Debbie Rissing's blog

Building New Hope

Church construction

Claire Ault, Jeff and I spent Sunday June 30 helping a team of nearly 60 indigenous volunteers build a new Iglesia Nueva Esperanza (New Hope Church). Note the saw hanging on the cross-like scaffolding in the photo above.

Claire AultLocated in the Huacuyo Valley, the church is about a half-hour, dusty, bumpy ride from Copa. The mixed crew of volunteers included little kids, a bevy of teenagers, the lay pastor and his wife who are in their late seventies, and a Catholic family with Methodist relatives. Valley residents are enthused about the new church and more than willing to help build it.

In return for a full day of hard work the church served a colossal lunch of chicken, rice, potatoes, and a heap of chuño, small potatoes that turn black during a three- day process of overnight freezing and day-time drying. It was an upbeat day of cheerful camaraderie. During a break a young Aymara woman chatted with her husband, who was perched in a window opening. As she headed back to haul sand bags, she playfully smacked his butt and jogged away laughing.

By mid afternoon most of the kids splintered off to play soccer or chase baby lambs in the hope of cuddling with one of them.

Happy New Year 5521!

Happy New Year 5521

As in the past two years, we again joined hundreds of indigenous Aymara to celebrate the June 21 Winter Solstice haling the dawn of the new Aymaran year 5521.

We got up at 4:30 a.m. By 5:10, in utter darkness, we were climbing a nearby mountain along with crowds of other celebrants.

The sacred ceremony is led by Aymaran priests, called yatiris. The head priest, pictured below, opened the event by blessing the mountains, called apus or “protectors,” the sky, Lake Titicaca and its tributaries, and the people of all nations – he named countries in South America, Europe, and also the U.S.

The yatiris solemnly prayed for the blessings of the Supreme Spirit, Pachamama (Mother Earth), Inti, Wara, Yassi (Father Sun, Mother Moon, and the stars), and Manco Kapac and his sister/wife Mama Ocqllo, who, according to the Aymaran creation story, mystically appeared from nearby Isla del Sol, Sun Island, under direct orders from the sun after a very long period when the earth was a dark and lifeless wasteland.

A Chill in the Hills; Mission Projects Warming Up

Mountains above Copacabana

Greetings! Sorry for the longish interval between the last newsletter and this one. We’ve been busy, sick, and battling the elements. And in recent weeks, we’ve also welcomed two long-term volunteers and one short-termer (more details below).

In the past three weeks a local cold-like flu sent about half the population of Copacabana, including both of us, to bed for three to five days. A local water shortage forces us to devote about 45 minutes of each morning to catching water while it’s available; grass and dirt in the daily allowance indicate it’s no longer potable, so we give extra time to purifying our drinking water. The constant stream of debris in our shower head rendered it useless about five weeks ago. Normally a 220-volt heating element in the shower head warms the water, but when the holes plug up, the effect is a scalding, high-pressure steam bath. The last time I tried to shower at home - in the first week of May - the shower head glowed red. Since then we get by with splash baths, bucket baths, and an occasional "real" shower at our landlord’s hostel across the street, or the John Wesley Guest House when we’re in La Paz.

Somewhat ironically, in the past week we’ve had a lot of freezing rain and more flooding in town and our house. With the onset of winter here, the mountains around Copa are glazed with ice. Inside our unheated house, it’s about 35 degrees at night. As I write, the lambs next door have clots of ice stuck in their wool.

Violation of Copa’s Dark Virgin

Copa's Dark VirginOn April 22 just as the sun climbed over the eastern mountains, the Copacabana Cathedral bells rang frantically for nearly an hour, signaling a major crisis and summoning the entire town.

Overnight, thieves had broken into the 430-year-old cathedral’s Chapel of the Dark Virgin of the Lake, Copa’s patron saint. They stole the Virgin’s golden crown and a gold crescent moon, each weighing over 3 kilos (about 6.6 pounds). They took her velvet gown, adorned with sacred ornaments and precious jewels, along with gold- crowned Baby Jesus. Initial estimates pegged the loss at over $1 million USD, then over $2 million; the latest: over $20 million. Cathedral congregants are holding round-the-clock vigils to pray for the return of the stolen items, and forgiveness of the thieves. Townspeople often cry when they talk of the sacrilege. Many have closed their businesses in mourning. Last week Copa’s ten zona (zone) presidents called for mandatory overnight vigils inside the cathedral – every household had to muster at least one adult, or pay a 200 Boliviano fine (about $30, or roughly a week’s average income). At 7:30 p.m. last Thursday, carrying lanterns and candles and led by our zona’s green and yellow banner and the Virgin’s burgundy and gold standard, we and about 250 of our neighbors formally marched to the town’s central plaza. We circled the plaza singing Ave Maria, stopping at each corner to chant Hail Marys, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostle’s Creed.

Blockade Ends on Day 19

BlockadeAt 6:30 a.m. last Thursday we heard rallying chants from the military police gathering in Copa’s main plaza. Soon afterward, the roar of truck and bus engines broke the morning quiet. As they’d done since last Monday morning, the troops headed back up into the mountains to guard the road from La Paz.

About two hours later loads of residents gathered in the plaza to salute a select delegation headed out to the lake – neutral territory where protesters couldn’t reach them – to try to hammer out a solution to the problem. The delegation included representatives from Copacabana, the peninsula’s four sectors, and Tiquina and Tito Yupanqui, the two villages vying for a bridge over Lake Titicaca connecting to La Paz, Copa, and millions of tourist dollars. The delegation was 100% male.

There were actually two different blockades. The first one, from March 25 to April 7, was mandated by the provincial government in protest over the rogue piracy of boat pilots who ferry people and vehicles across the Strait of Tiquina. By crossing at Tiquina, the 70-mile trip from La Paz takes about 3.5 hours. The pilots randomly raise rates, spontaneously strike, and take dangerous risks. One can avoid the strait by crossing into Perú, curving around the southern tip of the lake and re-entering Bolivia, for a 9-hour trip. So the other point of the first blockade was to demand a bridge be built over the Strait of Tiquina.

The second blockade, from April 8 to 12, was a counter-protest staged by the people of Tito Yupanqui. Someone might have foolishly promised them a triple-span bridge would land in their village, linking La Paz and Copa. That route would have lopped off a third of the time and distance between La Paz and Copa, and of course, it would have sky-rocketed tiny Tito Yupanqui’s economy. More likely the people of Tito Yupanqui saw foreign engineers conducting months-long feasibility studies, and concluded, wrongly, that the bridge would be theirs. Alas, the studies showed a triple bridge there would seriously harm the sacred lake, and would cost $600 million USD. When the first blockade was resolved with the decision to build a $200 million bridge at Tiquina, the people of Tito Yupanqui blamed Copacabana.

The Holy Week that Wasn’t

Empty cathedralFor more than half a millennium Copacabana has drawn thousands of South American, especially Bolivian, Catholic pilgrims during Holy Week. They come to worship at the world-famous Cathedral, to seek blessings and favors from the Virgin of Copacabana, and to climb Calvario – some on their knees – praying at the Stations of the Cross on the way up (more on this a bit later). Last year, our little village, population 8,000, hosted 40,000 pilgrims.

This year, no one came!

Blockades strangled Copa on both main roads leading from here north to Puno, Perú, and south to La Paz. Vendors, like our friend Teodora at left, who’d overstocked in anticipation of the usual mobs are glum or testy. For the past five days the municipality has mandated that all shops close in sympathy with the blockades. Though towards the end of the week, some vendors rebelled, either discreetly filling orders or inviting customers into their half-closed shops. Perishables, normally trucked in daily from La Paz, have been depleted; only rotting fruits and vegetables remain, sold by a handful of vendors who dare defy the obligatory strike. With virtually all restaurants and curb-side food vendors shuttered, the
normally docile street dogs are hungry and aggressive. The hotels, hostels and most tourist sites are empty. The Cathedral is gated and locked, something we’ve never seen.

The blockades were imposed by the provincial government. Participation, including ours, is mandatory (those who don’t attend will be fined 250 Bolivianos, about $36, or roughly two weeks’ average pay). On Wednesday, we and all the neighbors from our zona and the one next to ours were required to man two blockades on the La Paz road. Wednesday night about 1,000 protested at Copa’s main plaza. On Thursday, two other zonas staged a mandatory protest higher up the mountain road to La Paz. The town arranged for 12 buses to carry them up and back again, 7 hours later.

Open Eyes, Open Ears, Open Minds

Pastor Moller teachingLast week was fun, busy and tiring. Pastor Orlando Moller, a United Methodist Pastor and dual citizen of Bolivia and the US, led a three- day theological course for about 40 regional church leaders – a few came from as far away as Oruro, about a 9 hour bus ride. Bishop Javier Rojas came from La Paz for the kick-off. Unfortunately, due to health problems with the District Coordinator in Perú, none of the Peruvian church leaders were able to attend.

Pastor Orlando is a natural teacher – animated, playful, well read, and mindful of his students. He did a masterful job of coaching the attendees. Nearly all local churches are led by lay pastors who’ve had only minimal education – most are carpenters, shepherds or fishermen. They’ve had virtually no seminary training, and have minimal experience and training in pastoral care and leadership. Some speak only Aymara. A few are illiterate. But they are church leaders. And their congregations depend on them, especially in times of trouble. Orlando inspired, stretched and fed their spirits and minds.

Siripaca Greenhouses, Mandatory Meeting

Rainbow above CopacabanaEarly this week Jeff went to La Paz to meet Pastor Orlando Moller, a citizen of the U.S. and Bolivia, who’s here to lead a three-day seminary course for Titicaca-area pastors and church leaders.

While Jeff was away I attended an emergency meeting that ran two hours longer than expected. So Pastor Juan Paz, Fausto, who’s a leader in one of the church plants out on the peninsula, and Pastor Dionisio, newly assigned here to help Pastor Juan, and I were late getting out to visit four rural sites – two schools seeking mission funds to help re-roof an existing greenhouse and build a new one, and two existing greenhouses to ensure there’s reinvestment and proper use of profits. Heavy morning rains had flooded some mountain roads, so it was hard to find a taxi driver willing to take us.

We arrived at the first site, the village of Siripaca, three hours late. The rains had made some of the mountain paths impassable for some of the school board members. But nine of them greeted us warmly and enthusiastically. At meetings such as this, “important” people make at least one speech. Mine was embarrassingly short, but delivered partly in Aymara. The school director, speaking in Spanish, said that although the village is geographically hard to reach, it’s not isolated. No one is isolated. He said “We are all pasajeros (travelers) in life. God wants us to help each other and live in harmony.”

Friday’s After-Work Hike to 14,970 Feet

Hiking above CopacabanaFriday afternoon we knocked off work early, grabbed the camera, and left home at little after 4, aiming to hike a pre-Columbian road winding through a mountain pass above Copacabana. Such magnificent sites just had to be shared ...

Approaching a pass below the peak, we came across this message painted on the roadway: “Jallalla!” (pronounced Ha YA ya!) Aymara for “Hurrah!”


Our sentiments, exactly, about the place we live in, the people work with, and the progress of Misión Fronteras! We thank you again for your support in all its many forms!


Teach the Teachers Program

Katie YaunKatie Yaun, a new UMVIM volunteer, has been visiting for the past 10 days, meeting neighbors and people she’ll be working with, and scouting out the area in advance of her long-term move here in several more weeks. Katie will be working with Misión Fronteras for about 9 months, launching and directing the new Teach the Teachers Program to improve English language skills throughout the region.

As you may recall from the last newsletter, local folks here are very keen to learn English. Ryan Kolegas, a friend and volunteer from the States, taught English for five months last year in a small rural school near Copacabana. Other teachers and school directors learned about that. They – and the mayor of Copa -- wanted to know when Misión Fronteras would be providing volunteer English teachers for all the grade schools and high schools in the entire peninsula!

Clearly, the mission can’t afford to do that. But we figured we might be able to maximize resources – and impact -- with a teach-the-teachers program. Less than a day after coming up with the concept, we learned of Katie’s interest in teaching English here: a heaven-sent match!


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