Sunday, September 20, 2009

Blastoff and Blasted In

This last week really flew by. Lots of adventures: Figuring out how to withdraw money (and getting charged far less than I thought I would), the end of language school, more adventures and misadventures with Peruvian cuisine...hooray. I really can't fathom that a month has gone by! I've started and finished language school! Wowza. Winter is ending, "Spring" is beginning.

Anyway, on to the adventures of this week. Monday was money day, so we spent some extra time in Miraflores post-language school to withdraw the funds. It wasn't really that exciting. The most exciting thing was that I didn't get charged for withdrawing from an ATM! However, I DID get charged for checking my account balance. I'm not quite sure how that works.

So then the week continued. Thursday, we decided to try this restaurant called Punto Azul for lunch. It's a somewhat cheap seafood restaurant that's actually more upscale than I thought, and it serves ridiculous portions. It was really an adventure! There was an interesting mixture of Spanish and English, because we were on all different levels, and my teachers (who are very cool, I might add) came along, too. I decided to try Cebiche Mixto. Cebiche, for those unacquainted, is a general name given for several different types of seafood. I've tried Cebiche Pescado and Mixto. Both of them involve cold seafood soaked in a lemon juice with raw red onions and served with a garnish of lettuce, some choclo (corn), yam, and more of the leche de tigre (which is the lemon juice mixture). I had the pescado (just fish) in its spicy variation last week. It was adorned with what looked like a cross-section of a red bell-pepper, so I ate the whole thing. Had I not liked spicy foods, this would have been a poor life choice. Liking them, it was only a surprising life choice. Anyway, Cebiche Mixto: fish is there, but you've also got calamari and octopus and something else. I've gotta say, octopus tentacles aren't half bad cold. Chewy, though.

I seem to talk about food disproportionately, but it's just such a different variety of foods! The fruits here are so different. Seriously, google "Charimoya," because it's not really something we have in the US. Yogurt is pretty much a drinkable commodity here: no spoons. Fun fact: yogurt comes in the plastic gallon and liter containers, but milk comes in plastic bags. I find this amusing. Soooo many different tastes and brands and ways of making things. Someday I'll go crazy in the potato chips section, because it's PerĂș, land of like 200 different potatoes.

While I'm on a food tangent, let me talk about Chicha Morada some more. Do we just not have purple corn in the US? If so, all is forgiven, but if not, I want to know who is responsible for keeping this beverage from the public at large. It's delicious, fairly nutricious, and a lifesaver if you don't want to drink soda in a Latin American country. So what gives? Are we seriously that afraid of purple stains? It can't be that, we give kids neon-colored popsicles.

Sooo...returning from the food talk (but with a promise to talk about more later), Friday was the last day of language school. To celebrate, Brooke (fellow classmate) baked cookies, Alyssa bought Inca Cola (which tastes to everybody but Peruvians like bubble gum, but that's because it must be the only place that Peruvians use the bubble-gum flavoring), and Rosa, our teacher, who will be leaving to pursue a Master's Degree in Spain, bought some more cookies. It was pretty fun, because we spent the discussion class asking each other questions like, "If you had an autobiography, what would the title be?" or "If you could date any celebrity, whom would you date and why?" It reminded me of the question prompts for the AP Spanish test way back in the day. Only this time I had fun answering the questions.

Oh! Wednesday was the end of the second trimester, so the kids received their grades. I got to look at every San Juan kid's grade (the 13-14 year olds) in order to enter them into an Excel spreadsheet. The way grades work here is slightly different from the US: They grade with a points system, the highest score being 20. For each subject, they get an overall evaluation ranging from 0 to 20. My job was to record the subjects' grades for each kid and then find each kids' GPA (as it were) for the trimester. Perhaps this was a nice introduction into a more real world for me, a guy who's been in private education all his life and been given the benefit of being in atmospheres of incredible intelligence (I have very, very smart friends). These grades were not so great. If you were to encounter a phrase "Masterpiece of an understatement," I think that that past sentence would probably be one of the example sentences. Jeez louise, man. I was so happy every time my fingers had to make the extra effort to type "18", because it was so rare. I was happy when I entered grades above 12. Dang.

It was a revealing moment for me. Some might wrongly assume that the grades were what gave me such pause. It wasn't like I realized, "Ah! I'm working with delinquent and/or dumb children." I will tell you to your face that you're wrong. What I encountered in those grades, and what was confirmed for me later on, was a sense of pessimism, of resignation, of grim reality that never was and probably never will be waiting for me at the end of my educational endeavors in the United States. People might get sick and tired of hearing about all of the opportunity that we have in the United States and how we take it for granted, and it's cliché to then mention Jairo from Guatemala who can't get an education or doesn't have much of a future post-education, but it's so flipping true. I wasn't aware that I had this particular assumption, but I suddenly realized that I was not here to bring the American dream of education to the deprived children. If you want to bring that dream to fruition, work with the school system, the culture, the government, while people with this ideal tutor kids and nurture them in a space encouraging that future with a life that confirms the encouragement. It's more than what 3 volunteers singlehandedly can do. So I'm not here to make them "A" students, because even if I do, what's the point? How do I bring hope to kids who face grim and difficult futures, and what kind of hope should that hope be?

Let me tell you, I've entered data before, and so I know that working in Microsoft Excel can be one of the more painful experiences in life (my life as a research apprentice, more or less). This was painful for a very different reason. I went to bed wondering, "So I'm not here to be their Messiah, because it's so far beyond my power. What in God's name am I here for, then? What the heck am I supposed to do?"

I'll interrupt here to say that I think that being in a foreign country for a prolonged period of time allows people to learn a lot about themselves. I'll venture to say that I've learned that I'm a far more kinesthetic learner than I thought. I always thought I was a mental kind of person, maybe pencil and paper when it came to math, but for that information to hop on the elevator and travel from the head to the heart, I need to live through experiences to make them concrete. One such example are any number of the Mother Theresa quotes, like, "God does not demand that you succeed, only that you try," or "There are no great works, just small works with great love," and things of that nature. Some people can read them and get it. I envy them. However, I'm being granted the boon and bane of experience in order to understand. The words of Theilhard de Jardin, "Above all, trust in the slow work of God," and of Bishop Ken Untener (though these words are often attributed to Oscar Romero):

It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of
saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession
brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives include everything.
This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one
day will grow. We water the seeds already planted
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects
far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of
liberation in realizing this.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's
grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the
difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not
messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.

Ah, so that's what we're about! I love how that comes at the middle of the reflection, because it connects what's been said and what's being said. It comes together with the phrase "God is God and I'm not," and it was of enormous consolation to think of that. Pray, trust God, know that you won't do everything, that you'll inevitably do something silly or wrong because hey, you're human. Be yourself and be that well (name that saint!), know you're not God, but trust in His presence, believe that all will be well, pray for the hope in a certain future to get you through an uncertain and turbulent present. All will be well (I'm on a roll with quotations, this sentence was another saint).

Clearly I'm still in the process, because hey, that's life. I am still piecing together how to love, especially when it's rendered difficult by the kids I'm here to serve (which is when it's most worthy of the name love, I suppose). The day we went to Punto Azul, I got back from lunch and Hermano Polo was holding a town hall meeting. These happen daily. They are never, ever cheerful. And he's not the only one who does them. I understand that this is another culture, that they function far more on shame than on guilt, so it's theoretically more efficacious to publicly ridicule than privately guilt, but when that's all they ever hear (as I feel it is, and I feel it's pervasive), I have to wonder how effective that really is at doing anything other than confirming what people who live in a place like this, have few recourses, and have had rough childhoods have been told through society and possibly through family: they're not worth much. That was the confirming moment I had a couple of days ago. How do I tackle this misgiving? I need to talk with Fr. Hugo about it before I make any confrontations or even contemplate them, really.

With all the quotes, I really didn't mean to suggest that I have achieved Nirvana or really had everything make sense. I'm still struggling, am unsettled, and wanting to cry more than I have in a while. I've gotten attached to the kids, and I'm a softy, anyway.

What a way to begin working full-time, no? Hence the title. I just heard something akin to an explosion, so I ought to go and check that out, methinks. Much love and prayers, please pray for everybody here.

1 comment:

  1. mike-
    just wanted to say that i LOVE reading your journals. i can tell you're having the time of your life down in peru (and i am insanely jealous of you!). we all miss you here, and craig, who is awful at keeping in touch, sends his love and prayers to you. as do i! can't wait to read more!
    with lots of love and prayers,
    ashley :)