Jane Heck Saves My Bacon

It all happened in a Colombian village named Guatapuri, high in the Andes Mountains.
You will have to read to the end to discover who Jane Heck is, and how she saved my bacon.

I once helped lead a camp of over 200 young people, ages 15 to 25, in the Andes Mountains of Colombia, South America. My wife and I were missionaries in Santa Marta, Colombia, from 1981 to 1985.While we were there, we were involved in planting a new church in Santa Marta, a city of 250,000, on the northern coast of Colombia along the edge of the Caribbean Sea. When we had collected 20 or 30 youth, we arranged a youth trip to a mountain retreat about 200 miles inland. We would be joining about 180 other youth. This Christian youth retreat was named Camp Guatapuri. Guatapuri was the name of a mountain stream, and also the name of a small village on the banks of the stream, which the Colombians considered a river – El Rio Guatapuri. Missionaries of the past had gone to great expense and trouble to build this camp.

The altitude was around 5,000 feet, a little under a mile; about like Denver, Colorado. However, they didn’t mind, and neither did we missionaries. People age 15 to 25 don’t exactly fit what we call “youth” in our North American thinking. South Americans call this age group jovenes, a word that describes those 15 to 25 who aren’t married yet, or who are just married without children. Our jovenes from about 14 churches all over north Colombia came together once a year to Camp Guatapuri for fun, games, and lots of Bible study and worship.

The road to the camp was barely a road. It was more like a wide path through a jumble of rocks, ever going upward. We had left our bus behind and were now traveling in the back of a big truck, which rocked from side to side so much that everyone had to grab hold of everyone else constantly. Once we had to get out and push the truck across a small stream.

We searched the skies for condors. Condors have huge wing spans, up to a little more than ten feet; they can travel up to 160 miles a day looking for food; and the people from that area told us tales of condors striking mountain sheep from behind to make them fall, and then eating them. Normally they just eat carrion, but sometimes they make their own.

The air was rarified. When the sun went behind the nearby mountain peaks, the air got cold and the girls put on sweaters. Otherwise the temperature was perfect. In the afternoon it was in the 60’s, which was about 55° cooler than the temperature back in Santa Marta, which got up to 115° every afternoon. It got cold at night, resulting in the jovenes sleeping huddled against each other and wrapped in their thin blankets or even newspapers to keep warm.

The boys were in Cabin “Antonio Redondo,” named after a Colombian pastor who was murdered. Antonio stopped the white slave traffic from Venezuela to Bogotá, and the Colombian mafia had him killed. The 14 churches all contributed to care for Trinidad, Antonio’s widow, and their children, in the nearby village of Atanquez. The bunks in the cabin were made of rough wood with no mattresses, pillows, or blankets. Both the boys’ and girls’ cabins were full of these bunks, which slept three each. Often the jovenes would double up so as not to freeze at night. Most brought a blanket and a pillow, and the rest shared. In the morning, the brave ones would go soap up and swim till clean in the nearby Guatapurí River, which consisted of a fast running stream of ice melt from the snow-covered peaks to our north, another 7,000 feet higher up. After about 30 seconds, the water was so cold it numbed one’s body completely. Jane Heck had the girls’ cabin; which is a mystery to me because I never went there, being a guy.

The Bible studies took up every morning. After devotions, prayer, and lively Christian songs, a Spanish seminary professor taught the lessons. The afternoons were for sports and games. That was where I came in: I was the creator of new games.

Shootout at the Guatapuri Corral: One joven would stand facing another, about 5 feet apart. Each had one square of toilet paper safety pinned to their chest. Each was armed with a tiny plastic water pistol. At the signal, first one to wet the other’s toilet paper square completely won.

David and Goliath: Armed with a rubber band and five smooth spitwads, the goal for each joven was to knock down a cardboard figure of Goliath perched on a limb of a tree.

Giant Water Cannon: Each team of about 20 kids had a big rope tied around them so that they looked like a giant amoeba standing on the ground. About 50 feet away was the other team, armed with a big coffee can containing within it a balloon filled with water. The can with the water balloon was attached to two huge long strips of inner tube, making a giant slingshot. The slingshot team had so many seconds to hit the other team, the amoeba, while the amoeba tried to dodge. A lot of people got wet in this one!

Camptown Chariot Races: Two boys and a girl constituted a team. The two boys made a fireman’s carry with their hands and the girl sat between them. At the signal, we had about ten teams racing to a pole and back. People flying everywhere!

Volleyball: They would have played this all night long if we had let them. They loved volleyball.

Soccer: Ditto. The national sport. They are fantastic athletes.

Scripture memorization: I have never seen anyone with as many verses memorized, or with the ability to find a passage, as these guys and gals.

Original Poetry: Colombians of all ages are absolutely fascinated by poetry, and many of them can make it up almost as fast as they can talk, complete with rhymes, rhythm, and real meaning. We gave a prize for each of the games, but one of the highly coveted trophies was for poetry.

Most Entertaining Song: They made up their own words, sang loudly and well including with guitars and makeshift drums (the coffee cans again), and from supper to bedtime it was truly impressive and amazing. I would travel back to Colombia just to hear them do it again.

Jumping off the Guatapuri Bridge into the Blue Hole in the Guatapuri River (the “pozo azul”: Below, in the shallow waters of the cold Guatapuri River, were the gorgeous girls in their one-piece swim suits. Above, the boys stood on the ledge of the bridge. Then they all jumped at once, falling about 15 feet into 20 feet of melted ice water! Next, everybody soaped each other up and came out shivering instead of sweating.

After two weeks of every kind of game, competition, and daredevil act, and two weeks of Bible study and prayer meeting, all these kids knew each other extremely well. All the churches were knit together because of these youth gatherings. It made the missionaries very happy to say the least, and bonded everyone together in all directions.

One day I learned an unforgettable lesson. Jamiles, a pretty young lady of 15 from a poor neighborhood in Santa Marta, was mountain climbing with a group of young people, and was being escorted by a handsome young man from another town. He asked if he could wear her very nice sunglasses. Sure! Then tragedy struck – Jamiles’ young man lost the sunglasses down a steep ravine far below, where no one could possibly go to rescue them. They came to me that evening. Jamiles was crying, because the gafas (sunglasses) were loaned to her from her mother and cost $5.00 U.S. (500 pesos). Her boyfriend had no money and couldn’t repay her for the gafas. He said it was just an accident and he wasn’t responsible. She said he owed her for the glasses. These two kids were getting more and more hysterical and I didn’t know what to do. If I sided with Jamiles, I would upset the boy and his whole church. If I sided with the boy, Jamiles and the entire Bible study group in her neighborhood would blame me for being unfair.

Along came fellow missionary Jane Heck and saved the day. Jane heard the pleas of each, and simply said, “Yo compro las gafas” – “I am buying the sunglasses.” And she handed Jamiles a 500 peso note. Both kids went away happy, and I thanked her for teaching me a lesson. So much was at stake that $5 was a pittance to pay to solve the problem. Jane never would let me give her any money! I am still in awe at her simple wisdom. Sometimes money really is no object when the stakes are very high.

TALKING TO GOD – Part One of Two

Things that Inhibit Closeness to God

Fear. Some people just cannot believe they can talk to God personally, because they fear Him so much they are afraid to get close to Him. They are afraid of rousing God’s wrath. They can’t believe God wants to talk to them personally because maybe He is too busy with ruling the world, or something. They fear interrupting God. Maybe their earthly parents bit their heads off when they were children; perhaps they sought attention at the wrong time in Mommy or Daddy’s mind. Now, years later, many people are simply afraid.

Unbelief. Some people simply don’t believe God can enter their mind and carry on a conversation with them. They think other people are faking it when they say, “God told me…”. Maybe they tried it several times and they didn’t “hear” anything; or couldn’t be sure what they were hearing was God or just their own self speaking. They just assume they don’t have the “gift of prophecy” to hear from God, so they stop believing God would or could want to speak directly to them in their mind.

Guilt. Some people believe God has forgiven them, but really doesn’t like them that much that He would speak to them directly. In this world, there are people who are polite to you but really won’t open up. Perhaps you said something offensive to them a long time ago, or they know something bad about you, and you sense that they really don’t like talking to you face to face. Some people feel that way about God. They know what the Bible says about God’s love and forgiveness, but they can’t really believe in their heart that God would just come right out and talk to them.

Woundedness – anger at God or someone else – unforgiveness. When someone is badly hurt, as for example when they witness a parent commit suicide or get regular beatings from a parent or experience rape by a member of the family, they typically encase their heart in a huge inner scab or scar. They have difficulty understanding the feelings of other people, because they have been hurt so badly that they have lost the ability to be sensitive or empathetic. They have become so focused on their own feelings that they have real difficulty picking up what other people are really like, or are really feeling. They make bad guesses about other people because their heart has been so hurt. They have an invisible shield around themselves to protect their heart, but that same shield that keeps them from hurting also keeps them from feeling other people. They also have trouble feeling God or sensing God’s feelings toward them. They have to have everything spelled out to them. They are crippled in their ability to feel.

Bad theology. Some people have been taught that God is so holy, He gets angry at the least little sin. God has no patience. Better not rile God. Don’t expect any answers when you pray. Others have been taught that God only speaks to super-saints – the rest of us must just guess, read the Bible like reading tea leaves, or hunt verses that sound like something they hope God is saying to them. Still others hunt proof texts to assure them they are doing the right thing. When they pray, they are never sure if God is hearing them or not. And they are constantly seeking guidance from God because they are afraid to just walk up to God inside their minds and ask Him point blank. They don’t believe God wants them to know anything, wants to keep them in the dark about His will. They don’t have any idea if God is willing to fulfill a request, because they cannot sense what God’s will for them might be.

Superstitiousness. Some people think they need a Ouija board to talk to God. They use the Bible like a Ouija board, flipping through it with their eyes shut. (I have done this.) They long to have Urim and Thummim, they long to cast lots. They want a definite answer and are unable to believe they could just talk directly to God, so they practice what amounts to a weak form of magic in order to get in touch with God, kind of like Saul and the witch of Endor. Saul went to the witch to consult Samuel, instead of just directly talking to God himself.

Just never tried it, or tried it and failed. People look for signs, ask other people for guidance, anything but talk directly to God. They just never have been able to make direct contact with God. Huckleberry Finn said that he tried prayer but it didn’t work. He prayed for a fishing pole so he could go fishing one day. Next day, he came upon a fish hook in the dusty road, he said, but God never gave him that fishing pole and line and cork, etc. so he stopped praying to God.

Biblical Examples of Talking Directly and Indirectly to God

Jesus talked directly to God. Moses talked directly to God. Abraham talked directly to God. St. Paul talked to God about the thorn in his flesh. God told him that His grace was sufficient for him. Elisha slapped the Jordan river after Elijah went to heaven in the chariot of fire, and asked out loud, “Where is the God of Elijah?” Hannah knelt at the altar and talked to God, but didn’t get her direct answer from God but rather from the priest Eli. Jacob wrestled with the angel of God and talked to him during the wrestling match. Adam and Eve talked to God directly. King David sometimes talked to God directly, seated in the temple; and sometimes the prophet Nathan brought word to David. Many of the prophets, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, talked directly to God. And Jesus talked to God. Mark 1:35 says, “And in the morning, a great while before day, he rose up and went out, and departed into a desert place, and there prayed.”

Laying fleece. Gideon laid out a fleece in order to be sure of God’s will. It was a great help to him, and it increased his faith. He literally needed a miracle before he could be sure that God had been the one directing him. Note that seeing the angel of God disappear in smoke was not sufficient for Gideon! One miracle was not enough to convince him. John the Baptist’s father also said, “How can I know you’re for real?” to Gabriel. Gabriel punished him for doubting him. Doubting Thomas needed to touch the wounds in Jesus’ side and feet and hands before he would believe. The Pharisees, you remember, kept asking Jesus for signs but Jesus said if they wouldn’t believe what they were seeing in Him, nothing would convince them. Jesus told the story of the poor Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham and the point was that if they wouldn’t believe the word of God, even someone rising from the dead wouldn’t convince them. My point is: people need and long for a sign to convince them that they indeed have made contact with the supernatural, with God, for real. Even Moses needed the burning bush.

I laid a fleece before going to the mission field. God had spoken to me, I felt, and so had He to my wife. We got a job with a mission agency. Our mission agency was sending us to Colombia, South America, to be part of a church planting team. I wanted to be sure God was the One sending us. I asked God for permission to lay a fleece. I said, “I don’t plan on asking outright for money, but only to go preaching at churches that will have me; and my message will be, ‘God is calling us to the mission field; is He calling you too?’ If You move in their hearts to give, I will know You are calling us for real. If not, I will know it’s all just in my head.” The result was that we received completely voluntary donations sufficient to cover the whole four years we were gone.

A Year in a Brewery

St. Paul, Minnesota, has the one and only Jacob Schmidt Brewery. I worked there for a whole year after getting back from a ten month missions experience in Ancoraimes, Bolivia. I was angry with God, because I was not mature enough to tolerate the cultural rejections that came with the job. Looking back, it was extremely valuable missionary training; however, at the time it just made me miserable. My main problem was too much telling God what to do for me, and not enough asking God what He wanted me to do for Him.

I had finished two full years of seminary before going to Bolivia. I went to United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in New Brighton, Minnesota, just north of Minneapolis-St. Paul. There was a requirement of spending one year “in the field,” which usually meant being an associate minister in some stateside church. I had a strong hankering to do something more radical, hence the ten months in Bolivia. My wife had given up her acceptance into the Peace Corps to marry me; so when she suggested missions, I said “South America!” Layman’s Overseas Service accepted us as volunteer missionaries working within the Bolivian Methodist Church.

When I got back from Bolivia, I arranged with U.T.S., my seminary, for a year’s sabbatical. They agreed, especially when I asked to take courses during that year. I arranged to work full time at Jacob Schmidt Brewery, but since my shift was at night, I had several hours during the day to do extra field work for extra credit. I volunteered for a street ministry in the Hispanic neighborhood in West St. Paul, working with a community center there. The police set me up with ten juvenile delinquents, and the center gave me the use of a van. We went places and did things, which kept the delinquents (all with police records) out of trouble at least for those few hours. I got a full credit for a course in Clinical Pastoral Education for that, and also for several other clinical pastoral courses during the year’s sabbatical. I spent several months working as a chaplain in Stillwater Federal Prison, Stillwater, Minnesota; as a chaplain in the Minneapolis Juvenile Detention Center; and as a street chaplain working one on one with some young men in their twenties who had been convicted of burglary, encouraging them to straighten out their lives.

A church group in Minneapolis, college kids from the University of Minnesota, asked for some help with their Spanish. They were going on a mission trip to Puerto Rico, and my wife and I helped them learn Spanish hymns and basic cultural rules of courtesy. My wife was getting her degree in education during this time, and I was putting her through school.

Meanwhile, at night I spent a full eight hours a night working at the Brewery. I worked on the bottle house side. I started out doing janitorial work; keeping the conveyor belts with full beer bottles working when a bottle broke or fell; running a forklift; and sitting and watching to make sure that each beer bottle only had beer in it. Sometimes a bottle would have a piece of machinery from the filler – the big round gadget which filled each bottle with beer as it passed by. I made boxes or carton (each of which which held one case of beer) in the big basement using a powerful machine that folded the cardboard and sealed it; and I cleaned out used beer cartons.

Before long, because I worked well without supervision, I got a cushy job: running the pump room. Very exciting for a brewery worker! I worked in a big room covered top to bottom in white tiles. In this room were 13 huge railroad car-sized tanks of beer. The beer was kept at 34°, just above freezing. My job was to hook up fire hoses from the tanks of beer to the pipes which carried the beer up to the filler. In between runs, I would steam clean the tiles with a smaller fire hose. Every so often, the big bosses would come down and ask for a beer. They wanted me to turn on a tiny spigot in the side of a tank of beer – unpasteurized beer has live culture and is really delicious, unlike the pasteurized stuff. So…I was a bartender to the bigwigs!

It’s cold in Minnesota in the winter. One night, around 3:15 a.m., we discovered that it was – 80° Fahrenheit. Those of us getting off had to make a mad dash to our cars, shoot raw ether into our carburetors, and quick try to turn the motor over and start our cars before we froze to death. Anything below -45° is really dangerous, and it was touch and go that night.

Everybody got three breaks every night. After 2 hours, we got 15 minutes off. I drank one beer at that break, and since the bottle house had a walk-in cooler for Schmidt Extra-Special (12% alcohol) for us, I got an Extra-Special. After another 2 hours, it was lunch break, and I downed 2 beers. Finally, after the third 2-hour period of work, I got a final 15 minute break, and downed my fourth beer. I got off most nights at 3:15 a.m.

In the spring, I had an experience with God. For a couple of months, I had been reading my New Testament and the Psalms when not pumping beer or cleaning the tiled floors. I had a little desk, and would light a cigarette and drink a beer while reading. When I got up to smoking half a pack a day, I asked God to help me quit, and He was good enough to do so. I was grouchy and achy for two weeks, but I put them down.

I began to be very tired of brewery work, even though the pay was super good. I began to hint to God that I felt really stupid to have been such a spoiled brat with Him in Bolivia. When work was done, I got on my bicycle, feeling good. I had had 4 beers, and as it began to mist a very light rain, I was riding the few miles home under the street lights on the empty streets. I was happy with God, and began to sing gospel songs. Suddenly, in my drunken happiness, I began a conversation with God. It went like this.

“God,” I said, “I’ve made a mess of my life.” God silently agreed, yup. “Do You have a better plan for me?” Again, God said yup. “Well, what is it? Tell me!” Nope, God replied. “Why not?” God said, “Because you’d just mess it up again.” I knew this was true; I agreed. “So, what is it You want me to do?” I already knew the answer: let Him rule my life. As this dawned on me, I had this sort of daydream in my head in which I saw me driving a car with God as passenger. I stopped the car and switched places with God. At the same time, I heard God say, “Let Me drive.” Down the empty streets I pedaled my bicycle, mist gently falling, having this very vivid conversation with God in my state of inebriation.

I said, “Lord, I’m sinful from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet.” I had heard Oral Roberts say that, and it sounded good. God ignored my flowery speech. I added, “I’m not worth anything.” God said, “You are to Me.” So I concluded, “Then for what I’m worth, I’m Yours. Do with me as you will. Take over all the steering and driving of my life. Even if You have to drag me kicking and screaming, I’m giving myself to You permanently, not to be cancelled or undone, ever. Please take Your rightful place on the throne of my life. I want to do Your will instead of my will, now and forever.” I felt God was pleased.

I said some more stuff about praising Him. I let loose with a torrent of praise. About that time, I felt like a heavy monkey was lifted off of my back, and I realized that I couldn’t smell the brewery on my clothes any more. In fact, it wasn’t on my breath either. I realized that I was actually sober and could think really clearly, as if I had woken up. I told God that I wasn’t going to drink any more. He was okay with that. In fact, I did indeed stop completely that night. It was completely effortless, unlike quitting smoking.

I asked God what He would like me to do. He said, “Quit your job.” I asked, “Tomorrow?” “No,” He said. “Give them 30 days’ notice.” When I got home, my wife was overjoyed. I gave notice to the brewery the next day. For the whole 30 days following, one by one my co-workers would come to me and ask why I was quitting. I explained, “I love Jesus more than this job.” Oddly enough, this impressed them. I got to witness to around 50 of them during that month.

Finally, to top it all off, I lined up my seminary to re-enter and finish my final year, starting the following September. Now I had the summer off. After checking with God, My wife and I asked the University of Minnesota Campus Church members if we could go to Puerto Rico with them. Turns out, they had been praying for that very thing. They also had been praying for me to quit smoking and drinking, which I had done. We went to Puerto Rico that summer, and had a whale of a good time! I’ll say more about those three months of ministry some other time.

Spirit Lake, Bolivia – February 21, 1971 – Part Two of Two

I feel a sadness, a loneliness of great dimension, I long for the flutes of cane to come like a tornado in a hailstorm and rip this Spanish house from this Inca pueblo. I begin imagining: What would I wish for if I were an Aymara? I would wish to be caught up in a swirl and hurled high upon a mountain. I would wish to pray to the gods of the mountains and the earth: the Achachila and the Pachamama. I would cross myself like a pagan who accepts the god of the Christians as one among many gods. I would walk with half-inch thick callouses on my bare feet in the mud and mountain snow. I would say camisajjki instead of como está, how are you? I would have a lantern at night and no toilet but the bare rocky land under my square blanket of homemade wool with the slit in the center for my head, draped about me to hide my defecating.

I would have children and drink water from the rivers; when in Ancoraimes I would drink from the rock-lined drainage ditches running down the center of each narrow street, pushing aside the refuse from each house. I would not view those with bicycles as having a means of travel; I would view them as far wealthier than I and far above me in status.

I would speak Aymara in my throat the way Aymaras do. I would play my bamboo flute! I would know about the wind, the earth, and starvation. I would fear Lake Titicaca, the lake full of evil demons who drown people who fall in. I would fear spotting a hawk high in the sky, fear stumbling over a stone, fear all the evil omens I have been taught by my mother. I would be black in my heart, pagan, fearful of many things, a hater of white people. I would expect to die young, buried by my people all dressed in black wool. They would build a tiny rock house for my spirit, so I would not haunt them after I am dead.

It is a dream, I see these people and they cannot see me. Then they see me and I cannot see them. I try not to care. I make up a saying and then live it: I say to myself, I am home here; I feel welcome here.” I try to ignore the little old Aymara women with the wrinkled faces who say “Buenos días, Señor.” They say it because of my “fine” clothes, although they are the most worn-out clothes I possess. They say it because of my tennis shoes, i.e., the fact that I have shoes on my feet, as though with no effort at all I had become a landlord, a master, a patrón, one of the class in former times who owned all the land under the village and all the land of the fields and all the mud huts lived in by her people.

I try to ignore the men and young men who tip their hat to me and say, “Buenos días, Señor.” I get angry because I really don’t understand why they treat me as above them. I try joking. I say, in my poor Spanish, “I am not a Señor, I don’t know what a patrón is, why not call me joven, a young man?” “Sí, Señor,” they reply; whatever you say.

“Here! Now! Come to my house. I will give you tea. I will give you coffee with lots of sugar. We could talk for hours!” But I already know, if they were to come, the next day I would still be Señorno matter how respectful my attitude, no matter how humble I was. I know that I am Señor to them because they are Aymara and therefore cannot be like I am. They require me, because of my white skin, to be alien to them. They are Aymara, dust. Peones, slave folk.

They play the most ungodly beautiful joyous blues spontaneously from their cane flutes. They own cane flutes covered by their hands; they also own them four feet, five feet, six feet long that play deep notes as well as high notes. Simple, homemade. They are dust people, downtrodden. Filthy. Their music is insanely beautiful, better than the sound the wind makes in the mountains. This is like living in Afghanistan, or Iran, or Turkey. Istanbul. Jerusalem. Dirt. Crust. Rock trail in the thin air

Beggars. Good for nothings. Graceful and proud but low class. Even though in 1952, during La Violencia, the Violence, they rose up and killed all the patróns, all the owners of land. Now they own their own land. They are intensely jealous of their land; murders are now committed when there are land disputes. When you ride atop their bales of homemade cloth for sale, in the back of bob-trucks, they will push against you for hours if they think you are taking up space that belongs to them. No mercy. No give.

I go to market. I will be charged just a little more, always a little more than what another Aymara would be asked to pay. Cheese? Sorry, don’t have any – for sale to you, white man. Those Spanish who are in the village, who were not killed in 1952 or who have come recently – the ones with money and for whom Spanish is their mother tongue – if they act haughtily and demand service, they may be spat upon. They may receive a bitten-off nada, nothing, spoken in a flattened, wooden-faced show of hatred. Still the Aymaras behave in an abject fashion toward the foreigners who are there to help them, calling them Señor or Señora, because they just cannot think of themselves as equals. They are Aymara.

I walk around a bus, at midnight, after relieving myself in the dark away from the tiny little restaurant for wayfarers where the bus stops. I go to my wife inside the bus. The jar of peanut butter has been broken and peanut butter has spilled out. The trip from Ancoraimes to La Paz will be six hours. A bus is so much better than a bob truck! It is pitch black all around this tiny little store. Amid the rumpled bus passengers, I hear a voice: “Señor, tengo hambre,” I am hungry. The voice is tiny, coming from by the door to the bus. It is a child dressed in rags. I have seen hundreds just like this one. I give him some peanut butter in a plastic bag.

We are in Ancoraimes, in the middle of nowhere. It is cold. Muddy. Between here and La Paz we will see only buildings made of adobe, mud mixed with straw and baked hard in the sun. The bus starts. It goes on twisting rock roads up the mountains, along the sides of valleys, through the mist and clouds. When the bus stops at various spots on the road, there are more children begging for pan, bread. They stand out in front of the passing trucks and buses on the roads. The altitude makes it cold; we are at 13,000 feet above sea level and it is cold and dark, but the children are there begging because they are hungry. We are 500 miles from Cochabamba, that great city of high culture where Ruth Bazán was born. The ragamuffins stand with hands outstretched. The rag children. The children who seem to be covered in dried mud. Little men, hats outstretched, little trolls, little hungry children. I can’t stand to think that they might be starving. Sometimes a rich, white-skinned Bolivian will give them bread which they have brought along to feed beggars and assuage their consciences.

Beggars. Dust. Sounds of drums and cane flutes. As the bus goes down the road, I think of the little children in the enclosed yard of the Girl’s School back in Ancoraimes where we live. Happy, well fed, playing and not begging. My wife and I are in the bus on our 6-hour bumpity dusty cold ride to La Paz, where we will go to the La Paz Italian Embassy Restaurant and eat cheap Argentinian filet mignon that night. We look forward to buying more sugar, coffee, and peanut butter. We will buy extra bread for the trip back to Ancoraimes. We are volunteer missionaries living in Bolivia. Jesus has brought us here.

Spirit Lake, Bolivia – February 21, 1971 – Part One of Two

I was 24 years old when I wrote the following. The place is Ancoraimes, Bolivia. I was serving there for the Methodist Church of Bolivia, under the auspices of Layman’s Overseas Service – a volunteer mission organization. I had just completed two years of seminary in Minnesota. I needed a required year of experience before returning to finish at the seminary. Therefore, in the fall of 1970, my wife and I had sold our car, stored our few possessions at her parents’, and bought a round-trip ticket to Bolivia. The village of Ancoraimes is only a couple of miles from Lake Titicaca, and a five hours’ ride by truck into the altiplano, the high mountain tundra region in the Andes mountains, altitude 12,508 feet. Ancoraimes’ population was no more than a couple hundred at that time. Marge would teach in the Methodist Girls School. I would work in the Methodist High School (through 9th grade only). I was the administrator, with the keys; I taught English; and I was in charge of the Methodist Youth and the Methodist jeep. I have added some few words for clarity.

Spirit Lake, Bolivia – February 21, 1971

                Spirit Lake is a big, 859-page novel by McKinlay Kantor, which tells the history of a great number of people, including Indians, in the Minnesota Territory around the 1830’s. Since my wife and I also live near a large lake in Bolivia, Lake Titicaca, and since this too is a lake of spirits and in many ways is a great theme in the lives of the people here – also Indians, only Inca in descent –I would like to dedicate a few thoughts to the pursuit of the people of the lake in Bolivia, the Aymara, to the pursuit of the “spirit” within the “lake.” We have lived here only a short time, more or less five months. Yet we know next to nothing about the people, nothing indeed of their language – said to be the most difficult on earth to learn. What, then, did we come here so as to be in the mountains at a very high altitude, and nothing more? No goals such as communication, self-change? To manipulate the Aymara culture into sonship under the U.S. flag…the Christian flag? To gain status upon our return to the states?

The only thing I am sure of is that we have changed drastically in this short period of under half a year. Very drastically. This culture has affected us. We are marked. Not just by momentum from our past. Marked by the “spirit” of the “lake which is the Aymara culture.”

All day today the reed-and-cane flutes have been playing. They walk around the village, through the village, resting, pacing, as the music which they are creating demands. It is a blues sound. A wind sound. A bent note. Dirt. Adobe. Tire shoe. Wood-cane. Llama and sheep and goat. Stone and rock and mountain trail. Fresh earth and crop. Negro brown. Corazón. Heart. Bend note. Soul sound. Made by friendly neighbors getting together in their home-woven brown plain heavy llama or sheep wool things that they wear over their heads, great squares of cloth with slits for neck, made so that they have to fold it over and up in order to reach up their instruments to blow them. They walk in rain. Then the rain stops. It starts again. They play, over and over, on and on, hour after hour, walking and stomping and playing to this mood. To drum. Inca sound, Inca rhythm. Little children dressed in adult clothes outside in my yard play the same rhythm on a toy drum, they feel it, it is the first day of Carnaval. The first day of Lent. Around they dance in the yard, around they go, a little girl and a little boy and another little boy, they too play hour after hour, after hour. It is good. Very good. The lead boy leads them into an adobe rabbit coop, open to the sky. While the little girl and the other little boy bang and shout around the rabbit hutches within the adobe walls, the lead boy runs outside and quickly pees against the adobe; then goes in and soon all are running and dancing all over the yard again.

Ruth, the wife of Dr. Lucho Bazán, left her beloved Cochabamba to follow her husband, who is paying back the state for having funded his medical education. He helps an older doctor, Dr. Maida, at the small Methodist Clinic in Ancoraimes. The Bazáns will be here for a year. Ruth Bazán wants to have a dancing party to celebrate the beginning of Lent. She invites us to come. She invites a young Bolivian guy and his American missionary girlfriend, our colleague, as well. His name is Victor; her name is Ruth Tombaugh. Victor is passionately in love with Ruth, who can’t get rid of him but also likes him enough not to run him off. He wants her to get fat so she will be more attractive looking to him. Bolivian men like fat women because fatness indicates wealth; and therefore, status. Fat is sexy to Victor.

Ruth Bazán serves cheese pastry and refresca (kool-aid). Her portable tape recorder is turned on. “The Age of Aquarius” plays. She and Lucho dance. Come on! Let’s dance. Why don’t you want to dance? I sit entranced. I just want to listen, listen to it, not move, just explode inside with the joy of Aquarius.

This is the feeling I am getting from our hosts: It is the night before Lent begins. Lent, bigger than Christmas. Lent, our sorrow over Christ crucified. Holy, the end of the last act in the story of the Christ. Cross yourself. Let’s dance! Be social. It’s Carnaval! No school . School is out! No work, except of course at the medical clinic for emergencies. Let’s be merry! See, here are the paper ribbons. The ash trays. The furniture is moved out of the way.

I sit. I shake my head, I don’t want to dance. I sit on the floor and cross my legs. I want a cigarette in order to feel social. I feel Aquarius, I feel the U.S.A. sound, the sound of joy from my own land providing the rhythm in this house, the house which of all the houses in this village represents “elite,” “superior culture.” “Cochabamba where we come from is a city of culture, and I represent culture here in the midst of these mud huts and stupid Aymaras.” But I don’t think they are stupid. I came because I love them.

The Last, the Least, and the Lost – Part One

                Alina Baraza was a wealthy woman. She owned a whole city bus line of her own in the city of La Paz, Bolivia. She was also the treasurer of the Methodist Church of Bolivia, and spent a good amount of her time in its offices, besides running her transit system. She gave in secret to many needy people, and was not at all impressed with her wealth; she viewed it as money she was steward of before the Lord. One day there was an attempt at a coup. The president of Bolivia was being threatened by communist elements. These communists had gotten their start when Fidel Castro’s lieutenant, Che Guevara, had come to Bolivia right after the takeover of Batista in Cuba. The Colombian military captured and executed Guevara, but not before he had established a guerilla group. These fomented revolution among the poor people of the country, especially among workers in La Paz. They marched on the presidential palace in the capital city, La Paz. They wanted to start a communist government.

                There was gunfire in the streets. The Bolivian military had no pity, and murdered large numbers of the protesters, ending the attempted coup. The downtown area was pockmarked from machine gun bullets. The streets were covered with the dead. There were military police everywhere, and no one was allowed to touch the bodies. Many of these people killed were dupes, desperate for some kind of way to make a living, and had hitched their wagon to the wrong star; now they were dead and the organizers had left them.

                Alina Baraza showed no fear. She commandeered her buses. She personally confronted the military when they tried to stop her. She ignored them and their machine guns and loaded her buses with the wounded first; and later, with the dead. She did what she could to care for those who were still alive. She could care less about the politics of the dead and wounded. I admire her for this, and for another reason. When my wife and I ran out of money, having spent all our savings, she sent us a small stipend by the hands of our district superintendent, Milton Robinson, so we didn’t have to leave the country. She enabled us to stay on. I will never forget her generosity.

                The poor often don’t know what they want. They are easily led, and easily misled, because the truly poor are desperate. Many of them become self-centered and greedy. It requires a lot of patience and compassion to keep your respect for people willing to trick you into giving them what they want.

                Sometimes what the poor want, you have no way to give them right then. In Santa Marta, Colombia, for example, one of my converts was walking with me as he and I walked down a dark alley on the way to visit some people. I noticed his tennis shoes and complimented him on how nice they looked. He told me that they were his sister’s shoes, loaned to him so he could walk with me. He said, “I don’t have any nice shoes like you have. All I have are plastic flip-flops.” Then, “Give me your shoes, you’re rich!” Of course he thought I was rich; by his standards, I was indeed rich. I pointed out to him that my feet were much bigger than his, and he would soon trip and fall in my size 12’s. He saw my point immediately, and happily went on without a second thought.

                What I should have done was sit on the side of the alley and take off my shoes and give them to him! Then he would have seen me limping along in the muddy, rock-filled alley. He would have seen himself walking in shoes too big for him. He couldn’t give me his shoes in exchange, because they belonged to his sister; and besides, they wouldn’t fit me! He would have to give me my shoes back.  I just didn’t think of calling his bluff. I wish I had!

                In Santa Marta, Colombia, there are many street urchins. For a multitude of reasons, they have no parents or guardians. They run wild in packs, sleeping on the shores of the Caribbean Sea on the edge of town. Some are orphans; some have run away; some have perhaps a drunken father or mother at home who cannot or will not take care of them. They hang around the ice cream parlors, begging from handsome young men with their beautiful dates. They are given money just to get rid of them. They hang out in front of grocery stores or other shops, looking for people who might give them money.

                They are barefoot, or only have the very cheapest of plastic sandals on their feet. They wear all kinds of different clothing, depending on how successful they are at begging. Some of them make as much as taxi drivers! You can’t just assume that because they are begging, they have nothing. They also learn to steal in this street culture. In a town like Santa Marta, where 20% of the male population is unemployed, a lot of youth learn to steal at an early age. This is why most houses are surrounded by high adobe walls with concrete on top, in which bits of broken bottles are stuck with sharp ends sticking up. It is why anyone with any money puts iron bars on every window, and has a front door made of wrought iron with several locks.

                How do you deal with such people? You need the Holy Spirit to guide you. One day, a street urchin approached me and asked for “Pan, por favor” – bread, please. The Lord inspired me to say, “Fine, let’s go to the grocery store on the corner and I’ll buy you some bread.” He replied, translating: “Oh, no, mister – just give me a dollar! Give me 50 cents!” I said, “Well, if you don’t really want bread, I don’t have any money to give you.” This 10-year old was too bright, too cunning, and too well-dressed to have been in true need. He might have had a drunken father who sent him out to beg money for liquor. Or he might have planned to buy who knows what. One thing was for sure: he wasn’t hungry. You have to watch for the signs of genuine need, because you don’t want to mistreat someone truly worthy of help.

                Some friends were laughing about a thief on a bicycle. They said there was a pretty young girl walking down the street where there was a wall and no curb. He came up behind her. On his right hand’s ring finger, he had a ring with a razor blade welded on. He caught hold of her necklace, sliced through the delicate chain links, and as he rode off picking up speed, he called over his shoulder, “Lo siento, mi amor,” “I’m sorry, my love!”

                Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you.”  Perhaps our biggest danger as Christians is to avoid them and not love them.

Adventures in Bolivia – Part Three

     Going to church in Ancoraimes was exhausting. During the services, which could last from two to four hours, every single man in the congregation had an opportunity to get up and make a speech. Some preached, and others just talked about decisions the church should make. Women nursed their children, and people got up constantly to go outside to the bathroom, wandering back in after a while. The service was partly in Spanish, but when members of the congregation spoke it was all in Aymara. We sat like wallflowers, not understanding anything. At the end of the service, everyone would go to the altar and cry out to God. They would mourn, weep, and were obviously begging God for help. It was deeply moving; I could understand their emotions clearly at the altar.

     It was in a church meeting that I learned my first words in Spanish beyond hello, thank you, and where is the bathroom. It was a meeting of the elders of the church in Ancoraimes. Milton Robinson, the district superintendent of the Methodist Church in that area, was there to find out what the church wanted to do about its desarrollo, whatever that was. All during the meeting I kept hearing a couple of words. I got more and more curious as I heard them repeated. People would start their sentences often with the word entonces. They would also say the word pues a lot. I was dying of curiosity after the meeting and went straight to my dictionary. The word desarrollo meant “development,” or “improvement.” Well, that made sense, since they were discussing the future of the church in Ancoraimes. So what was entonces and what was pues? Turns out that entonces means “then” with the sense of future time; and pues means “well then,” almost like “therefore.” They were just saying “Well then,” and “Therefore”!

   2014 03Mar 20-Tiahuanaco monolito  Belief in the power of the Pachamama and Achachila affected church members, too. Many were still not free of belief in them. One day, one of the members of the church came to my door and asked me to take him to a place a few miles away from Ancoraimes. He owned a store where two roads crossed. It was a little adobe hut where he sold liquor, salt, animal hides, and the like. As we left town, an Aymara man hitched a ride. He was complete with fedora on his head and a mochila slung over his shoulder. When we arrived at the church member’s adobe hut, to my surprise the hitch hiker and the church member began conversing. It turned out that the hitchhiker was a medicine man, a priest of the Pachamama. My church member had invited him to come examine the hole where thieves had dug through the adobe. They had wriggled inside the hole sometime the previous night, and had stolen some cases of beer and some other stuff. Off came the witch doctor’s bag. Out he came with a small metal spoon. He knelt and began taking samples of the dirt around the hole. I asked my church member what was going on. He explained that this was detective work. The medicine man (witch doctor to me) was going to travel about a hundred miles to Pachamama Mountain where there was a shrine to Pachamama. He would place the dirt samples on the altar and leave a gift. He would pray that all the dirt around the hole in the hut would become malignant and cause the hands of the thief or thieves to break out in sores and welts. Thus, they would catch the robbers by seeing the sores on their hands! It was from experiences such as this that I realized we had a long way to go to truly convert our Aymara brethren.1971A 06June 19 Ancoraimes-Hilbert behimd ENA ae best

Some months after we left Bolivia, a real revival did break out. Ruth Ann Robinson was the missionary wife of Rev. Milton Robinson, who was in charge of the Lake District as we Methodists called it. The Lake District included all the little villages from La Paz to beyond Ancoraimes, to little villages at the far end of Lake Titicaca. Ruth Ann held an evening meeting, sort of like a revival meeting. After some singing, she held up a human skull which she had found somewhere. She told them, through a translator from Spanish into Aymara, that someday they would all be nothing but a skull and some bones. She said that if they wanted to live in heaven forever with Almighty God, they needed to forsake the Achachila and the Pachamama and believe in the one true God who made heaven and earth, and in his son, Jesus. She told them that they knew what was right and what was wrong. She told them they needed to start their walk with God by confessing to Him their sins.

An Aymara man came to the altar and told his story. He called on another Aymara man to come forward and knelt before him. He told the man that he had been committing adultery with the man’s wife and he asked forgiveness. You could hear a pin drop. The other man fell to his knees too. He said, “I ask for your forgiveness, because I planned to kill you tonight after this meeting.” The two men embraced. There went up a wailing and weeping. People lined up to tell their stories and ask God for forgiveness. News of this swept the altiplano to other villages.

After several weeks of spreading revival, a baptismal service was held in a little village on the edge of Lake Titicaca, not too many miles from Ancoraimes.  After much teaching, many Aymaras were baptized. There was singing and many stories of repentance. Then the Aymara converts walked out into Lake Titicaca, which they formerly thought of as filled with demons, and were baptized. This was a truly courageous act of renunciation of the power of the demons and a sign of belief in the Lord. Ruth Ann was there, and told me that she couldn’t be sure, but she thought some of the converts came out of the water speaking in tongues – she said it definitely was not the Aymara language nor was it Spanish that they were speaking. The presence of the Holy Spirit was very strong and the revival lasted over a year. To this day, seminaries tell the story of the people movement to Christ in the Bolivian altiplano. It changed the Aymara culture on the altiplano. My only regret is that my wife and I left just before it happened.

Adventures in Bolivia – Part Two

     A fellow missionary lived in the apartment below us. Her name was Ruth Tombaugh, and she was the headmistress of the girl’s school, La Escuela de Niñas. Ruth helped us with our Spanish when our dictionaries and textbooks failed us. She also taught us to recognize dirty words in Spanish so we would know when we were being insulted. She advised us on everything from cooking at high altitudes on a cast iron wood stove, to the need for small extravagances to help us survive in the local culture so different from our own. Ruth refused to speak Spanish after 9:00 at night, so we did the same except for emergencies. All it really meant is that we wouldn’t speak to each other in Spanish after 9:00, of course.

2014 03Mar 19-La Paz-Alacitas marketWe also learned to go into La Paz once a month to decompress and to get away from living with the Aymaras. There we would buy sugar and coffee, go out to eat at the Italian Restaurant, and perhaps go bargain hunting in the markets where street vendors sold everything from shampoo in plastic bubbles to really fabulous jewelry dirt cheap. At that time, you could buy a colorful hand woven woolen poncho for men for around $5.00 even though it took a month or more to weave. We didn’t have much money to spare, so we actually bought very little. We supported ourselves on our savings and the proceeds from selling our car back in the States. We kept our plane tickets home in a very safe place!

2014 03Mar 19-Truck w ppl & goods

We rode to and from La Paz in a bob truck loaded with trade stuffs and Aymara Indians sitting on top of their goods. You paid your pesos to the truck driver, and climbed up into the truck and sat on top of things like big bags of quinua, or homemade clothing, or potatoes. The truck left in the afternoon from Ancoraimes, but left at around 3:00 a.m. from La Paz on the return trip. Aymara women liked to push and shove, and would continue shoving you the entire trip if they felt you were invading their space, whether or not you could move. The men were fun to watch, though. They would dip into their mochilas (men’s woolen bags with shoulder straps) and put a bunch of coca leaves into their mouths. Then they would reach a stick into their poporos, or small gourds filled with lime, the same lime we Americans use to mark boundaries for a football field. They would rub their sticks covered with lime along their gums and across the coca leaves. This would release cocaine directly into their gums and straight into their blood stream. Then they would get high. Soon they would sit facing into the freezing mountain wind as the truck wound up the mountain passes. Their woolen Bolivian hats with ear flaps would make these men look like dogs riding in the back of a pickup truck, just enjoying the freezing breeze that my wife and I were bundled up against. They were feeling NO pain! We spent most of the five hour trips peeping at the black night sky jam packed with stars. We would pull into Ancoraimes around 8:00 a.m., exhausted but emotionally ready for another month in Ancoraimes.

I will never forget a couple of incidents in La Paz. The first incident involved a very old missionary who was standing on a street corner drinking a soda pop. A little kid, no doubt hustling to help his family make a living, came up to him and said, “Hey, joven (young man), can I have your bottle when you’re finished with it?” It tickled the old missionary mightily to be called a joven. He gladly gave the kid the bottle.

The other incident happened to me. I was walking along on the sidewalk when I spied a bent over Aymara woman, skin and bones and wrapped in a widow’s ratty black shawl. She wa2014 03Mar 19-La Paz beggar womans shuffling along in a sort of jogging motion, her cheap bowler hat in her hand. Her face was wet from crying. She had the most mournful look on her face. She was going to pass me by – I think, because her grief was so great she didn’t half know what she was doing. She had tragedy of some kind written all over her, and this was the real thing. I stopped her and put some money in her bowler. She never looked up or acknowledged me, just went down the street in her jogging shuffle, crying. It wrung my heart. Like many Aymaras she was barefoot. Couldn’t afford shoes.

     I saw many like her, with callouses on their feet a good half inch thick from walking barefoot all their lives. They walk on snow in the Altiplano. Only some can afford the cheap sandals from La Paz made out of tire rubber.  Really, there needs to be a word in English for “poorer than poor.” Most Aymaras were living near starvation and just owned little more than the rags they called clothes. No shoes. In the altiplano, some had llamas or goats from which they got their homespun clothing. They grew potatoes or quinua in the barren dirt. They freeze dried their potatoes, which they called chuño, by stomping them in the morning. Chuño tastes like mud, and the only part of it which isn’t mud colored is the center. Most chuño is barely as big around as a golf ball, or sometimes a lemon.

It is not for nothing that Bolivia is considered the third poorest country in the world. Later in my life I would see street urchins in Santa Marta, Colombia, but they had shoes on their feet and half decent clothes on their backs. They may have begged for pan, bread, in Santa Marta; but what they really wanted was money. They were nowhere near as poor, ragged, worn, and old before their time as the Aymara poor I saw begging for pan in La Paz. In Santa Marta, orphans slept on the beach and traveled in packs. Some of the Santa Marta kids made as much as taxi drivers from begging.

2014 03Mar 19-La Paz beggar manOn the other hand, those in La Paz who begged were not children. They looked to me like they were truly starving and desperate. It is one thing to turn down a smart aleck kid in Santa Marta, who wants money to give his drunken father so he can buy booze. It is another thing, and felt more like a sin, to pass by a beggar in La Paz. I think of it as a sin to pass by a beggar in La Paz. Our Methodist bishop, Mortimer Arias, took us on some trips to see the work in other parts of Bolivia. He always carried a lot of fresh bread to give to the desperate urchins we met along the mountain roads, who really needed something to eat.

Not only were the Aymara Indians poor, they were extremely superstitious. They communed with the condors which flew high in the sky over the mountains surrounding the altiplano. Don’t ask me how, but they felt that these sacred birds communed with them. They believed that Lake Titicaca was filled with demons. The husband of the cook at the girl’s school told me of a fisherman and his wife. They were fishing in Lake Titicaca when the fisherman fell into the lake. Drowning before her eyes, the fisherman told his wife not to touch him lest the demons get her too. He died of a heart attack right then, from fear, and slowly sank beneath the waves, his wife crying and shaking from fear, despair, and grief.  I once saw a tornado whip down from the mountains onto Lake Titicaca, and saw it turn dark with water – a waterspout. It sort of adds to the mysterious nature of the lake and explains why the Aymaras hold it in such awe.

2014 03Mar 19-Mountainside spirit houseAymaras mostly believed in Inca deities up until a people movement brought many of them to Christianity. When we were there, we heard a rumor that they put little stone idols behind the cross inside the Catholic church in Ancoraimes. When the priest thought they were praying to the Lord Jesus, they were actually praying to their idols. When we climbed the 1,000 foot foothills near Ancoraimes, we found tiny houses built from flat rocks. Inside, there would be a couple grains of corn and some quinua. Quinua is like an edible soybean, grown easily in poor soil at high altitudes. It is super rich in protein. The little rock houses were dwelling places for the ancestors of the people in the village below. The corn and quinua was an offering to keep the ancestors happy and to keep them from cursing their descendants. Also, some of these little houses were altars to the Achachila, the sky-god, or to the Pachamama, the earth goddess.

The Achachila ruled the sky while the Pachamama ruled the soil. You had to worship both in order for your crops to grow, because the Achachila controlled the rain and the Pachamama controlled the soil. Once, in Ancoraimes, the local farmers told the village elders that it wasn’t raining like it should. The elders suspected that some girl had gotten pregnant and had had a baby without taking the baby to the local priest for blessing. This would have made the Achachila angry, since he considered the Catholic church his own. (Remember the idols behind the cross.) Thus the Achachila was angry and withheld rain because of some kid who had a baby and didn’t get the baby baptized by the priest. Solution? The village elders went around Ancoraimes demanding to feel the breasts of all the young women in town, to see who was lactating. They found the offending girl, and imposed a fine on her family – for crop damage!2014 03Mar 19-Andes Mountains, way to Caranavi

Adventures in Bolivia – Part One

     2014 03Mar 19-La Paz from Internado windowFrom 1970 to 1971, my wife and I lived in Bolivia as lay missionaries with the United Methodist Church of Bolivia. We landed at the airport 8 miles from La Paz. Aeropuerto Internacional El Alto is 13,325 feet high, right in the middle of the Andes Mountains. It is still the highest international airport in the world. There were oxygen facilities all over the airport because many people suffered from altitude sickness. Airplanes fly up to the runway. When they take off, they immediately lose altitude after passing the end of the runway, which is on the edge of a cliff. The runway is two miles long because the air is so thin. Our heads began to hurt from lack of oxygen.

  Neither of us had any Spanish, not even a class in high school or college. I had some French, which turned out to be about as useful as a three-dollar bill. Our first challenge came in the taxi that took us to the missionary hostel near the center of La Paz. We had shown a slip of paper with the correct address, but when the taxi stopped in front of an adobe wall ten feet high, we didn’t know where to go. The taxi driver kept pointing at a metal door and saying allá and allí, and we finally figured out that he meant “there.” We got out and knocked and the door keeper let us in. Yay! Our first words in Spanish we learned right away: ¿Donde está el baño? – “Where is the bathroom?” After that, we learned please (por favor), thank you (gracias), pleased to meet you (mucho gusto), and excuse me (disculpame, por favor). We stayed there for three months while our blood stream produced extra red blood cells in order to carry more oxygen. Our least favorite part was getting gamma globulin shots to help with the adjustment. The shots took two minutes to inject because the medicine is so thick. It was a huge needle, too. Ugh.

A Bolivian Methodist served as our guide at f2014 03Mar 19-La Paz-house with dirt bankirst. He helped us get our papers in order with the Bolivian government. He told us a cute story about where Bolivians come from. It seems that when God made man, he took some clay and shaped it and stuck it in the oven, and it came out underdone – and this is where white people come from. God tried again, but kept it in the oven too long, and it came out overdone – and this is where black people come from. The third time, God kept it in the oven just the right amount of time, and it came out golden brown – and this is where Bolivians come from!

We really saw some sights in La Paz. The streets were very steep, exhausting us quickly. Down on the main drag, though, you could buy carne asada (grilled meat), probably grilled dog. You could buy gold earrings made of nearly pure gold at $35 U.S. per ounce. There were beautiful and delicate women’s ponchos made of very fine llama and alpaca hair, for a tiny fraction of what they would cost in the States. In the 2014 03Mar 19-La Paz soap vendorsoutdoor markets for food, there was meat (covered with flies), both cow and dog hanging in the open air. There were lots of strange fruits and vegetables in big piles on plastic sheets on the ground. Because sheep and goats walked the cobblestone streets in the market area, the air smelled of dung and putrefaction. When the wind blew, a fine dust of dung blew all over the carrots, oranges, bananas, papayas, lemons, and meat. Food preparation at home was a challenge and required the use of bleach water to sterilize it. We saw Aymara Indian ladies selling coca leaves for 25¢ a handful, which they grabbed out of large garbage bags full to the brim. We saw Aymara men carrying huge bundles weighing over 100 lbs. running up and down the streets.

We did manage to find some really fine food in La Paz. We discovered the Golden Dragon Restaurant, run by a Chinese family, in downtown La Paz. We also found the Italian Embassy’s restaurant, which served extremely good Argentinean beef. There was a Bolivian meat and vegetable pie called a salteña which was really good. Years after returning to the States, we still craved salteñas.

2014 03Mar 19-Ancoraimes from hillsideAfter adjusting to the altitude, we were taken by our fellow missionaries to a village on the altiplano. The altiplano, or high plain, is a large area of flat tundra surrounding Lake Titicaca. The lake is at 12,507 feet above sea level, and we lived in a small village of about 300 people which was around 6 feet or so above the lake in elevation. Our village was named Ancoraimes, from Janq’ulaymi, Aymara Indian dialect meaning “White Branch.” We had no hope of learning Aymara; it takes 10 years of living with the Aymara to learn. One Spanish speaking Bolivian man did it that we know of. Around the tenth year, he knew he was adopted when he got deathly drunk and was lying in a ditch. He woke up with a woolen poncho spread over him to keep him from freezing to death. When they party, Aymaras drink 190 proof alcohol from little tin cans with spouts. A married couple will take turns getting drunk at the various fiestas during the year. One gets drunk, and the other leads their mate home – or covers them up in whatever ditch they fall in.

It was a 5 hour trip from La Paz uphill to Ancoraimes. Just about the only crops the soil can grow are potatoes and quinua. We lived above the tree line, which meant that every tree and most plants, except for cactus and sticker bushes, had to be hand fertilized and hand watered. Mostly the soil was a bleached white. The land was simply barren and covered with rocks. All the buildings were built of adobe. The Methodist Church had built a high school and a medical clinic in Ancoraimes, and both the school and the clinic served people for many miles in all directions. They also built a girl’s school to teach Aymara Indian girls home economics. My wife was to serve as a teacher in the girl’s school and I was to serve as the English teacher at the high school. We called it a high school even though it only went through the 9th grade. There were classes in agriculture and also classes teaching how to raise livestock. We settled into an upper apartment adjoining the girl’s school. I also had charge of the windmill which pumped water. I kept the electric generator running so it could provide light two hours before bedtime so the girls could study. Finally, I had charge of the Methodist Church’s jeep when people needed to travel to nearby villages on church business. The girl’s school, the high school, and the medical clinic had ten-foot high walls with broken glass cemented into the top, making each into a compound with iron doors and heavy locks. Every house in the entire village had this sort of wall to protect from thieves. Bolivia was at that time the third poorest country in the world, and thievery was a way of life for many. The custom was that if you didn’t want something lifted by any stranger visiting in your house, you kept it behind a closed and locked door.

We were welcomed with a party at the girl’s school. As a part of the festivities, we were told we might be invited to join a hot pepper eating contest. Large buckets of water would be brought to cool our throats. Some peppers hotter than Mexican habañeras would be placed before us and we might be invited to eat one. It was suggested by our missionary friends that my wife and I should say no thanks, we didn’t want to play. However, they never pulled this prank on us. Apparently in years past, the Aymaras considered it fun to start newbie missionaries off right. The water would actually increase the burning of the high-acid peppers. About the only thing that really works to cool the burning in your mouth is milk and bread. I once laid my hand on a rock table where these peppers had been cut, and the juice blistered my hand badly. That’s hot!

2014 03Mar 19-Ancoraimes carnavalWe lived on what we called Bathroom Street. Bathroom Street, which had the iron door leading to our missionary compound and the girl’s school, was just an alleyway connected to the main central plaza, where fiestas were held. The main plaza had a store which sold gasoline, hand pumped from a 55-gallon barrel. It had a store selling eggs and meat and bread and vegetables. The local Catholic church was on the other side of the plaza from our alley. The reason we called our alley Bathroom Street had to do with the habits of the Aymara Indians who comprised the town’s population. At night, passers by would stop in our alley to urinate and defecate. The women wore many skirts and bowler hats. They would simply squat to do their business, then lift their skirts and walk away. We always carried a flashlight at night and watched our step, especially when a fiesta was going on in the plaza.

We heard of an old Methodist missionary who settled in Ancoraimes and made a big hit with the Aymaras. His name was Earnest Briscoe. He was from Kansas, where he farmed potatoes. When oil was discovered on his farm he became wealthy. When he retired, he bought a Land Rover and drove down to Bolivia and settled in Ancoraimes. He taught agriculture at the high school, and blew the minds of the boys there by growing Irish potatoes five times bigger than any potato they had ever seen. A student took one of these huge, delicious potatoes back home to show his dad. He returned saying that he had told his dad that he needed to come learn how to farm from Mr. Briscoe, but his dad had gotten very angry with him. Mr. Briscoe told the kid to hop in his Land Rover and they drove across the tundra to the kid’s house. Mr. Briscoe told the boy to translate for him, and to translate exactly what he told the boy to say. He met the boy’s father and they sat down to talk at the entrance of the humble adobe hut. Mr. Briscoe spoke in Spanish and the boy translated into Aymara for his father. Mr. Briscoe said, through the boy, words to this effect: “Sir, I understand that your son has been disrespectful to you. I came here to tell him in front of you that he should apologize to you, and that I want him from now on to respect and obey his father.” The boy was very shaken up, but the father then spoke. The boy translated, “Mr. Briscoe, maybe there is something to you after all. I would be interested to learn more about how you grow your potatoes.”

All the rest of my time as a missionary, I remembered the lesson of Mr. Briscoe. Respect truly is a universal language. It can open doors which would remain shut without it.2014 03Mar 19-Titicaca at Sotalaya


The Cactus Cathedral

I told you earlier how I landed by bus in Maicao, the Guajira, northern Colombia, and was almost shot. The secret police thought I was a drug dealer, but discovered my suitcases were full of Sunday School materials, made for some Guajiro Indians in the desert.

Next day, Win Buckman drove around 100 miles into the Guajira Desert to a community called Santa Rita – a spot in the road that boasted a water trough and a windmill. Five miles further, we stopped at a clearing in the cactus where a Guajiro family raised goats. This was where Guajiro Indians were congregated, waiting for us to arrive for a week long conference on Sunday School. Sunday School was a totally new concept, but they were enthralled by the idea. They wanted to teach not only their children but adults as well.

     In my suitcases, I had brought special materials I had made by hand. I had made some handouts, but my main item was a wind proof story board made of cardboard. The wind blows hard in the desert just about all the time, and bits of regular paper with figures would blow right off of a felt story board. The cardboard story board had rows of slots in it for some cardboard pieces. On these pieces I had glued figures from various Bible stories, plus scenes such as the village of Bethlehem, the star, Jerusalem, and so on. You took my story board in one hand and with the other, you told the story while sticking the stiff cardboard figures into the slots.

Everything was going really well. The elders of the church groups that Buck (Win Buckman) had started were pleased. People took to the story boards immediately, and the wind could not blow the stiff figures and pieces out of the rows of slots in the cardboard.

By day, we met under a shed made of dried cactus. At night, hammocks were attached to the roof poles, and we slept out of the reach of scorpions, snakes, and the like. I took time to wander out and look at the stars before getting in my hammock. In the clear sky with super dry air, the Milky Way looked like a road made of stars across the sky. There were more stars visible than I had ever seen in my life. Just before dawn, the women started small fires and made coffee – Colombian coffee, naturally. They crept to the hammocks holding the sleeping men and handed us little demitasses made of plastic, and full of what they called tinto – ink – their name for sweet black coffee. We got up, fully dressed, and sat around while the women made breakfast. By 6:00 a.m. in the morning, it was 80°. By 9:00 a.m. it was 100°, and by mid-after­noon it was around 115°. I taught how to use the story board by giving each person a chance to tell a different Bible story.

The men had hunted rabbits for us to eat, but the head of the family who lived in a hut a little distance off provided most of the meat. He and his son killed a goat, and the way it was prepared was to die for, especially if you were hungry and cold early in the morning. Goats eat cactus. Men spent their days herding their goats. The hot desert wind made the women’s dresses billow. At lunch, Win Buckman told me to be careful when going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. You go out into the cactus, mostly saguaro, taking some toilet paper with you. The secret is to be very careful where you squat. Buck had once had to pull sharp thorns from his hinder parts when he had squatted into a low lying barrel cactus. I told him I would certainly heed his advice.

That afternoon it was dreadfully hot and very dry. It was siesta time and everyone was resting in their hammocks, including me. However, my head was aching and I realized that I was no longer sweating, two early signs of heat stroke. Also, I knew I was developing a fever from the heat. The son of the family that lived there saw that I was not feeling well, and he diagnosed my problem. There was very little water to drink, because it was still the dry season even though there had been a rainfall the previous week. It had been six months since a rain, except for that one shower. There was absolutely no sign of it. The ground was cracked and dry. This little boy, about 8 years old, helped his father get water by walking the five miles to the windmill and pumping water from the ground and bringing it back one bucket at a time.

My 8-year old friend asked me if I would like to take a bath. In amazement, I said, “Yes, sure, but how?”  He said, “I’ll show you,” and ran off to his house. He came back with a bucket, a small hard bar of soap, and a ragged towel. “Follow me,” he said, and we walked about 50 yards to the saguaros surrounding the area. These were very tall cacti, very old and very large. They grew close enough together to produce shade, just like a regular forest. They were 6 inches to a foot in diameter, and most were from twenty to thirty feet high. There was a dirt trail my young friend was following. To my astonishment, he stopped in the shade beside a mud puddle, about 4 inches deep! The shade had kept it from evaporating. He set the bucket down and said he would be back to fetch me after awhile. He knew we were far enough in that it would be easy for me to lose my way back. There were many trails, most likely goat trails, and thorns everywhere.

Being practiced at taking baths whenever I could, I had my swim suit on instead of underwear. I stripped down to my bathing suit and took the bucket, carefully letting it fill with the puddle water without causing any mud to be stirred up. Standing a few feet away, I doused myself with the water, and then soaped myself. Getting a bit more water, I rinsed off. I was instantly much cooled off. I felt my fever and headache diminishing. I thanked the Lord. I felt like I was in a cactus cathedral. I worshipped. I dressed, my young friend came back and got me, and I returned refreshed and ready for more classes.

Later it dawned on me that the boy’s family had given me their drinking water to bathe in! I was very glad that I had taken care to bathe alongside the puddle and not in it. A gift of drinking water for me to take a bath in was an extravagant gift indeed, probably the most expensive gift I have ever received. Maybe not in dollars and cents, but certainly in terms of generosity.

At the end of the week, I returned to Santa Marta, bubbling over with happiness. I can still feel the effects of the love shown to me in the middle of a forest of saguaro cactus.