November 30, 2010

Living with open windows

Category: Things Jim hasn't figured out.

Turns out this is a broad, broad category with many, many things of various shapes, sizes, and importance. Importances? That can't be right. Add basic grammar to the list.

One of these things is Puerto Rican weather. It's still very hot. It is the tropics, after all, but I don't know if this is going to last forever. Maybe it gets comfortably cooler someday. In Juana Diaz, the average high drops from 91 in summer to 87 in winter. Apparently, that's enough of a change for Puerto Ricans to shy away from the beaches and buy jackets at Old Navy when they put 'em on the racks. But: I'm learning what it's like to live with your windows open, all the time. I sleep with the windows open, the atmosphere creeping in through the shutter slits.*

When people nearby are burning things, I smell campfire. When someone starts their car in the morning just outside my window, I get a deep breath of exhaust. And each morning, there comes this point shortly after I come out of deep sleep but long before I need to get up, when my sense of smell brings me out of my dreams and back to the reality that I'm living by the ocean, and as I lay there I can smell the salt in the air and there's a peace about it. And I hear everything: The ocean, the cars whizzing down PR-1, cats fighting mere feet away from my sleeping ears. Turns out the Marshall cat is a bully.

Add Going to the Movies in Puerto Rico to the list. Yesterday, Julio and I went to see Unstoppable. Fantastic movie, by the way. A timetable:
2:05: We sit down, and there's nothing on the screen. iPod touch time.
2:15: Posted showtime. Still nothing on the screen. No music. Nada.
2:17: Commercials/previews begin. They're mixed in with each other.
2:48: AFTER 31 MINUTES OF COMMERCIALS AND PREVIEWS THE MOVIE FINALLY STARTS. I thought maybe something was wrong. I wanted to go find someone and ask them why there was no movie, why we were only seeing previews and commercials when I had paid $3.50 to see Denzel Washington race against time to stop a runaway train carrying toxic chemicals in this non-stop thrill-ride also starring Chris Pine and Rosario Dawson. All the while, we were freezing. You would people living in a tropical culture would prefer keep the thermostat a little higher, like out of the 50s. People bring sweatshirts and coats to the movies. Maybe ones they bought at Old Navy. Also, it was too loud. But I don't want to complain.

Really, I don't.

I am not a curmudgeon. It's a Grace Adventures-ism to choose your attitude, because when you begin to be cynical and skeptical, you can only view the world through that lens, and everything gets flavored a little more sour than it really is. I feel compelled to tell you I like it here a lot. But it's the peculiar stuff that is worth mentioning. After all, no one wants to hear that I spent Sunday afternoon lying in a hammock between two coconut trees, reading the Hobbit. Without a fruity, frozen beverage.

People who get to come here for a few days or a week usually can only take a handful of reactions home. A few that are easy pickins': The people are really crazy, dangerous drivers. They only eat rice and beans. It's so hot. There are lots of fast food places, and they're not fast. There are lots of bugs, and some of them are really big. The movies start late and they crank the AC so you freeze. There are mangy dogs everywhere. Some of the cats are mean.

Those might very well be the first things on kids minds when they return home and are asked about their mission trip. But I hope they've had much deeper reactions than a few natural and cultural oddities. That's not why they come, that's not we host them, that's not what missions are about.



Speaking of things I don't have figured out... But that's a topic for later.

*Not to be attempted as a tongue twister, ever.

November 24, 2010

No comprendo

I have lived here for two whole weeks and I still cannot speak Spanish.

Before I came, people gave me mixed advice as to how well I'd get along here with my level of Spanish. I know a little bit. Not a lot, but enough to be dangerous. And little enough to be dangerous. A guy from the Dominican told me I'd be fine.

Lawrence, a missionary who's been here for a long time, told me you're never lost in Puerto Rico. There's always another English speaker around, no matter where you are. All of the government documents are supposed to be in English and Spanish. I think they're supposed to provide an English translator if you have official government business. That's not always the case, though. At one government office, Lawrence was told "We speak Spanish here."

Kids learn English growing up in school. So anyone who's been educated should, in theory, be able to speak it, at least a little bit. But there's a reluctance to pick it up. People don't always admit it when they do know it. They would rather speak Spanish than stumble through a conversation in English, and I can't really blame them for that. I've had a few encounters which begin something like this:

Me: "¿Hablas inglés?"
Them: [shakes head]
Me: [unintelligible, grammatically barren Spanish mumbling]
Them: "Jeez. I guess I can help you with that."

Now, this doesn't always happen. I actually can get a few thoughts across. I'm getting pretty good at telling people, in Spanish, that they need to speak slowly because I'm bad at Spanish. Hablo muy terriblé. And when people speak slowly and deliberately, I can pick up what they're talking about and usually formulate a response.


When I'm all alone, and someone says something to me in Spanish, my brain's first response usually isn't to translate, it's "Holy crap, Spanish. Whaddaya gonna do?" And so even if they say words I know, I don't hear them. The other day I was at the mall in Ponce looking for some flippy-floppies (I was in my swim trunks.) The clerk behind the counter said "Buenos Tardes." (Good afternoon.) I panicked. "Bien, ¿y tu?" (Good, and you?) The next thing she said was, in English, "You don't speak Spanish, do you?" I hung my head and said no. It's simulataneously hilarious and humiliating. But I do. Sort of. I can read it, I can hear it fairly well. I just can't hardly speak it.

There have been a few interactions in which I, much like a Puerto Rican who'd rather just not mess with an awkward conversation in the wrong language, just confess I don't speak Spanish. Someone will rattle off long, mumbly phrases that I don't understand. "No comprendo," I said, once.

I've heard that before. It's kind of the cliché phrase you'd hear in the States from an immigrant, often from Latin America. "No comprendo."

I haven't always handled it well. It's frustrating to hear when you're trying to convey something. Oh jeez. another non-speaker. If you're gonna live in the country, ya better learn to speak the language.

But there's something really humiliating about confessing that. I live here and I don't speak the language. I'm suddenly something people have to accommodate. When I first said "no comprendo," I immediately thought about immigrants who have to say that in the States, and how they must share my humiliation. I can never, ever, hear that again without feeling great empathy.

I've never been one to rage about the fact that you need to press one for English and extend your phone call for another 3 seconds. Some people throw a fit over that. This is America. We speak English here. Most of us do. Some of us don't. We all probably should eventually, but it takes some time.

Either way, language is a huge barrier. If I'm going to live here and serve people, and relate to them, I had better be able to speak their language. My job requires it.

In other news:

They have Black Friday here, too.

Speaking of Thanksgiving-related chaos, here in Puerto Rico they have the Turkey Run. Like our lame-duck day-before-a-holiday school days, kids show up to school and don't really do anything. They eat breakfast. Then they have a race and the winner gets a Turkey. I went this morning to check it out at the school down the road. And since I still can't figure out how to embed the video and have it fit right, video is HERE.

November 18, 2010

How I came to have a dead roach in my sink.

I don't consider the following to be a particularly harrowing tale, nor do I consider my foe to be a particularly harrowing foe. He (she?) is but one of many roaches I will encounter here in Puerto Rico, and I suspect I should encounter larger, stranger bugs under even more precarious circumstances later on. But the roach in this tale has the distinction of being the first living roach I encountered. So he (I'm going to make assume for the purpose of brevity that it's a male) gets his own blog entry.

I was cleaning and reorganizing my kitchen a bit. I had just replaced the liner in my garbage can. It was pristine and unblemished, its mouth stretched wide, the plastic pure and white and clean down below. If you happened to, say, deposit the last bit of toast or fruit inside, one could still retrieve and consume it without much apprehension.

My dishes and food items had heretofore been somewhat intermingled between kitchen cabinets and open hanging shelves. I had decided, for wont of avoiding insect-related contamination, to place the dishes in the cabinet and the food items (properly sealed, of course) on the open shelves. Time would tell if this was a wise decision or not, but at that point I'd shuddered at the idea of dishes out in the open, crawling with the massive bugs I'd been warned of by those who'd journeyed here previous to me.

I had seen bugs. Why, just that day I'd encountered more than a fair allotment of mosquitoes, whipping weeds as they ignored my exposed and Off!-greased limbs, penetrating to my shoulder blades through the defense of a single t-shirt. I would later inspect the damage and find each shoulder blade tragically festooned with dozens of bites. And of course, in my weed-whipping I'd made enemies of several fire ant colonies, effortlessly lopping off the tops of their habitats and watching as they gushed forth to repair the destruction I'd left. I'll stop short of promoting the theory that all bugs are in cahoots. But I have my suspicions. I have reason to believe that a certain cockroach was sent my way.

There, behind a humidity-crusted Gatorade can left by an intern who lived here before me, he lay in wait until I began my domestic duties. I began to transfer the goods. And as I moved the can aside he emerged, bold and surprisingly mobile, shocking in his agility. He skittered off behind the nearest defensible position, an empty tupperware container. I leaped back.

I stood there for a moment. This is it. It's going down. Me and him. At least, I hope it's just me and him. He better not have friends. Don't roaches always have friends? How many am I dealing with here? Assess the situation. One small cupboard. One small roach. It's time to move.

I approached the cupboard. I removed everything from the left of his position. Then everything to the right. I searched nearby for a non-cooking-utensil that was blunt and capable of flattening a cockroach. I settled on a broom. And then: Quickly snatched the tupperware from the cupboard. He fled to a corner and stopped.

I stared at him. He stared back at me.

Get the camera. No, he'll be gone.

I stood there for a minute longer. Not time to smash him yet.

How do roaches like fire?

There was a lighter nearby. I flicked it again and again, increasingly closer to him, illuminating the cupboards. He cowered. I was clearly the one in charge here. He'd gotten himself in way over his head. Barring some last-minute death-defying heroics on his part, I was going to win.

With a sharp jab of the broom handle, I squashed him into the corner, and he fell to the bottom of the cupboard. Victory. I jabbed him again. There was a stain of roach goo on the wood behind him.

Those who have encountered roaches before will know it's far too early to call this match.

Very soon, the roach popped up again, skittering in a circle, less agile but every bit as quick. I leaped back again.

I cannot say how he did what he did next, only that he did it. In his limp, half-smashed condition, he managed to get up over the lip of the cupboards and get airborne. Flight, blessedly brave, courageous flight. Now, when a thing manages to get itself launched like that, it is beyond the realm of reason and nothing can be assumed about his capabilities. As his flight carried him downward, I instinctively stepped back and tried to guess what his trajectory would be upon landing. He came to a hard landing on the lip of the sink, and stumbled clumsily toward the drain.

And there he stayed, exhausted, his antennae waving in the sultry Caribbean air, waiting for me to end it.

Very slowly, I raised the handle of the broom, and brought it down with a crunch, halving him over the grate of the drain.

And that is how I came to have a dead roach in my sink.

I fished him out with a plastic bag and tossed him into the garbage can. And there he presently rests, wrapped in a plastic bag, the sole occupant of an otherwise pristine garbage can.

November 15, 2010

Cueva Ventana

We work Saturdays. We get Mondays off.

Yesterday, Julio and I drove up through the mountains to Cueva Ventana in the northern part of the island. Along the way, we stopped at an oft-visited spot called The Jump, where you can dive 25-35 feet into the water. I was man enough for the 25-foot jump. Not the 35. Yet. Afterward, we visited a roadside stand for some Domplinas, which are like meat pies. Mine was chicken, and it was amazing, and I want another one. Then, onto Cueva Ventana. The picture and the video won't do it justice, but here they are anyway:

[click to embiggen]

Find a video here.

This is the first video I ever put on YouTube. It's kind of a big deal. Now, if only I can figure out how to fit the video into this template....


November 12, 2010


The ground here has been saturated by recent rainfall. When I arrived, there were puddles everywhere. And Campamento del Caribe sits near a big swamp (maybe a few big swamps) so when the rain comes, it swells. There's another bog that overflows and streams across the road, around camp, and finally into the Caribbean. So there's a lot of water. And there are a lot of mosquitoes. They are particularly bad today, enough that I need to run from my apartment to the office.

Julio told me putting on bug spray would be part of my morning routine – shower, dry, deodorant, bug spray. I resisted at first, but he was right. Even when I put it on, I find myself covered in bites. They're persistent too. There's no sense in wearing multiple layers, it's too hot. And these bugs are very capable of biting through a single t-shirt. So you can overdress and sweat through the tropical heat, or you can underdress and hope to avoid the bugs. I favor the bugs over the heat. For now.

Tropical life is a whole new reality. I'm not nearly so enamored with the palm trees as I was when I came here for a week 12 years ago. The ocean right out my back door is nice. But it doesn't feel like paradise, doesn't feel like vacation. It's not vacation, it's not paradise. It's life. It's work. It's permanent. And that's not a disappointment.

I haven't had an “I'm really here!” moment yet. Moving somewhere on an airplane is so abrupt.

You start in an airplane terminal in a major city. You step into a tube with wings and semi-comfortable seats and a whole bunch of other people and complimentary beverages. The tube leaves. A few hours later, it lands. You leave the tube and find your suitcase, just as you'd packed it (in theory). And then you step out into a new world. So just like that, in a matter of hours, your reality distinctly changes. There's nothing gradual about it. If you drive, you see the landscape subtly transform. Your route lets you see where you've come from and where you're going. It's gradual. And gradual is nice, it lets you take your sweet time and observe and muster your courage and test things out a bit. Gradual is safe.

But you can't drive to an island. You can't get here gradually. You have to jump in. You don't get to test things, to observe. You're confronted with things that take some getting used to.

There's spanish with a lisp - “Como ethta?” There's the constant sound of fans, as long as the power is on. The other day, the power was off because of a recent thunderstorm. Julio said he laid down on concrete floor to cool off and fell asleep and Evi, his dachshund, came and licked his fingers to make sure he was okay. I'm used to a morning routine, but here you end the day covered in sweat and bug spray and sun block, and nobody should crawl into their sheets in that condition. So now it's pm showers only. Then there's Reggaeton. I brought distaste for it with me. I sat next to a reggaeton production supervisor on the airplane. People here love it, apparently, but I haven't met anyone yet who doesn't seem to hate it.

None of this, of course, is insurmountable.

November 9, 2010


Note 1: Travelogue. Hmm. What is a travelogue? Figure this out because whatever this is, it might not be a travelogue. Maybe it's “travel log.” That makes more sense than tagging on the -ue and making it all frenchlike. I have no love for the French. Well, travelogue or travel log, gotta write something useful.

Note 2: I used to like airports. I used to be fascinated with them. Less so, now. Too big, too busy, too anonymous. Less enamored with the fact that these people, unified by geography, are about to splinter out over the globe. Exotic locales are a little less enticing when you're about to move there for a year. It strikes me that I've done a lot of traveling alone in the last few years. That's good and bad. Bad because there's no one to watch your stuff when you need to make a trip to the can. Erm, garbage can. You're essentially tied to your stuff, one all-inclusive unit. I am my guitar. I am my bulky backpack. How new-agey. On the other hand, traveling alone is good because there's no one to wait for, to decide with, to argue with over where you buy your overpriced airport lunch. Today, it was Au bon pain. Au Bon Pan? Maybe. Upon finishing my meal ($13 for Mountain Dew, chips, and a sandwich. Yikes.) I wished it would have A) Tasted better and B) Cost less. Nothing I can do now, except make better budgetary decisions.

Note 3: Mom encouraged me to bring my guitar. I hesitated at first, I'd just assume leave it behind and borrow one from someone else when I get there. But she said she'd pay for me to bring it and it ended up being free anyway as a carryon. Now, there is something cool about walking through a crowded airport with a guitar. People can only assume that you're an accomplished musician. Really, I can play half of blackbird and a passable version of Vincent, and if I had a chord book I might be able to play some camp songs. But nobody knows that. I am the ultimate poser. And posing, it turns out, is kind of fun. But I learned one lesson: If you are going to bring a guitar and stow it above your seat, you had better make an attempt to be one of the first people on the airplane. Since they charge for bags now, everybody stuffs a carry-on bag to the point of herniation with a full suitcase worth of clothes. As a result, all the overhead bins are full, without failure. So, while everyone is seated, waiting to leave behind the airport and its overpriced sandwiches, you're fumbling to stuff a guitar case into a bin above someone else's seat waaaay at the back of the plane. I broke a sweat and just barely (I hope) maintained my composure. Awkward city. When I boarded, there was one flight attendant who said, “Try to put it up above and if you can't we'll see if we can fit it in the closet.” I thought, and if you can't fit it in the closet? I didn't ask this. I was the last one to sit down. One flight attendant, who was either in charge or on the bottom of the totem pole because she was the only one willing to assist me, at least came over and offered some suggestions. I believe I was the last person to sit down. We took off ten minutes late. Whether or not it was my fault, I do not care to find out.

Note 4: Uncapitalize the title thing if you're going to blog it. You could do it now.... Eh, do it later.

Note 5: ATL to SJU. There's nothing remarkable to remember about this flight. Which is a good thing. The guy next to me assumed possession of the armrest early. They showed Salt, which is exactly the type of movie I guess I expected to see on an airplane. In all of the flights I've been on, I've never been any good at sleeping. Or reading. I mostly look out the window and count down the minutes until we land. Which, when you're flying over the Atlantic at night, there's not a whole lot to see. So this was a boring, slightly uncomfortable flight.

Note 6: San Juan. The first thing I saw next to the airport in San Juan: The Golden Arches. Turns out Puerto Rico has every single fast food joint West Michigan does. So, if comfort food is how you cope, you're going to be fine in Puerto Rico. Julio picked me up. I stepped out of the air conditioning of the airport and into the sweltering, thick, nasty air of San Juan. I will not leave this behind, night or day, save for an occasional cold shower, for the next year. We stopped at Wendy's. Because they don't feed you on three hour flights. Puerto Rican Wendy's is the same as Wendy's in the States except you order things from the English menu to people who (claim they) don't speak English. And it seems to take longer for them to get it done. As we drove south, up into the mountains to cross the island, I saw countless Burger Kings, Wendy's, McDonald's, Church's Chickens, and Subways. Puerto Rico remains very much unique and separate from The States, but like us they have embraced the Dollar Menu.

November 3, 2010

I submit:

I can reach way back into my childhood and find the first little prompts that I should become a missionary. Our church hosted missions conferences, and the missionaries who were home on furlough would tell stories and show videos of their exotic, exciting foreign lives. I latched onto the sorts of things that any kid would - images of crappy roads, rustic churches, big bugs and palm trees... being a missionary would be awesome.

Or I can look back at my family history and see that more than a few of my aunts and uncles were missionaries at some point, a point driven home by some of the missionaries I was with in Zambia. "It's in your blood" they told me. Maybe it is. Maybe this whole thing precedes my birth. It's exciting when I think that God had these plans for me long before I was born. Before my family was around. Before the world was around. Okay, I guess I need to reach back to the dawn of time.

Before God created the world, He knew what He'd have me do. It's like, part of His master plan. It's like, cosmic. It's like, whoa.

Okay, let's not get too excited here. But God did have this in store for me from the beginning. It just took me a long time to figure it out.

I considered Bible college when I was in High School. But there was this persistent voice from inside and outside that said: you're smart, get a job, make money. I honestly thought, I love missions but somebody's got to stay here and make money and give it to missionaries. So I went to a big school, and then another big school, and spent five years and tens of thousands of dollars trying to figure out what I was gonna do with my life for a career. I spent my summers at camp. Then I graduated and tried to find a job. And I still spent my summers at camp.

Five years ago, I went to Africa because a friend told me to talk to a missionary from there. Two years ago, I went back again because some missionaries from there invited me and it would have been rude to turn them down and besides, I wanted to go anyway and couldn't get it out of my mind. I think I went for the adventure, to be honest. When I was there, that was when missionaries told me that it was in my blood. When I was there, that was when I realized that the yearning to be a missionary had been in me for a long, long time. When I was there, that was when I decided it I would go and be a missionary for longer, someday.


Even then, even when I knew I'd go back, I still had reservations. I was going to go home for a while, keep the crazy missionary pursuits in the "Somedays." There were three things that held me back.

First, a career. If I was going to be a missionary, I would need a trade. I didn't have formal training in missions or evangelism or even ministry. I wanted a trade, a way to make sure I'd feel helpful. A way to justify my being there, a way to feel qualified. Like, I could be a teacher or a builder or a radio guy or a doctor, except not a doctor because that would take a long time and would involve cutting people open.

Second, money. Again, five years of college adds up, and I wanted to be unshackled from that debt. Taking time to pay off debt would allow me the opportunity to stay stateside, to stay safe, to be around my family and, just maybe, work on that third thing - find a wife.

Maybe it's just me, but when you are 24, 25, 26 and single, people start to worry for you and want to hook you up with their friends and start posting Greek Mail Order Bride links on your Facebook wall. You might not feel concerned at first, but the worrying that others do on your behalf is contagious, and you begin to do the math and envision scenarios where you're 40 and alone with cats. I can't have that. I'm allergic to cats.

All three of these things are legitimate concerns. A career, financial freedom, and a spouse are examples of the need to feel useful, to feel free, and to feel companionship. There's nothing wrong with any of these. But naturally, I placed the burden to meet those needs squarely on myself.

I'll go someday, I told myself, but I can't see how I'll ever get along once I come back unless I have a career to come back to.
I'll go someday, I told myself, but I want to pay these bills first, because I can't see how I'll be able to do that when I'm out there.
I'll go someday, I told myself, but I can't see how I'll be able to find a wife if I'm a million miles away.

"I'll go someday, but I can't see how...."

What a thing to tell yourself when you're thinking about working for the kingdom of God! You can't serve God while building up your own safety systems in case he doesn't come through. Either He is sufficient or He is not. Jesus sent his disciples out with nothing. How can you trust Him to do big things in other people's lives if you don't trust Him to do small things in your own?

It dawned on me about a year ago that I was struggling with faith. I believed that God was there, sure, but I wasn't so confident that he'd take care of me. I wanted to take care of myself before I went. Of course, that hasn't worked out too well for me over the last couple years. I got a start to a career to pay down debt. I don't need to go into details, but it was a mismatch and I often felt miserable. And I'm still single. But I'm gonna go anyway.

This summer, I submitted to give up the search for a career and any worries over my debt and single-tude, and consented that I would indeed go forth and serve in ministry. The funny thing is that this specific opportunity centers around camping ministry, the thing I did to fill time in college. I've heard the saying for a loooong time that God does not call the qualified, he qualifies the called. And that was my prayer when I submitted. I'll go. I'm not ready, but you are who you say you are and I trust you with all the other stuff.