Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Dance


THE DANCE



The night envelopes us as we make our way back to the apartment. Every few minutes, lights cut through the blackness; each set brings hope of a ride back to Otavalo. We try to thumb them down, but most of our gestures are ignored. We are forced to continue along the dirt road that would take us to the highway. There, we might catch a bus which will carry us the remaining five miles to the city.

Fireflies flicker around us as random thoughts flash and fizzle in my mind. As the ideas fire, I catch hold of one: The past five months have been difficult. I had worked my heart out, and yet, the fruits were minimal.

My mind is clouded, and I can not see past its dark negativity. Initially, I was excited to serve. As a child I had dreamed of being like Ammon. But here I am in my own land of Ishmael, but I had yet to find a Lamoni.

I can’t help but feel guilty. I’m missing something; I’m coming up short somewhere. What lack I yet? Becoming emotional, I let my thoughts be drowned out by the heavy "clump, clump" of my feet on the uneven ground.
"Could today have been any worse?" I ask my companion, hoping that he would see behind the mask of the question and find the words to soothe my troubled soul.

"It wasn’t so bad. We were able to do a little of what we planned."

A troubled sigh escapes me; he had failed to hear my cry for help. Elder Rekoutis is a good missionary and a good friend, but perhaps I need to go to Someone greater. I ache to go home and pray.

Lights behind us signal new hope. Instead of passing by and hurrying along, a truck splashes through a puddle and stops. The driver’s shoulder rotates as his window descends into the door, and a broad smile greets us. Two gold inlayed stars in his front teeth dominate his grin. He wears an Al Capone style hat backward with the brim flipped up. It almost looks like a natural part of the long, jet black hair pulled into a loose pony tail behind his head.
"You going to Otavalo?" His Spanish sounds perfect, no trace of a Quichua accent. Quichua was slowly dying out, and he is typical of a new generation.
"Sí, can you give us a ride?"
"Sure, hop in," he responds, motioning us to climb into the truck bed. My companion and I step onto the bumper and into the back. Squatting, we brace ourselves for the ride. We sit quietly as the wind whips past us. I allow it to push back the feelings and thoughts that come all too easily. Looking up, I stare into the void of the night sky, ignoring the glimmering stars that look down on me.
The ride is short, and we soon are within the municipality of Otavalo, nestled in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador. Two and three story buildings dominate the streets. The joints of each structure come together in perfect right angles, creating cinder block, rectangular faces and flat roofed losas.
In minutes, we’re back at the apartment. My companion and I study together, but fatigue overpowers us, and we get little out of it. Afterwards, I shower, waiting secretly for the time that I can commune with the Lord. The time comes, and I kneel. I begin, but my words are robotic, almost recorded. I continue, but I feel that each word hits the ceiling; I receive no comfort. The question still remaines: What lack I yet? I finish and struggled into bed.
I’m not excited for morning, especially because morning brings a holiday. Holidays mean a lot of walking with little contact with people, and most appointments fall through. Just what I need. Tomorrow morning’s holiday holds even less promise because it is El Dia de los Fallecidos, The Day of the Dead. Morning looms ominously ahead, like the sky right before a thunderstorm. Wrapping myself in that darkness, I close my eyes.
The morning is typical. It is time to study personally and the scriptures bring little comfort. I still cannot understand how the prophets of old could do it. I am doing exactly as they did but the results are so drastically different. Discouraged, I angrily close The Book of Mormon. It is time to go, and I reluctantly step out onto the street.
The first few hours pass just as I had suspected. "What’s the deal?" I blurt out to my companion. "We walk and walk and it doesn’t do any good to talk to people. They just stare at us with that glazed over a look, like our words are bouncing off their ears."
"Relax, Pankratz!" Elder Rekoutis’ face is tight. His forehead wrinkles as he looks at me. His glare does little to help me obey his command. "Look, it’s not my fault that Luis couldn’t translate for us. We’ll just have to do our best. WON’T WE?"
Flinging his proselyting bag over his shoulder, he turns and tromps away. The conversation was over. Rolling my eyes, I follow. It’s time for English class. Brooding, I walk grudgingly behind my companion the entire way to the church.
I have to check my day planner to make sure what day it is when we arrive at the chapel. The grounds are full. "What’s going on?" I ask, the tension from before giving way temporarily to curiosity. I cannot help but speculate about what is happening, and honestly, my speculation is not too favorable for the members.
"I don’t know." Rekoutis responds. His countenance has relaxed since our last discussion. Forgetting the contention, he looks at the grounds with eyes suddenly full of wonderment and excitement. "Let’s go find out."
"¡Guokis! ¿Ima nasha tac cangichi?" Greet the members as we enter the chain link gate of the chapel’s grounds. Puzzled, we weave through the throngs of people to find the Bishop. Spotting him near the back of the yard, we dodge our way to him. The bishop salutes us, joy beaming from his face. "Elderes, ¿cómo están?" His eyes glow with kindness as I listen to him. It takes little effort to discern what is happening. Today is the day of La Compania’s ward party for The Day of the Dead, and we are invited to participate with a special invitation. English class immediately loses importance. Even the pupils are invited to take part in the celebrations.
I look out on the throngs of people. Here is the fountain of my problems, ignorance, apathy, and misunderstanding. If these people were not so backward, maybe I would have the success that I want. I am so tired of members who refuse to help us. I have had enough of evangelical congregations’ persecutions, of their lies about the church. If only they knew who they were. If only they were like the people of Ammon, then I would be happy.
Despite my mind’s justifications, I still do not feel comfortable about placing the blame solely on them. I try to reevaluate my thinking. It’s difficult to see past the present hurt, the longings of a young missionary, but I try. Perhaps they merit another chance. Perhaps another look will reveal something. Elder Rekoutis seems to appreciate them. I watch for a moment as he laughs and plays with them. He is smiling.
I place my thoughts in the back of my mind when the Bishop calls us to attention. There is to be a special presentation by the sisters of the ward. They will perform several traditional dances. Finding our place on a hill that overlooks the dance floor, my companion and I sit. For the first time in a long time, I am full of anticipation. In five months on this mountainside I have yet to see a dance or a ceremony that links these people to their past, to who they are.
The dancers stand ready next to the sports court, a cement slab, that will be their dance floor. I scan through the dancers, and in the front of all of them stands Janet, the Bishop’s daughter. Of all the children that I know in the La Compania, she is my favorite. As I look at her, memories of her and her brothers pleading to be thrown into the air flow into my mind. Janet is a special little girl, naive and energetic. Secretly, I have adopted her as one of my nieces.


A 6/8 indigenous Andean rhythm begins to play, and the dancers take their places. Janet is blushing and her embarrassment shows in her eyes as well. The collar of her blouse bounces as she moves to the simple step, bounce, step choreography of the dance. Catching her glance I cannot help but smile. She sees me and rolls her eyes as if trying to escape my attention. For a moment, I turn away my attention to observe the people of the ward.

The cheery music still plays as brightly embroidered blossoms shine brilliantly against a multitude of gleaming white trousers and shirts, like May flowers defying a late snowstorm. Beautiful children closely trail their mothers. An occasional blue poncho and the women’s dark skirts brake the simple white pattern that runs throughout the crowd. Babies with fat, round faces are strapped snugly to their mother’s backs. Men and women smile as they observe the dance, gold lined teeth shining in the sunlight. They are glowing.
The music continues, and my attention is drawn back to Janet. She is glowing like the rest, but her glow is contagious, flowing out from her, and bathing all in her radiance. I am caught up in Janet’s warmth, and in an instant, the scales of darkness that cover my eyes fall to the floor. The light of Christ illuminates them. I see the ward members as they are, my brothers and sisters, a beautiful and a chosen people. The dance now done, I am somehow different. Something has changed. I feel complete.
To the west the sun sinks and begins to set. The colors of the countryside are crisper as the sun makes its descent. Long shadows stretch from the adobe houses and across the grass of the church’s lawn. The shadows mark that it is time to go. We bid our friends farewell, as the sun sinks completely behind the hills to the west. A new feeling overcomes me as we walk away from the party.
Stepping beside my companion, I feel ashamed for my earlier actions. I think of ways to apologize. Searching, I turn to him and say, "Today was awesome. Wasn’t it, Rekoutis?"
He looks at me and smiles, understanding exactly what I’m saying, and answers, "Yep, it sure was, Pankratz. It sure was."
Night is upon us, but the moon and stars cast silvery shadows on the mountainside as we walk the dirt road to the highway. My feet move to the 6/8 beat of the music in my head. Tears quietly stream down my cheeks. I am filled with emotion as the clouds of negativity give way to the bright celestial lights above us.
Fireflies flicker around us as thoughts glow warmly in my head. As the ideas fill my mind, one prevails and catches hold of me: How grateful I am to my Heavenly Father for sending me here. Even though I have not found a Lamoni, I have been with the people of Ammon.

1 comment:

Sean said...

I think that is a pivotal moment for every successful missionary: the moment you truly learn to love the land and her people. I remember having a hard time with the people and culture my first few months. Then I was thrust, unprepared, into being a senior comopanion. My comp was a difficult missionary who was always pushing boundaries. But he loved the people with a zeal that put me to shame. I served in that city for eight months, and I would have gladly stayed seven more until I went home. I still remember that place with great fondness because it is where I learned to truly LOVE Korea and her people.