Thursday, August 20, 2015

Bolivia Is Not Mexico

This post is part of a continuing series about the School of Christ in Cochabamba, Bolivia. All posts will be tagged "Bolivia." Read all Bolivia posts here.

Many of my friends and family have asked me, "So how was the food [in Bolivia]?" To be honest, the answer is kind of complicated. Bolivian food is not particularly my fave, but it was okay. As my teammate DeAndrea would say, Here's the thing: Bolivian food is not Mexican food. Further, Bolivian culture is not Mexican culture. Throughout the 21-day school, I kept having to wake up to this reality.

I'm not sure if it was the same for others on the American team, but most of my cultural references to "Hispanic" or "Latino" culture* are Mexican. In the United States, Mexican culture, food and language are interwoven into mainstream American life--probably most likely because a huge chunk of the contiguous U.S. used to be Mexico (please see: Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, 1848). I mean, the average American probably has at least some baseline knowledge of some distinctly Mexican/Mexican-American cultural markers: pinatas, burritos, tacos, Cinco de Mayo (which is actually not really celebrated in Mexico, ironically enough), the word ándale**, etc. It's just part of the North American experience. I would say that Americans probably know Mexican culture better than any of the "Hispanic" cultures simply because of history and proximity.

Furthermore, for me personally, I am more familiar with Mexican culture just because Mexico is the only Spanish-speaking country I've ever lived in prior to going to Bolivia this summer. I lived in Mexico for 10 weeks in 2010, and then for six months from 2014-2015. Living in Mexico, I was able to observe the way of life, the daily rhythms/customs, and pick-up on the subtler cultural mores (e.g. communication style, social etiquette). I don't purport to really know fully the Mexican culture (which again, is not necessarily definable in monolithic, generalized terms) BUT it is the "Hispanic" culture with which I'm most familiar.

All this to say, it was, at times, disorienting to be in Bolivia because I kept expecting things to to be, well, Mexican. Comforting things that I got used to in Mexico just aren't the Bolivian way of doing things. They were small, but notable. For example, in Mexico, the common greeting each morning is buenos días, and is said to pretty much every individual you come across. In Bolivia, the greeting of choice is decidedly buen día. So I started saying that instead. Bolivia is not Mexico.

Or there are just some Mexican words that don't make sense in Bolivia. For example, the idiomatic phrase of "having a cough" is traer tos in Mexico. However, when I used this expression in Bolivia, I was met with blank stares. So I literally just had to say, Are you sick? in Spanish, after a few unsuccessful attempts of just repeating the same Mexican idiom. Or another common word used in Mexico is platicar which means to chat, shoot the breeze, etc. I guess that word isn't a thing in Bolivia, either. Bolivia is not Mexico.

Also, the food. There are so many things I appreciate and love about Mexican food. In Mexico it's common to have beans and eggs with tortillas for breakfast. While we were in the school we didn't once eat tortillas! Or another favorite breakfast of mine is tamales with canela (a kind of tea made with cinnamon sticks and sugar), again, both things which are not Bolivian. It was so hard to switch gears and realize that I wasn't going to be eating Mexican food in Bolivia! Mexican food, which is so ubiquitous in North America, is probably easily much more foreign to Bolivians than American food! Bolivia is not Mexico.

While we were in the school we had few traditional Bolivian dishes: pique macho, sopa de maní and majadito.
Pique Macho
Sopa de Mani
Pique macho is a somewhat perplexing mix of protein, carbs, veggies and condiments. It's got it all: chopped beef, boiled eggs, some hot dog, fries, tomato slices, onion, (spicy) green pepper, mayo, mustard and ketchup. A truly unique dish. Sopa de maní, or "peanut soup," is also a very particular dish with a beef broth and ground peanuts, along with potatoes, peas, oregano and basil. It's quite distinct. Majadito is probably my favorite of the three, with well-seasoned fried eggs, fried plantains, rice and a salad of onion and tomato. In general I wasn't necessarily over the moon about Bolivian cuisine. Maybe it was because these dishes bear little to no resemblance to the Mexican dishes I am accustomed to and have grown to love. Bolivia is not Mexico.

I think the most disorienting thing about Bolivia was how similar it was to Mexico in some ways (which at first caused me to rely on my Mexican cultural heuristics) but then would totally catch me off guard by being, well, so decidedly and distinctly Bolivian. I don't know why I was so surprised. New information alert! my brain would signal to me.

For example, Bolivia is very similar to Mexico in its orientation to time (fluid rather than rigid), generosity (i.e. Don't tell a Bolivian you like anything of theirs otherwise they will literally give it to you), importance of the family, traditional gender roles (machismo) and mix of indigenous and Spanish culture (mestizaje). Yet there is an undeniably marked distinction between the two countries. Bolivia is not Mexico!

While at the school, I had to come to terms with the fact that I was going to encounter some Bolivian cultural markers that I was just not familiar with. The cultural things I learned while living in Mexico could only take me so far, and then I just had to "figure out" some new things, some new Bolivian things. It was a humbling experience. Learning about and adapting to a new culture can be an uncomfortable experience--sometimes it feels like trying to find my way around in the dark with groping hands--but I am grateful for the challenge it presented. It kept me on my toes and reliant on God rather than coasting on my prior knowledge and experiences.

Bolivia is not Mexico. And that's a good thing.


*I acknowledge first of all that it's problematic to lump all Spanish-speaking nations together like this, but that's a whole other story. 

**I'm not saying that any of these things sum up or define what it is to be Mexican/Mexican-American, but these kinds of "stereotypically" Mexican things are arguably embedded in the American psyche notwithstanding.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Taking Off in Prayer

This post is part of a continuing series about the School of Christ in Cochabamba, Bolivia. All posts will be tagged "Bolivia." Read all Bolivia posts here.

As you may already be aware, a part of the daily rhythm of the School of Christ is praying for two hours every day (from 6:00am-7:00am and 6:30pm-7:30pm, respectively), no exceptions (not even on Sunday!). I must say, this was actually one of my favorite parts of the school. But it wasn't at first.

I think many friends and family of mine can attest to the fact that I am not a morning person. In the evenings I lay out my clothes, pack my lunch and purse so that when I wake up, I can get dressed and go without having to "think." I've got it down to a science: once I get the wherewithal to actually get out of bed, I can be ready on 20 minutes (leaving maximum time to sleep).

So when on the first morning of the school we were woken up with a piercing siren not unlike a dormitory fire alarm, followed by a voice on a megaphone yelling, "Get up, get up, get up!"* I groaned and grumbled to myself, "It figures." It would still be dark outside at 6:00am when I would enter the classroom to pray and by the time we concluded the sun would be up, illuminating the high, snow-capped mountain peaks that surrounded us on every side.

The style of prayer at the school is very much different from the kind of "typical" prayer in an American Presbyterian church (which is the tradition I grew up in). Whereas in the States, most corporate prayer is led by one person praying over a microphone with everyone else agreeing silently until the "Amen," prayer at the school can, at the outset, appear to be a disorderly, cacophonous mess.

A strong memory I have of prayer is walking in at 6:00am (I was usually one of the last to arrive because I was herding in my fellow roommates to get there on time, see my older blog post for more info.), and the first thing I noticed is the low-grade sound of murmuring. You see, in the School of Christ, everyone prays out loud at the same time. For an hour.

Add to that baseline layer of whispered/spoken prayers (1) the oftentimes assertively loud worship music in Spanish being transmitted by large amplifier speakers (one at the front of the classroom and one at the back), and (2) the prayers of the pastor on the microphone up front and well, it's a party!!! I can't imagine what it was like for my teammates that didn't know Spanish; at least I could understand the lyrics of the songs (and even sang along with a few that were also popular at my church in Mexico) and could follow along and agree with the pastors' intercession up front.

In the School there were about three different options for physical postures of prayer: on your knees with your face to the ground, kneeling over a chair or standing. That first week I found myself standing quite a bit because, well, if I hadn't been standing, I would have straight up fallen asleep in those intensive morning sessions. One morning as I slowly got down onto my knees to pray, I sighed into the ground and said out loud to the Lord, "Okay... Here we go." Little did I realize that my teammate Heather was nearby, listening. She laughed out loud. I'll tell you this, prayer at 6:00am is not glamorous! At first I was seriously dragging to get there. But by week three I would walk into the room, that low-grade murmuring would hit my ears and I would be comforted. And then I'd get down on my knees and get to work.

Pastor Fernando, who taught for the first week, explained to us early on that praying in the Spirit is like a plane taking off. He even conceded that sometimes the first 45 minutes can seem utterly fruitless, and a struggle to concentrate and focus on God. "But when you take off..." he explained, with somewhat of a wistful look, "That is when you soar with God." He added further that prayer in the Spirit does not necessarily take on a certain "form" outwardly. Some students would yell out in prayer, cry, weep, groan. Yes, Pastor Fernando affirmed, this can be praying in the Spirit, but even someone who is completely still and silent, they too can be praying in the Spirit. "I can just look at people and know," he explained. There's no getting past him!! :)

For me, praying in the Spirit was like going underwater. It was immersive. I would just submerge myself in prayer, not opening my eyes once until the pastor said "Amén" an hour later. Sometimes I would have lots to say to God but other times I would run out of things to say and just worship him the rest of the time. I would wait before him in silence, thanking him. Sometimes the Holy Spirit would bring to mind a certain passage from scripture, or a picture, or a brief little phrase. Sometimes he would highlight a mindset or actions that I needed to repent of. Sometimes he would break my heart to pray for someone in particular. Other times I didn't really have a clue what God was doing in that hour other than sanctification in general terms. But I knew something was happening.

After most prayer sessions I would check-in with my teammate DeAndrea, trading notes on what God had been speaking to us. We were in total agreement that in that first week with Pastor Fernando, the presence of God filled that classroom in such a sweet and powerful way that it was undeniable. "It almost makes you sway," DeAndrea observed. I mean, it really did hit you when you entered the room.

One of my favorite memories from the school is when, one evening for prayer, Fernando asked those who had a special calling from God over their lives to come forward. "You know who you are," he said, with a serious look on his face, referring to those over whom he had prayed earlier in the week (during prayer he would usually set down the mic and then go to pray for people as the Holy Spirit led him). Of course, then just everyone in the school pretty much got up and stood in the front (I mean, who doesn't want to be chosen?) but he reiterated again, "I'm going to pray for those with a special calling in God, those on whom he will place his burden on and use in a significant way."

So everyone began to pray (that comforting thrum resuming again), and Pastor Fernando started "making the rounds." I realized, however, that many of the American team wouldn't be able to understand what he was praying because they haven't studied Spanish. So I started following him around, interpreting his prayers so they knew what he was saying. And man, I would just cry as I was translating because God was truly using Pastor Fernando to bless my American brothers and sisters! Through the Holy Spirit Pastor Fernando spoke such words of insight into folks' hearts, things that could only come through revelation--and they were such specific words of truth, love and encouragement that one after another would break down in tears as he prayed. God was healing them and building them up spiritually before my very eyes.

So like that airplane, praying was a struggle to start and get going (especially in the mornings)... But once I got into the rhythm of it, I grew to treasure it. It was, in fact, one of the only opportunities I had to "be alone" with God (albeit in a group of a bunch of people but trust me, I am and expert at blocking noises out). I would just get "in the zone." And afterwards I would frequently leave the room, remarking to DeAndrea, "That was just nuts..."

"And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints" (Ephesians 6:18).

*Thankfully after the first morning they used the doorbell to wake us up from then on.