Thursday, July 11, 2013

Thinking of Juan

My year in Uruguay has been many things. I have had some truly amazing experiences. However, it has not always been, in the words of everyone’s favorite leprechaun, Lucky from the Lucky Charms cereal commercials, “heart, stars, horseshoes, clovers and blue moons. There have been times I have felt very lonely and times when I asked myself what I am doing so far from home. Sometimes feelings of homesickness hit hard and I wanted to curl up in bed and eat peanut butter right out of the jar with a spoon. During these moments, I think about Juan Garcia. Juan was a foreign exchange student from Medellin, Colombia that I met during my senior year of high school. Juan played on the soccer team and lived with the family of one of my best friends, so we got to know each other pretty well. The first time I met Juan, we were sitting on the hill next to the soccer field waiting for practice to start. I said something to him and he just smiled. I will never know if he even understood what I had said but his smile expressed more than words could. His grin told you that even though I may not understand, I am still happy to be here. Throughout my senior year, whether it be at soccer practice, homecoming, or making movies for broadcasting class, I saw a lot of that smile. Smiling in the face of confusion, like Juan, has been something I have found myself doing a lot of in the past this year.  Leaving home, family, friends and the United States for Uruguay has been scary but thinking of Juan always gave me a little boost of confidence. If Juan could do it, I could do it.

There have been other times this year that have been hard but have nothing to do with my craving for a Dr. Pepper.  Trying to process everything I experience here in Montevideo can be frustrating. My life here in Uruguay is full of so many relationships, many of which with the kids and teenagers at La Obra. Getting to know them has been one of the most rewarding things about this year. However, sometimes learning about their lives can leave me speechless. Barrio Borro is an urban neighborhood in which violence, drugs, broken families, prostitution, exclusion, lack of opportunities and services are realities. I want to be clear that this is NOT the only face of Barrio Borro. I see its other face in each and every single one of the teenagers and kids at La Obra every day. At the same time, I cannot deny that the challenges the youth of Barrio Borro face, leaves me with a lot of different feelings. Feelings of anger towards inequalities, sadness in seeing the lack of opportunity, guilt about how my own privileges and especially confusion as to how God could permit such things. These are times when I also think about Juan.

In June of 2008, Juan Garcia walked across the stage with me and the rest of the graduating class of Platteville High School. Following graduation, Juan returned to his hometown of Medellin, Colombia. We stayed in touch, mostly through Facebook, wishing each other feliz cumpleaƱos, things like that. Once in awhile I would hear about how he was doing through his former host family. Then one day in the summer of 2010, Juan’s host family received a phone call from Colombia informing them that Juan had been shot and killed in a street robbery in Medellin. 

I have often thought about what it would be like if Juan were still alive. What it would be like to be able to talk to him in his own language or even visit him in Colombia. It is sad to think that those things can never happen. It is sadder still that things like Juan’s death are not that unusual. I wrote a blog post earlier this year about a light in the darkness in which I talked about me struggling with my own perception of faith in a world like the one in which we live. Trying to make sense of or find reason in a death like Juan’s is something I do not know if I can do.

However, at the same time I have come to see how much my relationship with Juan, has had a strong influence on my own life. Choosing to study abroad in college, learning a new language, taking the YAGM plunge are all things that I do not think I would have found the courage to do had I never met Juan. Now that my YAGM year is nearing its end I am faced with the reality of saying “goodbye” to people that have been so important to me for the past three hundred and two days. It saddens me to think of saying goodbye, which is something at which I have never been very good. However, more importantly I realize that more than anything I need to celebrate being so blessed to have shared so much with so many during my time in Uruguay and recognize the effect they have had and will continue to have on my life. Finding a way to close my YAGM year has been confusing but if Juan taught me anything it is that even if you are confused, you can always smile.

Friday, June 28, 2013


Today was my last day at La Obra. We had a goodbye party with cake, kids gave me cards with lots of glitter, we played games, it was a great time. At one point, one of the kids asked me, half-jokingly, why I was leaving. I told her that I missed my family in the United States. She replied "but you have family here!" She was right. 

Many people have asked me what this year has meant to me and although I am still figuring out how to express that (in English or Spanish) I am starting to see how, in the midst of starting to say many goodbyes, my "family" got a lot larger this year!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Time Management

Before going away to college, I was told that in order to succeed, I would have to learn good time management skills. Over the four years, time management skills was something I thoroughly developed. I learned that getting a sandwich and eating it while walking to the library or to class was much more efficient than actually sitting down in the dining hall . My junior year I found that the quickest way between my dorm room and Spanish class was to cut through the science building by walking through the chemistry department rather than risk walking through the geography department and potentially losing time by bumping into a professor or fellow geography major. I finished college having two minors to complement my degree in geography but I would like to think I had a concentration in time management.

Time management, even though it was something I could not physically pack in my suitcase, was definitely something I brought with me to Uruguay. I quickly figured out the optimal time to leave my house in order to catch the right bus to La Obra.  Every day I woke up, ate breakfast, brushed my teeth, got dressed, quickly said “buenos dias” to the portera, the door lady and then I was off to face another day in Uruguay.  That became my daily routine. Then one Monday as I was leaving, the door lady asked me a question. I quickly sputtered out an answer in Spanish and continued out the door. The next day, Tuesday, the door lady asked me the same question. Wednesday too. I was starting to wonder if the door lady had a bad memory. Coming back from La Obra on Thursday of that week, the door lady repeated what had become the question of the week. This time instead of giving her a hurried response, I actually sat down in the empty chair next to her to answer the question. We ended up talking until her shift ended. 

After that, my schedule changed a bit. The quick and curt “buenos dias” in passing became a sincere morning greeting. The “buenos tardes” after a day at La Obra transformed into longer conversations. I soon learned that Kristina, the person previously known as door lady, used to live in Argentina, did long jump in high school and does not like sugar in her mate. In turn, Kristina learned a lot about me. For example, when mail arrives at el hogar, Kristina is is the one who holds it at the front desk until the recipient claims it. Earlier in the year, if I had mail I would scurry up to my room, eager to hear news from home. However, now if I have mail, I sit down and open and share it with Kristina who now is well-informed about my life in Wisconsin thanks to shipments and clippings from hometown newspapers. During the summer, when all my roommates went home for summer vacation, it was great to have someone to talk to. I think that Kristina, who sits by herself most of the day monitoring the front door listening to the radio, felt similarly . Once again, I have been a witness to how accompaniment, a central theme of YAGM, really is a two-way street.

These days our conversations have started to include talking about how cold the weather is getting and the fact that my YAGM year is coming to a close. I realize that all the times this year I have spent sitting, people watching and listening to 80s music with Kristina is going to be one of my favorite memories of Uruguay.  I also realize how none of those memories would exist if I did not do such a good job of managing my time.
Kristina y yo

Saturday, June 8, 2013

An Update

Hello everyone, it has been awhile since I've last posted. I guess that is a good sign as I am trying to make the most of the rest of my time here in Uruguay. I thought I would share a recent news report on Casavalle, which is the neighborhood that La Obra Ecumenica serves. Too often in the media here, Casavalle is only depicted in a negative light and this story focuses on some of the positive things that are happening in the neighborhood. The video is in Spanish so it might not make much sense to most of you but at least you can see what what my daily life is like.

*the first part of the video is La Obra, the second place they go to is not La Obra*

Here's the link!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Labor Day Munchies

Happy Labor Day!!! Here in Uruguay, like most other countries around the world, Labor Day is celebrated on May 1st. Everything was closed today which resulted in a pretty quiet day in el hogar as most of my roommates were gone and it was rainy and cloudy most of the day. I was in my room reading when one of my friends invited me to take part in a Uruguayan tradition, eating torta frita or fried bread. Here in Uruguay, it is a tradition to eat torta frita on rainy days. I have asked lots of people why this tradition exists and have not yet gotten a conclusive answer. Apparently, nobody really knows why the tradition exists or began. Either way, like most street foods, torta frita is tasty, cheap and not at all healthy and since it was Labor Day and everything was closed, we ended making it ourselves. I have never deep fried anything in my life and was a little grossed out by the amount of grasa vacuna a.k.a. in English as "cow fat" or "lard", we used to fry but it was still a good learning experience. (Unlike mate, I don't think I'll bring this tradition back with me to the United States) Cow fat aside, making and eating torta frita with friends was a great way to pass a rainy, gloomy, Labor Day afternoon.
Mate & torta frita: Helping Uruguayans cope with rainy days since 1811

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Today Was A Good Day

On Foot / A Pie

Last Friday I went on a site visit with some of the educators from La Obra. We started to walk. Past the field where kids play soccer in between horses grazing. Past the teenagers hanging out at the abandoned bus stop. We ask a man pushing his daughter in a stroller for directions. “A little bit farther that way” he says. We keep walking. We finally arrive. Two little girls are playing out front. They are painting each other’s fingernails. The older sister enters the house to fetch her mother. The house has a sheet hanging in the doorway instead of a front door. The mother, with a baby on her hip, comes out to greet us. Her daughter has not been showing up at La Obra lately. After a brief conversation, we continue to the next house on the list. At this house, a man and women are sorting bottles from a huge burlap sack. The woman, with sleeves rolled to the elbows, greets us. Her hands, dirty from work, hang at her sides. Her daughter has not been showing up at La Obra lately. After a short conversation we head back to La Obra the way we came.
After La Obra, I hop on the #328 bus for what seems the umpteenth time this year. I get home, change my clothes and head out the door for a run. I pass the people on the front steps of el hogar. Some are waiting for the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Others are waiting for a bus. I pass the corner store where I buy fruit and vegetables. I pass the man with one leg on the corner. I finally get to La Rambla and keep running. I run past the lifeguard station. Past the Buceo Yacht Club. It is windy and surfers are taking advantage of the waves at Playa Honda. I run past condominiums and apartment buildings that make me feel like I am on Miami Beach. I keep running until I get to Plaza Virgilio. I am a little surprised I made it this far. By now it is dark and the cargo ships on the Rio de la Plata are little dots of light on the horizon. I turn around and start to walk back home. I walk past a man sleeping on a bench. I walk past a group of friends sharing a mate. I walk back the way I came until I reach the steps of el hogar. I make myself some manzanilla tea and go to bed. It has been a long Friday on my feet.