Home Sweet Home

We’ve been back in the USA for just over 2 months now.  It has stopped feeling ‘new’ and started feeling normal again.  We’ve been keeping busy.  The first week back we had two objectives: cellphone and car.  The two most basic things that are necessary to re-enter US society.  After that, Christmas celebrations began and we got swallowed up into family gatherings and traveling.  That continued until Jan. 7th when we were spit out into the world of unemployment and the unrelenting question, “now what?”  I texted my friend that day and said, “today I mentally arrived back to the US.”  She said, “Welcome mentally home.”

That first month I mostly felt a sense of loss, a feeling echoed by this other previous volunteer who worked in an orphanage in Peru.  You don’t want to let go of the people that you still love that are so far away, but you have to let go a little bit to be able to accept it and move forward.  Every time I went shopping after Christmas I found myself just thinking about how much the girls at the Hogar would like everything I saw.  I ended up buying some things and sending care packages to the Hogar.  I realized later that I sent the packages less because they really needed the stuff, and more because it made me still feel connected to them.

In the second month, I am still grieving but don’t find it so crippling.  I can now talk about the girls and our experiences without crying.  And we’re looking forward to the future.   Tom has received a job offer from Boeing to return to similar work as what he was doing when we left, and he will start work the last week of February.  I have signed up for a teacher-certification program to be certified in the state of Missouri to teach high school biology.  While I study, I will subsitute teach and apply for positions to start in the fall.  So our list of achievements is getting longer:  cellphone, car and now, job.  Next month on the agenda is housing.  We are currently leaning on the hospitality of my parents in St. Louis until we can work out the fate of the house we own which has been rented while we were away.

An interesting product of the reverse culture shock that we’ve both experienced is a desire for safety and making conservative choices.  What I mean is that before, when we were both tired of the ho-hum status quo, we were excited about shaking things up and undertaking this big Bolivia adventure.  Now we feel like going to the grocery store is adventurous and that we want a stable and predictable life.  How long this feeling will continue before we get bored again, I don’t know.  Or maybe this is the new norm, it makes me feel old though.

Overall, life is good.  When people ask “how was Bolivia?”  We answer, “challenging but a good experience.  We are glad we did it, and glad we survived it.”

The End is Here

We are now in our last days in Bolivia.  We’ve had a whirlwind last two months, finishing up the school year, celebrating Thanksgiving, doing three god-daughter’s birthday parties and traveling for a week in Argentina.  Now we’re just packing up our bags, celebrating Madre Clara’s 25th anniversary of her religious vows, and getting on the plane.

At 10pm on Monday, December 10th we land in St. Louis and officially end our time as volunteers/missionaries.  It’s been an amazing two years, amazingly difficult and amazingly rewarding.  Since we want to enjoy the last of our time here as much as possible we haven’t been and won’t be updating the blog until we’re settled stateside.  But we promise between now and Christmas to catch you up on all the adventures and fun times we’ve had in November and December.  Thank you for reading our blog, please stay-tuned also for post-service reflections.  We’ve been told the deepest of the reverse culture shock doesn’t hit until 6 months back so check back in June if you’d like to hear how that’s going.  Off to pack, see you all in the US of A!

Nine Months

So now that we’ve been in Boliva for nine months. A lot has happened, we’ve learned a ton about life here in Bolivia, the positives and the negatives.

I’m coming up to the end of my first semester. I have eight students left in my class (started with 10, one moved away another started a conflicting class), and they’re all doing well. They seem to do the best with the graphic design part (my weakest area), but they’re good with the photos, audio, and video too. At the end of the graphics section, they all created one page advertisements for their imaginary business. They did a great job on that project, several of them are high enough quality that they could go into the pages of a magazine…if it weren’t a fake company. Here are a few of my favorites.

So now we’ve finished the Photos, Graphics, and Audio sections and we’re working on the video editing. They’re currently each editing together some footage I took of the town square, so soon I’ll have those videos up here for you to see, in the meantime, here’s a picture of them hard at work:

I’ve also just about finished writing the text for the course (which is good because the semester is ending and I’d be in trouble if I didn’t have it!).  This has actually taken a lot more of my time than actually teaching the class.  I’m hoping that with this done I’ll have a little more time to myself next semester, even though I’m teaching two sections instead of one.  The text is available online (I’m still working on the formatting, but all the content is there). If you want to read it, you can get to it from http://mediaintro.teeks99.com/MultimediaClass.html, I’d love any comments or critiques you have, its in English here!

Laura has been keeping busy working the mornings (4 days a week) at the Day Care (Guarderia) and the Kindergarten in the afternoons.  Every Saturday she works with two different youth groups at the parish center.  Starting in July, she’s going to be teaching an English class at the Institute two nights a week also.

At the Kindergarten she has 45 minutes with every class each week. In her computer lab they work on the basics of computer usage: moving the mouse, clicking on things, etc.  She also spends time teaching them English. The biggest accomplishment with English is that she has them all singing a song called “What’s Your Name?” where they learn how to introduce themselves and say ‘nice to meet you.’ Not bad for 45min/wk with a class of kindergarteners! Some of them have also learned her name, “Miss Laura” although it comes out more like “izdora.”

Laura has put a lot of work into getting the (very old) computers in her lab up and running, and more recently when my family was here, my dad and brothers helped out there for a couple days.  Unfortunately there isn’t a lot that can be done for the computers still running Windows 98, which can’t run most of the programs she’s using in her class.  With some of the leftover money from building my computer lab, we were able to get six new (very cheap) computers, which are more than enough for the programs she runs.  These six are great, and have a whole range of (free) simple learning programs that we downloaded off the internet. Currently she has 26 computers functioning for classes of 30-36 students. Fairly often fights have to be broken up over who got to a computer first and kids walk around saying “Teacher, there’s no spot for me.” The long range plan is to replace all eight of the Windows 98 computers with new ones and buy four more to eventually have 30 computers.


I’ve been remarkably healthy since I’ve been here. I had one bout with an extremely nasty bug around the start of the year, and then a minor urinary infection a couple months back, along with a couple of very minor bouts of diarrhea. Laura on the other hand has had a lot of illness to struggle with.  We think this is mostly because she works with the little (often sick) kids a the Guarderia each morning.  There’s a lot of germs floating around there, and unlike the other teachers who work there, Laura hasn’t had a lifetime to build up defenses against Bolivian illnesses. In addition, her digestive system has always been more sensitive to insults, even in the U.S., so little things that don’t bother others end up as a week of diarrhea for her. But, please don’t worry, she takes her vitamins and probiotics faithfully and so far has bounced back from everything just fine.

As far as what we’ve learned about the health conditions here…there’s some pros and cons. Malaria is virtually non-existent in this region of Bolivia. We haven’t encountered anyone with it. Most people will say they know of someone once-upon-a-time who had it, but nothing recent or concrete. I’m not sure if this is because of eradication efforts or that its more prevalent in other areas and that’s where the people talked about were when they got ill.

Dengue fever, tuberculosis, and Chagas are some of the major diseases here. There was a wave of dengue in April, but it seems to have subsided now, however 20 people died and, for a few months the hospitals were overflowing.  Tuberculosis is a more constant issue. We’ve heard of several people who have had it.  The mother of our god-daughter was in the hospital with it for several months.  When she got out, she had to go to Buenos Aires to get a job to pay back her medical bills, that’s why our god-daughter and her two sisters are still living at the orphanage (Hogar). Also, a 21-year old woman who worked with Laura at the Guarderia had apparently started working there after she finished her 6-month treatment. In addition, when Laura went to the Japanese Hospital in Santa Cruz for her sinus infection, we found it’s general practice to require every person that comes in for a consultation to get a chest x-ray.

Chagas is considered endemic in the older population. It is caused by a parasite transmitted by bites from “vinchuca” bugs and largely asymptomatic until later in life when heart, back, or digestive problems may develop. For most people that die of heart attacks in their 50′s or 60′s here, there’s some Chagas influence involved. The vinchuca bug lives in the walls and roofs of the more traditional adobe/clay and thatch houses so as urbanization grows, the disease is less a threat.

Aside from those three major diseases, there are just a lot of colds, food poisoning, worms, and skin infections.  There is little done to fight it here. People don’t frequently wash their hands, put meat in a refrigerator, or wash vegetables. Its really sad to see all the kids with awful skin rashes and diarrhea, when it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to prevent a whole lot of that.

The good news on the health front is that the drinking water here in town seems to be clean. We’ve been washing our fruits and vegetables in it, brushing our teeth with it, and washing dishes with it. We still don’t drink it, but that’s not because we’re worried about getting diseases from it, but because it has a fair amount of silt in it.

The People

We’ve had a great time getting to know all sorts of people. A special shout-out to the two other volunteers who have been working here with us, Andrea and Melia (at the Hogar). Its been great to share our community with them, and we’re sad to see them go as they wrap up their year of service.  It has been a great support to have other Americans around to relax and puzzle over the mysteries of Bolivia with.

The sisters that we live with have been great to us, and we’re enjoying getting to know them better. Our boss Sister Clara is also the one who takes care of the five dogs and two cats that live on either side of our house. Many nights we’ll spend out on our porch with her playing with the dogs and cats and having her tell us about all the activities going on around the center.  Each week on Thursday we go to eat lunch with all the sisters at the convent, and they seem to have a great time joking around with us. Especially picking on me, who is usually the only male in the room.

Then there are all the teachers that we work with at the Guarderia, Institute, and Kinder.  We’ve gotten to know some better than others, but the important part is that we feel that we’ve been accepted amongst them. Last week we got to share our first Bolivian barbecue with them to celebrate Teacher’s Day. That was a fun event that consisted mostly of dancing and eating :-)

With our students, although communication is sometimes not 100%, we’ve really enjoyed getting to know them as well. One of my students brings me fruit and cookies, and for Teacher’s Day a mini-Bible. Laura is often hailed walking down the street with shouts of “Hola Profesora!” Most of the kids that go to the Kinder and Guarderia live in the surrounding neighborhood and their parents work in the market. This makes us feel more connected to the community.

At the Hogar, we have slowly been building relationships with the girls also. We walk with them to church every Sunday and spend some time afterwards talking with them. Though we do focus a lot of our attention on our god-daughter, Carmen, we also try to get to know the other girls. We have a few new facebook friends now and most of the girls, especially the younger ones, know our names. Laura also has the opportunity to teach 12 of the younger girls at the Kinder. She enjoys getting to see them out of the Hogar and their interactions with other kids. School and mass are basically the only times the girls come out of the Hogar.


For E-Mail Blog Subscribers

A note to all those who are receiving e-mail for this. We have put together fewer big, substantive posts that we think are worthy of sending out to everyone than we had originally imagined. Our original plan was to do one every few weeks, but this is only our third or fourth of them :-( So, based on popular demand, we’ve decided to change it so that if you’re on the e-mail list, you’ll get a message for all of our posts. We are averaging a bit more than one per week. If that’s too much for you, let me know and I can get you off the list. If you want to get on the list, follow this link or any time through the subscription link at the top of the screen. We hope you enjoy hearing about our adventures!

Class In Action

So here we are, teaching our first week of class in the new school year.  Its exciting, and more than a bit scary.  I am teaching a class for the first time in my life, and though it is on a topic I know very well (Introduction to Multimedia), its in Spanish, which I don’t know as well as I would like.  Also, I’m teaching from a text that I’ve spent the last three months writing myself (again in Spanish…with more than a little help from family/friends and google translate).  Finally, I’m teaching in a brand-new computer lab that one of the more computer savvy people at the institute and I had to put together from the ground up (and I’m still working the kinks out of)…financed by generous donations from so many awesome people!  So needless to say, there’s a lot going into this.

Sadly, it is starting off a little more slowly than I would have liked.  The vocational schools in Bolivia all start on Feb. 1, however, for the first two weeks of class, there are still students signing up!  My first day, I only had two students, but it has been growing steadily.  The problem is, however, that each time a new group of students starts the class, I have to go back and go over all the material I already covered…while trying to keep the students who were there on the first day engaged with other work.  Not the best scenario for a rookie teacher.

All in all, it has been a good experience.  The students seem interested in the material, and hungry to learn more about it, so that’s a good sign.

I’ve taken a few pictures with students using the lab, and have a short movie below.

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Get it in 720p.
Also on Youtube

And while I’m teaching this class, I also still need to finish up the last couple sections of the text…that we’ll be using in a few short months.

So that’s what’s been happening with me…now let’s hear from Laura:

After spending January preparing my materials to teach English at the Kinder, Madre Clara approached me and asked if I’d be willing to teach Computer class instead as their computer teach had not yet shown up.   Embracing the flexibility that Bolivia has taught me, I said no problem with a smile, put aside all my prepared materials and started over from scratch.  I spent that first week doing diagnostics of my computer lab- full of the best equipment 1995-1999 had to offer, which would be fine if they worked.  Tom taught me some basic computer disassembly and what wires to wiggle.  Who would have thought I’d come to Bolivia to learn how to repair computers? Of the 31 computers in there, so far 24 are functioning, which should be interesting when I have a class of 36 come in.   Basically my lesson plans involve teaching the parts of the computer, how to properly turn the computers on and off, and how to use the mouse.  They have a bunch of educational games they can play also and I’m going to show some movies and teach a little English too.  In a few weeks, I’ll start having two classes a day in there.

For now, I’m helping out in the classroom with 37 pre-Kinder kids, ages 4-5, as they have the hardest time adjusting to school.  Most of the time I’m chasing down kids trying to escape or calming kids having a melt-down.   One funny tidbit from the week:  Tom came over on Friday to help me film some students in the computer lab.  During the beginning of the day when all the students line up and sing songs, there was one boy having a particularly bad melt-down.  He had gotten himself so worked up he was throwing up his lunch all over the place and when a female teacher approached him, he looked spooked and ran.  He ran right to Tom, and clung.  Tom tried to take him to his professor and leave him there but he kept running back to him.  So after taking the kid to bathroom to clean him up, Tom had a shadow for about an hour.   Everybody was cracking up about it.  I guess the kid was a daddy’s-boy.

P.S. This is our 50th blog post! We hope you’ve enjoyed reading them :-)

Life in Montero

Life in Montero is beginning to have a certain rhythm to it after 4 weeks.  You can watch the movie below to see all the places that we live and work and read on if you’d like a more detailed look at a week in our life.

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to see this video.

You can also view it in 720p here or on YouTube.

We get up 6-7am, and eat breakfast in our kitchen, usually bread, jam, margarine and dulce de leche.   Then we get a little bit of computer time in before 8:30am.  At 8:30am Laura goes to the Guarderia (Day Care/Preschool) for the morning and Tom works on one of various photo or video editing projects that Madre Clara has assigned him, or he works on other odd jobs.  Around 12-12:30ish Laura picks up our lunch from the kitchen at the Guarderia and brings it back to our house (about a 200 ft walk).  Lunch is always soup, rice and a mixed-up mush of meat and vegetables (made for the kids).  Many days they supplement our lunch with extra chicken or vegetables however.   At 2pm it’s back to work.  Laura and Tom both go to the Kinder (kindergarten).  Tom has been working as the official Kinder photographer as well as helping out in computer classes for the kindergarteners.  Laura goes into different classrooms everyday to basically be a teaching assistant and learn how to run a classroom in Spanish.   At 5pm Kinder gets out and we go back to our house.  We eat dinner at 6:30-7ish, usually leftovers from lunch; we try to make it a smaller meal which is the custom here.   Then in the evening M, W, F there are classes over at the Institute that Tom might observe or help in and Tues and Thurs. we teach an English class together to high school and college students from 7:30-8:30pm at the Institute.   Otherwise evenings are spent relaxing or doing class prep.  Saturdays Tom is once again on call for Madre Clara which can mean any number of things from going shopping in Santa Cruz to filming a confirmation ceremony at the prison.  We also sometimes work on laundry in the mornings and then Laura prepares for IAM meetings.  Laura is in charge of a group of the Infancia and Adolescencia Misioneros at the pastoral center Saturdays 3-4pm.   Basically it’s a group of young people who pray together and read the Bible and play games.  We talk about how to be a Christian in the world and how we pray for all peoples around the world, because we’re all a family.   Then 4-5pm Laura stays around for “Seguidores de Cristo” which is a group of high school and young college students.   Saturday evenings has become movie night for us, and a chance to take a break from Spanish.  Sunday mornings we’re out of the house by 8:30am and head over to the orphanage to help take the girls to church.  This involves lots of hand-holding and yelling “Wait!” at intersections at the motorcycles fly by.   By 11:30am we’ve generally dropped the girls off back at the orphanage and then we start our actual “off time.”  But often Tom will still get conscripted to take video somewhere or there will be some celebration to attend at the pastoral center.  It’s hard to really get a full day off when there’s so much going on here.   And that’s a week in our life here!

All this is just the how things are for the time being. Classes are just getting out for the summer down here, so we’re expecting lots of changes in schedule in the next couple weeks. Then, when the next school year starts in February Tom will be teaching a lot at the Institute. There will definitely be a class on Graphic Design and Multimedia production (there is a lot of demand for these skills at the Newspaper/TV studios) and possibly a class in computer construction/repair and networking. Every afternoon Laura will be teaching english classes to the kindergarten students, and (probably) still working at the Guarderia in the mornings. We’ll be sure to give you an update once we actually start all that after the first of the year.

On a more personal note, we’re missing everybody a lot. Its tougher than just moving to a new city has been in the past, as all our cultural norms and customs changed along with our move. We’re on the internet fairly frequently, so if you ever see us on facebook, google, or skype don’t hesitate to say hi (also our old phone number 314-266-8359 still works, and is free).

Hope everyone is enjoying reading our blog!

Laura and Tom