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The joy of cooking

fr bolivia cookingThat last full day in Tacachia, I didn’t have energy for much besides sinking into my wooden chair while waiting for the onslaught of elementary-aged kids to join us for pre-dinner playtime.

I’d been up since 5:30 a.m. for a strenuous summit hike to watch the sun rise over 22,000-foot Illimani and then walked straight back to the work project for hours of concrete mixing and pouring, all done by hand with buckets and shovels. There’d been lunch in there somewhere, but it was now 4 p.m., and no part of me felt capable of anything more than sitting for several eternities. 

But something about the kids of Kory Wawanaca never failed to wipe away my exhaustion — or at least demote its importance — no matter how tired I was when they ran up the stairs to grab our hands and pull us into a circle for pre-meal prayers and songs. With little Deysi holding my hand, keeping eye contact throughout the words to “Jesus Loves Me,” or Iker, a sweet and young-for-his-age 8-year-old, jumping into my arms shouting “hermano!” (“brother” in Spanish — he hadn’t quite gotten the distinction between the feminine and masculine forms of the word down), nothing could matter more than the present moment. 

That last night, though, I was wondering how true that sentiment would hold. 

See, I’d set a rather dangerous precedent earlier in the week when I decided to dispatch a monkey-like boy who’d lodged himself on my lap by “making” him into french fries. It’s one of the few tricks I have when it comes to entertaining kids, but it definitely worked. The game involves pretending to wash, peel, cut, fry and, finally, eat the unfortunate “sack of potatoes.” Inevitably, each step in the process involves some degree of tickling, and the kids loved it. It wasn’t long before every mealtime ended with a line of kids following me around, wanting me to make them into various kinds of food. My Spanish expanded as I figured out the words I’d need to prepare everything from cookies to pizza to cake. 

It was the best kind of fun, but this night I just didn’t know if my arms had any strength left to tote kids around the dining hall. After dinner, I stayed put rather than seek out any potential takers to experience my skill in imaginary cooking. 

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But they sought me out, and I couldn’t say no. Pretty soon, all but the shiest of the children were following me around, clamoring for a turn. Even the shy ones joined in eventually. I made cookies, french fries, cake — even an empanada. Of course, I couldn’t “eat” all of these myself. Each child instructed me as to who should have the honor of nibbling at their cooked selves, and I delivered these culinary creations to volunteers, home staff and construction workers throughout the open-air dining room. 

The kids’ faces cracked into flawless smiles as the recipients cuddled, tickled and kissed them — smiles that transferred their joy to my heart, that squeezed my exhaustion down to occupy only the periphery of my being. 

I stayed in Bolivia for just 10 days, and in Tacachia for four of those. It choked me up to see these kids, whose young memories are peppered with nightmares and the ache of parental rejection, capable of such pure expressions of joy. It overwhelmed me to know that they’d give me, a short-timer, the honor of eliciting their laughter.

When our team rolled out of Tacachia, we left behind a retaining wall made of hand-mixed mud and rocks gathered from the riverbed, a snazzy-looking two-stall brick outhouse, some new pieces of sidewalk and a freshly painted dormitory. I was proud of the time, sweat and — to a small degree — blood that went into putting them there.

But for me, the essence of Tacachia, the true meaning of my time there, was in the faces of the children — their thrill at being hugged and touched, the smiles that seemed to permeate their whole bodies, the pure joy of being that covered the abuse and violence and tragedy of their stories before Kory Wawanaca. 

It’s the joy that I’ll most remember, because in that joy, I saw God.

For day-by-day blog posts from the trip, visit

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