Catching My Breath
It happens at the oddest moments. I will be out walking through the streets of Cuenca when suddenly I find myself having to stop in my tracks so that I can huff and puff for a few moments before carrying on. As I walk up into the city's center, there are wide stairs to be climbed to get me from river level to city level; they can't be avoided. If I am with a friend and we are chatting away, about half-way up the stairs, suddenly I can no longer talk, I don't have the breath for it, and by the time I've plodded my way to the top, the huffing and puffing is serious business. Sometimes even when I lay myself down at bedtime and crawl under my blanket, there it is again, the need to breathe deeply five or six times; I suck into my lungs as much air as I can, then hold it for a few seconds, then slowly exhale until the lungs are empty enough to make me cough. Repeat five or six times. Oxygenated and ready for sleep!
I learn this lesson anew every day: 8,000 feet above sea level is nothing like 2,000 feet above sea level! This Cuenca air has a lot less oxygen in it than that of Spokane. I know eventually I'll get used to it and hopefully so will my lungs, but for the moment the phenomenon continues to surprise me and force me to readjust my expectations. Back home, my brisk walks were usually at about a 16 minute mile pace; here I'm more likely to walk 20 minute miles. Yikes! Makes me kind of upset with myself until I remember, "Oh yeah, the oxygen ain't here!"
There is another sense in which I am also still catching my breath. Things here are moving quite fast. I can't say my days are really busy like they were back home in the parish; I do have time in the morning, afternoon, or evening to read, take a nap, catch up on the news on the internet, but in the week that I've been in Cuenca already, I've been busy in a different way. I guess I'd call them "adventures" or "learnings" or just "figuring things out". Every day has had something new and seemingly big to accomplish; one day I was taken into town by my new friend, Kathy, to get me all set up with bus passes, passport copies, introductions to the local ATMs, (please note, the card is inserted horizontally here!), and buy a new chip for my phone so I have a local number. It took a few hours of running around through the busy city center, but by the time I finally got back to my house I was exhausted. On another day, I decided to work up my courage and walk to the local SuperMaxi supermarket about a mile and a half away. I needed groceries and supplies for the house and couldn't put it off any longer. Why the prospect made me anxious, I don't know, but somehow doing something like this for the first time in a strange land with a strange system for just about everything had me more nervous than I had any right to be. I screwed up my courage, (imagine needing "courage" to go to the supermarket!), and headed down the street, found my way into the store, picked up a cart and began my shopping. When I had worked my way through the aisles and found most of what I wanted, the prospect of getting through the check-out stand had me really in a tizzy of "what ifs"; what if I'm in the wrong line, what if she doesn't accept my credit card, what if she needs my actual passport and not just a copy, yada yada yada. Suddenly, I found myself huffing and puffing, needing to pull more air into my lungs since clearly my nerves had me breathing shallowly. The young lady behind the counter was as nice as could be and asked if I had a SuperMaxi card for even more savings; I said no, but that it was okay. She looked at me like I was a bit crazy...who wouldn't want more savings after all... so she sends me over to a big desk beyond the first cashier to get one while my groceries remained on her belt. She waited ever so patiently for me to get through the extensive process of proving I am who I am and finally return to her register, as did the kind customer behind me, all understanding and patience. When we got the transactions completed and everything happily bagged and paid for, the teen girl that did the bagging for me took the cart in hand and led me outside to the taxi stand, waved down a cab, loaded the groceries into the trunk and smiled as I stepped into the cab and headed down the busy street towards home. Nothing could have been easier and no-one could have been nicer to me. Once home, I got busy putting things away and had to wonder why I am such a wuss. There was nothing to be nervous or anxious about at all in my SuperMaxi adventure. Time to take a big breath or two and be happy at least that that "first" had been accomplished.
Sunday morning held another "first" for me and one that I really wasn't too nervous about; my first Sunday Mass at the Iglesia San Francisco with Padre Jorge Moreno, the pastor, and with both the English-speaking and Spanish language communities together in the pews. Padre Jorge did all the heavy lifting liturgically and on the homily front as well, while I observed how this parish does things. Before hand, we agreed that I would say a few words following his own homily, so while I was doing my observing I also was framing up in my mind some very brief few thoughts in Spanish. I wanted to thank them for the welcome they had given to the estranjeros from North America over the past few years, inviting them into their church and prayer together and making them part of the San Francisco family. And so when the moment came, I began speaking in Spanish, a bit rusty for sure since I caught some silly grammatical mistakes even as I was speaking, but overall pretty good, until quite suddenly I found myself hyperventilating again, trying to speak and catch my breath at the same time. The problem: speaking with a mask on my face, nervousness in front of a new crowd, and probably most of all, just that darn lack of oxygen at 8,000 feet! Afterwards, our English-speaking group gathered for post-Mass lunch at a nearby restaurant, giving me the opportunity to get to learn more of their names and get to know them better; several told me that the local crowd seemed very surprised and pleased with my Spanish homilette. I mentioned that I had gotten kind of huffy and puffy mid-way, and they said it was not noticeable to them. Nevertheless, next Sunday when I am on my own leading the liturgy and preaching in just English, I'll try to get my deep breathing exercise done before I begin just to be sure!
So the adventure of settling in to a new place at 8,000 feet above sea level continues at a pretty brisk pace; all the more reason to stop and remind myself often and especially when I find myself anxious about some new thing: Breath, Kev, just breath and remember: Every day something new. Every day closer to being at home here. Every day having to catch my breath just a little bit less.