After the other volunteers left, I began a completely new chapter in my life here in Bolivia. Not even a new chapter, more like a sequel or a spin-off series. It’s unlocked a whole new layer of perspective that I never would have gotten otherwise, and allowed me to grow closer with the kids I’m in charge of as well as improve my Spanish and ability to participate in Bolivian culture. I'm so glad I stayed, but it's also provided new and unique challenges.
Instead of a 20-hour bus ride like when I first arrived in Bolivia, I had chosen a 9-hour bus ride from Santa Cruz to Trinidad, the halfway point, and then a six to seven-hour taxi to Rurrenabaque. Instead, I waited for four hours outside of Trinidad in a tiny community of shacks for the river ferry drivers to stop being on strike, and then another three hours for them to build a road from scratch through the sandbars and mudflats that had swept through the other side of the river.
Not one of my most comfortable memories roasting in the middle seat of a taxi: wandering around a strange little town that thought it was funny when the tourists asked where a bathroom or drinkable water might be. On top of that, I had a searing sinus infection that was violently antagonized but the monstrous pressure changes of ascending to La Paz and back down again in a few short days. Plus not drinking water for a day and a half. Certainly one of my most memorable memories.
So after finally arriving at Familia Feliz around 11:30 pm, climbing over the now-functional and very stabby barbed wire fence, saying hi to my new roommate and co-house parent Daniel, a volunteer from Canada, and collapsing into bed, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to immediately return to my role of parenting fourteen boys. But the next morning I heard a dozen voices trying to climb on top of themselves to peek into my top bunk and confirm first-hand that I had returned.
After stumbling out of bed while everyone was at school, I prepared myself for the afternoon. They all came running back from school and I made sure to hug and greet each of them with as many personalized questions as I could think of. Alvaro came running up and jumped into my arms and didn’t try and squirm away after a few seconds like normal. Instead, he kept looking back and forth at my eyes. Finally, he stuttered out a few whispered words in my ear, like maybe he might be embarrassed to say them:
“T-t-teacher, le- le- le ex-extrañaba..” (Teacher, I missed you!)
Two for Two
I was surprised to hear someone calling for Carlo the morning after I arrived. Carlo is definitely the name of one of the student missionaries who I had spent 9 months surviving Bolivia with, but also definitely the name of the student missionary who was now in America. As it turned out, Melissa had snuck in two new Guerreros while I had been away. Carlo, a mentally delayed thirteen-year-old, and his five-year-old brother Joel.
The first five days Carlo wouldn’t get out of bed, respond, or eat more than a few bites of bread, much less go to school. The only words I got out of him were that he had never been to school and didn’t know how to read. But then one day I asked the boys to help me with something and was surprised to hear his voice more or less for the first time. He had woken up with a smile, come down for breakfast, and was apparently ready to do more than cry and lay in bed for the first time since arriving.
By the grace of God he’s proven to be the most helpful and cheerful of any of the kids. He loves cooking and genuinely is a huge aid when it comes to prepping dinner, and always asks to help with anything else.
His brother Joel is a little puppy. He follows you around with big wondering eyes, especially if he suspects you have something edible with you. He’s not very good at asking for things, but will occasionally state his wants or come tearfully searching for a teacher when his joyful jumping and hugging is met with violence from the older, more irritable teenagers.
They came to us because their mother commutes to work eight hours away and the neighbors’ occasional checking-in wasn’t enough to keep them fed, clothed, and bathed.
Just as soon as we started adjusting to a grand total of 16 Guerreros, one Sunday the families of Erlin and Bayron decided to visit. And without much warning, they decided to take the two older boys back with them. I feverishly wrote goodbye notes, collected some photos of them I had printed, and threw together a packet of special American snacks. And just like that, they were gone forever. Now we’re back down to fourteen, which honestly is more manageable than ever without Bayron’s inability to stop provoking and Erlin’s necessity to cheerfully annoy anyone within reach. But now five of those fourteen are between five and seven years old, which is bringing new forms of conflict and challenge to our little commune.
One of those challenges is coping with the fact that any of these kids can vanish at a moments notice.
A few weeks ago I was sitting in town, enjoying one of my first days off to myself. That morning the electricity had gone out, and when it came back on the well pump hadn’t. This means no running water on campus and is an almost weekly occurrence. Usually, it requires some new wire and the flip of a breaker to fix. While I was in town, I had to go do some paperwork with one of the other staff members who met me at the government office. I casually asked if the well had been fixed, wondering if it would be more than a day or an afternoon without running water.
I was told the pump was officially broken. Broken broken this time. No more quick fixes, no more parts to be replaced. They don’t sell well pumps around here; the future was looking dirty and unwashed.
I was too shocked and distracted to enjoy the rest of my free day. I just sat at the nearest bathroom sink, filling up the same water bottle over and over, and standing under the hot shower at the hotel where I hang out on days off. It seemed like I wouldn’t be taking another shower until next week. This was going to be a long three months. It meant at the end of long days I would have to crawl into bed encrusted in filth or walk across campus to bathe in the creek, which is dirty enough that it probably doesn’t get you any cleaner.
I was shamelessly flabbergasted at God. I had asked for a challenging summer that would help me grow, not a hopeless pit of unwashable dishes and undrinkable water. I moped around the rest of the day and drug myself back to campus that night, prepared for the worst.
But when I drove by the little shack that covers the pump on my way to the house, Hermano Juan and some others with hovered over it with tools and children holding flashlights scattered everywhere. Melissa’s sister Joy stood by talking with one of the teachers who lives on campus. I cautiously asked if they were trying to fix the pump. Miracle of miracles, Familia Feliz has raised thousands of dollars in a few short hours and somehow managed to find a working well pump of the right size in Rurrenabaque, an unheard-of treasure. I couldn’t believe it.
I had spent all day being depressed about not having running water. I had spent my whole life thinking about all the misfortunes of the billions of people who don’t have access to clean running water, wishing I could help, and the moment I became one of those people I gave up. I had honestly thought about the possibility of going home early. And yet, mere minutes after I got back from my day of luxury in town, God brought the water back.
I had suffered literally zero from the well breaking, and it had almost made me give up on Bolivia. I had been frustrated that it broke. But I was more frustrated at how it had made me feel. I was ashamed. What kind of missionary was I if I gave up at the slightest inconvenience? Everyone around me was ready to face the next day with new ideas, faith in God, and perseverance. Yet here I was with my first-world privilege and expectations, ready to run back to my life of comfort and convenience when I had the opportunity to live like the majority of the world.
I was embarrassed and disgusted with myself, but all I could do was move on and replace those feelings with thankfulness at the miracle God had worked in providing us with a pump and electrical system that has kept the water running nonstop for the last few weeks. Sometimes I just stand and watch the water overflow my water bottle just to remember the miracle of a tap.
Goodnight, Until Morning
Normally putting the kids to bed is part of a routine. It’s a habit that adds order to our lives. And every night I try to make prayer and hugs part of that habit. Especially with the little kids, who still don’t quite understand hugs. Dixon doesn’t give hugs, but sometimes he asks for “that one thing, how is it called?” and kind of writhes around with a grin on his face. Alvaro still just tries to squeeze the life out of your neck. Cristian’s limbs just go limb and he kind of squeals like a pig or maybe a cursed eel, which is his way of expressing happiness. Adrian knows you’re supposed to reciprocate by putting your arms around the other person, but he’s not quite sure why. Joel is the only one who knows what’s going on.
Anyways, one night I found myself putting Adrian to bed. We were saying prayer. I had already said a short and sweet prayer for the twins, hugged them, and tucked them into their mosquito net. Alvaro had knocked out at the lovely hour of 8:00 pm, which meant if I could get everyone to bed before 9:00, I might have a solid thirty to ninety minutes of personal time and silence before I knocked out myself. This temptation was strong. So I slapped a band-aid on Adrian’s only mildly discolored and definitely-not-in-need-of-a-band-aid knee, slurred together a formulated prayer in my still-faulty Spanish, and repeated the liturgical question of asking if he wanted a hug. He always says yes. I was about to give him a simple, quick squeeze and scurry off to my long-awaited shower and freshly air-dried sheets.
A week or so later, he was too angry to go to sleep. He was quietly huffing and puffing, trying to force hot tears out of his eyes, and peeking into the bedroom every few minutes to see if I noticed how mad he was while I was putting the others to sleep. I was also dealing with Cristian who decided to go limp instead of putting on a diaper in protest of me not allowing him to throw food at the other kids during dinner. So instead of my crisp shower, I promised Adrian I would take him outside and sit with him after the others were tucked in. So we sat outside in the mosquito tornado, and he gave me four guesses to figure out why he was mad. After each guess, he told me in a soft and gentle voice that demanded attention in its silence that there was a little bit more I needed to add.
1. “You were paying attention to Cristian instead of me when I needed help.”
2. “You didn’t come to me when I was crying.”
3. “You didn’t see when Ivan hit me on the head.”
4. “You didn’t punish Ivan instead of joking with him on his way upstairs.”
Perfectly fair accusations when your world is three feet off the ground and mostly revolves around spinning tops, cookies, and surviving the next attack from a vicious 12-year-old. It’s not fair having to fight 13 other boys for attention from the only person or people that have enough power and resources to help you, especially when those people don’t even know what they’re doing. Even though both moments with Adrian were days apart, each time I wanted to find a short solution so I could finish my chores of raising children and seal myself in my bed. But both times I was accosted by the same singularity of thought: there will be one last time.
“You will do this for the last time.”
“You will hug him goodnight, and in the morning you will not be there.”
“He will not know why, and you won’t be sure either.”
“You will say goodnight, and you will not be able to say hasta mañana. Ni hasta luego. Hasta siempre, no mas.”
“You will ask to hug him and he will say yes one more time. The future will be the present moment too fast for you to notice. You get no brakes, you have no way to slow down. This moment, no more.”
Under the mosquito net of the first moment, I hugged him a little tighter and little longer instead of letting go. Under the mosquito cloud of the second, I talked to him a little longer and held him a little closer until he was ready to go to bed instead of until I was ready to go to bed. He might have started to question if hugs were really supposed to take this long and be this tight, and if he was really comfortable with such long and tight hugs. I hope he stopped questioning if anyone could see him, and stopped questioning if anyone cared about him.
Someone decided to adopt cows. I was standing at my doorway when a herd of animals marched through campus. I glanced around, searching for perhaps a fence post or piece of fencing wire that had magically appeared since yesterday, back when we had zero infrastructure for supporting cows. To my astonishment, there was a tiny fenced-in corral in the corner of campus that had magically appeared overnight.
Unfortunately it was about as permeable to cows as it was to just about any other material. This meant Charlie had to stay up through several sleepless nights making sure they didn’t wander out of their pen across campus. The boys and I stumbled out of bed several times to go quietly herd them back under the full moon. Teacher Daniel camped out under the stars with them more than once. I stayed up late in the night by myself with them, and I sat with Ricardo, Charlie, hot chocolate, and leftover bread sharing our favorite songs. Even though their music selection wasn’t terribly appropriate for a conservative Christian campus, instead of making them turn it off I realized they were letting themselves be vulnerable and sharing the art that made them who they are. I felt like I’d been let into a secret corner of their lives where their true personalities lived.
Another night Ricardo tried to tell me his scariest Bolivian folktales, of a starving spirit who howls with the wind, a mourning grandmother cursed to be a bird, and a cave near Santa Cruz where the Devil lives.
After a lot of hard work from Teacher Daniel and some of Melissa’s older boys, we now have a functional electric fence that keeps all the cows safe and sound.
One of the minor reasons I stayed longer in Bolivia was to experience the austral winter. I think I've experienced enough. This last week was shockingly cold. Normally the weather is scorching, humid, stale, and sunny. This week was cold, windy, rainy, and yes, very cold. For Rurrenabaque, very cold actually means only about 50 degrees F.
However, this is problematic when our houses are open air, the wardrobes of the kids are designed for the normal 95-degree weather, and you didn't bring any warm jackets to the jungle. We spent three days home from school, huddled inside in our warmest (or only) hoodies as the rain drenched our crowded clotheslines. We drug long-forgotten blankets out from under beds, turned the last of our groceries into hot soup, and piled on top of each other around my dying laptop to binge-watch TV and stay warm. After lending out all of my blankets, I sandwiched myself between two cloth mattresses instead of mustering up the courage to take an ice shower.
Personally, I’m not a huge fan of grouping people into “types.” When people say things like “I’m Type-A,” or “I’m a dog person, not a cat person,” I cringe a little bit inside. (Ok but if you mention the enneagram or the numbers one through nine I will label anyone in sight). That being said, when it comes to the story of Jesus, Martha, and Mary, I am a Martha-type person. I want to finish everything before I let myself enjoy something. When we finish eating, I want everyone to do their chores before they enjoy a single moment of the afternoon. And being children, every single one wants to do as little work as possible while playing as much as possible. This usually leads to me being a very boring parent, because I’m always the one who tells them to stop playing and to take care of their astonishingly few responsibilities.
And this means I sometimes still forget why I’m here. I’m not here to wash dishes. I’m not here to sweep. I’m not here to wash endless filthy laundry belonging to incompetent and hyperactive six-year-olds. I’m supposed to be here to live in community with these kids, to show them who Jesus is, and to show them they’re loved. I thought I would have learned that lesson by now. I thought I would have learned it’s possible to become so focused on the child’s environment you forget about the child.
So when Ricardo asked me if he could go fishing one lazy afternoon, the first thing I thought of was all of the productive things he could do instead. I then immediately realized he would not be convinced into doing any of those things, so instead I asked him who was going to take him since he couldn’t go without a teacher.
“Usted” (you) was his response. And immediately I could only think of all the productivity that would be lost if I wasted my afternoon at our tiny creek on campus. I thought of the dinner that needed to be cooked and the house that needed to be recleaned after the boys had allegedly done their chores. I thought of Teacher Daniel staying by himself to take care of everything if I up and vanished.
So I told him he should go ask one of the older boys on campus to take him. I was immediately seized by internal conflict. Wasn’t I here to spend time with the kids and not the house? But then by a one-in-a-million chance, I was given a second chance. Ricardo, Roger, and Zacarias hadn’t found anyone else to take them to the creek. They asked me to take them, and had picked me over anyone else. Probably out of convenience, but maybe because I’d known them for long enough. So I decided everything else could wait. Apologies to Daniel but I definitely left him to take care of all the other kids so we could sneak off to our diminutive but indispensably entertaining pond.
And believe it or not, it was worth it. The afternoon sun was golden green, the water undisturbed, and the nearby houses on campus quiet or unoccupied. The boys weren’t shouting with excitement, they weren’t silent with boredom, they weren’t talking about anything important but they were talking about things that mattered. They just were. They just wanted to be. And they had just wanted me to be a part of being, too.
I stood and watched, still stuck up on the idea of being a parent by running through all the terrible scenarios that could happen in my head and how I could best prevent them. But Ricardo and Roger were happy. Normally Roger just floats along, waiting for the next meal or joke or gift. Normally Ricardo is restless, looking for the next project or assignment or game that will give him a sense of purpose. But in this moment, they were simply happy.
I had the same realization I had had putting Adrian to sleep a few nights before, but from a different angle. I had spent these months with these kids, becoming a part of their lives, and even more, them becoming a part of mine. And then I will say goodbye. And then they will live the whole rest of their lives without me. Our stories will separate. I will only have this one window into the complexity that makes them human beings. And now, watching them let themselves be kids, I realized I had missed out on the last 13 years of their lives, too. What was Zacarias like when he was five? What memories shaped Roger? The place where Ricardo lived before he came to Familia Feliz, what did it look like?
I felt like I had been awarded their most valuable treasure, a flickering scene emanating from their internal humanity. They had offered me a role in that scene, and I was just observing like an audience. I startled myself out of my seat and waded into the water to help them pull a mosquito net through the thigh-high eddy, filling it with translucent minnows. We splashed around in the muddy ripples. We flung ourselves around like rag dolls on the rope swing that does nothing more than drop you onto a tiny sandbar. Ricardo kept trying to impersonate Aquaman. So we buried him in the sand. Zacarias went treasure hunting for lost cutlery in the murky shallows. They asked me to bring my camera. Maybe we won’t have to forget. Maybe some memories are just too divine to look back on.
What kind of Author had brought our stories through this synapse of tranquility in a world of hurt and abandonment and suffering? If God wasn’t in this moment, casting out all the shadows of the past, if this is not what He created us for, what have we been restlessly striving and killing and struggling for all these millennia of longing? If this wasn’t a still small voice in an earthquake of tornado and flame, if this wasn’t a priceless diamond buried in a wheat field, if this wasn’t Blood and Water of life gushing from a pierced Cornerstone in the middle of a desert, if this wasn’t undeserved holiness softly smiling in the face of agony, why where we created at all?
After a finite thirty minutes, the boys got cold. I still had to cook dinner. The emotion that had settled so definitively in my head at that moment was not just derived from the common, wide phylogenetic trunks of awe or amusement or happiness or bittersweetness. It was a crystallized splinter from the fringes of the fractal of human feeling, felt once and never again, because the circumstances that made it are invaluably and infinitely finite. The golden green withdrew, and the window closed, and I will never see the light of Love from that angle again.
Peace and Tranquility
If I could describe the last month here in Rurrenabaque, I would say overwhelming peace. I've been so overwhelmed with the beauty of the world in this place. In spite of the pain and heartache that has brought these kids here, I'm so glad that we get to experience life together. I get to take them on hikes into the jungle to swim and cook really badly burned rice over a fire and scrape fried potatoes from my backpack that spilled out of their tupperware. I get to build blanket forts on rainy days. I get to watch the sunset while cutting vegetables for dinner. I get to bundle the little kids up in blankets at night. I get to watch them learn how to pray.
Being here is not easy. But I want to savor every moment before it's gone forever.