. I have learned a lot about the ways of the poor while working with the children there. The center has grown. There are at least 25 children attending each session, one in the morning and in the afternoon. With two excellent teachers, one Maryknoll sister from Tanzania, who taught school before she was a Maryknoll, and another teacher who is finishing up her college degree while working. The students can get the personal attention that they may not get at home while doing their homework. They have five computers at their disposal, and lots of educational games. I have mastered card games, and have even been known to win sometimes. This past week, I had a "learn English" table. My theory is that if children started early enough, they could master the language. Why shouldn't the less economically advantaged children be able to speak English as well as the Bolivian children who attend English-only institutions?

Living in a barrio has added a large extra dimension to my work on mission. Sure, I have to take a taxi home at night instead of just walking down the street to my apartment. And I follow the rules that my neighbors follow: be inside the walls of your property after dark, and if you are in the city, use only the neighborhood taxi service, not just any taxi that comes by, including the radio taxis. I also have good neighbors who will feed my dog and cat when I am out of town, and turn my outdoor light on and off every day, while watching my property. The bus comes right by my house every ten minutes (except during March and April, when there are blockades and protests). I can walk around the lagoon, enjoying the pedestrian pathway, and even watch the children play soccer at the Aurora soccer club (Aurora is one of the professional soccer teams in Cochabamba, but I root for Wilsterman, Aurora's rival). I have a different world out here, one that I will miss a lot when I return from mission. I can't help but wonder what it would be like if suburbs in the U.S. had little shops that sold meat, convenience goods, vegetables, and fruits located right in the front rooms of people's houses.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Bolivia meets Calcutta
Bolivia is a popular place for volunteer work—after all, it is the second poorest country in Latin America, next to Haiti, and attracts volunteers of all ages, denominations, and occupations. Civil engineers, like Jason Obergfell,  a Maryknoll lay missioners; Minh Phuong,  a hairdresser from North Vietnam by way of Maryland, another lay Maryknoll; Lil Mattingly, a nurse and Maryknoll sister from Louisville, Kentucky; physical therapists;  as well as educators, psychology and sociology majors like our missioners; a chaplain like myself, and English professors like Joel and me, want to bring our different skillsets to Bolivia.

The Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s order, whom we call the Sisters of Calcutta, have also been drawn to Bolivia. This order has had its own church and school for many years in Bolivia, but recently opened a house for the dying in Santa Vera Cruz in the spring of 2011. We Franciscans had seen the Calcutta Sisters’ church and school from a distance at the top of a hill where Padre Pablo, a Maryknoll, lives. I was awed that the Missionaries of Charity had come here to help the Bolivian poor, but as months passed, I came to know the sisters better and thought of them as fellow missioners.  Joel teaches English to the AIDS residents there (called SIDA in Spanish) on Tuesday mornings.

We first visited the mission in Santa Vera Cruz after our return from Carmen Pampa, well over a year ago. The clean, white buildings impressed me.  The chapel itself was simple, open, uncluttered. Upon our arrival, we were given coffee and sandwiches (we had come at lunchtime) before talking with the sister who was to take us out to the prison where we would start our English classes.  Her name was Sister Mary Oceal, from Argentina, and yes, she did look like a younger Mother Teresa.  We met sisters from Africa, and Sister Jocelle from Peru, a key advocate for the men in the prison where we serve.  She was there when one of the inmates was about to receive his sentence for drug trafficking, a spiritual support; while Joel was there for friendship; and Joe Loney was there for legal counsel—all of them missioners from other countries, helping a man from Mali.

Later on last spring, we returned to the Calcutta Sisters’ mission, along with many Maryknoll missioners, for the grand opening of the Sisters’ residence for the dying.  Tito Solari, Archbishop of Cochabamba, celebrated the Mass.

Last Friday, July 13, 2012, the Mother-General  of the Missionaries of Charity, Mary Prema (whose name means “love” in Sanscrit) , came to Santa Vera Cruz to visit her order and bless their work.  Joel and I were among the guests.  We met Michael Reddell, fellow Franciscan missioner, at Kilometer 7, the exit that leads to the Calcutta Sisters’ church and mission, and then caught up with Leslie, a short-term lay volunteer (nine months) with Maryknoll. Walking down the hill from the school and church and onto the campus of the hospice, we saw other short-term Maryknolls, two young men, hoeing in the gardens adjacent to the buildings. The campus had been transformed since I had last been there, landscaped, with neat vegetable rows lining the ample garden plots. So much order and industry in the midst of poverty and disorder!

At the Mass, the children from K’ara K’ara (basically pronounced “K” with a clicking sound, Cada Cada) were sitting on the front rows. They were as poor as any children I had seen at Carmen Pampa. They were friendly and excited, squirming in their seats and even a bit inattentive to the Archbishop who directed his homily to them, with only a couple of students answering his questions. But he persisted in addressing them, the adults watching on approvingly.

Sister Mary Prema, who is the second Mother-General  (2009) since Mother Teresa’s death, sat in the front row. She smiled happily throughout the Mass.

Some of the residents sang in the choir and served as lectors.  Many residents were in wheelchairs, one man without legs, but nevertheless playing the tambourine.  All appeared to be glad to be there, and the music was energizing.

The ceremony afterwards honored the visiting Mother General. Dancing and reciting were the order of the day. One of Joel’s students, Jorge Luis, danced the Cueca, a courtship dance.  The children performed their dances, and two young men break danced, a popular activity here in Bolivia. Various gifts were presented to Mother Mary Prema, an aguayo bag, other artisania, flowers, which she accepted with the graciousness of royalty and the gratitude of a real mother.

When the offerings of song, dance, and oratory came to an end, Mother Mary Prema gave all of the guests a small folder with a picture of Mother Teresa, a prayer and holy medal of the blessed founder, and two miraculous medals. I was able to talk with Mother Mary Prema, briefly, in English. She was kind, humble, and grateful to visit a mission so far away. It was then that I remembered that one of Mother Teresa’s greatest joys, as recorded in her dark journal, Be Thou My Light, was the divinity of Christ that she discerned in the sisters of her congregation. Their joy in serving their Lord, their faith and sense of peace—all were God’s gifts to these sisters in their service to the poor. This Mother General reflected the same joy and faith.
Mary Prema, Mother-General
 of the Missionaries of Charity
On the sidelines were the residents too ill to take part in the ceremony. Many had come from their rooms despite their pain, in order to attend Mass and watch the performances. What did these dying men feel and think as they watched the ceremony before them?  I just hoped that these men who had been momentarily upstaged by the performer would once again be at center stage tomorrow and the day after that when the fiesta was over.  

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Corpus Christi, June 7, 2012

the procession of people behind the Monstrance
one shrine in Ave. Heroinas
Thursday, June 7th was the Feast of Corpus Christi in Bolivia.  In the United States, it is celebrated on the Sunday after Trinity Sunday.  The liturgical calendar shows that there are seven Sundays of Easter, followed by the next three Sundays that are solemnities: Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, and The Body and Blood of Christ. [1]  In Latin America, the Feast of Corpus Christi is celebrated not on the Sunday following Trinity Sunday, but on the Thursday  that follows Trinity Sunday.  The feast day reminds Catholics of the institution of the Eucharist and their belief in the real presence of Christ in the elements of Communion.

another shrine
In Bolivia, the Feast of Corpus Christi (meaning the body of Christ) is a public holiday, like All Saints Day (November 1).   I am one who stumbles upon holidays while on mission in Bolivia. During Mass on Trinity Sunday, I heard the announcement that the Corpus Christi Mass would be held at 7:00 p.m. in our neighborhood church.  Later that week, when attending the feast day for St. Norbert at the Franciscan Church, on June 6th, I learned that there would be a procession the next day, Corpus Christi, in which the Monstrance (the large receptacle in which the Host is displayed) would be carried throughout the center of the city, in a path that encircled the Cathedral. 

I had participated in most of the processions during Holy Week this year. On Thursday night during Holy Week, Catholics in the city make a pilgrimage to all the churches in Cochabamba, a flood of people moving from one church to another, stopping to pray at each altar. On Friday during Holy Week, a funeral procession in memory of Jesus’ death on Good Friday, takes place. One of our friends informed Joel and me that this re-enactment seemed so real, almost as if one could actually experience Jesus’ death on Good Friday.   Of course, Jesus did not have a funeral procession years ago. He was hurriedly placed in the tomb on a Friday afternoon, the anointing of the body to be carried out the following Sunday.

The procession of Corpus Christ reminds me of the Bolivian Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, when the faithful walk from shrine to shrine (fifteen in all). In this ritual, we walked from one house to another in our neighborhood, where the families had created shrines for each station of the Cross.

In the city at Corpus Christi, different churches have set up shrines throughout the city.  The procession stops at each shrine, where the liturgy is read, the Lord’s Prayer and a Hail Mary are recited, a song is sung, and the people move on.

I joined the procession when it was moving through Heroinas, one of the main streets in the city.  I marveled at the simplicity of the procession, the people following the Monstrance of the Host, beneath a white and gold protective canopy. In the procession was a band, playing solemn music, children from different Catholic schools, in uniform, and of course, at the head of the procession, Bishop Tito, and as many priests from the archdiocese as one could imagine—at the end of the procession, the Maryknoll priests, some of whom had come from far away, out in the countryside.  Sometimes the music from the loudspeaker overlapped with the music of the choirs, and sometimes the brass band, with percussion, of course, began its music too soon. It was not choreographed perfectly, but its simplicity was pleasing.  The people were solemn, and there was no sign of street vendors hawking cotton candy, buñuelos, or plastic toys. In a culture where color, lights, loud music, and dance usually hold sway, this procession was subdued, stately, reverent.
as the crowd circled back to the Cathedral
we passed the floral designs of the Eucharist

[1] A solemnity is the highest ranking feast day in the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church, commemorating an event in the life of Jesus, his mother Mary, or another important saint. The observance begins with the vigil on the evening before the actual feast day. So what event is being commemorated in Corpus Christi? It is the feast day that commemorates the institution of the Eucharist, even though this institution is part of the Easter Triduum (the three days before Easter—Holy Thursday,when the Eucharist was instituted by Christ--, Good Friday, and the Holy Saturday vigil before Easter).   Church history states that this solemnity was established to set aside one day for the Eucharist itself, since Holy Thursday Mass commemorates Christ’s giving a new commandment (that Christians love one another just as Christ has loved the early disciples), the institution of foot washing, and the agony in Gethsemane.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Moral Dilemmas: Beggars in Bolivia

Beggars in Bolivia

I tried to google the topic of "beggars in Bolivia," with few results, except for different travellers’ experiences with beggars in Bolivia. A google search of begging led me to the “Wikitravel” section entitled “Begging.” I had little experience with beggars while I lived in Nashville, Tennessee.  There was a beggar outside the Catholic Cathedral on Broadway, and another at the Starbucks on 21st Avenue, across from the Vanderbilt Divinity School. When one turned onto Broadway from Interstate 440, there was usually a man holding a sign declaring that he was a veteran in need of money.
In Cochabamba on Sunday afternoons, beggars (mothers and children) cluster around Dumbo’s, Donal’s, and Cristol on Heroinas, one of the main streets of the city, where middle-class families go for Sunday dinner or treats.  In these places, mothers or their children come up the clients to try to collect extra change. The children are dirty, typically dressed in indigenous clothes, and sit on the sidewalk when they are not imploring the clients to give them money. One Sunday after the missioners had eaten dinner at Donal’s, a well-dressed woman began to plead with us to help her pay her doctor bills.

Beggars like to gather around the church doors on Sundays. When I was in language school, I would count out Bolivianos (equal to 15 cents) to hand out to the children outside of Santa Ana Church at Cala Cala, where we missioners used to attend Mass.  I wanted to be able to randomly give money to those outside when Mass was over. One Sunday, a very dirty woman who could have been my age followed us missioners across the street where we would buy ice cream cones. We also bought her an ice cream cone, but as we were walking back to our respective host family homes, she kept stepping in front of me, holding out her open hand, moving it up and down like a lever, insistently, as if I owed her more money.  
One time when I was walking down the Prado, the boulevard leading from Cala Cala to downtown, a little girl accompanying her mother caught my eye. The girl was athletic, clean, and sharp.  She danced in front of me, holding out her hand for money. I was angry with her mother for encouraging her daughter to take up this line of work at such an early age. As the girl pranced along beside me, I told her that she should work hard in school and think about what she wanted to do when she grew up.  Afterwards,  I felt a bit silly for lecturing her, but I was saddened by the possibility of her throwing her life away.
I like to keep some change in my pocket as I walk down Heroinas or in the Cancha (the shopping district in Cochabamba, actually an open air market that extends for blocks and blocks), for someone who seems as if he or she really needs the money. But my giving isn’t based on any set criteria. Some people, like the host family we lived with in Cala Cala (where the middle to upper class townspeople live) would give money to very old people who could not work, or sometimes to children. Once when we were eating ice cream and empanadas on a Saturday afternoon, Henry bought a family of four empanadas and ice cream as well. Another time after we had watched the carnival parades, he gave our extra ham and cheese sandwiches to a group of street children.

Begging is a profession in Bolivia.  I have seen many women with sleeping children beside them on the dirty sidewalks of the city. The children are always under five or six years old, wearing a chullo hat, with Alpaca sweater and buzos (sports pants).

 I don’t like to think of these families situating themselves on the dirty sidewalks. But here the mothers make their living. Some women simply sit on the sidewalks holding out their hands or a cup; other women walk up to the passerby, asking for money. Yesterday, when I was waiting for my ride  from Super Haas, where we buy groceries, I was standing at the foot of the stairs, with my backpack and a bag of groceries.  I was ready to go home after teaching my classes, ready to start baking pies for the men at the prison, since I had promised them I would do so, and the chocolate chip cookies for the film series the next night. I noticed the woman whom I refer to as the tambourine woman, singing and tapping her tambourine on the other side of the stairs. I had seen and heard her before. She often sits atop the hill where the Christo is located (the gigantic statue of Christ that overlooks the city, so tall that people walk up to the shoulder height and look out, so imposing that I can see it no matter where I am in the city of Cochabamba.
 Although her voice is so-so, she sings hymns loudly, enthusiastically, with the rhythmic shaking and tapping of her instrument. Her face shines when one talks with her. She is singing for the glory of God, but she will accept money in thanks. I gave her the last of my change, and returned to my spot on the steps of the grocery store. A young mother came up to me, where I was compelled to wait for my husband. She was pretty, dressed in a pollera, with the Quechua wide-brimmed sunhat.
I knew she wanted money. She kept talking to me, staring at me as if I were the odd one, there with my backpack and groceries. I had no idea what she was saying, and was about to feel terrible about my Spanish, when I realized that she was talking to me in Quechua. I was stuck, since I had agreed to meet my husband there. She kept talking to me, asking for money, looking at me as if I owed her my money. Eventually, after making it clear that I had no more money to give her (“No lo tengo!”), I just started to stare in the distance, as she kept talking to me, until she finally left me,  stopping to talk with the tambourine lady.
Because we are from the United States, people assume that we have money to spare (my stipend from FMS is supposed to cover my basic needs, not the needs of others).  Some people we work with have asked to use our credit cards to help conduct those very businesses where we are working. We can’t do this. Other people for whom we work have asked us to buy books for them online or bring back items from the States when we went home. We have learned the hard way that we cannot do this even for our Bolivian friends. We were warned about this when we worked at Carmen Pampa—never loan anyone money; you will never get it back. It must be said that some people have repaid us, though.

The Wikitraveler website gives the following advice about giving money to beggars:

* Give only when it is your choice; don't encourage the obnoxious or intimidating beggars by buying them off.

 *Keep the amounts in proportion; in a country where many people work long hours for a few euros a day, giving a beggar a euro is wildly excessive. 

* If you do give, be discrete. Otherwise, you may mark yourself as an easy target and attract all the other beggars to see what they can get out of you; this can quickly ruin your trip.
 *Make an effort to spend some where it will go to the poor. Give the street musicians a few coins, buy some flowers from the hawkers, take a rickshaw or a donkey ride. Pick up some local handicrafts. Play the game; bargain hard and try not to get grossly overcharged, but accept that some people need to make a living off tourists. You are probably going to pay more than a local would; don't worry too much about it.
I have developed habits that help me to decide when and to whom I give my few coins. For example, I buy manzanilla flowers (used to make chamomile tea or when mixed with boiling water, used for soaking tired feet or irritated skin) and bags of lemons from women on the street. The women who sell these two items, usually together, seem to be the poorest vendors in the city. I try to pay street musicians who really can play and/or sing. I buy gum from the vendors on the street. I buy all of my flowers at the edge of the Cancha, from the flower women. If I see an item that I need as I walk past rows and rows of street vendors, I try to shop with those vendors who cannot afford to sell their wares in stores. I do not buy from vendors who come into the restaurants where I am eating lunch or dinner because I feel that I have paid for the right to not be hassled.  I favor buying ice cream cones or sweets for children whose parents have asked them to beg for money. I feel that these children should receive treats like other children, and I don’t know what my money would be used for. I try to always give money to the the quadriplegic who begs on San Martin, and I give to the old people who beg, feeling that they have no other way to obtain money.

I understand about bargaining too. Three weeks ago, I went shopping with my young friend in the neighborhood, Lizbeth. I found a top that I liked, she had made friends with the shopkeeper, and I got a straight answer to my question, Am I supposed to pay the price that is quoted to me from the salesperson? The answer was, No.  Politely, I queried the salesperson, How much am I really supposed to pay for this sequined purple blouse? I got a straight answer, and paid a reasonable price.
There are many conclusions to be drawn. I am in a poor country where there are no holds barred on the profession of begging. People are poor here, and many people beg. They use their young children to bring in money. These beggars are insistent: they will follow the other person for at least a block, or go into a restaurant or even department store to seek money.  I am uncomfortable, still, with the beggars on the streets of Cochabamba. I never reach into my purse to get change because I don’t want anyone to know where I keep my money. But if I have put some change in my pocket, I may empty the pocket if I am moved to do so. I don’t like the tactics, using children to ply the passersby or poor, dirty people who stand outside the churches after the services. Beggars, like street vendors, know where the crowds gather.
A couple of weeks ago, I learned from an English conversation class that those sleeping toddlers and infants who are have been placed beside their mothers who are begging on the street are quietly sleeping for a reason. They have been given glue to breathe so that they will not bother their moms while they are begging. I had wondered about the children with the shiny immobile faces, whose eyes were sealed shut almost as if they were dolls. They seemed so unnatural, and I learned from one of my conversation friends that the mothers don’t have enough milk, due to malnutrition, to nurse their children, so they curtail both their own hunger and that of their children with the glue they breathe (such a fix is inexpensive, I hear).

There are many organizations in Bolivia that are trying to work with indigent mothers, abused children, and the huge orphan population. Amanecer is one organization. It has provided education and safe shelter for street children since 1984 (http://www.amanecer-bolivia.org/). One of our missioners works at a branch in Cochabamba, and other missioners preceding us have worked in these homes as well.  One of our missioners works with street children who have been cleferos (glue sniffers); another with girls who have been taken from abusive home situations, as well as with  abandoned infants. 
Some children on the street are learning how to make and sell handcrafts. The children whom one finds along the tourist tract are vendors of collectables. This is one way to make a living. Here is a picture of a large group of children in the streets of the town Concepción, in the Chiquitania (the tropical savannahs near Santa Cruz, in the eastern part of Bolivia) where the Jesuit missions were begun. They sell handcrafts.

We bought these children's artesania, which we still treasure.
These children also love blue ice cream, and here's the picture to prove it.

A young man who came to Bolivia as a tourist stayed to create a non-profit that trained children in the art of circus performance. One may see jugglers and acrobats at many street intersections in Cochabamba.  (See http://performinglifebolivia.net/wordpress/?p=571)

Some missioners here are training women as hair stylists.

The German Swiss technical school, Christo Rey, located on the mountain that leads up to the Taquiña (Cochabamba’s beer) factory trains auto mechanics, construction engineers, and hairdressers, to name a few trades taught there, in a three-year degree program.  The lawyer who works there, who also works at El Abra,  the men’s prison where we teach English classes, informed us that a college degree in Bolivia doesn’t always guarantee employment, whereas a three-year technical degree takes less time and provides a better opportunity for a job. Next to the technological school is a free elementary and high school for the children of incarcerated parents.

The way that one helps beggars is to offer opportunities for education and work. For some of us, these problems are to be addressed by the government, with programs set up by tax dollars. In Bolivia, the church (and I mean all denominations) has taken on a large share of social aid, education, and job training.  Non-profits from other countries have stepped in to educate, train, and provide safe homes for children and their mothers.  Poco a poco (little by little) and sin prisa ni pausa (without hurrying neither pausing) serve as incentives for those of us who live here, who view poverty every day.   

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Carnaval Once More

The Spanish word cuaresma has two different meanings: Lent and Carnaval.  On Ash Wednesday, United States Catholics fast and abstain from meat. And while U.S. Catholics indulge in Fat Tuesday practices, consuming stacks of pancakes or whatever constitutes a feast before famine, Ash Wednesday, while not a holiday, receives lots of attention, the services very crowded as the church begins the Lenten season.

Wednesday before last, Miércoles de Ceniza, I went to the Ash Wednesday service at 7:00 a.m., taking Joel’s cane with me to ward off menacing dogs as I walked in the early morning to Mass.  The La Salette Church was half full (it’s a large church), and we received our ashes in pairs, facing our partner and saying, “Repent and believe in the Gospel” (“Conveírtase y crea en el Evangelio”) as we made the sign of the cross in ashes on his or her forehead. I went up with Maggie Magenda, a Maryknoll sister from Tanzania. It seemed right that all of us would make the sign of blessing on each other’s forehead, while advising that one turn away from sin and anticiipate God’s Good News.

In our neighborhood parish, it is a tradition for the nuns, priests, brothers, missioners, and the other lay people to have breakfast in the priests’ house after Mass. I had brought a bag of milk and some blackberry jam for my contribution. I intended to simply drop these off, supposing that there would be no breakfast on Ash Wednesday. But there was!  A La Salette brother from Argentina was visiting, and he was making stacks of pancakes for everyone. I sat at the end of the table with the visiting brother,  Adrian,  another La Salette brother who is taking English classes from Joel, Padre David, and a teenaged boy who is also taking English classes from us, who just announced his plans to go into seminary. His little brother sat next to him. The rest of us were Maryknoll and Franciscan lay missioners and two sisters from different orders. One missioner, who was returning to the United States the next week, with the intention of coming back to work for three years, had made scones, with vanilla frosting. Another person had baked a cake.  It was truly a Bolivian breakfast, sugar and starches.   I tried to eat moderately; after all, today was a day of fasting. But as I observed everyone eating with zest, I wondered what kind of Ash Wednesday breakfast I had stumbled onto.

I had plans to go to three services that day, but only made it to one (how many does one need?) Joel went to the Ash Wednesday service at the prison where we work, El Abra, but I did not go because I had to prepare my classes for the afternoon at the high school where I had two afternoon classes.  After Joel attended Mass at the prison, which began at 11:00 a.m., he made the discovery that during lunchtime, from 12:00 until 2:00, the guards at the prison lock the doors and gates: no one gets into the prison and no one gets out. It was at this time that he was able to reflect on his Ash Wednesday experiences as he waiting patiently to be allowed out of prison.

That afternoon, I took the bus from the high school into the city where all the Franciscan missioners were to meet for 7:00 Mass, to be followed by a mission meeting. As I was boarding the bus, an elderly man informed me that there was a bloqueo in the city. I got on the bus anyway, thinking that I would be able to get information after boarding. I asked one of my fellow passengers in this bus were going into the center of town. She said yes, and then turned to the driver himself to get the official answer. “Yes,” he said, the bus is going to the center of town.

I sat on bus for the usual twenty minutes as the bus threaded its way into the cancha.  Now any tourist guidebook will tell you that the cancha  (which means ground or court) in Cochabamba is the biggest open air market in Latin America. Our visitors from the U.S. who had left us only three weeks ago had insisted on experiencing this phenomenon.

As we neared the cancha, the bus driver stopped his bus, looked at all of us, and told us that we had to disembark. Looking at me, he said that I should be especially careful because of the thieves in the cancha at this time.  It was agreed upon that I would have an escort until I could find a trufi, which is a car that fills up with passengers and goes on a set route. Yes, today was the festival day in the cancha, with lots of loud music, eating, and drinking. I had been warned by my neighbors to avoid going into the cancha at any cost, that it was dangerous, particularly for someone who looked so different. But I had thought that the celebration was to be on Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, not on Ash Wednesday. Who would have thought that there would be so much partying on Ash Wednesday, especially in a predominantly Catholic country?

I looked around at the cancha: everyone was drenched because of the water balloons, water guns, and buckets of water that were customarily targeted at people during Carnaval. Was I going to get off the bus? No way! I asked the bus driver where he was intending to go.  Back to the outskirts of town, he said. Well, I was going with him, I declared. I reached for my cell phone to call Joel to let him know that I was not going to be able to meet him or anyone else in town, and advised him to return to Zona Sur, our part of town, near Laguna Alalay. The bus driver quickly motioned for me to put away my phone: cell phones can be stolen from bus passengers while they are talking.

As we left the cancha, more and more people piled on the bus. We headed down a long highway that  leads out of Cochabamba.  Unable to see out the window, I had to ask the driver where we were in order to getmyself out of the bus, somewhere close to my neighborhood, about three miles or so away. I got out of the bus and huffed up three long hills to get to Suisse Avenue, where I hoped to catch the “C” bus. The sidewalks were deserted as I moved along, one lone white person in a neighborhood that I had vowed never to walk alone in with my backpack. I finally made it to Suisse—where suddenly there were lots of people. It was at that time that I learned that the “C” buses weren’t running.  I tried to flag down a taxi, but all of them were full or were not radio taxis, which all of us have been trained to take here in Cochabamba.  Finally, I called Joel: please come get me!!

As I waited in front of a hospital, I began a conversation with a woman carrying her ten-month-old daughter in an aguyo sling, her nine-year-old at her side. We sat on the curb of the sidewalk, talking about the differences between our countries. As it turned out, she lived in my neighborhood, and we made plans to visit one another. Finally, Joel came to pick me up, and we headed home.  It was seven o’clock, and getting dark.

But to return to my first point: Cuaresma means carnaval as well as Lent in Spanish. Of course, Carnaval and Lent mean two different things in North American usage. If we are in Lent, we are fasting or giving up something. If we are celebrating Carnaval, we are letting ourselves go. And I recall last Easter weekend, celebrating Good Friday with the Velize family. We took part in the particularly Cochabambino custom of the “12 plates,” in which the family brings in twelve different courses of food, representing the twelve apostles. That is one way to recreate the Last Supper, at least it is a custom in Cochabamba (not many other places, as I have discovered). And so, we all have to eat 12 plates of food, one after the other. The Velize family was conciliatory, though: “Don’t worry!!  We only eat 6 plates!!”  And oh yes, the plates were vegetarian, because it was Good Friday. But here in Bolivia, it is hard to fast. Not on Ash Wednesday, and sometimes not even on Good Friday. Where is the sacrifice, then?  How do we show God that we feel that these days are special? How do we show our love for our God?  Today’s reading from the Liturgy gave me a clear answer. These are the words that God said to his people in the book of Isaiah, when they complained that God did not hear their cry for help, that God was ignoring them, even when they fasted. He posed the following question, and then presented his definition of an effective fast:

Is this the manner of fasting I wish,
of keeping a day of penance:
That a man bow his head like a reed
and lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
Your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer,
you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am! **

** In his "Apostolic Constitution on Penance," Pope Paul VI did more than simply reorganize Church law concerning fast and abstinence. He reminded us of the divine law that each of us in our own way do penance. We must all turn from sin and make reparation to God for our sins. We must forgive and show love for one another just as we ask for God's love and forgiveness.

The Code of Canon Law and our bishops remind us of other works and means of doing penance: prayer, acts of self-denial, almsgiving and works of personal charity. Attending Mass daily or several times a week, praying the rosary, making the way of the cross, attending the parish evening prayer service, teaching the illiterate to read, reading to the blind, helping at a soup kitchen, visiting the sick and shut-ins and giving an overworked mother a break by baby-sitting—all of these can be even more meaningful and demanding than simply abstaining from meat on Friday.

from Ask A Franciscan, St.Anthony Messenger magazine

My Reflections on Ash Wednesday, Miercoles de Cenizas, in Bolivia (in short lines)

Back home, the people pray, give alms, and fast.
But here, it is the Fourth of July.
Children chase one another with water guns,
Throw water balloons like North American children throw snowballs.
It is February in the North,
But here in Bolivia, it’s summer, and
The firecrackers mark the season of fiesta.
As I pass on a large bus through the cancha, I see
Chicha and plates of food that I cannot eat (I do not buy street food)
Balanced in the hands and consumed.
The long ribbons of color flow from cars, bedecked with summer flowers.
Soggy ribbons and deflated balloons hang from the front of houses
(we are still in the rainy season).
I have somehow found myself here in the cancha
With a loaded backpack and no way out.
This morning, in the safety of my own barrio,
I went to early Mass to receive my ashes.
The marking of the forehead, with the words
“Conveírtase y crea en el Evangelio”
Seemed to be punctuated with the rhythm and tempo of a Mariachi band.
Like the acts of penance in the daily Mass, ten piedad,
We sing joyfully, loudly, somewhat off key, that our sins will be mercifully forgiven.
No shadows here,
In these celebrations, there is only light.
Today, in the priests’ house, we eat pancakes, scones, bread and marmalade,
Pass the syrup, please.  Another piece of cake for you?
The brother who made the American pancakes speaks to me about his vocation,
Why he serves God better as a brother, not a priest.
His vocation sounds just like mine.
We talk (sometimes in English) about the transmigration of souls.
He speaks firmly about church doctrine, not be to disputed,
About the newness of each soul that is conceived.
I wonder what kind of God can make so many new souls?
And how can human beings possibly be the crown of God’s creation?
But such is Catholic doctrine, and I think of all the beautiful souls that have passed
Before my eyes in my lifetime, souls that grew to greatness in a very short time.
The visiting brother tells me that many people see the Catholic Church
As doctrinaire, immovable in its laws,
But he lets me know that really, in truth, 
We have many choices.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

December Celebrations

December in Bolivia works double-time as a month of celebrations. Whereas those of us from the United States spend the month Christmas shopping, decorating our homes, and writing Christmas cards, people in Bolivia are also commemorating the rites of spring, which includes the commencement of summer vacation, graduations, and even dance recitals. In the picture below is a high school graduation, which is called a promotion. These students have completed programs in the technical arts: computer technology and fashion design, among others. In the picture below, Hermana Elsa, the head of the school, introduces the dancers who will perform during the graduation ceremony. I have seen many traditional dance performances in the past two years, and even performed myself, but this student performance was of a profession calibre.

This school is called San Francisco and Santa Clara Colegio, and the tuition is $3 a month. Because the tuition is so affordable for people of little means (and the education excellent), the parents work together, almost as a co-operative, to keep the school going, working on the school grounds and in the large beautiful garden between the buildings and the walls that surround and protect the school.

I am going to teach for the second time in my life at a high school. I had just agreed to teach English classes the next year at this school, as well as take on a catechesis class. In fact, I am at this time teaching two interim English classes in the summer session.  At the time of the ceremony, when I thought of myself as a mere onlooker, I suddenly found myself being introduced to the crowd of parents, relatives, and friends in the auditorium as the new English instructor. Not in the least a known quantity, I was the subject of applause in a room full of people whom I did not know. I had not done anything worthy yet; I had merely agreed to try to do something worthy. So I was surprised by the show of appreciation, or rather, the welcoming applause of the people whose children I was teach.

Another graduation or promotion ceremony took place the next day, Sunday. My husband and I have a young friend in our barrio. Her name is Lizbeth, and just a couple of weeks after we had moved to Cochabamba, we were sitting on the bus, talking in English, when a girl behind us asked us if we could give her English lessons. Apparently, she had been listening in and heard that we were teaching English classes. We agreed to visit her at her house sometime, meet her family, and have English conversation with her once a week. She took us up on our offer, and called us up to make these English conversation lessons happen. After being here for a year, we no longer offer private tutoring, not even to Lizbeth, but we have developed a strong friendship with her and her family.

In addition to introducing me to the shopping venues of Cochabamba, Lizbeth has been an active participant in the campus ministry film series Filmania, which Joel and I have helped to promote. The campus ministry of San Simon University, called pastoral juvenil, sponsored two film series last semester, in which we screened films and led discussions about the moral, social, and political dilemmas that emerged in the films. Lizbeth has been an avid discussant, bringing her friends and high school teachers to the film series. When we showed the classic film To Kill a Mockingbird, definitely a relevant film for us in Bolivia because of its theme of racism, Lizbeth almost finished the book in English before attending the screening. Sorry to say, the film ruined the book for her because she did not expect Tom Robinson to die at the end of the narrative.

Lizbeth was also the only Bolivian to attend our all-Franciscan Thanksgiving dinner. She takes care of our pets when we are on vacation and drinks hot chocolate in our house when it is cold and rainy outside. She introduced us to her older brother Nelson who is mastering Japanese, German, and English in his work as a travel agent in Uyuni (he is an economist by education and trade, and continues to look for work relevant to his degree). The four of us watched Happy Feet at our house one Friday night. Her parents have offered us hospitality on many Saturday afternoons (almuerzo [lunch]), as well as providing the twelve plates of food on Good Friday (a Cochabamba tradition in which families eat 12 plates of food on the afternoon of Good Friday, a plate for each disciple. While most Catholics are fasting, Cochabambinos are struggling to force down another plate of food. It should be noted that the plates do not contain meat.). We had Christmas breakfast with them as well, a meal of many varieties of sweet breads, one of which was very much like the beignets served at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans.

One last celebration in December: my birthday dinner. The Franciscans--the missioners and Padre Iggie--came, as well as Lizbeth and her parents (the Belizes). Fellow missioner Nora made my cake, and I received a number of thoughtful gifts.