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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Letters from Bolivia


An interesting fellow wandered into the gallery last night. He is in Anchorage on business from southern California. He is involved in the maritime industry, doing something with the Coast Guard; having to decide whether or not to condemn a boat (I imagine, one of the C.G.’s own). We did not much discuss why Jurgen is in Alaska now, but rather his background and personal history.

Obviously, any given interaction in the gallery is brief and only skims the surface of much deeper realities. Our particular conversation spring-boarded when I asked him if he had been born in Bolivia (where he mentioned he came from). He had a very slight accent. He chuckled and admitted he’d actually been born in Germany, where, he mentioned, his Bolivian father had been involved in the Wehrmacht in World War II, and had ended up stuck in Russia for awhile.

My attention was sufficiently grabbed.

Jurgen’s father, who was, of course, Bolivian, and had been born and raised in Bolivia, had, as the oldest son, been sent to Germany to be educated in 1937. Around that time, Jurgen’s grandfather, who helped run steamboat tours on the Amazon for wealthy foreigners, disappeared in the dense South American jungle and was never seen again. About a year later, Jurgen’s father, still in Germany, received a substantial life insurance payout which he used to buy each of his siblings a cattle ranch (which are still active to this day) and to fund the remainder of his education in Germany. It was during this time, that he was sucked into the Nazi mania, though he later told his children he had always known the Nazi movement would end up blowing up in Germany’s face. He was right, of course.

Jurgen’s father survived his Russian ordeal (another amazing story, from what I inferred from the telling roll of his eyes is he mentioned it), and eventually returned to Bolivia with his German wife and six-month-old Jurgen when the Bolivian government “found him.”

So, Jurgen and his parents lived in Bolivia until Jurgen was 12, then they tried going back to Germany for awhile. They were unhappy there, but also unwilling to return to Bolivia where education was inadequate, so they decided to go somewhere in between instead: America.

Through all the telling of this story, I was scratching my head. I was thinking about a book I had recently read called, “Letters from Paraguay” by Lily Tuck, which also explores the history of South America, but this is during the 1860’s, a time when most American school-children are only concerned with our own Civil War (as if it was the only civil war in history). We hear little about South American history, except as it pertains to United States history, or mystery (lost, ancient civilizations with solid gold ziggurats and human sacrifices). Or, in contemporary news, we think about cocaine manufacturing and guerillas. I realized there is a whole other area of the world and its history I know absolutely nothing about.

Meanwhile, Jurgen noticed the book I had opened up on the desk and asked about it. (I’m still reading “Possession.”) This launched a brief dialogue about books. (Fellow readers can always identify each other.) He said he was reading “The Power of One” – had I read it? Yes, I had. Said I had been disappointed with it. He agreed. He then made reference to “The Tin Drum” – had I heard of it? Yes, I’d read it as well. “However,” I admitted, “it’s the only Gunther Grass I’ve ever read.” I told him he was the first person I’d actually met who’d also read “The Tin Drum,” and that I’d only read it because John Irving had mentioned Grass being influential in his own writing. Jurgen nodded and said thoughtfully, “I could see that.” (I love conversations like this.)

I realized something then about books, that I’d never really thought of before. Books and literature have a way of connecting people that would NEVER otherwise have a single bit of common ground. Do you see what I mean? It’s a huge thing. Each little physical book is a brick out of which bridges and shelters can been built.

I confessed to Jurgen that there are certain books by “foreign” authors, such as Gunther Grass, that I just don’t get, I think due to an entirely different cultural context or historical lens. I mentioned that while I “get” British and American literature, I have a hard time with translations from French, German, Chinese and Turkish. The context from which these books are written, flow out of an entirely different shared experience of those respective peoples. Jurgen understood exactly what I was saying, and this segued our conversation in different direction – the problem with America.

He told me a story from his boyhood. When they were still living in Bolivia, his family belonged to a country club. One day, Jurgen’s peers were sitting around drinking Coco-Cola and eating fresh slices of juicy watermelon. Jurgen asked his father for some money so he too could have Coca-Cola and watermelon.

“Are you thirsty?,” asked Jurgen’s father.

“Yes, I guess I am,” answer young Jurgen.

“Then drink some water,” replied his father. “And are you hungry for some watermelon, Son?” he further enquired.

Jurgen responded with honesty. “No, not really, Father.”

“Then you do not need watermelon, nor the money to buy it.”

And that, Jurgen told me, is the problem with America: we go around gorging and defecating (his words, not mine) without even thinking about what we are doing or why we are doing it. He said he loves going back to Bolivia as often as he can, visiting the cattle ranches of his cousins, so that he can be reminded of “reality.”

I admitted to Jurgen that this seems very much to be true. We are a country blinded by our own affluence. I know I am guilty of being blinded by American culture and the desire to hoard my comfort. It is very difficult, and at times very uncomfortable, to genuinely see the rest of the world. It is much easier to stay safe and warm in my little cocoon. Recent world events have certainly cracked the shell a bit, but I plaster it up, slip on some cultural contact lenses and try to make sense of it all in the short-sighted way that I can. My head is crowded with images of bubble-shaped SUVs and wafer-thin televisions. I see the faces of the impossibly beautiful and notorious celebrities. I was thinking the other night in bed (the best time for thinking such thoughts) how utterly small and insignificant people are in the face of the enormity of the universe. How our problems and wars and sufferings, and even our joys, are invisible past the closest microscopic inspection of our remote dust-mote of a planet.

I’m not sure what all this means. Perhaps it is just a reminder to keep life in perspective, to fight for justice and love, and abhor evil in any form. I think of another man I met in the gallery, who once worked with “the dullest, most boring man on earth” who turned out to be one of the key forgers in Stalag 3 during World War II; the forging project with which he was involved would later become popularly known as “The Great Escape.” I also think of the dizzying epiphany I had one summer afternoon, upon flushing the corpse of a freshly swatted yellow-jacket down the toilet. The insect was no longer in my sight, no longer a stinging threat to myself and my children, but as sure as the creases in my children’s palms, that bee, even in its deceased state, was just as real as it had been when balanced on my fly-swatter. Just because it was floating down dark stinking pipes towards the ocean, didn’t mean it no longer existed. It was still there, existing, a part of the continuity of life in the universe, just as I am also a thread of history, tightly woven into the stories of some (my children, my parents) and loosely woven into the history of others (forgers from World War II and cattle ranchers in Bolivia).

(Is this all way too esoteric? Perhaps. Am I reaching too far? Only in my inability to clearly articulate and explain myself.)

We have friends living in Bolivia – Eric and Emily Lizarazu, and their three children, Benjy, Lydia, and Ellie. They recently spent a year living in Anchorage, during which time they were a part of both our church and our church home-group. They have only been back in Bolivia a few months. Sunday we received a new email update from them. It is yet another reminder of a bigger picture. I may rarely think about Bolivia at any other time, but during the last several days, Bolivia has come to me and reminded me that though it may be buried deep in the plumbing of my mind, it is still there, existing:

"In the past 2 years Bolivia has had 3 different Presidential leaders. Two were kicked out due to civil unrest and the inability to please the two dominant groups here in Bolivia, the educated and the uneducated. Bolivia is now preparing for elections in December. Civil unrest is sure to raise its ugly head. We ask for your prayers as this time comes closer. Each group has their party members campaigning, one group MAS means more drugs and very little in the way of laws or rules. They are responsible for stirring up lots of Civil unrest. The sad truth is that they are growing in popularity with their Robin Hood approach to take from the rich and give to the poor. Our trip out to camp [Eric and Emily run a camp for youth] takes us through many villages who support the MAS group.

A new tactic. October through February there seems to be lots of time for celebrations to idols. These idols take the form of "virgins" in the Catholic Church. There can be a "virgin" for any occasion or day of the week. There seems to be a new tactic to raise money for these celebrations. The village people block the road with a rope to make a make-shift toll booth. They stand at your window asking for donations. Their zealous intent is so real. Their anger and surprise at us when we say no thanks and drive off is real as well. The rope and the amount of people are intimidating. If I was alone and not bold like Eric what would happen? How many other Christians are pressured into giving to the idols due to innocence and/or fear?

Life for most poor Bolivians is so hard! It is amazing the depth of struggles the poor of this world face. It is unreal the amount of corruption we hear about and the consistent unjustness of it all.

The village is growing but many still struggle. Many single moms raise 4 or more kids on potatoes and rice. A little boy playing on the camp’s soccer field ran up to us. He simply asked us for shoes or clothes. He was about 8 years old and had wet muddy sore-looking feet. We had to tell him we didn't have anything his size on hand but told him to come back in a week and we would find him some shoes. There was a schedule change at camp and we didn't have time to shop that week so, when he showed up I scrambled to find him something as I had promised. I found a pair of pink flip-flops I use in the shower. With some embarrassment, I took those pink garage sale flip-flops I had brought with me and gave them to him. He was thrilled.What gratefulness! He wore them out of the camp with a smile. Having too much stuff clouds our ability to be thankful doesn't it?

The medical needs of the people in the camp area are incredible. Some simple illness left uncared for until it is too late and they need some drastic care. On several occasions, people come to us asking for money for meds. On other occasions we have been used as an ambulance to carry people to the city. These are opportunities to be a living witness. We hope we are doing our job well and pleasing to the Lord."

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