¿What do you do?

So I’m frustrated.  Community is hard.  The kids in the comedor didn’t remember to bring their spoons, but instead brought whistles today.  The women in the kitchen are blaming me for the ensuing chaos.  And there are just so many other things going wrong today.

What do I do?

Everyone has their own routine, their own thing that they do to unwind, to de-stress, to forget the troubles of the day.  But in the international setting, many of us have to leave behind some of our more normal de-stressors in search of others.  Back in the states I could easily rely on some good tunes or a quick run to get me out of a funk.  But in Peru my ipod’s selection has gone stale, and I live in a town built of cobblestones on the side of a mountain which makes any thought of a quick jog somewhat stressful in itself.

So what to do?

Well, I fortunately have a few tricks up my sleeve.  Like I said earlier, we live on the side of a mountain.  This provides ample opportunity to go for a hike and enjoy the beauty of nature.  This is what I decide to do today.

Side note: remember how JVC said no pets and especially no llamas?  Yeah, you do.  Well, we here in Andahuaylillas have found a way around this pesky rule.  Instead of us adopting pets, we had pets adopt us.  Two street dogs have decided that the gringos are friendly, and therefore we should be their humans. They go by the names of Yogi and Colitas (meaning ‘little tail’, ironic because she has no tail).   The two of them are partners, as far as street dogs can be faithful to one another, and Colitas just gave birth week to a litter of 10 (yes 10!) puppies.   Unfortunately only 5 have survived to present day.
So here I am, hiking boots on, water bottle in the backpack, and Yogi at my side.  Ready to hike a mountain.   45 min later I have arrived at my destination.  A small landing about halfway up the mountain where the Cross of Andahuaylillas stands overlooking the pueblo.

Off in the distance: Pucuto y Huaro

I take a seat next to Yogi and just observe all that is around me.  The river that runs through the valley.  The corn fields that are in the process of being harvested.  The towns of Pucutu, Piñipampa, and Huaro off in the distance.

Yogi looks off towards Piñipampa in the distance

All of it bigger than me.  My perspective has been reset.  The stressors in my life are not gone, but something about the immense majestic beauty sitting here in the Andes causes me to realize that li

fe is good.   I spend a while longer up on the mountain.  When the sun finally disappears behind me the temperature begins to drop, and I realize that I should head back home.  Descending the mountain with Yogi still at my side I am content with everything.  Content and ready to renter Andahuaylillas, ready to return to my role in the community.

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In the breaking of the bread

And Jesus was known in the breaking of the bread.  The Gospel reading last Sunday comes from Luke and talks about how the disciples were slow to believe that Christ had risen.  They were so focused on what was going on in their lives that they didn’t even recognize Christ when he walked with them to Emmaus.  It was only after He had blessed and broken bread (in the same manner he had done just a few days earlier at the Last Supper) that they realized He was with them.  It was in the breaking of the bread that they realized Christ was still within their midst.

In the mass we have every Monday night as a JVC community with Padre Oscar (in English) we reread the Gospel from Sunday, because Padre thinks it has such a powerful message.  It stops you and makes you think about where Christ is found.  A quick side note: for the homily in these masses Padre usually gives us a few thoughts and then asks us for how we feel or think so it normally becomes a discussion of the Gospel instead of a homily, and therefore some of these thoughts may be co-opted from my community mates.   Before He died Jesus told the disciples that He would rise, that he would be with them again in this world and the next.  But they were slow to believe, as they were most of the time.  It’s amazing how dense the disciples could be at times.  For us, how many times during the day do we come face to face with Christ, but can’t or don’t see Him?  We are all called to be Christ-like and we know that Christ works though us, so why are we slow to recognize all the ways in which Christ talks to us in our day-to-day?  He is in the child who runs into the comedor to hug me, or in the community mate who sparks a change in thinking, or in the mother who comes to ask us for medication because her child is ill.  Christ is in everyone and everything, but we often fail to recognize Him.  We become so wrapped up, like the disciples, with what we can see/hear/feel that we fail to acknowledge the risen Christ in the physical world we inhabit.

But I think Jesus knew all this.  He know how dense his disciples could be, he knew that if they could deny him while he was alive as Peter did three times, that they would have a hard time recognizing Him in the world after the resurrection.  I think for this he left us tools to remember His gift to the world.  And as is pertinent to this gospel reading, the breaking of the bread is a wonderful celebration left for us so that we may come to know Christ better in the breaking of the break.  “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me. (Lk 22:19) ”  In this action we are remembering Christ, and in this action we recognize Christ in the breaking of the bread.  We celebrate the Eucharist every day all over the world, but often we forget this global community as we leave mass.  We just finished celebrating the breaking of the bread in the manner in which Jesus showed us, but we forget that it is in this breaking of bread He is known.  We leave this recognition in church, and forget that the Eucharist is not the only way Jesus reveals Himself.  While the breaking of the bread can be the “ah-ha” moment of duh, this is Jesus, we must remember that He is walking with us along the camino of life; He is with us in everyone we interact with, in everything that we do, in all that we are.

Escape

E S C A P E

As I sit here looking out over this barren landscape with the sound of cresting waves in the background, it is hard to deny the beauty of this world.  But at the same time it is difficult to ignore the blaring ugliness of humanity. 

I´ve never found the beauty in a desert landscape.  Perhaps it is my upbringing in the land of deciduous forests and fields of cotton that give me a flavor for the greener side of life—a green that simply isn´t found here in this desert.   This month has been the longest excursion into this “wilderness.”  A wilderness of rocks, dust, sun, wind, and the tantalizing beauty of the Pacific Ocean—tantalizing because I haven´t been afforded the opportunity to go swimming and yet every day we work under the blazing sun looking out over the cool blue knowing that its waters would refresh our weary bodies. 

There exists a beauty in knowing that these rocky shores of Peru are a part of a much larger wilderness.  We are perched in the foothills of the Andes—those majestic mountains ranging from the end of this word up into the canal that Roosevelt built.  These mountains are the source of the mighty Amazon as well as home to the capital of the vast Inca Empire—a place which I will call home in a few short days.  And we are connected to all of these places by the soles of our feet.  But this is a temporal connectedness.  There also exists a historico-social connection. 

Just a short walk down the coast we encounter the ancient fishing grounds of the Inca.  Marked by two large stone circles we see where they would unload their catch for the waiting Chaskis.  Then long trek towards Cusco would begin as the chaskis would sprint the daily catch up into the mountains thus ensuring that the Inca Empire would have fish for dinner.  Additionally, this coast is retains a dark history of conquest—the unflattering picture of invasion, integration, and apparent self-denial of Peruvian roots.  The importance of the coast on which I sit is highlighted even more as we watch the fishing boats come into port; unload their holds of the bounty which the sea has provided.  Once securely stored in whichever car, truck, or van it is immediately shipped off to Lima or some other large city along the coast that will barely recognize the name of the port from which they eat. 

Acknowledging these connections is easy.  Understanding, however, is not.  Removing myself from the ugliness found in humanity proves to be difficult.  From our work on the side of the mountain I look down.  First I notice the ocean and then I see the town in which we have been serving for the last four weeks.  If I wanted to I could count the house, but there appear to be 60 or so.  The majority of which are single rooms made of “Esteras” – a woven grass of sorts.  But this is not the only reminder of the poverty ingrained into this fishing village.  A special care is needed when walking through town as to avoid the piles of human feces that serve as a physical and an olfactic manifestation of the neglect felt by this village.  Their government has failed them.  It has failed to provide the basics which we, gringos and Peruvians alike, take for granted.  The smell of burning plastic in the morning serves to remind us that there is no trash pickup.  The scene every Saturday morning of people taking their water containers to the corner to quench their thirst for the week reminds us of a lack of running water.  And even that water is not a guarantee from their government as right now they are trapped in a nightmare of intergovernmental bickering.  They have been without water for 10 days because they have been disowned by their own district, and their neighboring district will offer no assistance.  They live on a border between two localities and neither one wants them.  Their humanity has been forgotten as they are transformed into a red number on the bottom line; a subtraction of 350 soles each week from the budget—the cost of water for this village.

But the government has not wholly forgotten.  They did build the village a medical post in 2009.  A lovely blue and while building that has lain vacant until 51 Peruvian adolescents, 5 teachers, 2 cooks, and 3 Jesuit Volunteers moved in a month ago.  Conveniently the government found the money to build a medical post, a sign of goodwill to appease the villagers, but they have forgotten to provide the personnel and supplies necessary for the health of this village.   

But every night, for a brief moment, the beauty of this port is restored.  Mateo, Greg, and I sit on the front porch of the medical post, wave to abuelita, and watch the sun set over the tranquil Pacific.  The transition from yellow to orange to red to night reminding us that it will rise again—bringing with it the hope of a new day.    

A view of the pillars

Life as a JV in Tacna has been difficult.  We´re passing 8 weeks here and I have yet to really feel like a volunteer.  But the difficulty has not be in the living of life…I have done a lot of that…but rather in living in accordance with the values we ascribed to when we applied/were accepted as a Jesuit Volunteer.   The values we seek to live out fall into 4 categories: Community, Simple Living, Social Justice, and Spirituality.  While under normal circumstances living these ideals in community is difficult given the difference of opinions that exist in communities as well as the difficulties of living in another country, but for me in Tacna there have been even more obstacles.  We´ve been tasked with the job of setting up a new community in Andahuaylillas, but we have yet to set foot in Andahuaylillas.  Instead we have been living in Tacna, with host families, for the past 2 months.  While it has been really useful for my Spanish skills, and for understanding some of Peruvian culture, it has made it difficult to live as a JV.   To better organize my thoughts, I´m going to go according to the pillars of JVC.

Community
Community has meant different things these past 2 months, and I think that the 2 different meanings will continue to exist even as we move into Andahuaylillas and make it our home.   Here in Tacna more dominating meaning of community has been that of my host family.  I have spent 6 weeks living with a family in Tacna.  They are the people that I have seen every day and spent the most time with while in Peru.  I love them, they´re amazing people and have really taught me a lot…about a lot of things.  The only reason it will be difficult to leave Tacna is because of my host family.  But with this form of community, it makes it difficult to have the other form, the form which JVC seeks to create, namely a community of volunteers.  The difficulty here is that we don´t live together.  We don´t see each other every day.  And one of us is even living in the States for January…so it´s been difficult.   To add to this, we have been watching the Tacna volunteers begin to form their community (both with each other in their own house, and with their neighbors who will be their neighbors for the next 2 years).  While I can´t fault them for doing what only seems natural, especially given that they have all moved into the community house here, it makes it a bit more difficult being on the outside.  When all 7 of the new Peru volunteers were living with host families, it was easier…

But you can´t really change the hand you´re dealt.  And I signed up for this.  I wanted to help start a new community in a new location.  I just never realized how difficult these three months would be with regards to community, nor did I realize how important the idea of forming a community among the 5 of us that will be in Cusco would be to me.   We´ve done our best to work towards an idea of community, but It hasn´t been easy….I´m excited and ready for the work in Cusco.

Simple Living
This also has been complicated given the living situation.  My host family certainly did not sign up for a life of simple living when they invited me into their home.  So I have been living at their life style which is not the simple life style of the volunteers.  While we certainly aren´t overly extravagant at my house, we are very well to do in Tacna.  Living with my host family has also clouded what I thought it meant to live simply.  Is living simply supposed to be in the things we have?  Or is it more in the way we live?  Should we do away with all the things in life to get to the “purest” form, or is it more in how we live with each other?  My family here always has someone coming through the house to chat.  They spend a lot of time talking and being with people.  They live simply, meaning without too much complication, but they have internet, a microwave, a washing machine, and other things that might not fit the definition of simple.  Just something to keep in mind as we move to Andahuaylillas in February.

Social Justice
What does this mean?  I really have no way to judge what this would even look like here in Peru yet.  How do you do justice in a society you don´t understand?  I think again, I simply have to wait until I understand where I am better and what it is that I will do once I get to Andahuaylillas.   For now, I can only be present to those I am with.  And once January 9th comes, then I´ll be on Mission Month with 53 high school boys…that surly has to count somewhere in this column?

Spirituality
This is the easiest to articulate because it comes from a language deficit.  One of the surprises that I wasn´t expecting was the frustration I would have in mass.  Going to mass for me is something that I draw strength from.  And when the language shifted from English to Spanish I lost something.  At first it was difficult to even understand what was being said (I knew what was going on by the fact that mass works the same in all languages).  I didn´t get anything from the homilies and I missed a lot.  It was tough for a while, but now that my Spanish is improving I´m getting more from mass and the difficulties here are subsiding.   There is more to type here…but time is always getting shorter.

In summary of this I think the word is: Unsettled (thanks Walter for the word).  Life has yet to settle down, and it won´t for another few months.  Patience is something that I don´t usually have a lot of, but I´m learning a bit more about it every day: patience with myself, with my surrounding, with the Tacna Volunteers, with my community (however you define this).

Advent…

The front half is a bit of reflection on my part while the back half looks at the traditions of Christmas that I´m beginning to see.

Advent began yesterday which means that a new liturgical year has begun.  Hard to believe that its been a year has passed.  But the beginning of this new year is not about looking back at the year that was as we usually do with the end of the calendar year.  While there is bit reflection, it goes a bit further back than the past 365 days and is focused on the birth of Christ…he was born as we all were (although not the virgin bit).  He lived a life like we live (mortal) and he died as we all will.  So instead we begin this year looking forward in preparation of what is to come in the birth of Christ.  And while looking forward to the birth of Christ, we can´t forget to live in the present moment.  We must call to mind the meaning of Christ´s teachings, and how that looks in our day-to-day lives.

Yesterday I went to mass in this large church that was packed with people.  It wasn´t the mass I have been going to because I am now living with my host family.  The church is literally right outside their front door.  It was very different from the Jesuit mass I´ve been going to over the last few weeks.  The Jesuits just have a different feel to their masses some how.  This mass I went to though was cool.  They handed out the readings before hand so that you could follow along, and before each reading someone got up to explain the importance of the reading or author or book that the reading comes from.   Very useful for me given that I´m still working on my language skills.

The homily though had some very Jesuit tendencies, namely that it was packed full of insights both into the texts and into life…although a bit longer winded than most Jesuits I know.  As we look to the birth of Christ we must not forget to prepare for that birth.  What does this mean?  How do you prepare for something that already happened?  Christ left us teachings for how to prepare for this occasion, and I would even say that more than preparing for His birth we are preparing for His Kingdom which is to come.  The preparation I speak of (or the priest spoke of) must then come from a remembering of His teachings and a living out of those teachings.  While there are some outward signs that one is preparing for the Nativity, and here the priest pointed to some of the more obvious ones and also the more commercial like the Christmas tree, lights on the house, etc, the more important signs of preparation can be seen in how one lives his/her life….more thoughts to come.  Cara´s mom sent us a daily advent reflection book so I´ll keep you posted.

 

Some Christmas things Tacna style:

  1. All the advertising here includes people bundled up and with snow…even though its Summer!  (seems like the US has exported X-mas too)
  2. They also drink hot chocolate.  (still summer)  But the hot chocolate is not the same as the US.  They use butter or oil in it in addition to chocolate.
  3. Advent wreaths are also a big deal…everyone brought their wreath to mass on Sunday to have it blessed.  My family´s wreath sits on the dinner table.
  4. Paneton (fruit cake) is HUGE!  They love the fruit cake.
  5. Christmas presents are opened at midnight on Christmas Eve and I believe then followed by dinner around 1am.  My family will go to mass at 10pm.
  6. …more tidbits as I come across them.

Water…sweet water

Water.  Essential for life…both the human kind and the plant kind.  Really any kind.  Where do we use water in our daily lives?  I brush my teeth, flush the toilet (been doing this more frequently recently), make tea, fill my water bottle, shower (not as often as I used to), wash the dishes…and that´s before I´m out the door in the morning.  The plants that feed us need to be watered to grow so that they can nourish us.  Everything needs water. 

Tacna is a desert.  This simple fact means that there is very little water.  They claim that this is the driest desert in the world, but I´m not sure if I believe that…isn´t Antarctica drier?  (that´s another thing about peruvian cutlure…things get exaggerated here)  The water for Tacna comes from the Andes.  It winds its way down the mountains and slowly travels toward the coast.  There is actually a river that runs through Tacna.  This is the source of most of the water.  The odd thing about this river though is that they decided to pave over it.  It runs right through the middle of the city, but you would never know it because they forced it underground.  There are a few places here and there where you can look into a hole and see the river, but by-and-large you would never know about the river if you didn´t know where to look. 

I guess one useful thing about the river being underground is that it doesn´t get as dirty as it passes through the city.  But that really doesn´t matter at this point because it isn´t very clean when it arrives in Tacna.  Something that I´ve definitely taken for granted is the purity of the tap water in the US.  We boil everything here before drinking.  It reminds me of that time the Boston water line broke and we had to boil the water at BC for a few days…except this is every day and not merely a novelty that interrupted our day at BC.   To this end, we have a large 8-10 gallon water dispenser that we drink from.  Boil the water and dump it in and drink.  Then repeat.  

I mentioned that Tacna was a desert.  A dry desert with a river.  And in the last 20 years the population here has grown by roughly 300,000 people, which is leading to water shortages.  In fact, in the recent elections (I believe in September or October) there was a party running on the water issue, and you can still find their posters around town.  This shortage manifests itself in the form of water shut-offs.  Generally at night the water flow into Tacna is slowed or cut.  We live so far down the river in the city that we usually still have water because the pipes haven´t completely emptied, but we can´t use the water for much.  It becomes very cloudy with a milky white color.   And sometimes this doesn´t just happen in the evening.  Last week there were several spans of 3+ hours of no water at all in our house.   But funnily everyone still waters their plants and I´m not sure how much people are trying to conserve water…it just seems to be one of those things far off in people´s minds.

One more cultural differenence…water is not seen as a thirst quencher here.  People will reach for juice, soda, or anything before water.  They say that they don´t feel like their thirst is quenched unless it is sweet.  Something that might have become engrained because people don´t really drink the water out of the tap anyways…

Thanks for reading!

Where are you?

Usually a straightforward question with a straightforward answer: I am here.  But where is here?  For me the here has been constantly shifting—both physically and mentally.    As I type this I am currently in Memphis…just 2 hours ago I was in Charlotte.  And 2 days before that I was in Washington, DC, and the day before that in Philadelphia…and you get the picture.  I’m getting tired of traveling.  But it’s been such a good experience.  I’ve seen so many people that I wanted to see before I move.  Graduation was such a poorly designed departure from Boston College, and traveling has allowed me to catch up with some people that I haven’t seen (or even talked to) since that Monday in May.

So physically I am here.  I am in the United States preparing for my departure.  I have been to Boston, LA, Milwaukee, Boston, Boston, Boston, NYC, Newark, Collingswood, Philly, DC, and now Memphis on my slow lap of adios around the country.  There are two more scheduled stops…Boston and Charleston.  At the end of all of this, I am beginning to appreciate the feel of home.  As much as I am not a fan of Charlotte right now, home has an appeal.

But the physical answer is always the easy on…if you get stuck, then you can simply say I am here, on Earth.

What about mentally?  Mentally, where are you?  This has a different purpose.  The asker is getting at your state of mind.  Where is your conscious?  What are you thinking about?  A trickier question, this is.  Mentally, where am I?  I don’t know.  Stuck in limbo—somewhere between the United States and Perú, between departure and arrival, and in some ways between life and death.  With 19 days to go before I leave my mind is everywhere.

I am still firmly planted within the US culture…as I travel around I am exercising a privilege that few have.  I am able to take time to fly (fortunately flying is free) and I have friends who want to see me (at least I think they do).  I have been eating out, and spending more money than I am currently making (since I’m “between jobs”).  It is a life of luxury, even though I am doing my best to stretch a buck here and there.

But while I am here, my mind is wandering to Tacna and Andahuaylillas.  I am dreaming about my life that will be in just a few short weeks.  The family that I will be living with for my first 2 months, the church I will join in Andahuaylillas in February, Mes de Misión in January.  The excitement is building and I cannot wait to arrive in Perú.

But I am not looking forward to the departure.

Departure will bring about many emotions.  It is a process that I have already begun.  I felt it strongest this past Tuesday as I was leaving Chris’ apartment.  It marked the end of my week long journey of seeing friends and family that I will not see for 2 years.  It was a tough realization as I set out on his street to find the bus.  There is no one I’ve visited that I don’t fully expect to see again after 2 years, but still…it’s not easy to say goodbye.

Life and death are two ideas present—always present.  We seek to live life and to avoid death.  Don’t talk about death, that’s bad luck, or that’s just not done.  Society emphasizes life and within life we emphasize youth.  To be young, to have many years ahead of us…that is what we desire.  But death happens.  It is the only sure thing in this life.  You can disagree with everything I ever say, but you cannot dispute the fact that we will all die at some point.   But this is literal death—the kind that my family is struggling with as my Grandmother’s days become increasingly numbered.  She is stuck somewhere between life and death—an existential world and a metaphysical one.   For many people you would say that life is infinitely better than death, but in Grandmom’s case death must be better than life.  She currently lives in an existential world but has no existence.  Her struggle with dementia and Alzheimer’s has left her a shell of the caring person she once was.  And while we do not understand exactly what is occurring in her brain, my interactions with her lead me to believe that the hope of a metaphysical world has to be better than the chains of the existential.

Watching this process has me thinking about other forms of death.  Is JVC-Perú a form of death?  I will never be the same after these next 2 years.  Sure, the underlying tenants of my personality should remain the same.  I should have similar interests and joys…but my worldview, the way I interact with the world will be inherently different.  But is this death?  All experiences shape who we are.  Maybe to a lesser degree, but still, all experiences have an effect.  If death is the only thing certain in this life, then maybe it is a death I will experience.  I will be shedding some views, some thoughts, some ways of living in exchange for others.  The world as I see it will shift.  It will almost be as though I am living in a different world.  Yes the places and people will be the same, but my understanding of those places and people may be different.  Does that constitute death?  The ending of one life and in this instance the beginning of another…

Yo no sé…pero ahora estoy aquí