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What NOT to do in Rome....

About five years ago I had the opportunity to do some volunteer work with an organization in Bolivia. We were in the Berlin district, in "el compo" or the "the country side." It is a very poor area. The village of San Jose is the image that most people construct when they hear the words "third world." A community of about 400 people with one water well, many chickens, no electricity and children walking around dirty and naked. Most families possess their clothes, a few hand-tools and some livestock. It is the type of place where your personal hygiene, what you eat and what you drink is of critical importance, all the time.

We were there to work with some locals to help construct a permanent community center that could also serve as a flood relief center. It was a long, hot, ten days but across the language barrier and obvious cultural barrier we seemed to connect with the local people. After several days some of the men would bring grapefruit for us or help us in small ways deal with the many inconveniences of living in "el compo." The bond between all of us grew remarkably.

Finally, the last day one of the men, through a translator, invited us to his daughter's fifteenth birthday party. In Bolivia, as in many Latin cultures a girl's fifteenth birthday is, next to her wedding day, the biggest social occasion she'll likely ever experience. It is a "coming out party" sorts and a great event for a community as the proud father "presents" his daughter (now eligible for marriage) to the village.

That night, having graciously accepted the invitation, we all gathered in the mud hut, thatched roof building that served as a church. It was a simple gathering with candle lights flickering when in through the side door stepped the proud father wearing the same dirty pants he'd been wearing all week, no shoes but wearing an immaculately prepared white shirt. He spoke a few words, tearfully telling of the pride his daughter had given him and then called her in . . . . and there was this beautifully dressed young girl wearing a chiffon gown and ear rings and jewelry. In a room with dirt floors and split rail benches this young woman was absolutely radiant. It was incredibly in its juxtaposition of poverty and elegant and poignant ceremony.

Everyone sensed the emotion of the father, the girl and all the friends who had played a roll in this young woman's life.

Then, true to the long tradition, the girl moved between the benches and provided each invited guest with what appeared to be a little sugar-coated cookie. I ate it with some apprehension but realized it was freshly baked and still warm from the mud bee hive oven. Following the girl was her beaming and proud papa. He received the congratulations of each villager and then offered them a drink of a local mixture made of cloves, peanuts and water. Only when he came to the man next to me did I realize ..............there were no little cups, no glasses, only one five-gallon plastic bucket holding the "punch" and one hand carved, wooden ladle. After each person drank from the ladle, it went back down into the bucket and the next person was offered a drink from the same ladle. For ten days we had fanatically exercised every precaution NOT to drink the water, NOT to expose ourselves to health risk, not to, not to, not....and now... what to do? Do you risk offending the father on his proudest day by trying, in English to explain about bacteria and virus and risk of infection and illness?????? It was an agonizing thirty seconds before the label was placed before me.... and......... I prayed quickly and drank the stuff. It's taste (which was very oily and silty, by the way) was secondary as to the health risk. But, the father was smiling so broadly, I couldn't offend this kind, loving man from another world who had asked us to participate in this very special event in his life.

"When in Rome...." do what they do but do take precautions. If you are still interested to this point, please let me know and I'll be glad to share "the rest of the story." The moral is quite clear....




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