Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Thing That Happened on Top of Machu Picchu

When you imagine yourself stepping foot on the ground of one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, words like breathtaking, incomprehensible, sublime, or perhaps, sacred come to mind. But this past Sunday when I awoke to meet my guide and get ready to make the assent to Machu Picchu (by a comfortable Mercedes bus!), I wasn't feeling so great. The truth be told, I was feeling very nauseous. You know that feeling where you could vomit, but not quite . . . where your mouth goes between being as dry as a desert and then filling up like an open water spigot. Well, that's how it was going on Sunday morning as I was preparing myself to see one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Pretty crappy . . .

One of the guys that was in my Machu Picchu tour group kept asking me if I was feeling ok . . . if I was hot . . . if I was having trouble with the altitude . . . while I was trying to walk around on one of the Seven Wonders of the World, concentrate on what our tour guide was saying, and keep from losing my breakfast (which by the way I intentionally kept light). He was a nice enough guy, but he was really getting on my nerves as I was doing my best to manage all of the feelings of nausea that kept building up and then subsiding.

What really bugged me was that he mentioned altitude sickness several times.  Really altitude sickness . . . did I look like somebody that would be bothered by the altitude? If I'd felt better, I would've reminded him that I'd been in Arequipa for 11 days, riding on the back of a motorcycle with a crazy guy, doing important ministry, and even exercising and that where I was in Arequipa is over 8000 ft above sea level and that before I'd traveled to Cusco, I was in Puno at Lake Titicaca which was over 12,500 ft above sea level and that although Machu Picchu is 7972 ft above sea level, this was not my first high altitude rodeo. When you're feeling the sickest even the nicest of people can really get under your skin. I'm not sure what it was, but I was absolutely sure it was not altitude sickness.

Back up two days and here's where I think it all started. I had just boarded a plane to fly from Puno to Cusco.  As I finished adjusting my seat belt, this family boards the plane right across the aisle from me.  Dad and mom and the kid in the middle seat. Before they even sat down they were pulling out those dark blue airplane barf bags and holding them over the kid's mouth as she starting making horrible retching sounds. I looked around and there was a teenage girl in the row behind the family already holding her sweatshirt over her nose and shaking her head. If this was not bad enough, one of the stewardesses kept spraying some air purifier behind me that smelled like flowers at funeral home. I was thinking sweet Jesus this is going to be the worst 1 hour plane trip that I'd ever taken. However, I was also trying to have compassion for this little girl, a child of God, that was starting to lose her cookies and we hadn't even started taxiing to the runway.  I was hoping that things would improve when we got in the air and she experienced one of those peaceful plane rides . . . but it turned out to be one of the most turbulent flights that I can remember. The plane felt like it was being kicked around like a tin can and when it dropped and bounced everybody would make this collective gasp and then go, "Ohhhhhhh!" Needless to say, I think she filled up 3 airplane barf bags in the course of an hour. And the whole back of the plane smelled like vomit and funeral home flowers.

I consider myself to be fairly orthodox Christian with a strong Lutheran understanding of God's grace through Jesus Christ, but as I was walking around Machu Picchu trying not to lose my own cookies, I started thinking about that little girl on the plane trip and my less than compassionate attitude toward her . . . and well, the concept of "karma" suddenly became a very real experience for me (and I'm not Buddhist). Just a fluke or karma? I'll let you decide. But, here I was . . . my first experience on top of one of the Seven Wonders of the World and I really wished I had a blue airplane barf bag!

The tour was broken down into two parts. The Temple area and the Warehouse area. Of course, we started with the Temple area. Even if you've never been to Machu Picchu, I'm sure you've seen the photos of the flawlessly stacked stone buildings literally emerging out the mountain with the early morning fog still covering the surrounding tree canopy. Do you have the image?  Well, Machu Picchu is certainly all of that and more.  In preparation for the trip I'd even started reading The Lost City of the Incas by Hiram Bingham, who discovered the ancient Inca citadel in 1911. (I know that I'm a bit of a nerd.)  I was really pumped up about learning everything I could and so I didn't want to rush the tour, but after an hour I felt like leaning over to our tour guide and telling her to pick it up a bit.

I honestly kept thinking I was going to be able to make it. There were moments where I thought the nausea had passed and then out of nowhere it would return with a vengeance and I would begin to sweat and my mouth would start watering again. It finally got the place where I couldn't even focus on what our tour guide was saying and all I could think was these are a bunch of big freaking rocks and I don't care. Toward the end, the only real conscious thought I had was that I didn't want to puke in the Temple of the Sun.  Again, I consider myself to be fairly orthodox Christian with a strong Lutheran understanding of God's grace through Jesus Christ, but I also respect the power of the ancient Inca mojo. And I didn't want to disturb the mojo or desecrate one of the most sacred sites of the Incan empire with the most unsettled contents of my stomach. It may sound funny now, but for me at that moment it was no laughing matter.

Knowing that I was not going to be able to keep this horrible experience from happening, I began frantically looking around for the least sacred place I could spot and then the best opportunity to pull away from our group. And then it happened .  .  . I will spare you from all the gory details, but let it be known I left quite mark between two large rocks on top of one of the Seven Wonders of the World!

So, why did I chose to share this experience with you (those who continue to come back to read this blog)?

Part of it is confession.  For being less compassionate toward the young girl who was suffering extreme motion sickness. Admittedly, I was a little smug on the plane.

But the other part is this realization I had.  Yes, I was excited about Machu Picchu and seeing for myself this incredible architectural achievement that rivals that of anything ever created by human hands.  However, I hadn't put all of my eggs in the Machu Picchu basket.  My trip to Peru had an itinerary, but I realized by the time I had gotten to Machu Picchu that what I would experience each day was just what it needed to be.

(This is not a spiritual cliche.)

That the power of seeing a little girl receive her first real bed was preparing me for the next day.  That seeing a mother's tears over her child was preparing me for the next day.  For seeing the entire staff of the Association Serving Alto Cayma gathered around the dedication of a new building for serving the least of these was preparing me for the next day.  That being thankful for the simple gifts of each day was preparing for the next day. That even the existential moments in Puno were preparing me for the next day.

Although I've yet to sort through everything that I experienced in Peru, I know that my trip was more than just a trip. A lot of stuff happened for me. Some things got settled. Some things got stirred up. Some things got healed. Some things got opened up that need healing. And I know that this was all part of God's ongoing work in my life. Not just for me, but for my family, my friends, my colleagues, my fellow brothers and sisters at Advent, and for those I am being called to serve and to be served by in the future.

Let me be clear.  Do I think puking on top of Machu Picchu was part of God's plan for me? Come on, let's get serious.

Just as there's a lot more to Peru than Machu Picchu, there's a lot more to life than seeing one of the the New Seven Wonders of the World (although I'm so glad I had the opportunity).  But, some of the things I experienced in Arequipa with the children, families, home visits, etc. were, for me, even more wonderful . . . Thanks be to God!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

A minor existential crisis south of the equator

Visiting a place where you lived, even for a short time, is an odd experience. It's been 21 years since I lived & worked in Puno, but I've found myself wanting to return to the way things were. Like having the same rhythm of each day. Teaching at the Language Center in the morning & evening, living in the house a few blocks from the main plaza of the city & stopping for a mid-morning empanada at the same bakery (which by the way is no longer there).

I've wanted to turn a corner & meet up with a former colleague, but I've discovered over the last couple of days that most have left Puno for other cities (as Puno was just step in their career). I did stop by the Language Center to see if anyone was still there from my days as a teacher. I asked about my former dept. head, Professor Moreno. One of the administrators at the Language Center, contacted Professor Moreno by phone. I had a chance to talk with him for a few minutes. As it turns out he now teaches in a university in a northern region of Peru.

I even returned to a familiar restaurant, Pizzeria del Buho. It has expanded & was no longer the shadowy little bohemian hangout that I remembered. However, the pizza was still awesome. Wood fired pizza in an adobe oven. I sat by myself (no pity needed) hoping that a familiar face would walk in, take a seat at my table & we'd start up a conversation like no time had passed.

It dawned on me today that I'd forgotten that over two decades have come & gone. I've been walking around the city assuming that I've not aged. That I'm still that idealistic, looking for the next adventure 24 year old. But when I was washing my hands this morning, I looked in the mirror & saw the wrinkles & the gray hair around my temples and thought "holy shit there's a 45 year old man staring back at me." What the hell has happened? When did this person get older?  Did I vanish or just morph into somewhat responsible adult who happens to have two teenage children, a mortgage & a job that I'm expected to return to in less than a week?

I guess South America is as good of a place to have a minor existential crisis as anywhere else. I quickly checked to see if I'd taken my thyroid medicine & my antidepressant. The good news is that I had (crisis averted), so at least I'm aging responsibly & I'll be moderately happy about getting older.

Although Puno has changed as I remembered it & most (if not all) of my friends have moved on, it's still a great little port city on the shore of Lake Titicaca. I'm grateful for the three months I lived & worked here 21 years ago and I'm really glad I've had an opportunity to visit & realize that getting older doesn't mean the end of new adventures.

For those of you still keeping up with this blog, I plan to write a post about my time on the island of Amantini, but it's getting late & I have an early morning as I prepare to leave Puno & head for Cusco. But, here's a picture of me on the peak of the island at an Inca sacred site.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

On Leaving Taquile

Twenty-one years of wind 
Blows many things away.
I come back thinking, 
By chance,
I may step back into a time and find you here,
Where islands are not filled with tourists
And we still take small boats on the lake.
But you are lost to me.
Carried by the currents, 
Taken by the wind. 

Monday, August 8, 2016

Translation as spiritual

Last week, I experienced my heart crushed & at the same time filled.

Chris Connelly had shared with me about the upcoming visit with Flor. I knew that she was a young girl who had been badly burned when she was an infant. I also knew that Flor has a very special place in Chris' heart. But nothing could've prepared me for this visit. 

As our van pulled up to the house, the blue steel door opened & there stood Flor, her mother & her younger sister. They stepped out into the bright sun to greet us as we were making way out of the van. Our group was greeted with a gift of hugs, words of welcome & gentle kisses on our cheeks. 

We entered their house & found ourselves in a room with two double beds lining one wall & on the other wall, a table & wardrobe that created a small walkway in the middle of the room. Flor sat down on one of the beds with Chris on one side, me on the other & Monica (a student from Miami) squatting down in front of Flor in order to  translate for Chris. The rest of our group formed somewhat of a semicircle around as Flor's little sister nuzzled her way in beside Chris.

(I need to add that for Chris, the purpose of a visit is not only about being in their home but also about discovering the joys & sorrows, the hopes & dreams, the pain & happiness of their lives. This type of visit cannot be rushed or orchestrated.)

I've learned that there is far more to translation than just getting the words right. That at its best, translation conveys more than even language. It creates a space for relationship. For emotions to be felt. For the unstated to be heard. Translation at its best is spiritual. 

As I sat there, I was a witness to the spiritual. 

Flor had indeed been horribly burned. The right side of her face had been disfigured including the loss of an ear which she kept discreetly hidden by the thick blackness of her hair.

What she could not hide was her right arm burned most severely from the bicep all the way down to what remained of her hand. Even with multiple surgeries scar tissue still covered her arm, raised and grooved like the ravines cutting through Alto Cayma. A permanent reminder of a trauma of which I'm not sure how much she remembers, but certainly one she'll never be able to forget.

I watched and listened as Chris talked and Monica translated. There was an innocence in how Flor would answer and smile as Chris joked with her by pulling her little sister into the conversation with questions about annoying friends and living together as sisters. Flor would talk with her hands and occasionally pull them up to cover her face, burying her head into the crook of Chris' arm. It was not so much out of embarrassment, but the playfulness of friends who are getting reacquainted.

It was beautiful to watch Flor's entire face light up as she explained to us about her Barbies, shifting the boxed dolls in her lap holding them with her left hand and using her right arm for balance. Pointing to each doll, Flor would tell us after what surgery she'd received them until she finally put the boxes neatly back on the headboard of the bed. As she glided back toward Chris, she paused and opened the double doors of her wardrobe to reveal her most prized doll. A gift after her most recent surgery. The doll was clothed in a white gown visible through the clear plastic window of the unopened box. Pristinely secured, I imagined the doll to be what Flor most wished for herself -- an arm without scars, a hand no longer deformed, and a face unblemished by the tragedy of fire.

I was amazed at the naturalness of the conversation as one question opened another aspect of Flor's daily life. With vulnerability Flor told us about the latest surgery which was performed to give her arm more flexibility. A couple of times she'd point to her mother to fill in certain medical details.

As Flor's arm rested on her own lap, Monica stopped translating, leaned in closely, and gently traced her own fingers across the red scarred ridges. Monica & Flor now talked like two sisters who needed the time to catch up with each other. The room seemed to disappear leaving just them. Intimate. Unashamed.

As I sat there, I was a witness to the spiritual reality of translation.

As we were preparing to leave, I gave Flor's mother what I thought was a parting embrace. But, as I hugged her there seemed to be something more that needed to be said. I stepped back still keeping one hand gently on her shoulder. That's when I saw it. A mother's heart filled with pain and tears slowly running down her cheeks. With tears came words. Words that opened up wounds of how Flor was being treated by other children.

I called to Chris, Victor, and one of our translators (Genesis) to help make sense of what Flor's mother was telling me. As her words were translated, I found myself crying.

Flor didn't share with us the hateful things other children were saying to her. She was being called a monster on the playground and shunned by even those who were considered friends.

In truth, Flor's only true friend was another girl who was struggling with cancer. (Here's a sermon waiting to be preached.)

Chris asked Flor's mother if she would like for him to talk with her about how she's being treated by the other children. He was given permission and once again Monica began to translate.

Chris knelt before Flor and spoke truth to her. The truth of God's love for her. The small-minded children. Chris told Flor how beautiful she is. How all of his friends comment on her beauty. (Chris' wife Bettye called and on speaker phone she reinforced this truth to this beautiful girl.)

This is the moment that I saw strength in this young girl. Strength from God. Resolve to push forward. Inner beauty that matched her outer beauty. I wondered what God had planned for Flor. Something big. Something amazing.

When we left and loaded back into the van, no one said anything. Not a word as we travelled to our next visit.

I was weighed down with pain and sadness for Flor. A deep compassion.

I found myself in the van with Chris and Monica. Thank God we bore the heaviness of this pain together for I felt on the verge of being crushed.

I am certain that God was very sad, too.

Monica had worn a stunning bracelet everyday. A bracelet in which the words of the Lord's Prayer engraved and circled around the face of a metal disk with the AMEN in the middle. The bracelet straps were blue. The bracelet was no longer on Monica's wrist, because she had given it to Flor as a constant reminder of God's love for her in a world of hate and stupidity.

The three of us sat in the van as I held Chris' hand.

Perhaps, we were being translated into the language of God for Flor. For one another. For the world.

Amen. Let it be so.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

A Poem for Flor

A flower, 
Clothed in purple
In the light of the morning,
More beautiful than
I imagined. 

Even where flowers grow freely.
I would be less surprised
To see you
In the damp coolness of
A forest canopy.

In the dry dust 
Of Alto Cayma,
I find you in full bloom.

You confound the small-minded
With your unnatural beauty.
They renounce you as a
Thing that should not be.
A monster,
Of the own making.

This morning
You wash me in purple, 
Bathe me in light.
Blessed are my eyes,
For they see
A flower,
More beautiful than
I imagined.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Mujeres con Esperanza

Passing from a paved street to a dirt road, our van made its way up another 1000 ft to the community of Mujeres con Esperanza. This community like the other communities that surround it was birthed by the migration of people seeking a better life. Hungering for hope. Hope in a future that is more promising than the past they were willing to leave behind. To begin anew.

As easy as it would be to paint the community of Mujeres con Esperanza with a brush coated with romantic images of self-reliance (read: "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps") as many from the U.S. are quick to do, I can attest that type of paint won't stick here.

The community of Mujeres con Esperanza has become newest home for the Association Serving Alto Cayma (ASAC). As more people arrive & the community expands up toward the mountain, so too does ASAC. The ministry of ASAC goes to where the people are to be a physical presence of support & hope.

For some time ASCA has been operating out of a pre-fab building as the new building is currently being constructed. It is spacious & filled with light that bounces off the walls painted in yellow, blue, green & purple & purple & purple. There's a story behind the purple, but that is another story to tell. Not that the community of Mujeres con Esparanza is colorless, but it is a dusty place. So the new building feels like drops of color on brown canvas.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Motorcycles, Mass & Moments of Grace

A few folks have requested material proof of Jim & me taking to the streets of Alto Calma on his motorcycle. Posted below is a verified photo. It was taken by a local pastor, so it has a certain amount of ecclesial authority! More about the motorcycle later.

Sunday morning we made our way down to Arequipa to attend a graveside service of the mother of one of Jim's friends, Juliana. The street that led the the entrance of the cemetery was lined with flower tiendas. The colors spilled out of open doorways making the dusty sidewalks come alive. Flower markets seem to be a visible que that a cemetery is not far.

For many the weekly pilgrimage to the cemetery & the act of purchasing flowers is a significant rite in not only remembering their loved one but how they maintain the ever present relationship with each other. So to see the cemetery alive with people placing the freshly cut flowers at the grave marker of a wife or husband, father or mother provided a glimpse into the importance of family. Children & adults were going back & forth to the water faucets filling up containers to ensure the flowers remained alive until their next visit. Seeing people stooped over making sure the grass around the marker was in order, I realized this was a meticulous process. Maybe a process of healing for some. There were entire families gathered around graves with umbrellas & foldable chairs passing out food & drinks. No one was in a hurry as this was a family reunion to be cherished.

As I took all of this in, I found myself wondering how different I think of cemeteries. Certainly not a place for the living except for the occasional groundskeepers paid to keep the grass mowed & the bushes trimmed. Honestly, I don't think I've visited the grave of any family member since the day I stood on the ubiquitous funeral home artificial grass & listened to very brief liturgy of a graveside service.

The family of Jim's friend arrived & the pallbearers shouldered the wooden casket & the journey to the grave began. Family & friends followed in behind as we wove our way through the cemetery. Our large group passed others who had already experienced the pain & grief this family was now in the midst off. The procession was not short. It took almost 15 mins to go from the hearse to the grave marked with the familiar green tent.  Being a pallbearer in Peru is a real labor of love (not for the out of shape).

I stood on the outside of the tent & observed a young Catholic seminarian, clothed in a black cassock & white surplice, lead the committal service with a series of prayers & responses. Jim told me it's traditional for the eldest sister to speak at the graveside, so Juliana's sister gave a eulogy to her mother. What I found most interesting was that the entire funeral party remained in prayer while the casket was lowered, the vault was covered  & even as the grave was filled with dirt. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. There was no avoiding or pretending. We all faced the stark reality of death on Sunday morning in a cemetery in Arequipa. But it was faced together with prayers upon the lips of all those gathered. A moment of grace.

Later in the afternoon, Jim & I attended a worship service with the Community Group. They gather each Sunday afternoon in small grass covered courtyard just up from Jim's house.  What an incredible experience to walk into the small courtyard & discover fellow believers singing, praying, listening to the Scriptures. As we worshipped dogs barked on top of neighbors' houses & sunlight reflected off of the broken glass that covered the top of the courtyard wall. The pastor, Victor, invited me to share a few words with the community. I spoke about the powerful & surprising ways God moves to remind us what it means to be One Body in Jesus Christ. At the end of the service the community prayed for me & my family and I, in turned, prayed for Victor & his family. A moment of grace.

And then, Jim backed out the motorcycle & we were off to mass with Father Alex & the community gathered there.

Scripture was read, the word was opened, songs were sung, the peace was shared, the Euchrist was celebrated. Father Alex told me a few days before that we are all one. There is no Catholic, Lutheran, ________(insert your denomination of choice.) But that there is only Christian. And so when I stood before him & he placed in my hands & said to me the body of Christ, I experienced the truth of his conviction. The truth & beauty of the Gospel. One body, many members. A moment of grace.

And then, Jim backed up his motorcycle & we were off to the next adventure . . .