Hot Air Balloons in a Bus


Some people have asked me when and where and why I have been most frightened in my work in third world countries.  I say that I am sort of fatalistic; I do not fear that which might come.  So it is not a part of me to worry in anticipation of trips into harm’s way.  Instead, my fear rises in circumstances when I gradually lose control about whether I can wisely avoid or escape danger.  A few incidents of fear enter my mind, but really not many considering the amount of travel I have had into countries (Liberia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Colombia, China, Laos) declared as dangerous by the US State department.

I did have one moment of controllable fear during a bus ride outside of Aguadas, Antioquia, Colombia.  You have to know a person’s background and the particular context at a given time of fear to fully understand it.  What precipitates fear in one person won’t even be an issue for another.  The 1970’s in Colombia were the very tail end of three decades of emotional and physical persecution of the evangelical church by the Conservative Party and the Roman Catholic Church.  The 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s had been horrible for Protestant converts and evangelical missionaries.  History records the burning of churches, stoning, the lowering of breasts, castration, and martyrdom.

(Note:  I am writing these reflections from the Protestant prospective. Part of this problem was a result of what Roman Catholics viewed as the Protestant churches’ proselytism of their membership.  Their view rested on the assumption that anyone born into a Roman Catholic family by default became Roman Catholic. Therefore, Protestant pastors, laity, or missionaries should not approach their followers with a different perspective on the Christian faith.  Protestants, however, often viewed Roman Catholics as not having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but rather as people that saw faith as important at key events in life such as birth, baptism, marriage and death.  This discussion is much more complex and this is a very simple explanation of why Protestants attempted to evangelize Roman Catholics and why Catholic leaders and clerics resented such efforts.)

Many threats aimed to only raise fear, but occasionally flamed into a tragic or deadly event.  Thankfully, by the time I moved to Colombia in 1975, the vicious attacks against evangelicals had slacked to a lot more bark than bite.

Large cities like Bogotá and Cali were basically locations of religious peace.  The Protestant and the Roman Catholic church had progressed to intentionally ignoring the other, and not constantly degrading the other and denying the spiritual validity of the other.

However, in some rural pockets where there were no evangelical churches, a very small number of priests still encouraged their members to threaten evangelists with the strategy that fear would drive Protestants from the smaller rural villages thus leaving the clerics and the Roman Catholic Church in total control.  The days of isolation declined as more and more families heard and believed the news of a personal relationship with Christ.  People became active in Protestant churches in increasing numbers.  These new converts were full of passion and audacity.  Their public testimonies of faith led to the boycotting of their businesses.  They were often denied equal access to jobs.  Most towns and villages had two cemeteries, one for Roman Catholics and another for Protestants, because most priests would not allow evangelicals buried in church run cemeteries.

Such hostility was totally unknown to me.  I grew up in Iowa as a part of the majority—a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.  In retrospect, I seldom considered my historic roots, my specific faith, or my race.  Most Iowans were either Anglo-Saxons or Native Americans.  People talked the same, looked the same, and acted the same.  The few minorities were so limited in numbers that they hardly caused a second thought let alone a threat to anyone that I knew.  My world was pretty much painted some tone of white.  No doubt, prejudices loomed under some surfaces but the opportunity for discrimination seldom arose.

My life as a North American missionary, living in Colombia, placed me in the minority more times than not.  It was more an inconvenience than a problem with painful repercussions.  I was tall; the indigenous population was short.  So people stared at me.  That was no problem except for mowing off a few light bulbs in houses with lower ceilings.  I was a Protestant, 97% of the people identified themselves as Roman Catholics.  Our family was fortunate to live in an upper middle class neighborhood where religious preference was not important.  I preferred American football, most people adored soccer.  I quickly adjusted and prefer soccer to this day.  I was strangely fair-skinned in comparison to the darker mestizo coloring of many Colombians.  I usually felt accepted, but there were exceptions.

The town of Aguadas is mid-way between Manizales and Medellin on the western cordillera of the Andes.  There were basically four ways into the city of Aguadas, bus, car, horse or on foot.  The mountain roads were treacherous because of the narrow curving gravel roads and deviant driving.  It was not at all unusual to approach a sharp curve and look toward the other side of chasm only to see a rusted out shell of a vehicle that had obviously crashed years ago after being forced off the road.  I learned that one principle of driving determined the difference between life and death.  People just assumed that if you need to pass, it is okay to start the pass regardless of the distance of visibility.  However, if a car appeared and if you were not side-by-side to the vehicle being passed, you must hit the brakes and return to a place behind the vehicle you are passing.  On the other hand, if a driver moved ahead of side-by-side and another vehicle appeared, it was the approaching driver that braked and allowed the pass.  Usually, the system worked.  Despite the danger of driving a car under those conditions, it beat riding a bus in the rural areas.  Buses are never retired in Colombia; they are simply sold to companies that service more dangerous highways.  Now, that is insane logic.  Take an aging bus with an antiquated leaking brake system, a defunct suspension, and tires with little to no tread, and put it on gravel mountain roads with 180 degree hairpin turns.  It is a miracle that disasters do not occur with regular frequency.

So, I would drive my 1975 mustard-colored Land Rover into Aguadas, park it and take one of the rickety old “escaleras” (buses) burdened with people, animals and baggage to ride to the end of the line where we would walk deep to the mountain farms where no vehicles could enter.

Now, we are back to the subject of fear.  I didn’t realize I would pass through the valley of the shadow of death on the Colombian roads and become the object of intimidating threats.  I had arrived in Aguadas late at night and spent the night with Virgelina and Manual, the first evangelicals of the city.  This was always the first of a series of massive meals that would stress the stomach of the greatest of eaters.  But that is another story for another time.

Early mornings in Aguadas were frigid.  The little village was known as the town of the mist.  Even the locals hated to roll out of bed, but when they did they quickly shifted from a blanket to a ruana (a wool poncho).  The coffee and pandebono (cheese bread) and arepa venders were the first to leave the limited warmth of the home.

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I always hated a shower during those visits because it meant shivering in the 40-60 degree bathroom and then drying with a minuscule towel.  The real hitch with a shower in homes with some financial resources for upgrades was the so-called shower heater.  Many people called the little apparatus a “widow maker.”  Nearly no houses had water heaters.  Instead, they had a gizmo inserted in the water pipe below where it came out of the wall and above the shower head.  Somehow, this coil reached a very high temperature and slightly heated the water.  To turn this invention on, you needed rubber flip-flops to create a ground and then pull a toggle switch down on the wall inside the shower stall.  The wires were always fully exposed and when the toggle made proper contact, sparks would fly in every direction and crisp snaps indicated the circuit was complete.  If you felt nothing you thanked God for another warm shower; if not, you got a jolt through your body that either adjusted your spinal column or sent you quickly to meet your maker.  I hated the danger of flipping the switch, but not as much I detested a freezing shower.

After recovering from hypothermic bathroom syndrome, Virgelina always served a breakfast second to none.

I could have endured a swim in the Arctic to get to those breakfasts.  Virgelina knew how to make a “perico” like no other—just the right amount of onions, tomatoes and cilantro, folded into the eggs and cooked until just beyond unhealthy.  Scoop that on a plate with a couple of slices of farmer’s cheese, a crisp arepa smothered with butter, homemade chorizo, and who could ask for anything more?  Ah!  And, to drink, piping hot chocolate.  These were the moments I wondered why I received a salary.

As I’m finished my breakfast, Virgilina brought her loro to the table for its breakfast.  Come to find out, the medium-sized green lore had never learned to eat by itself.  Virgelina raised the bird from the time it hatched and began serving the bird with a tiny coffee spoon and later graduated to a teaspoon.  The bird was three years old but would not eat from a seed tray like most birds.  It waited hand feeding by its indulging parent.  That daft bird always reminded that it is very easy to become dependent on others to give our spiritual and physical food.  Despite a type of security of this feeding plan, it  robs the recipient of any personal responsibility.

My primary objective in Aguadas was to use it as a launching point for ten days of visits to rural coffee farms scattered all over the mountains northeast of Aguadas. We made the visits to preach and evangelize in a series of homes.  There was only one “escalera” to the end of road at Tres Esquinas. Aguadas is known for its “escaleras.”   These colorful buses are vehicles rebuilt from a previously retired chassis up.  They are primarily wooden constructs with seats mounted on top of a bus chassis.  The creative touch on each bus relies on the bright colors the builder chooses for his prize.  There is also a landscape painted on the back of the bus to enjoy as other drivers follow them up and down the mountains.  And, each bus has its own unique name such as “Manual’s Chariot” or “Antonio’s Welcome Wagon.” It left at 8:30 a.m. daily or when no more people could climb aboard.  Little did I know I was about to take the ride in the seat in front of two siblings of the devil.

Approximately twenty passengers can find a wooden pew inside the bus; and a similar number will also often be found sitting on the luggage strapped to the flat top build for cargo.  Another six to eight people cling on for dear life to the back while standing on the bumper and you have a site—a serious tragedy waiting to happen.

You could never truly relax on these trips because of the hard seat and bumpy roads.  This hour ride into the hinterland began harmless until I allowed myself to listen to the conversation going on behind me.  “I wonder what these religious imperialists from the USA would look like hanging by their feet from an avocado tree?”  “Why don’t those damned Evangelicals realize they aren’t wanted here?”  “Maybe a few of these Gringo preachers need to just disappear…that might end their visits where they aren’t wanted.”  I didn’t want to turn around to check the size and age of the speakers.  I was certain they meant their words for the tall man directly in front of them.  The tone of their voices led me to guess they were teenagers and a physical threat, but also uncertain about themselves.  I knew they would have a sharp machete attached to their belts since this was standard for all Antiochian farmers.  I prayed they intended to scare me than and not follow through on their threats.  However, I evaluated my options.  Should I hang around the drop point where there was a small store?  Should I leave immediately toward the first farm I would visit and hope I could run faster than them?  I really didn’t like any of my options that well.  But upon arrival, they quickly jumped off the bus and walked away from me.  So, I hung around the store long enough to drink a cup of coffee and then headed for Don David’s house.  And, that was the end of that—just two hot air balloons that disappeared into the coffee plants.

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