Loving Life, Walking in Love, and a Peruvian Hairless Dog

Hello Everyone!

I know, I know…it has been forever since I’ve posted anything! What can I say but life has a way of throwing twists and turns, ups and downs, ins and outs, and thankfully by the grace of God and the amazing support of my awesome husband, I’m able to say with much peace in my heart that all is well.

I have officially stepped back from the public art scene, but am ecstatic to see so many amazing new artists and arts organizations coming out of the wood work to find new and bigger ways to bring art to the people of our local community and beyond. I have found much satisfaction quietly allowing my creative thoughts and juices to keep flowing mentally as I pray-fully work out what my next creative steps will be.

During this time of contemplation, my husband and I have felt ourselves being called to actively pursue ministry service. We have become very involved serving in our church, serving in our community and even serving abroad on a recent mission trip to Peru. If you had asked us 5 years ago or even one year ago that we’d be stepping out of our personal comfort zones into this new season of our life, we probably would of responded with a chuckle, “Sorry, that’s not us.”

For some time, I had the country of Peru on my heart. I don’t know if it was my love of the The Emperor’s New Groove movie or my love of llamas/alpacas, or maybe my love of adventure that created a strong desire to explore the ancient Incan citadel of Machu Picchu? Who knows, but what I do know is when I heard my church was working on getting a group together to go on a mission trip to Peru in the summer of 2017, I knew we had to search God’s will for us.

For me, a vacation to Peru, might include lots of llama sightings, a trip to Machu Picchu, consuming as much of the local food as possible, an adventure through the Amazon and doing all this while simultaneously securing as many creature comforts as a reasonable budget could afford; but, even though I had never been on a mission trip before, I knew that this was going to be a lot of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual hard work. If we were going to do this, we had to be ready in so many ways and I’m so glad we didn’t let fear or being pushed outside of our comfort zone keep us from going where we knew we were being called to go.

So we went and it was amazing!

Before I go any further, I want to give a big THANK YOU! to all who donated to our trip and helped make it possible because we managed to raise almost $2,000. I pray that all who supported us with their resources, thoughts and prayers are blessed a hundred fold in return.

Now, another short detour before I go into the details of what happened on the trip, let me tell you the whole reason for the mission trip:

Our trip was organized through an amazing group called: YouthQuake Live , a local ministry which “exists to partner with our community to inspire young people to fulfill their God-given destiny through life-changing entertainment.” They in turn coordinated the trip with their outreach partner in Peru named, Keith Smith. As a teenager, Keith made several trips to Peru from the US where he’s from and has since become a full-time missionary there teaching English classes to the locals, holding bible studies, community outreaches, and hosting missions teams from the US.

Our purpose for this trip was multi-faceted but every aspect of it revolved around walking in the love of God and sharing the word of God with the people we encountered on our journey. Now for details about our adventure:

Day 1: Our team of 11 traveled by car from Jacksonville to Orlando, hopped a plane to a connecting flight in Atlanta onward to our final destination: Lima, Peru.

It was a looooong travel day to say the least. There were only a couple of drama filled moments. Like the time Siri took us to the only creepy remote dirt road in Orlando as our Park-n-Ride destination, but we didn’t fall for her trap and found an alternate route to our correct destination. The other heart-pounding moment came at the self check-in kiosk. My booking couldn’t be found! Come to find out, my name had been severely butchered making my reservation hard to find, along with about 5 other member’s of our team, but that was also a fairly easy fix.

When we finally landed in Lima, it was pretty late, we were tired, the weather was amazingly refreshing considering it was winter there and Keith was there ready to meet us and get us on our way to our new accommodations at the Happy Hostal.

Day 2: Woke up early to the sounds of loud traffic. Seems traffic is a huge issue in Lima, so much so that you can expect lots of hours stuck in a car or bus, lots of potholes, and lots of honking horns.

After we got dressed and prayed up for the day, we made our way to Mari’s house for breakfast. She and her husband live just a few blocks away from our hostal and for the sake of food safety (because the water is not safe to drink in Lima), she’s in charge of preparing the meals for the missionaries during their stay. One thing to keep in mind about Peru, is that they are known for their exquisite cuisine and Mari did not disappoint with her flavorful dishes and amazing juices. When we did not have access to Mari’s delectable food while out on the mission field, we brought lots of jars of peanut butter and jelly to keep us content.

Keith and his wife, Mila, who would also be one of our translators, met us at Mari’s and then we were off to the mission field in Jicamarca. The small village is generally about 2 hours by car depending on traffic. In the morning light we could really see Lima and I’ll be honest, even though I had read up on the city and it’s climate I was still taken back by it’s geography. I’m originally from the South (Louisiana and Florida) and my family is primarily from Bogota, Colombia which are both super humid, with lots of rain and lots of green flora everywhere. Lima on the other hand is a desert. Their usual precipitation is about 2″ a year, lots of fog in the morning, and an occasional sprinkle. Since Peru is below the equator it was technically winter while we were there so the temps were pretty mild ranging between 60° to 70° F.

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Once we got to Jicamarca, the visibility was super low due to the fog and as we ascended the steep hills in our small van, it got a little scary. I’m still not sure how the small van managed to scale those steep hills without falling off the mountain, but it did and I’m super grateful.

The people we encountered there were amazing and welcoming. We got to participate in an English and Bible study for the young kiddos that day that involved me barking like a dog and my husband acting out an elephant among many other fun animal reenactments by our team. Then we got to practice reciting in both Spanish and English one of my favorite verses of the bible:

Philippians 4:13 I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
Filipenses 4:13 Todo lo puedo en Cristo que me fortalece.

With Spanish being my first language I felt right at home speaking with some of the locals and found it much easier to communicate with them than I had initially thought. I tried to prepare myself beforehand by listening to as much Peruvian Spanish (actually anything & everything in all Spanish dialects) as I could find on Radio Ambulante podcasts prior to our trip.

After the lessons, we got to play some soccer with the kids. I have no soccer skills so I tried to play “mountainside goalie.” My job was to make sure the soccer ball did not fall down the mountain. The soccer field being at the top of a steep hill meant that if a ball went past me and down the hill it would quickly end up down the mountain. I managed to stop several but not all. It was amazing to see how quickly the kids scaled up and down these hills with not a care in the world. While, I on the other-hand, was very timid going down the hills due to the extremely steep inclines and loose gravel. I didn’t have as much of an issue going up the hills as I did down, but with the help of several fellow missionaries, including my husband, I managed not to fall once down a hill. I did manage to fall on our last day in Jicamarca. Oddly enough it was pretty much on a flat surface without a steep incline. I survived with a small flesh wound on my ankle, a sore tailbone, but worst of all a bruised ego, but I digress.

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The day ended with a delicious dinner at Mari’s and a great bible study with the team.

Day 3: After breakfast at Mari’s, we made our way to Jicamarca again. The hazy skies cleared up and on this day, we were actually going to be splitting up in groups, going door to door and ministering with the people. This is definitely an “out of my comfort zone” assignment, but the responsiveness of the people made it easier than expected. It’s a very vulnerable place to be, sharing your testimony with a stranger in a different country in a different language, but the love of God has no limits and being able to share what God has done in my life was priceless.

After our fabulous PB & J lunch we met a new translator named Esther. We both shared a common fear of slipping down one of the steep mountainsides so together we sat down on our rear ends and felt no shame as we scooted safely to the bottom with a very handsome pit bull who seemed to feel obligated to escort us down. We got up, dusted ourselves off, and continued our journey. Many told us how they had to move to Jicamarca from other regions so they could find work and be closer to educational opportunities for their children in Lima. Some shared stories of life: illness and pain, joys and triumphs, addictions and loss, conquering and overcoming, and many were eager to learn more about us and more importantly the saving grace of God.

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Day 4: We continued to go door to door, meeting and greeting, praying and encouraging, and sharing the love of God.

I do want to say that I started noticing a trend among the local canine population, both strays and non-strays: lots of dogs were wearing clothes! For some it was a simple t-shirt or sweater, while others had on more elaborate attire, like doggie overalls. I can only assume with it being winter and being right on the equator, many dog lovers may feel compelled to try to protect the local dogs from the harmful effects of the suns rays and nightly cold temperature, but I can’t be certain.

In addition to the fashionable dogs all around the area, I did meet one very special dog and it was love at first sight. His name was Romeo and he was a Peruvian hairless dog. I first spotted him walking down a hill, wearing a sweater of course, and looking a little interested in what we were doing. He trotted around us, nudged us for attention, and proceeded to wrestle with his mop dog friend while we did some fellow-shipping with his human mom. He jumped up and gave hugs to his mom, putting one paw on each side of her waist. I could totally understand why she named him Romeo, you couldn’t help but fall in love with him. He bore a striking distant-hairless-second-cousin resemblance to my first love: Gambit (a.k.a The Dingo,) so it’s not surprising how drawn I was to him.

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We said our good-byes to Romeo and proceeded up the mountain. There was one woman who had just gotten home and asked us to come back later in the day so she could talk to us, so we did. On the walk back up the same mountain later that afternoon to meet with her, we talked among ourselves wondering if we’d be lucky enough to see Romeo again, and no sooner had the words come out of our mouths, but who do we see sunning himself on a rock, wearing a sweater and cuddling with his stuffed bear? Romeo!

I’m pretty sure he knows just how handsome he is 🙂

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Day 5: On this day we went to a town about an hour and a half south of Lima called, Pampapacta. Heavy rains earlier in the year caused massive flooding and washed away the local market that many relied on for their livelihood. When we arrived, several of us shared our testimonies, listened to their stories about the tragedy, fellow-shipped with the people, and brought them various donations including clothes, blankets, and even food for the local stray dogs.

Day 6 & 7: Back to Jicamarca! We put on a play for the kiddos both days which included singing, dancing, sharing bible stories, and of course spontaneous soccer games. On the last day, we also held a young adult bible study. It was wonderful connecting with the young adults, sharing our testimonies, hearing their stories and discussing the Word with them. Unfortunately, day 7 was our last day in Jicamarca…

Day 8: On this day, we went to a school in downtown Lima. The ages in the school run from about 4 years of age to about 14. Many of the kids have extremely hard lives outside of school. Some students live in extreme poverty and have to work before and/or after school and can barely stay awake during the day to learn, while others have parents who are addicted to drugs and/or involved in prostitution, and so on. Keith tries to impact the children by catering lunches when possible and finding a need (like shoes!) and finding a way to meet that need through donations and partnerships.

We happened to be visiting Peru during their Independence Day celebrations so we got a really big treat when the youngest kids got together to perform a beautiful song about their Incan heritage sang in the native language of Quechua. Visiting the school, meeting the kids, and learning their stories was another amazing experience that is hard to put into words.

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Night 8 into Day 9: Our last day in Peru was spent in a town call Ica, about 5 hours south of Lima. Ica is known for it’s amazing sand dunes so Day 9 was going to be a day of fun and relaxation which included going dune-buggying and enjoying the scenery. The night we arrived in Ica, we all got together to do a bible study. At some point during the bible study, we felt like we were swaying when someone realized we were experiencing a tremor. Come to find out there was a strong 6.4 earthquake that hit off the coast of Peru near a town called Arequipa, which was about 450 miles away from where we were. What we felt was minor compared to what was felt in Arequipa, but never having been in an earthquake, it was a little unnerving knowing the ground just moved under our feet.

Day 9: We enjoyed our last day in Peru, seeing the wonderful majesty of the sand dunes, watching my life flash before my eyes on the drive through the dunes and multiple times again as I went sand-boarding face first down a couple of steep dunes.

Our trip back home was long to say the least: 5 hours in a bus from Ica back to Lima, another 30 minutes in a car to the airport, about 3 hours waiting in the airport, almost 7 hours in a plane from Lima to Atlanta, an hour flight from Atlanta to Orlando, then 2.5 hours in a car back to Jacksonville. We were traveling pretty much non-stop for about 18 hours straight to get back home after leaving Ica. We were tired, but it was worth every moment.

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Now, this takes us not to the end but back to the beginning of our journey. It’s hard to put into words where I was in my life just 10 years ago. I was, to put it simply, broken. My spirit, mind and body were all broken in so many ways and just by chance I found God. Well, actually, He was always there, by my side waiting for me to accept His love. Early on in my life, I allowed the world to define who I was and what happiness looked like. As I chased these lies, I found myself more and more distant from God till I stopped believing all together.

That all changed after I found an amazing church, started going there for all the wrong reasons (that’s a whole other long story,) but I’m glad I did. I heard the Word taught in a way I never knew was possible. It was a church that focused on teaching us how to have a relationship with God, understanding God’s original intent for our lives and really getting to know Him. It’s by knowing and seeking a relationship with God that we learn to grow closer to Him.

Well, after lots of revelation and epiphanies, I went into a 5 year cocoon, absorbing and learning all about God’s promises for my life, learning how to love myself again, and in turn learning how to love others the way God intended. I shed a lot of layers of pain and scar tissue and came out a new creation in Christ. I’m still a work in progress. The transformation is never complete and there are always new levels of walking in love to reach. When I look back, I barely recognize the person I had become. It’s because of my personal experience and relationship with God is why I found myself in Peru and on this mission trip (and many other paths God has and continues to lead me down.) I don’t know why He chose Peru, but He did and we went.  The same way I see how a fluke decision to walk into a random church I had never heard of almost 10 years ago completely changed the trajectory of my life, is how I how I knew that going to Peru was no small matter. God had something in store and it was my job to be obedient. Me going to Peru started a butterfly effect someway somehow that may never become evident to me or anyone else and even though the world is so big, we are all so interconnected and so capable of being a light in someone’s live if we’ll just stop and seize those moments when they present themselves whether it’s in your place of work or while traveling abroad, opportunity is everywhere.

Matthew 9:37 says “He said to his disciples, “The harvest is great, but the workers are few.

The world is filled with unlimited opportunities to serve others, but it can be overwhelming and draining and humanly impossible to try to serve everyone all the time. Not only can we not be in a million places at once and with limited resources, it’s so important to press deep into God’s will for you in reference to where you go, what you do, and how much you give. Everyone is in a different place in life, some people are go-zillionaires while others live in poverty, but walking in love and impacting the lives of others is not unique to one or the other.

What you do today, whether it be feeding the homeless one meal at a time or fighting to change government policies that rape and pillage our natural resources and anything in between, can impact the lives of so many. So for now, I will leave you with an awesome slideshow of all the amazing dogs, a chicken and a cat we encountered on the mission field (are you really surprised?) and my husband and I will continue to serve the mission we connected with in Peru and any other paths God may lead us to serve. If you feel inclined to give to help support all the amazing things that Keith & Mila Smith are doing to impact the lives of those in Peru, click here and if not their mission then find one that God is calling you to help.

Thank you and God bless 🙂

-YCL

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