Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Final Word

To everyone who spent a little time visiting this blog….thanks! Hearing from you (and knowing that there were probably a few silent readers out there!) helped me feel less disconnected from home and, no matter how much I was enjoying my time in Bolivia, that was always a good thing.

My travels aren’t done for the summer (right now I’m in California visiting family and then I’m off on a family vacation in Montana), but I’ll be back in Baltimore on August 19 to get ready for the start of classes (and the last year of my Master’s!) on August 29.

In the meantime...I’m beginning work on a goal I’ve set for myself: to get ballet shoes for each of the 25 girls at Corazón del Pastor. While I’d like to get dancewear companies to donate shoes, they might not be willing to help. With that in mind, I’m considering the possibility of fundraising for the purchase of shoes. If you’d like to make a donation toward the purchase of ballet slippers (which usually cost about $15/pair) or if you have a connection to a dancewear company, please get in touch with me at meros.meghan@gmail.com. Your help would be very much appreciated! You can also check out the website for the foundation that runs Corazón del Pastor and Pedacito de Cielo: http://www.ninosconvalor.org/. There you can find information about the work of the organization as well as information about making other kinds of donations, including donations that can be used for dance, music, and art classes.

Chau for now!


A parade in celebration of the foundaton of La Paz.

One of the CDP girls enjoying a good book

Wrapping Things Up in a Certain Way

As the sun rose a couple Fridays ago, I zipped up my bags, headed to the aiport with Dan, the director of the short term mission program, boarded a plane and, 45 minutes later, landed in La Paz. This signaled the beginning of my journey home, a journey that, during my time in Cochabamba, I had both looked forward and dreaded depending on how things were going on a particular day, but that I had also begun to feel was not urgent and not necessary, at least not yet. What I'm trying to say, I suppose, is that I could have stayed in Cochabamba longer. If classes weren't starting in a month, my life in Cochabamba could have rolled on for a while longer and I think I would have enjoyed it.

New city--La Paz!  Before heading back to the States, I got to explore for a couple of days.
 I even got to explore a bit outside the city....see below.
My time in Bolivia, you see, was markedly different from any other trip abroad. I wasn't a tourist, I wasn't a student, and I wasn't visiting family. Instead, I was, technically, a missionary. What does that mean? Well, I certainly didn’t go with the goal of converting people. For me, my time in Bolivia was been about presence and participation, and I think most (if not all) Maryknollers who stay in a country for a few years would say that those words also define their experiences as long-term missionaries. For all the negative connotations associated with the word “missionary” (especially in Latin America), “presence” and “participation” sit well with me, not only because my work in Bolivia really was about being present to people and participating in the life of my barrio and he city, but also because it allows for people from all walks of life to be missionaries. One does not need to be wealthy or from the United States to be present and participate. Almost anyone from any country can do it and success is almost always guaranteed.

In the Altiplano, about an hour outside of La Paz
My last week in Cochabamba was full of a lot of goodbyes, both to people I had gotten to know and to places as well. Some goodbyes were good, like the one to the shower that gave me electric shocks and to the tap water I could not drink. Other goodbyes were not so easy, in part because I felt I was saying goodbye to a lot of possibilities: the possibility of deepening frienships with people I had gotten to know, the possibility of seeing more of Bolivia, the possibility of eventually feeling self-assured in my work, of learning to barter well, of futher understanding Bolivian culture, of mastering Bolivian dance--the possiblities were truly endless.
Araceli, one of the girls who lives at Corazon del Pastor (CDP), liked to put on my hat and sunglasses and call herself "Meghan 3." ("Meghan 1" was the first Meghan-named volunteer to arrive at CDP, and Meghan 2 was me--the second to arrive.)  Araceli promises to fill in for Meghan 2 in her absence.

While I may yet have the chance to master Bolivian dancing in the States and while I certainly hope to stay in touch with the people I met in Bolivia, some of the possiblities mentioned above are probably better ascribed to the process of building a life in a country or doing longer term (as in years) mission work.

Moving to a different country is certainly more attractive than ever before, but my time in Bolivia was never about settling in for good. Instead, it was about being immersed in a new culture for a time and getting a taste of what cross-cultural mission is all about. Indeed, I think my yearning for more time in Bolivia is not only appropriate, but also far better than feeling like I've had enough of Bolivia and never want to return. For that reason, I suppose I am grateful for the bittersweet goodbyes and the reverse culture shock I'm experiencing now. At present, the challenge I face is that of continuing to nurture my relationship with the people of Bolivia, of staying connected with a culture that is not my own and with a country that is not only far away, but also very different from the U.S. I could push the challenge aside (it is, after all, not so hard to do now that I have re-entered the relatively cushy world of middle-class America), but I accept. With an open heart.

Last day at the home and my pointe shoes were as popular as ever. 
When I said goodbye, I left my shoes and toe pads at the home so the girls could keep on dancing.
An inhabitant of the Altiplano who resides at the Tiwanaku ruins. 
Maryknoll volunteers, sisters, and friends together for one last dinner
with an excellent dessert made my master baker and volunteer, Veronica Holland (sitting next to me)

My Barrio

I lived in a great neighborhood!  It took some getting used to and it certainly had its quirks, but the people were very friendly.  Take a tour with the help of my Flip camera...

Mad Libs--With Answers!

From the back of the chocolate bar:

"This unique alliance will surprise your taste buds.  As soon as you bite into the bar, a unique dance of textures and aromas starts: the intense, smooth dark chocolate will flirt with the crunchiness of the nibs and salt crystals.  The bitterness of the nibs enhances the intensity of the chocolate while the salt brings a feel of juiciness and freshness."

And the festival...?

Well, it was in celebration of duck, guinea pig, and chicha.  That's right.  Guinea pigs are food in Bolivia, not pets.  On menus, however, they're listed as "rabbit."  Go figure. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

Bolivian Mad Libs

You know those "Mad Libs" books?  The ones in which words have been left out of stories, articles, etc. and you have to fill in the blanks?  Well...we're going to play Mad Libs with the description of a gourmet chocolate.  The company that produces this chocolate, El Ceibo, is actually a cooperative and, judging from the very detailed and almost poetic desciption of their 77% dark chocolate with cocoa nibs and salt from the Bolivian salt flats, they have a good advertising/PR person who knows English really well.

Part of the description follows.  You fill in the blanks.  Answers will be forthcoming.

This unique (noun) will surprise your taste buds.  As soon as you bite into the bar, a unique (noun) of (plural noun) and (plural noun) starts: the intense, smooth dark chocolate will (verb) with the crunchiness of the nibs and salt crystals.  The bitterness of the nibs enhances the intensity of the chocolate while the salt brings a feel of (noun) and (noun).


This comes from a banner I saw in Cochabamba, advertising a festival that celebrates three things: Duck, Chicha (a kind of alcohol made from fermented corn), and ___________.  Think hard...what would you celebrate along with with duck and alcohol?

Last week, the girls took turns doing my hair
and I ended up with about 5 different styles in 1 hour.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Random Things I Must Report

Some things just don't fit into a normal blog post, like this video of Ken, missionary priest,calling people to mass with a bullhorn:


--A woman walked onto a micro (bus) carrying a fairly large, limp dog in her arms. Dead? Sedated? Sleeping? I guessed “sedated” and it turns out I was right: outside the micro window was a veterinarian’s office.

--As I sat in a trufi (collective taxi), waiting at a stoplight, I man came out into the intersection and started juggling knives. Good thing he left when the light turned green—someone might have gotten hurt.

--Our shower is heated by a coil inside the showerhead and there are exposed wires leading into it. A volunteer who no longer lives in the house said the showerhead caught fire once when it was turned on after not being used for a while. Thankfully, there have been no fires during my stay, but the shower has shocked me several times.

--Speaking of showers, the coil stopped working because it got too crusted over with minerals. My housemates mentioned that their showers were cold and, while I had hope that mine would be warm, the water was cold for me, too. So I bent my head over the shower and washed my hair. Then I took a sort-of sponge bath to deal with the rest of me. A couple days later, when it was time to shower again (yes, that’s right, I don’t shower every day in Bolivia) and I was going to go shower at the sisters’ house next door (it took a few days for our shower to get fixed), I woke up to find that neither house had running water! So…I boiled some of our drinking water from a bottle and, taking the pot of water into the bathroom, proceeded to not only bathe myself, but wash my hair and shave my legs. By dipping my head into the pot, I could get my hair wet, and by dipping my washcloth in the pot and squeezing out the water, I could get pretty wet overall. That “shower,” in fact, was the best one I had had in Bolivia before the showerhead was fixed!

The Cochabamba version of the Hard Rock Cafe

--One of the girls at the home I work at came up to me the other day and asked, in Spanish, ¿Qué significa “super hob”? (What does “super hob” mean?) “I have no idea,” I answered. “Where did you see that?” I asked. Well…the girl led me over to a poster on her bedroom door on which there was a sticker, in English, that said “Super Job.”

--On one of my first dancing days at the girls’ home, I brought a short, black chiffon skirt that I sometimes wear in ballet class over my tights and leotard. One of the girls found it in my bag, took it out, and proceeded to wrap it around her waist. “Bonita!” I said, and then went back to dancing. The next time I looked over at the girl, she was heading downstairs to show off the skirt to the other girls and the women who work at the home. Problem was, she had taken off her pants, and chiffon is see-through. Another girl saw and yelled out “Es transparente!”, but it was too late--the skirt-donning girl was off, proud as could be.

--Today, 16 people headed off to lunch in one, small SUV (meant for five passengers). I was among them. :)

--Willa and I were heading home in a taxi the other night and the driver, apparently, got bored with our company, grabbed a music video DVD out of his glove box, and stuck it in a portable DVD player sitting on his dashboard. We all had entertainment on the way home!
--A lot of stray dogs roam the neighborhood and Cochabamba, in general. If they get aggressive, just pretend like you’re going to throw a rock at them—it usually makes them go away.

--Some people in our neighborhood get rid of trash by burning it in little (unattended) piles by the side of the road.

--A lot of the girls at the home have significant communities of large lice living in their hair. Such an infestation, I have been told, is something that a lot of Cochabambinos just live with, in part because lice shampoo can be hard to come by and/or expensive. A couple weeks ago, one of the women who works at the home sat down with each of the lice-infested girls and bottle of rubbing alcohol. Her goal: to kill the lice with the alcohol and comb them out. She began this endeavor as many events with alcohol begin: with a toast. “Salud!” she said. “The lice are going to come out drunk!”

Saturday, July 9, 2011

El Campo=Space

Me in the campo--it was cold!

Last Saturday, one of the lay missioners took me and my housemates and to the campo. In Bolivia, “campo” can mean “space” as well as “countryside” and, when you venture out of the city, it’s easy to see why these words are related. In the campo—in the countryside—there is a lot of space, along with a lot of fresh air, mountains, animals, sweeping plains--so many things I hardly realized I was missing or missing out on until we actually left Cochabamba and started climbing higher into the hills.

The weather that day was quite unusual for this time of year: overcast, rainy, and cold (even colder at higher altitudes). Technically speaking, Bolivia, like any other country, experiences the four seasons. In general, however, sorting the seasons into two categories, wet and dry, tends to be more relevant since the climate is pretty temperate year round. Last Saturday, then, we found ourselves venturing out on a wet day in the dry season with a view of snow-covered mountains in the distance. It may have been rare for this time of year and it may have been slightly annoying to head out in the rain, but it was beautiful.

Our first stop was the town of Tiraque where we ended up at the mayor’s office to use the bathroom (essential, unless we wanted to use bushes for bathrooms the rest of the day) and pick up a woman, Maria, that Jason, our guide (and an engineer), has worked with on projects that give people in rural areas access to clean water and sanitation facilities. Maria needed to check on a couple projects in surrounding areas which gave us a great opportunity to see the projects for ourselves.

Both villages were accessed by dirt roads, and I’m really glad Maria knew where she was going, because there were no signs, and no sign of civilization off the main road. The first village we stopped at surely had a name, but I’m not sure what it was. Upon getting out the car, the colder air let us know we were not in Cochabamba anymore. Thankfully, Maria led us into the local meeting house (a concrete building that used to be a one-room schoolhouse) which provided some relief from the biting cold. Inside, the people from the village had gathered to discuss the pros and cons of building a composting toilet in their area as well as what kinds of bricks they would use if people voted in favor of the project.

You might be wondering, as I wondered myself, why wouldn’t someone want a composting toilet in a brick building if they don’t have access to other, good-quality sanitation facilities? Well, to begin with, people might be satisfied with what they have already. In addition, while the government and an organization called Water for People subsidizes the water/sanitation projects, local people who will benefit from a project also have to make a financial contribution and provide all manual labor. This changes the situation a bit, and requires that the community come together, discuss, and vote.

At this meeting, Maria led the discussion in Quechua, an indigenous language that, over the years, has pulled in some Spanish words. Maria asked the villagers to sort themselves into groups based on whether or not they wanted the toilet, and then asked that they move into groups based on what kind of brick they would like (if they wanted the toilet at all): adobe, “ladrillo ecológico” (a brick made with clay and formed with a machine), or some other kind of brick whose features I can’t remember.

As the villagers voiced their opinions, Maria wrote pros and cons on some paper that she had mounted on an old chalkboard and I looked around the room, taking in all the details made me feel, more strongly than at any other moment since arriving in Bolivia, that I was in the presence of people whose culture was very different from my own. More importantly, perhaps, I realized that I was their guest.

Some might say that poverty defined the differences between us. I have, after all, never lived without a toilet or running water and that fact probably has less to do with my culture and more to do with my parents’ socioeconomic status. Still, seeing everything through the lens of poverty inhibits one’s ability to recognize and appreciate the cultural gems that exist in a society and persist despite poverty.

Take the shoes of the women at the meeting, for example. They were, essentially, ballet flats made of plastic, kind of like those “jelly” shoes (anyone remember those?) that were made in the 90s—certainly not what I would consider appropriate footwear on a cold day in the campo. The women even wore those shoes without socks! Looking at their feet made my feet cold, and I felt bad for the women, thinking they didn’t have enough money to buy real shoes. I then realized, however, that many of the men were wearing rain boots. Hmmm…very curious. They had money to buy “proper” shoes. So what was up with the women? Poverty? Perhaps not. A kind of sexism that dictates what kind of footwear is appropriate for women or who gets the better shoes? Maybe. I don’t doubt that an outdated understanding of gender roles keeps many women from realizing their full potential in the campo, but I think the women’s choice of shoes was based more on what is fashionable and what goes well with the just-below-the-knee length skirt that is the dress of choice among indigenous women in this part of the country. Sitting in on the meeting, I was seeing a new culture--uncomfortable-looking shoes and all—and I had to respect that.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

I Am Your Prince!

Yup.  That's right.  I am your prince.  I may not be a man, but, when you work at a home for girls and try to act out a scene from a ballet, someone has to take the man's role. 

This is how it goes: I go to a corner of the room and get down on one knee.  My "princess"--whichever girl is trying on my pointe shoes at the moment--spots me from the opposite corner.  We make eye contact and I call out, "Mi princesa!  Te he esperado! (My princess!  I've waited for you!)."  My princess runs into my arms, lifts one leg, and I spin her around in a circle.  We then spot my castle in the distance, run around the room and then, becuase my princess and I are so happy to be together, we run a little bit more and I lift my princess into a great, big leap.  We don't act out the rest, but we know what follows: marriage, of course, and living happily ever after.

Who knew that this prince/princess sequence would become such a popular part of my dance time with the girls?  I certainly wouldn't have guessed, but we've done it over and over again.  By now, I supposed, I've found my one, true love 20 or 30 times! 

Today, however, the girls branched out a bit more (meaning no prince/princess sequence) and some of them began showing a real knack for certain movements.  A couple of them even do a pretty good job of walking, on pointe, in my pointe shoes, despite the fact that their feet are way too small.

Though I set out to teach dance classes, I can hardly say that my time with the girls constitutes a class.  We start out by stretching in an organized way, and then all sense of organization begins to deteriorate into a state of disorganization that is, perhaps, much better than anything I could ever plan.  Girls come and go, take turns trying on my pointe and flat shoes, ask me to explain certain movements, show me how far they can go down in the splits...it seems that we are in constant motion and it is all great fun.  See for yourself...

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Little Subraction, Part II: Tutoring

As part of the “apoyo escolar” (before/after school academic enrichment; literally “school support”) program that Maggie, one of the Maryknoll sisters, runs at the local parish, I’ve actually done some real subtraction in the last few weeks.

Children in Bolivia only go to school for half a day; some go from about 8 a.m.-12 p.m. while others go from 2 p.m.-6 p.m. Consequently, the program that Maggie coordinates also has a morning and afternoon session, in part to help children with their homework and in part to keep them from wandering the barrio or staying home alone when they’re not at school.

I began my time at the morning session a couple weeks ago by moving around to different children until I found that 6/7-year-old José David really needed help with subtracting multiple-digit numbers in problems that require borrowing. When I looked at his paper, most of his problems were wrong. Though I couldn’t remember all the vocabulary necessary for explaining math problems in Spanish, Maggie—and José David himself-- helped me fill in the blanks, and then José David and I were off, subtracting and borrowing our way through when seemed like a lot of problems. In reality, we didn’t do that many; José David just needed extra time to count on his fingers or use an abacus to subtract and I needed to remind him to borrow. By the end of the session, I was able to talk José David through a problem, and José David was able to do a few things on his own, but the test of our time together would come the next day. Would he remember anything we had done? Would he be able to subtract 1 from 9 without counting on his fingers?

Well…he remembered! José David showed up the next morning, came right over to me with his notebook, and actually looked eager to do math. While not any better at subtracting in his head, José David remembered how to borrow and he stayed focused for a long time. Pretty cool. :)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

So...We Think We Can Dance

This is what happens at Bolivian parties.

A Little Subtraction, Part 1: Robbery

I was robbed last Tuesday night and lost my camera and Bolivian cell phone. If I had been the victim of normal pickpocketing, I don’t think I would have felt quite so shaken, but the robber was pretty aggressive. Willa (one of my housemates) and I took a bus and planned to do a transfer on the edge of the market area (which is known for robberies). We've done this a lot and never have to wait for the next bus. Last Tuesday, however, was the Aymara New Year (aka the Winter Solstice or, in the States, the Summer Solstice), which President Evo Morales declared a public holiday sometime in the last few years. Therefore, public transportation wasn’t running normally and Willa and I ended up stranded where we had intended to transfer. A simple solution would have been to take a taxi, but there were no safe taxis around. (A “safe taxi” is a marked one, indicating that it is dispatched by a company. An “unsafe” taxi, at least at night, is one with a generic sticker that says “taxi” which people slap on their cars when they want to make money transporting people.)

This sign indicates the risk of wildfires in the national park near Cochabamba. 
It could also indicate the level of risk involved in being near the Cochabamba market
 at night, on a holiday, when not many taxis are around.

While waiting for a safe taxi, a man ran up and starting yanking at the camera bag I had around my neck. I thought it was inconspicuous/unattractive enough seeing as how it was small and I was holding it close to my body, but this man was not deterred. I tugged back and ended up on the ground, and then the guy ran away. Willa and I then looked more desperately for a marked taxi and, within a few minutes, the man reappeared and again pulled at my bag.

At that point I told Willa we just needed to leave, even if we had to do so on foot, and we began to walk in the direction of our home (which was a few miles away at that point). One of the men we passed exhorted us to escape because the thief was following. While I was grateful for the warning, that moment might actually have been the scariest part of the experience because I looked around and had no idea who was following us, where he might come, and when he might attack. There wasn’t much we could do, though, except continue walking.

Less than a block away, I asked Willa to lend me the sweater she had bought at the market earlier so that I might put it on and cover the camera bag but the thief appeared again, started yanking at my bag again, and would not let go. I ended up on the ground again (cussing a lot, I have to admit), and pulled back, in part to save my camera and in part to save my neck. The strap on my camera bag was thick, after all, and I did not relish the idea of being dragged, strangled, or cut.

On a certain level, I’m glad the plastic clasps on the bag broke and the thief got away. Ideally, the thief would have run away and not come back after the first robbery attempt but that didn’t happen. The man was aggressive, and he certainly didn’t care what happened to me.

In the end, Willa found us a safe taxi and we got back to our house. (I was so upset that I had stopped looking and was ready to walk all the way home.) I cried for a little while, called my travel insurance company to ask about making a claim, and then Willa and I went to visit the sisters next door for tea and, for lack of a better word, debriefing. The sisters told us stories about robberies/robbery attempts that they and their friends had experienced. These stories were strangely comforting, perhaps because they made me feel less stupid for having worn my camera bag on the outside of my clothes and more like I had joined the ranks of everybody else who lives in Cochabamba.

The rest of Tuesday night was pretty horrible in terms of sleep, but I’m better now. Still nervous at times, still a little spooked by quick movements in my direction, but better. I’ve lost a camera and a cell phone but I’m safe and--trying to look even more on the bright side—now that I’ve subtracted a camera from my possession, I can subtract a little weight from my bag in the face of increasingly strict weight restrictions on airlines. Yay. Just what I was looking for when Willa and I headed to the market Tuesday night.

We went up the mountain in the national park
(the most uninviting, unmarked national park I've ever seen)
and what do you think we saw?  A giant slide! 
A happy picture for a not so happy blog entry

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Tale of a Cake and My Face

Once upon a recent time, a woman named Meghan went to Bolivia.  She hoped the people there would be nice and, indeed, they did seem very nice!  Some of her new friends even took her out for lunch and dessert on June 15th, her 25th birthday, but the celebration did not end there for the following Sunday, one of Meghan's housemates made a journey to "Dumbo," the restaurant/bakery/ice cream parlor in downtown Cochabamba named after the same loveable elephant who once appeared in Disney movie, to purchase a birthday cake.  Later that evening, Meghan, her housemates, two Maryknoll sisters and a Maryknoll lay missionary sat down to enjoy their dessert, but the Maryknollers, so influenced by Bolivian culture which dictates pushing a person's face into their birthday cake, hatched an evil plan (*see disclaimer below) to push Meghan's face into her own cake!  And so it came to pass.  You can see the pictures below.  The end.
*Disclaimer: For the purpose of telling a good story, Meghan likes to blame the cake and face incident on the Maryknollers, but Meghan actually thought sticking her face into a cake sounded like fun.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Going to Prison

Was it the coca tea I frequently drink?  Was it the bootleg copies of The King's Speech and Julie and Julia that Willa and I bought around town?  Was it the fact I walked through the street spitting mandarin orange seeds onto the ground and, just yesterday, snuck in a few shots from the roof of the Santa Teresa convent (even though I was supposed to pay to take pictures on our tour)?  Nope. None of the above got me to prison. (FYI: coca tea and coca products that are not drugs are legal, Bolivian copyright laws only protect Bolivian work, seeds are just about the most innocuous thing you'll see on the ground here, and, as far the the convent picture-taking episode goes, well....I figure the nuns don't own the skyline)

An "illegal" picture
My two trips to prison this week were actually voluntary, part of the new work I'm trying out since I stopped working with the little kids.  So far, I like being at the prison more the than I liked being at Pedacito, despite the fact that there's not much to like about the prisons themselves. 

When you go to prison (involuntarily) in Bolivia, of some things you get far less than in the States, and of some things you get far more.  Let's start with the semi-positive: while in prison you get more time with your family and, in some senses, more freedom within the prison walls.  More time with your family, though, doesn't necessarily mean more visiting hours...it can mean that your children live with you because there is no real foster care system in Bolivia and you lack family that take on the role of caregiver. Your children go to school during the day, and come back to the prison in the afternoon.  You all live together in a cell. As far as more freedom is concerned, I suppose I can't make detailed comparisons since I've never visited a U.S. prison, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't looke like a market inside and that, essentially, is what the patio of the women's prison looked like.  People congregated around plastic tables and chairs, children wandered around, and women sold things from alcoves and stands around the patio.  Someone was even walking around with a pan of bread...I could have bought myself a snack!  No one, from what I could see, was "behind bars"--that concept didn't even seem to exist.

Far less positive is the overcrowding, the long waits (usually two years) for trials, the sentences that don't fit the crimes, and the fact that prisoners are entitled to nothing, not even a bed or a cell.  That's right.  If you don't want to sleep on a mattress in the central patio, you have to pay.  You have to pay for everything, in fact, including food, medicine, and other basics like toilet paper.  You are given a stipend of about 6 Bolivianos/day, but 6 Bolivianos is less than a dollar. So how to do you make money?  Well...if you're a woman, you can do laundry (people actually drop their laundry off at the prison), knit things, make crafts.  If you're a man you can do craft things too, but you can also make furniture (which someone will haul out to the plaza in front of the prison so that people can browse and buy) or grills.

It's a different system, to say the least.  My role in it on Tuesday was as part of a group that went to one of the men's prisons to weigh/measure young children and give out milk and vitamins.  In the end, Hermana Maria Angeles, the nun in charge of prison ministry for the archdiocese, put me to work handing out used, donated shoes.  I was under strict orders, though, to not give out shoes unless a child had tried them on and unless they fit.  This proved harder than I thought it would be because fathers and children alike wanted whatever shoes they could get, even if a kid's toe was at the end of the shoe. It was difficult to say "no" a lot but, since every child I met had some kind of shoes on their feet already, I do think it was better to give the shoes to kids who would find them comfortable, at least for a little while.

Today, I didn't do much at the prison.  I just went for mass and met some of the women.  Mass was in the patio and it was nearly impossible to hear because the priest had no microphone, but a number of women showed up and took at seat on the plastic chairs (advertising Coca Cola) while several more looked on from the side.  As we sat there, my mind wandered...I wanted to know what the women thought of the mass, what they thought of life in prison, what they thought of life in general.  I'll let you know if I ever find out.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

"Vaca," No "Caca" (No More)

On the bus--I'm not too hard to find.
Yesterday, I ended my work at Pedacito de Cielo (the home for children 0-5 years) because I learned something very important during the 17 hours I spent there this week: working full-time with small children is not for me.  I can take small children in small doses.  I can even enjoy small children in small doses, but I can not be with them all the time (and not for shifts of 7 or 11 hours). My tolerance might actually be inversely proportional to the number of children in the group...more children, less tolerance.  Fewer children, more tolerance.  The number of children at Pedacito is fixed, however, and by Friday evening, as I sat in the dark of one of Pedacito's bedrooms trying to make sure that the kids went to sleep and didn't crawl out of bed, I decided that I couldn't continue with my work there, not even for five weeks.  The chaos there--and the need to be "on" all the time--did me in. 

Now, I don't want to give a false impression of the state of the home.  Considering the resources available, I think the women who work at Pedacito full-time do a good job (and a better job than I could probably do if Pedacito became my career).  Some moments of chaos were inevitable.  Nonetheless, some chaos probably could have been prevented--like the hour of chaose before bedtime in which the kids were running around like crazy, sticking their fingers into each other's butt cracks, and coming very close to stepping on the baby who was laying on the floor (and whom I was told not to touch so that he wouldn't become too attached to anyone before he went to bed).  An alternative?  Read.  At least two children were interested in the story I started and if each adult had sat down with a book, I think whole house would have been calmer.  Still, I can't know for certain, and I can't throw stones. I just know that I would have dreaded my remaining five weeks here if I had remained at Pedacito.

Thankfully, the director of the Maryknoll short term mission volunteer program was very understanding of my desire to leave and said that there are a lot of other things to get involved in here.  This coming week, then, I'll be trying out some other kinds of work and piecing together a more part-time schedule.  Adjusting to life here takes a lot of energy and can be draining, so even if I really wanted to work with little kids, I probably couldn't do it for a full forty hours per week, at least not so soon after my arrival.

Despite the fact that I will no longer be returning to Pedacito, I'm glad I gave it a try.  There were plenty of memorable moments--some good, some bad--and I've acquired some stories I'll probably be telling for a while.  (I also acquired some good self-knowledge that will be most helpful the next time I have the opportunity to work with kids.)

A couple funny stories can be lumped together by one theme: poop.  Potty humor, for the most part, is not my thing. When you work with little kids, however, poop--or the possiblity of poop--is always with you, and so I turn once again to the title of my blog entry: "Vaca, no caca" was actually what a "tia" ("aunt" in Spanish and what the children call the adults who work at the home) said to one of the kids when they were learning the names of different animals.  The tia would point to a picture of an animal and the children would repeat.  We learned about "patos" (ducks), "gatos" (cats), "ovejas" (sheep), and several other animals, including "vacas" (cows).  Someone, though, repeated "caca" instead of "vaca," which prompted the tia to say, in a somewhat reproachful tone: "Vaca, no caca."  It was the funniest part of the day!

On Saturday, poop was an especially prominent theme.  After lunch, Willa (one of my housemates) and I were told to take the youngest three children to the bathroom, sit them on their little baby potties, and not let them get up until they had pooped.  (This, apparently, was to ensure that they wouldn't poop in their diapers.)  I honestly don't know how long we stood there or how many times I said (following the lead of the tias) "Haz caca" (Poop.), "No puedes levantarte hasta que hagas caca" (You can't get up until you poop.), or "Has hecho caca?" (Have you pooped?), but the whole event culminated in only one of three children doing their "duty."  Santiago, one of the other kids, just crossed his legs like his potty was a La-Z-Boy and José
 (the youngest) ended up sticking his hands in what Matias had left in his potty. 

These are the three who had a duty to do.

A couple hours later, Willa and I left.    Our parting shot of the kids?  Try hard to picture this: all 12 children and 5 adults piled into 1 minivan with 1 taxi driver on their way to an event at which some of the children were going to perform a dance.  I waved goodbye enthusiastically.

Matias and I got along very well (and not only when he was sleeping!)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The light before the...?

For all my light-hearted blog entries about “no urinating” signs and landing on water, there’s some serious stuff going on here: a strike at the university, a hunger strike at the bank, women begging on the streets, children living with abuse. Though I’m not sure I’ll ever get to know the strikers or the women, or the myriad other groups longing and working for change, I will get to know the children, at least some of them.

Tomorrow, I start work at two children’s homes: Pedacito del Cielo (a home for children up to age five) and Corazón del Pastor (a home for girls ages 5-18). Both homes take in abused, abandoned, and orphaned children (as well as children whose parents, for one reason or another, can’t support them for a time) and have a special interest in helping children with HIV/AIDS. For now, most of my time will be spent at Pedacito del Cielo (PDC). When the girls go on winter break in a few weeks, though, I’ll be teaching them dance!

This is what I’m most looking forward to. Cochabamba is new to me. Bolivian culture is new to me. These children will be new to me, but dance will not be. It’s my portable comfort zone. More importantly, I think dance is something the girls and will be able to share. Sure, I’ll be stepping into a teacher role and facilitating “class” (whatever that my look like), but I have no doubt that I’ll walk away from the experience having learned a thing or two from the girls. Each individual, after all, moves in their own way, and so does every culture. Dance, like language, is a form of communication.

Tomorrow, then, marks the end of my “insulated” time in Bolivia, the end of living like a tourist, disengaged from the community that surrounds me. This time hasn’t been bad; at moments, I’ve even seen it as the light before the dark, a preservation of my comfortable way of life before opening myself up to the lives of children who face darker challenges then the ones I faced as a child. I’ve begun to wonder, though, what this does to me…that is, how considering something potentially dark and depressing affects my ability to be open what is good and joyful. So…I’m changing my way of thinking. This is not the light before the dark, but rather the light before the question mark or, as the title of this blog entry states, “The light before the…?”

Monday, June 6, 2011

I've Seen Jesus!

That's right.  I've seen him.  He's tall, very pale, and rather stiff, if you ask me.  See for yourself in the picture below:

Okay, okay--this isn't really Jesus, just the Cristo de la Concordia statue modeled after the one in Rio.  You may think the statue is Rio is more impressive, seeing as how it looms over the ocean and all, but remember: the Cristo in Cochabamba is taller!  It's the tallest Cristo in the world! Take that, Brazil.

The brave and strong can hike up the 1200+ stairs to the Cristo.  Some Maryknoll langugage institute students in my group did it, but, because of some bug that's attacked my GI system over the last 24 hours, I'm not feeling so strong right now and I took the teleferico instead of the stairs.

Once you get to the base of the Cristo, you can pay 1.5 Bolivianos (7 Bolivianos=$1) and climb more stairs inside the statue.  Now, if you think the inside of the Cristo sounds like a great place to go to the bathroom, you're not alone.  Apparently, peeing inside the statue has been a problem, and a sign warns you of a 50 Boliviano fine for relieving yourself on the way up the stairs.  So don't do it! It's not worth it! You can buy yourself a nice dinner for 50 Bolivianos (and you'll find yourself a nice bathroom at the restaurant).

Stairs inside the statue (with "no urinating" sign on right)

View of Cochabamba from the Cristo

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Crossing the Street: This Is How You Do It

Making our way through the "Cancha" market...

Friday, June 3, 2011

If You See An Ocean, You're Not in Bolivia

Of course I know Bolivia is a landlocked country. That didn’t matter, however, when I fell asleep on my overnight flight from Miami to La Paz. In my dreams, we approached La Paz flying over the ocean. It was beautiful, actually: bright, sunny, sparkling waves, impressive skyline. We flew rather close to the water, but this didn't concern me because, in my dream, flying low was simply part and parcel of arriving in La Paz. The pilot, however, brought the plane a little too low and a large wave came up to meet us, lifting the plane as if it was a surfboard.

Though water began to fill the plane, no one, including myself, was afraid, only slightly annoyed at what we had to do: gather our belongings, put on lifejackets, and evacuate. I considered leaving some things behind to evacuate quicker, but I hated the thought of my laptop getting destroyed and hastily gathered my things before heading to the airplane door and exiting via yellow emergency escape slide.

Once outside the plane, we walked the rest of the way to the airport, trudging through the surf. Laptop in hand I explained to some guy walking beside me that I thought something like this would happen and that I regretted not putting my laptop in a plastic bag to safeguard it from the water.

At that point, I woke up and found that, despite the plane still being up in the air and my laptop resting safe in my bag, my surroundings were not nearly as nice as in my dream. Outside, it was dark and, inside the plane, I was sandwiched between the window and a stocky man whose left elbow had been encroaching on my personal space all night. In addition, my mouth had that waking-up-in-the-morning taste and my inflatable neck pillow had a hole in it. Fabulous.

Nonetheless, seeing the city lights below made reality more tolerable and, soon after, we landed. When the sun rose, I looked out of the airport windows and saw…mountains. No ocean. No swimming required. Seemed like I was in La Paz…if I needed more proof, all I had to do was breath. With La Paz sitting 13,500 feet above sea level, feeling like I had suddenly developed a heart condition (that left me dizzy and breathless) was another sure sign that I was well on my way to Cochabamba.

**I took this picture as I flew out of La Paz, en route to Santa Cruz (where I caught a flight to Cochabamba).