We’re living in Lima right now. Michael is working on mapping and research. We just said goodbye to M and J—our landlords in A-town—and family with whom we shared many firsts. M lived here in capital city some time back… but J, an Ashaninka, had never known anything beyond Amazonia and anything she’s seen on TV, she’d assumed stayed inside that little black box.
Her first piece of pizza. Those Papa John’s garlic sauce containers were carefully cleaned then preserved for another something another time. Any and every container thereafter was painstakingly washed, then collected in her treasured stack. The ground beef came lumped onto clear plastic. She just loved that lovely mold, holding it up to the light: Oh, look at this mold! It’s formed so nicely to hold the meat!
The ocean—she even wanted to taste the salt—so different from the river whose current pulls one way, the ocean seemed to be pulling everything away from the shore.
The grocery store. She put her arm through mine and said she thought she would die, unable to bear all that her eyes were seeing. All the toothpastes neatly lined in colorful boxes. There are more than two types of toothpaste? And the shampoos and conditioners. Twenty different types of sausages: green sausage, black sausage, red sausage and pink sausage. Baskets and baskets of freshly baked bread and men in white with puffy hats and flour-dusted aprons working hurriedly as if there weren’t already baskets and baskets of bread in their varied shapes. Round buns, long buns, hard bread, soft bread. Bread with cinnamon. Bread with tomatoes. Bread with cheese and with sesame seeds and with olives. Bread that was sliced and bread that was not. She stared at the bread, unable to move. I told her we could look upstairs. Upstairs?
When it was time to take the escalator, she squeezed my hand, coolly looking toward the second floor, unable to believe the ground was moving beneath her. But her daughter D, 12, was still at the bottom of the escalator in utter terror. Julia and Abigail followed the dark staircase, an almost-hidden exit down to where D waited anxiously, and they held her hands, up, up, up the escalator. Meanwhile, J walked haltingly up and down each aisle in complete disbelief. This is all real! These table cloths and these cups and these dishes and they have such pretty flowers! Can I buy this? Can I get this? Can I? Can I? I didn’t know what to say. She kept asking.
The fruits and vegetables. Glowing berries. Purple and pink and red. Fat onions. White ones. Yellow, too. Giant, just ripening avocados. The fattest, cleanest mangoes she’d seen piled in neat rows and barely pink. Oh can we get them? Can we? Can we? The family will love them! She tugged at a plastic bag, and the girls showed her how to pull at it just a bit to yank it from the rest. She loaded the bag to the tippy-top and giggled.
When we at last sat in the taxi, I felt almost dizzy with her excitement, and half-dazed by her own delirium—like I was experiencing everything for the first time through her.
That night after shopping, it was my turn to cook. I told her to leave the kitchen and insisted that she sit down with her family while they watched Soul Surfer. She never sits to rest and is always working: folding, scrubbing, peeling, picking, sorting, scouring, stirring, tasting, washing, serving… It made me happy to see her head from behind, beside her husband’s, and their children beside them, and my children, too, nestled into the mix.
So I made dinner in dim light and thought about J. About all the things she was seeing and experiencing for the first time and how the washing machine was probably her very favorite thing of all. I’d taught her which buttons to turn and she was always finding something to wash and always delighting in every turn of the button. Her favorite part was lifting it out of the ringer, whereby she would exclaim over its nearly-dryness, then thrust it all into the dryer triumphantly and with great ease.
Ashaninka. 30 something. J is an unfailingly hard-worker, a hungry learner and a competent administrator. She could cook for kings. Anything she touches is transformed by her unusual ability to transform ordinary-ness into extra-ordinary-ness. She studied nursing and loves holistic health and knows how to cure migraines or kidney infections with leaves and water. What a girl.
Earlier this week, when we were hiking up a steep cliff, returning from the beach one afternoon, she struggled to breathe. Asthma. I thought about what she would do if I was having a hard time, and went to hold her arm, just like she always does mine. She smiled and breathed heavingly while I put my hand on her back and we rested. We sat in silence.
They’ve been gone for a few days now. I’m still thinking about her. She does not know Jesus, but is learning about Him, and wanting to learn more. After she saw Soul Surfer, J came into the kitchen and whispered to me, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. She was repeating Bethany Hamilton, Soul Surfer’s young and beautiful, beautifully formed girl whose triumph as a passionately skilled surfer (though a shark had ripped her arm from her body), was because of Jesus. She (Bethany) believed I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Phil 4:13). J was spellbound. Again.
And again, she repeated, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. We were quiet, thinking about what she’d just seen and heard—quiet as if we both, in that moment knew that it’s not the washing machines or the fat, pink mangoes or the salty ocean, or possessing the beautifully-formed body that makes a person triumph. It’s Jesus.