Felipe of the Mountains

Well the adventure never ends! SO much has happened in the last few months, and so little updating that I am just going to have to pick and choose to show and tell, and I choose FELIPE! I am going to take you on an adventure with me to the mountains of the Bolivian Highlands between Cochabamba and La Paz.
Altitude: between about 3,500 and 15,000 feet.
Hours driving: 12 one way.
Time and distance hiking: 3 hours and about 12 km one way.
Language spoken: Spanish and Aymara.
Weather: windy, strong sun, wet walking through the clouds.

A promise remembered in the mountain shower.

A promise remembered in the mountain shower.

The date was set for the next mission trip to the mountains. I was super excited, as the last mission trip to the highlands was disappointed by such flooded roads that we were not able to reach our mountain village destination of Chipaya. This time with a medical team of 2 nurses, 2 doctors, a Physiotherapist, a Dentist, and our guide and faithful servant and organizer D.J. Knott, we headed out to the mountains not knowing what really to expect, but all veins thrilling with adventure. Our destination, 3 mountain villages named, Japo, Vacas, and Humamarca. After our benumbed legs had resuscitated from the 12 hour ride on the rough and narrow mountain roads, we stayed the night in Bajaminas, the last village on the passable road to our destination. The Guys slept on the dirt floor of one of the villager’s houses while us girls slept in the vehicle. The next morning we attended the folks in Bajaminas, finding mostly Gynecological complications and teeth that needed pulled. Blood pressures and O2 sats of the locals were great out there which is not surprising seeing how they traipse over the mountains at about 11,500 ft above sea level.

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Some of the landscape and mountain trails... with Felipe's Family garden beside their house.

Some of the landscape and mountain trails… with Felipe’s Family garden beside their house.

That afternoon as we hiked the mountain trails to Japo, we found out that shape was not what we were in… Up and down the mountains we went, plodding down and panting up, hearts pounding out of our chests and our mountain guide and pack donkey and horses just glided along. He was very merciful to us and didn’t leave us completely, stopping every once and awhile to make sure we could find the right shepherd’s trail. During the next 4 days, we trekked up and down the mountain trails, stationing out of the Villager’s homes and the school rooms to attend the men, women, and children of the scarcely populated mountainside.

Although it is sometimes through the clouds, sunburn is happening!

Although it is sometimes through the clouds, sunburn is happening!

Some trouper horses packing in our medical supplies.

Some trouper horses packing in our medical supplies.

And a little Burrito (Donkey) that was so brave and tough!

And a little Burrito (Donkey) that was so brave and tough!

The folk are gentle people, Shepherds by trade, quite shy and closed at first to our attention, but slowly warming up to us as we tended to their medical needs. The children’s burning red button cheeks from the sun’s rays poking out from behind the shy mother’s polleras (traditional skirts), 7 layers thick. A bundled baby often stared, curious and shy from the colorful Aguayos tied around the mother’s shoulders. Around us the mountainside speckled with herds of sheep with a lonely shepherd girl spinning yarn as she watched the sheep, or a young boy watching curiously the activity below with his sling in hand to ward off wild foxes or to send rocks to the head of the flock to bring them back close to the fold.  My job in our medical team was to take the folk’s vitals and to keep them going in order to the doctors and dentists. I had a lot of fun getting to know the people as I chattered away while finding out about their health history. Most of the older folk and lots of the women do not speak Spanish. We were blessed to have an Aymara speaking physiotherapist with us who spent more time translating for us all than doing her work I think.

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I even got to hold their babies! : )

I even got to hold their babies! : )

As I gave hands-on attention to these folks, they began to warm up to us and I was able to learn a bunch about their mountain lives. There is a gold mine up there where many of the men work. The families grow many varieties of potatoes, carrots, lettuce, oregano, abas, and whatever else they can get to grow on those cold and high mountainsides. They fence their gardens in so the sheep don’t eat them. They take their sheep 3 or more days over the mountains to sell them about once a year. They shear their sheep with knives and then hand wash their wool in the mountain streams. After the wool is dried, they hand spin the wool into yarn, die it with commercial dies of red, orange, pink, purple, yellow, green and blue, then they weave their own skirts, shawls, blankets and whatever else it occurs upon them to make. Men and women alike can spin wool and weave. The diet is mostly potato soup with a touch of oregano or a mountain herb, mountain herb tea, and cordero, or boiled mutton.

You can see some of their hand woven blankets on the table beside one of the Family's beds that 3 of us slept on like sardines, with a chicken and her chicks under the bed.

You can see some of their hand woven blankets on the table beside one of the Family’s beds that 3 of us slept on like sardines, with a chicken and her chicks under the bed.

Some of their vegetable and potato patches.

Some of their vegetable and potato patches.

As I sat on the ground beside some of these noble people I was struck by the huge blessing of the simple mountain life. Work is hard, the children are practical; conveniences are non-existent, there is no media contamination; weather is harsh, there are few bugs!; living conditions cramped in their smoke filled adobe huts with their wood fires in the corner and one big bed on one side where the whole family sleeps… there are few broken families. These folk know which bird sings which song, the flowers that smell and the ones that don’t, the wild plants that are good for making tea, where the bees nest, when it will rain and when the wet clouds are just rushing past their huts… Somehow their simple life reminds me of the good old days when folks had time for each other, when the simple things of nature were still noticed, when the best entertainment was still a new little lamb frolicking about its mother in the mountain sun. When the loss of a little lamb was strongly felt, not just brushed aside by calloused feeling. It would take great sacrifice to live like that again; however perhaps the sacrifice would be only of that which is stealthfully bringing our ruin. I was able to catch a glimpse of the Lords’ command to love thy neighbor as thyself, as the villagers held meetings on how to work together and support each other best.

As for the part of Loving the Lord God with all their hearts, most of these folks have never heard the gospel story, let alone read a chapter from a real bible. As I spoke with some of the women, sharing about the creation and our creator, they looked at me with faces full of confusion and curiosity and doubt all mixed together. How much I wished to be able to share Jesus’s sacrifice for us with them in the few minutes that I had their attention. I realized that there was no way I would able to explain in so few minutes such a marvelous deep truth. With a prayer for eyes to see and ears to hear, I smiled and touched, showed as much compassion for each one as was granted me, and begged for the Holy Spirit to do the work that we are not able to do. Humanness is the wall between us and heaven, yet with our Jesus as a door, we can also be the bridge, a guide to the only way through it all. Please keep these people in your prayers, that they will be able to understand the Gospel message in full, and that God will use his servants as they sacrifice to display what He has done for us.

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Panting back through the villages, we stopped at Vacas, the last village we would attend on this trip. As we sat on the grass and ragged earthen doorsteps of the central house, people all around waiting for their turn to be attended...

Panting back through the villages, we stopped at Vacas, the last village we would attend on this trip. As we sat on the grass and ragged earthen doorsteps of the central house, people all around waiting for their turn to be attended…

...a little face peeking from behind an adobe wall called my attention. How could it not with those red little cheeks, round head and huge smile!

…a little face peeking from behind an adobe wall called my attention. How could it not with those red little cheeks, round head and huge smile!


I began to try to get the little group of children’s attention to check their teeth and give them bug medicine. Soon, the family of 5 kids, with only 3 present were all in their mother’s lap, as I explained what we wanted to give them. I noticed on the little face of Felipe when he didn’t smile, that his lip was slightly deformed. I asked if he had had some sort of surgery, thinking perhaps he had had a slight cleft lip. No they had never been to see a Doctor.  In the conversation, it came out that as a baby he was not able to suck, so they had to feed him sheep’s milk and powdered cow’s milk from a big holed bottle. As I made wide mouth faces at him and he made them back, we could see that he is missing his palate. A complete cleft palate, this little guy needs a surgery. He is about 3 or 4 years old, they are not quite sure, small for his age, can’t talk, and has a hard time drinking as the liquids often come out his nose. His enthusiasm about eating is not at all diminished however in spite of his challenge! He ate 2 mandarin oranges, a banana, a piece of bread and a plate of rice in one sitting when we had him in the city for blood work. He then came and showed me his belly which was about as round as his little head!  On this first visit to their home, we talked to the parents about the cleft palate and that there are surgeries that can be done for free. I explained the problem with the cleft palate if it is left, that Felipe is not able to absorb the nutrients as well from what he eats because of the inability to chew the food well. Imagine chewing mutton without a palate!  Also his inability to talk could very well be overcame with his palate in place. As I had had the exciting opportunity last year to work with the Carita Feliz Doctors that came to Santa Cruz, set up by our awesome dentist, I knew it would be possible to get this little guy the care that he needs. Now for the biggest challenge: convincing these mountain people to leave their flocks, and to go to the big unknown city for the surgery…

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Felipe's house.

Felipe’s house.

Last week we drove the 12 hours, hiked the 24 km or more hike to speak with the family and convince them to come with us to an unknown city to do unknown tests on their child. The mom would not leave without the Dad, and the baby sister had to come. So there we were, 3 hours of convincing, a cup of mountain herb tea, 2 fried breads, 2 huge bowls of potato soup, and a big bowl of boiled potatoes and chopped lettuce later, hiking back up and over the mountains with little Felipe, his Mom, Dad and sister, ready for the trip to the City.

This little Guy and his Mom trucked over these mountains like they were on a nice little afternoon walk!

This little Guy and his Mom trucked over these mountains like they were on a nice little afternoon walk!

After the first 7 km or so the little man tuckered out and got to ride and sleep on Uncle DJ's shoulders.

After the first 7 km or so the little man tuckered out and got to ride and sleep on Uncle DJ’s shoulders.

After all my adventures with travel, I have become used to adapting to many traveling and boarding situations. What I didn’t realize was that this beautiful lady had never been in a small vehicle before, Felipe had never seen one. He looked at them with wide eyes and a laugh! I don’t know what he was thinking, but I imagine it was something along the lines of what kind Donkey is that that goes along so funnily! A little ways into our journey, we realized that the mom and Felipe were not doing OK. Motion sickness traveled with us all the way back to Cochabamba. The only one that was doing great was little Rita, the baby who is used to being bounced around on her mothers’ back.

Thankfully we were able to stop and stay half way along the journey at the clinic in Cocapata, a beautiful agricultural community along the way. The kind Doctors and nurses let us sleep wherever there were beds, the family in the one room internal medicine bed, and DJ, His mom and I on the birthing tables and floor of the delivery room.  We had a laborious chuckle session that night, falling to sleep with hopes that no one would give birth in the middle of the night, as we were quite comfortable in the tight little room, however dubious as to the sanitization of the place.

Little Rita giving me the eye for taking her away from her mountain home to the big city…

The next day we arrived in Cohcabamba, were able to find a place to stay at a church member’s newly designed rental rooms, and went to our first appointment with the pediatrician. Little Felipe was so brave, not a sound came from him, as he allowed the doctor to examine him. The best thing for him was the lollipop that the Doctor gave him at the end of the visit, which he was not able to suck on, but was able to slobber on for the next two days, then play with the stick for the next 2. DJ, his wife Jodi and his mom were so amazing in accommodating us all. I stayed in the place with the family, to make sure everything was OK. It was a new experience for me explaining how to use a toilet, flushing it so they could see how it worked, showing them how a shower worked and how the taps worked. No running down the mountain with oil jugs and plodding back up to bring water to bathe the babies and wash the dishes. No finding the nearest shrub to go behind. Although I think they missed their mountain bathroom, as much as the guys missed the toilet!  They never did use the actual shower, but bathed from a washtub they filled with water. On every side were bombarded with new and frightening things.

The blood test went well, little Felipe was very brave although some tears fell. The lab staff were very good with him though. Afterwards in the security of the house, the parents asked me what they had to take his blood for. I realized that with all the superstitions of the mountain beliefs, they had some real fears and misunderstandings about blood drawing. I explained the best I could in simple language what is done with the blood, what it shows, and that so little blood drawn would not hurt Felipe because the body is so marvelous at replenishing the blood. They thanked me for explaining and that they understood now. They had been very afraid. I kicked myself for assuming they understood why.

After we got the blood results, I headed back to Santa Cruz, and DJ and his Mom started the 24 hour journey to take them back to their mountains. Saying goodbye we had a prayer, and they thanked us for everything. I got one last smile from Little Felipe, and they were on their way. I will not be here for the surgery in May. The time they will have to be in the big City, even further away will be 2-3 weeks. That is that much time away from their sheep, their other boy Luis Angel, and everything they know.

Luis Angel and Felipe on their mountain.

Please pray for DJ and the team that will be working with them, that they will be able to be the hands and feet of Jesus to show them his Love and care for them. Please also pray that they will be brave enough to carry through with this decision to have the operation in spite of all the huge giants they have to face in coming out to do it. I am very thankful for this opportunity to learn and to hopefully help. I am also very thankful for DJ and Jodi Knott who are giving their time and energy so unselfishly to help these mountain folk. I hope in the future to be able to work more with them. The big plan is that DJ, a pilot, will be able to raise the funds to get a small plane to be able make the journey to these mountains in 30 min rather than 12 hours, making the trip a lot shorter and medical aid closer.

My great Dentist friend who is organizing the campaign for the operations. Thanks so much Ivonne!

So that ends my immediate adventure with Felipe; my prayer is that it continues with eternal results for the Glory of God. Alice, Felipe’s mom promised to teach me how to spin and weave wool. If anyone is interested in joining me towards the end of the year, let me know!  We can maybe make that happen on a follow up visit to the mountain village of Vacas, where a loom and the story of the plan of redemption await us… Until next time, remembering that the worth of souls is great in the sight of God, hoping to have eyes to see… Sara:)

The “Richard Gates Industrial School”, (“Unidad Educativo Tecnico Industrial de Richard Gates”)  located near Guayaramerin, Bolivia, is a non- profit organization operated by all volunteer services along with donations.

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