Sunday, June 17, 2007

Guided by a Nun

On Friday afternoon, I had my mobile Spanish class with Oscar. Generally we visit different places in the city to learn about the place, the culture, and to practice the language. This afternoon, he surprised me by taking me to his aunt’s house.

Two days earlier, one of his aunts had died in her 50s from Chagas. She had contracted it three years earlier when visiting her native village of Vallegrande, about three hours from Santa Cruz. This is near to Higueras, the place where Che Guevara died. In the past three years she had wasted away. While medication is available to slow down the progress, there is no cure.

Oscar told me the name of the bugs that spread it, but I didn’t understand it in Spanish. So I took a look at the CDC webpage and see they are called triatomine bugs. Found in simple houses, made of adobe, straw, mud and palm, the bugs come out at night. After biting and sucking blood, they defecate on the person. The person becomes infected by accidentally rubbing or scratching the feces into the eyes, mouth or bite wound while sleeping. Sounds pretty gross.

I think it’s relatively common in the rural areas of this region, which makes a local homestay sound like not a very good idea. Wikipedia says 25% of the Latin American population is at risk, and about 50,000 people die annually.

As a result of this aunt’s death, Oscar’s family gathered for the funeral, including an aunt from Tarija. I was surprised when we arrived and I saw a nun, dressed in a long, shapeless ivory smock, with a white wimple.

“I’m surprised to see you are not in black,” Oscar said to Marlena, as she and her sister got into the car. Both of them were sisters of his grandmother.

“That just makes me feel worse,” she said, “It makes me think sad thoughts all the time. So I decided I’d do better in white.”

I learned that both sisters had been sent to the nunnery at the age of 12. Sofia left as a teenager, though she never married or had children. But Marlena had remained for the past half century.

Oscar told me it was common at that time for families to send their young daughters into nunneries. “They were too poor to take care of them themselves,” he said. “So they sent them where they could get some care and instruction.”

Fifteen years ago, Marlena was ordered by the powers that be to serve in Tarija. “They have to sign a vow of obedience,” said Sofia, “and must do whatever they are told.” In Tarija she works with a nursing home run by the nuns. While visiting Santa Cruz, she wanted to visit the partner nursing home here.

We went with her. After leaving us in the lobby while she went to introduce herself to the mother superior, she returned to fetch us and give us the tour. As we walked along corridors, she bustled ahead, keeping me following her flowing white robes, wondering how she kept them clean. Whenever we reached a doorway, she’d pause to let me go first.

The facilities were quite impressive – clean, orderly, large, airy – a multi-storied building centered around a courtyard. Topiary spelled out Love Jesus, and little sticks and signs with religious slogans appeared everywhere.

About 200 elderly live in the facilities. The poorest live there for free. Those who have pensions or relatives who held support them pay between $40 and $100 a month, depending on their ability. This includes an institution-like bed in a room shared with 2-10 others (they are now trying to make all the rooms for three people only), all meals and use of the facilities. It may include medical care as well.

She told us that this group of nuns, headquartered in Spain, run nursing homes like this in 20 countries. They’ve recently opened homes in the Philippines and the Dominican Republic. She said standards were identical at all of the homes, and she led us through the facility as though she was walking through her home turf in Tarija, pointing out the plastic covers that protect the tables from spills, the high windows with short curtains to allow in light, the kitchen facilities and the TV room.

Except for the shared rooms and the stale, institutional smell of mass produced food, it was quite a nice place, especially by Bolivian standards. The saddest part, as in nursing homes worldwide, is having to live surrounded by so much death and dying.

Before we left, she led us into a room with a single large table and chairs in the center, artwork on the walls. There, she treated us to bottles of ginger ale and wafers.

I asked Oscar if she was always this energetic.

“Yes,” he said. “She’s always been very efficient and full of energy. She puts everything she has into her work at the nursing home and is always coming up with new ideas.”

I asked Sofia whether the church had any difficult finding priests and nuns these days.

“Yes,” she said. “The majority of priests now from thieves and drug addicts who come for assistance to a center run by the church. And while they are there God calls to them. They have a harder time finding nuns now.”

Yesterday I finally had my first guests over, inviting ten colleagues over for an international lunch. I asked some colleagues what time I should put on the invitation if I wanted them to arrive at 2. 1:30, they said.

At 1:35, the first person appeared. Another came at 1:45. Shortly after 2, a few more came. Then came a phone call. Two people said they were just about to leave their house and would be there in ten minutes. They arrived at 2:50.

We had people from Argentina, Germany, the US, as well as different areas of Bolivia, and everyone brought something from their region of origin. So we ended up with quite a feast. We started out with a meatball and leek soup, made by a German, together with chanca de pollo, a wonderful Bolivian soup made with rice, potatoes, chicken and beans. The chanca was my favorite of all the contributions. We followed that with a diced apple and celery salary, something similar to a Caesar salad, a European arrugula salad and a form of Chinese wontons I’d never seen before. Ariana made the star dish, a Cochabamban speciality called fritanga. It’s made from fried pork, potatoes, and potatoes that are dehydrated on house roofs for a month. For dessert, we had canned fruit in a sweet yogurt sauce and from the States – brownies and chocolate chip cookies.

Most stayed until the evening and we all had a nice time. It was several hours of good Spanish practice for me, and I was glad to have finally shown a little hospitality. I haven’t been integrating as well into Bolivian society as I’d like to, and as I usually do elsewhere. The societal stratification is definitely a factor. But more importantly is that some things have been going in life that haven’t left me with the time or energy to do much beyond work and whatever I need to take care of personally. So if my colleagues are to be my main social network here in Santa Cruz, so be it. I may lose out on exposure to a wider variety of backgrounds and experiences among the general population. But they are intelligent and interesting people who can teach me much about the life and culture. As well as cook a mean almuerzo!

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