Greetings to all, from Cochabamba, Bolivia! We´ve arrived safely at the home of Ligia, Faustino, y Sergio — Faustino is a friend of Michael´s uncle Dale Kempf and he and his family have warmly welcomed us into their home. They are a delightful bunch who´ve made their home in Belgium as well as Bolivia and all of them speak Spanish, English, and French. Further, Ligia is a professor of French and English at one of the universities in Cochabamba, and her professorship has been a boon to learning and a delight during conversation.
When you last heard from us we anticipated our arrival in Cochabamba in around five days. We knew we had a goodly amount of climbing to do, but camino de tierra and unpredictable weather turned our five days into seven. Despite some difficulties, we don´t regret our decision to take the carreterra antigua, as our route is called, for the gifts we encountered along it in the form of hospitality, natural beauty, and the sharing of faith.
Our journey began with a 100-kilometer day from Santa Cruz to Cuevas, Bolivia. On our road into Santa Cruz we´d passed and met Jay, an ex-patriate American from Colorado, who was out for a run in Brooks and a heart-rate monitor. His grizzle gave him away as a gringo, and as we passed he shouted ¨where y´all from!?¨ As we talked he suggested a stay at the cabañas he and his wife manage in Cuevas. He had humbly understated as ¨cabañas¨ an eco-tourism resort situated at one of the finest natural vistas we´ve yet encountered: the falls at Cuevas. We enjoyed a progressive hike up the three falls behind the cabins while learning from Jay about the history of the site and surrounding area. A big thanks from us to him for the suggestion! You can find more information about the resort at www.cuevasbolivia.com, including rental rates and a photo gallery.
Our next stop was in Samaipata, a ¨touristy¨town by our own elevated standards, in which we were reminded about the nature of our journey. We are, as many of you know, attempting our return to the States on a rather thin budget. A part of that attempt is to find free places to stay as much as possible — in churches, schools, almacenes, or, when fate or the hand of God dictates, with families we meet on our way. In Samaipata we tried to find a church to stay at and there we encountered what I suspect will become a recurring theme on our journey: the person we talked to at the church reminded us that ¨there are many rooms in this town.¨This wasn´t the first time we´d been reminded that we are, in fact, tourists, but it revived the conversation between us about the balance between frugality and participation in the tourist economy.
We are, by dint of being U.S. citizens, relatively well-off compared to the large majority of the people we meet. It makes me a bit uncomfortable to be constantly trying to withhold our money. That said, Michael has helpfully observed that our frugality brings us into social and fiscal contact with people who we (and the tourist economy) would otherwise overlook. As bike tourists on a budget, we´ll be encountering people in smaller pueblos, sourcing our food at local mercados, and sleeping on the floors of churches, schools, and homes. We exchange the privacy of a hotel room for the experience of navigating crowds of children outside of the schools and churches where we solicit floors. This was one moment in what will no doubt be a continuing conversation — afterward we spent roughly $50USD on a room for the night, food, and a visit to the Pre-Columbian ruins near Samaipata.
Further down the carretera antigua we lived into the substance of our conversation about finance. In Los Negros we stopped to inquire about floors at a church and a school — while Abe talked to the school officials, students surrounded Michael, Levi, and me and bombarded us with questions. As we floundered through our responses they laughingly and helpfully guided us through basic Spanish. This, I think, will be a recurring theme: children are the most patient and curious of our teachers.
Abe eventually emerged from negotiations with the word that we should continue down the road to Pampa Grande, where resided the padre of the Catholic parish. We reached Pampa Grande just before dark, and met there the padre who greeted us in the garb of a Catholic priest covered by a Cold War-era German uniform. We never were able to discover exactly what sort of person our new friend was, but we greatly enjoyed attempting to know him better, and hearing all about post-war Germany and the padre´s experience of Communist Russia and the Western Allies´floundering attempts at breaking through the Iron Curtain. Even more interesting was to learn about these events in our second language from a Catholic priest in Bolivia: find someone like that in a hotel.
The theme of Catholic hospitality continued the next day in Comarapa, where we stayed with the Hermanos Maristas, a pseudo-monastic order of Catholics dedicated to the education of neglected young people. Unfortunately, they were all departing that night for a conference in Santa Cruz, and we were unable to learn about our hosts or their mission. The best we can give you about them is this Wikipedia article.
Leaving the Hermanos Maristas we came upon the most difficult part of our journey between Santa Cruz and Cochabamba: fin de pavimiento, that dreaded term which means that the road has been abandoned to rocks, ruts, and potholes. We met fin de pavimiento simultaneously with an impressive uphill and a headwind gusting to around 30 mph. We ground on against the wind, the dirt, and the hill, walking our bikes occasionally and stopping to rest often. We had a flat about halfway up the climb, stopped to fix it, and promptly entered what we later learned is a permanent cloud system. The pueblo La Siberia is so called, we are told, because of its similarity to the Russian Siberia. We didn´t see snow, but we were ascending through clouds in mud, cold, and wet, being sprayed by vehicles that passed. The wind was strong enough that at points I was forced to dismount and walk my bike through mud, leaning at an astonishing angle to compensate for wind: it was exhausting, frustrating, and at a certain point very worrisome. At around 4:00, without an end to clouds and mud in sight and having deemed it unsafe to camp on the side of the mountain, we opted to hail a truck to take us out of the clouds and mud, and we were thankfully brought to the pueblito Churro.
At Churro we were able to find the keeper of an iglesia evangélica who opened the church to us. Again, as we waited outside the church for the keeper of the keys, youth from the surrounding homes surrounded us and invited us to an impromptu game of soccer. We invited the key-keeper and his wife to dinner, and they graciously accepted our invite to rice and potatoes. I´ve gotten into the habit of telling people after Abe invites them to dinner that ¨we have a lot of food, but not a lot of flavor.¨ Over dinner we learned from them about the iglesia evangélica in Latin America , about their experience of passing on faith to their children, and about the challenges of life in Bolivia. On this last subject, a thing we keep hearing about but have yet to experience are bloqueos, road-blocks established by disgruntled citizens attempting to have legislation passed. In Bolivia, we´re told, letters to Senators are not nearly as effective as bloqueos.
The iglesia evangélica continued to make a home for us the next day as we met Mario and Alma, evangelistas who were the leaders of a small house church and invited us to stay in their home. On our arrival we were invited to watch a Christian movie produced in the States, which we asked to watch in Spanish. We were well-fed, also, and later invited to join in a bilingual worship service held in Spanish and the local indigenous language, Quechua. We were grateful to participate in this unique cultural expression, and our thoughts and emotions were deeply stirred by what we witnessed. For me, one of the biggest questions that emerged from my experience of the bilingual service and our first stay in an iglesia evangelica regards the overlap between cultural and spritual evangelism.
It was striking to me that we were invited to watch an American film espousing values common to Evangelical communities in the States, including the spiritual headship of the male and a commitment to traditional American family values. I was struck, too, to find components of contemporary worship in a largely indigenous church in the Bolivian countryside: the first Church we stayed at was equipped with a speaker bigger than me and a series of electric guitars. I´m reminded that wherever go missionaries, there also go their culture and values. I wonder where culture ends and the Gospel of Christ begins.
Another moving experience for us during the bilingual service was the sharing of song. We were all moved by the unique character of indigenous singing, which at the second church was unaccompanied by instruments. We were struck, too, by the fact that everyone clapped along to every song, but only about a third of the people in the room had any sense of rhythm whatsoever. After the service, we shared with them some of our Mennonite hymnody, and we were stunned when as we started to sing the Doxology, a host of indigenous began to clap along. That, friends, was a stunning meeting of cultures.
These have been some of our experiences between Santa Cruz and Cochabamba. We´re thankful for each others´company and for the hospitality of the many we´ve met on our way. We´re thankful, too, to be learning about the global Church and its different expressions, and to be so often invited to participate in the living body of Christ wherever we are. We´re thankful to our present hosts for their welcome and look forward to talking with them more. We´re thankful to all of you for reading our thoughts and supporting us in our exploration. And we´re excited and hopeful about the continuation of our journey.
Dios les bendiga, amigos y familiares.
God bless you, friends and family.
Matthew, on behalf of the cyclists.