A Part of My Heart is in the Mountains of Peru

This is the text of an article I wrote for Tacoma’s News Tribune, published on July 27, 2015.

Six years ago my son Brendan and his wife Erin moved to Andean Peru as missionaries, beginning a relationship with the Quechua people.  Making this kind of commitment is a little like getting married: in ways you can hardly fathom, you are suddenly connected to a new family.   My husband Rory and I, like in-laws at an international wedding, now find ourselves deeply connected to a country not our own.

Brendan, Erin and Oliver sharing a Spanish-language book

Brendan, Erin and Oliver sharing a Spanish-language book

In these six years, Rory and I have visited Peru five times.  We have grown uncomfortably familiar with the long trip, which includes a sleepless night in the Lima airport, then a dusty bus ride along dizzying cliffs, and finally an exhausted arrival in the small mountain city of Abancay.  This is a journey of the heart.  We are coming to know this rugged, workaday part of Peru in a way that tourists can’t.

Abancay, with a population of about 70,000, is the concentrated center in a region of subsistence farming.  Brendan and Erin work in the city and its surroundings, Erin as a dentist and Brendan as a linguist, Bible teacher, and advisor for Peruvian churches. Brendan is known among the locals as “the gringo who speaks Quechua.” Their son Oliver attracts instant attention as Abancay’s only blond child.  Just under two years old, he eats cuy (guinea pig), loves his black-haired playmates, and speaks words in Spanish, English and Quechua. He is a Peruvian native.

But I am not, and my friendship with this country took time to grow.  On my first trip I was an observer, noticing the things every newcomer sees: the terrifying drivers, the restrooms without toilet paper (when you can find any restrooms at all), and above everything, the stark power of the mountains.

bougainvillea in AbancayWith later trips I saw more: bougainvillea growing over adobe walls.  Cattle on the roads.  Donkeys transporting long grasses grown for animal feed.   Crowded old mini-buses called combis tearing around town.   Quechua women cooking over outdoor fires, or carrying their babies in colorful q’epis (woven blankets) on their backs.  Teens playing volleyball in the street in front of Brendan’s house, moving the net for cars to pass.  I saw that although Andean life was hard, it had its own strength and beauty.

With each trip back to Peru, I have grown a little less timid.  I have become used to waking each morning to the blasting of both roosters and radios.  I have taken Oliver on walks through the streets of Abancay, and the packs of stray dogs don’t bother us.  With my limited Spanish, I have bought pancitos (little breads) from the tiny store up the street, tried to comfort the neighbors’ crying toddler, talked with farm wives selling vegetables and listened to shopkeepers joking with Brendan.

There is more.  I have heard the joyful, nasal singing in Quechua churches, seen the reverent way believers carry Bibles they can barely read.  I have met some of Erin’s nervous, hurting dental patients and seen their gratitude for her help. Rory and I have spent time among Brendan’s Peruvian colleagues; they like to see us when we visit Abancay.  It is humbling to realize they esteem us because we are the family of Hermano (Brother) Bernardo, as they call Brendan, and Hermana (Sister) Erin.

Abancay's surroundings

Abancay’s surroundings

These people have welcomed us into their community; but much more importantly, they have welcomed Brendan, Erin and Oliver into their lives.  They are the Peru that Rory and I are coming to love. As I try to make conversation with them, there is so much I want them to understand, though I can hardly express it in my own language, let alone theirs:  When our loved ones settled among you, they found a good home.  Thank you for receiving them.  Thank you for being their Peruvian family.



Re-examining an American Mindset

This essay (minus the photos) was published under a different title in The News Tribune of Tacoma, February 9, 2015.  To see the TNT article, click here.  

In recent years two of my three sons embarked on international life journeys, and in a smaller way, so did I.  My son Brendan and his wife moved to Peru in 2009 as missionaries.  In 2011 my son Patrick and his family left for Yaoundé, Cameroon with the U.S. State Department, and two years later they moved again to Manila.  Meanwhile I was writing a novel set in communist Hungary.  Since 2006, between visiting my sons and doing research, I have traveled to Cameroon and the Philippines, to Peru five times and Hungary three times.  After walking around in countries scarred by poverty or fear, I find myself rethinking our proud American optimism.  We don’t realize how blithely we live.

No matter how we complain about medical costs, Americans can plan on a fairly long life.  What if we couldn’t?  In Cameroon my son Patrick saw African lives ending early: his middle-aged secretary died, and so did the five-year-old daughter of an embassy 146mechanic and the baby of the local banana seller.  A sad fact of Cameroonian life is its shortness.  What does this do to a nation’s worldview, encountering sorrow with harrowing regularity and having to say, “If I live, if my children live . . .”?  We Americans don’t realize how much we have, just to be able to assume we will raise our children.

As Americans, we are an entrepreneurial bunch, loving to dream big.  If something is a good idea, it must be possible, right?  Not everywhere.  In Andean Peru, expanded markets for poor farmers would certainly be helpful.  But simply transporting goods can be nightmarish: the roads, where they exist, sometimes wash out in landslides; drivers don’t abide by safety regulations; cops expect Peru-July-2011-291-smbribes.   So the Andean people carry on with subsistence farming and hope that a bad crop season won’t wipe them out.  In Cameroon trade is even more difficult.  Systems of management and leadership hardly even exist.  As one African told Patrick, “Sir, if you asked me to take ten cows to the top of Mt. Febé (a nearby peak), I could do it.  If you asked me to take ten men to the top, we would never arrive.”

In America we have spent our whole history building up the systems of leadership, communication and infrastructure needed to take almost anything to the top of Mt. Febé, so to speak.  Here, new ideas can be tried out because the basics “work.”  Until I visited places where the basics are despairingly difficult, I didn’t realize how thoroughly American systems have made ingenuity possible.  We can scoff at fear of failure.  Such scoffing is dangerous in cultures where failure is almost inevitable—and very costly.

Whether or not we realize it, Americans are used to believing things will work out.  Not all countries share our optimism.  This became especially clear to me in a recent email conversation with a woman in Hungary.  Her nation has a reputation for pessimism—which is not surprising,  since Hungary’s history is full of invasions, lost wars and

View Across the Danube from Castle Hill, Budapest

View Across the Danube from Castle Hill, Budapest

unwanted regimes.  My Hungarian acquaintance, Judit, had read the manuscript of my novel about her country.  She enjoyed the story and said it was well-researched and accurate, but it seemed American to her: “optimistic, in spite of the difficulties,” she said.

By American standards, my novel is not optimistic.  The characters give up their dreams.  Yet they manage to create a meaningful life, and maybe that was what Judit was calling optimism.  I prefer to call it hope.   Optimism is based on good circumstances; hope, as Václav Havel said, is based on the belief that life and our deeds have meaning, even when things go badly.  Do we believe that?  If so, then we Americans are people of hope, and that is our greatest gift in this hurting world.