I´m writing this blog from the Centro Menno Offices in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. We´ve rested and reinvigorated amongst the sizable and hospitable community surrounding Mennonite Central Committee’s projects and networks.
Since Villamontes, Bolivia has continued to treat us well; we´ve found places to sleep, smooth roads, a temperate climate, and delicious foods (including our favorite cheese-yucca flour buns called cuñapé). From Villamontes we trekked towards Santa Cruz through the picturesque Andean foothills on route 9. This was our first taste of climbing with fully loaded bicycles. We´ll have to grow accoustomed to the burden—the highest major city in the world, La Paz, awaits us on the Bolivian Altiplano across the country.
Several vignettes of route 9 include:
-A church in Camiri spontaneously opening their doors for our overnight stay.
-One long biking day, which covered 148 km (mostly downhill).
-Discovering the good fortunes of Peajes, where vendors are happy to inundate us with hot tamales, cornbreads, and cuñapé.
-Emerging from the dense, cloud-covered hills on a cool morning. It felt like a primeval dawn at the beginning of creation.
-Better on-the-road stove cookin’ thanks to Matthew’s foodie-instincts.
-A close call: Matthew almost crashing into a skittish calf on the road, averting a 4-bike pileup.
For me, one fulfilling experience came in an unsuspecting form. On the final night outside of Santa Cruz, we stopped at an almacén to sleep for the night. The owner graciously agreed that we could sleep on a dusty, enclosed patio out back. It looked like a bar that had seen its better days; cobwebs in the corners, haphazard chairs, plastic-covered pool tables and an old karaoke machine. After a nice dinner of cheese, bread, and bananas, we started yawning and headed for our bedmats and toothbrushes around 9pm. Suddenly, a group of guys walk out with a load of drinks and chairs. The lights kick on, the pool tables uncover, and the karaoke machine begins blasting Mexican mariachi music. The next couple of hours were good for us to get to know the 6-7 men; to practice our Spanish, hone our pool skill, and talk about life. I met one man name Elias. A father of 8 happy, healthy children, Elias told me about the difficulties in providing support and education for his children on a blue-collar salary. In patchy Spanish comprehension, I listened as Elias also spoke of the balance in guiding his children toward faith without pushing them into it. Throughout this trip, a goal, or focused question for me will be how people pass values and faith to their children. What are the most important, precious ideas to bestow?
We’ve been able to ask those kinds of questions and have those conversations under the shade of a mandarin orange tree here at CCM (Comité Central Menonita)–while covering our heads to protect ourselves from falling oranges, still as tasty after bonking a nose. We first met Wilmar and Hannah Harder under that tree, and they and their three boys have made us feel right at home with a lunch of peanut soup today and a wealth of stories from Kansas and from Wilmar’s extensive knowledge of the Low German-speaking Russian Mennonite tradition. Mennonite colonists here in Bolivia are some of the most conservative; moving every 50-80 years–from Russia to Canada, to Mexico and Paraguay, and finally here–is by now as a part of their genealogy as names like Rempel and Giesbrecht. As government pressures to conform mount and land prices rise, some of these Bolivian Low German-speaking Mennonites are now looking to places as far-flung as Suriname and the Russian Siberia to establish new colonies. Harder, who works at Central Menno directly with these conservative colonies, speaks with respect for their strong commitment to community. While stipulations like steel wheels on tractors (to keep them from becoming road vehicles) and rules about dress (overalls and cowboy hats are the norm) are important practices for the colonies, they don’t see them as something everyone needs to do–others have their own communities, with their own practices. He sees something postmodern about this respect for identity from this people with a somewhat pre-modern lifestyle. It’s also been great to talk bikes and Bolivian politics with US-American MCCers Lynn Longenecker, Cadie and Lane Wyse, and Kyle and Kirsten Navis.
We visited several of MCC Bolivia’s partner projects, many of which were comedores, combination daycare and afterschool programs that also involve literacy programs for mothers and even have up to 200 chickens for eggs and environmental learning! Community members can also get involved with artisan craft-making and painting for income generation. In this machismo culture, these projects empower women. We heard powerful stories from women with histories of abuse who were able to confront the violence, gain employment and learn new ways to provide for their families through the training and support of these comedores.
Statues of Simón Bolívar and other Bolivian heroes direct the frantic brightly colored microbus traffic from the middle of wide roundabouts in this cosmopolitan city. We’ve been charmed by men dressed in black tie serving coffee and playing chess in the well-groomed town square in the middle of concentric rings of streets that organize this Spanish-feeling city. Local food has included majadito, rice, meat and fried plantains, and salteñas, baked empanadas of peppery meat. These streets have given us meals of arroz con pollo for a dollar, a dozen oranges for 50 cents, and a cellphone SIM card registered with the Bolivian government under the name of the vendor who sold it to us behind the cathedral. We’ve enjoyed exploring the city from our guest apartment next to MCC representative César. A big thank you to the whole MCC Bolivia crew for welcoming us these last few days! You’ve given us the rest we need before venturing on to what we have heard from cambas (residents of Santa Cruz) to be patches of dirt road, snow up to our knees, and sunlight burning our skin through the thin air that will knock us out with altitude sickness as we climb the 4000 meters to La Paz.
–Michael and Abe