September 9 2008

What's lurking in the mountains of Colombia?

We finished up our South American tour by seeing the countryside of
Peru, Ecuador and Colombia through a bus window. It didn't work out
to pick up our new bikes in South America so we experienced the life
of a backpacker for a month. It was much safer than biking through
some of the areas but we both agreed that traveling on a bike is the
way for us.

As we traveled through Peru (for the second time) we stopped at an
orphanage in Lurin, Peru. We heard about this orphanage through
Father Joe Hirsch (my cousin) who is from the LaCrosse diocese.

When we volunteered to help paint at this orphanage we envisioned an
old gray building, dorm rooms with cement floors and wooden beds,
filth and a diet of predominantly rice. But when we passed through
the gates of Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II orphanage we saw quite the
contrary. The orphanage facility, convent, chapel, and grounds
(complete with volleyball, basketball and soccer courts) were well
kept and beautiful. The diet is well balanced in the basic food
groups and the cooks have a knack of taking any typically bland food
and jazzing up the flavors.

The 32 boys and 32girls that live in this orphanage are well groomed
and very respectful. Dressed in their sweaters and ties they stand
quietly in church. When they are not in school they complete their
daily chores and homework. However, at 5:00 p.m. you will see the
ball courts full of smiling children and hear them laughing and
joking and just being kids. Its not hard to see the joy in their
eyes. Frequently, we would have to remind ourselves that we were at
an orphanage and that these children actually came from the streets.
The orphanage uses the "Boys Town" program and it is not hard to see
how affective this approach is.

Ward and I had the opportunity to take 6 of the boys to a
professional soccer game in Lima. Father Sebastian warned us that it
was not like going to a Green Bay Packer game. He was right! We
witnessed many young boys creating trouble by throwing rocks at the
police, etc. The police did not take kindly to these actions and
used their billy clubs quite aggressively. It was weird. We've seen
this occur on TV but never in person. Once in the stadium we only
had one fight break out on the bench behind us. Other than that it
was uneventful. The game was fun to watch and a good time was had by

We originally planned to stay 3-4 days, helping with handy man work,
painting, etc. The orphanage was in need of a new coat of paint so
Ward and I, along with some other volunteers painted the individual
bricks that lined the walls. It was a tedious job. On day four the
mass amount of painting and work that remained was obvious so Ward
and I decided to extend our stay an extra 3-4 days and continue to
paint. Ward tells a different story. He says it was like the Eagles
hit song, "Hotel California", you can check in but you can never

Load 'em up! Time to get back on the bus. When we got on the bus in
Lima they videotaped each individual person as their luggage was
searched and then they videotaped each person in their seat. This
gave us both a frightening and a secure feeling. We were glad they
were doing it, but just the fact that there was a need to do it was

When we reached the Peru/Ecuador border we had to take a taxi 24
miles to the border. We wanted to catch the earliest bus to Cuenca,
Ecuador. Ward found a taxi driver that would take us right away...or
was he a taxi driver??? As we followed this man to his black bomber
car I was starting to get nervous. This goes against all of our
rules. I sat nervously in the back seat watching every movement of
the driver. Would he pull a gun out on us? Would he make us go to
the ATM machine and take money out? Instead, he was much more
savvy. He befriended us and instilled great fear as he told us how
dangerous the border and the neighboring city was. We ended up
trusting him. To make a long story short, he and his friend ended up
scamming us for $85.00. Now we've learned...YOU CAN'T TRUST ANYONE!!

We spent a week in Cuenca, Ecuador with Pastor Bryan. He was on
vacation from a long hard summer in Decorah. We did little in
regards to touring, but we enjoyed the time with Bryan extensively.
Cuenca was a very quiet and beautiful city. It was extremely clean
and we had a hard time believing we were in Ecuador. We felt very
safe in this city.

After 20 hours on the bus we arrived in Quito, Ecuador without any
problems. Our mission in this city was to find the school "that my
dad built". In the 1960s my dad, Elroy, contributed to the building
of this school when it was first getting started. Through luck and
fate we found the school. I don't know how much my dad donated but I
didn't see a corner stone with his name on it.

The school was originally built to help shoe shine boys that worked
the streets to get money for their families. Father Halligan decided
to help these boys learn a trade and started a school. Since then
the school has expanded to help the whole family and has been renamed
to "Working Boys' Center - A Family of Families'". The parents are
required to help out at the school and they also have the opportunity
to receive schooling to learn a trade themselves. The family as a
whole makes changes and many have been able to dig themselves out of
poverty. The founding Father Halligan and Sister Madre Miguel still
run the school.

During the two days that we were there we met 20 different volunteer
teachers from the United States that have signed on for the upcoming
year. It was really inspirational to talk to them. This will be a
place that we will have to come back to in the future.

Time to get back on the bus. But, this time it was going to be more
frightening. Everyone told us to fly to Bogota, Columbia. They said
the bus was too dangerous. People have not only gotten there
personal belongings stolen but there is also the potential for a
terrorist group to stop the bus. You could even get drugged by
someone on the bus. However, it would be $600 to fly and $120 to
take the bus. We did some research and decided to take the bus to
the Ecuador/Colombia border and then assess the situation. We were
warned many times to remove all of our jewelry (wedding rings,
earrings and all) or the thieves would remove them for us. We were
also not to put any of our bags above or below our seats. They
should only be placed on our laps. We loaded the bus and we were
ready. Before we even got out of Quito the guy in the seat behind me
got into my bag and stole 2 apples and our 2 cups. He was probably
disappointed when he discovered it was our food bag and anything of
any value had previously been us!

We arrived at the Ecuador/Colombian border later in the day so we
decided to spend the night and cross the border in the morning. At
8:30 a.m. we made the crossing without any problems. There were a
lot of policemen present which has been a deterrent for the

Ecuador and Colombia brought breathtaking scenery but you couldn't
help wonder what lurked in the mountains that the bus twisted and
winded through. Why are there military men protecting the bridges?
Are the FARC or the guerrilla terrorist groups hiding behind those
mountains? Knowing that being a foreigner made us potential targets
was unnerving. However, I wasn't sure what was more frightening for
me...the potential of getting kidnapped or being a passenger on one
of their small buses (similar to a van). They sped along the narrow
twisting roads at high speeds, passing on curves, etc. It seemed to
be a race. I had to close my eyes because the steep canyons that lie
below were too unsettling to look at. Some people were getting sick
and having to use puke bags. I knew I had a reason to be scared when
the Colombian woman sitting next to me was praying. Ward, well he
was having a great time. He asked to sit in the front seat by the
driver and was getting the thrill of his life. Yes, he is still

We stayed in Cali, Armenia, Espinal and then Bogota. Some of the
cities (more than others) have become more secure over the past 8
years. They are trying to crack down on the drug trafficking. They
say that the more police you see the safer it is. But seeing riot
police staked out on the street corners is still unnerving. We heard
stories of people getting robbed at knife point. One funny story was
told by a 23 year old Norwegian guy. He was robbed and when he
emptied his pockets and gave the robbers all of his money they
asked, "is this it?" He replied, "yes". So, they gave him his $1.80
back to him and said that he needed it more than they did.

One thing that we really didn't like about Columbia was that we
couldn't trust anyone. One guy offered to drive us to the National
Park. Another bought us a beer and wanted to treat us to supper. A
third, said he was a policeman (not in uniform) and said we could
stay at his house with he and his father. We declined on all three.
If we would have gotten these invitations in Argentina or Chile we
would have accepted them. We were finding it hard to follow our
mission statement. We were also feeling captive. We would have to
go to our room before dark and stay there the remainder of the

South America was a great experience. I'm so glad we went and I know
that we will go back. However, it is good to be back on American
soil. As I walked to the grocery store in North Carolina with my
money pouch hanging from my shoulder I realized how good it felt to
feel safe, to feel free.

We will spend the month of September in the United States. Our time
will include visiting our son, John, and his wife, Molly in North
Carolina before he gets deployed to Iraq for the second time. We
will then head up to the Midwest and spend the remainder of the time
visiting family, friends and traveling via bicycle to Rotary Clubs
and schools telling our story.

We have been working on redoing our website and haven't updated our
photos for 3 months. Our apologies. We hope to get the website
totally updated over the coming month.

So, here's to America! Its good to be back.

Jacky and Ward