Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Oh the Mountains We Will Climb

After another restless sleep, I woke up in a coughing fit and already short of breath. The journey had not even began, and here I was, in my bed, battling a cold and as a result, receiving a not so pleasant reminder that my asthma was anything but happy here in this altitude. Perhaps I should have been thinking about that all a little bit more, but at 4:30 AM I had only one thought running through my head: I hate chocolate.

Not only did I hate the bitter taste of it, but as I stuffed it into my hiking bag, I was fearful of the end result of the equation that kept running through my head. Lots of chocolate + a hot sun = melted chocolate = a dirty backpack. But to climb a mountain like Tunari, I was told I would need all the chocolate I could find. For energy, my favorite Auzzie climber told me the night before. Reluctantly, I through the chocolate in my bag and said a prayer, not to survive the 16,000 peak in spite of my asthma and sickness but instead, only so that the chocolate might not get my bag dirty.

And so hopefully you can place yourself in my shoes at that moment when I stood half way up this mountain, exhausted and out of breath, and reaching into my bag found a chocolate that was not melted, but in the contrary, frozen. Standing in my three layers of clothes, drenched in snow, and numb from the cold, I could not help but laugh at how wrong my prediction had been. I came expecting abundant heat, almost left my third layer at home for the day, and throughout the entire hike found myself in frenzied and freezing conditions where my sunglasses, brought to protect my eyes from the sun, were now the only thing that protected my vulnerable eyes from the flurry of snow that attacked my body.

There were indicators that this day would end up as odd as it did. First, waking up sick and short of breath. Or perhaps the eerie and unusually silence the streets of Cochabamba provided that morning. Of course it should have became more evident when my hiking group narrowly avoided walking into the middle of ten sticks of dynamite a work crew had planted to blow up a part of the mountain. As we scrambled for cover as little rocks flew closer and closer our way, perhaps that was the moment it should have clicked today was just going to be one of those days. And yet, all the snow, dynamite, and mind and body numbing wind could not have kept us from our goal that day. Walk, climb, or as was the case near the end, crawl, I needed to make it to the top of this peak. That same determination I feel in marathons crept into my cold bones that day on the mountain. Perhaps I was chasing after what would in the long run be an insignificant feat. Perhaps, ok, never mind, yes, it probably was stupid to do it in the condition my body was in. But you must understand that this mountain presented the opportunity to, for the first time, conquer my surroundings, rather than let them continually conquer me.

And so as I stood atop the 16,000 foot peak, looking down on the clouds, entrenched by the frigid air and surrounded by a flurry of rapidly falling snow, I felt this peculiar peace that allowed me to remember all those times I stood barefoot on the sands of the Pacific Ocean watching the sunset over that big mysterious body of water, all at once aware of how big this world was, and yet, what my special place was in this world where I truly stood as just one more insignificant dot on the map. I belonged to nature, and nature belonged to me. The world was an incomprehensible mess, cradled intimately just below my finger tips for my eyes to capture. I found refuge and happiness in the peaceful silence that greeted my jubilant shouts of joy. It was my day to be in charge, my day to not let language or anything else bring me down. When you stop and look at our lives, it is as though we are on a continual hike up a mountain, and for one brief moment, I reached the top, took a break, and soaked the view in. And what a view it was.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Cuestion de Fe

As he reached for the bottle of beer, I figured our drinking would begin. Instead, he opened the bottle, poured some of the beer onto the wall of stone in front of us, and quietly with knuckles already red with blood grabbed for the sledgehammer again. He turned to me, with a serious look of conviction in his eyes, sweat on his brow, and told me, ¨es cuestion de fe.¨ Silently I watched, repeating to myself what he had just told me, ¨it´s a matter of faith.¨

There is so much I want to share with you all and so much that is building within me, but all I want to say just will not come out right. I am tripping over words in Spanish and now even in English, and thus, the high altitude of Bolivia is not the only thing that has got my head spinning.

It was not until the day I journeyed to Quillacollo that I felt capable of sharing a little more about life in Bolivia.

I woke up early one Friday to navigate the ever so crazy streets of Cochabamba, a city that does not believe in stop signs or traffic signals, only good horns, and better breaks. Our destination: Quillacollo, a place place rooted in the history of Bolivia, where it is said the Virgin de Urkupina appeared to a person in need of help (sound like a famous virgin in Mexico and elsewhere?). At this shrine, I watch as my host family, who I have known for only two days , purchases a little toy house, fake money, and bottles of beer. Do not fear my friends, the beer was neither little or fake. The legend around this place we were visiting is that if you pray to the Virgin for what you most need, and return with those little items you bought and provide as offerings, she will provide what you need in full. I was both intrigued and confused.

It´s a matter of faith, es cuestion de fe, Pablo, my host brother told me, as we hiked up this large hill. We said our prayers to the shrine of the Virgin, and climbed some more, casita, beer, money, and now, a sledgehammer in hand. The sole purpose of the sledgehammer is to go to town on this huge rock, and any chippings that fall off, no matter big or small, must be saved, and returned the next year in order for your prayers to come true. And so as we approached the wall, more prayers were said, beer then poured out onto the wall and the ground in front of it, a tribute to the pachamama, or mother earth, a Bolivian tradition that is done frequently when consuming beer, because it is to the Pachamama that we owe our gratitude for life on earth.

For the next thirty minutes, my family hammered away at this wall of stone, collecting every little chip, big or small, that broke away as a result of their hardwork. They worked tirelessly at this task, explaining to me that you just can not pray for the things you want, you must in some way work for the things you want as well. Es fe, cuestion de fe, I hear over and over until it is engrained into my own head: it is a matter of faith. I look at my host brother, hands red with his own blood, face wet with his own sweat, and realize that this rich culture that has found a way to maintain its cultural native routes while blending the Catholic religiosity that defines so much of Latin America perhaps has a thing or two to teach me.

And as much as I would love to have the story ability to more effectively tell the story of this sometimes exciting, sometimes bizzare journey, but I realized through this experience with my host family, I can´t tell it. It simply has to be a matter of faith that those who need to understand, do.

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Morning After: Point for Bolivia

Bolivia has a way of tempting you to enjoy all it offers late into the night, even in a way my college days could not rival. In college, the bars close at 2:00 AM, but here, here the night goes well into the morning. Perhaps it is just the Latin American culture that has us playing by these crazy rules, or perhaps it is that a full Litre of beer costs a little less than US $1.50. Whatever the reason, inevitably you are spun up into the night life, enthralled in the newness and excitement of it all. Before you know it, your night out has turned into your morning journey home, desperatley hoping to catch some sleep before the sun wakes from its own slumber.

But unlike those late college nights that at least offered quality sleep well into the afternoon, mornings in Bolivia are anything but friendly to the late night socializer. Take my morning for example.

First there was the three phone calls that went unanswered in my house between 7:00 AM and 8:00 AM. Then again, the dogs that aimlessly wander the streets have a habit of howling and barking at all hours of the night and morning, as was the case at 8:30 AM but this time, a rooster, dwelling somewhere in my urban neighbourhood joined the harmonious cacophony. I wish I could say it ends there, but minutes later, another early morning favorite of mine made his pressence known: the young and ambitious paperboy, walking up and down the street shouting ¨Los Tiempos¨ over and over, louder and louder, as the urgency to compete with yet another morning distraction becomes a bigger goal than newspaper sales itself. For at the same time, the old and rickety fruit truck comes bouncing down my unpaved, stone laden street with a loudspeaker similar to those from the free concert I attended last night, but this time, the announcements are anything but music to my tired ears: oranges, papaya, apples, bananas, and more.

I roll over, reasoning, logically in my sleep induced state, that if I just turn my head away from the paper thin wall all the exterior noises will cease to exist, and sleep, much needed sleep, will again be mine.

I wish the story ended there, but sadly that is not the case. The neighborhood rent a cop station is one house down. I can´t explain the reasoning, but here in Bolivia, the cop blows a loud and irritating whistle nonstop. Again, why is beside me, especially in these early morning hours. And so I decide it is time to rise out of bed. Point for Bolivia and all its distractions day and night, and no point trying to catch sleep in the midst of it all.

Later in the day, tiredness sets in, and I long for my bed, but distractions this time come from within the house: three little nieces that need me, a dance instructor with no dance experience, an entertainer perhaps entertaining only because he is foreign and at this moment not equipped with the language skills to talk his way out of the situation which will eventually wear him down even more.

But somehow, it gradually all comes together. The noise never ceases, but somehow, when I need it to, the exhaustion does and I find myself swinging my favourite 5, 6 and year old around the ballroom floor that is our living room. There is no music, not even an ounce of experience, only words I can not understand, but words that are accompanied with laughter and joyous screams, followed by the best laugh you could ever ask for.

This time, I smile as I think: point for Bolivia, and for me, point taken.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Monday Night Futbol

I never imagined my love for Monday Night ¨football¨ could ever survive while I lived in South America. But life has a way of allowing the good things to continue, even if in a completely different way. And so this past Monday I felt like I had fallen off the face of my own reality and into a third world ¨futbol stadium¨aqui in Cochabamba.

My sports fans will appreciate this because I tell you what I saw that night was sport in its purest form. O sea (aka ïn other words¨USING MY NEW SPANISH SKILLS!) it was paying $4 US and having the best seats in the house: lowest level, center pitch (think 50 yard line my American Football fans)sitting on a thin sheet of styrophone on a thick backless concrete slab.

During the game, not a single person that I could see left their seats. There was no food markets, no kids play areas or guys trying to give a free towel away if you sign up for a credit card, features so common in American ballparks and stadiums. Stranger yet for an American, there was no alcohol sold at this game, or any game in Bolivia for that matter. Why? Because the fans that beared these uncomfortable seats on this chilly night were there for one reason, and one reason alone: an intense love of the game. Beer, while immensely popular in Bolivia, would simply detract from the purpose of exisiting and watching the worlds most popular sport unfold before thousands of excited eyes.

I have always loved my American football, and will continue to do so, but leaving the stadium that night, walking the jubilant streets of a city celebrating in the success of their heroes, I happened across a park where young kids in tattered and dirty clothes excitedly ran and laughed around a grassless pitch with a lopsided ball, focusing intently on the task at hand: to get that excuse for a ball through what they called a goal, two stones set up only feet apart. It was that night, more than ever, that I could not help but have a moment realizing why it was that futbol was, and will always continue to be the worlds unifying game.

So long as we live in a world where 75 percent of the population lives in what we call developing or third world countries, an escape from poverty is found in the simple things in life: flat land, two objects to compose a goal, and anything that passes for a round object that can be kicked. There is not a lot of reason to hope when you look at the poverty stricken landscape of Bolivia, the 2nd poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, but that night, I found myself captivated in the joy of people who came together to watch and play a sport, and in doing so, find a little reprieve and hope, even if only momentmomentarily.

Perhaps as the incredible commercials with Bono says, One Game Can Change Everything

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Just Throwing It Out There

Hey All,

A few people have been asking for my mailing address and phone number while in Bolivia.

I am trying to get my USA cell phone rigged so that it will work in Bolivia and I will be able to receive calls on it. If that works, I will get it out to you all, but until then, my phone number is


Call, and just say Puedo Hablar Con Patricio

If I am not there, just say something like Bueno, Me llamo (your name goes here. Voy a llamar mas tarde.

I know CVS has a good Latin American calling card, and Walgreen perhaps as well. I am not sure about Savon, also, for any computer savy people, SKYPE allows you to make calls from your computer (something like 2 cents a minute).

And just remember, I am on East Coast Time, at least until day light savings, when Bolivia springs forward an hour, and the USA falls back an hour.

In terms of mailing address, it is:

Patrick Furlong
Instituto de Idiomas Maryknoll
Casilla 550
Cochabamba, Bolivia

Just keep in mind I can only receive letters or items under 2 kilos (you do the math, because I don´t know)or else the Bolivian government charges me a huge amount of taxes. So keep that in mind...

That´s all. I will post a real blog sometime later this week, perhaps about my Monday Night Futbol Experience.


Monday, September 04, 2006

Finding God in All Things

Finding God in all things. It´s an ideology so often heard in my days at LMU that it almost became that which it most seeks to avoid: merely a phrase, and not an everlasting and unfolding part of our every day lives.

Sunday I found God in the eyes of children who took to the streets of Cochabamba on a day when all autos except police and ambulances were forbidden on the roads, city wide. Saturday was my first day of reckoning with the reality of ínevitable boredom´. And so Sunday, bike riding along what are usually crowded and hectic streets in this large city, playing with my three host neices: Carolina who is 9, Natalia who is 6, and Ceci who is 5, I could not help but think about the loneliness and even sadness I had felt only one day before, as I lay in a strange bed in a strange house in a strange country with a strange language. If Saturday was difficult, Sunday was perhaps God´s subtle way of finding me in the midst of frustration and letting me know, it is part of the journey.

And so it is. I was thinking about that ever so popular Jesuit phrase about finding God in all things when I came across a Jesuit book here at my language school, entitled Seeking God in all things. And it got me thinking: we may at times fail to find God in all things, but perhaps what is more important still is to hold securely to the knowledge that God finds herself in all things, and only asks that we seek, even if at times we are unable to find. And so with the right amount of patience and faith, I discovered that there is little need for us to search, because God is revealed in that which we sometimes overlook as ordinary. And so it has been that kind of experience my friends, there are indeed no lightbulb moments, only little moments of grace, moments like that bike ride, or that first successful Spanish conversation or teaching salsa to kids when you yourself do not even know salsa. This is my vida loca aqui in Sur Americana

And yeah, I am safe, with my host family, and today, I start one on one language lessons! Miss you all... Wnat to see more, check out the photo bar and click to the Flickr site with all my photos...