The most difficult moment for Holly Zelinske during her monthlong excursion to Peru was when she came home.
The moment she arrived in the United States on July 23, the 2004 Brainerd High School graduate encountered a personal epiphany. She knew she'd be going back to South America.
"It was hard to come home," said the young adventurer after her first sojourn abroad. "I had seen so many people who needed so little, and they were happy, but I came back to so much waste and excess."
She was eager to see family and friends but her heart yearned for the people in a culture she was just beginning to appreciate. "It was a beautiful environment and the people are so grounded in family," she said.
Zelinske, who will present the noon-hour Cultural Thursday program on Peru on Thursday at Central Lakes College, plans to be in Bolivia witnessing new year traditions in late December. Two months later she'll start a year of Bible study in Costa Rica.
"I have an interest in South America," she said. "I also love the outdoors. I knew I wasn't going to go back to school after graduation until next February, and I was able to get the time off from work."
She initiated her first trip abroad after four years of Spanish, including an advanced course at CLC, and an Internet search for missions. A non-denominational organization, Adventures in Missions, caught her eye.
"I signed up and spent five days at their headquarters in Georgia learning about the culture of Peru," Zelinske said. Her team of 27 and several advisers landed in Equitos on June 23 and soon headed by boat to various jungle villages. At times, Zelinske was three days' boat ride from modern civilization. She never felt threatened by elements or situations, natural or human.
"I was one of four people designated as translators," she said. The men in most villages communicated in Spanish, some more easily understood than others. Women spoke less and usually in a subservient dialect.
She spent time in six tribal villages ranging in size from 11 huts to 30. Larger communities showed signs of government efforts to establish infrastructure, such as cement sidewalks and light posts. "But there was no electricity," she said.
One of her assignments was leading Bible school for village children. "I'd have five or more holding my hands when I moved anywhere in the village," she said. "They loved glitter glue, stickers, blowing bubbles, balloons, things they'd never seen."
Zelinske and her team would sing, share crafts and attend services with the villagers, often in structures built by missionaries. A Peruvian missionary partner familiar with the villages led services. "We just went hut to hut, talked to families, sharing love and kindness and encouraging them in their faith."
Along the way some of the missionaries incurred temporary health setbacks. Two days of food poisoning and an infected bite slowed Zelinske. Others suffered a malady manifested by elevated temperatures and partial paralysis.
When illness abated, she and two distance-running friends viewed urban poverty firsthand as they jogged the crowded stretches of Equitos. The city, she said, was filled with huts made of various scrap material and often only three-sided.
Zelinske, a 2004 BHS triathlon champ, also toured Peruvian jungle outposts on striding legs -- a little jogging in the jungle to shake off the mind-moss and keep the receptors keen.
Riverside villages and the jungle landscape sheltered a poor but comfortable community, where children ran freely and were equally welcomed from family to family.
"There is no money in the jungle," Zelinske said, describing a barter system and economy that was a far cry from passions of greed and accumulated wealth. "Everyone got along, and I don't think there was ever a crime, seldom an argument."
Occasionally, she said, a villager might go to town to sell wood. "I think somebody took a pig to sell."
The next stop for the young member of Lakewood Evangelical Lutheran Church: places such as Lima, La Paz and Bolivia, including two months with a friend from the latter country who had been a guest in Brainerd through Amity Aid. Then she will travel on to Portantorchas, a school in Costa Rica operated by the Capernwray Missionary Fellowship, for one year of Bible study taught in Spanish.
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