Oh the things they will make

So Bolivia actually has an interesting relationship with China since basically everything that is sold here (and everywhere right?) is from China.  But it’s a common thing to say to someone, “Is that real or is it Chinese” as a way to inquire about the quality of something.  It’s gotten to the point that “Chinese” is synonymous with “poor quality” even when referring to things not made in China.  They also like to use the phrase “work like a Chinese man” to indicate someone working extremely long hours in poor conditions.  At first I was shocked at how un-pc these comments were, particularly since people here have very little knowledge about what China is actually like and have met very few, if any, Chinese people.  But there’s no word I know of for ‘pc’ in Bolivian spanish, so I just let it go.

Some of the products that come to Bolivia I’m certain would never be accepted for import into the U.S.  One example of which is this darling pregnant barbie doll called “Happy Every Day.”

Not to be outdone, we saw another package with the same pregnant barbie dolled labeled “Teenage Pregnancy Beautiful.”  We all let out a collective What!? when we saw that one, but unfortunately couldn’t get a picture.

Another fun story is the kite Tom bought.  He was really excited to try it out the next day but was disappointed when it wouldn’t actually fly.  As he put it, “It seems as if someone who had seen a kite before said oh I can make that but didn’t actually understand the concept.”  The directions on the package should have probably been a tip off to us.  “CAUTION: Fly your kite in large field, avolding your kite the railway.  Trafficroad, the eletrlc line and high pressure wire field, vallay or near airport.  Made in China.”

Fires, Drought and Rainforest

So we’ve already started the hot, dry, smoky season here.  Generally it’s smoky because they burn the sugar cane fields and the processing plant to the north of us throws out a lot of ash and smoke while processing the sugar cane.  However as we’ve found out happened in 2010 when we first got here and is happening again this year, in dry years the fires get worse.  Similar to what happened in the US this year, fires have started getting out of control in Bolivia.  When these fires get out of control in rural areas, there’s little more than men with buckets and rugs to beat them back.  Just a few days ago a huge chunk of land owned by the Santa Cruz airport burned out of control but luckily the airport has firefighters and were able to keep stop it before it got to the airport.

Many of these fires are human-started.  The majority of the fires are in the department of Santa Cruz (us) and the department of Beni (north of La Paz).  According to a recent article in our newspaper El Deber, the vast majority of the burning is associated with cattle farming and agriculture.  Why these fires started is a more difficult question though.  We know that farmers burn forest to clear the land; they also burn trash and according to the newspaper today, many farmers have claimed the fires came across the border from Brazil.  However since the same article said the authorities were fining anyone found starting fires, the truth is probably getting buried.  Burning can also be part of the yearly harvest cycle for crops such as sugar cane and what starts as a controlled burn could get out of control.  Beni and Santa Cruz are the main agro-business regions in Bolivia so it would make sense that so much burning is centered here, particularly during sugar cane harvest.

So we have man-made fires burning out of control with inadequate ability to fight them, but the problem doesn’t stop there.  Coincidentally the departments of Beni and Santa Cruz are also the regions where the Amazon rainforest spills down into Bolivia.   And as a recent article picked up by nbc.com, “Bolivia park declared one of most diverse places on Earth” explains nicely, this region has huge biodiversity significance.  You know the stories about a scientist going deep into the rainforest and finding some fungus that cures this disease or that disease.  This is that forest.  El Deber reports that since January over 1000 fires occurred in forest reserves and protected areas.  (How large those fires were is not clearly explained however).  I don’t believe Madidi National Park, which the nbc article talks about, has had any large fires but they are certainly not out of danger.

They say it might rain on Wednesday.  Let’s hope it does.  Our weather forecast today:

Julia’s visit Part 2

After our adventures in Valle Sacta, we came back to Montero and showed Julia around a little bit.  It happened to be National Teacher’s Day and so she came to the Kinder and partied with us.

Julia and Nayerly dancing.  She also stopped by my English class and talked with one of my students.

My student said afterwards, “she so different from you.  She’s really happy and smiley.”  Oh, I thought, I guess I should try to smile more in my English class.

We also took Julia to Santa Cruz for a day to see the plaza, cathedral and most exciting of all, the feria.  The feria is a huge outdoor/indoor shopping center that’s open Wednesdays and Saturdays and sells everything you could ever want in bulk.  But it’s a collection of thousands of small vendors instead of a big box store like Costco.  It’s a great place to find all your illegal or fake merchandise.  I got a sweater for $10 that came with a tag on it that said 34.95 Euros!  Of course the guy offered me a cheaper price if I bought by the dozen, but I didn’t need a dozen sweaters.  And for Julia’s birthday present we found her a snazzy faux-Coach purse.

Julia was such a trooper what with us dragging her all over the country, being offered sketchy food, and braving the craziness of the feria.  It was really fun to have a visitor willing to come experience the real Bolivia with us.  Thanks for the visit Julia!


Julia’s visit

This post is waaaay overdue but better late than never right? The first week of June we had a visitor, my sister Julia! She was traveling to celebrate her 30th birthday and stayed here in Montero with us for four days. Sister Clara got excited about her coming and so decided we had to take her to visit Valle Sacta. Tom and I had never been either so I said sure, let’s go.

So after Julia arrived at 2am in the morning, and we all slept only 4 hours, we piled into the Sister’s truck and headed north. Valle Sacta is a small town half way between Montero and Cochabamba. It’s on the very edge of the foothills of the Andes in a very tropical and productive area. There had been some drug crack-downs that week, as reported in the newspaper, and we had the good luck to get to drive through all of the major cocaine-producing cities in Bolivia as well as the stolen-car capital of Bolivia. Since this area is a fair distance from any big city it tends to be a little farther from the reach of organized governance.

So with all that in mind, we were pleasantly surprised to see how beautiful the Sister’s compound in Sacta is. They have a huge K-12 school, a medical center, a girl’s home, a church, and a big convent house. We relaxed the first night and then in the morning we ‘made the rounds’ with the sisters, visiting all their programs. In the medical center a woman had just given birth that morning and the only staff there at the time were two nurses and a dentist. The baby couldn’t have been more than an hour old as the nurses were still mopping up the birthing room as we passed by and poked our heads in.

Then we visited the high school’s morning lineup.

We even drove out into the country to visit a three-room school house that’s under the umbrella of the main school in town. They were having a ground-breaking celebration for a new computer classroom they raised the money to build. It was a really great cultural experience. After the dance presentations and the speeches (I had to give a speech for us), the ground-breaking began. Everybody dug a little bit of the hole.

Then they put the ‘cornerstone’ in and we dropped clay pots full of chicha (fermented corn alcohol) against it. This is an offering to Pacha Mama and also is supposed to give good luck and a speedy finish to the building.  I was invited to throw a pot in and I’m proud to say it broke perfectly.  The guy before me didn’t break his pot and ended up spilling chicha all over Madre Clara.  It can be seen as a bad omen if the pot doesn’t break.

At the end of any celebration, people throw confetti on everyone’s head. Here’s Julia with some of the students.

Then we toured the school, they had three computers set up in a classroom to show off.

And they insisted we stay for lunch which was corn (choclo), homemade cheese, potatoes and habas which are like big lima beans. Julia and I shared a plate and were able to finish everything except the cheese which we deemed too risky. The food was simple but really good and filling. And as is the custom in many parts of Bolivia, it’s all eaten with your hands, no utensils needed.

And that was just the morning!  We went back and took a nap and then that afternoon we went to see the river, a tributary of the Amazon, at Puerto Villaroel.

I realized after this picture that the Sisters must not know what I was doing, so I tried to explain was a moose was, but I ran out of words quickly and just gave up.  Fishing is a big industry for this town and so there were many boats on the river. It appeared that most people who owned a boat also lived on the boat at least for some period of time.

Tomas(a) dancing

Tom’s not the only one with dance videos up his sleeve.   The next evening we went to the Sacred Heart party at the girls home (Hogar).  The girls presented a variety a well-rehearsed dance numbers.

Even the staff had a great number.

And we presented this number. See if you can pick us out.


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It’s the end of the world as we know it…and I feel fine.

I couldn’t let this momentous occasion pass without sharing it with all of you.  As of 2:00 pm May 30, 2012 Tom and I never have to go to the Bolivian Immigration office EVER again.  The visa process has been a continuing stress for us since our arrival in September 2010.  Document after document, hours upon hours spent waiting in lines (I’m talking over 15 hours, just in line time) hours of traveling, significant money spent and sleep lost, all of this culminating in our most recent government ID process.

So a funny thing happened in March.  The Bolivian Immigration office, which serves the whole region of Santa Cruz, packed up one night and moved silently across town leaving not so much as a sign about where they had gone.  The taxi drivers didn’t know, the bus drivers didn’t know and we certainly didn’t know.  The other volunteers were there days before the office moved and said no one informed them in any way nor did they see any informational signs about it.  And beyond that, they splintered off the government ID department to a third location.  So after a bit of hassle we located the new offices, one in the first ring, the other in the fourth ring.  We pick up our passports in the first ring office and head out to the fourth ring office to apply for IDs.  It’s a well demarcated, stately office.  lol oh wait no, it’s a house on a muddy, back-road residential street with a letter-sized piece of white paper for a sign.

It’s like they don’t want you to find it.

And when we arrive at 9:00am we’re told they’ve already given out all the numbers for the day and that we have to arrive at 6:00am if we want to be helped.  Ok, fine so a few days later we get up at 4:30am, get the first shared taxi out of Montero at 5:15am and arrive in line at 6:15am.  The office is supposed to open at 7am and there’s already a significant line, and I’m already crabby.  No where to sit so we stand and stand.  A secretary shows up at 7:10am but says she doesn’t have the key.  Finally the lady with the key strolls in at 7:30am.  We receive our numbers, 21 and 22 and we’re told that they probably won’t get to us until 11am so we can go and come back.  So we go and sit in a coffee shop and read for awhile.  At 11am we went back and experienced first hand the glacial pace at which the office functioned but we got our stuff in a-ok and were headed for lunch by noon.

We were told to come back May 30th to pick them up but pick up is only possible between 2pm and 3pm.  So we went and we got them and we don’t plan to go back ever!


Mayo oh my!

Wow, May just took on a life of it’s own so I’m going to attempt to give a brief overview of everything we’ve been doing to catch you up.

At the end of April and beginning of May we had the Festival Internacional de Musica Renacentista y Barroca Americana, Bolivia’s biannual baroque music festival!  People come from all over the world to play and each group is required to perform at least one locally-composed piece.  The baroque music tradition began here with the Jesuits who came and built the beautiful Jesuit missions and educated the people in music.   The festival had all the traditional instruments and some really talented Bolivian vocalists.   I invited the Sisters to go with me and we ended up with a whole bus full of Sisters and hogar girls.

The first weekend of May I took a group of 9 kids ages 7-12 from our parish center to the Escuela Liderazgo Misionero Infantil in Santa Cruz.  It’s a two-day retreat put on by the Archdiocese and provided education about every Catholic’s call to be a missionary and some leadership experience.  We all had a good time but it was a lot responsibility for me and I was happy to return them to their parents at the end!

May 17-20 we celebrated the Institute’s Anniversary with an Exposition, Mass, Party and Futsal Tournament (Futsal is when you play soccer but on a small concrete court with a smaller, harder ball).  No pics, sorry we were too busy.  But the soccer team we put together of Tom’s class and mine won the tournament!

We’ve also had the yearly Convivencias and Baptism classes at the Kinder.  The Convivencias are required ‘training’ for all the parents where the professors present on some topic.  Last year they presented on spousal abuse and this year was about how the breakdown of family structure negatively affects children.  They’re always downers and it makes me sad to think about some of the realities these kids are living.  For a lot of kids at least one parent is in Argentina or Spain working, there are a lot of issues with drunkness, physical abuse and abandonment.   But it’s not all bad, we also have great two-parent families who are super supportive and over protective of their children.

Baptisms at the Kinder are coming up on June 10th and we’re going to be godparents again!   We were asked by the parents of one of my students because they don’t have any family in the area and don’t know many other Catholics.  (Because they don’t go to church, but I working with them on that).   Anyway our new god-daughter is named Ayelen and we’ve had lunch with her parents Alvaro and Mabel twice now and they’re very nice and very dedicated to the education of their daughter.

And now it’s Mother’s Day here in Bolivia so we’d like to give a shout out to our own mothers Ann Riley and Maureen Kent.  We love you and are very grateful to have you in our lives.  Here are some cuties from the Mother’s Day celebration at the Kinder with their traditional Bolivian instruments:  wooden noise-maker whose name I don’t remember, charango (guitar) Siku/zampoña (panpipe), and quena (flute).

Happy Pentecost Everyone!  Peace be with you.

How was Bolivia?

So even though we have 7 and a half months left here, I’m already dreading going home and hearing this question.  The problem is there’s no answer to it really.  I’d like to give an example of one of my mornings last week.

I didn’t get up and workout with Tom this morning because I had diarrhea all day yesterday and wasn’t feeling well.  When I did get out of bed about 8:30 my sore throat reminded me of this cold I’ve had for going on a month now that won’t go away.  The sun was out and it was already heating up so I put on my lightest, breathable clothes.  I needed to clean the house today.  Yesterday I had started but was thrown through a loop when I encountered a brown widow living under one of our tables.  Once the extraction/identification was finished I had run out of cleaning time.

So this morning, I put my clothes on quickly and decided resolutely I will get this house cleaned.  Just then I look up and see the trail on the wall.  I know that trail.  Termites.  I start investigating and find them eating one of my t-shirts.  I take the t-shirt out to the burn bin and alert Tom.  We clear out the closet and see that the damage is contained but they’re clearly coming from the wall.  I go and eat some plain bread for breakfast and de-spider the kitchen while we wait for Madre Clara to pass by so we can ask her if she has any pesticide.  She looks at it and blames it on our room being too humid, which it is, but we keep the windows shut during the day to keep the heat out/cool in.

Madre Clara says, “Oh yeah we have to fumigate in here.  I’ll have to go buy the chemicals, maybe tomorrow.  Laura can you bring the photos over now I want to develop them today.”  So our fumigation gets put off and I go over to the Kinder with Madre Clara to organize all her digital photos.  Madre Clara has a camera, laptop, fancy scanner but she doesn’t really excel at using any of them, so periodically I have to sit down and clean up the chaos left by haphazard usage.  Anyway I spend a good hour on that so that we can print the Kinder photos from “Children’s Day.”

On the way back to our house, I see a beautiful white and purple butterfly I’d never seen before.  I believe it was in the Papilio genus but I haven’t been able to identify it further than that. I also hear the band from the school next door playing “Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel.  Madre Clara told me they were practicing to play for the funeral today.  One of their third graders just died from dengue.

I get back to our house after 11am in time to talk to Madre Inez about the Children’s Day party I’m supposed to be help with the next day but have no information about.

Then all of a sudden it’s noon and I’m exhausted and still haven’t gotten the cleaning done.  We pickup some non-appetizing rice and undercooked eggs from the Guarderia to eat for lunch.

Bolivia is………. challenging, fun, frustrating, sad, inspiring, scary, different, exhausting, exhilarating, and yes sometimes even just fine.  Life here just is what it is.  You take it as it comes and try to keep smiling.  Isn’t that what we’re all just doing really?

Happy Easter

Easter was exhausting this year.  Actually I think I’m still exhausted from Easter.  After Easter Vigil Mass there was an all-night lock in for all the youth.  I opted to stay for it to hang out with my youth group.  It was actually was more fun than I had expected.  There was very little talking, it was mostly just singing and dancing.  Plus a guest artist came named Jose Luis Melgar and his band was WAY better than our regular music.  It was awesome to hear well-played music.

So we sung and danced the night away until 4am when the youth groups went out to greet the Risen Lord.  The march was pushed an hour earlier this year because of the lock-in but otherwise it was the same as last year.  We marched through the streets saying “Everyone wake up, Jesus is risen!”  I was on a different route this year; I did the St. John route.   Tom was on the Jesus route again and we all met up in the plaza in front of the church.

My route was a little late for the 5am rendezvous because we had a long way to go.  So we didn’t all march into the church until 5:15am, which turned out to be fine because the priest didn’t show up until 5:45am!  That half hour waiting was killer.  I hadn’t slept, I’d barely eaten anything all night and I’d just walked a mile and a half singing.  Luckily the Holy Spirit was with us and we persevered.  We got out of mass at 6:30am and by 6:45 I was eating breakfast at home.

Tom and I crashed in our beds at 7am but got up again at noon in order to have Easter dinner with the Hogar girls.  They had nice food as usual followed by some games and dancing.  Then after the party, I opened my store “Venta de Valores” for the girls to buy things with tickets they had earned and Tom helped Aubrey with the egg hunts.  The afternoon had ups and downs.  Tom taught Ophelia (age 8 ) how to use a fork and knife.  It was so adorable!  The girls are usually only given spoons to eat with.  And I found out that our God-daughter, Carmen, is failing second grade.  But her mom showed up to visit and I sat down and had a nice chat with her and we talked a little about how important education was for the girls.  I think their mom is basically illiterate and she told me she’s suffered because of “not studying.”

We got home from the Hogar around 6pm and made dinner and called family.  Monday morning was rough but gotta be happy because:  Cristo ha resucitado Alleuya Alleuya.  Verdaderamente ha resucitado Alleuya Alleuya

Palm Sundathon

Palm Sunday is a huge deal in Bolivia.  My Palm Sunday celebration was a marathon that started on Friday when Jesus riding a ‘donkey’ paraded through the Kinder.

Then on Saturday at my 5pm youth group, we were reminded that we had to decorate the church for Palm Sunday.  AND we had to bring all the materials to do so.  Well, in classic Bolivian style, we had nothing but we started looking. For starters we needed 10 huge palm fronds from a palm tree called Motacu.

Luckily, one of the girls showed up and said that her family had a Motacu and had just cut a bunch of fronds so we all went over to her house to see how many we could use.   There were some mutterings about using a taxi or a motorcycle but Sister Inez said, “No, you can’t drag them, you have to carry them!”  Not knowing what exactly we were getting into, I went happily to her house with the five other girls from our group.  But when we arrived I was a little shocked, the palms were easily 14 feet long and not light.  Plus, we needed to carry 10 of them and we were now 6 blocks away from the church.   We decided quickly we had to carry them between two people to avoid dragging and Celia says, “Ok well each pair has to take three then.”  Another girl and I attempt to pick up three but I can’t and drop them all.  So, we decide to take two.  I’ve got the leafy side and so I’m completely buried in palm, not able to see anything but my feet, as we walk the six blocks to the church.  I had many doubts along the way but amazingly we arrived as did the other two teams.  When we went back for the second round, a few more people showed up including two guys so the work was much lighter.

We spent the next two hours tying the palms up and I finally got back to our house exhausted about 8pm.  But no rest for the weary, Sunday morning I had to be up at 6:30am to cook my contribution for lunch and be ready to march at 7:30 as we paraded to a local high school for the annual World Youth Day celebration. This is a full-day event with a very long mass, dancing, break-out sessions and unending singing.  After helping with cleanup, we finally starting walking home at 4:30pm.  Thankfully, when I got home my wonderful husband was already cooking dinner, so I rested until 6pm when we had dinner with the other volunteers.  Then at 7pm I headed to church for evening mass.  My youth group was also in charge of the evening mass for Palm Sunday and I had volunteered to read the first reading.  This was really exciting for me since it’s the first time I’ve done a reading in Bolivia!  I really tried hard on my accent so that people would understand me and afterwards Sister Inez said it sounded good.  (Positive praise is so rare from the Sisters, especially Sister Inez so I just want you to appreciate how amazing I felt).  In addition, after going to two 2-hour masses in one day, I felt my spot in heaven was assured and it was nice to see everyone enjoying all our hard work decorating.  The finished product looked great but it did seem a bit overboard, to me anyway.

And since it’s a celebration, I also splurged for the biggest palm I could find from the vendors outside the church.  This one set me back 5 bolivianos.  The herbs in it, once blessed, are supposed to ward off bad spirits.

Blessed Holy Week to you all, stay tuned for more stories.