Elias’ Bolivian Birthday

In February when we finalized our plans to be in Bolivia for Elias’ birthday, I think Remberto and Esther started planning his party as soon as we finished the conversation. Lol!

From the decorations to the party favors to the food, it was so humbling to see how the church came together to throw Elias the most perfect party.

And what humbled me the most was to know that one of the moms had lost a pregnancy 6 years prior, and her baby’s due date was the exact day of Elias’ birthday. As she was helping to prepare for the party, she shared her story with me, and we just cried together. I couldn’t believe her selflessness as she said that throwing this party for Elias was like God healing another part of her grief.

This party was absolutely perfect for Elias. It had everything that he loves: puppies, other kids, balloons, music, food and cake!

And a new experience: a piñata!

Piñatas in Bolivia are different from the ones in Mexico. They are cylinders made out of simple card stock, with a fun design. And there are ribbons tied to punched-out holes in the bottom that you pull to tear the paper so that the candy and toys can come out.

I helped him pull the ribbons and then tear a hole, and as soon as the piñata broke open, the kids went NUTS! It was chaos! (that’s the only common denominator with a Mexican piñata!)

We connected our cellphone to a speaker so that we could play music, and all the kids danced together, played with the balloons and ate a TON of candy.

Once everyone showed up, we sang “happy birthday” and Elias blew out his candle.

Now, I didn’t know that there is another tradition in Bolivia with the cake. One mama kept saying “que muerda la torta” (bite the cake!) and I had no clue about that tradition, nor did I know if Elias would do that. The mama kept trying to grab the cake, but I let her know that I would rather help him do it.

So, I slowly lifted the cake to his mouth, and before I could even tell him to bite, this mama reached behind his head and pushed his mouth into the cake!

I guess the tradition is smashing the birthday person’s face into the cake!

It took all of us by surprise, of course, so I quickly “bit the cake” and got frosting on my mouth, and Leo ran over to do the same thing. As soon as Elias saw that we all had frosting on our mouths, he was totally fine.

Everyone laughed and cheered, and it was a moment I will truly never forget!

After we had all eaten our fill of cake, snacks and cotton-candy, Esther, Kim and our little family went to a park with fountains that light up and dance to music.

It was the perfect ending to a full day! We walked around, breathing in the cool, damp air. Elias LOVED the lights, and the little show that projected onto the large, misty fountains.

After such a full day with so many people, it was life-giving to walk around with friends, sharing life.

At every turn, Bolivians blew me away with their generosity, kindness, care and how well they loved us. They truly went all-out for Elias, and made his second birthday one that we will remember forever!

Farm day

Remberto and Esther rent out space to a beautiful Quechua family. They have a store and a tire repair shop, but their families also own some farmland about an hour and a half outside the city.

When we were sharing with the family outside their shop one morning, Leo mentioned that we would love to see what the farm is like, and they invited us to help harvest fava beans.

So, Monday morning, bright and not-as-early-as-the-Pastor-would’ve-liked, we drove off through the mountains to find the farm.

We really had no idea what to expect as we were bouncing up the one-lane dirt roads, but the views just kept getting better and better.

I honestly have no idea how Remberto knew where to go, but he got us there! As we arrived, the neighbor came out laughing, so surprised that we had made it!

She was preparing the Oka (a type of potato that is sweet and unlike anything I had tasted before), and her sisters were harvesting little naturally freeze-dried potatoes called chuño.

They had lots of sheep that were loosely tied to bushes. Elias was a bit disappointed that they weren’t friendly. He’s used to the goats on my parents farm that LOVE to be pet and loved on. He tried his hardest, but the sheep didn’t want anything to do with him.

The fields that needed to be harvested were a short drive away, so we all piled in the car and headed to the fava bean and oat fields.

The views from the family farm were unreal! The hills were dotted with little earthen buildings, farm animals and piles of oats waiting to be threshed. The family had rented a tractor, and 3 men were using it to thresh the oats from the chaff. It was fascinating to watch!

We walked along the road, and Elias was thrilled to see a mama and 5 baby pigs, cows, sheep, horses and ducks!

Along the road was a dug-out stream that they would use to both irrigate the fields and get water to the animals. It ran from a spring uphill, and instead of using hoses, they had little channels running from the main stream. When they needed the water to run a certain direction, they would simply block off a part of the stream with gravel and water would start flowing where they wanted it to go.

Genius!

After spending time taking in the views, we got to work harvesting the beans.

She showed us which ones were ready to harvest, and we started right in.

In between each row of fava beans, they planted herbs and little flowering plants to help bring bees to pollinate.

After a good 2 hours, we collected 3 huge bags of beans, and then found a shady place to peel them. Even Elias got in on that!

Then, she was off to cook! She invited us over to the family’s compound, and it was like stepping into a museum. The long, dirt structure had different rooms for different families, but one common kitchen. There was a pump for the well, an herb garden, a rack for drying the sweet potatoes, a little fence made out of sticks, a row of tobacco plants, and a tree that housed around 50 hummingbirds.

The sunken kitchen was small, steamy and warm. The thatch roof was covered in soot, and the light that came from the one lightbulb took a minute for our eyes to adjust to after being in the bright sun.

They had a gas stove, though, so even though you could tell they used to cook with wood, the gas didn’t smoke up the kitchen.

The biggest surprise wasn’t the electricity or the gas, but the guinea pig coop under the shelf. Elias loved watching them play, run and eat the fava bean peels. They keep the guinea pigs, not as pets, but a an amazing source of protein. Being winter in Bolivia, the little animals spend all their time in the warm kitchen. They don’t reproduce much during the winter, so we found out that we wouldn’t be eating them for this meal, but in the summer months, they get eaten. We have heard of this, of course, but had never eaten guinea pig before.

The women cooked the fava beans, potatoes and rice, and then we took everything down to the field where the men were working to share the meal together.

The women set out blankets for us to sit on, and we all ate our fill out of the communal bowls, piled high with food, and spoons shoved in the side for anyone who wanted to use them. We all grabbed the beans and potatoes with our hands and shared the spoons to eat the rice with. I watched as the men carefully peeled the beans and potatoes before eating them, and then tried my best to copy.

The conversation took off in Quechua, and I tried my best to not just stare at everyone as they were talking, but it was such a beautiful language to listen to.

I also just couldn’t believe that we were able to share a meal like this: on a farm, in Bolivia, eating food that we had just helped harvest.

The family was kind, and asked simple questions of us… Leo loved answering and sharing his life.

We loved watching Remberto come alive in that setting, as well. He commented that being in that setting fills him up. He could just sit by the stream, and let the sound of the water be God’s voice to him. You could tell that he is well respected by this family, and in the car ride back he told us that they were asking him a lot of questions about Jesus/church and why the Vineyard is different (more about that topic in another post).

We were just so honored to be invited to share that space with them. They had never really talked with a gringa before, and never thought that they would ever have foreigners on their land, let alone sharing utensils and a meal on their blankets with one.

We came away from that day in awe of how hard-working and cooperative the families are. They come together and work with and for each other’s well-being.

As we left, they piled our vehicle with a bag of oka and fava beans. Truthfully, we ate both of those foods the entire rest of our time in Bolivia, in a variety of different ways.

That day also started a beautiful friendship with the family. They have 3 kids… 2 smart, hilarious boys and a precious little girl. We had so much fun with them over the 3 weeks!

Also… there was a striking difference for me between the indigenous in Bolivia and the indigenous in Colombia. The Bolivians are so proud of their indigenous roots. The women, “cholas”, proudly wear their traditional clothing. They are smart, funny, hard-working women. Unashamed of their heritage. It was empowering for me to be around them. As a gringa, people always treat me differently, but these women weren’t afraid to look me in the eye, make fun of something, laugh with me, and share.

I am still so humbled and honored to know this beautiful family.

Life in Cochabamba

We had a blast in Bolivia. It was Leo’s second time in the country, but his first visit was to the more tropical city of Santa Cruz.

We would look up pictures of Cochabamba, but nothing prepared us for the beauty of the desert mountains.

This was the view out our kitchen window! It was unreal!

And as beautiful as it was, we weren’t prepared for the dry, high-altitude desert!

It took us a few days to adjust. I would boil water in the kitchen in the morning and at night just to add some humidity to the air. The pastors had to have thought we were crazy, turning the little kitchen into a sauna everyday.

But boiling water served 2 purposes. Since potable water came in big water jugs, we saved the bottled water for drinking and brushing our teeth, and used the boiled water for washing dishes, washing fruit, and giving Elias his baths.

Our routine pretty much looked like this:

Wake up when the sun comes up, around 5:30 (Elias got better about sleeping in as he adjusted to sleeping with the sunlight, but the first week was tough).

Boil water, make breakfast (which was usually some kind of eggs, meat, bread and fruit, coffee and coca tea).

Play in the sauna/kitchen until we could all breath/talk after sleeping with the dry air.

Then, we would slowly get ready for the day and head over to the church to get to work. Usually Elias and I would go play in the park while Leo and the pastor would go into town to buy supplies.

But truthfully, Elias’ favorite part was sitting out in front of the house and watching all the taxis, busses, motorcycles and cars drive by. He especially loved when people were out walking their dogs. He would say hi to EVERYONE and LOVED the sights and sounds of the busy street.

We would normally just spend all day at church, either working on the sound or teaching classes and rehearsing.

It was so convenient that Elias could take a nap in his wagon. We would play and play, get a bite to eat, and then he would just sleep for a few hours so we could get some work done.

But it wasn’t all work and no play. We escaped quite a few times to enjoy Cochabamba. We went to a farm (which will have its own post), to the Jesus statue, out to eat at amazing restaurants quite a few times, and to the market!

We ate a TON of food, and it was totally different from any food I had ever eaten in South America. Cochabamba is the gastronomic center in Bolivia, and in the entire 3 weeks we were there, I don’t think we ate any food more than once (besides eggs. We ate eggs every blessed morning. Lol!). There was so much to try!

The flavors and combinations were incredible. I even got adventurous and ate intestines for the 2nd time in my life, and LOVED them. I did not like them the first time I tasted them in Peru a few years ago, but the way they cooked them in Cochabamba was delicious!

We ended every evening with a worship rehearsal. It “started” at 8pm, but normally didn’t get rocking until about 9. Sometimes Elias and I would go, and sometimes we wouldn’t. It just depended on the day and how he was doing. There were a few nights I knew he just needed some down time, so I would just hang out with him at home.

But, he LOVED being at church. He loved the puppies, the other kids, all the music, and all the instruments.

We would go to sleep around 11:30/12pm, ready to rock out the next day.

La Viña Cochabamba

There is a legend from Cochabamba about the women.. the “Cochabambinas”. When a big war required all of the men to leave to fight, the women stood their ground and stopped invading troops from taking the city. They are strong, powerful, capable women.

And that translates into the church! The women who serve, preach and minister are amazing. And Esther leads the way!

I have seen a lot of couples minister in my years of traveling and ministry, and Pastor Remberto and his wife Esther are a power couple. They work so hard, serving and giving everything to their flock.

We were blessed to learn from them, spending time with them ministering side by side.

They have recently been pouring into a young group of musicians. Remberto has become like a father to them, and you can see how they respect and love him.

And while Remberto is an incredible pastor, he didn’t know how to help the team grow musically, or how to help the church’s sound be more appealing.

So, that’s where we came in.

We did worship/music/sound workshops, and Leo helped completely re-wire the sound, hanging the speakers and new sound treatments.

And when I say “we”, it was Leo who designed the speaker stands and the sound treatments, and then he found someone who could do the metal-work and fabricate everything from simple aluminum. And when it came time to putting the foam inside the aluminum frames and hot-glue the fabric to everything… that was me. Then the guys measured and drilled holes in the cement wall to hang all 6 sound treatments

We spent a LOT of time with the team… playing music, goofing off, eating delicious food, and sharing life. It was an instant connection! Even Elias loved getting to church because he knew his friends would be there!

Our devotion times with the team were equally as wonderful. We spent time talking about the Vineyard worship values, reading the Word in the Lectio Divino style, and praying for one another. In one of our sessions, Pastor Remberto started singing out “Ven con tu fuego”. I felt strongly that the Lord was giving us a new song, so we started singing and talking through what it looks like for God to come with His fire.

After about 15 minutes, we had the skeleton of a song!

The team was so excited because they had never written a song before!

We kept working on it, and Remberto was able to translate the song into Quechua, his heart language! When we introduced it at church the following weekend, it was a HIT! We could feel the Spirit all over it!!!

A new experience for me was preaching in Spanish! (As a Baptist pastor’s daughter, I grew up with the idea that I need to be ready to preach, pray or die at a moments notice… I’ve always loved to preach, but had never shared more than a testimony in Spanish… so this was totally new!)

I was honored to preach 2 weeks in a row, and as I was preparing, I felt strongly that the Lord wanted me to go with Ephesians chapter 2.

There is spiritual oppression in Bolivia, but a LOT in Cochabamba. There are practices that would shock you if I wrote about them, and we could feel oppression in the air at times. The churches can even be oppressive, which is why La Viña is so counter-cultural… but that’s for another post.

As I was preaching about what it means to be fully accepted sons and daughters, I could see God touching hearts. I ended the sermon reading through Psalm 139, and could hear people crying as they were receiving grace and forgiveness.

Ministry time was powerful. Whole families were coming up for prayer. Even Elias got in on the action, with helping Kim pray for people. He LOVED it.

We are still just so grateful that we were able to give out of our strengths to this beautiful place. The conversations we had were sometimes silly, sometimes deep, and always honest. We hold everyone there in such high regard; and we are just so excited to see how the church keeps growing, both in width and depth. They are ready.

Some travel tips for international travel with a toddler.

So, as I wrote in the previous blog post, we had 5 legs to get to Cochabamba. It was a lot of plane and airport time, as well as super long lay-overs.

Here are some of my tips. (Note: I read a LOT from a lot of other travel moms, and I am not as organized or detailed as most people.)

What we packed:

2 large suitcases (the kind with 4 wheels! I got an amazing deal on them at Costco… 2 suitcases and matching carry-ons.)

A stroller (that we never even opened)- to be fair, Leo’s brother asked us to bring a stroller to them in Colombia, and we weren’t sure if we would ever use it.

Two 4-wheel carry-ons (that matched the big ones… one was filled with books/toys for the airport and plane, and the other was filled with clothes for all three of us in case a suitcase didn’t make it)

A guitar with a soft travel case

The diaper bag

Another backpack with the laptop/iPad and other things that we had to shove in last-minute because the suitcases were too heavy. (We always save space in the carry-ons for this very reason).

On the way down, Elias was still 1, so we made the most out of only checking what we could and carrying the rest.

1) The radio flyer collapsible wagon with tailgate thingy was the BEST investment ever. We took a stroller down for Leo’s brother’s family, and thought we might end up using it, but didn’t even open it once. All we needed was the wagon!

Immersion Hand Blender, Utalent… https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07D4CQ23G?ref=ppx_pop_mob_ap_share

Here’s the deal: we aren’t the people who have an immovable schedule, or who make sure Elias always and only ever sleeps in his bed. So, when we ordered the wagon, it came about a week before the trip. We took him for walks in it, had it open in the living room so he could get used to getting in and out of it, and even had him take a few naps in it.

Truly, every nap he took in Bolivia was in this wagon. We would be out at church or at the conference, and he would simply say “tent”, and would crawl in the wagon and lay down. I would cover it with the blanket and he would be OUT!

We DID have to battle a bit with the airline every blessed trip because we also had the stroller, but we simply explained (over and over) that it would collapse smaller than a carry-on, and that we could gate-check it. By the grace of Jesus (and after doing demonstration collapsing, which included sometimes taking the sleeping toddler out of it), they let us take it without paying.

The wagon also provided a TON of fun for other kids wherever we were… I can’t say enough about it!

2) I filled one carry-on with various new, simple toys, and would bring something new out on each flight.

 

Thankfully, Elias has no issues with flying, and normally falls asleep, but the late flight into Santa Cruz took him a little longer than normal. I busted out some glow-in-the-dark bracelets that a friend gave me, and he LOVED them! I tried to save a few for another late flight, but he wanted all 10 of them. Bless. He had so much fun!

We also had scented play-doh, cars, and magnetic animals.

The awesome thing about flying Avianca was all the food came on plastic trays that were PERFECT for putting all the play-doh and toys on. They even let me keep our trays when they saw how Elias liked putting everything on them.

3) We made sure that the airports were fun places to explore, even when we were exhausted.

So many people were understanding of us traveling with a toddler, and we didn’t get many dirty looks about our little guy running around playing.

Moving sidewalks with papá? So fun! Open space to run and play? Absolutely! Gift shops with all the textures and sensory input? An absolute blast!

In Lima, they had these adorable little fuzzy llamas in the gift shop, and we had a 5 hour lay-over… so, we played and played. Elias loved gathering them all up, and then we’d sing “5 little llamas jumping on the bed” and when one “fell off”, it would go back in the basket. Then, when they were all in the basket, we said “goodbye” and left them. Lol!

We talked to people and noticed things out loud together. I know… we are an extroverted family, but this was great for Elias to see… that in the huge seas of people, we could make friends.

He loved greeting people, giving other kids high-fives, and saying “bye” when we would leave a store or even pass through to the gate.

As we would walk around, we’d point out colors, words, animals, paintings, lights, etc. The airports and planes became like living museums for Elias, and he LOVED exploring.

 

4) We packed snacks, but also made sure to eat meals when we had long lay-overs.

Eating at a restaurant with a toddler is never easy, let alone at an airport restaurant. But, we made the most of it! This is when we would bust out the magnetic toys. We would do puppet shows with the magnets on silverware, play matching (especially with the Noah’s ark set), draw, color, read books and let him try new foods.

Note: Elias is an awesome eater, and we never really make him his own food… he usually just eats what we eat, unless it’s super spicy. So, he not only ate from his kids menu, but would also try food off of our plates. He loves new flavors and texture (I know… we are blessed).

5) We would switch off, tapping out as needed.

Here’s the deal: it was really hard. Leo pulled an all-nighter the night before we left, so he was exhausted. I held Elias while he slept most of the flights, which meant that I didn’t sleep much on the flights, on top of my body being sore from holding him. We arrived to each destination worn out, just from the energy it took to travel there.

But, we did our best to work as a team and give each other a break so that we could give our best to Elias.

I did a lot of deep breathing/breath prayers. “Jesus help me” was my go-to.

The flights to Ecuador were the hardest, mostly because we were all sick from something we ate. The turbulence and crazy travel times (and overnight in the airport) didn’t help, either. Elias threw up on 3 of the 4 flights. I learned quickly that he gags about twice, and then throws up.. so I had time to get the bags out.

Avianca’s flight staff was mostly accommodating, making sure that we had what we needed. The only real issue was when they wouldn’t let me hold him on my lap on the flights after he turned 2. After he screamed for about 10 minutes, they finally let me hold him and all was well.

So, to close, travel is fun and hard and takes every level of creativity you have at the same time… pretty much like all the other parts of parenting. Lol!

The first leg of the trip: Columbus to Cochabamba.

Here’s the break-down:

Columbus to Fort Lauderdale

2 hour lay-over

Fort Lauderdale to Santa Cruz, with 2 hour layover in Bogota. (You know we took advantage of that layover and saw family!)

After a yummy lunch/dinner, it was off for our last flight of the day to Santa Cruz. We got in late, but our dear friends picked us up and took us to their house. Because there were no flights to Cochabamba on Wednesday, we were able to spend over 24 hours in the heat and humidity, with our dear friends, Heber, Karen and Isa.

We talked a LOT about church and ministry, what it’s like to minister with your kids, what Latino ministry is like, how their ministry is doing, and songwriting! We talked for hours while the kids played, hugged, sang, ate, and laughed with each other. Isa and Elias are BUDDIES!

Leo even got to spend a few hours with Heber at the La Viña Santa Cruz recording some of Heber’s songs.

While the guys did their thing, the moms and kids went to the mall to get their nails done. I LOVE pedicures that only cost $5! The nail salon was so clean, and the women were mostly Venezuelan, super proud of their work.

That evening, we flew to Cochabamba. We got in at night, and as soon as we arrived to our house, I was totally at peace. We had a whole floor of a house to ourselves! Bathroom, kitchen, living room, dining room, bedroom… all of it. All to ourselves! When the pastors built their house, they dedicated the 3rd floor to house visiting teams and pastors. You can just sense the peace in that place!

And, in our bedroom, we found 2 beds (of which we ended up only using one for the entire 3 weeks. Little man just refused to sleep on his own… lol!).

But the best part? The pastors had found all these precious stuffed animals. Elias always slept with a bear, elephant and a big puppy, but we had to leave those at home. And what did we find sitting on the twin bed (that he should’ve slept in)? A bear, elephant and a puppy. As well as an entire laundry basket FILLED with other little stuffed animals. Elias ran from the room to the table where we were sitting, thrilled to show us all the animals he found.

I could tell the pastors were relieved to see that he was happy. I know they truly set out to bless us, and even in the smallest details, we all felt taken care of by our Father.

We went to bed at peace about spending the next 3 weeks with this beautiful family, and couldn’t wait to see the church the next day.

Our time in Bolivia

I’ve been sitting here, looking at those 4 words and wondering where to even start.

Do I start with the first time I met Pastor Remberto and his wife Esther 3 years ago? When they first asked us to come help them? Do I start with the trip down, and how exhausted we already felt (Leo had pulled an all-nighter the night before we left) and how relieved we were to finally get there?

I will start with something that happened this morning, in Ecuador, while I was taking a nature walk with Elias.

There are fruit trees everywhere here, and Elias has discovered the low-hanging, fruit-bearing branches. He is just now learning to say his colors, and I thought that by telling him that we CAN pick the ripe orange fruits, but we CANNOT pick the un-ripe green fruits, he would be ok.

He was not ok. He wanted to pick every single fruit he could reach. When the tree wasn’t giving up it’s unripe fruit very easily, he pulled harder and harder, with no luck. I tried to explain to him that it wouldn’t work, but he is a very determined toddler.

When he couldn’t pick them on his own, he got frustrated, came over to me, took my hand and asked “please!??” He got even more frustrated when I said “no, I’m not going to help you”.

He eventually got so mad that he got some kind of super toddler strength and plucked all 3 of the unripe oranges he could reach.

His tantrum was over and he was happy. Lol!

As I was watching all this unfold, I felt the Lord say “I make all things perfect in my time”.

The timing of our visit to Bolivia was absolutely perfect. For so many reasons.

At first I wasn’t thrilled about not being with family for Elias’ birthday, but as it turns out, celebrating his birthday in Bolivia opened up some much-needed doors between the pastors and a brand-new family to the church.

And, this year, the national conference just happened to be in Cochabamba, so we were not only able to serve at the conference, but help with the worship planning and practices leading up to it.

There were also some brand new musicians that had come to the church just 6 months before, who needed poured into by other musicians.

The timing of everything was perfect.

The church needed sound help. Badly. Leo was able to design exactly what they needed for sound absorption treatments and a volunteer from the church made the frames out of aluminum. I went with the pastor’s wife and the missionary to pick out the perfect color for the walls, and we spent a day at the church stuffing the foam into the frames, hot-gluing the fabric to it and hanging the treatments on the walls.

Then, it was fairly easy to hang the speakers and re-wire the system so that the singers could actually hear themselves over the instruments.

Our nightly worship practices produced a new song that Remberto was able to translate into Quechua! He has been asked more and more to go preach in the “campo”- mountain farms- and the majority of the people there speak Quechua. There isn’t a Vineyard present in those lands yet, but there is hope that even more songs can be written or translated so that the musicians can go with him on outreaches.

We were asked to help with harvesting some food out in the campo, and watching Remberto in that environment was inspiring. He was a whole different person. He was cracking jokes, captivating the farmers there. You could tell that he was truly speaking his heart language, and that the Lord has favor on his relationships on the farms.

Timing is everything on these kinds of trips, and we see God’s faithfulness in EVERY blessed detail.