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. http://www.notesonslowtravel.com/famous-traditional-dances-in-bolivia/ 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, cabiƱitas, and fried yucca, to name a few. Here's a link to a website that shows some pictures of "typical" Bolivian foods: http://www.bolivianlife.com/a-guide-to-bolivias-best-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. 

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Bodas, Weddings, and Being Home

Since I last blogged in late December, I have managed to be a bridesmaid in two weddings--one here in Bolivia and one in the states--AND visit other Maryknoll Lay Missioner (MKLM) friends in El Salvador and good friends and family in Madison, as well as go through a big bout of culture shock (which I'll save for another post).  *Phew!*  Let's just say that it's been quite the exciting ride!

Where to even begin... Why don't we start with the weddings.  I honestly can't imagine two weddings being anymore different.  The one in Bolivia was for my good friend and co-worker Ariane (whom I have blogged about before).  We had our bridesmaids dresses tailor-made, which is not exactly the kind of thing I thought I would be doing as a lay missioner living in Bolivia, but I guess that proves yet again that life is always full of surprises!  And, in very typical Bolivian fashion, we found the taylor we wanted to use just around 3-weeks shy of the wedding...  Yup.  My dress was actually ready "early," which meant I had my final fitting the Tuesday before the wedding and picked up the dress the Wednesday before the wedding, unlike one of the other bridesmaids who had her final fitting/dress pick up at 4:30 on the day of the 5PM WEDDING.  Oh how I love Bolivia :)  But enough about dresses.  Highlights of the wedding were many, but the three major ones that stick out include (a bit unexpectedly) being the legal witness for the bride for the civil ceremony (and instead of having to swear on a bible, I had to make a "sing of the cross" with my thumb crossed over my pointer finger), being a part of the "flashmob" Grease Lightening dance during the reception, and being picked--by my FRIEND the bride--to be one of 3 in a dance-off competition that happened in front of everyone at the party!  Ahhhhhhh!  And sadly, I let my nerves get the best of me, and did not manage to pull off the win :(  Here are some pictures to help make this experience come to life (for those that haven't already seen them on facebook!):

Above, check out my awesome sign of the cross! 

Here I am with my "date" (or sidekick more like it) for the evening: Jade!

Grease Lightening at it's finest!  (I'm actually the person right behind the bride, 
with the sparkly headband...)

 Above is me with the VERY happy bride!! And the picture below was taken seconds before I found myself standing in front of everyone... being asked to dance... Clearly I'm not shy when I don't think anyone's watching (that's me with my hands up!).

And then onto wedding no. 2--USA style!  As I alluded to in the beginning, this second wedding was a *bit* different than the first.  We'll just start off with the wonderfully detailed schedule I received from the bride that laid out Thursday evening activities through Sunday morning activities, each with very specific time slots (for example including exactly when to be ready in the lobby for the car or taxi to bring us to the rehearsal dinner).  Let's just say I was in love.  As much as I have grown to appreciate the "laid back" (to put it lightly) culture of Bolivian timeliness (*cough*), I do love me a good well-thought-out-doesn't-miss-a-thing schedule.  The wedding ceremony itself also reflected this level of organizational awesomeness.  The wedding planner, Whitney (still have her number written down somewhere), made sure everything ran so smoothly I forgot to be nervous walking down the slick marble staircase in my less-than-perfectly-stable heals :)  I honestly was very confused at the end of the night by how people manage to pull off weddings without the Whitneys of the world helping out!  Clearly they do somehow...  The highlights of this wedding included getting to be reunited with many of my very first St. Olaf friends (!), getting GOLD uggs as one of the bridesmaid presents (well done Keisha!), having my very first experience with fake eyelashes (love love love), and getting to spend time with both the bride and groom and the bride's family before the actual wedding day :)  Below are some pictures:

Here we are in all of our glory!  Um Ya Ya!

You know, here we are just spending a normal 
night relaxing with some wine and our gold uggs...

Me and the other Ole bridesmaid Amy :)

Ok.  Let's move on from all this wedding talk...  Stay with me, I'll keep this next part brief.  First, it was incredible to visit the MKLM family living in El Salvador: the Altmans!  I got to spend 4 quality days hanging out with my best "fawrend" Evey and her awesome brother Eli and of course their almost-to-good-to-be-true parents Melissa and Peter.  Highlights definitely included our (mainly Peter and my) nightly killing sprees of mosquitos using what looked like an electrified tennis racket (apparently called a bug racket zapper??--here's a website for all of those looking for the *perfect* Christmas present this year: http://www.mosquitoreviews.com/racket-zapper.html).  I also LOVED getting to eat sugar cereal every morning with the kids and fell completely in love with a typical Salvadoran food called pupusas (which are completely gluten-free and delicious).  I'm still very sad that the Altmans live so far away and definitely contemplated taking Evey with me in my suitcase...  But I guess that means I'll just have to go back for another visit some day :)  Below is a picture of some pupusa eating with me, Evey, Eli, and Peter!

And now for my visit home :)  I cannot even describe the overwhelming feeling of landing in Madison and being picked up at the airport by my parents--it was the best homecoming I have ever experienced.  I still get teary thinking about it now!  And then to have BOTH of my sisters come home for a bit starting that first weekend (Molly was able to stay for more than a full week!) as well as having other good friends make the journey to Madison during my time home (thank you August, Analiese, Chelsea, and Taylor)... *sigh* Seriously, what more could a girl ask for?  I don't even know where to begin with highlights--pretty much every day was a highlight!  But if I had to choose, it would have to include getting to spend an entire afternoon just the two of us with my goddaughter Lea, the potluck gatherings of good family friends that happened both weekends, having time just the three of us with my best friends Hannah and Chelsea, going to the WI v MI State basketball game (Go Badgers!!), meeting my good friend Katie's super adorable baby, AND DID I MENTION GETTING TO SEE MY PARENTS AND MY SISTERS?!?!  Below are just a few pictures from my two blissful weeks at home:

My family :)

At Chris Shelton's with dear family and friends :)

Spending time with the love of my life--ie my goddaughter Lea :)

Now before I end, I need to include how wonderful it was to spend time with family and friends in DC, first during the couple days I was there before Keisha's wedding, and again the evening before I flew out to head back to Bolivia.  Highlights of my time in DC included everything except the weather, which was FREEZING.  I am lucky to still have all of my fingers and toes...  A big special thank you to my cousin Marnie and her husband David for hosting me and just being generally awesome.  Your spare key will be in the mail shortly... :)

Ok.  That's all I got for now.  My hope is to next blog on the less-than-pleasant experience that is culture shock.  Get ready.  It's bound to be a fun one...!