Sunday, March 31, 2019


“The mountains shall bring peace to the people” (Psalm 72:3).

Like the mountains themselves, so also with stories: there are many approaches, many ways to get to the top. Let me take a mostly chronological approach. 

I had stayed at Maryknoll overnight to make it easier to rise and get ready for the day. The evening before I attended the screening of El Profesor, also known as Detachment, which presented the sorrowful mysteries of adulthood, of being a teacher, of being a student, of simply being a human being, the futility of education, of being lost in the city, of being lost in our private pain and secret trauma. Appropriate viewing for Lent, I guess, but not a popcorn movie, I would say. During the discussion, a few folks who spoke up wept because of what they saw. Memories of their own education; fears for their own children and their neighbors’ children. I left the discussion midway through because I felt sleep coming like a slow train, and I didn’t want to miss that train. 

I’m glad I left the film discussion when I did; I went to bed at twenty to ten and fell asleep quickly. I awoke Saturday morning before the sunrise feeling fully awake and refreshed. Then, a bonus: a hot shower! I had not had a hot shower since leaving the United States over six weeks earlier. It’s almost enough to make me want to change my accommodations and bunk with the Maryknoll priests! Well, I exaggerate, but you get the idea. A light breakfast after a light dinner the night before; thank you, Maryknoll fathers, for making your home my home for an evening. 

Then, waiting for Team Tunari to gather for the expedition. Our guide Emilio, one of the laborers here at the mission center, was ready and waiting for us with the driver and van. Alas, we did not leave at 7 o’clock as advertised. Two, no, three, of our hikers were caught up in city traffic and got to Maryknoll 20 to 25 minutes late. One of my pet peeves! The later you try to leave Cochabamba on a weekend, the longer it takes. But this irritation passed. Sometime after 7:30 a.m. we were on our way into the mountains. 

How many of us were we? Thanks to our organizer Joshua, you had seven of the language school students; and you had two former students, the ones with the Mennonite Central Committee, now volunteering here in Cochabamba, plus one of their friends doing social work research on violence against woman and girl asylum seekers. But wait, there were more! On the way out of civilization, we stopped at Tiquipaya and El Paso, north of the city, to pick up four more people. I think they were all family and friends of Emilio. At least the girl who was calling Emilio Tío had to be family. And so there were 16 of us in all, representing Bolivia, Ireland, Kenya, Korea, Liberia, and the United States. A tri-lingual (maybe multilingual), multicultural team. And all of us rode in one van, a Toyota HiAce, cramped and without passenger seatbelts. These vans are typical of the taxi-trufis that make the circuits around here. Dios mío, how I was praying for a safe journey up into Tunari and back! 

The ride to Tunari Peak was two and a quarter hours. Over that time, we went from straight and wide paved roads on level ground to narrow stony roads that curved again and again, making so many U-turns until you lose sense of direction. (You also lose the feeling in your butt as the vibrations rattle your spine.) One of the Korean students kept track of our elevation with an app on his phone. I was keeping track with my eyes. At some point, rather suddenly, we reached a change in perspective. No longer were we gazing at the mountains. We were now in the mountains, gazing around us. Having left the valley, now we were beholding the valley from above. With each U-turn, we came around to the same view, only higher and further from the cities and towns. I prayed as we made each turn and saw, now on your left, now on your right, steep cliffs. And everything, above and below, green, green, green. Halfway up to the place where we would commence the hike, we came to a bridge and small cataract and stopped, fittingly, for a bathroom break. 

To this point we had scarcely seen other people, other motorists. The stony road that winds and weaves its way up the mountains inclines very gradually, but for a climber it is a rather rugged and steep ascent from the base until you reach the final 2,000 feet. For those of you who thought we would be starting from Cochabamba at 8,000 feet and clawing our way up from the valley, my apologies! We’re not quite that intrepid. You know who are the intrepid ones? The herders who tend their llamas and sheep and sheepdogs and horses, too. We began to sight the animals at over 11,000 feet. They are intrepid, too. They were not afraid of us. Some of them were only inches from our passing vehicle. White llamas, brown llamas, white-and-brown llamas, white sheep, black sheep. Llamas are bigger than you expect! And all they need in this life is provided by the earth: water and grass and air. Looking at the shepherds’ thatched-roof stone huts, I thought to myself, the post office doesn’t deliver here. Hopeless thoughts of a helpless city dweller. Anyway, we rode so high into the mountains, we could no longer look down. There was no more down to see. The mountains, steep as they are from the lower reaches, sprawl so much that once you are well above two miles, there are few vistas from which you can see into the valley. 

At quarter to ten we reached the landing where we would begin the hike to Pico Tunari, the topmost peak of them all in Cochabamba. I estimate we were somewhere between 14,000 and 14,500 feet where we started. Having got here, what did I bring with me for the final ascent? Five layers of clothing, for starters: an undershirt, a brown sweater, a thin brown hoodie, a thicker, insulated brown hoodie, and my 25-year-old blue raincoat. On my feet I wore my rugged brown construction boots with good treads. I brought gloves, too. All of these were useful; all of them got worn. In my backpack I had a liter of Powerade, a half-liter of water, and crackers and chocolate cookies. I also carried my breviary, a pocket-sized New Testament, and a notebook. I had taken two 12-hour altitude sickness pills, one the night before and another at sunrise. Others carried their water and food, too, as well as sunglasses, moisturizer, sunscreen, and the like. Emilio, who has made this ascent about 20 times, had packed the least and wore the least. (He related to me that after his first ascent, he got lost on the way down, arriving at the landing at sunset, and the van had departed on him!) 

Having disembarked from the van and gathered our supplies, we started the hike. This is an ascent for almost everyone in good health and enough vigor for the journey. No prior experience was necessary for this expedition. There would be no special equipment or gear for our ascent. Just our feet, our bodies, our guide, and our God. 

Where the stony road ends, the hiking trail continues for about half the distance up Tunari Peak. Like the stony road before it, the trail has a gentle grade. And but for the peaks in our midst, the terrain off the path was also of a gentle grade. Thus we enjoyed a wide visibility and gorgeous views from every point of view. Early in the hike we saw several lagunas, all of them natural but for the first one that was filled with the fish called trucha that is sold everywhere in Cochabamba. There is still enough water for every creature who dwells at these heights. Though there are dry streams, we saw many running streams. We saw cascades and cataracts. There is dry ground, but also moist ground. At every step of our journey up and down, our footing was excellent.

Once you reach the end of the trail, it’s up to you where you want to go; the peaks are all around you, with plenty of paths of ascent. Our mind was set on Pico Tunari itself, which, although the highest peak, is much easier to ascend than the others. Emilio made a beeline for us through the terrain, now more grassy, now more rocky, here moist, here dry. 

Here I should note that we were breathless not only because of the fantastic landscape, but also because of the thin air. You should know that it took the team three hours to get to the top because we made frequent stops along the way. Sometimes you would go only as far as 100 meters (that’s 330 feet) before pausing. You could feel your heart beating hard! We could go only as quickly as the most winded member of our team. And we would leave no one behind unless they chose to stay behind. (A couple of them chose not to go forward to the top.) There were coca leaves aplenty to stimulate the hikers, and sorochji pills for the dizziness and headache, but everyone was going to feel the lack of oxygen if they pushed too far, too fast. Emilio knew when to pause for us and when to say continuamos, vamos. I trusted him implicitly and stayed with him at every step. Funny enough, I came to enjoy the pushing and pausing. I liked feeling the heavy beating of my heart, and I liked the feel and sound of my lungs pulling in pure oxygen and expelling exhausted air. My body felt good for working hard. As we pressed on I felt my body improving, refining its movements. The lungs breathing in and out more frequently, the legs stretching and making full strides. And the closer the peak loomed ahead of us, the more I wanted to get there. 

The higher we got, the more we were rewarded with spectacular, unworldly views. The clouds rose like smoke from below us and hung around the peaks, the vapors looking like smoke from a volcano. I became aware of the utter stillness, the utter silence. The only sounds you could hear, faintly, were the air stirring and the water gurgling. The quiet was as powerful a presence as the mountains. But, people being people, we punctured the stillness with our whistles and cries, waiting for the rebound of the sound waves. Sure enough, we got an impressive delay of echo. But it wasn’t all foolishness. As our team got spread out up the vast rocky terrain, Emilio and his niece would call out so that others who were trailing behind could keep following in the right general direction. 

The weather almost turned us around when we were a couple hundred feet from the top. What kind of weather do you get at 14,000 feet? All of it! The sun is with you all the time. So are the clouds. It gets warm one moment, then very cool the next, depending on where you stand. Anyway, shortly after noon, a freezing rain began to fall on us. It wasn’t heavy, but all around us the vapors were getting thicker, and a mist was rising from the terrain ahead of us. Emilio brought us to the side of a little escarpment and said it looked too dangerous to go up any further, what with the clouds and the slippery ground we would find. We were prepared to call it a day, thankful for how far we had come. But we waited anyway. And five minutes later, the rain was done, the mist had lifted, and there was more sun than clouds. We decided to go on. 

Higher and higher. We stopped more frequently. The slope was getting steeper, more gray than green, more rocky than soily. We saw three condors high in the air. We turned over rocks and found little lizards, who scurried away. Emilio found rare birds, a mother and its child, and showed his niece. These last steps were giant steps, up a 30-to-40-degree slope of rocky chips in which your feet sank a good couple of inches. I didn’t look up or down; I looked only at my feet and Emilio before me. At these latter stages of the ascent I found myself thinking of everyone back in the United States. I was making these giant steps for my friends, my loved ones, all who were dear to me. 

Here came the final giant steps. Emilio’s helping hand reached out to mine and pulled me up onto the peak. Made it! After Emilio, I was the first one there. 

Three miles high. I had never been at a higher elevation outside the cabin of an airplane. I cannot say that during the ascent or at the moment on top, I got a new consciousness of God. But I felt a serenity similar to the day a few Saturdays earlier when I walked out of my room into the rain and got wet in the cloister garden. Also, I felt at peace, with myself and with others, beginning with our hiking crew. As they arrived, I shared with them my crackers and cookies. Well, I had done so in the van and on the way, too, but now I felt more free to give away what I had. We had in a few hours formed a fellowship from the solidarity of breathing hard and pressing on. We had conversations with the people on our team we did not know. It was a long and lazy lunch as we luxuriated under the big sky. I lay on the ground, gazing up; I could have napped right then and there. Someone brought a bottle of champagne, and there was a toast. What was not consumed was spilled onto the ground in honor of Pachamama. Before we left the peak, the clouds below us dispersed from the south side of the peak, letting us see the city of Cochabamba in the valley. 

Going down Tunari Peak was easier than going up. After a kind of swift stepping, skipping, dancing down the first steep slope, we continued at a steady pace back to the place where the hiking trail had ended. Even with some members suffering from sore knees and dizziness, we made it back to the van in an hour and a half. God bless Emilio for taking one member by the hand and guiding her until she could continue by her own strength. Looking behind us, we were awed at what we did. We made it to the top of that peak, the very highest in Cochabamba! We did that? Yes! And many of us never broke a sweat in doing so. Well, we had stopped too often to break out in perspiration. At the van, we took a group photo, after team members had snapped probably thousands of pictures on the ride up and the hike up. I hope in a future post to share some of these pictures, if my colleagues are kind enough to e-mail them to me. 

On the ride down, as many of us were brought to silence by the exercise and the amazing views, I thought to myself, as I was getting another look at them, these are the most beautiful mountains in the world. Then, as if God was saying, you ain’t seen nothing yet … a rainbow, arcing for miles over the sky, across the valley, joining two peaks. My heart was full. 

I wish I could tell you more uplifting things than this. Alas, the rest of the journey back to civilization was anticlimactic. As we plodded down into the city, 16 of us in one van, I realized that I would ache more from sitting in the cramped van for two and a quarter hours than from hiking in thin air. We let two passengers off along the way. After the second drop-off, in Tiquipaya, just outside Cochabamba, the driver inspected the vehicle all around, returned to the car and grabbed a gallon-sized bottle of water. I could smell something burning like rubber or hot metal. The van had overheated. How long before it was safe to keep going? Not five minutes; more like an hour. Well, some members of our team had had enough camaraderie and exited to hail a taxi. As it became clear we were going nowhere fast, all of us left the van. Not a glorious parting of the ways. Joshua, Charles, and I hailed a taxi-trufi going our way, the two of them to Maryknoll, me to Convento San Francisco. Twenty minutes and two bolivianos later, I was two blocks from the convent. But I was hungry right then and there, and I had told the brothers I would not be at dinner, so I had a small cheese pizza at a restaurant on Avenida Heroinas. Nota bene, New Yorkers: they don’t seem to do pizza by the slice around here, so you have to wait as they make you a fresh personal pizza. Tired but satisfied, I returned to the convent. I looked in the mirror and was surprised at what I saw: totally windswept hair and a suntanned, almost sunburned face. Ultraviolet rays will get you at that altitude, cloud cover or not. The next two and half hours I said evening prayer and night prayer hastily, jotted some notes about the expedition, finished my crackers and Powerade, and went early to bed, at nine on the hour. 

Even now, after ten hours of rest, I feel the fatigue of our outing, and hungry, too, but it’s a good kind of tired, and a good kind of hunger. As I wrote briefly yesterday, I did something few people get the privilege of doing or have the daring to do. And the experience is going to continue to sink in. What will it do to me in the long term? Will it awaken a desire to climb other mountains? Will it teach me to persevere as I surmount the challenges in my life, emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual? Will the peace and serenity I received at Tunari Peak carry me through the valleys of la vida cotidiana and the occasional bout of timesickness? Will this experience bring me closer to the God who made the mountains and calls us to rise above them? I hope I can say, I hope I will say, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes.

Saturday, March 30, 2019


I am here now at Convento San Francisco after a full-day trip to Tunari Peak and back again. Our team made it to the top!

My body feels really good after climbing thousands of steps and descending for thousands more. It’s like the feeling you get after a workout, but it’s more than that. I feel good for having dared myself to do this. I feel good for having seen what I saw. I feel good for having had the experience.

I will be composing my thoughts and retracing the steps of my journey, and I hope to post a full report for you tomorrow.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Solo Dios

“ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength’ ” (Mark 12:30).

A quickie post for today. This was the final day of my first six-week term at Maryknoll. On Monday the 1st, a new six-week term begins, perhaps with new students arriving as well. Otherwise, it looks as though Joshua and I will continue at the same level together, and likely advance at about the same time, too. And we say adios to Profesoras Liliana and Julia for now, to await our new tag team of teachers for the next three-week segment.

This evening I return to Maryknoll to have dinner at the priests’ house and to see a film titled El Profesor (in English the title is Detachment), starring Adrien Brody, with a discussion to follow. I hope to feel good and tired by then, say 9 to 9:30 p.m., because we depart at 7 a.m. from the mission center for Tunari Peak tomorrow morning. Still I am waking in the middle of the night, at 3 or 4 in the morning, never to return fully to sleep. Let’s hope a change of routine tonight, and the thrill of the journey into the mountains tomorrow, reverses the course of my sleeping habits.

I have received good advice from friends and friars. Take the hike slowly. Pause when you need to rest. Stop when you can go no further. Bring your altitude sickness pills or coca leaves and use them. Dress warmly. Keep your hands and head covered. Expect rain. Refresh yourself with food and drink. Remember to breathe, deeply! And pay attention to your body and the beauty around you.

I will also do my best to pester the members of my hiking party who can and will take photos to share them with me so I can share them with you.

To all who are following my Bolivian journey, I invite you to consider your favorite verses of Scripture that relate to the mountains and pray for me and my companions with those verses tomorrow. I am curious: what will the experience of being two miles above sea level, standing on my own feet, bring to my consciousness of God? So many peoples around the world, religious or not, associate the ascent of a mountain with a spiritual quest. What graces will this unexpected pilgrimage bring? Come what may or may not, I hope this experience will help me be at one in myself; and to love the one God living and true with all my heart, all my soul, all my mind, and all the strength that is in my body.

Thursday, March 28, 2019


A diversion from the usual course of events at Maryknoll. On a Thursday, students take a field trip to some place of cultural and historical interest. I’ve written before about La Casona Santivañez and the mission churches in the center of the city. Today, Joshua and I were to go to a museum of natural history in the city—not a grand museum, measured by the scale of museums in the United States. Profesora Julia said we can tour this museum in its entirety in 45 minutes.

But we did not go to the museum today. Four of the language students are finishing their course of study this week. So we took advantage of a day when all of us go off campus anyway to send them off to the next chapter of their lives. Two of them are Maryknoll lay missioners who will stay in Cochabamba. One is a lay volunteer from Ireland who will work in La Paz, and another is considering an extended stay to volunteer in Bolivia.

Where did we go to celebrate? We went to a district northeast of the city center, called La Recoleta, and entered one of the oldest heladerías in the city. We did not come for the helado, which are fruit-flavored ices—you might think of Italian ices at your pizzeria, only more exquisite in flavor and variety. We came for the pasteles and for the hot beverages made from maize. I ordered api, made from purple corn and combined with ground yellow corn; it looks like a parfait when you receive it. It is flavored with sugar and cinnamon and clove. It is a thick drink and very satisfying. Thicker than api is tojorí, which half of our party ordered. The word at the table is that it tastes like a sweet oatmeal. Take your api or tojorí with cheese-flavored, sugar-sprinkled pasteles, and your day is guaranteed to be good. And so everyone did … but for one friar who thought outside the box, bypassed the pasteles, and ordered helado con canela. I’ve got my cinnamon fix for the next month.

Students come and go frequently at Maryknoll. Two priests from Korea joined us last week in the middle of the term. These four will be leaving us in a few days. We will be at seven students in all at the beginning of next week unless there are new students arriving at the start of the next term. In the coming and going of life, it is appropriate and necessary—and joyful—to mark the transitions, no matter how big or small the milestone. ¡Celebremos!

Hoping to post a brief entry here tomorrow. I will be at Maryknoll most of the day and staying over at the priests’ house tomorrow evening out of convenience. Our expedition to Tunari Peak will leave from the Maryknoll Mission Center at 7 a.m. on Saturday.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019


Today at Maryknoll: an interactive conference with Tania Avila Meneses on the two cosmological visions. She had the language students step literally into the three realms of pacha, or the world as the Quechua and Aymara know it. Three interlocking circles made from what looked like dried petals symbolized the world above, the world visible, and the world below. (If you are having trouble visualizing, think of the logo for Ballantine Ale.) We took cut-outs of pictures of all things in creation, animate and inanimate, and placed them where we thought they belonged in the cosmos. Some creatures and creations overlapped realms. Also, each of us chose an element to which we felt connected and joined the appropriate realm. Guess which element your faithful correspondent identifies with most. (La respuesta: el aire.) Having populated pacha with all things bright and beautiful, and having taken our stand in the cosmic realms, then we were woven together. Our presenter had us relay a ball of orange yarn from one person to another, that is, one element to another. Earth, air, water, fire, everything was brought together. We were a cosmic cat’s cradle, taut and tight-knit. But then out came a pair of shears, and our presenter severed the threads, demonstrating what happens when we disconnect the elements of nature from one another and treat them as discrete commodities to be used only for our self-interest. Nothing we did not already know before, but we are being reminded of it so as to know better and strive to treat this one interdependent, wholly good creation better. The implication, to be discussed further in class tomorrow, is that the cosmological vision of the West has not done a good job at promoting a healthy, integral perspective on creation, or peace and harmony among all living things. Let a healthy debate ensue.

At random:

The Franciscan friars here are attending a march to promote respect for life somewhere downtown this afternoon. It leads to an assembly taking place, I believe, at the Plaza de las Banderas at the northern tip of El Prado. Unlike the March for Life in the United States, which takes place on Jan. 22, the anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, this assembly occurs as near as possible to the solemnity of the Annunciation, when the Church commemorates the conception of Jesus. Unlike the March for Life in the United States, which is organized by a nonprofit independent from any church or religious organization, this march is organized by the local Catholic Church, that is, the Archdiocese of Cochabamba. Fact check: in Bolivia, abortion is illegal except for cases of incest, rape, and a woman’s health. However, maternal mortality rates are alarmingly high because nearly all the abortions procured are clandestine. A law to permit termination of pregnancies at up to 8 weeks for girls under age 17 was approved in December, then quickly repealed in January following protests. Today I pray that the movement for respect for life, which usually concerns itself with pre-born life or life nearing its natural death, may come to grips with the injustice and scandal of maternal mortality and, applying Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s vision for a consistent ethic of life, show solicitude and concern for women, especially very young women, with unintended pregnancies.

Also: our expeditionary team destined for Tunari Peak will leave on Saturday morning at 7 a.m. from Maryknoll. The forecast in Cochabamba is cloudy, high of 80 degrees and a low of 54 at the city’s elevation. Up in Tunari it will probably be at least 30 degrees cooler, and the chance of precipitation is higher. We will be ready with raincoats and ponchos and boots and layers of warm clothing.

From my own religious community: may our Capuchin brother, Fr. Knute Kenlon, who died last week and was laid to rest yesterday at the provincial cemetery in Yonkers, N.Y., now enjoy perpetual light.

Finally, a happy birthday today to my Dad, with wishes for more years of life lived well, in peace and good health.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019


Another night of half-sleep, but it was all right today. Not listless but really awake for everything we were doing in class. Profesora Liliana said of my 10-minute presentation on the parable of the prodigal son, Qué conmovedora (how moving).

Tomorrow is the conference on the two cosmological visions, that of the West and that of the Andean people. Both of my teachers have prepared me well for the conference. Just a brief rundown, at the risk of oversimplifying things.

How do the Quechua and Aymara peoples see and make sense of the world? They have an image that is predominantly integral and relational, while the cultures of the West, descended from European civilization, have an image that is linear. The peoples of indigenous cultures find it natural to conceive of a relationship of mutual care with the cosmos and in the cosmos because they perceive that all beings are an integral part of it. On the other hand, it is more natural for peoples with a linear conception of time and space to divide the cosmos into components and perceive each part as independent and isolated.

These images of reality have met, and collided, throughout history. The first Christian evangelizers in present-day Bolivia viewed the world and universe through the categories of heaven, earth, and hell, each realm a discrete reality carrying with it the value judgment of good or evil. Time is an arrow leading us forward; we are caught in the present; the past is past and the future lies ahead. Eternity is beyond; it is not here. In contrast, the people of the Andes conceived of the universe as one house with three levels: hanaj pacha, the world above or beyond, of ancestors, gods, and spirits; kay pacha, the visible, material world, from which we draw all our sustenance; and uqhu pacha, the world below, which contains our dreams and hopes. All these realms play an active part in the present. All these realms are good; all these realms support our life and our becoming. As for time, it moves in cycles and advances in spirals. The past, the present, the future, and eternity are all found in the present moment. Step into eternity by living here in today. These different forms of seeing and being in the world shaped the context of the first Christian evangelization.

From this relational context, we are invited to ask ourselves, was there an encounter between these two visions? What was communicated between and among the Spanish colonizers and evangelizers and the indigenous peoples? What consequences have come from this encounter or lack of encounter?

Thanks ahead of time to Tania Avila Meneses of the Maryknoll mission formation program for leading Wednesday’s presentation. We are being reminded constantly that we need to learn and see deeply the vision of other peoples in order to construct fruitful intercultural relations. I hope to offer another update tomorrow.

Monday, March 25, 2019


“Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be?’ ” (Luke 1:34).

Last night I half-slept, which made for a difficult morning at Maryknoll. I could not think to listen, speak, or read well. Everything was slow and halting. It is not so much the case that the work is getting more difficult, though we are accumulating and integrating all our learning along the way, and sometimes we reach the limits of our integration. No, today was much more an instance of real fatigue. At eight o’clock I was at about 75 percent, at nine about 50 percent and by the ten o’clock coffee break I wanted a nap. Only in the final hour did I begin to rebound. A hearty lunch with the friars, a few game attempts at small talk with Brother Leo and Fray Freddie, and our birthday celebration of Fray Rodrigo picked up my sagging spirits. By the afternoon I had rebounded. With little trouble I read an article in Revista Maryknoll about the migration of unaccompanied minors. I prepared for a 10-minute presentation on the parable of the prodigal son and feel flush with ideas. 

I don’t know; would it be better, after all, for me to attend classes in the afternoon? Would I have more energy then?

Whatever the case, I would like to improve how well I sleep. There was no good reason not to sleep well last night. I went to bed at quarter past ten feeling well and content. I woke up at half past one, fell asleep again, woke again at three-thirty, fell asleep again, and woke again at four-thirty, remaining half-conscious until rising at five-thirty, not knowing I hadn’t slept fully.

If God or God’s angels didn’t have anything to do with this repeated waking—Am I Samuel? Is this the temple of the Lord?—then I must say I am disappointed that my body is not obeying the will of its soul. A little more integration, please!

A few odds and ends:

Joshua tells me he has a party of six to make the expedition with Emilio to Tunari Peak. I hope we can draw one or two more people. No prediction for the weather on Saturday is ventured at this time. We know we need to dress warmly and keep our hands and ears covered well.

The Wednesday conference, to be presented by a staff member of Maryknoll’s mission formation program, has to do with the cosmological visions of the West (i.e. Europe) and of traditional Andean civilization.

Finally, a happy solemnity of the Annunciation to all. Today I remain with Mary of Nazareth with her question to the angel Gabriel, “How can this be?” Dear God, show me through an angel how to live and receive totally the life you have promised in dreams and visions.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Este Año

“Whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).

The sky is blue and bright this morning in Cochabamba as I sit on the southern balcony overlooking the cloister garden and, beyond the convent, the mountains. My enjoyment would be perfect if not for something in the air irritating my eyes. Is it something in the grass, something flowering, pollinating now? Brother Leo was explaining to me last night that it is humo, or smoke. As the nights grow slightly colder, many a household burns wood and other combustibles for heat. Contaminants get into the air. It’s a regular feature of life in Cochabamba, and it only gets worse in winter. Well, whatever the case, I will have to get accustomed to it, sooner than later, I hope. I may need eye drops and allergy medicine to deal with the redness and irritation. Being awake, I wish to keep my eyes open all the time to what God, my vision, presents to me.

The quotation from Saint Paul has an ominous ring to it at first hearing. It sounds a little menacing. Bitter medicine and tough love. But I hear humility and wisdom in the warning. I hear Paul saying, Who has not fallen? Who has ever been made secure, truly secure, by their own effort? Who has not lost their way? Who has not come up short? Who has not done wrong, and in fact done grave wrong once or more than once? Here in Paul’s words I hear a bracing declaration of equality: we are equal in weakness, equal in sin; hence, equal in dependence on grace, equally in need of forgiveness. Do you think you are special? I hear Paul say (maybe with his characteristic sneer). Well, do you want to be so special as to exempt yourself from the human condition and thereby exclude yourself from the holy mystery of God embracing and exalting the human condition, and all of creation that cradles it? Do you want to be special? Then let yourself be seen as you really are and let yourself be sought by the one who loves you the murderer, you the thief, you the arsonist and destroyer, you the cheater and the taker, and you the accomplice, and you the enabler, and you the indifferent, you the ignorant. Everybody loves the lovely! Let God love not only the lovable you but also the unlovable you. Everybody loves the innocent. But for some reason God really likes those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death—and also those who throw dark shadows; and God delights in pulling them into the light. Blessed are those who know that they dwell in the darkness; who know they have not changed the world; who know the world has changed them; who know they have fallen and do not know how to rise. How wonderful it is when the dawn from on high breaks upon them and they see the light. How wonderful it is when the down and out are spoken to and both given the command to rise and a hand to help them up.

How blessed are we to be the survivors of sin, our own sins and the sins of others that bring serious suffering. This is what I hear in Jesus’ troubling words in Luke 13 about the tragedy of the Siloam tower collapse or the torture of the Galileans by Pilate. You are still here. You have lived to tell. You are not special because you survived. You are special because you are loved. You are special because you can be changed. You are special because you can still say Yes. Will you say Yes? God’s choice has already been made; it is the difference. Your choice has not been made yet; it makes the difference, it makes the difference of God real here and now.

There still is time to make the difference. This is the hope, hard and costly, held out in Jesus’ parable of the fig tree. The barren tree gets one more year of life. So do we. Our lives are always lived in the last times, I am convinced. Every generation lives in its own last times, its own final age. Our lifespan, our generation, is the one more year given, the year left alone. The three barren years, the old ages, are past. All we have is this life, this year left alone. It comes with the fortification of grace and fresh soil and fertilizer for withered roots and exhausted earth. And we can grow. Our limbs, our bodies can ascend, bear life, touch life itself.

“Whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.” This admonition applies everywhere, in the places I have loved, like Boston and where I am now; and in the places where I have had to struggle to find a way home, like Baltimore and New York City. My home is God. My way is Jesus. My compass is the Holy Spirit.

If there is any security, it is in the faith that I have been accepted, not in the false pride that tells me I am special because I am still standing. I will not stand forever. I will fall. Everyone falls, everyone has fallen, everyone will fall. And everyone is mortal. But that doesn’t have to matter if we fall into God or stand up into God. And God is here today. Somewhere, God is taking off the murderer’s shoes. Somewhere, God is blinding the persecutor. Somewhere, God is magnifying her greatness in a frightened girl. Somewhere, God is sparing a fig tree. Somewhere, God is still speaking. And if we see a little more and hear a little more, then we can say Yes a little more. Because we don’t want to fall away into nothingness. We do not want to fall into fate like those with no hope. The future is not fated. The future is still being born and will never cease to be born. We can from this year, this day, this very day, go into that future, fall into and rise into that future.

Saturday, March 23, 2019


A quick rundown of the day:

Rising at half past six instead of half past five as on the weekdays. We pray morning prayer at 7 instead of 6:30 a.m. on Saturdays. I do not have class, so I can sleep in and shower after prayers, instead of rushing out the door to go to Maryknoll.

Homework for the weekend: research on the Tiwanakota civilization, which was the cradle of the present-day Aymara and Quechua peoples of the Andes. Centered in the basin of Lake Titicaca and extending into what today is Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, the Tiwanakota empire reached its height of cultural, religious, and political power in the eighth century BCE and disappeared by the eleventh century, probably because of drought. We had read about innovations in agricultural practices, including terrace farming, that fed millions of people. We studied the ruins of the capital city, Tiwanaku, marveled at the engineering feats that enabled them to assemble massive, heavy stones without mortar into pyramids and temples, and pondered the significance of their monoliths and sculpture. Also: research on the customary foods of Bolivia, and writing a paragraph about some of the more common gastronomic delicacies. I’m bad with names of things, so this exercise was useful in helping me know better what I eat (or don’t, being a vegetarian in a carnivorous culture).

In an around homework, I got to have a video call with my parents and brother this afternoon. My Dad’s birthday is Wednesday, but the family is celebrating today. Very good to see and speak to them!

Also in and around homework: a trip to the post office. Herein lies a story. Last year, Bolivia closed the post office, known formerly as ECOBOL (Empresa Correos de Bolivia) and reorganized it into a new postal service, Agencia Nacional de Correos. I suppose the reorganization had to with lack of resources and lack of trained postal workers. There had been a backlog of undelivered mail and parcels at the shutting down of ECOBOL. At the present the new agency is working, but service as regards delivery is slow. While I was applying for my visa with the Bolivian consulate, I was waiting anxiously for one necessary document, a letter of invitation from the friars here at Convento San Francisco. The letter was to demonstrate that I would have domicile in Bolivia and not be a burden on the state. It took a little more than a month for the letter to arrive. For good measure, the good friars sent a second letter in case the first did not make it. Both letters did arrive.

Well, today I went to the post office with postcards in hand. There was no line to speak of; people don’t rely much on the post office to send messages when it takes so long for them to arrive. But I have wanted to send souvenirs of Bolivia abroad, so there I was, using a glue bottle to affix my 4-boliviano and 5-boliviano stamps to the postcards. I asked how long it will take for the postcards to reach their destinations. It will be between 30 and 45 days. Why so long? It must have to do with transportation; the government can’t afford a fleet of airplanes, or pilots, for the postal service. So, friends, with luck and prayer, you may get your postcard during the Easter season, by the end of April or early May, I hope!

If you’re looking to send me a letter or postcard, here is some advice. And here is some more detailed advice. In addition, I recommend not bothering with parcels, though you can go with Federal Express, DHL, or UPS. They all do good business here. And think four-dimensionally. I leave Bolivia in mid-August. If you want to send me anything, send it to me well before the end of June. If you wait until July, I won’t be here to receive what you send.

As a reminder, the address is

Bro. Anthony Zuba, OFM Cap.
Convento San Francisco
Casilla 68

Friday, March 22, 2019

Pequeñas Cosas

I said I was posting a brief entry yesterday, but I lied. It was the usual length. Oh well; sorry to “cheat” you!

Perhaps this is a good time to bring out some trivia and fine-grain details about the journey here in Bolivia. Three tidbits for now.

A Saint Slept Here.
I live in Room 4 at Convento San Francisco, on the east corridor of the cloister. Padre Juan Carlos, the guardian, lives in Room 1. Outside his room in a frame is a small metal plaque engraved with this message, which I translate: “In Memoriam: His Holiness Pope John Paul II, during his pastoral visit to Bolivia, stayed in these rooms of Convento San Francisco, Cochabamba, May 10, 11, and 12, 1988.” This was during an apostolic journey to Bolivia, Peru, and Paraguay. While in Cochabamba he addressed the diocesan and religious order priests and seminarians at the archdiocesan seminary; and he also addressed a gathering of youth at Félix Capriles Stadium. He also gave numerous other speeches throughout the journey. Anyway, I just wanted to note that I sleep three doors down and thirty years away from where a very busy saint has slept.

What’s In a Name?
Recently, Joshua and I were learning how to conjugate verbs so we could properly give commands, as when giving directions to find some place, for example. We were learning how to tell someone to cross the street, turn left or right, or follow this or that road. We also learned how to tell someone to go up or down (stairs, for example). In the instance of going up the stairs, the verb subir is used; in the imperative (formal), you tell someone, Suba la escalera. The command suba can mean several things: go up; come up; raise up; move up; walk up; increase; upload; and, my favorite, rise. What am I driving at? My last name is Zuba. In Spanish, the letter Z, or zeta, is pronounced like the letter S. Thus my last name, at least to Spanish speakers, is pronounced suba. To them, my name is the command to “rise.” That’s a comforting thought to this believer in the resurrection. (On another personal note, I associate rising with my finest public speaking moment.) And now I wonder: if I introduced myself to some Spanish speaker with my full name, would she or he stand up for me?

In the Garden. Finally, I saw a dragonfly this morning in the patio garden at Maryknoll. I was waiting for a day like this. Before this, I had seen some monarch butterflies there, and they are indeed lovely. But, dear readers, the dragonfly is my favorite insect. Fine poetry has been written about it; music, too. And I saw a beautiful specimen flying swiftly around and around, never touching down on any tree leaf or any cactus or plant. It was in furious motion, spiraling, spiraling. But I could follow it nevertheless. It was a large dragonfly with a blue spine, about as long as my index finger, I would guess. I would have followed it all morning, if I did not have to return to the classroom. Anyway, at an hour when I felt my energy flagging—we were doing a lot of reading comprehension and conversation about our reading the first two hours of classes—it was good to see my swift and slender friend darting about. The next two hours were no easier than the first—more conversation and question-making and answering than I could muster—but at least I felt accompanied by a creature less earthbound than me.

Thursday, March 21, 2019


A brief entry this evening. I visited Hogar-Albergue Nuestra Casa yesterday afternoon. When I met a few of the girls who live there, safely out of reach of the abusers in their families, I wanted to cry. I feel compassion for these girls. The shelter director and I agreed to volunteer on Wednesdays, beginning on April 3. We are aiming for afternoons, assuming I will continue morning classes next term. The director proposes that I lead simple artistic activities with the girls, such as drawing and painting and other plastic arts, with no single activity lasting longer than 45 minutes to an hour. I may also visit on Sundays in the morning to conduct prayers with them and maybe some songs (alas, I do not play guitar).

Three more items of news to share with you from studies and social activity at the language school:

The Wednesday morning conference with Óscar Olivera Foronda about the Cochabamba water war went well. Joshua and I had a full discussion on La Guerra de Agua with Profesora Julia today. It pleases me to report to you that we were able to talk for a good half hour together, the three of us, about topics like government corruption, popular democracy, and ideologies (capitalism and socialism) with some depth and nuance. Joshua and I let Profesora Julia lead, but she definitely yielded to us when we had something to offer. She enabled us to form extended thoughts and patiently waited for us to give utterance to them. Looking back, I appreciate the work all of us did to make this little breakthrough in long-form conversation on a grownup topic possible. First, we read a document about the Water War on Monday. Then we discussed the document on Tuesday and saw some videos about the conflict. Then we had the presentation itself on Wednesday, which gave us more opportunities to listen, absorb, and reflect. Finally, we had the grownup conversation today. I look forward to more progress in this direction.

Today, Joshua and I practiced basic oral communication skills by reading aloud several Scripture passages. Profesora Liliana gave me positive feedback on my pronunciation. She says it is very clear and very precise, and I am getting the practice of la ilación, so important to the speaking of Spanish, in which the consonants and vowels at the end and beginning of consecutive words flow naturally into each other. She also offered advice on how to improve my accent. Gaining an accent is helpful for non-native speakers because it will create empathy in listeners for whom Spanish is the mother tongue. Quite simply, all I have to do is open my mouth more and enunciate the vowels with greater definition. The more shape I give to the vowels, the more my voice will gain the timbre or tone of native Spanish. More progress!

Finally, Joshua and I were encouraged by our teachers to take advantage of the opportunities to ascend the mountain peaks here in the Department of Cochabamba. We heard about Tunari Peak, which is at over 16,000 feet. The drive is no more than two hours, during which you make a very gradual ascent along a gentle slope. Then you make a hike for the final 1,750 feet. You get to see llamas, and you get to see more sky than you ever dreamed. Emilio, one of the staff at Maryknoll, arranges the trip and obtains our guide. Well, that settled it for us. Joshua has rounded up a crew of students to go on Saturday, March 30. Stay tuned for more details.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019


It is the first day of autumn in the Southern Hemisphere, the first day of autumn in Bolivia. Fittingly, the weather is quite cool and cloudy all over as of this morning. This is the first day I have felt cold in Cochabamba. But I am underdressed: under my habit I am wearing an undershirt. Time for heavier layers, then.

It was a struggle to get through classes this morning. My brain and body were too tired. I could not remember and apply recently learned rules of grammar. I know this stuff, but I cannot yet integrate everything I know. There are, of course, other rules that still elude my grasp. God bless Profesoras Liliana and Julia for explaining patiently the logic of Spanish, especially those finer points that go beyond the textbook. Wow, what a difference it makes to practice a language when you are well rested! Don’t try it with less than adequate sleep. In my fatigue, I just could not spit out the words today! And I was good last night; I turned off the computer a minute or two after ten and went to bed. Perhaps I should have turned it off earlier, you say. Perhaps. Anyway, I must have slept a lot less than I thought I had when I woke, wide awake, at five on the hour. In hindsight, it was a restless waking. Oh well; what can you do? Short of turning the computer off at nine and skipping night prayer or evening convivencia with the brothers, not much. And even if I did retire early, it wouldn’t do much good. Your correspondent is and always will be a night owl. Can’t change my feathers now, friends.

What about a siesta, instead of drafting this item for the blog? A great idea, except I cannot take a nap this afternoon. At two-thirty I will go with Myrna Arébalo, the volunteer coordinator at the Maryknoll Mission Center, to a girls’ shelter near Plaza Colon. Nuestra Casa is a home and shelter for girls, both children and adolescents, who have survived sexual abuse in their families. The shelter is looking for volunteers who can assist the staff at least once a week for at least two to three hours per visit, with availability on either weekdays or on weekends. Some Spanish skills are required, of course, but as the majority of activities are oriented toward hands-on play, education, and therapy, I think less will be demanded of me as far as oral, verbal communication goes. I have written about violence against women in a previous post, and last week’s conference clinched for me the direction I would like to take with volunteer service. So we will see how the initial visit goes, and with hope, I may start helping out next month, when my next six-week term at the school begins.

I will post this item after the visit to Nuestra Casa. For now, off to the Maryknoll chapel for a little prayer, and a determination to stay awake. I had a little lunch at a small buffet nearby, which gave me a little more energy, though I still feel earthbound. I was hoping to practice the phrases and expressions I had just learned on Monday and Tuesday for placing orders in a restaurant. But the server took pity on me and spoke in English. Shucks.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

La Lucha

Happy Father’s Day from Bolivia. March 19, the feast of St. Joseph, is El Día del Padre in this country. At the Maryknoll Mission Center there was an acknowledgment of the men on staff who are parents; also there was an acknowledgment of the priests who reside here and are seen as spiritual parents of the people. May God bless all the men who take material and spiritual responsibility for the rearing and education of the next human generation.

I am writing this post in anticipation of the weekly cultural conference that we will have tomorrow morning. A man who is something like a political father of the Bolivian people in our generation, Óscar Olivera Foronda, will address the mission center about La Guerra del Agua—the Water War of 2000. This is a saga about the struggle for the right to water in Cochabamba and the recovery of human and Christian values.

It is ironic that a city whose name in Quechua is a compound of “lake” and “open plain” (qucha-panpa), flush with moisture, should face such struggles in providing this most basic element of life to all its peoples. Always an attractive place to live because of the spring-like climate all year round and the abundance of the earth, the population has grown sharply in the last 30 years. A complex of economic, political, and social changes led to a massive migration into the city after 1985, including miners living and working in the mountains and indigenous persons from the campos. This has made the provision of basic services, including water, sanitation, health care, and education a challenge.

The Bolivian government decided at the end of 1999 to privatize water, approving a Water Law and concluding a 40-year contract with the Bechtel Corporation. The law and contract together rendered all water resources, including rivers, lakes, lagunas, deep wells, and even the snowcaps and rainfall, to Bechtel. All the water in Bolivia had been converted into a commodity to be manipulated by private capital and the free market. Cochabamba was the first city to have its water privatized, with the cost of utilities tripling quickly.

Needless to say, this mercantilist vision went completely contrary to the vision of Andean culture. To the peoples, water is a living being; it is a common good, a gift of Pachamama (Mother Earth) for the reproduction of life. It is not given to anyone in particular, but to all creatures, and not only human beings, for water has no owner, no master. Doesn’t this sound a lot like Catholic Social Teaching? Doesn’t this sound Franciscan to your ears, to those of you who sing in the Canticle of the Creatures of “Sister Water, so useful, humble, precious and pure”?

The remembering of these values united all the peoples of Cochabamba: women, men, youth, girls and boys, elders, who formed a popular rebellion against the government to recover their water rights from private interests. For five months the people laid siege to their own city and shut everything down. There were barricades in front of every house in the city and the campos. The roads were barricaded. No business and no transportation. Everyone had said, ¡Basta! Enough! These barricades communicated to the obdurate government the values of mutuality, reciprocity, respect, solidarity, and transparency. These barricades symbolized popular democracy. With great courage, the people overcome the tear gas and even the bullets of the police and army. They organized committees for the defense of their water rights. And by April 2000, the people had won from the government and private interests the power to define the destiny of their water resources.

It was more than an economic victory; it was also a vindication of the power of popular movements to counteract the power of malign power and achieve positive social change.

However, the struggle for justice must be taken up anew in every generation. Access to water in Cochabamba remains a great problem. There is great inequality between the wealthier peoples who live to the north and possess water tanks and reliable utilities, and the poorer folks in the south, where the infrastructure is ancient and inadequate for the swelling population, and flooding is common. Despite the best intentions and good will of political leaders, administrators, engineers, and unions, the system by which water is provided is inefficient, ineffective, and irrational. The people are not united as they were in 2000. The political challenge once more is to organize; to construct a collective social agenda; and to recover decision-making power for the people. The spiritual challenge is realize once more that all peoples are equal; and to be like water itself: transparent, joyful, and always in movement.

I thank Óscar Olivera Foronda ahead of time for sharing this outline of his presentation that I have just roughly translated for you, and I thank him for his courageous and prophetic leadership of the people who thirst for justice and righteousness.

Monday, March 18, 2019


“ ‘Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap’ ” (Luke 6:38).

A quick word of thanks to everyone who tunes in to the blog. I appreciate the comments I receive from everyone, both offline and on the blog itself. We remain united in a communion of words and prayer.

Another quick word of thanks to the Maryknoll Fathers, who last evening with wonderful hospitality opened the doors of their home at the mission center to the language students, and to other friends and colleagues. Sunday was the Second Sunday of Lent, but it was also March 17, the feast of St. Patrick. Of course we could not let the day pass without a celebration of Christian faith and Irish heritage! And a fine dinner party it was. But it was more than that. The Maryknoll community is a global family, and the missionaries take pride in every people from every land. So as the guests tucked into Irish beef stew and mashed potatoes, and maybe sipped Irish coffee and whiskey, too, they also enjoyed guacamole, quinoa, and salsa from the Americas; and chapati from Kenya. The best of African, American, and European cuisine at one table of plenty.

Then, after the meal, a night of singing! Someone provided a songbook of traditional Irish tunes. We went well beyond “Danny Boy.” We put our hearts and lungs into what Bob Dylan called “those rousing rebel songs,” and those who knew the tunes well went for them with gusto. My favorite new song is “Wild Colonial Boy.” You can see and hear a lively rendition here. Again, this being Maryknoll, we celebrated the most beautiful songs of several nations. So we also sang songs from Bolivia, Chile, Mexico, and the United States. I stepped up to deliver “This Land Is Your Land” with my fellow Americans, every verse filling me with pride. One Maryknoll priest said Woody Guthrie’s song ought to be the national anthem; I agree with him. I got to practice my listening skills as we heard several Spanish songs. I’m glad we heard “La Bamba” from Mexico; the lyrics are simple and repeated often.

I bow to everyone who prepared the table spread: the Maryknoll priests and staff, the seminarians and language students, and the guests who brought their favorite dishes. (I didn’t do any cooking, but I did bring some nice cookies.) A very pleasant evening was had by everyone. But it was more than that. The work the missionaries do is hard. The work the students do is hard. Sometimes you can feel the weight of the work. Sometimes you can feel the weight of living in another land. And sometimes the troubles of the world can make you flinch from the work God give you to do. So thanks be to God for celebrations, for spontaneous expressions of beauty and goodness and truth. May the measure that the Maryknoll community gave everyone Sunday evening be given back in good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing.

Sunday, March 17, 2019


“A deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a great, dark dread descended upon him” (Genesis 15:12).

On this cloudy Sunday morning, as I look at the colorless sky, I feel for Abram. I feel for this wanderer who wonders about his future. He believes, but he worries. He trusts, but he fears. He dreams, but he dreads.

Are you with me? Are we not with Abram? Even when we converse in the presence of God, we have uncertainty. We have confusion. We have doubt. We have anxiety. We are uncertain we can make a sacrifice of ourselves, in faith. We have confusion about who we are and what we are supposed to do. We have doubt because we see the world going wrong and continuing to go the wrong way. And we have anxiety because we are casting everything we cherish into the abyss (of God), and we don’t know what will become of it all.

Yes, today I feel for Abram. See him fighting the birds of prey that are trying to take away his sacrificial offerings. See him slumber under disturbing dreams, while God sends mysterious signs of light and smoke and dissolves the veil between dreams and reality. And in the midst of this obscurity, a raising of the stakes. There comes a promise and a covenant: Abram will receive everything. He who has left everything and is letting go of his claim to anything nevertheless will find and enter into everything. This is good news, right? Isn’t it good to be chosen and beloved? Yes, but still … today, the implications of God’s wondrous love feel difficult and hard. I believe … help my unbelief! 

Let us never forget the marvelous signs God has showed us to help us on our way. There have been so many! But let us also not underestimate the heaviness, at times, of faith. Look no further than the disciples Peter, James, and John, thunderstruck when they got a glimpse of God’s glory on the mountain alone with Jesus. A preview of the resurrection and the new creation—and they were terrified. Everything, everything was there, right in front of them. They did not know what to say or do. (At least Peter tried; James and John seem to have been dumbstruck.) Then, a cloud envelops them, and they’re really goners, as God speaks words of love for Jesus the beloved, the chosen, for them to hear.

Then, the moment passes. Now what? How do you carry on, after the transfiguration, after God is made manifest?

Time after time in my life, I come back to this question. I ponder the question on my knees. Living into and after the transfiguration is not easy. Everything is yours, and nothing is yours. Still you can’t hear what God is saying; still you don’t know what to say. Still the poor, the mourners, the hungry-thirsty-and-homeless, the meek, and the persecuted are waiting for your love. Are you ready? Are you ready to throw it all away, for God’s sake?

As I sit pleasantly but quietly, uncomprehending most of what the friars are saying at mealtime, this is literal for me. As the poor sit and stretch out their hands on the crowded, dangerous avenues and streets, this is literal for me. As I lift up my eyes to the mountains, this is literal for me. Abram, Peter, James, and John are here, and they are my companions. 

Here, at the convent; here, in the mountains; here, in the streets, God’s luminous mysteries envelop me. God opens my eyes, my ears, and my lips. I want them to open more; still they feel so closed. God loves me and sends me people to love. I want to give and receive more love; still I feel and give so little. God helps me to say Yes, and I say Yes. Still I want to say Yes more, because I know other words get in the way. God, give me all of this, again and again.

Saturday, March 16, 2019


For the last month, Cochabamba, Bolivia, has been the whole world to me. Colorful, musical, beautiful. And it has felt stable and secure. There is, of course, a much vaster world out there, deep, wild, and sometimes unsettled. Physically speaking, some Bolivians living in the departments of Cochabamba, Oruro, and La Paz were jolted into awareness of this by a 6.8-magnitude earthquake that struck at 1 a.m. on Friday morning.

Spiritually speaking, the chances are good that you were jolted into awareness of the wider world by another kind of earthquake, when a shooter let slip the unspeakable violence he committed against Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand that same day, hours before the tremor in Bolivia.

The epicenter of the quake was only 34 miles southeast of Cochabamba. I felt nothing that night. But today I feel unsettled by the killings in the mosques in faraway Christchurch. Because we in the United States have suffered the same sacrilege: our Jewish neighbors in Pittsburgh, and our Christian neighbors in Charleston.

In the aftermath of inhuman carnage, everything looks gray, feels tattered, seems useless. And small. Life doesn’t look so charming today. It feels stale, listless, flat. Our own problems and preoccupations are petty. We can feel helpless or hopeless. If not for the sadness or anger you may be feeling, life may almost come to be meaningless.

But there is a living God, and it seems to me God is saying: Don’t let them do it. Don’t let them take the savor of life from you. After all, ain’t you got a right to the tree of life?

The primary emotion I feel is anger. Still we are sacrificing others instead of sacrificing ourselves. What can I do with this anger against anger itself? This was from the Gospel reading yesterday:

Jesus said to his disciples:

“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother
will be liable to judgment,
and whoever says to his brother, Raqa,
will be answerable to the Sanhedrin,
and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.
Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar,
and there recall that your brother
has anything against you,
leave your gift there at the altar,
go first and be reconciled with your brother,
and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:21-24).

Sometimes I feel like our sacred liturgies must fall silent. Sometimes I feel like the offerings at the altar simply have to cease while God weeps and rages at human hypocrisy. Muslim, Jewish, Christian. We are all one. Can’t everyone see? What in the world can we do about all the angry, hate-filled people?

We know the answer that comes from the living God. But concretely, I can’t give you the answer that the living God is giving you personally, the words and acts of love, mercy, justice, truth, and reconciliation you are to perform wherever you are. Read the signs of the times. Read the texts that are holy to you. Read your heart. Pray. Then you will know. And you will know the peace that passes all understanding.

At midday prayer today I took consolation from this reading:

Remember these things, Jacob, 
Israel, for you are my servant! 
I formed you, a servant to me; 
Israel, you shall never be forgotten by me: 
I have brushed away your offenses like a cloud, 
your sins like a mist; 
return to me, for I have redeemed you (Isaiah 44:21-22). 

Yes, we can change. We can break the idols of violence. We can resist the godless fundamentalisms of ethnic, national, racial, or religious superiority. We can serve the living God. Then there is the refuge of Psalm 46: 

God is our refuge and our strength,
an ever-present help in distress. 
Thus we do not fear, though earth be shaken 
and mountains quake to the depths of the sea, 
Though its waters rage and foam 
and mountains totter at its surging. 
Streams of the river gladden the city of God, 
the holy dwelling of the Most High. 
God is in its midst; it shall not be shaken; 
God will help it at break of day. 
Though nations rage and kingdoms totter, 
God utters a voice and the earth melts. 
The God of hosts is with us; 
our stronghold is the God of Jacob (Psalm 46:2-8). 

You have been shaken. But you will find the still place again. You grieve. But you will smile again. You hear nothing. But you will hear the sound of music again. You see darkness. But you will see the light again. You have fallen. But you will rise again.

Friday, March 15, 2019


This morning with Profesora Liliana: a return to the verb gustar. This word gets a lot done, because it expresses a liking for something. The literal meaning of the word, as it is used in accordance with the rules of Spanish grammar, is “to be pleasing” to someone. So with respect to activities, the statement me gusta comer (“I like to eat”) would come out literally as “eating pleases me.” With respect to things, the statement me gusta esta camiseta (“I like this undershirt”) would come out literally as “this undershirt pleases me.” And with respect to persons, the statement me gustas tú (“I like you”) is literally “you please me.” You get the idea. There is implied in the logic of this grammar a sense of the external world having an impact on the subject (which is technically the object). Actions, things, and persons come over the subject and produce an effect on the subject. This is not to deny the agency of the subject who expresses a liking or a disliking. But the meaning that can be taken from the usage of the verb gustar is that the subject is overtaken by a strongly held feeling as a result of the encounter. The liking is an impact, the effect of what has happened to the subject. In the case of persons, me gustas tú implies a passionate reaction, an emotion that cannot be helped. You are pleasing to me. It couldn’t be any other way. Something happens, and the liking overcomes you.

This grammar lesson brings to mind a spiritual lesson, through a remembrance of things past. I lived in Central America in June and July 2014. It was my first immersion in another language and culture. Those six weeks were among the most difficult in my Capuchin journey. I spoke very little Spanish; I understood less. Much of the time I was cranky, nervous, and tired. And frustrated! Little to nothing about Honduras held any charm for me, nor did I seek its charms. And I told myself, over and over, it is because you do not understand the people or the environment around you. With more understanding, you will love them and their world. Well, I did not gain much understanding, and my love remained small and cold. I realized, late and to my regret, I had it backward. Love does not come with understanding. Understanding comes with love. Bring love, and you will find understanding. And more than that: if you have no love to bring, ask God to bring love to you. Since that summer of struggle, whenever I have found myself in unfamiliar or difficult places, whenever I have not felt at home, I have asked God to do more and bring love, or at least more of a natural liking, to me. Awaken me to the charms of other people, places, and things, so that grace may find a foothold on nature and get to work. This has been my Lenten prayer against timesickness, my prayer to appreciate la vida cotidiana. Indeed, it is a prayer I have been practicing more these last few months. And I think it has pleased God to answer my prayer—a Dios le gusta responder a mi oracion. It pleases God to grant more gustar, to overcome me with a holy pleasure in what God has sent with love.

Profesora Liliana played the music video for “Me Gustas Tú” by Manu Chao for Joshua and me. It’s a fun song and a playful video. And it’s an unexpected tutorial in the usages of gustar.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Treinta Días

Today is the thirtieth day of my Bolivian journey. One month has passed already. How the time has sped swiftly in thoughts, words, and deeds. What will the next five months bring? Where should I go and what should I do? Do you have any suggestions, dear readers?

This day has been ordinary in its course. Four hours this morning with my classmate Joshua and our trainers, Profesoras Liliana and Julia, honing our literacy with the numbers 1-1,000, learning to use comparative phrases accurately, and understanding the language and culture of Bolivian dress. We had an interlude, me and Joshua and his fellow Maryknoll seminarian Charles, to go to the local migration office. There, I presented my passport and visa to extend my stay for the next 30 days. Thank you, Anita from the Maryknoll Mission Center, for steering me through this errand painlessly. The migration officer even complemented me for speaking Spanish well.

Following the coffee break at Maryknoll, Profesora Julia took Joshua and me to Museo Casona Santivañez, one of the historic and cultural landmarks of Cochabamba. It is a well-preserved example of late colonial architecture, dating, I believe, to the early 19th century. For about an hour and 15 minutes we toured the quarters, which have been partially or wholly restored. We marveled at the longest dining room table I’ve ever seen, with seating for over 40 people! We entered an interior balcony, where Profesora Julia explained that the chairs were for the men and the long benches were for the women, owing to the great width of their dresses, as was the fashion for the time. There, on the benches, the women would knit and weave. We stepped into a salon that came straight out of the courts of Louis XV of France. This room featured space-enhancing mirrors, a grand piano, lamps of crystal and bronze, marble tables, fine seats and sofas, and a recreation in paint of ornate wallpaper, all in imitation of the royal style favored by the aristocratic family that dwelled here. Just about everything in these preserved quarters reflected the Eurocentric cultivation and sensibility of the Santivañez family. The patriarch, Jose Antonio Santivañez, was a criollo, a Latin American of full Spanish descent. Hardly a trace of indigenous culture appears in these quarters, save for one painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary, represented like Pachamama or a mountain deity, that is far more abstract than the pious, dolorous paintings of Christ, Mary, and the saints that predominate throughout.

However, outside the preserved quarters, the rest of the building, the ground level specifically, is dedicated to modern art and photography. Here, indigenous culture and its blending with the colonial heritage, receives its due. One of the current exhibitions presents the masks and costumes of Carnaval, the customs of the Compadres and Comadres celebrations, and the enduring devotion in the department, or state, of Potosí to El Tío de Las Minas. El Tío is a god of the underworld believed to provide protection to the miners of Potosí. It is a strange coexistence, Christ and the indigenous deities and spirits, but as I have written before, the people of Bolivia today have eyes to see the light wherever it shines, and they have arms wide enough to embrace the contradictions that arise.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019


“ ‘At the preaching of Jonah they repented, and there is something greater than Jonah here’ ” (Luke 11:32).

This morning at Maryknoll: the weekly conference, today on the subject of violence against women. We applied the method of social analysis used in Catholic Social Teaching to understand the topic: See, Judge, Act. 

To see better, we received the following information from Profesora Liliana, our presenter:

Direct Violence

In Bolivia, 9 out of every 10 women suffer some form of violence, whether sexual, physical, or psychological.

At some time in their lives, 7 out of every 10 women suffer sexual abuse.

Only 0.04 percent of the incidents of abuse reported to the authorities results in punishment for the attacker. Only 1.3 percent of domestic violence cases reported to the authorities results in a conviction.

Every three days, a woman is murdered, a victim of femicide. With 128 such murders in 2018, Bolivia unhappily ranks third in South America in femicides, behind Colombia and Brazil.

Structural Violence 

In Bolivia, 63 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Around 2.5 million persons, or 20 percent of the population, has migrated out of the country.

Among children and teenagers, 7 out of every 1,000 live in a condition of sexual exploitation. The most vulnerable are minors who suffer from family disintegration.

Of every 10 persons, 5 consume alcohol regularly. Of these, 20 percent suffer from alcohol addiction.

Cultural Violence 

Profesora Liliana says there are attitudes and beliefs that form the dominant discourse in Bolivian society and that favor direct violence and structural violence. These attitudes and beliefs refer, for example, to gender roles and concepts about the female body. For instance, cultural codes consign women to private spheres, as passive recipients of the goods and money provided by the men who alone occupy the public sphere, who alone exercise authority over the community, who alone are the protectors of society. Women are objects carefully guarded by the men who possess autonomy and a monopoly on power, knowledge, and ability to act.

Moving to the second step of social analysis, we judged for ourselves what it means to be a woman and to be a man in the context of this systemic violence. We found ourselves uncovering the traditional roles for men and women, which can both promote the common good and the flourishing of persons—and also inhibit their creativity, restrict their freedom, and create the environment for unhealthy attitudes, beliefs, and values leading to outright domination and violence. I noticed that the questions themselves—What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be a man?—come laden with assumptions. Well, what kind of a woman are we talking about, and what kind of a man? Are there not many varieties of femininity and masculinity? What is a feminine trait and what is a masculine trait? Moreover, the experiences of LGBT persons do not fit in neatly with these questions. The questions we received strongly assume the norms of heterosexual, cisgender men and women. There is an LGBT movement in Bolivia, but it’s dangerous to be out and/or trans. But let us have perspective. For the people here, to challenge, denounce, and recover from sexism, and for the Church to join in all of this, is courage. Seeing the humanity of persons who do not fit in the binary of gender is the next frontier.

What is to be done? How are we to act? One of the candidates for the presidency of Bolivia has suggested permitting women to bear arms to defend themselves and their children from any and all violence. (It is illegal for anyone to bear arms in Bolivia.) We discussed this proposal among ourselves. This proposal struck me as a very macho thing, to say nothing of the Pandora’s Box it would open. But my main thought was, I want to know what women in Bolivia themselves propose as a solution to the violence they suffer. Profesora Liliana described some advances, led by women, in the midst of real difficulties in Bolivia and throughout Latin America. She lifted up the examples of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo of Argentina, who demanded justice for their children, disappeared during a time of dictatorship; Ni Una Menos, a movement to denounce gender-based violence that has spread from Argentina across the continent; and the Mujeres Creando movement, a Bolivian artists’ collective that fights poverty through street theater and direct action. Finally, she called for reconcebir, a reconceiving of femininity and masculinity, in which all persons are recognized as unique, free, strong, and dignified, capable of acting in justice and solidarity with others.

In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus admonishes the wicked crowd that seeks a sign from God that they are missing “something greater than Jonah here” (Luke 11:32). Could we not say that the resistance women are valiantly making against direct, structural, and cultural violence is a prophetic call to repentance; and more than that, a call to all of us to have more faith in what these women are doing to overcome inequality and oppression? It is impossible to make too little of these movements. They have always been underestimated, too little esteemed. There is something greater than Jonah here. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

How do we increase our faith? Scripture also tells us, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). In the context of today’s presentation, and our judgment on the signs of the times, I hear a call not to think or say “male” or “female” in ways that over-determine the role of any particular person or which hinder any person from taking one’s rightful place in the body of Christ, as members gifted, talented, beloved, and necessary for the fulfillment of God’s work. One of my pastoral colleagues writes to me, “Toxic expectations can exist for all gender identities. It is for each person to determine what is an authentic and healthy expression of their gender identity, and it is for the society to create space for each person to express and inhabit their identity in a meaningful way. It is also for society, I think, to integrate and equally celebrate both traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine traits. That is not currently being done in the way that feminine stereotypes are associated with weakness. Through Jesus’ life, Jesus models for us an integration and equal celebration of both masculine and feminine traits. Jesus models bravery, tenacity, tenderness, compassionate, gentleness, ferocity, determination, mercy, wisdom, humility and generosity.”

In Bolivia, and anywhere, can women and men reconceive their identities and make Jesus’ way their way? My pastoral colleague believes it can be done. “At church, I have witnessed many men’s stories—stories of heartache, struggle, loneliness, longing, joy, insecurity, anxiety, depression, love, and wonder. I have remained with them. I have prayed with them. I have found they could relate to me in the full expression of who I am—my strengths as well as my struggles. Moreover, when I preach on anxiety, I have found that I get a strong, positive reaction from the congregation, but the strongest is always from the men, without fail. My words of vulnerability and humility are needed. I give permission to people not to have it all together. These days, our veneers are falling off—veneers of macho-ism and certitude—and what is left is integration, authenticity and humanity.”

We can have faith. We can find hope. A parishioner from Church of the Good Shepherd reminds me, “We as a universe are moving closer to being one with Christ. Humans, male and female, become who they are as they participate in this evolution.” All persons, however they live into their personhood, are needed to bring God’s work of creation to fulfillment. For all persons to participate fully in God’s creativity, we must not put any hindrance or obstacle in the way of their becoming who they are. Bringing an end to violence to women, and to all persons, is not only an act of justice but also an act of continuing creation.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Las Profesoras

Adiós, Osvaldo y Óscar. Hola, Liliana y Julia. 

We switched over to new instructors yesterday at Maryknoll. Señora Liliana and Señora Julia are my tutors for the next three weeks.

Every teacher has a different approach. Both Profesoras Liliana and Julia have made their methods known, and they are distinctive. For instance, both of them have had Joshua and I get up and go out of the classroom to practice our conversational skills in a real-life simulation. Thus, as we were learning how to give directions, Profesora Liliana had us lead her, as if she could not see, from the classroom to, say, the secretary’s or the language program coordinator’s office. (We were careful not to have her collide with any door or wall!) As we were learning how to use prepositional phrases to describe the relative position of objects, Profesora Julia guided us through the Maryknoll Mission Center grounds and had us answer how this tree, or that car, or that person, was situated.

I think that, based on feedback they must have received from Profesores Osvaldo and Óscar, Profesoras Liliana and Julia have made other pedagogical adjustments. For example, the teachers do not conduct their lessons simply by the (text)book we use. They encourage digressions into unprogrammed conversation. These excursions clarify grammatical questions, enhance our vocabulary, and build endurance for thinking and speaking Spanish. They also introduce cultural knowledge. Thus far this week, I find that both Joshua and I are veering into longer digressions with our teachers. Granted, they do much of the load bearing in our conversations, but we the students are picking up some more slack and sustaining more of the discussion. In fact, Joshua and I are often the ones unraveling new threads of conversation by a question or observation we offer. I take it this is a positive development. It keeps us engaged, it keeps us focused, it makes time pass quickly, and it reinforces the feeling we are making progress.

Speaking of cultural knowledge, I feel that our lessons will only become more saturated with context as we advance. Profesora Liliana raised the bar by assigning Joshua and me an article from the Spanish-language edition of National Geographic about the drying out of Lake Poopó in the Altiplano of Bolivia and other great lakes of the world. (Here it is in English.) We have also had conversations about violence against women in Bolivia, in preparation for the Wednesday weekly conference, which Profesora Liliana will lead on this very topic. I hope to give you a rundown tomorrow after the fact. But this evening I am to ponder two basic questions for in-class conversation immediately prior to the 11 a.m. conference. First, what does it mean to be a woman? Second, what does it mean to be a man? Pretty open-ended questions. What do you say, dear readers?

Monday, March 11, 2019


I saw it happen, right in front of me.

It was quarter after seven this morning. I was walking north up Calle San Martín to the bus stop at the corner of Calle Ecuador. I was approaching Calle Colombia, the street before Calle Ecuador. I was maybe 70 or 80 feet from the corner of Calle Colombia. The bus I was hoping to chase down barreled right on by me into the intersection. Already in the intersection crossing Calle San Martín from the west was a big silver-gray van. The bus was too late to stop; I don’t think it stopped at all. The front of the bus collided with the right rear of the van, sending the van skidding, spraying glass from its broken taillight and shedding pieces of bumper. It was a frightening sound, the sickening dead thud of metal on metal and the crash of glass. The left side of the van scraped against obstacles on the left curb of Calle Colombia and came to a stop. The bus sputtered several more feet up Calle San Martín and braked.

The passengers, dazed but seemingly all right, evacuated the bus slowly. A family staggered out of the van. A woman was wailing. A boy, her son I imagine, was kneeling, hunched, cradling his arms. Were they broken? And other people from the van and the bus were weeping and moaning.

All the while I was frozen. I looked up; all the lights in the traffic signal were lit, red, yellow, and green. Were they like that before the collision? And other questions. Whether the signal was working or not, who had the right of way? Shouldn’t the bus have proceeded more cautiously, slowly, toward the intersection? Shouldn’t the van have been proceeding more cautiously? Did the passengers in the van have seat belts, and were they wearing them? I know the buses have no seat belts. There are rules of the road; doesn’t anybody follow them?

The anger came later, but at the moment I was shocked. I saw a collision, and from the looks of it, it could have caused fatalities, but for the grace of God and the guardian angels.

And helplessness came over me. I couldn’t call an ambulance. My phone does not work here. And if I could, would I know what to say or do? A crowd was gathering close to the family. Were they, could they help the family? What did they need? What could be done?

I stood, impotent, watching these helpless people. I had to get to school to learn the language I came here from four thousand miles away to study so I could help the helpless in New York City. Would this family, would these bystanders understand if this man dressed in a friars’ robe walked away from them without a word, without a gesture, not because he did not care but because he felt afraid and ignorant and embarrassed to have nothing to give but surprise and shock, which he was trying hard to hide?

I walked past the crowd to the bus stop at the corner of Calle Ecuador. I felt like the priest and Levite on the Jericho Road. Dear God, forgive me for not knowing what to do.

Did I have a premonition of this incident? Last night I dreamed of a plane crash, that a plane went down in Bolivia.

What I take to prayer tonight is grief for the hurt family. I take anger that the roads are so unsafe in Cochabamba. I take fear because I worry about getting to school and to the convent safely every day. I don’t know whether to walk or ride the bus. I take the hope that city leaders will do better, improve the functionality of traffic signs and signals. I pray they will enforce the rules of the road, punish bad drivers, and train all who apply for licenses to operate motor vehicles more responsibly. I ask God’s guardian angels to slow down the motorists and steady their hands and feet and focus their eyes and ears.

Pray that God will watch over all of us in our coming and going. Amen.

Sunday, March 10, 2019


Backtracking over the last week and a half:

On Facebook, the Maryknoll Mission Center posted photos from its k’oa celebration of ch’alla (March 1) and its Ash Wednesday service (March 6), which I covered in previous posts. These were not added to the Maryknoll website; they are only on Facebook. So visit the group’s page and scroll down for the photo albums.

Nota bene: While everyone in the United States has turned the clocks forward one hour to begin daylight saving time, Bolivia does not do this. That means Bolivia and the Eastern Time Zone in the U.S. are now telling the same time. So, my friends in the Northeast, this will make it easier for us to coordinate video calls!

Corso de Corsos

“Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not lament, do not weep! Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:9,10).

We read these words every Sunday at morning prayer during Lent. These words come to mind as I reflect on what I saw Saturday afternoon at the Corso de Corsos in downtown Cochabamba. Sheer rejoicing was the spirit of the day, and it gave prodigious momentum to the affair.

I didn’t have to go far to find the Corso. One block north, up Calle 25 de Mayo from Templo San Francisco and the convent to Avenida de Heroinas, and there you were. I couldn’t go much further, either. One block east to Calle San Martín, and the route was packed with spectators already. There was no more sidewalk, and you couldn’t walk in the street while the groups processed. Well, you could try, but you would get sprayed with espuma from spectators in the peanut gallery.

I arrived late, after one o’clock, which is why I could not make my way north along Calle San Martín to El Prado, as I had done last Sunday to view the Corso Infantil. The reason there were no sidewalks is that upon them the city erected wooden bleachers, as well as risers with plastic seats, all of them covered by tents or canopies to keep out the rain, which fell in the morning, and the sun, which returned in the afternoon, annihilating the gray-white clouds. In effect, if you did not arrive early enough to pay for a bleacher or riser seat, you were walled off from the Corso, at least from where I approached it. What you had to do, as I did, was crawl into the narrow space left behind the risers, about 18 inches deep, pull back the tarp covering the rear, and crane your neck around the backs of other heads and necks to see what you could see. Fortunately, from my peephole behind the risers at the northwest corner of Avenida de Heroinas and Calle San Martín, where the parade bended to turn north, I saw and heard everything.

What was this everything? A rock concert. An IMAX movie in 4D. The Rite of Spring. A victory parade for the gods. A war dance. A freak-out. A rave. A happening.

Hour after hour, fraternities, groups, and societies, men and women marching, playing, dancing. Hour after hour, brass and percussion bands thumping and thundering all the time. It was like one continuous song, relayed from one band to the next, never ending, though I know the rhythms and tunes changed for the different traditional dances. It was like there was a war deity acting as DJ and mixmaster, and all the bands were like discs on his turntables, tracks on his digital player.

Hour after hour, there were dancers, resplendent, surreal, doing la Diablada, la Morenada, la Llamerada, la Cullaguada, los Incas, los Tobas. Blink, and you missed something. Where did they come from, all these performers? They just kept coming! Did they go around the block and return? No! There were all-new groups, with new moves and new costumes.

Dios mío, how can I describe the costumes? Red-yellow-green-black-pink-teal-orange-blue-white-brown-gold-silver. So many combinations of colors, in never-ending invention. To watch the rainbows dancing by was like tumbling inside a kaleidoscope that would not stop turning.

What was I seeing? Women in mini-skirts and six-inch platform shoes or knee-high high-heeled boots wearing three-foot plumes looking like Amazonian glam rock stars. Men moving like mixed martial arts masters in their psychedelic indigenous costumes. Where did they all come from? Venus and Mars? Mount Olympus? The sun?

Both the men and women were looking like messengers of the gods and demigods, like kings and queens and angels and demons, like avatars of ancient and coming ages. Shimmering in sequins, skirts, padded shoulders, unreal headdresses, and armor.

These fraternal societies, dedicated to preservation of Bolivian folklore and culture, prepare months for Carnaval. Understatement of the year: it shows. My mouth hung open at the dress of the performers from Tinkus San Simón. How could there be so many colors in one costume? How could there be so many pieces to one costume? So many threads, sashes, tassels, stoles, plumes, mirrors, beads, trinkets, fringes, sequins. What embroidery, what weaving! Hats and caps, breeches and skirts, bandanas, scarves, vests, boots. Incredulity followed incredulity as more unbelievable costumes appeared, as in the team from Tarata dancing la Diablada to remember the legend of Wari and the Urus. Vipers, toads, lizards, ants, condors, bears, Wari himself, the Inca princess Ñusta, and angelic Auroras. How tall were the headdresses—three, four, five feet?

As I regarded all of this, this is what I was thinking: Everybody is graceful. Everybody is talented. Everybody looks beautiful—transfigured. And I want to see something like this again in heaven. 

For all their efforts, these mighty musicians, these regal dancers, too, were sprayed heartily with foam. Prohibited or not, espuma was being sold, and espuma was being used. As I was standing behind the risers, a little boy, maybe 6 or 7 years old, sprayed me with his empty can, blowing only dust at me. He looked very happy to see me.

From time to time, the cosmic DJ hit Pause. As the music died down, the street crowded with people, spectators and vendors mingling with performers, eating, drinking, spraying, until you did not know who was who.

(Profesor Óscar estimated on Friday that 15,000 people would be participating in the Corso de Corsos from all over the department of Cochabamba. Cochabamba is the name of one of the states of Bolivia, as well as the capital city of the department. The daily Los Tiempos estimated 20,000. Never mind how many came to watch.)

Gradually, the canned music over the loudspeakers was overtaken by a rumble coming from the north down Calle San Martín from El Prado. A Corso marshal raised a green flag: the cosmic DJ hit Play; the dancers and musicians got back into formation; and the dance resumed. Firecrackers and whistles! The glorious mysteries of life had risen again!

I remained for three waves of music and dance. At last, a company of Afrobolivian drummers passed through. Oh, am I glad I stayed long enough to hear them! They were different from the other groups in rhythm and dress. After a litany of sights and sounds exotic to my senses, this felt like a coming home. My soul was uplifted, my body stirred. I was moved.

I stood for almost three hours, until 4 o’clock, but it all began at 9 o’clock this morning and was still going on as I composed this draft on Saturday evening. From the convent, it sounded like the Civil War. It looked like a battle. Fireworks in the sky! (I missed the real soldiers, the military procession having occurred at the beginning of the Corso.)

My eyes and ears full of sensation, I walked back to Templo San Francisco through the street fair that stretched along Avenida de Heroinas between Calle San Martín and Calle 25 de Mayo. Once more I passed the trampolines, the carousels, the games of chance. I passed the foosball machines. I passed the aromas of all the cooking meats, the tang of the cotton candy, the saltiness of the popcorn and nuts. I passed the spangle of the jewelry and the glitter of the masks. Whoosh. I turned around. Some kid found his target … me. A spray of foam found the back of my habit. Not much, but noticeable. I put out my hands and, like an old fogey, shook my head at him to say, why me? But I shook it off. Why not me? Brushing myself clean—the foam faded like water—I continued home, feeling initiated.

You can read a perspective on the Corso de Corsos here and see a video here, with many more attractions I missed earlier.