Thursday, November 17, 2016

And Now for a Visit from the PARENTS!

I can finally say that as of August of this year, my entire nuclear family has now made it down for a Bolivian travel experience! And what an experience this past one was... :) As I did with the blog posts about Bridget's visit, I'm going to break my parents' visit up into two parts--the first (this one) just giving the nuts and bolts of our adventures and the second looking at any take-away messages I learned during their two-ish weeks with me.

So without further delay, let's start with our first adventure, which happened very shortly after my parents landed in La Paz... Now before I go on with this story, it's good to point out a couple of important details. First of all La Paz has the highest international airport in the world, clocking in at an impressive 13,325 feet above sea level. This means oxygen levels are quite low and ones ability to feel "normal" and not want to either 1) sleep all the time, 2) vomit all the time, or 3) take ibuprofen for your killer headache all.the.time are also quite low. Additionally, these feelings are typically exacerbated even further when one has been traveling for a bazillion hours on route to visit your lovely daughter who lives in a different hemisphere...

So now that all of that is in context, let's picture my parents getting off their international flight at 5AM in La Paz tired, jet-lagged, etc and walking into the land of ZERO OXYGEN. My dad actually did alright in the moon-atmosphere-like conditions, but my mother's body unfortunately didn't react so kindly to the lack of normal breathing materials. Knowing this was probably going to be the case, I had booked us a flight to the Amazon area of Bolivia (read SEA LEVEL) just a couple hours after my parents' arrival. Unfortunately, when I went to check-in to said flight, I found out that due to monsoon like rains that had hit the town we'd be flying into (Rurrenabaque), instead of leaving at 730AM, our flight time had now been switched to 5PM to accommodate all the travelers who had missed flights the day before.

Luckily for us, with the help of my good friend Minh (who was also traveling with us), after some thought, lots of question-asking, and lets be honest, divine intervention, my parents and I managed to score last minute plane tickets (ie bought at 6:30AM for a 7AM flight) on a different airline, called TAM. TAM stands for Transporte Aéreo Militar or military airlift in English, which means that in order to take this flight we had to take a cab to the Bolivian military airbase located about 15 minutes from the airport. Lets just say it was a bit of a surreal experience overall.

But surreal or not, we were so grateful when we finally landed in Rurre a short 45 minutes after take off. From here on out, I am happy to report that travel plans went much smoother. We spent a lovely day in Rurre before hopping on a 3 hours boat ride up the Beni River to get to the amazing Serere Ecolodge. Here we had 4 days and 3 nights of sunrise canoe paddles (to see birds of course--do you even know my family?!?), walks in the jungle (primarily to look for even more birds...), evening canoe paddles (to see red caimen eyes glowing in the water and view the incredible display of the Milky Way), an afternoon of jewelry making from jungle nuts, a few afternoon naps, and darkness lit only by candlelight and headlamps. It was an amazing experince overall. One of the highlights happened day 1, when our guide, Juan, showed up to meet us for the first time dressed in a St. Olaf College Soccer t-shirt... Yup. What are the odds... :)

 In the boat on the way to the ecolodge!

Um Ya Ya!

 My parents just hanging with some of the ecolodge's permanent residents :)

 My father showing off is bird watching abilities just before sunrise.

And not to be outdone, here's my mother making birding look awesome!

Ring making going full swing!

After our jungle experience, we headed back into the altitude, this time a little more rested and also on local altitude medicine (ie Sorochi pills and lots and lots of coca tea!). We spent a "rest day" in La Paz, where the highlight was without question riding in the city's super cool aerial cable car system. The next day we woke up early and took a windy bus ride to the town of Copacabana, which is situated right on the shore of the massive Lake Titicaca. It was here where we all fell in love (some of us not for the first time) with Bolivia. The lake is incredible. The mountains in the background are stunning. The cool crisp air (although devoid of oxygen...) is clean and sweet, and the hostel we stayed in was quite literally a slice of heaven. It was the same hostel I stayed with when Moly and I visited, and it was just as perfect as I'd remembered.

 View from the Teleferico (ie ariel cable car system)

View of the harbor from our hostel suite

Although we were only there for a couple days, we took full advantage of our time. We walked the shoreline, admiring all the cars that had come to be blessed at the local cathedral, we ate dinners watching the sun set over the peaceful harbor, we hiked Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), which according to Inca mythology is the birthplace of the sun (!!), we spent our evenings cuddled by the fire doing crossword puzzles and word jumbles together, and we drank "un monton" (ie a WHOLE lot) of coca tea. It was truly a special time :)

 One of the many decorated and blessed cars near the harbor

A small harbor on Isla del Sol

Hiking buddies for the day on Isla del Sol!

Next, our journey took us to Cochabamba, so my parents could get a taste of what my "real" life is like! I tried my best NOT to pack our schedule in Coch, but with so many people and places I wanted them to see, it was hard. They were troopers, and visited both of my ministry sites, getting to bake for a morning at Manos con Libertad, and having the unique experience of visiting both the girls' and the boys' homes at Niños con Valor. We also spent time with Bolivian and ex-pat friends, giving my good friend Ariane the perfect opportunity to practice her English! And then there was experiencing the Saturday morning market, visiting my favorite local coffee shop, taking trufis (public transportation), going downtown to the artesian market, being present for the beginning of Cochabamba's now pretty serious water crisis, experiencing a Día del Peatón (ie day when no motorized vehicles are permitted anywhere) and going to a Bolivian mass. All in all a very good but definitely full time!

 My parents and Ariane :)

 Group shot after a morning of baking at Manos.

 Fish for sale at the Saturday morning market..........

Getting ready to bucket shower after finding out the well to my house had run dry...(which it still is...) 

My proud papa after returning from a successful solo trip to the corner market to buy some drinking water due to the lack of any water the well...

And then, just like that, it was time to take my parents to the airport and say good-bye and maybe, just maybe, even possibly wait an hour or so at the outside plane-viewing area in the freezing cold wind with only a little jacket on, wiping away tears (not from the wind) every so often just so I could see them walk down the jet bridge to their plane... And then rush home so I could be there in time for them to Facetime me and tell me that they got to their hotel safely and that all will be ok...

I won't sugar coat their visit too much and say that we didn't have our fair share of "family moments," (cough, cough...) but overall, I am filled with gratitude not only to have had this special time with my parents, but also because it allowed them to get a tiny glimpse into my reality and help put my experience into a more understandable context. 

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Manos con Libertad

With the new year came a change in one of my ministry sites. Although I was very sad to leave Fundación San Lucas (and more importantly working with my good friend Ariane), I had known for awhile that it was time for a change. For many months leading up to my departure, I'd been thinking about how nice it would be to find a ministry site where I could do something quieter with my hands that might help balance out the somewhat-to-always-chaotic atmosphere of my other work at Niños con Valor. And so I did. And I am now very happy to report that for the last 5ish months, I have found a new home working in the bakery at an organization called Manos con Libertad.

Manos con Libertad (or "Manos"), is an organization that helps support women that are currently or have been previously incarcerated. Here in Bolivia, children are allowed to live with family in prison and wives are allowed to live with imprisoned husbands. This means that women with a history of prison life don't necessarily have criminal records themselves (although many of the woman at Manos do, oftentimes for reasons relating to severe poverty). As is true in the US, imprisonment here in Bolivia is often associated with poverty. Manos works towards helping break this cycle by providing an opportunity for women to support themselves financially through the making and selling of hand crafted products. In addition to having a handicrafts store, Manos also has a restaurant and a bakery--both of which I can safely say from experience are quite popular.

At Manos, I work primarily with the woman who runs the bakery, who in order to respect her privacy, I will call Linda (which is not her actual name). She is wonderful. I honestly cannot be thankful enough to have found someone to work with who is as kind, patient (I make a lot of mistakes!), caring, funny, and strong as Linda. Even on mornings where we are SUPER busy filling orders and making sure all of the bakery items are stocked in the display cases downstairs, I always know that we're going to have an overall good time together. Her quick smile, easy laughter, hilarious one-liners, and abundant use of "thank you," make my time with her a real joy. 

Which brings me to what we actually MAKE in this bakery! Monday mornings are always the busiest since everything has to be made fresh for the week. The list of items that needs to be made typically includes empanadas and rollos (both types of cheese filled bread/pastries), chocolate cake, tres leches cake, lemon pie, chocolate and vanilla pudding, different types of jello, and a popular Bolivian beverage called mocochinchi, which is basically a rehydrated peeled and dried peach placed in a glass of sweet cinnamon water. AND Linda is responsible for making all this magic happen BEFORE noon, when she's expected to be downstairs at the display cases selling all these goodies to the lunch crowd. Now, it would be one thing if she was able to start working at o'dark hundred in the morning, but due to public transportation restrictions, 7:45ish (sometimes a bit earlier) is when she can get into Manos... I honestly don't know how she does it. Plus we're not even talking about the days when someone calls to place an order for that day, sometimes wanting it to be ready just a couple hours after they call in!

But enough writing. Here are a few pictures I managed to snag while at work a couple weeks ago. I'm sorry I don't have more to show, but it was a Monday morning, which means that due to my hustling, taking pictures wasn't the first thing on my mind!

Rollos on the left, empanadas on the right--straight out of the oven! You can also see some red jello cooling a bit in the back right.

The same rollos (on the left) and empanadas (on the right) all ready to be taken downstairs and put in the display case! Don't they look delicious?!? I think it's overall a good thing I can't eat most of the products that Linda makes, otherwise I might be quite a few pounds heavier at this point ;)

Here are the ingredients all ready for us to make our daily 20+ to-go cups of mocochinchi. On the left you have the rehydrated peeled and dried peaches (one will be placed in each cup) with the other two containers holding the sweetened cinnamon water. I'm not exactly sure why they are different colors...I think it might have something to do with their different volumes...

And here we have Linda prepping pizza crusts that are used for the pizzas sold in the evenings at the restaurant. I forgot to add that to one of her daily duties as well... I tell you, this woman is beyond amazing.

So now you have a brief overview of what I do at Manos :) However, before I end this post, I also want to take a minute and say how wonderful it's been working not only with Linda, but with all of the other phenomenal women employed at Manos. As a whole, I have found the Manos "family" to be incredibly open, warm, caring, and inviting. It didn't take long in this atmosphere for me to feel included and appreciated just for being me--the help I provided was just an added bonus! In a world that often demonizes and thinks of the formerly incarcerated (and sometimes their family members ) as "less than," I think it's good for ALL of us to remember that they're people just like you and me and should be treated as such--with kindness, love, understanding, and respect.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The "Deeper" Stuff

And now (months later) for some of the insights that came out of Bridget's trip. For all those who'd rather just hear about our fun travel adventures and see pretty pictures, please refer to the previous blog post, although I will try and add in some fun pictures along the way in this one as well :)

There were a couple things I realized not necessarily because of Bridget, but more because of what we did together during her visit. The first has to do with hiking in the Andes. Sadly, my life down here doesn't really include a whole lot of nature. This is true for a variety of reasons such as lack of easy access to anything that's actually outside of the city (ie something other than a city park), safety concerns with the few options I've enjoyed in the past, not having access to a car, typically being busy evenings and weekends, etc. So I think that over the past couple of years I'd just kind of forgotten how much I crave the outdoors and the deep a sense of peace being in nature gives me. Which made my hiking with Bridget all that more special since not only was I finally out of the city, but I was experiencing some of the most beautiful scenery ever, and I was getting to do it with my favorite hiking partner ever. Bridget not only has the ability to stay positive pretty much all.the.time while hiking (even when the hiking to me is beyond difficult...), but her positivity is incredibly infectious and at times got me through some very challenging ascents. In the highest altitude I've experienced to date. Oh, and she'll also sing with me, which is also a dream come true. At one point, we sang just about every song we could remember from the Camp Manitowish song book. And then got thanked by many of the other hikers for being so "entertaining," which I think was a compliment...

Another insight that came out of my travels with Bridget was just how obnoxious tourists from the US can be. Now, let's all take a breath here and realize that I did not just say ALL US tourists are obnoxious, nor do I think all non-US tourists are perfect; however, I can safely say that during our time traveling to Peru and our time hiking to and experiencing Machu Picchu that I have never been more embarrassed in my life to have been associated with many of the other US tourists we came across. I think the highlight? or maybe more accurately lowlight? of the multitude of shenanigans we witnessed was when one of the women in our hiking group complained that the young man who had led her and her husband to their hotel, "didn't even speak English." Yup. It was all I could do to keep Bridget from curtly mentioning that it was almost like we were traveling in another country or something... Needless to say, all of this made me even more thankful (yet again) that Bridget is who she is, which in this instance is not someone I'm even remotely embarrassed to travel with. Except the few times she feels the need to act like my father... *wink*

Now, I think this second insight (ie my possible desire to distance myself even further from the "American" culture) may have led or at least contributed to my next one, which was the sense of homecoming I felt upon returning to La Paz after our adventures in Peru. I should take a second and point out that although I very much realize that Peru and Bolivia are two separate countries with distinct cultures, I noticed a whoooollle lot of similarities between the two during our travels. In comparison to Bolivia, I found the Spanish to be similar in Peru as well as many aspects of the indigenous culture (dress, language, shyness, etc), the local cuisine, the physical appearance of the rural villages, the prevalence of machismo (sadly), the presence of local "chicarias" selling a popular homemade alcoholic beverage called chica, the chewing of coca leaves and reverence to the Pachamama (mother earth), etc. However, even with all of these strong similarities, I still felt a much stronger connection to the people and the culture upon de-planing in La Paz. This feeling took me a little bit by surprise since although I'd felt a strong affinity to Bolivia for many months at this point, I'd never thought that I'd ever feel a sense of home and/or comfort associated with my new country of residence. It was a very nice surprise and a feeling I cherish still to this day.

However, I should point out that even in all of this new found Bolivian connectedness coupled with my embarrassment regarding peoples' actions from the US, I still was somewhat jealous that in La Paz Bridget was boarding a plane to the US, whereas I was getting on one to Cochabamba. And honestly, I think this had a whole lot to do with the assumed ease I saw Bridget returning to, whereas with me, whether I was feeling strongly connected to Bolivia or not, I was heading back to a life that due to its nature of being cross-cultural and mainly in a different language, was not as "easy," at least on the surface level. Which once again got me thinking about the immigrants in this world who don't have as many comforts or privileges as I do here in Bolivia, nor the possibility of returning to their home country whenever they want, let alone the possibility of having loved ones come visit them (due to lack of economic means, difficulty in obtaining a visa, etc), which I think I can safely say is pretty much the MAJORITY OF THEM. Just more food for thought when it comes to how we can better support and welcome immigrants in the US regardless of who becomes our next President.

A fifth insight, or maybe more accurately validation, that came out of Bridget's visit was the constant micro-aggressions I experience on a regular basis due to my sex (and somewhat also do to the anomaly of my skin color down here). I have tried, and continue to try, to "let go" a bit of the many small unwanted comments, gestures, sounds, etc I have misfortune of being subjected to on a daily basis. However, being the highly attentive person that I am, this has been very difficult for me and often times is just not possible. To see that these actions also affected Bridget in a negative way, and that she noticed that they were going on, helped me feel a lot less crazy and a lot less like I was "looking for" or "being too sensitive" to men's actions towards me. It reminded me yet again, that sexism (or I'm sure the same can be said about racism, homophobia, discrimination, etc) is not necessarily something that is blatant and obvious for all to see, and has more to do with how the action is being experienced regardless of what the intention was from the person acting.

And lastly, Bridget's presence helped highlight the deep loneliness I have felt at times living in another country so far away from my family and many of my good friends. I don't think I can fully express how nice it was to have a live-in companion who not only thought very similar to myself, but also liked similar foods, TV shows, music, activities, etc. At one point while we were in the tourist town just at the foot of Machu Picchu, I found myself whining for her to come for a walk with me, despite the fact that she wanted to rest for a bit. When she asked me why I cared so much, I thought for a moment and realized that my desire to have her come had nothing to do with being uncomfortable with walking on my own (something I do all.the.time down here) and much more to do with wanting to take full advantage of the fact that she was there and if she changed her mind, I didn't have to go alone on this walk. And as someone who considers herself to be pretty independent, this was a good realization for me to have: that although I can do everything by myself, that doesn't mean I necessarily like doing stuff alone all.the.time.

And done. That's what I got for now. And to think, it's been less than 2 months since my last blog post--very possibly a new record for me, but also one I probably will never be able to break :)

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Sister Visit: Round TWO

As you can probably deduce from the title of my post (and the above photo), over Christmas and New Years, I had the honor/privilege/pleasure of hosting my sister BRIDGET for about five days in Cochabamba, before we headed up to Peru where we got to do some mountain hiking and visit MACHU PICCHU! Not too shabby of a way to spend the holidays if you ask me :)

So yes, in a nutshell, having her here (especially over Christmas) AND visiting one of the New 7 Wonders of the World was maybe even more incredible than it sounds, which I realize that especially for those that know Bridget might not even be possible to fathom (right Wayne??). I'll try and give you the "cliff notes" version about what we did, and maybe do a follow up blog post with all the insights I was able to glean from having Bridget in Coch and our subsequent travels, so at not to have a blog post that goes on and on and on and on...

Ok. So, Bridget got here on the 22, the Tuesday before Christmas, after spending HOURS traveling. (She may or may not have a very intimate relationship at this point with both the Denver and Miami airports...) We had a couple days to relax (ie binge watch the entire first season of Brooklyn 99 as well as watch both the short Hollywood version of Pride and Prejudice and the 5 hour BBC version of that very same classic) before we spent close to the entire day of the 24th with the kiddos from one of my ministry sites, Niños con Valor. From 10am-4pm we played, ate a huge lunch, and watched all 32? 33? of them OPEN UP THEIR PRESENTS! It was like being back at Port St. Vincent watching all the men rip open packages on Christmas morning only WAY BETTER because instead of seeing shirts, socks, underwear, etc, we got to see toys, puzzles, new (super cool) shoes, ipods, blue tooth speakers, and jewelry among other things. It was awesome. And the excitement on the faces of the kids was priceless. I'm just happy that I didn't have to deal with any of them after they binge ate pretty much all of their Christmas stocking candy... :)

Other Cochabamba highlights include Christmas Eve dinner and MASS (just ask Bridget, it's waaaay better down here), Christmas morning waffles (!!), and a Christmas potluck dinner with the Maryknoll community and some other ex-pat missioners. Then without really a moment to rest, we took off bright and early the next morning for Cusco, where (among other things) we found a super awesome vegan restaurant. Yup. We had clearly left Cochabamba where at times the idea of "vegetarian" is to give a person chicken (which is still MEAT for those who are confused with why that would be a problem). Vegan is just WAY beyond most people's comprehension.

And then the hiking started. The day after we landed in Cusco we got up well before sunrise to start our two full GLORIOUS days of hiking in the Andes. Please see the below photos to get a small taste of the astonishing beauty that surrounded us:
Sister photo!

Where I would like to live. That is if I could have a very large fire place to sit in front of most of the time, and a constant supply of hot chocolate to drink... It gets COLD up in these mountains!

Breaking camp after our first night where we slept at over 13,000 feet (!!!!!). You know, just another "normal" camping trip.

All the women on our trip! (Bridget's in orange and I'm in purple)

A picture from our summit on the second day, which would mean it was taken at over 15,000 feet. Yup, you read that correctly--FIFTEEN THOUSAND FEET. We were not messing around with this hiking business.

So after our two days of pretty intense hiking (at very high altitudes let's remember), we hit up some natural hot springs, walked a little bit more, spent some time on a bus and a train and ended up in the tourist town of Aguascalientes, which sits at the foot of the mountain where Machu Picchu is located. Which of course meeaaannns that the following day we woke up very early and got on the forever-long line for the bus that would take us up to see those incredible ruins! And to call them "incredible" might be the understatement of the century. But before I go on, first some photos:

Standing in front of maybe half? of the city--it was pretty big. Note the peak in the background. It's called Huaynapicchu and we hiked it later that morning!

A slightly more "up close" picture of some of the ruins. This was part of the section where people actually used to live.

Just shy of the summit of Huaynapicchu (note my very flushed face, it was a very steep hike!)--if you look to my right you can kind of see Machu Picchu in the background.

 A better look at Machu Picchu from close to the top of Huaynapicchu.

I think what first impressed me about the city of Machu Picchu was its large size. I was not expecting it to be as big as it was. If I'm remembering correctly it's made up of three sections: an agricultural section with a whole lotta terraces where they grew some of the food for the city, a living area with houses, and a religious area with temples and other religious things, like the ruins to a large super cool condor statue. Secondly was just how perfectly positioned it was--on a relatively "flat" part of a mountain with the most amazing view EVER. Whoever picked this spot to build a city (ie an Incan king) clearly knew what they were doing. Thirdly, I was very impressed with what seems like pure dumb luck that this incredible city was able to remain "hidden" for so long so as not to be destroyed by the Spanish.

And lastly what impressed me, and maybe not in the same way as I was impressed the first two times, was the sheer number of tourists that were there. Our guide told us that up to 1,000 tourists enter Machu Picchu each day. No wonder I felt like I was constantly surrounded by other people. Because I was. José (our guide) said that after Machu Picchu was named one of the New 7 Wonders of the World in 2007, its popularity pretty much skyrocketed. Which is why all lines we stood in that day were hundreds of people deep and also why we needed to buy a separate ticket with a specified time to hike up Huaynapicchu. It was nuts to say the least.

And this is where I'll end this blog post. I'm hoping in the next couple of weeks I can come back with a follow-up blog about, "what the experience meant to me" (as I stated in my blog about Molly's visit) and any new insights it left with me--you know, the "deeper" stuff *wink* However, until then, I hope you enjoy all the pretty photos in this blog post, especially those of you that didn't have the pleasure of seeing all of them and MANY more on facebook!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Molly Comes to Bolivia!

Yup, you read that title correctly! And most of you probably already knew this. Due to my talking incessantly about it. For months. And the multitude of photos I posted on facebook from her visit. And  the fact that it was honestly the number one thing on my mind since about the beginning of June, when she booked her ticket. So SUE me. It's not every day you have a SISTER hop on a couple of planes, and travel roughly 4,000 miles in just under 12 hours to give you a tired jet-legged hug coupled with handing you her HUGE backpack to carry (which may or may not have been 90% filled with stuff you'd asked her to bring for you from the states...).

This post won't go into the gritty details of exactly what we did (you can look on facebook for that), but more of what the experience meant to me and how it's given me new insights now that she's left me here in Bolivia. All alone. Not that I'm bitter about it at all... ;)

But first, I will give the rough sketch of Molly's time here: We started off in La Paz for her first weekend helping to celebrate Mary's birthday (please see my earlier post about the Francisican Lay Missioners to remind yourself who Mary is) with the Franciscan Lay Missioner crew. Then just Molly and I headed to Copacabana, Bolivia and Lake Titicaca for the next 3 days to hang out with our good friends the llamas and eat some delicious fresh fish and drink a whoooollle lotta coca tea! Next it was off to Cochabamba for five days where Molly was able to get a snapshot of what my life is like down here as well as meet important people in my life, including of course the kids I work with, some of my co-workers, people in my ex-pat community, and various other friends. One of the most special parts of the trip was that Molly was able to be here for my birthday, which I of course LOVED and appreciated beyond belief. I think due to it's huge success, it definitely should become an annual tradition--yes trip funders (ie mom and dad...)??

And now for my thoughts/reflections:

She Just "Got It" On So.Many.Levels
First and foremost, I cannot get over how incredibly wonderful it was that Molly is fluent in Spanish and had previously lived in Bolivia (roughly 11 years ago as a Rotary International exchange student for 9 months), AND had lived in a couple other Latin American countries in and since college. None of these things made much of a big difference during the first half of her trip while we were in La Paz and Copacabana (since I was also a tourist there), but I could not have appreciated it more for her time spent in my "hometown" of Cochabamba.

Overall, these factors very much helped "normalize" for me what I'm doing down here, since neither the language nor the culture, nor what I'm doing, were completely unknown entities to Molly. This meant, that although there were things that were different and new to Molly on the trip, they were almost at the same level of newness and different-ness that she would have had visiting any other city in the US for the first time. She was able to strike up conversations and ask questions to Bolivians with almost the same ease that she's able to in English with people from the US. And there were many things that she just "got" without the need for me to explain them to her, both due to her mastery of the language, her previous exposure to the Bolivian culture and her previous cross-cultural experiences. To say these aspects of her trip were wonderful, would be a huge understatement. For me, it was invaluable to have someone visit who not only understands and knows me so well, but then on top of that is able to understand and get to know my experience living here in Bolivia so easily and quickly.

I especially appreciated this since I had just spent the 3 months prior to her visit helping host 5 different groups from the US, where I heard time and time again comments like, "I just don't know how you do this," and "I could never do what you're doing," and other comments that often had the effect of placing me and my work high up on a pedestal, where I could *finally* take my rightful place as lordess of the universe...but sorry, I digress... ;) And although I know all of these people had the very best of intentions, their comments at times had the effect of "abnormalizing" (is that even a term??) my experience here in Bolivia--something that for me can become wearing over time. Good thing I had a visit from Molly "a breath of fresh air" (maybe too fresh sometimes...) Reichelderfer to follow those trips!

Let's Think About That For a Second...
Another gift that Molly's visit gave me was the opportunity to work on my flexibility in both action and thought. I don't think it's that big of stretch for you all to imagine (*cough*) that I can sometimes get "stuck" in deep grooves of routine (ie just do things because that's the way I've always done them...). However, I found that when I've got someone else along for the ride, I tend to actually *think* a bit about my actions and my reasons behind them before just going on auto-pilot. During her visit, I was able to many times take a step back, keep the bigger picture in mind (ie spending quality time with Molly), and either re-think or completely change whatever plans we had in store for us.

I found the same to be true about certain thoughts, which at times included prejudices, that I just took to be "normal" and "common knowledge," which in fact turned out to really just be my own opinions. Sometimes it would just take saying a thought out loud (without Molly even responding) for me to realize that although it sounded super rational in my head, it was in fact not super rational in actuality. And maybe it was even unkind and/or uncalled for. Now, I think it's important to remember, that especially the realizations in this second paragraph were only able to come into being since I felt/feel so completely comfortable around Molly, to the point of non-censored thoughts coming out of my mouth at random (you're welcome). But, although sometimes this means I said things I'm not especially proud of, it also means, I was/am able to see, and with any luck deal with, some of the negative/prejudice/stereotyped thoughts that are going on in my head that I typically either censor or try to ignore--the biggest being my frustrations and anger towards the machismo culture that is so prevalent here in Bolivia. So sorry for the word vomit Molly (or am I??), but thanks for the insights!

And Finally: Let's Meet the REAL Caitlin!
Now, lesbihonest, I don't typically "lack" in the personality department, but as a "people pleaser" by nature, I do have the uncanny ability to change my personality at times to meet the "needs" of the people around me. This is especially true when I'm in a different culture, speaking a language that is not my native tongue, hanging out with people who I've only know for a short period of time (as far as life goes)... Hmmmmmm, some of those things sound kind of familiar... That is unless there's someone there who truly knows me and knows when I'm putting on a show. Which is where Molly comes in. You know, since she's my sister and has known me my entire life (except for the first 2 years...). Now, I haven't actually asked her about any of this, but I know that when I'm around her, I feel--and maybe act??--more like my true self (whatever that actually means). I know that on a very basic level that means I am less anxious, more flexible and relaxed, I more often do what I want regardless of what the group wants to do, oh and of course I'm more likely to be less rigid with my diet (ie will someone PLEASE just pass me the stinkin' donuts already!)... AND let's not forget that it also means I shamelessly listen to the Backstreet Boys non-stop (and maybe even watch their 2013 documentary with said sister), call my parents every.single.night to check in, buy things for MYSELF (ie spend MONEY on MYSELF), and say whatever I want whenever I want to (please refer to previous paragraph...). So overall, not only was Molly's trip fun, affirming of my decision to be here, easy, and thought provoking, it was also a true gift that helped me reconnect to who I am in the, at times, starkly different environment that I am now living.

So there. I think it goes without saying that this blog post was endorsed by the Organization to Promote Healthy Sister Connections and/or Slight Obsessions. I highly recommend to all who have sisters (or brothers) and are living somewhere in this world (and maybe not with your sister(s) or brother(s)), that you have them come visit you--you just never know what magical things might come out of such a visit :)

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Recently it has been brought to my attention that, as of late, I have tended towards making more of the disparaging-type comments about Bolivia and less of the complementary? praising? NICE? comments about this wonderful country that I live in. Now, let's back up for a second. There have been a few recent incidences that definitely have contributed to this bout of negativeness. First, if we recall my last blog post, culture shock was a big part of my experience down here not all that long ago. Additionally, I had the pleasure of being mugged at gunpoint about six weeks ago--a scary incident that could have happened anywhere, but to me was much more scary in a country where I'm still not "fluent" in either the language or the culture. And lastly, for the past two-three months I have yet again been dealing with a wonderful Bolivian gift of stomach bugs, this one a little more serious than the other times I've found myself playing "host" to amoebas and giardia.

However, even as I write about these unpleasant experiences, I hear in my head, "excuses, excuses, EXCUSES!" And in a way they are. In a way, I have been holding onto them for a *little bit* too long in almost an unhealthy martyr-type way--but why is the question? To show the world/myself how "strong" I am?  That I can "tough it out" even under the most "dire" of circumstances (which I am not even close to living under)? To justify why I can't, or don't want to, be fully emotionally present to myself and others? To allow myself, even if for just a tiny moment, to be somewhat taken care of by others, even though I'm usually the one who does the care taking? To cover up some of the loneliness and homesickness I sometimes feel being so far away from friends and family in the states? To mask some of the grieving I still find myself going through at times after so many good friends have left Bolivia? I'm sure there are even more possibilities I could add to this list, and I'm not even sure what the "correct" answer is. I can only imagine that it's somewhat of a mix of all of the above.

So where does this all leave me? The person I referred to at the beginning of the blog--the one who called me out on being a negative Nancy (sorry Nancy!), also followed up with the question, "So why are you here then?" (ie if you hate Bolivia as much as it seems). And she then challenged me to come up with ONE thing I like about Bolivia every time I see her, starting RIGHT THEN. And I drew a blank. I could literally think of nothing. Because for so long I guess I've only been focusing on all the rotten things that any society/place/community will naturally have.

So I guess that leaves me with a choice. I can very much choose to keep going down that martyr's path of negativity and frustration (which at times is almost too easy to justify), OR I can choose to focus on the good things around me, the beautiful aspects of the culture that I am blessed to live in, with some of the most wonderful people I have ever met. Because lesbihonest, most, if not all of this unhappiness I'm holding onto so tightly really doesn't have anything to do with Bolivia per say, because life can be difficult and challenging ANYWHERE. And really, overall, my unhappiness has to do with whatever is inside of me that is reacting so negatively to all that is going on outside of me and (typically) outside of my control. Which means then that the "fix" isn't something outside of me (like moving back to the states--sorry Mom!), but really needs to happen from within. Clearly easier said than done. And a commitment that needs to be made over and over again, at least in the beginning. So with that in mind, I'm going to start with something small. I'm going to dedicate the rest of this blog to my "Top 10" list on things I love about Bolivia. Because really, who wants to be a Debbie Downer all of the time. Not this girl :)

The amount physical affection that occurs in normal everyday life. 
For example, let's just start with the typical kiss on the cheek greeting (sometimes both cheeks!), which you do with pretty much EVERYONE you see. I realize there are many people from the states who would find this greeting both invasive and disconcerting, however, I am most definitely NOT one of those people. I couldn't love it more. One of my absolute favorite things about arriving or leaving the boys or girls home where I work is that I get to kiss EVERYONE in the process. And then there's the hand-holding I get to see on a regular basis between parents and their children. My favorite by far is the amount of hand-holding that goes on between a dad and his son that in the states would be considered *just* a bit too old to be holding his dad's hand, but here it's normal. And my second favorite is that hand holding is pretty much a given during the recitation of the Lord's Prayer during mass. It doesn't matter if you know that person next to you or not, you're gonna be holding his/her hand while you pray, which of course is followed by cheek kisses with EVERYONE during the passing of the peace. Below is a photo of two women greeting each other in the typical Bolivian fashion.

The generosity, hospitality, and openness of the Bolivian people. 
Clearly there are always exceptions to rules, but overall, I have found Bolivians to be incredibly open to inviting me to share a meal with their family, or have a "cafecita" with them, or offer whatever little (or lot) that they have. Just the other day, a simple good morning I said to a woman on the street turned into a ten minute conversation followed by the offer to stop by anytime for a "cafecita." 

The traditional Bolivian dances and music. 
First are the incredible costumes that span from the SUPER ornate to more "typical" indigenous Bolivian dress. Second are the super cool dance moves  and the deep historical significance of most dances. And third is the beautiful traditional music that goes along with most of the dances, which although I have heard quite a lot over the past year and a half, I still love. My favorite dance overall is the Tinku, not only because it's a pretty active/fun dance to watch, but also because the women actually get to do more (like a lot more) than just look pretty and swing their hips back and forth... Here's a link to a blog that explains some of the most "famous" Bolivian dances. And below is a photo of traditional Tinku costumes.

The readily available and great quality of fresh fruits and vegetables. all.year.round.
I can buy fresh papaya, banana, oranges, tangerines, persimmons, grapes, pineapple, mango, strawberries, avocado, onions, spinach, broccoli, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, peas, asparagus, fennel, potatoes, garlic, yucca, zucchini, squash, carrots, and SO MUCH MORE on a daily basis. And it's cheap and delicious and available everywhere. Below is a picture of a more or less typical Bolivian market place.

One word: Coca.
I don't think there is anything I don't love about coca. I love how it smells, I love how it tastes, I love the calm focused energy it gives me, and I love how it's used--which is typically either in an offering to the pachamama (mother earth), or as a shared experience between friends or even strangers. It is definitely something I will miss when I go back to the states.

Public transportation
It is plentiful and cheap, and it gets you to where you need to go in typically a reasonable amount of time. This also includes travel between the different regions and major cities in Bolivia.

The beautiful colors used in Bolivian aguayos and other Bolivian fabrics.
I love walking through the cancha (the big open air market here in Cochabamba) for many reasons, but a major one is seeing all of the different colorful aguayos and skirts the women use here. The colors are bright and happy and full of character. This same beautiful fabric is used as table cloths, pillow cases, for shoes, on journals, and so much more. It adds a small ray of sunshine no matter where it shows up!

How Sunday is actually a rest day to be spent with friends and family.
Most shops are closed down on Sundays. And most people are at home or at the home of a relatives house spending time with the people they love. Sundays are one of my favorite days because really the expectation is not to "do" anything per say except maybe organize weekly after-church brunches with some of the members in your potentially uh-mazing ex-pat community and just relax and get ready for the busy week to come.

The food.
You all knew it was coming! I LOVE me some Bolivia food. Not only do I find most bolivian dishes delicious, but most of them just naturally happen to be gluten-free. Extra bonus for this girl! Some of my favorite dishes include silpancho, papa a la huancaina, arroz con queso, sopa de mani, pan de arroz, cabiñitas, and fried yucca, to name a few. Here's a link to a website that shows some pictures of "typical" Bolivian foods:  Below is photo of papa a la huancaina, which is basically potatoes covered in the most delicious peanut sauce EVER complete with hard boiled egg(s) and olives.
The sun and the mountains and the climate. 
I don't want to brag too much (and really I shouldn't because recently it's been freakin' freezing at night and in the mornings), but the temperature here is typically around 70s-80s all year round. Not too shabby. With beautiful sunlight EVERY DAY! And did I mention that Cochabamba is surrounded by mountains? Because it is. And they're beautiful as well. So really, there's a whole lot to be thankful for in this place that I live :)

So there you have it. This is proof to the world and myself that there are many things I love about this country that I am currently calling home. And although it is obviously not without it's shortcomings (or at least what I see as shortcomings from my perspective), there is a whole lot of good and joy to be found in its people and culture--something I hope I can once again learn to recognize on a daily basis and fully appreciate. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Choque Cultural.

You know when you get a medication prescribed to you for the first time and maybe decide to look at the list of potential side effects before taking your first dose?  And without a doubt get a bit overwhelmed because without fail--from the simplest to the most complex meds--these always include things like internal bleeding, nausea, vomiting, maybe even depression or changes in mood, dizziness, fatigue, constipation, diarrhea, loss of appetite, changes in taste, malaise (ie feeling like death), etc.  But you take the med anyway because you think the actual chances of you getting any of the really bad side effects are so low that it's not worth worrying about.

It was with this exact mindset that I first reviewed the list of potential "symptoms" of culture shock--or what sometimes can be thought of as potential "side effects" of living overseas in another culture--what now seems like a lifetime ago during my MKLM orientation in the fall of 2014.  And what a list it is.  Below is a compilation of some of my "favorites:"

  • Extreme homesickness
  • Feelings of helplessness/dependency
  • Disorientation and isolation
  • Depression and sadness
  • Hyper-irritability, may include inappropriate anger and hostility
  • Sleep and eating disturbances (too little or too much)
  • Excessive critical reactions to host culture/stereotyping
  • Hypochondria
  • Excessive drinking
  • Recreational drug dependency
  • Extreme concerns over sanitation, safety (even paranoia), and being taken advantage of
  • Loss of focus and ability to complete tasks

Wow.  Now there's a whole list of horrible if I've ever seen one.  No wonder I glanced at it and then mentally set it aside. Also, before this stage of "culture shock" hits, there's a wonderful initial "honeymoon" stage we were told about, making it much more easy to focus on the positive without thinking about the hardships that, in my mind, potentially could come further down the road.  To help those of us who are very visual, below is a graph of what the mental adjustment of living abroad can look like over time.

As many of you wiser and more traveled people know, regardless of whether you want it to or not, culture shock is a very real experience that apparently all expats/immigrants (or at least the vast majority of us) must go through.  I love how the above graph calls that lowest of the low point, "Acceptance of Reality."  Ha. To me, that gives it too much of the air that it's somehow a choice.  And I guess for some people it is.  But for me, the choice was not whether or not to accept the reality around me, but instead it was whether or not I was going to choose to stay in this new cultural reality or instead just throw in the towel and hightail it back to the U.S. (a thought I had during this time quite frequently).

However, despite going through pretty much all of the above listed symptoms to some extent over the course of a couple months (with the EXCEPTION of excessive drinking and recreational drug dependency I am happy to say), I did stick it out.  But as I look back, I think I can honestly say, it was the hardest thing I have ever gone through in my life. Ever. I won't go too much into the gory details, but I will say that at one point I found myself needing to take a break from washing dishes and physically sit down on my kitchen floor due to the fact that I had quite suddenly and for some unknown reason (at least to my conscious being) begun sobbing uncontrollably. Which then to my even greater surprise lasted for like an hour. That was a new experience for me. And one I hope doesn't repeat all that often in my life. Or ever really.

I think overall I would describe culture shock as a life-sucking fog that I felt constantly enveloped in. I can only imagine that my experience was a lot like being pretty depressed for a defined period of time. It took all my effort to just, "go through the motions" some days and try not to appear as "irritable" or as, "angry at all things Bolivian," or as "numb" as I felt inside depending on the day or moment in time. Now, I should pause for a second and add that there were other challenges going on in my life during this time as well, which did not help the situation--ie my community of support was going through a whole lot of hard changes, I was knee deep in the very frustrating and time consuming process of renewing my Bolivian residency visa, and I was dealing with a fifth diagnosis of "bichos" ie parasites and the pain and suffering that goes along with that.  However, although all of these things likely compounded my culture-shocky experience, they most definitely were not the cause.  And also most likely wouldn't have appeared to be such "dramatic" and "traumatic" experiences if I hadn't been going through culture shock at the time.

Ok. For those of you that are still with me, I will end this uncharacteristically photo-lacking and somewhat depressing blog post with my one big realization that kept coming back to me during this experience time and time again: Living and working in this other culture that is Bolivia was my CHOICE.  That's right. All this misery and hardship I was going through was pretty much my own fault since I didn't have to be living in Bolivia if I didn't want to be. There was no one or thing stopping me from moving back to Madison or any other city in the U.S. for that matter. I could have picked up at any point and done just what I wrote about earlier in this blog--ie thrown in the towel and called it quits, running back home to streets where I would hardly ever get catcalled and would be able to understand and be understood by pretty much everyone (to name just two of the many things I was desperately missing about U.S. culture at the time).

And this very choice is what sometimes threw me into the greatest depths of despair. Because it opened my eyes to a small sense of what it must feel like for the masses of immigrants living all around the world that for some reason or another never have the real choice to return to their homeland, to their culture, to their idea of "normal." And thus for a very different reason, "Acceptance of Reality," is also never a choice for them either; it is a means of survival. And most must go through this difficult experience--often times out of necessity and maybe even against their will--without the luxury of having their parents just a "skype call away," or without the security of knowing they live in a safe place or will have enough food for the week, or without being able to understand the new language they are surrounded by, or with the ever-present anxiety about their legal status or the fear that they and/or their children will be constantly harassed for "being different" and "less than." Even as I write these words, I get a heavy feeling of nausea in the pit of my stomach and a strong desire to scream. Loudly. I can't even imagine what it would be like to go through culture shock NOT in the "most ideal" of conditions. It quite honestly must be horrific and maybe even impossible at times.

So with that in mind, I will actually end this blog post by asking us all to remember (myself included), that there is a whole lot of difficulty associated with moving to and living in a new culture--much of which is not apparent on the surface. A fact I find especially relevant to all of us as citizens of the United States, a country filled with immigrants, both new and old.  So regardless of legal status, I pray that our country, and the people that make up our country, can find it in their hearts to not only NOT treat immigrants as "foreigners" and the "other," but instead reach out and treat them with even more compassion and kindness than some might see as "necessary."  Because, although this will not make culture shock go away, it will most certainly help, and I hope in the long run will help make our country a place where all feel welcomed and accepted.