Adventures in Bolivia and the Return to Lima

Cannot belive all that I have seen and experienced in the last couple of days. I never would have imagined that in coming to Peru for a servant team I would also swim in Lago Titicaca, visit the floating reed islands, la isla del sol, and experience the beautiful country of Bolivia including the simplicity of El Alto and splendor of La Paz. While we saw and did many amazing things (You do not see sunsets and stars and mountains in Lima), our main purpose there was to experience the culture and the ministry of the WMF field over there. It is hard to sum up all that we observed and I know that we only scratched the surface during our time there. I enjoyed very much the chance to meet the women that they minister to and my heart breaks at the thought of their nights spent in the halls of the brothels where they work to survive.

I sit here looking for the words to express and I am at a loss. The best way may be to simply share some of the things I wrote on our observation day. We started in El Alto at the drop in center and made our way down into La Paz stopping at different points throughout the day to journal. This is what I wrote:

1st stop

A street called Carasco looks empty and painfully normal this morning. Doors are shut and the streets look clean. There is hardly a soul in sight. The graffiti and trash I expect to see are minimal. The few stray dogs weave in and out of our steps. Andy turns back to say we have already passed nine brothels. These streets that are almost empty now he says will swarm with men come nightfall. It is hard to believe. Hard to believe a placea can seem so calm in one moment and be so full of such activity and suffering and pain and addiction in the next. This place is my nightmare veiled in quiet and stones and metal doors that serve to both to keep things out and keep things in.

I remember the late night conversations with my dearest friends in which we would whisper our deepest fears to each other. Talking of rape and exploitation and abandonment. Today I have seen it. Today I have been confronted with this reality.

As we walk on the streets begin to fill. With every step we take there are more faces. And as Carasco fades behind us we enter into a sea of humanity. It does not appear that there is any order and yet everyone seems to know exactly where they are going. Including our guide. Here I am met with the overwhelming smell of garbage and rot. I dodge the feces in the street and step between buses full of people on their way. Behind one set of wheels and in front of another. Avoiding this puddle only to step into that one. Each woman selling her wares... large bags of wildly colored rice cakes of every shape and size. Heart shapes held together by a deceivingly sweet looking gluey substance. The sun is beginning to shine, the women wear long skirts and sweaters and are wrapped tightly in varying shawls and garments. Modestly they cover every part of their body. And then I see her-- only in a quick moment. She is naked. Bare completely for all to see. Hanging from a newspaper stand. The only clue to the secret life of El Alto. She is gone as fast as I can pass but she is a reminder that there is something. Something right below the surface.

Everything moves faster now. The music seems loud and abrasive and my senses are overwhelmed. I could become a vegetarian in this moment-- meat hanging all around as we slide through the closely knit stalls of the market we have entered. I stand staring down a street where you could find anything you ever needed if your patience would allow you to search. People everywhere-- bodies gliding in chaotic order. Children ramming trucks into my toes as I pass over this space on the cobblestone street. Is this real? It is, and it is called "ceja" or "eyebrow" because it is the edge of the alto before we begin the descent into La Paz.

2nd stop

As we leave the ceja we must pass through its heart where 200 different types of potatoes sell and every herb you could ever want lies piled high in bags of all shapes and sizes. We are near a corner now where Andy flags a bus. We are in the bus now where we see a dummy hanging from a noose with a sign that threatens the same fate to any unassuming thief. Yes. Andrea says she knows of at least 6 or 7 times when it has happened-- the lynching and the public burning. It is allowed by Police because it seems to work. But does it really? I notice my own nervousness as we begin the descent. But in my heart I know that it is not just here in El Alto that the human race needs healing.

La Paz comes into view now and we all gasp despite ourselves. For the countless time this trip I can truly say I have never seen anything quite like it. A city descending on a mountainside into a valley surrounded by hills and snowcapped mountains. The sun shines bright with mas fuerte and I am surprised to hear Andrea say that it is even more beautiful on a clear day.

3rd stop

As the day travels on and we travel further and further into La Paz the green space increases and the number of public transport vehicles has drastically decreased. Personal vehicles line the roads and rush past we walk. There are no bars on the windows here, no mummy like figures here and the only women in traditional dress are carrying their children and hoping for change from a generous passer by. We find ourselves at a posh coffee shop, walls lined with modern art. I do not hesistate to leave my bag by my chair and head to the bathroom. There is relief in the cleanliness of the place. And yet there is an odd feeling filling my heart. The tears threaten to tumble out of my eyes and I sit quickly trying to process what is happening. This is the first time since leaving the USA to be in a place that is so much like the places there and to what I will be returning to. I cried today tears of sadness and fear that I will go back easily to places such as this where our host families of El Alto, the girls of the Casa Esperanza and our precious street children of Lima would never be allowed. It is hard for me to understand how everything will fit together how all of what I love here will be reconciled with what I have known before. I do not place blame nor do I resent home or the USA or anything like that. Its just that I do not want to forget. I have seen the descent from rags to riches. It took place before my very own eyes today, the separation is painfully real, and I do not want to walk away unchanged. Lord, take this and mold it into my heart teach me, Lord. You are a God of redemption and there is redemption offered for every part of your creation-- rich and poor. You are a God of grace, thank you for your grace for me and for us all. May the weeks to come in Lima be a precious time with kids and deep time of preparation for a new life at home.

journal entry from the last day in Bolivia

So much suffering. More than I used to think. I believe I used to find suffering attractive, something I wanted to be compassionate about and join to in other people so as to help and understand and maybe feel good about doing the "right" thing in the process. Being here and reading more and understanding more I am beginning to realize that suffering and comapssion are not in anyway a game or a place to be entered into lightly with hopes of personal satisfaction. It is a deep and dark place where the cries of the people will dig deep into your soul and leave marks that cannot be removed.

It means real true sacrifice and entering in without thought of escape. It means following in the footsteps of Jesus and his journey into the depths of darkness to lay His compassion on us. It means allowing our picture of God to grow and expand. To see Him as giver of life and the one who enters most ultimately into every human heart never denying what He sees there. He promises to collect each tear. He promises to to hem us in with his hand behind and before us and to search us and know us and care for every anxious thought (Ps. 139). But also it is in and through compassion that, "our humanity grows into its fullness". Compassion also means , "full immersion in the condition of being human" as Henri Nouwen says in the book Compassion.

I know the thoughts are a little haphazard (such is the way of the journal) but I hope that helps to explain a little of what has been going on in my heart and mind as a result of our time in Bolivia. I must say it was an interesting and great experience. The family that I lived with was so kind and I enjoyed the short time I was able to spend with them. Their two little boys hung out with me in my room playing cards and listening to music and they brought me a lot of joy. The nine year old was a constant talker and at one point asked my everything I had was written in English and did I think in English? The three year old was the cutest kid I have ever seen. He asked me at least 40 times a day in a high voice with a huge smile, "¿Que estas haciendo?" "What are you doing?". For crying out loud, I would be in the bathroom and he would knock on the door and yell it to me. I loved it.

Also, many of you know that four of the most fantastic guys in the world also make their home in El Alto. Yes, its true I got to spend some special time with Scott, Jon, Brent and Drewman. It was an incredible blessing to see them and get a glimpse of where they are living and working. I even got to see the school where Jon is teaching including the his highly organized classroom and gym space. I got to see Scott in action leading a day at the ropes course for the ladies of the center. Drewman showed his skills as he leaped 16 feet into the air to help us complete our last team element, he is also a fantastic seller of meal tickets. And of course, I got to hear Brent pray in Spanish and to see him using his amazing photo 101 skills. He has gotten calls from National Geo but he's still deciding about that offer...:). Their house is a wonderful little place in El Alto with an amazing view. All in all it was good for the heart. Want to hear more about them (or not really at all but at least laugh a little) check out www.elalto.blogspot.com.

So thats Bolivia in a nutshell. It was funny to be there and miss Lima so much. I felt sort of odd in this. Bolivia's beauty far surpasses that of Lima and the fresh air of Bolivia should have convinced me to stay forever. Still, everday that passed that I knew there was Casa Job I missed it so much. Therefore when Thursday rolled around I was sad to say goodbye but so happy to be returning to the streets of Lima and the kids that live there.

Our journey home was quite an adventure in and of itself. We started the morning without any tickets. Caught a bus and boat from El Alto to Copacabana in Bolivia on the shores of Lago T along the border of Peru. Decided to hop the next bus into Peru instead of sticking around for lunch and upon arriving in Puno, Peru decided to try for a flight out that night instead of sticking around for the night as planned. When we saw Mia and Jennifer running toward us from the airline room we knew something was up. The word was there were no flights for two days unless we caught the one that left from Juliaca in an hour and a half. Juliaca is at least 45 minutes to an hour away. We do not have tickets. We THINK there MAY be room. Two taxis and half an hour later we are in the Juliaca airport waiting. Mia and Esther get tickets and start to board. Ten minutes before the flight takes off the flight attendant calls out that there are 6 more seats empty so the rest of us grab our bags and hop on. Jane's ticket says "Mr. Koehler", mine says "Mark Ghali", and Aaron's says "Aaron V". Talk about tight security. So, 1 boat, 2 buses, 5 taxis, 1 plane and 6 cities later we land in home sweet Lima. Whew! It was quite a day.

Last night I did get to go to the streets for a quick moment. It was wonderful to see the kids again and I am anxious for more time to talk with them and to catch up with their lives as of the last ten days. Seems like its been so long even though it was just over a week. Sometimes I wish I could find the words to explain to you all about these kids. Its funny to find yourself loving someone you can hardly communicate with.

Maybe this will give you a little glimpse. One of the boys I have grown very fond of (the same one who helped me with my lice) leaned over in Bible time and asked me if I had a favorite psalm. In the same breath he told me that he did, did I want to know which one it was? I nodded and this is what he showed me:

Psalm 142

A maskil of David. When he was in the cave. A prayer.

I cry aloud to the Lord;
I lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy.
I pour our my complaint before him;
before him I tell my trouble.

When my spirit grows faint within me,
it is you who know my way.
In the path where I walk
men have hidden a snare for me.
Look to my right and see;
no one is concerned for me.
I have no refuge;
no one cares for my life.

I cry to you, O Lord;
I say, "You are my refuge,
my portion in the land of the living."
Listen to my cry,
for I am in desparate need;
rescue me from those who pursue me,
for they are too strong for me.
Set me free from my prison,
that I may praise your name.

Then the rightous will gather about me
because of your goodness to me.

This is his song and the song of many of the youth.

Yep, its definitely great to be back.

Now it is six weeks and counting. Keep the prayers and the emails and the comments coming! So much love to the home front.... peace, until next week...