The One With Dirty Shoes

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I woke up late this morning.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to anyone who has ever spent the night at my house, met me for breakfast or picked me up to carpool; but I woke up late this morning.

Frantically hopping over boxes, clothes and hungry cats, I pulled a dress and scarf from my closet. Toothbrush hanging from my mouth, I dug through a yet-to-be-unpacked duffel bag full of shoes until my hands grazed an acceptable pair.

White t-strap sandals with a wooden wedge. “Don’t wear white sandals before Memorial Day,” rules be damned, I was running late and there was white in my dress. Spitting the toothpaste into the sink, I tugged the sandals on with one hand. And then I stopped.

Still clinging to the bottom of each shoe was a small patch of hard, red dirt.

Of course. These were my church shoes in Peru.

Pucallpa. La tierra colorada.

In an instant, my heart was anywhere but my messy bedroom. I was hopping out of a motokar, my long dress swishing as my toes slid just-too-far forward in the white t-strap sandals with a wooden wedge. I was greeting with hugs and kisses, settling into a narrow wooden pew to test my Spanish skills as Pastor Daniel (dear, sweet Pastor Daniel) preached.

All day long, my heart has been in Pucallpa. I listened to a podcast about the recent violence in El Salvador on my drive, savoring the sounds of Latin American Spanish and traffic in the background of the story. Texts have been coming in from Ruth and Pedro as they work to get their visas in order to attend my wedding, and I’ve settled back into a comfortable rhythm of Spanglish with them.

It’s been three long years since I was last in the land that rips my heart wide open. Both here and there, so much has changed. Babies have been born, dear friends have passed into the arms of Jesus, marriages have begun, homes have been remodeled.

I’m not the same person I was three years ago, when I last choked “hasta pronto” through tears in the corridor of the sweaty Pucallpa airport.  I’m getting married, I have a full-time job. I forget I know Spanish for weeks at a time, then I hear it again and find tears rolling down my cheeks in the middle of a store. Most people who I talk to day-to-day know nothing of Alysita, the gringa who was welcomed with open arms during her most formative years.

And yet I cling to those weeks in Pucallpa, like that red dirt still clings to my white t-strap sandals with a wooden wedge. I pray each day that I can return with Elijah to share with him the world that captured my 15-year-old heart. (and my 16-year-old heart, and my 17-year-old heart, and 18, 19 and 20).

My Spanish skills may fade. The day-to-day conversations about my time in Pucallpa may dwindle.  But unlike the red dirt clinging to the bottom of my sandals, the mark Pucallpa left on me will never wash away.

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