Monday, December 27, 2010

Massive Photo Dump!!!

As always, I have tons to say and not enough time to say it. Good thing a picture is worth a thousand words. Now you have an entire library to sift through while you wait for me to update you on...
Changes in our workload
New little members of our family
New little members of my blood family
And a whole lot more...though not necessarily in that order.

In the meantime...enjoy!


October 10

Cosechando Talentos / Hogar Maria Auxiliadora y Revolution Jazz Dance

Christmas 2010!

December 10

Monday, December 6, 2010

If you haven't heard yet...

So I have some really exciting news that's only about three weeks old. Whoops. See, it was so exciting that I called my family, baked banana cookies, smothered these little ones in hugs and kisses, and called it a day. Now I realize that the blog post I intended to write was never written (see how convenient the passive voice is, I don't have to take responsibility for my poor communication).

Here we go...brace yourselves...(getting to break the news a second time is way too much fun!)

All of the girls from first through seventh grade...(I have no way to effectively pull off a dramatic pause in writing)...every single one of them...(I swear I really will tell you now)... passed! In every subject!!!

I know. I know. Whoopdidoo, right? But seriously, last year at this time, when I started teaching summer classes in the hogar, every one of them had failed at least one subject, if not the entire grade. They were out of control behaviorally, embarrassed and self-concious, hostile towards their peers, their teachers, and me during their classes, and shockingly behind their peers academically. That was one year ago.

I got to tell the eight girls I work most intensively with myself and I wish I could have preserved that moment somehow. Even the too-cool ten year olds squealed and giggled and hugged eachother. That is, after they kept asking me "are you SURE? Did my teacher know you guys were talking about ME?" That's right my little friend, we most definitely were talking about YOU and how smart I always told you you are!!!

I wish I could express what an incredible turn around this is, how proud I am of the girls, how positively this impacts their self-esteem, what a dramatic difference it makes to set them back on course while they're young, etc. This also has such a great impact on the hogar. The older girls were shocked too, and had to rethink the way they talk about the little ones like they're dumb. Both inside and outside the hogar, we got a chance to show what these girls are capable of and I pray the effects will continue in to the next school year, which begins in February.

This was also a really wonderful moment for me, not just through the empathetic celebration I get to have with the girls. A lot of people have a very romanticized view of orphanages. The truth is, the kids can be really tough. Trying to take on their educational needs has been a rough road and there are many days, sitting through time-outs, getting sassed by fourth graders, searching for my students hidden under their beds, sitting through dismal meetings with teachers, when I felt defeated, racking my brain for a sixth new way to respond to "I don't get it".

But I kept reminding myself that if I gave up on this task, I was giving up on these girls. No matter how much they fought back I wanted them to know that I believed in their ability to succeed, even if most days it seemed they wished that I didn't. Every person has value, and every one of these girls deserves the chance to see what she's capable of. And they did it!! The struggle through the school year was not in vain because these girls, unbeknownst to them, are diamonds in the rough. It is such a blessing to be able to polish them up and show them that!

And now we're in the lazy days of summer break. The little ones are practicing reading and basic math every day and the older elementary students have a one-hour class each weekday to keep their hard-won skills fresh and that's about it. It's nowhere near the exhausting marathon of classes and tutoring and tantrums that it was throughout the entire last year beginning with summer break, especially when divided between my new site-partner Mary Pat and I. At first I felt a little guilty about all the new free time, but looking back over the year I think we ALL deserve a little rest.

God has answered my prayers for these girls and blessed me trumendously by allowing me to see the fruits of this challenging year! My prayer for you all is that, at least once in your professional or vocational life, you have a moment like this that affirms the beliefs and hopes that push you onward every day.

And just think...if I had left in August I would have missed it!

Embrace the Absurd...RIP Choca

While I can say without a doubt that living in Bolivia has so far made me a more compassionate person, I have to admit that it has desensitized me to some of the more challenging aspects of daily living. As a result, my sense of humor, which was a little on the dark side to begin with, may have crossed in to completely warped by now. It’s not just me. I remember months ago hearing the mother superior talk about her aunt who had cancer. She was talking with someone whose family member was ill and in her even, motherly tone, said something to this effect:

Well first, she had radiation, that was pretty tough.
Then she had to have chemotherapy.
Then she had surgery.
And then…she died anyway! Bahahaha!

To my shock the whole table burst in to laughter along with her. Including the woman she intended to console.

I guess when you live surrounded by violence and hardship and political turmoil, there’s not much else you can do but turn “twisted”. That said, I have a story that may only be funny to me…or anyone else who has spent “too much” time in the third world.

Last week the neighbor poisoned our dog. Don’t worry, that’s not the funny part. Choca was a nearly-perpetually pregnant stray who hung around the hogar. The girls decided years ago that she belonged to them in a way, so they were pretty upset (though not as traumatized as I would have expected) to see her dying, rolling her head through the muddy water in the nearly empty drainage ditch beside the road last Saturday. The whole ordeal didn’t last long, but it wasn’t pretty so I’ll spare you the details. Turns out the neighbors had poisoned her because she bothered them at night.

That afternoon started a subtle face-off. Who could out-wait who? Neither the hogar who had somewhat claimed the dog, nor the neighbors who killed her, wanted to fish her bloated and wet body out of the ditch. My English student, a fruit farmer from a remote community outside Cochabamba, came for class the next day and walked through the door with his nose wrinkled up. The monotonous tone of the conversation, in retrospect, was probably the most bizarre part.

Did you know there’s a dead dog out there?
Oh that? Yeah. The neighbors poisoned her.
Oh, I see. Did you see her dying?
Yeah, it was pretty awful, but quick.
Well, if you saw her dying, why didn’t you coax her in to a big rice sack then so you wouldn’t have to deal with the body later?

Let's just take a moment to visualize this suggestion...

Maybe you’ve been in Bolivia too long when your first reaction isn’t “what! That’s terrible!” but rather “do we even have a sack that big?”

The sisters assured us that one good rain will just wash it away. They seem to have forgotten that a: we’re entering a state of disaster due to the current drought. And b: The body will still be there, decomposing in someone’s yard, even if we can’t see it anymore.

Fortunately , the next day the girls commented that the neighbor and some little boys were messing with the dog. I figured it was the neighbor who killed the dog finally taking responsibility for the situation and was relieved to see the ditch dog-free that evening. Yet I had an almost superstitious suspicion that if I glanced over there I would still see the corpse rotting in the mud and tried not to look too hard when I came in and out of the hogar. After giving in a few times I noticed something strange. I kept it to myself for a few days until I was good and sure, then I broke the news to Mary Pat. If you look carefully, it’s obvious that one of the mud mounds in the ditch is beginning to reveal a few tufts of rotting fur.

That’s right, Choca IS haunting me. Instead of cleaning things up, the neighbors were simply packing her in to a little mud coffin and praying for rain. Maybe Romulo was on to something with the rice sack. Mary Pat and I fell over laughing and the absolutely ridiculousness of the entire ordeal, proving that fitting in to polite society once again in the US is going to be quite a challenge.

Let’s recap: In Bolivia…
If a dog is bothersome at night you should: poison her in front of dozens of children
If you notice said dog dying you should: save yourself the trouble of dealing with the body later by throwing some chicken feet in a rice sack and congratulating yourself for planning ahead.
If Plan A falls through, resort to plan B: pile mud over the body until you’re able to trick the neighborhood for over a week in to believing their rotting animal problems are taken care of.
When Plan B falls through, resort to plan C: Pray for enough rain to wash the heap down the way, far enough to become someone else’s problem.
When in doubt: forget about the morbidity of the situation and enjoy its pure absurdity instead.

One more magic Bolivia moment that maybe shouldn’t be funny…

A few weeks ago the aunt and uncle of two of the girls came to visit from another remote community in the Amazonian area of Bolivia. They had heard that the older sister had recently fainted a few times, though we’re still not sure why. “she used to do that sometimes when she was little. But someone in the town told us what to do and it worked, so we brought this.” The uncle said…then he held up a bag of live baby bats.

Ummm…what are we supposed to do with a bag a live baby bats? The exact instructions he gave us were to “peel and juice them” and have her drink it.

Again, just take a little moment to savor this situation.

I was beyond thankful when Hna. Leticia told him he was welcome to “peel and juice” whatever he wanted, but we were not about to take charge of this bag of bats, or persuading a sixteen year old girl to chug that concoction.

Oh, Bolivia. Sixteen months in and you keep on surprising me.

Monday, November 8, 2010

more dancing adventures

This month I had another chance to help out some students in the high school with a dance performance. As you may remember, the last project I helped with was for Dia de Maria Auxiliadora. Every grade in the school prepared a special performance of some sort to honor Mary Help of Christians, and the seniors chose to rewrite the lyrics to Hijo de La Luna, a song about the moon having a human child, which sends the mother’s husband in to a violent jealous rage, to honor Mary while they danced the waltz. Yes, you read that correctly. Believe it or not…they actually pulled it off. The students are so creative and I’m always amazed how willing they are to try something new, especially when it comes to dance.

I remember in high school how many people would laugh off the idea of dancing, especially in front of the school or community, with the typical “oh no…I’m not a dancer.” That attitude is hard to encounter here in our students, even amongst the uncoordinated or the particularly “macho”. In Bolivia, there are no “dancers” and “nondancers,” Just people. And Bolivia and I agree on the point that all people were born to dance in some way.

I should have had a little more faith in these kids this time around, but I have to admit I was worried. Before you scold me for underestimating them, let me explain…

A few weeks ago I was at the school for a parent-teacher conference when one of the high school teachers asked me if I had some extra time to help some sophomore girls with a dance they were putting together. She had seen me dance in the church before and said she needed some slow graceful steps for the girls, who would be dancing as “maidens” and planting seeds. I’ve stopped trying to guess about things like this, and even asking doesn’t get me far (Why are they constructing a huge swing in the road outside the church? Because cholitas or going to swing on it? Why? Because it’s November. Ah yes…of course, why did I even ask?). So I agreed (of course…maidens planting seeds…got it), and two days later one of the girls brought home the music. I put it in the cd player, pressed play, and was instantly assaulted by the worst music I had ever heard. It was essentially the same drab eight count repeated over and over. The only variation was thanks to the periodic switch between what sounded like a recorder, and a cheap keyboard set to “harpsichord”. It probably takes a special effort to produce music that creates new levels of awful, yet still manages to be painfully boring. And I get to make this fun for a few high school “maidens” dancing ballet for the first time?

As Hna. Leti would say “Gracias, Señor! For this wonderful new challenge!”

A few days later I had done the best I could to come up with some simple choreography for the girls. When the class arrived to practice, I was surprised to see not just the eight girls file in, but about a dozen young men and women as well. Okay…this was not part of the plan.

“So…why don’t you tell me a little more about this piece” I prompted the teacher.
“Well…” she began, “it’s for the environmental awareness fair at the end of the month. We’re going to be dancing about pollution. First, the girls will dance, and sow the forest. Then all these kids will dance. You’ll have to teach them some ballet too.”
“and they are…?” I started, bracing myself for what I knew was about to come out of her mouth.
“trees. I want them to dance ballet…but they can’t move around or anything like that.”
“okay…is that all?”
“Well, that girl’s a butterfly, and those two kids are birds”
Yes! Okay! Here’s my glimmer of hope! Butterflies and birds! They can move around and distract from the miserable trees attempting to dance ballet without actually ever moving their feet. Oh, but wait…
“The butterfly has really big wings. Like bigger than her, so she can’t really move too much. And birds, of course, belong in nests, so they have to stand on tables the whole time.”

Okay…let’s review…I now have the pleasure of finding a way to make something educational, entertaining, and not humiliating out of:

Eight dancing “maidens”
A dozen trees
A butterfly too hindered by her own wings to do anything
Two birds prohibited from flying
Music that was only burned on a CD because nobody would believe something that terrible existed without recorded proof.
Gracias, Señor, for this wonderful new challenge!

I did what I could, which, thanks to the enthusiasm and open mindedness of the students, turned out to be a fair amount. But when I saw the finished piece at the environmental expo, I was blown away. I should have known these kids would take something awkward, add all the flourishes, and make it part of something spectacular.

They opened with the ballet section. They had made some pretty amazing costumes, complete with face paint, and even gone so far as to turn the basketball hoops in to massive trees for the birds to dance in and fasten a few extra branches to the heads of our dancing forest. They really threw themselves in to the steps and made it look pretty darn good.

As the dancing forest finished up, the wind came in to wreak havoc (I didn’t have the heart to point out that wind, though destructive, isn’t a source of pollution) amongst smoke bombs and handfuls leaves flung by the waiting cast members.
Then came (dun dun dun!!) the garbage. Decked out in full recycled costumes (newspapers cut in to fringe, entire suits made of plastic bags, etc) and some pretty sick looking face paint, they crept in, some of them half swimming belly down on skateboards, to terrorize the forest. They pulled out some huge jump ropes and launched in to a sweet jump rope routine that lasted several minutes before…of course…transitioning to Michael Jackson.

I should have realized that this project would be a success simply because all dance related performances manage to incorporate Michael Jackson in some way. Anyway, the boys came in and rocked it.

Finally, a tight circle of guys shuffled in with their heads bowed together, while the music changed, promising something epic. They leaned back, spiraling open and balancing on each others’ stomachs until their bodies from the knees up were parallel to the ground. Completely unanticipated, a kid in a metallic hockey mask came crawling out of the circle like some sort of alien creature to deliver one of the most terrifying “don’t litter” messages I’ve ever witnessed.
To close, of course, the group lapsed back in to Michael Jackson to celebrate the rebirth of the forest.

You’d think I would have learned by now. Just because I don’t “get it” at first doesn’t mean it’s a waste. Congrats to our students on their hard work and creativity…and for proving me wrong once again.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

snapshots September/October

Here are just a few quick snapshots of what’s been going on over the last month or so…

I spent a few days teaching one of the classes at my dance academy as the “guest united states folkloric dance instructor.” In other words…I choreographed and taught some swing (primarily east coast and charlston, as Sing Sing is too fast for lindy) that Luis worked in to one of their dances. It was such a blast! He students had honestly never seen anything like it and it was amazing to realize how much our culture influences the way we move and keep rhythm and interpret music. They really went for it though and they look great. Students from other classes crowded around the door trying to see what was going on and I had a lot of fun sharing a little piece of my culture with them.

Three of the girls, a young teenager and another pair of elementary age sisters learned this week that their fathers had passed away, one a year ago and the other three years ago. Although they obviously haven’t been in contact with their fathers for quite some time, it’s still devastating to lose the only family member you have left. It’s particularly infuriating for me that no one took the time to inform the hogar so these girls could learn why it had been so long since hearing from their dads. It will now be possible for a family to adopt the young sisters and we’re praying someone comes along and invites them in to their family.
I have discovered an incredibly effective reward for the girls I work with. If they work well all week, on Saturday afternoon they get to make play dough. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier when we started doing Saturday rewards. I’ll post a few pictures soon of some of our reward days, making play dough, playing soccer in the park, hiking to the church in the next town over. The girls are always so excited and proud of themselves for earning their reward that week.

Yesterday I was working with one of my first graders, who started out the year throwing hour long tantrums until she fell asleep on the floor if she so much as saw you coming near her with a book or a pencil in your hand. Yesterday she was working calmly, grinning as she finished reading each sentence in her work book. After we read together we practiced spelling by having her draw a picture of a little girl, then picking parts of her face and body to label. She finished each one on her own, clapping her hands to separate the syllables and spelling each sound out one by one. When she finished the last word on the board and I told her she had spelt that one correctly too, she grabbed my hand, started jumping up and down, and shouted, “Amber! Amber! I did it! Do you see? I know how to spell, I can spell!” I was so overwhelmed by how happy and proud she was, and by how far she had come in so many ways over this school year. In that moment it felt so clear to me why I’m here in Bolivia, both for them and for myself.

The president, in a moment of vengeful anger, kneed another Bolivian politician in the groin during a “friendly” soccer game. Youtube it, it’s brutal. I have so very much to say about Bolivian politics, but will save it for today.
I am still amused by how casually people talk about weight, appearance, and race. Two examples:
At dance yesterday, we started working on an African-inspired piece. My teacher just kept yelling “blacker! Blacker! Come on, you need to be blacker than Michael Jackson!”

Yesterday the sisters were talking about checking their pulse. A few couldn’t find there’s on their wrist, so I was showing one of the aspirants how to check her pulse on her neck. “I still can’t find it!” she was complaining, when one of the older sisters said, in an even and almost distracted voice, “Oh Nilda, you’re very fat.” causing everyone in the room, including Nilda, to laugh hysterically.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Yesterday-today: Family

A year ago I wrote: “I think a lot about how tragic it is that these girls grow up without anyone delighting in every new step of their life. No one marveled at their tiny hands or taught them how to ride a bike or took them to the zoo and laughed with them at the monkies. No one hung their first book report on the fridge or asked about the boy that keeps stopping by. I know the hogar does a great job of preparing these girls for life beyond the hogar and making them feel at home and part of a family, but I can’t help but think how things would be different if constant, unvarying people savored every second of life with these girls from their first breath on.” (September 6, 2009)

Although I have had a lot of wonderful opportunities to delight in these girls, to try to make them feel loved and special, and to celebrate their growth, I revisit this same sentiment over and over.

This week I wrote: “Tonight I witnessed a child become an orphan. She was passed from her mother’s arms in to Doña Emmy’s and we carried her away to begin her new life alone, completely ignorant of the terrible loss she had just suffered as she slept. Her mother, a child herself, disappeared, covering her tears and carrying nothing but her secrets. I cannot find words to explain what I have just witnessed. This little girls’ world just passed away as she slept. She had a name, a mother, a history, a birthdate, that all suddenly melted away in the chatter and cold of the bus terminal. She’s so tiny, just a week old, and even her identity is at the mercy of others. I, having seen her mother’s tears roll down her cheeks, know more about her origin than she ever will.” (September 4, 2010)

We would love to think that family is an indestructible fortress; that we can always take refuge in, at the very least, the bonds between parent and child. There’s no way to soften the truth: that shame, poverty, jealousy, violence, illness, desperation, substance abuse, and any number of circumstances can shake a family apart.

Today I answered the door to a woman with scratches on her face and a sleeping little boy in her arms. She and her husband fought, frequently and violently, and she didn’t know what to do to protect her son. She needed to work, but wanted her son to be safely out of reach for longer than the free day care run by the sisters was open. She wanted her son to live with us Monday through Friday, and with her on the weekends. No hogar can take a child that hasn’t been given up to child services, while no internado (temporary boarding home) will take a child that young. Should she abandon her child to the state in hopes of protecting him, or keep him at her side despite the danger?

There’s a little girl, about ten years old who lives down the road and stops by to visit me sometimes. Her parents fight over whether they should send her to live here or not. Her dad argues that she’ll be better fed and cared for here, while her mom worries about who will take care of her younger siblings during the work day if she goes.

Despite the terribly discouraging reality these little ones face, I find hope in stories of familial resiliency and sacrifice.

One of my dearest friends here in Bolivia, at twenty-one, is moving out of the transition home connected to the hogar to assume guardianship for her twelve year old brother who lives in a boy’s orphanage in Cochabamba. She knows it’s going to be tough, especially as she finishes her social work degree, but she’s determined to give him the life her mother couldn’t.

Last weekend Hna. Anglita went to find the family of a young woman with traumatic brain injury abandoned when she was twelve years old. They stopped in the little town listed on the few documents she had, and began to search. That very day she was crying in the arms of her father, meeting siblings she never knew she had, and resuming life with a family she hadn’t seen in over twelve years. The family welcomed her with open arms. After her mother died, her aunt brought her to an orphanage, hoping she would be brought to a center for children with special needs due to brain damage suffered as a very young child. Later, when the aunt returned to Santa Cruz, she told the family that this little girl could not be reunited with her parents or even visited in the hogar. She disappeared to Argentina and the family had no idea where to begin searching for the girl. Now, having spent half her life alone, her family has been restored to her, and she to her family.

That’s all for today.
Now go call your parents.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

yesterday/today: Displacement

A year ago today I wrote in my journal: “displacement makes me moody”

This was an understatement. Sometime during that week I remember cussing out a turtle because it was big and different and not like US pets. Also, I was certain that if it spoke, it would speak Spanish like the parrot and somehow this made me angrier. Don’t judge me.

Displacement does indeed intensify your day to day experiences. That same day I wrote that it felt as if “besitos (little kisses) from four year olds could heal the world, while a quiet table at dinner could send me running home.” Everything was new and different and all the tools I once had to keep myself at equilibrium had suddenly vanished. This shone a spotlight on all my weaknesses and vulnerabilities. If I was impatient or insecure or attention-seeking before, it was only amplified by the experience of displacement.

I think that displacement is God’s way of snatching us out of the usual routine and distractions and excuses that we were so comforted by in our old lives. The shelter of our daily lives now gone, God the potter finally has the chance to get His hands on us, the clay, in ways He’s always wanted to.

This stripping away, however difficult, is essential to discovering our identity in Christ. We are no longer able to hide behind our daily routine, our smooth talking, our compensatory competences. We must face our weakness. But along the way we discover our strength in God. We suddenly find that, when our competence is stripped away, what actually matters can be revealed. That is, the incredible graces God has offered us and which we have buried under the heap of other traits that were more immediately rewarded by human esteem.

On the thirteenth I also wrote, while trying to console myself over my new-found incompetency,

“Well, I guess it’s good that God is concerned foremost with my faithfulness over anything else. I can falter in my language, talents, energy, health, etc. and yet be pleasing to Him by my faithfulness. He doesn’t count how many girls are around me, or how often I’m willing to eat something questionable, or how well I can conjugate my verbs. Rather than being competent, I must be faithful and filled with love, for which I need God’s grace and guidance.”

In this way, displacement has helped me to identify the presence or absence of the values that truly matter to me. My ability to love, to be faithful, to give thanks, to be taught, to be genuine rather than impressive, etc. I can’t say that I have necessarily arrived at all, or even any, of these, but my sensitivity to them has heightened.

In the same way that a spotlight is shone on our own nature, so too is God’s nature illuminated by displacement. We are essentially powerless in our new environments when we arrive. (Maybe that’s why I raged against turtles. Easy targets.) Reduced to the state of children, we are forced to recognize what God provides for us who are too weak to provide for ourselves. I think that sheds some light on Jesus’ prayer for his missioners in Luke 10. When the seventy-two come back from mission and huddle up with Jesus, excited about the ways they have seen God working during their travels, Jesus prays, “I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike.” There were plenty of things hidden from my eyes when I was “wise” in the US, that were revealed to me over the last year spent “childlike” in Bolivia.

Furthermore, when we stop trying to supplement our life with material comforts, we find that God really is sufficient, just as he promises us in the scriptures. “I’m realizing that the things of God are the most constant and powerful in my life. In this state of transition, they are more sustaining than anything else I’ve tried to grasp on to.” I’ve fallen out of touch with a lot of people. My computer died tonight. I’ve not a clue what I’ll be doing a year from now. And despite the panic attack this would have inspired a year ago, I’m perfectly content. I have everything I need dwelling right here in my soul. I have realized the overwhelming faithfulness of God. When I abandoned what I thought was “everything” I found that everything, that is to say everything of true, enduring value, would never abandon me.

Conclusion, straight from the pages of my journals
August 15, 2009: “It’s so hard! I know that it was always going to be hard, and that it’s supposed to be hard, that’s one of the reasons we’re called away from our ordinary lives-but I’m still figuring out how to handle it.”
August 15, 2010: “I see with such gratitude now that God has drawn me here, as difficult as it has been, to encounter Him, and His presence within me. Like Hosea 2:16: ´so I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart.´”

In Defense of Year Two

In an effort to reflect on what this last year has meant to me I dug in to the nearly three journals I´ve filled since arriving a year ago Tuesday (writing has been a very important part of my reflection here). A year gone by, I see these reflections in a different light, or sometimes they do more to inform my present questions and conflicts. I hope to be a little more active this year in sharing some of these thoughts. First, however, I wanted to sum up the last year. Turns out, that’s impossible. I did find something I wrote during our MISO training, before I even got here, that did a pretty good job of expressing why I’m here and what’s been happening within me since arriving.

“Reflection Exercise 2
Part B (yes, my journal has subheadings): What is your message for yourself:
No matter how hard it gets, remember that God has led you here. Remember the feeling of clarity and peace when you withdrew your JVC application, and again when you received your final placement after initially declaring you’d go anywhere but Bolivia. You have been invited to participate in something far beyond your comprehension. As a finite individual, you cannot stop injustice, or offer salvation, or soothe pain you don’t even understand. Your job is to humbly receive the abundant love of God and offer it back in this place. This love has beautiful and challenging consequences- we must face our own insufficiency, honor the “belovedness” of our neighbors, trust our Lord completely. We must settle, and strive, to simply live well day to day. Make peace with the challenge of existence and revisit your only worthwhile goal: to love better every day. By God’s grace you can do it.”

That’s a lot to respond to all at once and I hope you’ll allow me to leave much of it standing alone. I do want to speak briefly to the very first part: the idea that God led me here.

I don´t generally make decisions on a hunch or a whim or a gut feeling. I’m not very attuned to what some might call the “whisperings of the Holy Spirit,” but my arrival in Bolivia was very irrational. I swore I would go anywhere but Bolivia, mostly because I was afraid of having to learn Spanish (the sisters and I sit around the dinner table and laugh about this story as I retell it over and over…in Spanish). I withdrew my application to JVC, my only “back-up plan” before I had actually been officially accepted by the SLMs because I felt certain that God was calling me to the Salesians, whom I’d never even heard of until about six weeks prior. Then, as I was practically packing my bags for India, having decided on the Ferando Speech and Hearing Center, I was slammed with an inexplicable feeling that I was heading in the wrong direction. Well then, God…where am I supposed to go? Cochabamba, Bolivia. My inital answer cannot be repeated here out of sensitivity to my youngest and/or purest readers. But I came, and now I’m glad I did.

Ita Ford spoke in an interview about Chile the same way I would speak about Bolivia.

“There’re a lot of things that are very uncomfortable about being there, but it’s like the right place to be. It’ like you intuit a place. This is your place right now. I can’t say it’s my place forever and ever. Right now, I recognize this is where I should be.”

Bolivia is “my place” right now. I can’t put my finger on what exactly made it so when God sent me, against my will quite honestly, a year ago, but I am infinitely grateful to Him for it now. This is still my place. I wish I had a more eloquent way of explaining to my friends and family why I’m spending another year here. Perhaps, like this last year, those reasons will be revealed over the course of time.

Monday, August 9, 2010


I recently spent two weeks travelling and catching up with my Dad and my Sister (I saw my mom in May when she came to Bolivia) and my dear friend Amanda. I spent the first week in Acapulco with my Dad and Patty, enjoying the sunshine (escaping Bolivia's winter) and the sea. I was overwhelmed, as I rode from the Acapulco airport to the hotel, by the huge buildings, paved and painted roads, and glowing lights. The taxi driver had a good laugh as I stared out the window and yelled "Look at that building! It's huge!" and "There's a costco! and a starbucks! and a McDonalds!" (none of which I actually went to, it was just exciting that these familiar places were part of my world again) and "look at all those people! Can you actually go out at night here?" It was incredible to me how pristine and orderly the city looked. When I got to the hotel I yakked my Dad's ear off, drank a huge glass of tap water, took a hot shower without being shocked by the faucet or water heater, and fell asleep (without the three wool blankets I normally pile on against the cold Bolivian nights) feeling like a queen. I hadn't seen my Dad in over a year, and now that I know just how long that really is, it was a little overwhelming to say good bye again. How do you say, " was so great to see you. I guess I'll see you in another year again." Turns just do.

The next week I spent in Nebraska with my sister, her husband Mike, and his brother Jim. My old roommie from Whitworth came over from Colorado for a few days too! My sister is good and pregnant and I'm glad that, if I won't see my little niece until she's several months old, I at least got to feel her kicking. Being apart from my sister is probably one of the hardest things for me about being in Bolivia and I had such a great time with her. We went to a soccer game in Kansas City between the Kansas City Wizards and Manchester United (I're jealous, aren't you?) and I felt overwhelmed by a new sense of patriotism during the national anthem. Though I love Bolivia, am thrilled to be there, and often am frustrated, like many people, by the politics, social injustices, and foriegn policy flaws I encounter in the US, coming back after a year away made me sharply aware that, yes, this is my country, my culture. Landing in Pheonix I got a surge of this new, strangely strong patriotism inspired by such a long absence. (Look! See that down there? That's American soil!) It's easy to turn up your nose and feel self-righteous because you've seen poverty and suffering on a scale that we can't imagine as a nation, but honestly, I felt no shame in just plain enjoying the paved roads, efficient and orderly nature of...pretty much everything, well-tended homes, clean water, etc. It's tempting, especially I think for my generation, to criticize America for living in relative peace and security (at least on our own soil) while much of the world suffers from poverty and violence we often can only imagine. There's some reason in that; We without a doubt play a role in many terrible social injustices. But I couldn't help but bask in the sense of safety and comfort I felt. Despite being even more aware of the US's role in the violence and despair so many people I know have witnessed (particularly the sisters from El Salvador who lived through the civil war), and being painfully conscious of the economic despairity between the US and much of Latin America, I couldn't deny that it felt pretty good to be back in America. I felt incredibly ambivilant, I was disgusted by, but also LOVED the US more than I ever had before. I guess, no matter what you'd love to change, you can't deny your homeland.

Anyway...I had a blast. The game was so much fun and later in the week we went to the zoo (that's the only thing I knew for sure I wanted to do. I guess I joined the Salesians because, deep down, I'm still seven), baked (and ate) ridiculous amounts of cookies, went to Costco (the happiest place on earth), antagonized gigantic rabid swans at a park, and watched a VFC fight (to experience the finest in American culture). Some of that sounds pretty simple, but I had been missing things like cookies (what kind of country doesn't bake cookies!?) and costco and couldn't pass up the opportunity.

Ita Ford wrote in some of her letters about feeling like she had turned in to an obnoxious radical when she visited her family and friends, but that it was an unavoidable change within her after spending so much time amongst Chile's poorest during the US-funded coup overthrowing Pinochet an installing a tyranical new regime. I could relate. I kept biting my tongue, resisting the urge to counter complaints with "well you know, it could be worse. In Bolivia..." Or tirelessly stir conversation about the the gospel's message to the poor and oppressed, or challenege some of the assumptions and attitudes towards the poor that seemed implied even by simple things like the homily at mass. It was an unsettling realization: I don't think like most of the people around me anymore. I don't always feel like we live in the same world. Sometimes, while I talked with people, I would suddenly get this overwhelming sense that we were not seeing, hearing, experiencing the same things, despite stting in the same room talking about the same subject. I've had the opposite experience talking to other missionaries, a doctor from Ethiopia on the plane, some of the sisters. Suddenly I feel shocked to realize that whatever we're talking about we're both seeing, understanding, in the same way. On the whole I'm so thankful for it. My world has expanded, my goals have been refocused, my priorities reframed. I'm comfortable with this, but I fear becoming arrogant and obnoxious, self-righteous and condescending. I can't explain completely the way I experience the world now, but it's different. I was back in a place I had lived in for twenty years, yet I was seeing it with new eyes and I feared people would tire of me "reprocessing" everything. That's not an experience I can make the people around me understand, I can only ask for their patience. I had a couple great talks about this with Amanda and it really helped. I suspect I may have been more articulate then than I am now. Sorry, folks.

But it was another great week that was hard to see come to an end. I already miss my sister.

A long trip back to Cochabamba (about 38 hours total, for a number of reasons) ended, finally with a profound sense of comfort and familiarity walking through the Cochabamba airport. I was worried about dreading Bolivia after two weeks of comparative luxury, but I was flooded with appreciation for the other countless non-material blessings. I remember arriving a year ago, watching the buildings and people and fields pass by, and thinking "oh ****! What have I just done?" Now here I was, a year later, arriving from the US and staring out the window feeling glad to be home. I felt refreshed and ready for another year, excited once again by the novelty of a new place. It was all the excitement of my first arrival with none of the uncertainty. I already know how to get by here. I already know things are going to be great. Arriving at the hogar, being flooded by little girls whom I had missed so much as they crashed through the front door, ready for hugs and kisses and a few with notebooks in hand ready to show off the tests we had been studying so hard for when I left, was one of the greatest moments I've ever experienced. If I knew how to capture it, stuff it in a bottle and pass it on to someone, I would give it to you all for Christmas.

So I feel like home is sort of stretched between two continents, two cultures, and two languages right now. How confusing. But, sometimes, how beautiful!

I can't dance right now because of an injury (nothing major, don't worry), which means you should be hearing more from me a little more often over these next two weeks. Hitting the one-year mark (tomorrow!) has given me a lot of opportunity for reflection.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


As excited I am for the girls' progress, there are still days where I feel like we're accomplishing nothing. I had a chance to reflect on what our work means in the context of the "big picture" the other day when one of my students'grandmother visited.

A little bit of context: This girl was brought to the hogar around two years ago by her grandmother with her sister and cousin. Her grandmother has visited a (very) few times since I've been here and one day turned up with a very young woman who turned out to be this girls' long-absent mother. Surprise. Not surprisingly, this girl, at six years old, is one of our toughest little ones. She reacts very dramatically to just about anything and can be even more stubborn than I was at her age. She's been having a lot of trouble in school, a large part of which is a result of being so restless or indifferent during class that she's not learning anything during class time. Until recently she would alternate between calmly and blatantly refusing to do her homework and throwing herself screaming on to the floor at the mere mention of anything resembling school work. Nevertheless, Underneath all the tantruming and capriciousness shes a really neat kid. She loves to dance and sing and makes up all sorts of ridiculous songs and games. She is absolutely fearless and is constantly climbing, flipping, jumping on/off/over anything and everything. As I've been working with her it's been so fun to see more and more of her true character shining through as we chip away at some of these behaviors that have hidden this sweet little thing away for so long. But, let me tell you, progress is slooooow.

Somedays I feel like things are going nowhere, but the truth is she's making some progress. She hasn't thrown a tantrum over her school work in a few weeks now. She's got her alphabet down and finally is beginning to understand how vowels are used in basic Spanish consonants. She's discovered that she loves to add and subtract and will actually come to ask me if we can practice. But, honestly, she's still really behind and I feel discoraged some days.

Recently I encouraged her to read to her grandmother who came to visit, and as her grandmother tried to point out words and interact with her granddaughter, it became clear very quickly that she was completely illiterate. I was thinking about how complete and widespread illiteracy is here and it suddenly hit me, as I watched this girl sound out words to her grandmother who had absolutely no idea what even the names of the letters were, that these tiny, agonizingly slow baby steps may be huge leaps when seen in the context of the generations of poverty and lack of education she came from. It's easy to get so distracted by the fact that she can barely read "sapo" that I miss the fact that she may be one of the first people in her family to read "sapo," and that a good portion of her family probably only speaks indigenous languages and couldn't tell you what "sapo" means, even though Spanish is the closest thing to a common language Bolivia has.

Meanwhile, recognizing the terrible educational deficits makes me painfully aware once again of my finiteness. I think about the other girls in the hogar, the students over at the school lagging behind their peers, the children I pass everywhere who will likely never go to school, the parents and grandparents that cant even spell their own name...and I'm only barely keeping up with my eight main students. Ouch.

A tiny drop in the bucket or a huge leap forward? I don't really know, and I suppose in the end it's a matter of perspective.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Rest in Peace, MJ

Time flies when you're having fun I guess.

Things are going great with the girls. The eight I primarily work with because they have so much difficulty (academically and behaviorly) in school are inching ahead. Their teachers have been noticing changes and a few are completely caught up in several subjects. They're controling themselves better in class, taking responsibility for their work, and expressing themselves in much healthier ways. It feels great to have been a part of that. The women here in charge of seeing that the girls get their chores done, wash their clothes, get from here to there on time, etc have asked me to try my hand at applying similar methods to their chores and responsibilities in the hogar with these eight and possibly a few others. It's interesting to be able to show some of the people here that a little positive attention, well planned rewards and consequences, and helping the girls to think through their decisions and emotions (before or after, depending) goes a really long way. Realistically I'm working with the eight most difficult grade-schoolers in the hogar and things are improving. I hope no one ever gives up on any of these girls, they're wonderful and have the capacity to show that to everyone! Not to mention how obviously better they feel about themselves now that they're doing better in school and expressing themselves in healthier ways. Don't get me wrong, it's still really tough some days. First graders throwing two hour screaming tantrums, fourth graders breaking pencils and throwing flashcards, girls directly refusing to participate in anything for the day...or week. But things really are improving and it's so exciting for all of us. It's really tough though, to see the girls make such improvements, to become so darn lovable, and have no one take a real interest. Some girls have family that never comes to see them but they still say things like "I'm going to save my division test to show my dad!" or "I'm going to keep practicing this book and read it to my aunt!" But they spend day after day in the same room with me and I realize that, in some cases, I'm filling that role for them too. And one day I'll be gone also. Ouch.

This week has been a great one. Jerica, the volunteer who was finishing up her year as I arrived, came back to visit and brought two of her friends. They're a blast to have around. We made cheesesteaks for the sisters a few days ago, which was hilllarious. Wednesday and Thursday we celebrated Dia de Saun Juan Baptista, the primary festival in Itocta, so the school and church and field between the two was filled with vendors and carnival games and trampolines and fooseball tables. We had about five masses over the course of two days (an unheard of amount for a community that has no permanent priest), and danced danced danced as different bands and dance troups came through to perform. I also learned that "well, I have to get back to my daughters" doesn't startle drunk men (even from Holland) as much as your average Joe, unfortunately.

The next day I went to dance class at night and as we were warming up my teacher stormed in to the room and yelled "Go change! We're going to the Michael Jackson concert!" Everyone left running and squealing to the dressing rooms and a few minutes later we were in La Plaza de Banderas, which was filled with people who had come to, as the banners around the city declared, "pay homage to the king." A few groups performed tributes to Michael Jackson until finally THE MJ impersonator of Bolivia came out to perform. Well, really just dance around and occasionally forget to move his mouth to the music. It was a blast to spend some time outside of class with my friends and hillarious to watch them sing along to music they didn't understand at all. I translated a few things but I think after translating Billy Jean we decided the music was kind of more fun when you didn't understand it. It may be helpful to add here that the people in my studio are absolutely MJ fanatics. When he died, they did an entire tribute show downtown. The last show they had, a few months ago, was half jazz half Michael Jackson and their program gives a long introduction which begins by announcing the impact of "one incredible man" who "was criticized by some but adored by many," whose "choreograph was precise and awe-inspiring" and whose "videos were small works of art." It ends the suspense simply by announcing "we are speaking, obviously, of Michael Jackson." Naturally. So I spent a great night with some friends in the city, listening to them sing along to songs they didn't understand and pretending to be deeply sympathetic to their, aparently, still fairly raw grief.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Happy Birthday to Me...

It's been an exciting few weeks!
My mom came to visit for my Birthday last Saturday and we had all sorts of adventures. Despite going on one adventure after another for over a week, I still feel like there was so much more to show her. It was fun to see her respond to things that have become so normal to me (dogs running around the church during mass, vans packed full of un-belted people swinging around potholes and outracing one another turning through intersections, high schoolers dancing diablada, morenada, and caporales in high heels and miniskirts for their music grade, etc). The sisters told me not to worry about the hogar, but to go have fun with my mom. They said my job was to make her like Bolivia so that she'll let me stay. Turns out they were very serious. At the end of the week they sat down at lunch and asked her about her time in Bolivia; what she liked, what surprised her, how she felt seeing where I lived, etc. Then they asked her if she would let me stay if that's what I wanted. When my mom said I could do whatever made me happy, they all clapped and shouted and celebrated. I'm not sure how long I'll be here, but it's definitely nice to know I'm wanted.

My birthday was absolutely wonderful, and full of people I love. My mom, of course, was here, and we started off celebrating with the sisters at breakfast like we do with all the sisters. We sang and ate quesadilla (a cheesy corn-bread type cake Hna. Alicia bakes for every birthday) and the sisters gave me a beautiful cross necklace and saints bracelet in addition to the coat they took me to pick out in La Paz ("you just never keep your lungs warm enough, Niki!"). The Zapata family (a family I've been visiting every Saturday in the city) called me to wish me happy birthday and ask if they could throw me a party that afternoon, but we already had some big plans for the day. After a quick birthday visit from the girls from the transition home across the street, who completely surprised me with a beautiful rosary and a new wallet, we headed out for the day. The school put on an all-day ballet folklorico festival complete with elaborate costumes and traditional dishes for lunch. Almost all our girls danced and I have some great pictures I'll put up as soon as I get a chance.

After the dancing finished up the girls killed an hour in the hogar dressing me up in all their traditional costumes. Those pictures, however, might not be posted. Fortunately I peeled off my Morenada boots (or, rather, the girls worked together to pry those ridiculous things off me) just before my two Sunday English students arrived with a beautiful (and far out of their budget) birthday cake complete with my name written on top. They had practiced all week to greet my mom, ask her name, introduce themselves, and play "go fish" in English. A few hours later they left right as they started up a birthday party in the hogar. After a fantastic dinner, the girls danced danced danced danced danced ( to come) until we ended the night leaping around dancing "Torba," cake in hand in the salon. I honestly can't imagine a better day. I felt so loved and appreciated by this community that I've grown to love so much. It's strange to think about how overwhelmed and out of place I felt nine and a half months ago when I feel so at home now.

This last week, though my mom has headed back home to recuperate from a wild week at nausea-inducing altitude, has been just as busy. Things with the girls are going great and the programs I'm putting in place for the girls struggling the most in school are starting to get some notable results. It feels really good to see them starting to move forward bit by bit. Just about every free hour has been taken up by dancing. The high school seniors asked me to choreograph and teach them a dance to perform Monday (they asked Tuesday and it's a four minute song. That's pretty good notice for Bolivia) for our belated celebration of Mary Help of Christians (Maria Auxiliadora de los Cristianos). That, in addition to the dance I'm performing myself Monday, plus my twice a week class in the city (I was invited to join the Cuerpo de Baile and the Jazz Academy. It's been tough but I'm learning a lot...and really sore) had me busy enough when the girls asked Thursday to create and teach them a dance for Hna. Angelita's birthday on Friday (that's a much better example of Bolivian preparation). But we did it! And they looked great! We're going to clean it up a bit and perform it next Friday for Dia del Profesor. Hopefully Monday's dances and my own piece for next Friday turn out just as well.

So, as you can see, I'm quite settled here. Work that I love, a community that takes great care of me, new friends of all ages (Rosby Zapata, the mother of the family I visit each week took me to meet all her extended family and introduced me as her adopted daughter). It was great to be able to show this new life to my mom. It was funny to see it so brand new and strange to her, while it's become so natural and complete for me. It's strange to think that many of the volunteers in our program have already bought their tickets to come home and new volunteers are applying for their visas to come replace them. I don't know what I would do if I had to leave this place right now. I have a hard enough time accepting that some day, a year or so in to the future, I'll have to head back to the US to pay off my loans and head to grad school. That's going to be a really tough transition and I spend a lot of time trying to avoid thinking about it.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Easter Encounter

One of the things I love about the Catholic Church is the progression through the liturgical seasons. Right now, of course, we're in Easter. Being that the resurrection of Christ is the center of our faith, there's A LOT to think about this season, but one of the things I have been prompted to think about by the readings lately has been the importance of relationship in conversion. We recognize the Risen Lord not by theology or logic or signs, but by daring to engage in a relationship with Him.

One of the first readings this season (John 20: 11-18) depicts Mary Magdelene encountering Jesus at His tomb. He's supposed to be wrapped up in his burial cloths, peacefully decomposing behind the giant stone at the entrance of his tomb, but when she gets there, Jesus' body is nowhere to be found. As she sits there weeping, Jesus appears to her and asks her why she is crying. Mary, oblivious that she is speaking to her Lord, explains her situation and even asks Him if He knows where Jesus' body is. In fact, Luke tells us that Mary thought she was talking to the gardner. All the prophecy about Jesus rising from the dead, His own words, the empty tomb, the faith of her companions who ran to spread the news...none of it is sufficient to open Mary's eyes to Jesus standing right in front of her. It is not until He speaks her name that she recognizes Him. I imagine it was something in His voice, a tenderness and familiarity as he calls her, that suddenly awakens her to the truth. The history they share together, their friendship, is recalled in this moment and she finally recognizes Jesus, calling out "teacher." It is their relationship that finally reveals what scripture and signs and the testimony of her brothers could not.

A few days later, the mass reading (Luke 24: 13-35) told the story of a few of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Along their route they encounter Jesus, but again, He is unrecognized. They travel for miles together, and as they walk Jesus interprets the scriptures from them. But it doesn't matter how clearly they are taught, they still fail to see Christ. Once again, Christ is revealed through relationship. As they break bread together, an act of fellowship and togetherness, they finally realize the identity of their companion.

In both of these stories, Jesus is present long before even His friends recognize Him. He walks with them, talks with them, consoles them, teaches them, as they continue to search in vain for Him. The scriptures, the marvels, the faith of their companions, is useless in revealing Christ to them. Only a true and intimate relationship allows them to see the presence of Jesus Resurrected.

Things haven't changed much over the last 2,000 years. All of us, sometimes without even realizing it, are seeking Christ. We pour over the scriptures, cling to the testimony of our friends, seek out marvels and miracles to support our faith, engage in discussions and debates about the nature of God and His relationship to the world, but often in vain. These things guide us, teach us, direct us and comfort us...but they do not take the place of a genuine relationship with Christ. Though we grow to know Christ through these means, only a true friendship with God, cultivated through prayer and service to Him, can reveal His presence to us. Similarly, all the apologetics in the world are not a substitute for a ministry of relationship. We can offer "proof" and logic and theology but really, the only lasting evangelization exists in guiding people in to relationship with Jesus by reavealing His presence through their relationship with us. Theology is refuted, the faith of others is suspect, but personally encountering God's goodness and mercy is irrefutable evidence of His presence in the world. There is no substitute in ministry for seeking to be the hands of our merciful God on earth. Jesus tells the crowd in the Bread of Life Discourse "Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled." Lasting faith, the kind that moves us to seek God over and over every day comes not from miracles or reason, but from drawing near enough to Him to be fed, to partake in the Bread of Life, to be nourished by Jesus' presence in our lives. It was true for His followers thousands of years ago and it's true today. How do we allow this to inform our ministry and evangelization, and even our own conversion experiences?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Another...month? I think?

Well, friends. I'm behind once again on my updates, so you'll have to deal with another jumbled list of events in Bolivia I've neglected to report on. But first, if you haven't read my last post, or if you have read it and are on the fence, I haven't found any help for my friend yet. Please think about whether this might be a opportunity for you!

Easter came and went and was beautiful! Holy Week is so wholeheartedly celebrated here! On Palm Sunday, we had a procession with Padre Pepe riding a donkey down the road as we waved our palms and sang. Though much of Holy Week is a reflection on Christ's profound humility, it is inextricable from His Kingship and exaltation. Pretty much exactly how the hymn in Ephesians sums it up.

As Padre Pepe road his donkey to the church, reenacting Jesus' entrance in to Jerusalem, the clapping and singing and celebration in memory of Christ's triumphant arrival seemed so right.
As the people circled around our sacrificed king, present in the eucharist, in the tabernacle on Thursday night, bowing in silent adoration of Our Lord, it seemed so right.
As we followed the bobbing crucifix through the town on Good Friday, stopping to pray stations of the cross at home-made alters around Itocta, birds lining the power lines and even the cows standing at attention, it seemed so right.

Though we rebel against it at times, our entire being is shaped to pay homage to our King and Creator. The world ought to stop and take notice, to weep for Jesus' bloodshed and rejoice in His resurrection. Itocta seems to "get it" and I really enjoyed spending Holy Week here.

I didn't stay for all of it though...
On Friday night, eating a late dinner, the sisters were talking about sending Hna. Lettie to La Paz for elections because she's registered to vote there. Of course, she shouldn't go alone, so they decided to send the tall scary white girl to protect her. Or something. But anyway, I heard my name, looked up, and the sisters asked "wanna go to La Paz?" Uh...sure! When? "tomorrow morning." Nothing like deciding about twelve hours before leaving.
So I was in La Paz with the small community (only four sisters!) for Easter. It was great to see another school and parish run by HDS and get to know a few more of the sisters. La Paz is pretty cold, especially this time of year. Bundling up in the cold, laying around with the sisters watching spider man between masses, and being "surprised" about every hour by one of the aunty-like sisters with some new treat or chocolate or full-on was actually a lot like Christmas with my relatives. It was also an interesting experience to watch elections in another country. The school the sisters run was a voting station for the county so everyone came to the school to get their ballots, mark them with their fingerprints, and cast them there. Vendors set up in the surrounding streets like it was a fair. It'll take some time to see how the new local government leaders (these elections were for mayors, governors, etc) will interact with the socialist system developing since December's elections.

Last weekend Jenna and Margaret, two of the SLMs working in other hogars in the Santa Cruz area, came to visit. It was so great to see them! It's easy to forget we're a little isolated out here until someone shows up to enjoy Cochabamba with us. The three of us went to a fabulous concert on Saturday night -- Los Kjarkas and Kala Marka, the two best-known folk music bands around. The concert was yet another great lesson in Bolivian culture.
I picked up our tickets earlier that week and sprung the extra three dollars for floor seats in the stadium (we were feeling extravagant, I suppose) and the tickets said 8. So we showed up at 7:45 and found a line stretching around the corner. We started walking. And walking. And walking. Every time we thought we were getting to the end of the line, it snaked again, wrapping around the stadium and ending a few blocks from the entrance. So we jumped in line, figuring we'd only wait fifteen minutes before things started moving. Apparently we had forgotten what country we were in. At about 9:15 they opened the doors and people finally starting enterring, over an hour after the concert was scheduled to start. When we finally reached the doors, they took our tickets, let us in, and we realized we were in the bleachers with no way to get to the floor. We went to talk to the people who took our tickets and some huge bouncer-looking man took pity on us and told us to follow him...then took off sprinting in a circle around the stadium to yet another unmarked line where apparently we were supposed to have known to enter. In the end, it was pretty much irrelevant, because there were no seats left and we stood with a few other hundred VIPers on the ground floor. Which was actually gave us a chance to jump and dance and leap around with the rest of the stadium. Both Los Kjarkas and Kala Marka play very traditional music accompanied by some amazing ballet folklorico on a stage in front of the band. It was so moving to see people so excited and empassioned, celebrating their culture and shouting in turn for Bolivia and their individual departments. Pretty cool. Patriotism definitely encompasses a lot more than it seems to in the US. It's hard to compare what took place at the concert with something in The States. Unfortunately, we had to leave a few songs in to Los Kjarkas' set because it was already after 12:30 and time to head home. But all in all, a really great night.

While they were here we also had ourselves a little adventure finding another orphanage run by the same congregation Jenna works with. After travelling to a completely different city and finding a different hogar outside Cochabamba, we had a little more success the next day visiting Hogar San Francisco. The sisters were so welcoming and we had a great visit, but as we talked with them about the hogar we had found the day before and a few other hogars they were acquianted with, I felt a little overwhelmed. There are over 150 hogars in the department of Cochabamba alone. Ours, with fifty girls, two sisters, two employees, a secretary, a cook, and two volunteers, is one of the better-staffed. More and more I hear about the incredibly over-whelmed social-service programs (not to mention sisters, staff, and volunteers) doing their best to support the people. Hogars of fity children with one sister and a few drop-in volunteers. An hogar of seventy with three sisters and three afternoon tutors. A special needs orphanage of over eighty children, some of whom aren't even mobile, with three sisters and six staff. It's hard not to get discouraged hearing things like that, and it definitely makes me more thankful for how well-staffed we are, though it took me a realize how good we have it.

Things are still moving along in the hogar. The sisters are trying to get some girls to build some better habits, especially some of the teenagers who are overweight, so every evening after dinner I lead some sort of work out program for about an hour. They've gotten pretty in to it and it's fun to teach them about their bodies. It's shocking how little they've learned about excercise and self-care. They come to me panicked the day after a hard workout because their muscles are sore and they've never experienced that before. Or while doing some aerobics one or two will declare they are "burning up" and throw themselves dramatically on to the floor. Inevitably someone will ask "what's this for" every time we stretch and usually when I tell them to drink water too. It's pretty comical and I'm having a blast. A few of the girls get up with me at 5:30 a few times a week for a little dance class as well. So things are busy,the usual tutoring and computer lab duties, plus their new excercise program, and attending daily parent teacher conferences for our most difficult students. It's all keeping me on my toes but I'm definitely happy and loving life here still.

Friday, April 9, 2010


Hello, friends! I have lots to write, about Holy Week, a recent trip to La Paz, the girls, a few new adventures, and so on. This afternoon, however, I just wanted to drop a quick appeal in hopes that there are a few readers out there who are feeling generous.

I'm leaving a lot of details out, but if you'd like more you can certainly email me and we can talk. One of my dear friends here is in need. Yes, I know, this is Bolivia, who isn't in need? But she has a special role in my experience here and I'd like to do what I can to help her. She was the first person I had a genuine ¨heart to heart¨ with and was a huge comfort when Lee passed away. She recently discovered that her mother has liver cancer and I would like to do what I can to support her after everything she has done for me in my own experience of grief.

After weeks of tests and operations and hospital stays her family has incurred quite a bit of debt they have done their best to pay off. They've depleted their savings, sold what they can (I've seen pictures of her's about what you picture when you think rural poverty in Bolivia), payed off as much as they can, and remain with about $2,000 in debt and the possibility of additional chemotherapy (and its trumendous cost) pending.

I would love to tell you more about this woman, but her situation is very private at this point. The sisters don't know about her family's financial situation and I can tell it took incredible humility for her to say anything to me about it in the first place. If anyone, you, someone you know, a church group, a club, anyone has any interest in supporting this family in any amount PLEASE let me know ASAP. Really, it's easy to leave the bills and the desperation and the need to someone else, but one of the things I've learned here is that, often times, there is no one else. If the need is met, it is by God working through us and, as the sisters tell me every day "God will repay you!" Also-I promise that making a donation doesn't mean that you will be hounded for money at every opportunity.

Thanks for your consideration.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


It's been a tumultous few weeks. Two weeks ago I found out one of my dearest friends, Lee Stover, had passed away in his sleep. Lee was, literally, the first person I met when we pulled in to the Whitworth parking lot. We shared a lot of amazing experiences, talked through a lot of crisises and celebrated a lot of victories together over the last three and a half years. He was the first person I talked to from Bolivia (sorry, Mom), and the six months of emails we shared since I arrived is another reason to be thankful that I'm here.

It was really hard to get the news and know I couldn't be with my friends and mentors who had known and loved Lee too, but I am so grateful for the emails and messages I received that have kept me part of the community during all this. I sent an email to a few of the people that Lee and I were both close to sharing some of the things he had written to me since I got here and that had been a huge consolation as I was making sense of his death. It was read at his memorial service and shared in some of the announcements to the Whitworth community and it brought me a lot of peace to be able to participate in the community's celebration of Lee's life. Like the other hundreds of people that knew Lee, I miss him. But God has been generously passing along bits of wisdom and comfort and I feel like the tree in Jeremiah 17 (the green one, not the one dried out in the wasteland. I'm not writing it here for you because I like the idea that maybe you'll be curious enough to crack open your own bibles. Or read online at God's grace and peace, rather than being overshadowed, are even sweeter in our most painful moments. Remember that.

In the meantime, the girls have not let me forget for a moment that, no matter what may come, the world is full of light and life and work to be done. In addition to the normal runny-nose-wiping, "I don't care what she did, don't hit anyone ever," last minute algebra homework, and giant good-night hugs routine, Hermana MariaLuz, the school principal, gave me a short list of dates that she would like me or the girls to dance for, so I've been hunting down music to start preparing for that.

Don Bosco's remains visited, of all places, Itocta last Saturday. It was probably the most exciting hour that Itocta has ever seen and was absolutely worth the months of planning beforehand. Not to mention every Salesian's dream. Thirteen schools crammed in to Colegio Laura Vicunia's field to sing and dance and welcome Don Bosco. All the students got a chance to file past after the Celebration of The Word. I hearded around our six youngest girls, dressed as angels with cardboard wings about three times their size. Later that afternoon Johanna and I headed to the Cathedral in the city with the sisters from our town and neighboring Primero de Mayo and Pucarita, where the whole Salesian family was gathering for mass with Don Bosco's urn present. The sisters had been invited to sing for the event so we even had garunteed pews. Not a bad deal. It was amazing, especially coming from a country where the Salesians aren't nearly as present, to see how moved people from the community were to be next to the body of the founder of the Salesians. All the schools, daycares, tech schools, catechesis programs, feeding programs, parishes, etc. that sustain and support the children and families in our communities started with the humble ministry of one man hundreds of years ago. It was moving to see his remains and the huge, spirit-filled family he inspired under one roof celebrating the Eucharist together.

Finally, one of the sponsors arrived from the US on Monday and I've been acting as translator this week, which is a great opportunity to test my Spanish and also have a chance to see a few more faces of the projects going on around the community. It's also encouraging to see people from as far away as the US involved in the girls' lives.

So life is up and down and all around. And it's only/already month 7. Of how many...I have no idea.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


So we've been here about half a year, we should be feeling relatively competent, right? Maybe.
I've heard some great comparisons between entering a new culture and restarting childhood. As the months have passed we've tottered through and "grown up" a bit. I can decide where I want to go and how I'll get there. I know my Bolivian ID number. I can take myself to the doctor. I can take responsibility for the work I do and bring new ideas to the table. Of course, culture is like an iceburg and there's a lot that I have yet to realize is there, let alone adapt to, but over all I finally feel more likea "big girl" in Bolivia...except for one big glaring obnoxious hole: the language.

Yes, I know, I teach in Spanish, translate letters between girls and their sponsors, translate documents and emails, make small talk with strangers on busses...I'm not exactly incompetent. But every once in awhile, I get slammed with a situation that makes me feel incredibly child-like. The other day I was at a meeting with the sisters and they read a letter from the rector-major that I understood perfectly. After they finished the director of the community asked me a question about it and I just sat there for a good thirty seconds, completely oblivious that a question had even been posed to me, let alone what it was. Why was everyone looking at me? What just happened? Finally I stammered out an irrelevant and vague answer and tried not to stare to helplessly at Hermana Ellie sitting next to me who had clued me in by whispering "you're turn, Niki. Talk!" Of course, my image of competence was totally blown at that point when it appeared that I did not even understand the letter we had been reading pieces from for three days in a row. Damn.

The superior of formation of the entire order is visiting from El Salvador in place of the Mother Superior and she and I have had some passing small talk during her visit. Knowing that my language still isn't the best I can't help but feel a little intimidated when we talk, which certianly doesn't help me understand her any better. The other day she came up to me at a party and asked if I had been thinking about what she had told me. Um...what? Sure...of course...every day? Great then. For how long? The year or longer? In Bolivia or El Salvador? How did my family feel about it? And don't worry, we can arrange it with the mother superior. WHAT!? What did I just do!? Damn my mono-lingual ears! The next day in mass, she came to my pew after communion. Oh my gosh, please God don't let her be here to talk to me! So I did the best thing I could think of...I ran away while she was praying. That's right. I'm a coward and hid from a nun because I didn't feel like speaking Spanish...or being invited to move to El Salvador again.

I used to be a competent, articulate, confident person. Last week I ran away from a nun. There seems to be a bit of a contrast here. Cross cultural work is tough, friends. You have to give up a lot of your abilities and power. I'm not bold in Spanish. I'm not tactful or intelligent either and I'm definitely not witty. Maybe I wasn't overwhelmingly any of those things in English either, but I at least had a shot. That's okay though. There's a parable in Matthew about a merchant who discovers a pearl of great value and sells everything he has to buy it. It seems silly. Why would you give up your security, your status, the things you've worked hard for, for a pearl? Because it's that good, and you know it's that good. Why would you give up your confidence, your competence, your image of composure to come to Bolivia and stammer and stumble through your day like a confused little kid? Because God's call is a treasure of infinite value. It's that good, and despite the frustration and embarrasment and fatigue, I know it's that good. Praise God for the things in our lives that are worth sacrificing (even our language) for.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Half a Year?

Happy Six month anniversary (Wednesday) to us! Time really does fly. In reflecting on what this half year has meant to me here in Bolivia I decided to look back at some journaling I had done about deciding to come here, preparing for a month in New York, and eventually arriving and settling in. I found this entry, from the my last night in the US, and felt it was a pretty good reminder of what I'm doing here and why. Why did I feel compelled to come to Bolivia? How does I understand my arrival in Bolivia as a response to the gospel? What am I striving towards not just through my labor, but through my growing love for these girls and our neighbors? So here it is. You're reading my journal right now, is that awkward?

"I've been exploring the layers of Jesus' example to us over this last month. Jesus demonstrates to us loving interpersonal relationships. We carefully examine who he passed the time with, what they spoke about, how they treated each other, etc. We look to our own personal relationships with Jesus for a model of relationships with our family, friends, and even enemies. We cannot forget, though, that Jesus also is presenting to us a model of relationship with the world. He is not simply speaking to us about God's relationships with each individual person, but also about God's relationship with the whole earth. What is Jesus's message, not just to the poor man beside Him, but to the poor of the earth? What about the oppressed? The grieving? The rich and prideful? I fear that we embrace the task of following Christ by being a loving companion, but we forget that Christ's primary example by the cross is reconciliation and restoration of the world as a whole. To neglect our role in bringing peace and justice in to the world, not just our homes, is to deny the major significance of the cross and the restorative work we are invited to partake in when we "take up" this cross. To honor our baptismal call we must look at the mission of Christ the companion of each individual soul, and Christ the redeemer of the whole earth, together. Christ's message is to the world. His works are for all people. He restores the entire human race together and His concern, as ours should be, is for the state of entire world. He was sent to bring peace to humanity, not just to your dinner table. This fact alone places a demand for social justice and global evangelism at the heart of our Christian faith.

If Christ shows us that we must be concerned with the state of the entire earth, He also teaches us that this concern is a call to genuine and loving interpersonal relationships. We see by His incarnation that we can step back to engage the global injustices we encounter by stepping forward to enter in to the lives of the individuals Christ came for (that would be all of us...the great and lowely alike). Remeber that the crucifixion is staggering, not simply because the Lord died for us, but because to do so He had to take on man's mortality to begin with (Think about Ephesians 2:5-11 and be awed again by the incarnation). He came near to participate in our suffering. He became intimatly connected to our lives in ways we could see and touch and perceive, and it was through this intimacy, this connectedness, that the love which freed us was revealed. Thus Jesus showed us that, following His example, we must seek to heal the world, but this healing must be accomplished through loving and compassionate relationships the individuals around us. The interpersonal and the global are equally essential in our response to the gospel, though we rarely express our faith as though it were so.

We cannot ignore the role of social justice in the gospel. How often does Jesus speak in favor of the poor and marginalized? How clear was His condemnation of those abusing their riches and power? Though we each individually are invited to receive His grace, His redemptive sacrifice was intended for the world as whole. Thus we too must follow Christ and take an interest in the world as a whole. We must bring good news to the poor and reject the abuse of wealth and power. Our mission, as followers of Christ, must absolutely take us beyond our own neighborhoods to engage the world as Christ did. This however, is not a sterile and distant mission. Again, God redeemed the world by coming near to us personally. Jesus' miracles frequently are preceeded by an expression of His pity and compassion. He knew these people. God walked amongst us and entered in to our suffering. He wept with the grieved and celebrated with the joyous. He accomplished His salvific work by entering in to our lives and showed us that, to take part in His plan, we too must abandon our status and enter with love and humility in to the lives of the suffering around us. Christianity was never meant to bind us to our familiar "circles." In fact, Jesus' first followers were instructed to do just the opposite. As we look beyond ourselves, however, we must be willing to love the poor and despairing and suffering not simply through our wallets, but as God did by the presence of Christ: in the flesh."

Also, our director, Adam came to visit for a few days. It was a great time. We ate steak and played guitar and overall felt very spoiled. He took some great photos of us actually working (as opposed to partying like all our other photos) and of Johanna teaching voice and me teaching dance. There are also some great shots of the scenery and the gorgeous February flowers (what? it's snowing there? haha, suckers).

Adam's visit

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Goodbye "Summer"

Whoops...dropped off the face of the earth for a little bit there.

All is well here in the gorgeous Andes. I'm happy to report that the scenery has yet to loose its novelty and walking in the sunshine to a neighboring town today, with a clear view of the mountain range seen across miles of green farmland and adobe homes the whole way, did wonderful things for my mood.

Summer classes have been going so well, but definitely keeping me busy. The girls and I have been working hard to get caught up and I'm so proud of them! They've come so far, learned so much, and most importantly are showing dramatic differences in the behavior that was likely holding them back at school in the first place. I remembered and reread a book written by a psychologist from my home school district about classroom behavior management. It was soooo helpful! The best part is it helped me think of ways to actually help the girls find alternatives to their tantrums and acting out, rather than just ways to keep them in their chairs (although they're much better at that now too). I feel like, following the ideas and suggestions I found, actual changes were made in the way the girls handle their challenges- changes that will help them solve problems, keep moving forward in school, and interact better with their peers. Which is obviously way beyond just keeping them quiet. So not only did they sit still long enough to learn something, I feel like they're better prepared (hopefully) to go back to the school and actually move forward this year. It feels pretty good to have played a part in that. So anyway, there's my testimonial. Buy it here.

On top of teaching last week, the hogar and the sisters were busily preparing for a visit from Hna. Marta Deysi, who was visiting on behalf of the Mother Superior of the Hijas del Divino Salvador. I rechoreographed and danced a piece that my dear friend Amanda and I did together in college for our Sacred Dance class. It was rejuvinating to spend some time in prayer that way, but I'm glad to have the stress of preparing to perform over. Watching all the sisters and girls dance and sing for hours to welcome her, complete with beautiful and elaborate traditional costumes, was a reminder of how much I love aspects of this culture!

While the girls were performing I had another startling experience that reconfirmed my desire to be here with these girls (we get slapped in the face with something like this about every two weeks it seems. The government cuts food money, someone's dad shows up to visit drunk, child services wants to move a girl back with the family who abandoned her six years ago, etc.). My youngest students (5-9) were following me like little ducklings and one of the youngest (5) called me mom. What do you say to a five year old orphan who calls you mama? Later on she was sitting in her own chair but laying across my lap and I asked her to sit up so one of the girls who was looking for a seat could sit in my lap and get out of the way of the dancers. She burst in to tears. I carried her out of salon and asked her what happened? "you wanted me to move" she said. Oops. But is that all? Then, through sobs, this ever-chearful little girl who has never mentioned her family in the nearly six months I've been here starting gasping about how her family left her here and maybe her mom didn't want her and why doesn't anyone try to see her, and, and, and. Little things like "sit up" or "not now" or "goodbye", even if they may be the right thing, touch deep but carefully hidden wounds that no amount of hugs and kisses and bed time stories seem to heal. Damn.

At the end of their performance, Hna Marta Deysi had them move their chairs to the center, close their eyes, and imagine they were walking with Jesus. What does He look like? How is He dressed? She reminded them of God's infinite love for them, a love that never fails even when their families or their friends or, yes, even the sisters and volunteers fail. She told them that God wanted them to feel His love for them and to imagine the people passing around them were sent as God's messengers of love. Then, as the girls waited with eyes closed and palms turned up, she had the sisters, Johanna and I walk through the girls and give them the biggest warmest hug we could muster. "This is God's embrace" she told them. I've never felt teenagers grab on to someone like that. Big tough girls rolling their eyes and mocking their friends two minutes earlier were crying silently. Afterwards she invited them to share how they felt. Safe, they said. Strong. Happy. "Like I'm flying," "like I'm in heaven." Pretty powerful stuff.

Yesterday was another amazing day. Hna Aida made her first profession! It was beautiful. If you've never been to a profession you should go crash one. Someone devoting her life entirely to the love and service of God and her community while her fellow sisters sing and dance and celebrate like the daughters of Israel in Song of Songs, there aren't many ceremonies more beautiful. Of course, being a lay missioner at a profession is much like being the only single person at a wedding. Everyone wants to know if you're next.

This week is the last week of classes, then we'll back to the usual routine: running with girls from the transition house and praying with the sisters in the morning, managing the computer lab, tutoring, checking homework and trying to get the girls further caught up during the day, and teaching dance in the evening. I'm honestly a little torn. I'm ready for a break from seven hours of classes a day and am looking forward to the school year routine (especially teaching dance and getting to spend a little more time with the older girls that haven't had classes with me), but I really had a blast teaching this summer!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Thanks Johny B

"It's not enough to love them, they must know that they are loved."
-John Bosco

So true.

I know I go over this again and again and again, but there are a lot of really loving people in my life. I can't help but think of each of them when I'm trying to show these girls that they are loved. Many of them have been left here with a lot of healing to be done. The Salesian sisters have been giving us a great example and we're doing our best to show them.

It's not enough to love her...
She must see you wearing the enormous plastic pre-teen jewelry she bought you for Christmas
She must know that you're ready to sit for hours listening to her scratch and wack at the guitar while she's trying to learn
She must see you celebrate the first day she makes it through class without a tantrum
She must know that you're willing to carry her on your back dance after dance until midnight because she dislocated her foot the day before and so badly wants to celebrate tonight
She must see that you're ready to climb up and get her off the roof because she's too scared to get down, no matter how much trouble she is for climbing up in the first place
She must see that you're interested in the very long and dramatic tales of her teenage romance

Honestly, some days it's a lot harder than simply saying "I love you." Especially when they act like all they want is to push you away. But the more I look for ways to show them that I want to be here with them no matter what, the better things get.

My little ones are a riot. A few examples that I may have already shared. I really don't remember. Oh well...

Salet (5) was asking where Johanna was when she was sick.
"Does she have the flu?"
"Does she have a cough?"
"no, her tummy hurts"
She thought about it for a minute and then nodded slowly. "I know what's wrong!"
"Oh really? What?"
"She's pregnant!"
Gee, why didn't I think of that?
Then she explained, "When you're pregnant, your tummy hurts, and then a baby is born!"
All she needs now is to finish learning her ABCs and she'll be on the way to medical school.

We were practicing our letters the other day and Mariluz (6) was trying to think of something that starts with K.
"Kuh...kuh...kah..caca!" She was so genuinely proud that she had thought of an answer that she forgot to giggle over the word caca. I almost didn't have the heart to tell her that caca starts with c.

We have a new girl in the hogar who speaks mostly quechua. The littlest ones in the class have been trying out a few words after listening to her. They love playing with the sounds but really have no idea what they're saying. Nilva looks at them so seriously even though, even with my limited quechua, I know they're yelling something to the effect of "come here! no four how are you yes eyes!" Meanwhile, Nilva has picked up "hacer caso" and, proud of her developing Spanish, yells out "pay attention!" about every fifteen minutes.

A few of the girls recently were playing something similar to plastic army man war. Only instead of action figures they were using cockroaches. Cockroaches also serve in place of hotwheels.

If the girls are good, at the end of class they can play with paper dolls. They earn points for answering questions which they can spend on clothes for their paper dolls. If they have to choose, their dolls usually attend parties naked with cute shoes and little paper dogs.

If you haven't seen the pictures, check them out.