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“Santa Cruz . . . bella tierra de mi corazón!”

We arrived in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia about two and a half hours late on June 7 after an overnight flight. The flight went smoothly, but the delay was the fault of the two planes that didn’t pass inspection to fly into La Paz, Bolivia’s capital city. Apparently, to land at such a high altitude, planes need to be equipped with some sort of cabin pressurization system. I’m not really sure what that is all about, but the plane at our original gate did not have one. We were sent back to another gate near where we had originally landed upon arrival in Miami, which meant riding a tram to get there, and sat for another 1.5 hours waiting for that plane to pass inspection. I’m not sure if the issue here was the same as that of the first plane, but another aircraft was finally approved for us at the gate directly across the hall from where we had been waiting.

We went through customs rather quickly once we reached our destination. We were soon greeted by our welcome crew: a small Bolivian man and a tall American. Ona, who stands roughly 5’4″, is the pastor of Principe de Paz Mennonite Church in Santa Cruz and president of the Bolivian Mennonite Church, which is made up of 7 small churches in the department of Santa Cruz. All are within an hour of the city of Santa Cruz. Isaac, who towers over most of us at 6’8″, is a volunteer from Kansas who has spent nearly 2 years working with the Bolivian people helping with the youth group at one of the country churches and helping at la Guarderia Samuelito (the Samuelito Daycare) by teaching and building. These are two of the many friends we would spend time with during our five and a half week stay in Santa Cruz.

June is the beginning of winter in Bolivia. It is also the beginning of the windy season. During these windy days it seems I can’t leave the house without becoming covered with a layer of sand, which makes up most of the ground on which we walk. The wind can be so fierce and has no mercy on anything in its path. I can almost hear the wind laughing as twirls around and slaps me in the face with sand with a blinding force. While it can get fairly cool during the winter months in Santa Cruz, temperatures remain mostly in the 70’s and 80’s. But the cold days, sometimes dropping into the 40’s and 50’s, can feel especially cold considering that most of the homes don’t have heat. It was that kind of weather that greeted us when we arrived.

Santa Cruz is not a beautiful city. It’s very dirty with trash strewn about everywhere you look. Graffiti litters many of the cement or brick walls and aluminum pull-down doors, of which most of the buildings are made. Homes are hidden behind tall cement or brick walls, often adorned with bars, protecting them from unwanted intruders. Though many of the main roads going through town are paved, most are covered with a layer of sand. As you leave the main roads, you will mostly find bumpy dirt roads that have been worn down by the many people and vehicles that have traveled those paths before. The streets are crowded, as are most cities around the world, and the sidewalks are lined with individuals and shops struggling to make a living by selling their wares. While the outside appearances can look rough, there is an intrigue and beauty about Santa Cruz that has grasped on to me and hasn’t let go. There is a good reason for the popular slogan: “Santa Cruz . . . bella tierra de mi corazón!” (Translated: “Santa Cruz . . . beautiful land of my heart.”)

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