Home Revisited

June 18, 2012

Moving to my new apartment and getting settled has been quite an adventure, to say the least. But it has also been a great opportunity to learn about cultural differences, get comfortable dealing with language barriers, and learn my way around the city. It has raised personal and spiritual issues as well, which I’ll share toward the end of this post.

I suspect few of my readers have moved by taxi. Well, I can now say that I have! I tried to get someone to lend their car or help me move my belongings from the cathedral apartment to my new place a couple of blocks away. Since nothing seemed to work out, the diocesan secretary suggested I call a taxi. My initial thought was, “are you nuts … a taxi?” Keep in mind that taxis in Bogota are very small cars that make a Mini Cooper look like a sedan. When I take a taxi to the airport, for example, I have to put my bag on the back seat and sit in the front with the driver. Finally, I broke down and called a taxi. It took us two trips with a hatch-back style taxi, putting down the back seat to make a larger storage compartment. The back end was completely full each time, and some things I held in my lap. The taxi driver helped load and unload, and the security guard at the front door of my new building assisted as well. As I was moving my things, I recalled an occasion in New Haven, CT, when we moved across the street, piling everything in the parking lot so that we could clean out the dead cockroaches from our appliances … and I thought that was an adventure. Moving by taxi was certainly “different” … and definitely a new adventure!

Yes, I painted the apartment myself … including the pre-Colombian stencils.

The story of my sofa bed is yet another adventure. To begin, it was supposed to be delivered on Tuesday afternoon. When I hadn’t heard from anyone, I called. I was told that the cushions weren’t ready and that they would plan to deliver at 9:00 the next morning. True to their word, the deliverers were in front of my building at 9:00 sharp. They brought in my cushions, which weren’t what I was expecting, and the bed parts, a trundle that fits under the sofa. Then things got exciting. It was like watching Laurel and Hardy as they tried to bring the frame up the stairs and in the tiny elevator. I tried, on a couple of occasions, to offer suggestions. The delivery crew was polite, but was clearly ignoring everything I said. So, I gave up and left them to worry about it. Not wanting to lose a sale, they finally decided they had to remove the picture window from my living room and bring the sofa in that way. They then used ropes and a blanket to bring the frame through the window, ruining my fresh paint job with their boots hitting the wall under the window and leaving dirty hand prints on the ceiling. They had also banged the sofa a bit, so they touched it up with stain, managing to slop a large patch on my freshly painted walls. After they put the window back in, having taken the entire morning to deliver my couch, I realized what had happened … the couch wasn’t the same model I had ordered.  I began to recall the conversation we had when I placed the order, and realized they must have thought they had done me a favor by making the bed longer than usual. Given local culture and my recollection of our conversation when I placed the order, I believe they thought the “bed” part of the sofa was for me … aka, my primary bed. I remember some discussion about my height (~6 ft) and discussing certain features of the bed design. I’m now reasonably confident they felt they built me a special bed so that I could sleep comfortably. I’m sure they’ll be telling stories for years about the bed they built for the tall “gringo,” as I will about them having to take out my picture window to deliver it.

Without the Internet, I have no television (I use Netflix) or phone (I use Skype and/or MagicJack). So, naturally, I wanted Internet service as soon as possible in my new apartment. I was initially told that the apartment had Internet service from the previous tenant and that the Diocese would maintain the account for me. That was not the case, however. Once it was clear there wasn’t any service, the secretary made an appointment for installation in my name, but as a Diocesan account. The Bishop indicated that wouldn’t work well, so that appointment was cancelled. Instead, he suggested I get a mobile “stick” and use my cell account … a more transportable solution. But, we discovered that I didn’t have that kind of access via my cell account, because I went with an inexpensive plan to save money. Next we attempted to set up an account in my name, independent of the Diocese, only to discover that without a bank account and my foreign resident ID (which can take up to 4 months to process), I can’t get an account in my name. So, we were back to creating a Diocesan account. Since the Diocese already has an account with a particular Internet Service Provider (ISP), and they are currently running a special on installations, we decided the best thing to do was to make a deal with their ISP. The company was happy to set something up, though it took over an hour on the phone, and plans were made for installation 3 days later (on Saturday afternoon). The installer arrived on time, walked around my apartment, and said, “You don’t have an ISP cable in your apartment, and I don’t install cables.” So, he made an appointment for me to have the cable installed in two weeks, after which he’ll have to return and configure my settings. All that, and I still don’t have Internet service.

Then there is the issue of painting, outlet and light fixture repairs, buying a lamp or two, installing a water heater and gas stove, moving the used washing machine to my apartment, and …  

One thing I suspect is common for missioners is the feeling of discomfort (and maybe even some guilt) at spending money to set up an apartment, create a new home, or what gets listed in mission budgets as “relocation expenses.” I understand that I chose to purchase inexpensive furniture made by local craftsmen. I paid less than I would have at discount department stores for cheap, prefabricated furniture, and provided work and income to three different craftsmen (or what could be defined as “working class” or “working poor”). But, I’ve still spent money.

People see me spending money to set up my apartment and think I’m rich. Now, whenever I ask someone to help me do something, whether joking or serious, there’s nearly always a comment about what I’m going to pay for their assistance. And I can’t help but think people around me are looking at me differently and thinking about money. Even though I understand in my head that I’m not really spending that much, and that everything is justified, I still feel uncomfortable every time I buy something. … Do I really need it? … Is there any way I can get by without it? … Is there a cheaper alternative/solution? These are probably all good questions to ask, but they also reflect my sense of discomfort with money.

I’ve encountered many conversations about money and mission over the years. Do we tip the staff while we’re on a mission trip? If yes, how much is appropriate? Do we donate things when we leave that we brought with us? Is it appropriate to shop for crafts at the end of our trip? Can we give things to the children and people we encounter, or are we just contributing to the sense that we’re the “great white hope” and a sense of dependency on us for hand-outs? What’s the most appropriate way to support organizations, churches, schools, and programs without creating a sense of dependency? Do we sacrifice companionship and the ability to accompany the minute we open our wallet and/or checkbook by creating a relationship in which we are no longer equals (since we’ll have more power by virtue of having money)? When we shop for crafts, should we feel badly because we just spent more money on crafts than our hosts may make in months of work? Or should we feel good about putting money into the local economy? Should we bring things with us that our host has requested, or should we take money to buy them locally to help their economy? If we buy any kind of wood crafts, are we contributing to deforestation and ecological degradation? … and the list could go on. I’m sure you can think of a few more from your own experience.

There is a part of me that feels like I should be living in a tarpaper shack or a refrigerator box, using scrap furniture and eating whatever I can find for cheap. [Mind you, there isn’t any place to buy scrap furniture … no Goodwill or Salvation Army stores.] And, if I were buying scrap furniture, wouldn’t that raise yet another issue … my taking away furniture and home items that are greatly needed by the poor … and there is no lack of poverty in Bogota.  I find myself thinking about all of the programs I could support, children I could feed, families I could help … if I didn’t buy anything and used what little money I have from donations and my own pocket for something other than furniture and appliances for my apartment. And as I continue with that thought, it brings me little solace knowing that everything I have purchased will be donated to the diocese some day when I leave Colombia, and possibly used to support social programs I’ve helped to develop.

I’ve been in this place many times in my life, and suspect … or rather, hope … that I’ll be there many times again. I’ve spent the majority of my life in a wealthy, developed, capitalist country. I’m well-educated. I’ve lived in comfortable, middle and upper middle class homes. Though many of us complain about the problems with US healthcare, and admittedly there are issues, I have had access to excellent healthcare, specialists, and medicines. In short, by international standards, I am wealthy.

If we’re honest with ourselves, and we consider ourselves Christians, then I think we SHOULD feel uncomfortable with money. In scripture, Christ had a great deal to say about social economics and economic injustice. Given the poverty and hunger in the world, the people in Africa dying of AIDS, the displaced, destitute and homeless in places like the Sudan, Colombia, and India, and the list could go on … we ought to think twice every time we spend money … we ought to feel uncomfortable.

Of course I realize I need a home, and I also realize that I wouldn’t be able to buy anything if many people (and I suspect many of you reading this) hadn’t been generous, and possibly even sacrificial, so that I could afford to set up a home in Colombia. But that still doesn’t get me off the hook from having to struggle with the kinds of issues evoked by setting up my home … and for that, frankly, I thank God. My struggle with money may be uncomfortable, even painful at times, but I’m still grateful for it.

3 Responses to “Home Revisited”

  1. Dianne Smith Says:

    Beautiful post, Ted. Would that all of us might ponder these “uncomfortable” things in our hearts. One of the most painful parts of mission work in rural Kenya, for me, was hosting perfectly nice, but utterly oblivious, visiting wazungu (gringos) who didn’t.


  2. Lucretia Jevne Says:

    That seems to correspond to the issue around spending money to go on a mission trip vs. sending that money for microbusinesses and the like.

    Awareness of what we spend money on and how it affects others is a crucial part of global living, whether we live here or there.
    I don’t know Bolivia but often times people expect a professional to live differently than the poor worker and might not understand if you were to live in a refrigerator box when you don’t have to.

    Celebrate with a House Blessing, serve plenty of food, and enjoy what you have by sharing with others.


  3. Maria Fenn Says:

    Another thought provoking post. I will now (i hope) think even more when I spend money. Keep em coming!


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