A sense of dread and awkwardness fills the van as we pull up to the reunion.
“Why are we coming to this thing?” one daughter asks, pulling suitcases from the trunk. “We should’ve stayed home or gone to Grandma’s house.”
“Yah, we’ve never even been to South America!” adds another one.
Our kids are here because we made them come. Stan and I are here because, along with everyone else at this gathering, we volunteered with Mennonite Central Committee in Bolivia. Some attendees overlapped with our terms of service (1999-2004) but many others are from different eras.
“This will be great,” I say halfheartedly, while sweat trickles down my chest. I push my sunglasses on top of my head so I can greet people in a few moments, but even I’m starting to wonder why we made the trip when I open the doors to the retreat centre. The lobby is full of people, most of whom I’ve never met, and our family of five maneuvers through the crowd to get to the registration table and pick up a key to our room as quickly as possible. It feels like we need to regroup already.
Once we unlock our door, the kids and I survey the space; worn grey carpets, thin mattresses, a bulky TV from the eighties, plain grey walls with no pictures and a line of cabinets, circa 1960.
“Mmm, this is authentic,” I say. “It’s hot out and the hotel is just a wee bit nicer than most hotels we stayed at in Boli.”
Susanna is checking out the linoleum tile and pokes her head out of the bathroom. “Well I never want to go to Bolivia then!”
After gathering to eat, after singing a prayer together (a doxology in 4-part harmony almost like this:) ), after group introductions and watching row after row of people come forward to talk about the small villages and cities where they volunteered in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s, after catching up with people I hadn’t seen in more than 15 years, memories begin to stir…
The setting sun throwing shadows on the San Juan mountainside; how the hills became a giant piece of emerald velour carpet, crumpled with canyons and creeks, vines and trees. The smell of baking bread in a wood-fired clay oven, a mix of yeast, hot clay and smoke. The fresh milk squirted straight into my cup under the cow’s teat–immediately mixed with a shot of alcohol and sugar. The nausea of 12-hour bus-rides; winding through switchbacks up and down the infamous Inca Wasi to get to our home in Taperillas. The kiss-and-hug greeting in the city, the traditional arms-length pat-pat in the villages. The red dirt in which we grew Lab-Lab beans and tomatoes. Making almuerzo with our roommate Juan, squatting on the cement floor slicing onions. The wild honey. The walking. And walking. And more walking. The women who became my mothers, sisters, friends and confidantes when I had never felt more alone. The chicha, oh the ubiquitous chicha–a sweet, fermented drink made of chewed corn and saliva. The horse races in the chaco. The day-trips to town for a backpack full of grocery staples.
The next evening of the retreat is filled with stories and Bolivian folk songs. “Viva Santa Cruz!” we all stand up and shout, while looking out at the Winnipeg river and the Canadian shield. Stan sings and plays his favourite taquirari, Sombrero de Sao. Rene holds his hands high and claps when Brisa and Helena sing the cueca Moto Mendez; another lady waves a white handkerchief to the rhythm. Later that night, while getting ready for bed, my three-year-old sits on the potty and sings earnestly. It’s all gibberish, with a rhyme or two, and a melody I don’t recognize. I raise my eyebrows and look at Stan.
“She’s singing in Spanish, just like everyone else,” he informs me.
By this time it’s beginning to dawn on my why we came to the retreat. We came because we need to remind ourselves who we are and what has shaped us. We came because we wanted to be inspired by the farmers, professors, artists, business people, kids and wanderers who landed up in Bolivia alongside, or before, us. We came because we wanted to speak Spanish and eat empanadas. We came because we wanted to rub shoulders again with adventurers, dreamers and doers who are willing to explore other cultures. We came because we needed to visit with people who are passionate about social justice. We came because we wanted our children to see that there is more to this world than the small, prairie town where we currently live.
And yet, when someone asks me if we will take our family to live abroad, I’m not sure what to say.
“Of course, that was the plan,” I say. “It’s always been the plan, but somehow it’s not happening.” I pause. “My wanderlust has a hyper-local focus these days.” It’s true that I’m more interested in the bacteria growing in my compost pile, or the neighbour who just immigrated to Canada, than moving across the world. In fact, it seems unlikely we’ll be going anywhere when there is so much happening right where we are.
The person who asked the question nods and seems to understands, even though he took his own children to live in Bolivia.
We need to gather in groups like this where it’s easy to understand and be understood. To find our people. Whether they be scrap-bookers, gamers, Young Living distributors or whatever. In fact, if you’re like me “your people” aren’t constituted by a single group. Some are likely family members or classmates from years gone by. Some might be work buddies or old friends. Where ever they are they remind you of who you are and what you want.
My people certainly aren’t perfect, and this particular reunion wasn’t even that long. And yes, the first few moments were painful. Yes, it took energy to meet and greet and reconnect. Yes, I got tired of talking. But it was worth it. I remembered again who I want to be.
Passionate for social justice.
All because of Jesus.
Thanks to all of you at MCC who taught me and continue to inspire me!