Feliz Navidad!

Merry Christmas!  We hope that you all are having a blessed and joy-filled Christmas!  We enjoyed our second Bolivian Christmas here in Montero.

Since Friday December 16th, I’ve been doing a Christmas Novena every afternoon with the kids from the neighborhood.  30-40 kids came daily to pray, sing, color, make nativity scenes and practice the nativity play.  Then on Christmas Eve they sang the Gloria dressed as angels to welcome Niño Jesus and on Christmas day they performed the nativity play at mass.   I really enjoy getting to know the kids and this leads Tom to call me a celebrity in the neighborhood because I can’t walk around without kids yelling out “Laurita!”  I made my first Nativity scene or “pesebre” also! (with the help of a coloring sheet)

On Christmas Eve, I got an emergency plea from Sister Inez to help her finish the angels’ wings for that night.  We had been working little by little on them all week but still had eight not-started nor a single finished.  So we worked all morning and afternoon (and I have the hot glue gun burns to prove it) and finally at 4:30pm finished, just in time for dinner at 5pm.  The Sisters shared their food with us so we had a nice Christmas dinner in our house with volunteer Marcos who came from Yapacani for Christmas.  Then it was off to mass at 7:30 to line up my angels.  Tom, the other volunteers, and I dressed up for mass although most people don’t.  It helps us feel more like Christmas though.

In front of the Nativity scene with Carmen (notice the angels in the background and Jesus in the hammock).

The angel performance went off well and so triumphantly we headed to the Hogar after mass for a little celebration.  The Sisters didn’t organize anything but we put some music on and danced with the younger girls until 11:00pm and then put them to bed.  It was really sweet, when I walked in to help put the 6-10 year olds to bed, all of them wanted big goodnight kisses and one even asked me to make the sign of the cross on her head.  It gave me heart pangs to think of all these little girls yearning for goodnight kisses that they rarely receive. It reminded me that despite how good the care may be at the Hogar, nothing can replace a loving mother in a child’s life.  I would have adopted all those little girls on the spot if I could have.

Afterwards we shared a little fermented apple cider (poor man’s champagne), which is the traditional drink here at Christmas, with the other volunteers and watched the fireworks until midnight.  We jokingly sang a rendition of the Star-Spangled banner at midnight, because fireworks just don’t mean Christmas for us.

Christmas morning the volunteers made scrambled eggs and french toast for the girls which Tom and Marcos headed over at 6:00am to help out with, while I was helping at the parish center to prepare the Christmas party for the neighborhood kids.  Then it was off to mass again at 8:00 where I helped the Nativity play actors get ready and dressed up some angels for the Gloria.  We had folded up the white angel robes from the night before and put them in a bag on the floor.  When I pulled the first robe out in the morning it had a big tarantula on it!!  I let out a yelp and jumped backwards throwing down the robe, only able to articulate, “spider, spider.”  All the kids tried to quelm my fears saying, oh spiders won’t hurt you, they’re not that bad.  But when I pulled all the other robes out and flushed out the tarantula from the bottom of the bag all the kids got excited too, “ahh, tarantula!”  Luckily as the tarantula started escaping its way towards the altar, a server boy came out with a broom and escorted it outside.  With that behind us, the angels and nativity actors all performed well and we headed to the parish center after mass for songs and games.  Kids won toys for participating and I gave out prizes to all the kids that had participated in the Novena.  There was also a competition of nativity scenes, and kids’ ones were way better than mine, so they all won toys also.   The party ended at about 12:30 when all the kids received hot chocolate, fried bread and treat bags and went home for lunch.

We headed over to the Hogar for lunch only to find they had eaten without us!  But we scavenged some leftover french toast and all was well.  We gave Carmen, our god-daughter a little present for Christmas and also gave one to Ophelia, an eight-year-old little girl that has latched on to Tom and just loves him.  She’s really sweet, and smart but she got bad parasites this past July-August and lost a lot of weight.  Now when you hug her you can feel all her bones.  They feed the girls enough at the Hogar in order to not be undernourished, but not enough to really gain any weight, so I had been worried about Ophelia for awhile.  And it’s not that we can’t buy her food here, but it is more difficult because how do you buy for one, when there are 100+ other hungry faces looking at you?  So while home in the US, we bought her some high-calorie Cliff bars hoping that at least an extra 100 calories a day and some protein might help.

Tom and Ophelia last Carnaval (before she lost weight)

I also opened my store at the Hogar for a little bit and made lots of sales including some of the biggest items that require 20 tickets to buy (the girls earn tickets by helping out the workers).   I enjoy pretending to be a Bolivian market worker and I hope the girls enjoy the chance to pick out their own things.  The store was so popular, the Sisters have even opened up a competing store that sells shoes and clothes.  At 3:00pm Marcos dressed up as Santa Claus and gave out presents to all the girls (backpack and a new pair of clothes) but we couldn’t stay because our OFS (Secular Order of Franciscans) group was going to Villa Virginia for another Christmas party.

Villa Virginia is full of bars called “chicherias” and is poorer than our neighborhood so the OFS bought a small lot there and started going three years ago for Christmas to give out toys and do some evangelization.   We showed up with treat bags and toys and started playing loud music, saying all the kids are invited to come celebrate Christmas with us.   It’s funny to me how common ‘impromptu’ events like this are, which only work because people are accustomed to coming out and investigating when it sounds like something new is going on in the neighborhood, that and word of mouth.  Anyway about 80 kids came, and we basically repeated the morning activities: songs, games, telling the Christmas story, and dances culminating in toys and treat bags being handed out at about 5:45pm.  Coincidentally, once the kids started leaving with toys a whole bunch more kids materialized, but we went ahead and gave to them also since we had planned for 200.

On the way home, the guys in the back of the pickup were yelling “ho ho ho” and throwing out toys and treat bags to any kids that we passed.  It might have worked better if most of the bags hadn’t landed in the street, but oh well.  They were having fun.

After that, we headed back over to the Hogar to check in with Marcos and see how everything went.  Finally at 7:00pm we headed back to our house, cooked some spaghetti and meatballs, called family, and crashed in our beds.

While back in the U.S., some people sounded surprised when we said we wanted to go back to Bolivia for Christmas.  I hope this long description has shed some light on why I felt so strongly about that decision.  Though it’s more a ‘work day’ than a holiday, it’s an opportunity to touch the lives of so many children and for me, embodies our goal of being here, which is to love others.  As God gave us the gift of his Son, I gave my Christmas as a gift to others.  And it was like I experienced a new kind of Christmas, instead of the kind where joy comes from the love of family, good food, and the thoughtful presents you receive; this Christmas we gave love and presents to others, and we kept giving until we were tired and hungry, and left with nothing but Christmas joy.

Trip Home

I can’t believe it’s already Christmas Eve!  Before we get into Christmas festivities I want to update you about all of the exciting travels we’ve had since November 22nd.

Tuesday November 22nd we left Santa Cruz and 18 hours later arrived in Minneapolis, Minnesota!  It was the first time home to the U.S. for Tom in 14 months!!  (I snuck in a short trip home in September as you may recall so I wasn’t as homesick.)   Some of the reverse culture shock experiences we had were:

  • I noticed in the airport no one was staring at me….It felt weird :)
  • Tom said “Oh man, now other people can understand us when we talk to each other.”  In Bolivia we take advantage of being able to have personal conversations in public as no one knows English.
  • being shocked seeing someone talking to themselves before remembering what a bluetooth was!
  • flushing toilet paper, just feels so wrong!
  • I kept trying to convert the prices of everything into another currency but I couldn’t figure out what currency to put them in, it’s kind of ridiculous to put them back into bolivianos!

We got some Pizza Hut in the Miami airport while we were waiting for our connection and marveled at the diversity of people you see moving through that airport.   Tom was so excited about Pizza Hut that we had it AGAIN for lunch the next day, but after that my stomach got fed up (haha, pun) with the hemisphere change and I spent the next few days eating white bread and 7up.  We were very happy to back in the U.S. though and jumped right back into American society going to Target, Microcenter and Costco all on our first day back!  We spent Thanksgiving day and the week after with the Kents, seeing lots of extended family and having a nice time relaxing.

Then we got a Greyhound down to Dubuque, Iowa to visit our college friend Fr. Gary Mayer.  He invited us to do some impromptu sharing about our volunteer work to a first grade class and a high school class of juniors that he teaches.  This was unexpected but turned out to be a lot of fun and made us realize how important doing outreach will be when we come back and have all these experiences to share.  We’ve always said that although we are experiencing a lot of personal growth here, it’s integral to us to share what has helped us to grow so that this experience has an impact much wider than just us and our own faith lives.

Next, we made a stop in Cedar Rapids to see our good friends Wade and Nicole and their adorable daughter Addie!  It was amazing to see how much had happened in their lives in the 14 months we’d been gone and kind of drove home the fact that life goes on whether you’re there to witness it or not.  Despite the temptation to return home and think, oh things are just the same and I feel just the same, I have to remind myself that no, I’m not the same as I was, and neither are the people here.  This will become clearer next year when we come home for good but I began to reflect on how to maintain relationships despite distance, accepting that you won’t be there to see/understand what the other person is going through.

Finally we arrived in St. Louis!  MN and IA might as well have been other countries to me because I didn’t feel ‘home’ until we got to St. Louis.  We had a million people to try to see and errands to run, not to mention me taking the GRE, while in St. Louis but for all that I think we did well getting to see as many people as possible while still maintaining sanity (there are only so many times you can answer the question “So how’s Bolivia?” in a day).  Plus, it was my birthday (big 2-8) so everyone was very generous about taking us out for dinner/lunch which we really appreciated!  Sadly we still had to miss a lot of friends and family (most notably Campion Christmas) but it turns out that three weeks is just not that much time.

On December 13th, after doing lots of clearance shopping and trying to pack our suitcases to the weight limit, we returned to Santa Cruz.  Sitting at our gate in St. Louis, I felt very down-hearted to be leaving so many wonderful people and delicious food behind, knowing it was entirely my choice to do so.  I thought to myself, we’ve had a good year, who says we need to do a second, why not just pack it in now?  I still felt hesitant the first few days back but after a week of seeing the Hogar girls, hanging out with the other volunteers, doing youth group for the neighborhood kids, and joking around with the Sisters, I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.  I feel such a deep sense of purpose being here.  I love being able to wake up everyday, no agenda, and say “God, what shall we do today?”

November Recap

Let me start this post with an apology.   I know we’ve gotten behind and left you, our loyal blog reader in the dark for over a month, but it’s our New Year’s resolution to get back on track, so I’m starting early, here we go.

It’s been a very busy end to the school year, especially since it overlapped with Thanksgiving and our trip home to the US.  Friday, November 11th was Kinder graduation. It was a fun night and lots of the hogar girls graduated.

All the Kinder professors with Madre Clara.

Yusel, Lulu and I before graduation.

Friday November 18th was Institute graduation. At mass beforehand, Tom and I took our ‘compromiso’ or promise to join the local OFS (Order of Secular Franciscans) chapter for the next year. We hope it gives us an opportunity to do faith-sharing and activities with more people our age.  Later, Tom graduated his second class of graphic design/multimedia students. My English students are going to continue for a second semester and graduate next June, as we determined 5 months was not sufficient for basic English. It was a fun graduation mostly because I had been able to get to know many of the students over the past year as many of their children were at the Guarderia and we saw them at the Expositions. I also volunteered twice as a model for the beauty class. One of the beauty students invited us over to her house afterwards for a graduation party. In consisted of a big dinner of pork, yucca and rice (really good, we both cleaned our plates), lots of beer drinking and some dancing. It was nice to see a little more of what family-life is like in Montero but we couldn’t stay too late since we had Thanksgiving the next morning.

Tom congratulating one of his top students at Institute graduation.

Saturday, November 19th all the Salesian volunteers gathered in Montero for our yearly Thanksgiving celebration. We made turkey and pumpkin pies and they brought all the rest. It was a really good meal and we had a record turnout of 19 people! The rest of the day was spent eating desserts little by little and playing fun group games.

The Lineup.  Front row (L to R):  Amadita, Angela, Giorgia, Ramona, Katie, Fionn, Aubrey, Judy, Me(Laura), Marcelle, Susan.  Back row (L to R): Eric, Eric, Fr. Matthew, Marcos, Tom, Amber, Monica.  Sr. Anna is missing.

On Sunday, we continued to spend time with the visiting volunteers, we had an intro session for the OFS and my new hogar project finally got off the ground! In September, I got the idea of starting a store or ‘venta’ at the Hogar so that girls could earn points to buy things. They receive presents twice a year: Christmas and Birthday but get little choice over what they get. So after a few months of planning and buying things the store opened! The first week sparked lots of interest but sales were slow, we sold 6 packets of shampoo, and a bouncy ball. I went out of my way to buy lots of fancy jewelry and hair things, but it was amazing to watch how very practical the girls are when they’re spending their own currency. Having your own shampoo is a luxury valued more highly than hair clips or toys. I’m excited to see after a few months what the sales trends are. I think you really can learn about someone by watching their shopping habits. It’s all decision-making, priorities, weighing your options. They want to get the most value for their tickets.

On Monday we had the end-of-year or ‘despedida’ party for the professors of the Institute and Kinder, Tom and I turned in our final grades and closed out the 2011 school year! (It does make paperwork easier here that school years only span one calendar year) Tuesday we got up early and 18 hours later landed in Minneapolis, MN! We spent Thanksgiving with Tom’s family and will spend another two weeks visiting friends and my family before we fly back to Bolivia Dec. 13th.