Tea Time: A Reflection of Travel in the Global South

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We ate fresh made peach pie and drank tea in her well kept, lovely home looking over the Pacific ocean.  I had stayed there a number of times at the pastor’s house, and every time she laughed about our height difference, once actually taking out a tape measure at a family gathering to see who could guess closest to my actual height. I explained to her how maple syrup is made and she told me that her secret ingredient in vegetable soup is half an apple.  She prayed for my neck pain while knitting me a scarf and I prayed for her Parkinson’s while looking out at the city from the guest room window.

The last time that I visited, the little old lady asked, “What would you like for lunch tomorrow,” and while I thought, she said, “don’t be embarrassed to say, you are at home here.”  And I knew that.  I had always felt so welcomed and loved there and thats why it was so important to me to make the 8 hour round trip to say goodbye.   I remembered the mouthwatering salmon that we ate the last time that we visited her with a delegation and I requested that again.  She arranged with her husband for him to go to the fish market early in the morning when the salmon arrives while she goes to buy vegetables.  She explained to me that she will make mixed vegetables with little potatoes and knowing my preference for seafood, she also planned buy a type of shellfish that is popular here for me to try during my visit.

After the conversation, despite her protesting, I helped her carry the few dirty dishes to the kitchen.  She said to me, “I like having guests in my house but I feel embarrassed that I cannot meet their needs.” “I don’t understand,” I questioned, looking at her to explain.  “I know that in the United States you are at a higher level, things are nicer there and you’re more educated.  I cannot tend to you well enough.” She said it so matter-of-factly and I felt angry.  Angry that my nationality makes her feel ashamed.  Angry that the media and the movies propagate lies that represent a false reality.  Angry that there’s a system to classify countries into first, second and third world.  Angry that to so many, my blond hair and blue eyes are pretentious.

But the anger was fleeting and it turned to sadness, and then to hope.  I hope that I can return the hospitality, love and help that has been extended to me.  I will remember the extreme patience that others had when my broken Spanish fumbled and I reverted to a clumsy game of charades to communicate.  I will remember when the ragged looking man selling vegetables chased me down the sidewalk to tell me that I had overpaid him.  I walked away with nine artichokes that day, and I remember his bright, toothless smile.  I remember when I shared my testimony for the first time in Chile, and the pastor told me that she would pray for me every day, and I absolutely knew, without a doubt, that she would.  I remember mourning with a family during the loss of their father and seeing their faith stand strong despite their grief.  I remember when a humble family living on the Amazon River served me a fresh caught fish and served it for lunch with a scoop of quinoa.  I learned later that they had shared the last of the food that they had, not a grain of rice, drop of oil or coin left.  I had felt both incredibly honored but so undeserving at the same time.

As I travelled through Peru, Chile, Paraguay and Argentina throughout the last year and a half, there were people crying out for nutrition: physically, emotionally and spiritually.  I found that I too was searching for the same.  I have become more conscious of the people around me, and how my decisions as an American impact the global world.  I will work harder for peace, with myself and with others, so that when a Chilean grandma invites an American traveller to her table, they will sit as equals, children of God without excuses for who they are or where they come from, with dignity that surpasses all boarders and languages.  Thanks to all of you who have invested in me.

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An open letter to family and friends

I write to you from the “Gathering Place” in Talca, Chile, the Shalom Center’s primary meeting spot and the place where I have called my home for the last nine months. By the time you receive this letter in the mail, I will be back in the United States having completed a year and a half abroad. Last year at this time wrote to you from a small Peruvian village along the Amazon River. Today, I write from a bustling city between Andes Mountains and the Pan-American Highway. Summer is upon us, and for the Shalom Center, that means that our camp season is in full swing, and the Gathering Place is abuzz with the ins and outs of delegations from different countries, camp staff, and brothers and sisters from the Pentecostal Church of Chile stopping by for visits. The Shalom Center, the organization with which I am interning, is a group of people who facilitate programs based on peace education, environmental education and spiritual development. It is also a place, an off-grid expanse of forest dotted with cabins up in the foothills of the Andes Mountains where many of the Shalom Center’s camps and programs take place.

I’ve been asked many times by friends and family, “What exactly do you do there?” In this letter I will share a few snapshots of my time with the Shalom Center and discuss sentiments gleaned from a year and a half of stretching and molding myself while navigating life as a missionary intern.

I remember during my first meeting with a representative with Global Ministries, I was given a speech about metaphorical backpacks, that I was to bring one filled with knowledge and past experience, and two empty ones to fill during my time abroad. From the beginning, I recognized that I would learn more than I would teach and I would most likely leave transformed. I can certainly say now as I prepare to say goodbye, my two backpacks are overflowing.

I have been learning patience: the patience of sitting politely and drinking tea during sobremesa (the conversation held after a meal) for sometimes up to five hours. I have been learning to open my mind further by using differences in theology to build relationships and deepen discussion while working ecumenically. I have been learning what it’s like to live in a collectivist society; there is great value put on inclusion and lesser value on independence. I have been learning about hospitality; visitors are considered a great blessing and hosts make many selfless sacrifices to be able to provide the best for their guests. I have been learning about God and human nature and struggle with the beauty and difficulty of having free will.

Here in Chile, there is a strong culture of exchanging gifts during various occasions: visiting a church, eating a meal with family or friends, or returning from a trip. I’ve found that my backpacks are now also filling with these small physical tokens, often given to me by the hosts as they explain, “this is so that you will not forget us”:

I carry a nanduti (a traditional embroidered lace) reminding me of my week spent painting at the Jack Norment camp in Paraguay and hours spent drinking tereré both there and with the Paraguayan delegation who traveled here to Chile. I remember sharing worship services with a congregation of mostly children, one of which was a young child who every Sunday carries his toddler brother over a mile to church.

Throughout the cold winter here, I wore a soft woolen scarf gifted to me by a pastor who had knitted it while praying for me. During my time in Chile, the Shalom Center leadership and I had the opportunity to visit and share with many different churches all around the country. I’ve been touched by heartfelt words and actions of love as brothers and sisters from all walks of life have welcomed me with open arms, taking time and effort to teach me about Chilean culture.

Displayed on my wall is a small copper map of Chile given to me by members of the Pentecostal Church of Chile’s elderly home as a thank you for the many craft and game sessions I taught there throughout the cold winter months and the hours I spent with them listening to their stories.

My collection of clay name tags reminds me of all the different groups I helped with and participated in at camp: an international gathering of camp staff in Argentina, fifth and six grade school groups learning about the environment and sustainability and all-women retreats with moments to reflect and spiritually recharge. They hold memories of leadership training and trauma healing workshops, challenge courses and hiking, running around the kitchen to feed a group of forty and preparing materials and activities for this year’s theme of “giving thanks on the farm.”

As I sort through thousands of photos with smiling faces, I am thankful for all the friendships made during this experience and the openness and space we have cultivated to learn more about each other and ourselves. And, I am grateful to all of you who have continued to stay in contact despite the distance. Shalom!

On My Way

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Traveling from Talca to Vilches Alto, my rickety seat bumps around as I ride the rural bus route, climbing the dirt road into the foothills of the Andes.  I hold the curtain closed, shading myself from the bright sun but peak every once in a while to watch the world go by.  Sweating from the summer heat, some fan themselves while others sleep. Those standing hold tight to the handrails, squeezing together to make room for the passengers who board at roadside stops.  At each stop, dust enters through the open windows and we hold our breath for a few seconds until we start up again and leave the dust behind.  I smile to myself that the tranquility and peace that I feel right now is brought to me by a two and a half hour bumpy and dusty ride on a sweltering and jam packed city bus.   A few teenagers with dreadlocks sit behind me strumming “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on the guitar and the girl to my left draws a whimsical scene with plants and feathers.  I consider that if by some chance she gives me the drawing, I will get it as a tattoo.  But it’s a fleeting thought because she folds the notebook and tucks it into her purse, turning around to talk to her friends.  Their curiosity takes ahold of them and they ask me where I’m from, practicing their “hello” and “how are you” in english and finding it odd that I am traveling alone in the middle of nowhere the day before New Years Eve.  When I rise to disembark, the bus driver asks me where I’m from and if there is someone to receive me where I am going.  He looks relieved when he sees a Mexican and a Paraguayan ready to greet me at my stop.  As I stand on the side of the road, the others wave goodbye from the windows and the bus rattles on in a cloud of dust.

 

February 27, 2010

At the start of the weekend, we piled into the living room, introducing ourselves, looking over the schedule and reviewing the emergency procedures in the event of a fire or earthquake.  “Of course, we will care for those who have fears of earthquakes, so do not worry,” a group leader assured the staff.  Everybody nodded in solemn understanding.  The atmosphere in the room became still and I could see their faces change just slightly.  I reasoned that in that few seconds before shifting topics, each person could not help but recall a memory made on February 27, 2010.

Throughout my time in Chile, I’ve had the opportunity to travel three hours north to Santiago and twelve hours south to Chiloé Island, passing through numerous cities and participating in worship with various congregations of the Pentecostal Church of Chile.  As we journeyed from the vineyard sector, through winding pine tree and eucalyptus plantations, past miles of grazing sheep and cattle, to the western coast and through the region of lakes, I found one common thread: subtle but evident wreckage and trauma left behind from the 2010 earthquake.

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On 1st West Street in Talca, adobe houses still lay in ruins next to vacant lots.  “I used to cross the street so that I didn’t have to walk by that building,” she said, pointing out a weathered adobe structure.  “If you ever hear creaking, you need to cross the street as quickly as you can,” she advised.

Crumbing ruins of a historic elementary school now host no students, but instead display broken windows and graffitied opinions.  I stop to take a quick photo, noting the juxtaposition of well dressed and lively pedestrians passing by and smiling, laughing and singing.  They weave along sidewalks dotted with venders displaying colorful scarves and handmade jewelry.  Perhaps now, the ruins in physical form are less shocking to locals who have walked by them everyday for the last six years.  But traumatic memories are still vibrant and the wounds are still healing.

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The Shalom Center camp staff remembers being awoken by the earthquake in the middle of the night.  “I was trying to stand up but my tent was shaking so badly that I couldn’t.  There’s a large bell that we’re supposed to ring to signal an emergency, but we didn’t have to because the bell was ringing itself.”  Recently, a different person touched briefly on the trauma of her experience,  “I’m sure some of you remember that I didn’t leave my house for two months after the earthquake.” During my first visit to the camp property, we hiked to a beautiful scenic vista.  “I used to sit there on that rock, but I don’t anymore,” she pointed to the edge of the overlook with views of the waterfall and river below.  “Imagine if you were sitting there during an earthquake.”

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During our travel south, I was taken to the coastal town of Dichato, now almost completely rebuilt after being devastated in the tsunami triggered by the earthquake.  As we journeyed back through farmland, a local pointed out a field.  “During the tsunami boats washed up here, more than 3 miles from shore.”  She went on to explain her experience living in Tomé during the natural disaster.  “We were able to drink boiled spring water, but we didn’t have water to bathe for a month.  We couldn’t communicate with our relatives for four days.  They read newspaper headlines stating, “Tomé completely destroyed” and they couldn’t know if we were alive.  It was worse than any movie we’ve ever seen about natural disaster.”  Living on a hill, her family was safe, and home left structurally sound, but she recounted with great sadness the challenges faced in the rebuilding of her city.  “I wanted to close my eyes and not see the needs of others around me because I didn’t know where to start.  We did everything we could but it felt like it wasn’t enough.  After a month, I stopped asking people ‘how are you’ and instead greeted them with ‘good morning’.  I couldn’t bear to hear the answers anymore.”  She went on to explain, “For months after the earthquake, every little tremble triggered people and they would start weeping in the streets and acting crazy.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs I continue to hear these firsthand stories, I can see a small glimpse into the reality of the event I had only heard about briefly on the evening news almost six years before.  On the topic of natural disasters, I recall headlines from the recent earthquake in Chile that affected the fourth region of the country.  I recall the 2005 hurricane in New Orleans, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 2011 tsunami in Japan, the 2013 typhoon in the Philippines and the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, just to name a few.  I think of these nations coming together to move forward past the wreckage and honoring those lost.  I see foreign countries giving aid and showing compassion in the rebuilding process.  Here in Chile, and around the world, I am beginning to see the enormous challenge of healing these deep-rooted traumas.  But also, I see the commitment of individuals who have lived through tragedy now choosing to not live in fear.  Because of this, there is hope.

(Note: This article was written in June 2015 as a reflection of my work as a Global Missions Intern with Global Ministries.  The original post can be found at: http://www.globalministries.org/february_27_2010. To learn more about Global Ministries and their work for justice, reconciliation and peace, please visit http://www.globalministries.org).

 

 

Where I Hang My Hammock

I remember the places where I’ve hung my hammock: the sides of White mountain ledges in New Hampshire, overlooking Pacific ocean waves crashing against volcanic shores in Hawaii and now between two oak trees at the base of the Chilean Andes, where the species of the north and south meet at the end of the Incan trail.  I think of all the beautiful places I’ve seen, but I realize that it’s not where I am that truly gives me this peace, that feeling I have when I rock back and forth.  It’s not the mountain breeze or the salty spray of the ocean or the hawk that flies overhead, although those things do help.  Rather, it’s the space that I prepare for myself when I choose two trees about ten feet apart and arrange the red, yellow and green cloth to hang just right.  I crawl in with the intention of stillness, my nylon cocoon blocking out the pressures of schedule and obligation.  It’s that intention in which I set apart this time, not to look to the future ahead or to the past behind but the gentleness that I have with myself in that present moment when I decide to look up.

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A Thanksgiving to Remember

 

On Thanksgiving mid-day, we were four hours away from home, weary from a busy week spent traveling with a delegation, and at that point without a single Thanksgiving preparation complete.  By seven o’clock that night, our house was bright with chatter and laughter and the rich scents of bacon, onion and thyme, with a spread of food so delicious even remembering it now is making my mouth water.

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In those few hours between, Elena Huegel, Global Ministries Missionary, and Bethany Waggoner and I, Global Mission Interns, who are all serving in Chile at this time met up and together managed to clean the house, buy the groceries, and swap turns at the tiny oven to prepare all of our traditional Thanksgiving dishes.  Previously, we had searched the asiles for that prized can of pumpkin, but without success yielded to the reality that this year’s table would lack the delicacy of pumpkin pie.  The house filled with the feel of Thanksgiving: children running around playing with toys, people in and out of the kitchen, and all the wafting scents of the delicious dishes we were preparing.  We filled the table with stuffing, gravy, green beans with bacon, spinach salad with goat cheese, walnuts and nectarines, corn and butter, squash with maple syrup, and roasted carrots, sweet potato and red pepper.

Our Chilean guests arrived with the turkey in tow, which they had prepared by following the basting and infusing advice gleaned from carefully watching a United States Thanksgiving cooking television program.  When our Chilean Dutch and Swedish American guests arrived with a pumpkin pie as their contribution, we nearly fell to the floor and wept for joy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAElena explained the origin of Thanksgiving, that the first pilgrims to North America would not have survived had it not been for the generosity and kindness of the native people.  Before dinner, each person started with two kernels of corn on his or her plate.  While holding one, we gave thanks for something that happened within the last year.  With the other, we expressed a desire for the coming year.  Adults and youth shared their blessings, grateful for the birth of their healthy child, a school year of academic and athletic accomplishments, and for the difficult things too, a year of lessons learned and opportunities to grow in faith.

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During dinner, I was impressed that the guests tried everything, mixing it all together on their plates in good Thanksgiving form and slathering with plenty of gravy.  Of course, as one of the cooks, it gave me great satisfaction when our guests went for seconds and thirds.  Our Chilean neighbor and police officer regaled us about how bizarre it was that on television she saw the president of the United States setting free a turkey.  We all laughed when she imitated the confused turkey trotting off into freedom.  Then, she had been enthralled with all the cooking shows, in one of which the cooks had prepared a pumpkin pie.  She rehearsed each step that she had learned: making the crust, preparing the pumpkin filling, and serving it with whip cream.  “And then,” she exclaimed excitedly to the other guests, “you walked right in with a OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAreal pumpkin pie!”  Everyone took the opportunity to again celebrate the unexpected blessing of this pie, listening intently to our guest as he told us the process of how he managed to find a pumpkin, and then prepare the filling and crust from scratch.  One of the children was surprised that she liked the squash, and I told her that the special ingredient was maple syrup.  When they left, I gave each a little bottle.  Growing up as a true New Englander, maple syrup is practically in my blood, so giving away the little bit that I had brought down to Chile was truly a gift from the bottom of my heart.

This Thanksgiving, I have much for which to be grateful.  One of which is the blessing of being able to share Thanksgiving dinner here in Chile with people representing five different countries and speaking in three different languages.  For the reminder that this is what Thanksgiving is all about: celebrating the joining of cultures and new relationships, the sharing of food and the blessings of fellowship.  Today, I give thanks for all of these things.

(Note: This article was written as a reflection of my work as a Global Missions Intern with Global Ministries.  The original post can be found at http://www.globalministries.org/a_thanksgiving_to_remember.  To learn more about Global Ministries and their work for justice, reconciliation and peace, please visit http://www.globalministries.org).

 

Prayers for Chile

Lectionary Selection: Mark 10: 2-16

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Prayers for Chile:

God, we come before You today in thanksgiving for the people of Chile.  We pray for God filled relationships in Chile and around the world- for trust, love and reconciliation.  As the children came to Jesus and were blessed, we pray for this same childlike faith throughout the seasons of our lives.  May children around the world draw closer to You Jesus and may we follow their example.  From 3 years old to 103 years old may we all continue praise your name with gusto, walking in faith that You go before us.

We pray specifically for our brothers and sisters in the northern regions of Chile as they heal from the recent earthquake.  We pray that You comfort those who are mourning the loss of loved ones, their homes or their businesses as they begin the process of rebuilding.  As natural disasters such as this, as well as strikes in the workforce and conflicts in educational policy continue to trigger traumatic responses, we pray for resilience in the Chilean people.  Inspire and encourage us to practice neighborly love and understanding and to seek Your perfect peace.  Amen.

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Mission Stewardship Moment from Chile:

“I’ve been following the Lord for over 80 years now,” she announced excitedly, eyes shining as she began her testimony. “Now, I’m almost 104 years old and I’m waiting here for the Lord to take me home!” she concluded as her eyes shone and she demonstrated her ability to walk unaided.

Later that afternoon after worship, I started my activity session at Bethany House, The Pentecostal Church of Chile’s Home for the Elderly.  Today’s activity was beading jewelry and the folks got right to work.  “I’m becoming a kid again!” an elderly man exclaimed as he skillfully strung beads, racing his pal seated across from him.  “And I only can use one eye!” says another, who earlier claimed he couldn’t bead but now was on his third bracelet.

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A month ago at a children’s camp, we used this same activity to teach resilience explaining that as the elastic string can stretch and come back together again, we too can do this in difficult situations.  As we sang camp songs learned earlier that morning, we worked with the little ones to thread the beads which represent the different factors of resilience.

From afternoons with the elderly to craft time with the littlest children, I see hope and wonder as both generations look forward to the posibilites that lie before them.  Today I give thanks for the support of our partner Pentecostal Church of Chile and their many ministries made possible by your donations.  I give thanks that in a country healing from recent traumas of dictatorship and natural disasters, Chileans of all ages continue to demonstrate resilience, find joy in community and hope in God’s promises.

(Note: This article was written as a reflection of my work as a Global Missions Intern with Global Ministries.  For more about Global Ministries, please visit http://www.globalministries.org).

Shalom

Holding hands in a circle and singing out the Hebrew words “Shalom chaverim”, to the starlight sky in Resistencia, Argentina, I look around at our group, bundled up in the winter air with hats
and scarves, our eyelids heavy with sleep after a busy four days of games, crafts, workshops and singing.  Flags from many nations decorate the patio and cultural costume items are strewn on the surrounding tables, flat brimmed hats from dancing the Chilean cueca and the Paraguayan polka, guitars and song books from singing Puerto RicaOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAn melodies and a pretend fireplace used in a skit of telling Argentine one-liners.

As we sing the familiar lyrics of Shalom, my mind wanders to my summer camp experiences at Horton Center in mountains of New Hampshire.  A year ago, every night throughout the summer, my voice drifted through the trees joining in with those of campers and staff, singing the song first in English, next in Hebrew and lastly in Shona.  In fact, as a youth, it was at that summer camp where I first truly saw the face of God.  It was there, as a staff member, that I crawled out of my sleeping bag on a ledge overlooking the White Mountains and felt called to apply to Global Ministries.  Now, I find myself singing these same words in Spanish, Guarani and Mapuche.  On a different continent, in a different culture and surrounded by people I just met, we sing this same song and here too I feel the presence of God.

Version 2

This week, there are 51 of us gathered here in Resistencia, Argentina for an international camp leadership conference.  It’s a varied group, in nationality, age, and experience and because of that, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwe originally had various concerns.  As we gather just weeks after the
final game of the Copa América, we considered that the Argentines might be hostile to the Chileans, or that the Chileans would brag, or that break time soccer games might turn into the Copa América take two.  We hoped that political standpoints wouldn’t cause rifts between the Puerto Ricans and Americans or the Paraguayans and Bolivians.  We hoped that differences in cultural norms, like how to drink mate (a popular loose leaf tea), the correct time to eat dinner, or varied vocabularies wouldn’t cause separation but instead provide opportunities for sharing.  Years of planning and coordination between countries took place to get us all here this week.  As the dates drew closer and we gathered materials and set up decorations, we prayed that God would move in the lives of the participants.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy week at the international camp leadership conference has reaffirmed the belief that I’ve held all along: camp changes lives.  There’s something special about cheering on team members in a ridiculous game, chatting and praying with your cabin before bed and fervently singing a song about a watermelon who aims to conquer the world.  Silly costumes and puppet shows, bear hugs and group chores, stringing beads and intentional conversations are all part of what makes camp great.  At camp, we learn to work as a team, to see past the walls of society’s stereotypes and to provide space for each person to grow.

Now, as our time together comes to a close, we ready ourselves for tough goodbyes and days of traveling back to our home countries.  We rejoice in the ways that camp has changed our lives and are thirsty for opportunities to pass it on.  We value our new friendships and leave behind false stereotypes.  We leave with a better understanding of resilience, dignity and integrity.  Maybe, we leave with more questions than when we arrived.

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We know that there’s still work to be done, in our churches, in our communities and in ourselves.  We know that not everyone will understand the worth of the community that we created here.  But now we, Paraguayans, Argentines, Bolivians, Chileans, Americans and Puerto Ricans leave knowing that we are not alone in this endeavor.  We seek to spread the camp spirit outside the walls of summer and across the boarders of our countries.  We seek to sing the same song around the world: Shalom.

(Note: This article was written as a reflection of my work as a Global Missions Intern with Global Ministries.  For more about Global Ministries, please visit http://www.globalministries.org).

The Bicycle

Written July 14, 2015

As we take an evening walk along the main plaza in Resistencia, Argentina, we stop to ponder the image of a black bicycle stenciled near the entrance of a government building.  It’s an inconspicuous bicycle, a simple gratified outline peaking out behind billboards which shade the whitewashed walls.

The story goes that one day, an ordinary man named Fernando Traverso was walking down the street when he saw his friend riding towards him on a bicycle.  Expecting that his friend would greet him as they crossed paths, Fernando was surprised when instead the friend rode by without displaying any sign of recognition.  Down the road, the friend got off his bicycle, tied it to a tree, and walked away.  Days later, the bicycle remained in its spot, and the friend was never seen again.  After Fernando learned of the disappearance of his friend, he understood that had his friend acknowledged him, this would have put his life at risk as well.

During the military dictatorship at this time, 350 victims from the University of Rosario were kidnapped by the secret police, tortured and killed.  In response to the disappearance of his friend, Fernando painted 350 bicycles in the city, marking the location where each of the victims was last seen.  Today, thirty years later, the bicycle still marks the wall of this building used as a torture center during this time.

As I stand on the sidewalk snapping the photo, I am informed that the building is now vacant and I can go inside to look if I want.  I step forward towards the bicycle and feel myself tense up.  I don’t want to go inside to see the eerie stairwell and the claw marks on the walls.  I don’t want to smell the stale air in those empty rooms and imagine echoing screams.  The painting says enough.  It asks, “Where is my friend?”  It asks, “Why do people do such terrible things to each other?” It asks, “When will we stop?”

Soccer and the Pope

Written July 9, 2015

This winter, much conversation in South America has centered around two main themes: soccer and the Pope.  As I write this now, the evening news broadcasts Pope Francisco speaking in Bolivia.  His next stops are Asunción and Caacupé, Paraguay where I just was yesterday, dodging venders on the sidewalk selling T-shirts of the Pope drinking mate and admiring the beautiful flowers planted in the plazas for his visit.  For weeks, school children have been practicing for parades and concerts and painting murals on the walls to welcome him to their city.  Even non-Catholics are appreciative of his visit, commenting that the Pope’s arrival has finally pushed the city to complete much needed street maintenance and construction projects.

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Witnessing the preparation for this event has been an interesting experience for me to learn about Paraguay’s strong Catholic ties, and to work on my Spanish vocabulary.  After a few funny mistakes, I was reminded that “el Papa” is “the Pope” and “la papa” is “the potato”.  Indeed the commotion sweeping the continent in July 2015 is the visit of this important man, not the root vegetable.  Despite the thousands travelling from near and far vying for his attention, I had the good fortune to run into the Pope while strolling down a side street in Asunción.  He had just enough time for a quick chat and graciously agreed to snap a photo with me before he continued to the city plaza.

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Traveling through Chile, Paraguay and Argentina during the Copa América has been quite the experience, especially since before coming to South America, I knew little to nothing about the rules of soccer.  Throughout this time, I listened to learn about some of the best players on the best teams, and paid close attention to game highlights and public opinions.  Naturally, the best team is the one that belongs to whichever country I am in at the time, and being a shameless band-wagoner myself when it comes to professional sports, I was happy keeping the peace and rooting for whichever team my new friends wanted to win.

Before the Copa América was in full swing, Chileans did their best to explain to me the importance of soccer in Latin America.  One told me that for a few weeks, the usually very devoted congregation at worship on Sunday nights would be about half the normal size, and less if Chile is playing.  He joked, “But God understands because He is Chilean.”  I got used to seeing cashiers at the local grocery store in their red, white and blue attire and faces painted with the Chilean flag.  At night, I could tell when Chile was playing without turning on the television or radio, simply by listening to the car horns honking, fireworks and neighbors cheering.

In the final week of the Copa América, I traveled to Paraguay to volunteer at a summer camp called Campamento Jack Norment.  Paraguayan pride is high and people there live and breathe soccer.  One day, a camp staff complained that his back was really sore because of the stress of watching the game the night before.  In fact, one of the Paraguayan player’s uncle literally died from a heart attack during the nail-biting match between Paraguay and Brazil.

During breaks in the morning and afternoon, we sat drinking terere, rehashing the play by play of each game: Did you see Rockys penalty kick? How embarrassing!  But good thing they won or else he would get the blame. Chile or Peru? I think Chile. Yeah, it’ll be Chile and Paraguay in the final.  We just have to get past Argentina.  Paraguay only had a day to rest- their muscles were too tired.  We’re proud of beating Brazil anyways.  Next time. Chile or Argentina?  Chile of course!

At the camp’s Environmental Club, the teacher introduced me as a biologist from the United States who has experience working with sea turtles.  Then he asked the kids if they had any questions for me.  After a few moments of silence, one child spoke up, “What’s your favorite US soccer team?” he asked.  Afterwards, the kids stayed for hours practicing their dribbling and penalty kicks.  Occasionally, when the ball sailed over the goal we yelled “Rocky!” and everybody laughed.  Noting the kids’ exceptional skills, I took a couple of short video clips.  At one point, the kids head butted the ball back and forth.  When they still hadn’t dropped the ball after 3 minutes of filming, I stopped recording to save the camera’s memory and they continued with this for many minutes more before the ball finally touched the ground.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Two days after Chile won the Copa América, we traveled to Argentina.  I was told that it was a good thing that I had USA identification, because if I was Chilean the customs officials might have given me a hard time trying to enter into the country.  In Argentina, Messi is regarded as more than a soccer player and is currently being put on the same pedestal as religious figures.  Most of the Argentines that I’ve spoken to so far have brushed off Chile’s win.  “The game was bought,” someone says.  “Argentina practically won anyway because Chile’s coach is Argentine,” says another.  Even with the Copa América in the past, soccer remains the focus in Argentina.  As the Pope concluded his speech and the evening news finished up, headlines flashed about a typhoon in China, suicide bombing in Syria and something happening in London explained too quickly for me to understand.  But even with all that going on, the most time was spent talking about, you guessed it, soccer.