Seeing Red

It’s 12:15 on a Tuesday afternoon and I’m at work
I’m sitting outside planning this week’s English lesson
I’ve situated myself perfectly behind the clothes line so that a towel blocks the sun from my eyes
I look up and I see a bright blue sky

It’s 12:20 on a Tuesday afternoon and I’m thinking about lunch
Just 40 more minutes and I can eat a plate full of vegetables and quinoa
I hear my stomach grumble, I feel it move
I can almost taste the cumin already

It’s 12:25 on a Tuesday afternoon and I’m thinking about emotions
We’re planning to teach vocabulary to describe one’s feelings
I already have a list, but I can only think of negative sentiments
Why can’t I think of positive emotions?

It’s 12:27 on a Tuesday afternoon
I’m sitting outside planning this week’s English lesson
I look up and I see a bright blue sky
The sun envelopes me; I am content
Why can’t I think of positive emotions?

It’s 12:30 on a Tuesday afternoon
I’m sitting outside planning this week’s English lesson
I look up and see one of my adolescent students bent over at the waist
His shoulders are hunched; he’s hovering over the stairs

I look up and I see red on his face
Oh, the amount of red!

I look up and see his hands under his chin
Hands and more red

It’s 12:30 on a Tuesday afternoon and my bleeding student yells for me to come
It’s 12:30 on a Tuesday afternoon and Matti’s* nose is deviated to the right
It’s 12:30 on a Tuesday afternoon and Matti’s nose is deviated to the left
It’s 12:30 on a Tuesday afternoon and five minutes after leaving my student returns
Returns with a broken nose

It’s 12:30 on a Tuesday afternoon and my student was punched in the face at the bus stop
And now at 12:30 on a Tuesday afternoon my job is to wash Matti’s blood out of the sink

It’s 12:30 on a Tuesday afternoon and I feel a range of emotions
Fear, anger, confusion, shock
Why can’t I think of a positive emotion?

Why

Why

Why?

*Names are changed but the story’s true

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The Common Cold and an Extraordinary Friend

Sick with a cold so Martin brought me tea and cough drops

There’s a drum circle playing on my temples
My facial sinuses have been stuffed with 1,000 pebbles
My temperature’s up
I need to lie down

Knock, knock, knock

“You need to drink this
The plantain will make you feel better, but the flavor is strong
Add chamomile to taste – it will feel less wrong
A liter of hot water, you have to let it steep
Oh, by the way, last night, how did you sleep?”

– Sometimes even illness can lead to beautiful things.

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IELU Church-Wide Assembly

In November, I was fortunate enough to attend the IELU’s (Lutheran Church in Argentina and Uruguay) biannual Assembly in Buenos Aires. Here are some things that delightfully surprised me:

1.Size
The Lutheran community is still small in Latin America, so after worshipping with less than 10 people for the last 3+ months, it was a joy to be in the company of 70 IELU congregants!

2.Vision
Each church (spanning Argentina from north to south and including Montevideo in Uruguay) had the opportunity to share what they are doing in their individual community. We also had different focus groups to talk about the life and mission of the church: stewardship, youth, and Christian education. I was immediately struck with the dedication and depth in which the topics were discussed. The Lutheran congregants of Argentina/Uruguay speak with such passion that they reminded me of the Margaret Mead quote, “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.”

3.Community
It was one of those gatherings where you sit down at a table and are able to strike up a conversation with whoever is at your side.

4.Meeting Pastor Andrea from Esperanza del Sur, Trinity Lutheran’s companion church in Esquel, Argentina!
A real mover and shaker in the church! More details to come on this encounter in another post!

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Daily Life: Cultural Similarities and Differences

An exploration of daily life habits such as making coffee and drying laundry, illustrated with photos of some of the Uruguayans most important to me.

Oscar demonstrates good mate technique

Oscar, one of the teenagers I hang out with at La Obra, demonstrates how to serve yerba mate (pronounced share-ba mah-tay), the beverage of choice here. Everywhere (bus, park, walking down the street, at the pool), people can be see with a thermos of hot water tucked under their arm and a mate full of tea in their hand. Yerba mate is loose leaf tea that is drunk from a special straw that serves as a strainer. It’s almost the equivalent of our image of coffee in the States – not only is it a pick-me-up (there is community yerba at La Obra so anyone can get a refill during the work day) -but it’s also a social affair. Friends sit and talk and pass the mate around the circle, refilling with water after each person’s turn. Every staff meeting at La Obra involves mate (as well as our field trips to the park and the pool and sometimes while we are waiting outside for parents to come and maybe when we are waiting for the food to cook….)

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Nahuel, my co-worker, also demonstrates the popularity of yerba mate. He shows off his mate (in his right hand – that’s just a stick in his left hand) as the Club de Niños team takes a stroll together.

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Asado is another social bonding event in Uruguay. An asado is very similar to a barbeque. Meat – and lots of it – is slowly cooked over hot coals. This photo is from the weekend that the Club de Niños team spent hanging out together (eating, taking walks, eating, playing games, eating, making jokes, eating) at one worker’s home near the beach. Can I digress a moment to comment on how cool it is that these employees have such a strong bond that they would choose to spend the whole weekend with each other? At the top of the photo Ana Soledad (purple shirt) and Silvia (white shirt) prepare the raw meat for the asado while Nahuel (bottom) cuts the blood sausage (yup, just like it sounds) and patê.

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Silvia knocks some hot coals from the fire so she can pull them under the meat to begin the asado.

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Clothes are not dried by a machine, but rather by hanging them on a clothesline. This photo demonstrates the clotheslines at the house of a friend. The clothesline that I use at my home in Montevideo is situated on the roof and can be accessed by a little door (maybe 2 feet high by 3 feet wide) in the wall.

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I think I’ve used a microwave once the last two months. Water for mate or coffee is better boiled in a teapot on the stove. The gas stove that is. The gas stove that goes along with the gas oven. And the gas heater that is used to warm the room during the winter (read: no central heating, appreciate it folks).

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Coffee pots are not a household staple here as they are in the United States. That’s not to say that Uruguayans don’t drink coffee though, it’s just much more common to drink instant, powder coffee than the perculated sort. As a coffee junkie, I began by drinking instant here, but it left me missing waking up with the aroma of the coffee beans themselves. Problem solved with this little diddy: A small filter that I drape over a glass jar. I fill the filter with coffee grounds and then pour hot water (heated on the gas stove, of course) into the filter and the coffee (plus aroma) drips from the bottom of the filter and into the jar.

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Why am I here?

If you aren’t in for the win, you can skip to the last sentence to get the gist. If you want all the commentary, continue on as if you had Thoreau in your hands.

The Mission of La Obra Ecuménica Barrio Borro:

“Our mission is to generate opportunities to overcome the social exclusion that affects the boys, girls, and youth of this neighborhood, promoting integral growth of individuals’ potential and to contribute to the construction of full citizenship.”

Montevideo maintains one of the highest standards of living of all cities in Latin America. That sounds great, but it comes with a catch: there is a huge disparity between those who have a lot of money and those who don’t. That brings us to the “Barrio Borro” A.K.A. the neighborhood in which I work. For some reason or another, the kids with whom I work are living below the poverty line. I can’t do justice to their stories because, quite frankly, there is no easy or clean reason why things are the way they are. Some have parents addicted to drugs, some have parents who have to work literally all day for meager wages, some don’t live with their parents at all, and some have another other obstacle (actually combination of obstacles), that make the whole go-to-school, get-good-grades, go-home-and-play thing more complicated than it should be.

As previously mentioned the mission of La Obra is manifested in many forms; it could be skills such as doing research/typing on a computer, cooking class i.e. baking alfajores (a type of pseudo-Oreo, filled instead with caramel), or in the form of playing sports, games, or instruments, arts and crafts, dance, and academic support… the list goes on.

Marcos getting ready for the "murga" - drumming and singing - after playing soccer against other teens.  In the background you can see mate; the staple beverage of ALL social events (read: anytime more than one person is in a room... or within 5 ft. of each other).

Marcos getting ready for the “murga” – drumming and singing – after playing soccer against other teens. In the background you can see mate; the staple beverage of ALL social events (read: anytime more than one person is in a room… or within 5 ft. of each other).

Of course, all of these things come at more than face value. Everyone has the responsibility of looking out for the health, safety, and well-being of the others. A part of recreation and playing sports is that we all take part in a project to better La Obra i.e. cleaning the cabinet that holds the games or fixing the ping-pong paddles and table which have taken much abuse from teens that use them. (Read: how often do you see a 15-year-old boy handle anything with fragility?) Everyone who comes to La Obra receives a meal, either lunch or an afternoon snack, and the kids take turns washing the dishes and cleaning the tables and floors after we eat.

Another activity La Obra does with the elementary kids is to go to the pool twice a week. The object is not just that it’s fun to swim (which it is), and great exercise (which I’ll admit – I’m really biased on this subject and its importance for every person), but, for some of the kids, it provides their only two showers of the week. Indeed, some of these kids live in homes without showers or bathtubs.

That all said, I’m really here to live according to the slogan of a local cell phone giant. I’m here because, “Compartida, la vida es más” – Shared, life is better.

Julio and Camila help Rocio "ride" the chest press at Plaza 12, a park with soccer fields, basketball courts, playground equipment, and exercise machines.

Julio and Camila help Rocio “ride” the chest press at Plaza 12, a park with soccer fields, basketball courts, playground equipment, and exercise machines.

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New Kid on the Block

I remember my first day of second grade. I was starting at a new school in a new city. I remember my mom giving me a hug in front of my new classroom. I remember how her hand lingered on my back longer than normal. I remember my brand new Beach Boys folder. I remember how proud I was of that folder because I was sure all of the other second graders would think it was so cool that I had surfers on my folder. I remember thinking that the other second graders would want to be my friends because I had such a cool folder.
I remember feeling anticipation, anxiety, and apprehension of meeting all of my new classmates. I remember the strong desire to fit in. I remember being completely consumed by the thought of making new friends. It’s a very familiar feeling. In fact, it’s the way that I’ve been feeling since I arrived in Montevideo.
The organization for which I work is called La Obra Ecuménica. La Obra functions as Casa Joven during the morning and Club de Niños in the afternoon. Casa Joven is a program for adolescents ages 13-17 years who aren’t in school for some reason or another. Some are taking classes at La Obra that will get them the equivalent of a high school diploma. Others engage in different activities such as recreation, music, art, and cooking (this is where I fit in). The mission is to not only help these teens develop their skills in the aforementioned areas, but to build their confidence, advance their teamwork/cooperation skills, establish a level of responsibility to and for others, and develop meaningful relationships.
Sometimes, as a part of this mission, we get to engage in our own version of the World Cup. We get to branch out of our small group and compete against other teens who participate in similar organizations. The World Cup activities consist of a soccer game and some sort of artistic expression (music, theatre, dance, etc.).
The last time we went to the World Cup, I somehow ended up actually playing in the soccer match. (Why did this happen? I’m not sure. As my Spanish skills are still child-like, I usually don’t know why I’m doing things or what exactly is going to happen until the moment that it occurs. Sure, if I understood everything that I was told I’d be more prepared and put together, but for now, I will enjoy this forced spontaneity; Move over Justin Bieber, I’m joining you on the edge!)
I was actually extremely nervous when my boss told me that I would be playing. I haven’t played soccer since I was 13-years-old. My skills are not up to par with Uruguayans; soccer isn’t a game here, it’s a way of life! I’m already reliving the first day of second grade everyday – I just want them to like me, I just want to be a part of the group – now, I certainly don’t want to embarrass the team with my soccer skills (or lack thereof).
As we were lining up in our positions, my team was telling me where to stand. “To the right, to the right. Now back up a little. There!” As the seconds before the game got lower, my anxiety crept higher. I just want them to like me, I just want to be a part of the group.
The game started. I knew that ball control was not my forte. I knew that running was. My game plan was to outrun the other team. I will run faster, I will run longer, and when I have the ball, I will get rid of it as quickly as possible, I thought.
When all was said and done, I managed to run a lot, touch the ball a little, and sometimes even advance the ball upfield. After one such success, I heard a voice behind me: “Bien, profe!” (Good job, teacher!) Never have two words sounded so sweet. “Bien, profe.” He was talking to me, right? I was the only profe on the field. He was talking to me. “Bien, profe.” The words played over and over in my head. I was absolutely elated by them. My second-grade-self was jumping for joy; I’d been accepted. My soccer team liked me! They think that I’m doing a good job. I’ve made it!
Everyday is a new challenge. Will I understand what I’m supposed to do? Will I please my boss/co-workers/the adolescents/the kids? Will I fall flat on my face? Everyday the answers to those questions are both yes and no. Some days are more successful than others. Some are full of “Bien, profe” moments and some are absolutely not. As the clock ticks on and I’m almost at the one-month mark in this country, I continue to find my place among my new companions.

I remember feeling anticipation, anxiety, and apprehension of meeting all of my new classmates. I remember the strong desire to fit in. I remember being completely consumed by the thought of making new friends. It’s a very familiar feeling. In fact, it’s the way that I’ve been feeling since I arrived in Montevideo.

The happy team after the game.

The happy team after the game.

You can also see some video clips of our game http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJi-U2wW0aw complements of INDA. We are the white team; look 12.5 minutes in.

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The Beginning of Life in Uruguay

The days are long but the weeks short

At work I’m a friend, a companion
In the morning with teens
Afternoon with the kids

People whose lives have seen different problems than mine
Some because of money, some drugs, some broken relationships
Some because of things I cannot even understand
(and this is not the fault of the language barrier)

I am here for the relationship

My “work” comes in the form futbol (soccer) games, cooking, and swimming
Sometimes via jump rope or homework or dancing
My assignment is to be; to listen and to participate

The assignment is consistency

What am I doing today?
The same as last week and the same as next week
Still coming, still going, still playing, still smiling

“Good morning”, kiss on the cheek, time for activity
“Will you play with us tomorrow/next week?”
“Of course, there’s no place I’d rather be”

The days are long but the weeks are short

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