Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Church in Montero

Well hello, hello!
It’s been a while since I’ve written, and that’s because it’s been CRAZY!  The Lenten and Easter Seasons have been an incredible time to be in Bolivia.  I gave up English for Lent, which didn’t turn out to be as difficult as I thought.

This email is dedicated to the recent events in the Church in Montero.  About 95% of Bolivians are professed Roman Catholics.  Not all are active, but there are many Catholic churches in Montero, and each of them seem to be filled to overflowing during each Mass, be it Sunday, a Holy Day, or simply daily mass.  There are times when I am convinced that, for many, being Catholic is more cultural that spiritual; however, I have generally been moved by the faithfulness of the community. 

The Sister Servants of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (which run our orphanage, a nearby school and the youth ministry programs in our neighborhood) have a special devotion to masses on Fridays, being the day that Jesus died for us.  So all of the youth in First Holy Communion and Confirmation classes are strongly encouraged (required) to attend mass on Friday evening, along with all of our older girls. This is something that the girls love.  (In my opinion, because there are boys involved; a rare commodity when you live with 120 girls and attend an all girls high school).  I love Friday night mass because it is filled with teenagers on an evening that, without our programs, many would probably be causing ruckus.  It’s really a beautiful thing.

That being said, Friday night masses during Lent were followed by Viacrucis, or Stations of the Cross.  Viacrucis is not your typical stroll around the church.  We walked through the streets of the neighborhood, stopping at little shrines set up outside of homes, each of which had been assigned one of the 14 stations.  This was all done following a truck full of nuns praying and singing with a megaphone (and popular item, you will see).

The masses of Holy Week were extra special, and accordingly, the number of altar boys was increased from the typical 6 or 8 to 18. That’s right, 18.  I’m not even sure that all of them had something to do, but they were all there, being extremely reverent and on cue, everyday from Thursday til Sunday.  The mass on Thursday included the youth acting out the Passion, with a fairly realistic crucifixion with fake blood.  On Good Friday, the service was followed by a special Viacrusis, each station acted out on the back of a flatbed, with at least 500 people walking through the street (2 megaphones were required).  Saturday’s Vigil mass started with a bonfire directly outside of the church.  From there, we entered into the church for a candle-light mass.  Fireworks ensued afterwards.  Easter morning started at 5am for me and the teenagers when we marched around the neighborhood with a statue of Jesus before arriving at the church, while a nun proclaimed that Jesus has been resurrected, with a megaphone.  Easter dinner was followed by a marathon egg hunt that lasted until dusk.

I thought that the 5am Easter stroll was a novelty, until I learned that during May, being the month of the rosary, I would be rising before5am daily to accompany girls as we pray the rosary while walking through the streets, following…guess who!  A statue of Mary and a nun with a megaphone.  Because of this, I know that Venus, Jupiter, Mars and Mercury are currently very closely clustered on the eastern morning sky, an absolutely beautiful sight.  Check it out a good half hour or so before sunrise, when the skyline is a murky blue-green.  And imagine that there are palm trees framing them.  That’s my morning.

Because we are entering winter here, the nights are becoming frigid.  (My opinion of frigid after sweating for months may differ from yours). Anyway, I feel very much like my father, because I’ve been rocking the socks and sandals.  Don’t laugh, it’s not so bad.  And oh so convenient, as I can just take off the socks when it warms up!

I hope that you are all doing well.  Congratulations to the students who are finishing finals, and some graduating!  You can all rest assured that at 5am, I will be praying for you, asking that you are still sound asleep!



Carnival is here!  It’s such a big deal that no one has school, work,
etc yesterday or today.  The girls made masks and costumes for our big
party Sunday evening.  Which I might add, was the talk of the town!
We had seven queens, with very elaborate homemade costumes, and then
crowned the one Carnival Queen.  One of the many Carnival traditions
here is throwing water balloons (or paint or mud or used oil,
whatever’s on hand I suppose).  That being said, I’m avoiding leaving
the Hogar premises until Wednesday.  We had our water fight in (and a
little outside) the Hogar yesterday.  It’s crazy out there.  There
were packs of boys on foot or motorcycles running around with water
guns filled with blue paint.  Two little girls that live next door had
buckets of watery paint that they’d been throwing on anyone that goes
past.  Our girls held their own.  They made their own mud and schooled
a group of boys, who then ran away because Angelica stole their
supplies and Maritza threw her brother in the mud.  It is now 9:30 am
on Tuesday and I can hear the ruckus beginning.

On Tuesday, I walked 16 kilometers with 40 of our girls.  A guy from
the US gives lots of money to different sites around Central and South
America.  He decided to visit all of his sites, and I guess he likes
to walk because he’s been doing it on foot for around 14 months.
Apparently, though, he doesn’t like to walk alone, because all of the
kids have to walk stints of it with him.  Now this sounds like a
fundraiser, right?  I thought so too, but I’ve been told it’s not.  So
we walked through the heat and dust and wind.  Bolivians travel very
lightly and aren’t really well known for being prepared for the worst.
 Sooo, this means the girls didn’t get fed a good breakfast first, we
didn’t have someone carrying more water, the lunch stop didn’t have a
bathroom, and the police escort yelled at us if we walked too slowly.
At least there was a police escort.  And I provided sunscreen for
everyone, so NO ONE got sunburnt.  (Ok, so the girls don’t really burn
that much, but they used the sunscreen very enthusiastically anyway).
All in all, a good bonding experience.

In other big news, our pet zebra jumping spider now has a name:
Abuela.  It means grandmother.  She lives in our kitchen.  We also
have a hairier, less friendly spider that may or may not be a young
tarantula that appears every now and then.  We decided that he won’t
get big enough to be really threatening this year, so we’ll just leave
him alive for someone else to deal with in the future.

I’ve been reading the Harry Potter series in Spanish.  I started in
September because I wasn’t studying much, but I love reading.  I
somehow resolved that I should read the whole series this year.  We
have at least two copies of each book in the library and a lot of the
girls love them, so it’s been a good way to connect with the older
ones.  At some point, I started a competition with Sahara (16 year
old) to see who can finish first.  She was currently on number 1 and I
was on number 4.  Seems equal enough considering she’s reading in her
native language right?  We are both now on book 6, but I’m still
ahead.  The competition is getting pretty fierce.  Wish me luck.

Here’s your girl-of-the-update.  This is Deisy.  She was burned by
melting plastic as an infant and has been at the Hogar since the age
of 2.  She’ll be turning 8 in about a week.  And she’s coming to the
US today!  She’s scheduled to have plastic surgery at the Shriners
Hospital for Children in Boston.  American Airlines is giving her and
the Madre that is accompanying her free tickets.  Deisy is very bright
and spunky, and I hope that she learns a good bit of English during
her three-month visit.  If you are passing through Boston, give her a

Melia and I are giving up English for Lent.  Don’t worry Mom, I’ll
still use English to communicate outside of Bolivia.  To celebrate Fat
Tuesday, we’ve been making the girls repeat meal prayers in English.
I pray that everyone has a blessed season of Lent!


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Strange things to eat

Disclaimer: you may not want to read this if you are eating right now.

Life at the Hogar consists of eating lots of less than satisfying meals.  I’ve got a pretty strong stomach, though, and have been a trooper.  I’ve had plenty of liver.  I’ve eaten a duck rib cage that still had the lungs and large blood vessels intact.  I’ve had pork that still had the hide attached (and it was hairy).  Soup with chicken feet.  Soup with chicken feet the following day, which means the feet started to fall apart and I pulled a chicken claw out of my mouth.  Bread with hair baked in.  Cartilage can be found in any chicken dish.  The beef is sometimes more tendon than meat.  Sardines.  And a traditional corn tea that they add starch to here at the Hogar to make it gelatinous and call it a meal.  But I’ve eaten all of this.

Today, I met my match.  I peaked into the dining hall and got excited.  It looked like cucumber salad, rice and fried chicken.  That should have been my clue.  We only have individual servings of meat on Sunday.  I thought maybe it was a holiday I’d missed.  So we pray outside with the girls and in we go.  I immediately realize that not only is it not fried chicken, it’s not even really meat.  It looked like chicken skin folded, breaded and fried.  One bite in and I smell and taste sheep.  Not mutton or lamb.  But a living, breathing sheep.  Ugh.  I gave it two more tries, but then gave up.  I felt like I was eating a sheep barn.

When a five year waved her piece at me and yelled “Barriga!” or belly, I figured out that we had been served the omasum of some animal (probably sheep or cow).  For those of you who don’t know what that is (and, to show my past professors that I didn’t forget everything), the omasum is the third chamber of the stomach in a ruminant animal.  These are the animals that you have been incorrectly told that have 4 stomachs.  They have only one stomach with 4 diverse chambers.  Ruminants include cattle, sheep, giraffes, etc.  The omasum has many folds and functions to remove water from the fermented material of the previous stomach chamber.  And it tastes awful.  I would tell you to try it, just to say that you had, but it might be hard to come by in the States.

All in all, not a terrible experience.  At least I have a good story.  So…enjoy your next meal!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Stories from the Holidays

Hello, hello!

So many celebrations!  Christmas was wonderful here.  We started with mass on Christmas Eve, which was preceded by a live nativity.  That began with a kid with a donkey mask walking down the aisle, very closely followed by Mary (so it was like she was on the donkey maybe?)  That illusion didn’t last very long though, because Mary stopped to talk to someone and the donkey kid kept walking.  The most important part of the Nativity scene, of course, is the baby Jesus.  And because there is never a shortage of babies in this country, they always use a real baby, which makes for some noisy Nativities.

Isaias with Papa Noel-that's not his happy face.
After mass, we returned to the Hogar where we had a traditional midnight meal to welcome Christmas.  They really love fireworks here, so those began at midnight and continued well into the night.  On Christmas morning (after a few hours of sleep), Melia and I got up to put out stockings, then cooked breakfast (chocolate pancakes!).  Papa Noel came after lunch to hand out gifts.  We got hoola hoops for the 5-10 year olds (Santa Ana dormitory) to share, but they immediately began fighting over them, so we took them back for a few days.  Aidee (sassy 7 year old who lies out the wazoo) came to our kitchen that night and asked when they would be receiving the rest of their gift.  When I told her not yet, she responded “Well, you should know that EVERYONE in Santa Ana is crying right now!” and stalked off.  Love her.

New Year’s Eve found us with another late night party and, you guessed it, hours of fireworks.  For this one, we gave out bags of candy and a pair of yellow or red underwear (for money or love, respectively, in the New Year!  Those were a big hit.)  Then, on the 6th (the Epiphany), a rich family came, brought a DJ and HUGE speakers and threw a party for all of the girls.  Lots of fun, lots of sugar, will be followed by lots of trips to the dentist.  What’s the next holiday? President’s day? I don’t think we celebrate that one here.  Thank goodness.

Aside from parties, there have been other things to occupy my time.  One of our dogs, Afra, became deathly ill and immediately began sleeping directly outside my door.  Which is ironic because, as of right now, the only thing I could do for her was not step on her on my way out.  I really thought she was going to die, in which case I was going to beg to be allowed to cut her open.  But she made a miraculous turn around.  Completely on her own at that, because I saw what the vet did, and that didn’t have any effect at all.

While Afra was sleeping outside my door, one of her gross, engorged ticks crawled under my door and onto my bed.  This is the only explanation I will accept because I refuse to admit that it could have come off of me.  Anyway, I killed the thing before I realized that it was a tick, gushing Afra blood all over my sheets.  The tragedy of this is that I had just washed my sheets.  Big deal you say?  Well, we hand wash everything here.  I almost cried…and then I left them like that for a few days.

I recently spent my first night in a hospital ever.  Not for me, one of the babies had an abcess on the back of his neck.  It really didn’t turn out to be too awful because we were at a private clinic (run by Dr. Clever Moron, my favorite pediatrician, and yes that’s his real name).  At first, we were going to be at the Children’s Hospital.  Which really would have been awful because apparently they don’t like washing sheets either, or believe in patching window screens.  And there were spiders on the wall.  Thankfully, the director of the Hogar pulled us out of that hospital and moved us to the clinic, were I had my own bed to not sleep in while I jiggled the baby in the one position that didn’t hurt his neck half the night.  He’s fine now.

I usually find out about fun little outings with the girls 3-5 minutes before we leave, and so have grown accustomed to being fairly spontaneous.  So as I was walking into the Hogar returning from the dentist and Madre Rosario stopped the truck full of girls on her way out to ask if I wanted to go to the pool, of course I said yes and hopped in.  (Please note, when I say “truck full of girls” I am referring to a 4-door Toyota Tundra that already has 6 people in the cab and 20 bathing suit clad girls in the bed.)  And then I went swimming fully clothed and taught one of my more difficult children to tread water.  That was a really good day.

The most recent funny story is that I had chicken feet in my soup a couple of days ago.  The funny part is that we cooked this for a homeless shelter in Jamaica during Spring Break a couple of years ago, and I was appalled.  This time around, I didn’t think too much of it, just fished around them.  I really do think it added some great flavor.  Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.  As for the popular question, what happened to the rest of the chicken?  I think we ate them the next day.  That, or someone just donated a bunch of chicken feet to the Hogar.  Be generous with what you have, I guess.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Love, peace, joy and goodwill!

Christmas is just around the corner.  We’ve been very busy here, shopping, wrapping and baking.  It’s way too hot to be baking, but I can’t help myself.  Nativity scenes, or pesebres, are a huge deal in Bolivia.  Each of our dorms has a large, elaborate nativity that the girls constructed themselves.  It turns out, according to the scene in the baby room, that an elephant was present at the birth of Christ.  

The girls sort of know the story of Papa Noel (Santa Claus).  They know he’s coming on Saturday to hand out their gifts, but even the five year olds ask me, “So who’s going to be Papa Noel?”  When you ask any of them about Christmas, they always talk about the birth of Christ, attending mass on Buena Noche (Christmas Eve) and then again Christmas morning, and having a beautiful lunch that everyone will help to prepare.  We’ll have a full day on Saturday, beginning at 4am when we’ll put stocking-like gifts at the foot of each bed.  Afterwards, Melia and I will be making breakfast for everyone (pancakes and mangos!)  This will be followed by mass, an awesome lunch, dances the girls have prepared, a visit from Santa and an evening full of silliness.  

This has been a hard time to be away from home, not only for me, but also for many of the girls.  I can’t wait to share the day with these kids that I have come to love so much.  I pray that you each have a very blessed and joyful Christmas.  I hear it’s going to be a White Christmas in WV.  Where ever you may be, God bless!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Mango season has arrived!

Yes, mango season is here.  I love mangos.  We have two giant mango trees in the back of the hogar, but they don’t have mangos.  Why?  Because the girls also love mangos.  They get so excited for mango season, that they eat ALL of them when they are green (and then have stomachaches).  Fortunately, there are also mango trees at the convent and at another nearby volunteer site.  So we have a stash.  On Thursdays, the volunteers eat at the convent with the sisters.  This is easily our best meal of the week and I always get really excited.  Especially for the bowls fruit that we eat after the meal.  We’ve had mangos at this meal for the past 6 or 7 weeks.  Here’s my challenge for you:  go eat a mango, it’s really hard.  The Common mangos here are even stringier and juicier than those that you encounter in the US After a month of laughing at me eating these with juice to my elbows, the sisters began teaching me to eat politely.  I’m getting pretty good at it.  There are actually many different crosses of mangos and other fruits that ripen at different intervals of mango season.  Apple mangos are wonderful and easier to eat.  There are also peach mangos, banana mangos (heaven I hear) and others that I haven’t encountered yet.

Because convent lunch is on Thursday, Melia, Tom, Laura and I are going to be cooking a Thanksgiving dinner for the sisters this week.  Turkey and all.  If we can find a turkey, that is.  When I asked if I could order a turkey at the supermarket, I was told that it was much too early for turkeys.  Apparently you can only buy turkeys around Christmas here.  I did see a live one while walking the other day though.

Last weekend, I visited some other volunteers in Yapacani, which is to the east of Montero.  I saw a body of water and hills for the first time since I arrived three months ago.  While visiting Amboro National Park, we played on a rope swing, and then hiked three hours into the rainforest to see a waterfall, which I drank from.  Maybe not the smartest thing I’ve ever done, but it tasted wonderful.  While we didn't see any large jungle animals, there were plenty of frogs, tarantulas, ants and a snake to keep me occupied.  It was a good day.

Saray Masa Rivera
Life at the Hogar has been going, going, going.  We had baptisms in October, so I now have another goddaughter.  Her name is Saray, she is almost four, and is exactly as ornery as she looks.  When I tell her not to do something, she gives me a look, then usually does exactly that as quickly as she possibly can.  We threw a Halloween party where we bobbed for mangos (which I learned don’t float).  On my birthday, I watched the Princess and the Frog with the girls.  They gave me a frog and told me I had to kiss him.  So I did, and they screamed.  Last week, we had seven girls graduate from kindergarten, and this week we’ll have three who will graduate from high school.  We will hopefully be finishing up our Christmas shopping soon!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

An owl?

Two girls just walked into my room with this thing.  It's dead.