February 21, 2011

More cowbell

Monday, blessed Monday.

I must have the greatest job in the world. I get Monday off. I get tomorrow, my birthday, off as well. Today, I cleaned. Tomorrow, I chill. That is a worthy reward for working the weekend.

This was a weekend I'd been thinking about and looking forward to and planning for months, all without having any idea what it was going to look like. I knew just little enough to have an excuse for it to tank, but had just enough responsibility to feel some ownership for it. It's a weird position to be someone new in an ongoing ministry with all of its traditions, patterns, relationships, and unwritten rules. They bring you in with fresh eyes, to improve things and make changes and see it like they don't. But you have to be a spectator for a while - after all, some things are untouchable.

This weekend was our 9-12 year old February Retreat. It needs a better name than that, I know. We did our marketing, mailed out lots of brochures and hung posters all over the place. A few signed up ahead of time, many didn't. That's an ongoing challenge here - you never know just how many are going to show up. As of Friday, we had 15 or 16 on the list, guessing that "maybe 30?" might come. By 8:00 Friday night, there were 32 or 33 kids here, which was just a hair above my lofty expectations of "maybe 30?"

That's enough to make traditional camp large-group games fun and have a diverse bunch. Enough to drown out my amateur guitaring in chapel and to make defending in Gold Rush a challenge.


- Kids asking me again and again for Mosquito tag. They would just come up and demand more Mosquito. Come to think of it, all the games seemed to go over pretty well. Oh, and kids cheated. But whatcanyado?

- Francisco telling me he learned English from Cable TV. I didn't realize how effective that was.

- It is never not funny to wake kids up with a cowbell. Ever. My quote: "I've got a prescription.... Dang it, I messed the line up. I've got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell." Cue Julio on cowbell, mostly right in kids faces.

- Kids had fun, heard about Jesus, and no one got seriously hurt. That sums up a successful retreat fairly well, I'd say.


-Me picking the same girl, with the unpronounceable name (for me, anyway), twice as a demonstration for mosquito tag. Went something like this:
"You have to say their name three times while giving a double high-five to a partner over their head. What's your name?"
"Uluaualsamar" (or something)
[long pause]
"Okay, Ulaammaman, Ulauslubauar, hem-mm-hmm-mmm-mmr."

-My fingertips dying a slow death at the hands of the rusting strings on my guitar. I haven't played it regularly in months, so the ever-important callouses are kaput. Which leaves my tender fingers raw and hurty today.

What is going on here? This might have been Bible Study. I'm not sure.


February 13, 2011

barrio (part 2)

A barrio is not a city. It's a neighborhood. It's not necessarily a bad, depressed, ghetto neighborhood, it's just a neighborhood. That's what barrio means. This is a diverse place. There are a few really nice houses, and a few not-so-nice ones.

Proper cities in Puerto Rico have a town center that always has an open plaza and a Catholic church. Barrios don't. There might be 10,000 people living in the same area, but it's not a city. There's a highway on the edge of it that has a few bakeries, gas stations, cafes, and other small shops, but other than that it's just houses and people - in the case of this one, packed in between the highway and the sea.

From what I hear, a lot of the barrios sprung up around factories or farms. This side of the island used to produce a lot of sugar cane for rum. The Puerto Rican sugar cane industry isn't what it once was. But they still make a lot of rum here. There's a Don Q factory down the road where they distill it, and it is one of the most awfulest smells you can imagine. A long time ago, everyone lived in the barrio right by the place they worked. But now, all of their descendants are living in the same places long after the factories and farms are gone.

I can't begin to guess what they all do for a living today. I know a lot of them commute to a "proper" city nearby, like Juana Diaz or Ponce. I heard rumors of a guy who makes the daily 90+ minute commute to San Juan. There are fisherman, I know that much because I see them standing out by the highway holding their daily catch in a plastic bag for passers by. You know, "for your consideration." I've heard the story of one of the bakeries, that they started making bread in their house and selling it under an umbrella by the road. They made money, invested it in their panaderia and now it's a successful, family business. One that has really, really good fried chicken.

On the whole, this is not a wealthy place. People here may never leave. Literally, some of them might stay here their whole life without making the 20 minute drive down the road into the big city. Barrio people are different from city people in the same way that back in the States, country folks are different from city folks. They live "out there." They might not get out much.

This was demonstrated to me last week when we took the youth group from John's church in the barrio to a talent show at a big church in Ponce. The scene there was much like any bigger church with a healthy youth group - lots of people, a few apparent cliques, many kids dressed to impress. They dress better than me, but I'm far enough removed from high school not to see that as a threat. We sat down, and all the barrio kids huddled together, hunched over, buddied-up. There were seven kids in six seats, with a seventh chair open right next to them. They were safer together.

Theresa had to point this out to me, otherwise I might not have noticed. I asked what the big deal was, and she told me they saw themselves as different. They were uncool barrio kids. It's kinda like putting yourself in that country bumpkin category. Like showing up to a club in overalls and a flannel shirt. (And what's wrong with that?)

Like I said, I didn't immediately notice the difference. I still ignorantly slap a very general Puerto Rican label on everyone here. But the barrio kids - they stayed isolated, safe like that. Clearly, there are some differences. I don't get all of them. But they're there.

We drive a van through the barrio to pick up kids for Club on Wednesday night. This drive takes us to two points where drugs are regularly exchanged. Beautiful spots, owned by dealers, right on the sea, right by these kids' houses. More often than not, they pass it off right in front of us.

How can you grow up in that and not have it affect you? I often wonder - how many of these kids are going to make it? And what is "making it," anyway? Not dealing drugs? Getting out of the barrio, as if it's a place you need to escape? Economic success? Becoming a pastor or missionary? I don't know the answer to that.

If you can't know if they'll "make it," maybe there's no sense in asking the question. Maybe you just show up everyday and let God do what he does.

barrio part 1

Sometime around 4 am, the roosters start.

It doesn't stop until sunset. Sunset. But they're at their worst around 6:30 am, right as I get up. Then, it's a constant stream of cock-a-doodle-doos.

There's a freshman rooster in one of the yards behind us. His goes more like, "Cock-a-doodle! (doo)" like the doo is an afterthought. He'll get it someday. When I'm first waking up, it's kind of funny.

I moved in here on Tuesday to stay for a week while John and Kerry, the missionaries here, are away in The States. The first night was restless, mostly on account of the roosters, but also the heat and a new mattress. But I'm getting used to it now. Having a whole house and a car for a while is nice.

I'm also taking care of their dogs, Jeb and Maggie. They're two golden retrievers that show me that dogs do, indeed, have very different personalities. Jeb is a moose who is big and clumsy. He's always having to back out of spaces, and dogs are typically no good at this. His brain is attached to his stomach. Maybe it's in his stomach. All he ever wants is food. Maggie wants nothing to do with food. I have to sit with her and force her to eat. I think maybe she fills up on bugs and lizards while I'm out.

The first day I came back from camp to get stuff ready for Club Alas (think Awana) and Jeb and Maggie were inside the gate to the driveway waiting for me. I had an armful of stuff (read: pair of athletic shorts, bag with a donut, keys, books, ice cold soda-pop) and had to creatively maneuver the key through the bars into the padlock. I popped it, slid the gate open, and Jeb immediately bolted down the street. He stopped close enough to lure me without trying to put all my crap down. When I got close, he bolted again. And again. Not funny. I kept a few choice words between my mind and my tongue. He ran into a fenced-in-parking lot and darted between the cars while I chased after. He's got technique. He's done this before. I finally caught up with him and dragged him back by the collar, telling him along the way just how uncool and unacceptable all of this was. I wasn't sure how to punish a dog so I simply withheld petting him for the rest of the day. That'll teach. He was constantly begging for it before. Naughty dog.

Living in the barrio changes my perspective of it. It's this noisy place full of people and their dogs and chickens and horses and radios and cars and houses. I had ideas about it before I came, mostly gleaned from TV crime dramas and movies. And I had been to the barrio before. But living in it for a week, I'm starting to understand it a little more. And at the same time, I realize there's a ton I don't know about it.

February 8, 2011

tres meses

Not that this is a hugely momentous occasion or anything, but today marks three months since I left home. That gets a teeny-tiny asterisk because I went home for Christmas, but it's still three months since I left home. "For good." For the record, it's also been three months since my last haircut.

I say "for good" not because I'm done with Michigan, but because it's for the foreseeable future. Living abroad gives you a perspective on home that you can't get from within.

I live in paradise, yet I miss home. I know there are people dying to get away from the snow and the cold of winter in Michigan. I can't really blame them, I felt the same way each of my past 26 winters. Okay, maybe it's only been 10 or 11 that I really wanted out of the tundra. Up until that point I was happy to sled away the winter. But I understand the urgency with which we want Spring to arrive. Curse that awful groundhog.

There's warm sunshine falling on my desk through the shutters of my window, and when I stop hunching over the keyboard, I can see the Caribbean. But what's on my mind? I wonder what's for dinner tonight. I miss my family. I need to fold some laundry that's sitting in a basket in the middle of my kitchen. I think I threw away a plate when I tossed out the seafood salad someone gave me - I just can't motivate myself to eat more octopus than I have to. I hope they don't ask for the plate back. There are a million things I need to do for work, yet I'm sitting here blogging. There's a pile of thoughts nagging at my mind, not a one has me lying on a beach somewhere.

It doesn't feel like paradise, it feels normal.

When you visit a place like this, you ache when you leave because it's so sun-shiney and warm, but its beauty is really in its temporariness. Things that are fleeting often are beautiful: A sunset, a certain piece of music, youth, abrupt memories, vacation. They are things that are not to be missed, but can't be bottled up and saved. For me, it would be beautiful to go home and see my friends and family for a few days. I got to hear my niece on the phone the other day, and it gave me a big, silly smile.

I know that I have it really good here - I would say that I love it here. But that doesn't shake the thought that I miss my family, I miss Michigan, coming in from the cold. It bugs me that I'll miss a Michigan summer. I wonder if its just our generation that constantly wants to be somewhere else. We don't want to settle, we're hesitant to say "I love it here."

But inevitably, you do settle. You adapt. Wherever you land, you stay who you are. If you are laid back, you will be laid back at home and in paradise. If you are neurotic, you'll be neurotic at home and in paradise. If you are content, depressed, crotchety, at peace, curious, compassionate, hilarious, careless, adventurous, dangerous - that's what you'll be wherever you go. Where you are has little to do with who you are. You don't ever get away from that.

And so I'm here, loving it, but thinking often of home and family. Odds are, I'll stay longer than the year I first signed on for. I think that's the way it's supposed to go. The mission here makes a lot more sense if I can be constant, consistent, see it through to the end and make my contributions.