A bare brick, ramshackle building with a tin roof held on with stones from the nearby river. A Willow tree behind. Windows only recently installed. Blue curtains made from sheets. Boys in their sunday best enjoying the sun. Ladies in broad brimmed hats, multi-coloured blankets draped on their backs; babies nestled inside. A malnourished puppy looking for sustenance…
As I recount with extraordinary eloquence the scene in the photo above, for the benefit of those still on dial-up internet, I harken back to the days of the first church in Bolivia that we would call our own: Quillacollo-something-something-Church. Strange that they would call it that really, since they spoke Quechua, maybe as much Spanish as I did, and no English whatsoever. Quillacollo was a town about 15Kms out of the city. Quechua is both a language and an indigenous people: The ancestors of the Incas. Watch the Discovery Channel already. No one ever said this blog would be in-depth & informative.
Anyway… It was our first real church and our big chance to make it with the locals. We had no car, since Dad had squandered all our money on ‘herbs’ while living in rural Australia and pursuing his life-long dream of one day transmogrifying into Catweasel, so every sunday we took the bus as close as we could get and walked the rest of the way into the Bolivian countryside. Meandering along miles of dusty cobblestone streets, turning our ankle bones to mush in the process. My brother and younger sister would usually trail behind, as is always the case with the young and the weak, narrowly fleeing the wild dogs in our wake, aroused by the smell of blood from my siblings’ bound feet.
Several of the school’s grounds staff attended the church, which was great. That gave us someone to smile and nod at under the pretense of understanding whatever it was they were saying. We loved the guys that worked at the school, mainly because they made weapons for us in the workshop that would be illegal anywhere else but Texas. My brother got a steel sword once that could impale a buffalo. In the face.
The church services always started late. That was just how Bolivians did things. I’d prefer if our culture was a little more like that, since then I’d be on time most days. They live in their own little relativity sphere where time no longer has meaning and things just happen when they happen. The pews inside the church were older than Moses, and the floor may have been dirt, in the same way George W. Bush may have been President. It gets hazy. For whatever reason whoever sat next to me always smelled like onions. More often than not, my sister. The service consisted about a million people crammed into the room singing at least 15 songs in Quechua or Spanish, none of which I could understand, partly due to them being sung in the key of ultra-high-F-sharp-squared, only recently discovered. After the arduous singing I finally got to go outside with joel and shovel our vocal chords back into our mouths while the pastor spoke for around 15 hours. We had to be careful not to haphazardly plunge into the disused and wide-open pit toilet around the back, which smelt like it had claimed many lives already. I caught a whiff walking past on one particularly warm day and saw purple unicorns playing snooker in our bathtub for the rest of the week. I have no knowledge of the new & improved pit toilet out the front, since Mum barred us from using it. It didn’t matter if your kidneys exploded or not. You just had to wait till you got home and you were finally allowed the take the clothes peg off your delicates. I think that’s why, as I now enter my 30’s, I have a bladder built like a ship’s hull. There was a little store down the road too, that we could escape to and buy diabetes-inducing amounts of bulk candy. One of the guys that used to come out with us was an older teen named Jimmy. Jimmy had a mole on his face that looked like a fly had landed there. So we called him Fly all the time. He noticed the snickering and would sit there trying to look engrossed in the lesson, covering the mole with his finger. Also, it may have been some rudimentary form of communication I was too innocent to understand. I know we sound really harsh, but you forget we were little brats and had no choice. As it happened, Jimmy was nice enough to give my brother a toy M16 rifle, which he promptly fell in love with. And Jimmy promised to take me to a corporate health club one time, but never showed, so I sat on the school wall for hours in my gym shorts like sniper-bait until it got dark and Mum said to come inside lest the kidnappers became emboldened. So I’m not too worried about the Fly thing. The people at the church were lovely, and sometimes I got the play the goat-skin drum until my parkinson’s-esque timing got the better of everyone and someone kindly relieved me of my duties. They were lovely though.
The greatest thing that ever happened at the Quillacollo-something-something-Church was Mum catching my brother chewing gum. Gum was a no-no, especially in church, and especially for the missionary kids, who got held at a higher standard than the Pope and were expected to sit there, still & silent for hours, which felt like we were coming off ADHD meds cold-turkey while Mum & Dad engaged the foreign culture. I once popped an eye out just so I could reach in and scratch my brain with my fingernail to get some relief. So Mum sees him chewing the gum and gets him to spit it into one of the 517 used tissues she always kept in her handbag and promises bouts of weeping and gnashing of teeth once we get home. Remembering the store down the road, she asks him where he got the gum…
“Under the seat” he replied.