A tribute to fallen mangos

So over the last two weeks our high temperatures have gone from 95 down to 56 and back up to 95 again!  (Keep in mind we don’t have heating or A/C) These rapid swings in temperature have come with the biggest wind storms we’ve seen since being in Bolivia.  Last week, after the first blast of cold air came blowing up from Argentina, Laura and I were walking through the courtyard of the convent when we noticed something awful.

All the baby mangos that had been growing on the mango trees (due to ripen in October) had blown off! Oh the humanity!!!

(click the images for high-res)

I think that means there aren’t going to be many mangos around this year :-(

We also had lots of trash that blew in to our field and piled up behind the Institute building and piles of sand that blew in from places too.

So next time you’re walking through your grocery store and looking at all the fruit, stop for a moment to pay your respects to all their fallen comrades that were lost along the way.

Bolivian Names

It’s always difficult getting used to new social customs and meeting new people but learning names here in Bolivia was initially even more difficult than I had expected. That was partly due to the usage of many names I had never heard before. Here’s a sampling.

Girls’ Names:

Hay Med
Daraly (? haven’t seen it written yet but this is what is sounds like)
Versions of Maria: Maribel, Marizabel, MariLiz, MariLu, MariaEsther, MariLeny

Boy’s Names:
Toshi/Ochi (? I believe they’re half Japanese, this is how it’s pronounced)


A few common last names:

And in all fairness, they have quite a time with our last name also.  Our first names translate alright with slightly altered pronunciation: Laura/Laurita and Tomas.  But Kent just does not compute for them; I’ve seen it written: Kuent, Keut, Quent, Kant.  I think I’m glad I changed from my maiden name though.  When I say ‘Riley’ to people, they just stare at me like I’m putting weird sounds together.  Oh yes, changing cultures is definitely interesting.

Independence day and a new friend!

The 6th of August is Independence day here in Bolivia which of  course is celebrated with much pomp and circumstance but oddly very few fireworks….?  Apparently fireworks are just a Christmas and New Year’s thing.  There’s nothing Bolivians love more than getting a band and parading around the streets, so that’s what was done Thursday, Friday and Saturday.  The Kinders weren’t invited to the city-wide march on Friday, so on Thursday we had our own celebration.  Children dressed up in all the different traditional dresses of Bolivia and we took all the children for a march through the market.  Despite the fact that this was absolutely spur of the moment by Madre Clara and it was the middle of the day, people are amazingly undisturbed by having to stop their cars and wait for a mass of 250 Kindergarteners waving flags and shouting “Viva Bolivia” to pass by.   Once I got over my nervousness about someone plowing into us, I actually really enjoyed it.

On Friday, Tom and I stopped by Montero’s parade to see what it was all about.  There seemed to be endless groups of people.  Every school in town had to march with banners, flags, a band, baton twirlers, and their graduating class dressed up (men in suits, women in suits or way too tight skirt/shirt combos).  Then there was the public college and the nursing school and a bunch of groups of adults that must have been government employees but I don’t know where from.  Then there were all the military groups and at the very end a bunch of tractors with different plows on them.

Most of the bands were just drums, trumpets and xylophones (playing either “The Ants Go Marching” or “The Halls of Montezuma” – apparently this melody‘s actually from an old French opera so I’m sure they don’t mean any connection to the US Marines). One band however had recorders and a traditional pan flute called zampoña.

There seemed to be only two military groups: those dressed in black with their faces painted black and those dressed in camos with their faces painted camoflauge.  Also the camo guys were all carrying what looked like bazookas?  So I guess all I really know about their military is that one of their strategies is covert bazooka attacks.  Only their Army equivalent was represented.  Apparently they do have some “air force” based out of La Paz and a “navy” on Lake Titicaca.

If you can’t make it out, the side of the boat says “Policia Militar Navy.”

In other excitement, on Sunday we had lunch with our new friend Padre Mateo (Fr. Matthew).  He’s a diocesan priest from California here on a 6 month sabbatical.  He’s living and working with the Missionaries of Padre Kolbe here in Montero who run the Virgen de Cotoca parish and a medical center.  He found us via our blog and contacted us a week ago to make connections and have someone to speak English with.  I think he was also looking for some male presence as he lives with 9 women but unfortunately for him we’re a package deal so I tagged along too.  It was really fun to meet the Missionaries who are a consecrated group of women living in community but not technically a “religious order” (they take vows of poverty, obedience and chastity but are considered by the Vatican a secular institute) and learn about their work.  We also had a good time swapping stories with Padre Mateo about life in Montero and hearing his unique experiences being a priest here.

And if all that excitement wasn’t enough, we also finally spotted the elusive Montero sloth!  And turns out there are two!  They live in the trees on the main Plaza and I was lucky enough to catch this one climbing up a tree on Saturday afternoon.  Soooo cute!

Great Expectations

Okinawa is a town one hour to the east of us where another group of Salesian volunteers works in a Salesian high school and parish center.  Okinawa was founded 50 years ago by Japanese immigrants looking for a fresh-start after leaving post-WWII Japan.   They arrived first in Brazil (still the site of the largest Japanese community outside of Japan) and then made their way to Bolivia and Peru.  They were ‘gifted’ chunks of rainforest (possibly previously inhabited by indigenous Bolivians?) from the government which they cleared and transformed into an agricultural empire.

Their empire includes factories that process milk, grains, and make pasta and sweets, a Japanese high school, a Japanese hospital, a cultural center, a sports complex, a swimming pool and a museum.  Still it is a very small, rural town with just one main road going through and a small, dusty plaza.  There is a distinct ‘Japanese side’ and ‘Bolivian side’ of town, most notably differentiated by how nice the homes are.  Also in general Bolivians are kept out of the other Japanese offerings like their high school or sports complex by high entry fees.

The cultural center has air conditioning (!) couches to sit on and really nice bathrooms- they had toilet paper AND hand soap.  I took this picture (below) in the bathroom, I think it says ‘don’t flush toilet paper’ in Japanese.  It was just kind of surreal to see everything written in Japanese all of a sudden, you walk through a door and it’s like  you’re not in Bolivia anymore.

Also while visiting Okinawa we went with the volunteers out to the surrounding rural Bolivian communities.  They go out there three days a week to do religious education/ mentoring with the kids which generally involves playing soccer, face painting, or watching movies on laptops.  It was a really awesome experience.  The people live in very humble dwellings with mud-adobe walls, dirt floors, and a thatched roof.  Each little community has a one-room school house where all the kids from Kindergarten to eighth grade go to school in the mornings (assuming they have a teacher).  When we came in the afternoon, the kids seemed to be doing a lot of just ‘hanging out’ and were very happy for the diversion.  They probably spend all their other time helping their parents prepare or grow food.  Below, is an example of their homes.

What struck me most leaving Okinawa was the dichotomy between the Japanese and Bolivians.  I just kept asking myself, why?  The Bolivians had already been there for hundreds of years.  How did the Japanese come in and surpass them so quickly?  The only conclusion I could come to was: expectations.  The Japanese came in with great expectations of how they wanted their settlement to be (based on experiences in Japan) and they worked to make that happen.  In 50 years a small group of Japanese immigrants have built up industry, schools, hospitals almost to 1st world standards and yet the Bolivians who were living there 50 years ago in poverty are still doing so. You might say, well surely the Japanese had an influx of capital that the Bolivians didn’t.  They also had their strong Japanese work ethic, organizational standards, good education, and lack of corruption.  It would be inflammatory though to say that you couldn’t find a Bolivian with these same qualities, albeit they’re not as valued culturally as in Japan.  Why then, if the Bolivians had been given the same amount of money, the same amount of land 50 years ago would the results not have been the same?  Expectations.

Donations for Computers

As the second semester of classes here get into full swing, we’ve seen the need to start another computer fund raising project to be realized for the end of this school year or the start of the next.

Tom’s classroom is still doing great. However, the basic-level computer course, “Basics of Computer Usage,” which is a pre-req for Tom’s class and is the most popular class at the Institute with nearly 60 graduates each semester, is in need of some computer updates. In addition, the Kinder computer lab (which certainly is at the bottom of the totem pole as far as ‘crucial’ upgrades) has had multiple deaths since May and mice chronically going on the fritz. So the plan is to make a purchase of as many new computers as we can manage (note we’re just buying computers not monitors, we still get by ok on the old CRTs) for the basic-level computer lab and then their older computers can be inherited by the Kinder lab. In addition, we’d purchase 20 small, optical mice for the Kinder lab. Sometimes the kids have to move the mouse with one hand and click with the other because the mice are so big and the aged, roller-ball mice can be difficult to move. This gets the newer technology where it’s really needed (Institute) but also improves my ability to educate, versus frustrate, students at the Kinder.

The Institute and Kinder classes which teach basic computer skills are aimed toward students who do not have access to computers at home or at libraries and so are at a disadvantage. Computers are taught in some grade schools but not all. By high school, students are expected to come in with certain basic skills and if they don’t have them they just fail instead of being ‘caught up’ by the teacher (another product of huge class sizes). The same thing happens in Universities, students are expected to use Microsoft Word, Excel, Powerpoint but no classes are offered to teach them these skills. So students have to take extra classes at an Institute in order to be able to pass their university classes. For many students the Institute works to supplement where their high school education was deficient. And though Bolivia is technologically behind developed countries, the reality already is that you can’t get into any professional position without basic computer skills.

Two generous donations have already been pledged from our family members and we’d like to invite you to join with them so that this computer purchase can make the biggest impact. It’s always better to buy ‘in bulk’ as far as prices and to have as many of the same computers as possible which makes lab maintenance easier.

To make a tax-deductible donation, you may send a check to:
Sister Servants of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus
attn: Bolivia Mission – Montero Computers
866 Cambria St.
Cresson, PA 16630-1713

Federal ID # : 75-236-912

Or if you’d like to send the money directly to us (arrives faster) you may send a check made out to Thomas Kent to Tom’s parents:
Thomas Kent
Bolivia Operations
10342 Colorado Rd.
Bloomington, MN 55438

Thirdly, you can click our Paypal button:

Thank you helping us to continue to improve the educational offerings here, which is a key step in ending cycles of poverty. This is one of the few ways that we can make ‘lasting’ change in the community, and leave something behind that will continue to help.

Irish meets Bolivian

This is the conversation I had today with one of my Kindergarten students. It was precious.

Oliver: Profesora Laura why is your face pink?
Me: When I’m out in the sun, the sun makes my skin pink.
Oliver: No…when I go out in the sun I only get brown.

::putting our hands side-by-side::

Me: Well look, our skin is different.
Oliver: No that’s just what happens when you scrub the dirt off really hard.
Me: ::trying to understand:: So maybe my face is pink because I scrubbed it really hard? Maybe, Oliver, maybe.
:) I love that kid.

Sometimes the children at the Guarderia stroke my arm and say “How did you get so clean?”

Oliver Addendum from Aug. 10th:  He’s playing with his toy airplane at Kinder and comes and sits down next to me.

Oliver: Profesora Laura what are these?  ::pointing to the freckles on my arm::

Me: Those come from the sun, when I’m out in the sun they appear.  (I can never remember the word for freckle here)

Oliver: Well you probably just need to wash yourself with a brush and scrub really hard.  Sometimes you even have to use a plate scrubber (referring to the sponges with brillo pads).  That’s what my mom says to do.

Me:  Ok, Oliver maybe I’ll do that.