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I can’t breathe!

It was time to come home, and everything about the trek back pointed to that. While waiting to board my plane in Santa Cruz, the video “Dust In the Wind” began playing on the airport TV monitors—an entertainment medium that for the rest of my wait only broadcast Spanish music videos. I grew a little sentimental when I heard the song, knowing that the group who sings it is KANSAS. I also happened to purchase a Spanish version of a recent Readers’ Digest to occupy me for the seven-hour flight back to Miami, and while in route, I stumbled upon the article “Four Ways to See a Shoe,” in which none-other-than Dorothy’s own ruby red slippers were featured. Awwww… Finally, as the plane taxiied to its gate in Miami, the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” began to play in the cabin. Talk about goose bumps… I think God was whispering that I was on my way to the right place.

Other than a one-hour delay in Santa Cruz, I made it home without incident. As the plane was making its final descent into Miami, the first ‘strange’ thing I noticed after being away in a developing country for 11 months was the appearance of highways and interstates. Of course, there are cars and trucks and public transportation traveling rapidly on paved roads in Cochabamba, but just not in such an organized manner.

When collecting my bags in the Miami airport, I realized that I was still asking for directions and information in Spanish, which was no problem (and maybe even welcomed) since many of the city’s residents speak Spanish anyway. Many of them even responded in Spanish and we made attempts at short, meaningful conversations. As I made my way through Immigration security, the officer took my passport and looked at my ID to make sure it was me. After confirming that yes, indeed, it was, he giggled and told me that I looked a little harrowed. Ummm…. yeah. Seven hours of travel followed by a grand ‘plop’ back into a developed country not knowing which language is going to come out of your mouth might do that.

I think the biggest re-entry shock occurred when I exited the Miami airport to what felt like 100% humidity. I had to wait a few seconds for my brain to register the change of climate with my body. I think I might have even gone through a couple shades of blue before I was able to breathe again. It took me the hour waiting for the shuttle just to reacclimate to my new sea-level surroundings.

At the hotel, I indulged in a wonderful grilled cheeseburger, a load of greasy fries and a fountain coke, another thing I had really been craving. I think they were some of the best french fries I’ve had in… well, a year. But that could also be because I had Heinz ketchup to dip them in!

My brother greeted me at the airport in Kansas City and graciously helped me schlep my luggage across the airport to his car. Alta had ‘Welcome Home’ signs posted in the yard and on the garage doors, and a goodies basket on the table when I arrived home. And once at home in the comfortable confines of family, my brother and Dad shared that it didn’t even seem like I had been gone. Hmmmm…. I’m still wondering how I should take that?

The past couple of days, I have been attempting to reacclimate to life in the Northern hemisphere. It hasn’t been as difficult or mind-boggling as I initially thought, but it has had it’s overwhelming moments. Dad accompanied me to look at cars this week, and while I’m excited to have transportation again, I’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of choices and considerations that go into purchasing one. I made a trip to Kohl’s today just to get a pair of shorts because mine are stored away until mid-July, and I was overwhelmed by the selection. You mean I can have that shirt in six different colors and five different sizes? Whoa!?! In Bolivia, you just made do with whatever the vender had on hand. I’m hoping that finding an apartment and getting a cell phone will be much easier.

I am happy to share that the Kansas City school district notified me last week that I will be returning to the same school I left and teaching third grade in August. I am truly blessed.

As I bring my journey to a close and maneuver my way through reverse culture shock, I’ve been thinking about what I truly will and won’t miss about the time in Bolivia. So I made a few ‘Top Ten’ lists to share with you, followed by the things I need to pre-emptively ask forgiveness for should they occur when I see you next:

Things I will miss about Bolivia:
1. Fresh fruit all year ’round.
2. Neighborhood tiendas. I could walk two doors down in my pajamas and slippers to buy milk, butter, eggs, bread, laundry detergent, playing cards, and even electrical tape.
3. The use of public transportation and 21-cent trufi or bus rides across town.
4. The hospitality and humor of our landlords and front-door neighbors, Padres Juan Francisco and David. We could stand in our kitchen and they in theirs, and wave to each other across the courtyard.
5. Being able to walk practically anywhere.
6. Living in the “cereal bowl” of Cochabamba’s mountains.
7. The beautiful anticipatory smiles and innocent whole-hearted giggles of the children at the orphanage.
8. The accompaniment of the Maryknoll community in Bolivia and the hospitality and vulnerability of the Bolivian people.
9. Never having to use heat or air conditioning because the city’s climate really is “eternal spring” just like its nickname boasts, and
10. The will and tenacity of the Bolivian people to work, survive and live in spite of the hardships, limited resources and often bleak outlook.

Things I won’t miss about Bolivia:
1. Playing Frogger in Bolivian traffic. Fortunately, I never had to use my two “extra” lives.
2. Honking horns
3. Micro and trufi drivers attempting to stuff as many people as humanly (or inhumanly) possible on a bus or taxi.
4. Continually breathing in the exhaust of poorly maintained public transportation.
5. The concept that time is relative.
6. Doing laundry by hand.
7. Having to decipher the ‘ding-ding’ and ‘tink-tink’ of the trash and propane trucks.
8. The subsociety of stray dogs, which ranks second in population percentage only to Bolivia’s indigenous.
9. Being asked for smaller bills or coins because businesses and tiendas NEVER have any change, and
10. Receiving a piece of candy in place of the $0.10 or $0.20 the cashier owes me in change.

And finally, please forgive me if, upon returning…
1. I am your passenger and yell “Esquina, por favor!” or “Voy a bajar!” when we reach our destination.
2. I suggest we walk anywhere instead of driving.
3. I stop in the middle of the block and hold out my hand in an attempt to flag down the next taxi or city bus.
4. I ask you to pick up some mangos at the supermarket in December.
5. I haul my laundry outside and insist on doing it by hand.
6. You find me strategically plotting and planning how, when and where to spend my money so that I can have smaller bills and coins.
7. I ask for a squeegie to “mop” the floor after showering.
8. I attempt to haggle the Target cashier down in price… and then walk away when he or she won’t budge.
9. You find used toilet paper in the trash can instead of the toilet, and
10. I arrive 30 minutes late to something and ask why you started early.

This will be my last blog post. Thank you for accompanying me this past year in your own special ways: through your emails and cards, through your letters and packages, and most of all through your thoughts and prayers. I know that God heard them, because there is no humanly possible way that I could have survived the taxi and trufi rides unscathed if God’s hand weren’t guiding and protecting. I only ask that you offer up one more prayer, and that is a prayer of thanksgiving for my health and protection this past year and for my safe return home. Dios es grande.

God bless.

Love,
Denise

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Last Saturday, I said my goodbyes in Cochabamba and flew to Santa Cruz, where I have spent this past week—my last week—in Bolivia with the Van Brugges, the Canadian family I met during Language School. They are part of the North American General Mission team that lives and works in Loma Alta, a small, very rural pueblo two hours outside of Santa Cruz.

Making a stop at the market in Montero

After picking me up from the airport at 7 a.m., we did the bi-weekly grocery shopping and had breakfast at a local cafe in Santa Cruz before making one final stop at the outdoor market and then bobbling the two-hour bumpy dirt camino (path) back to Loma Alta. Since 1990, the Van Brugges’ mission group has been in Loma Alta, where they have built a school, several churches and other social meeting places. They also built a student center house in Santa Cruz where students from Loma Alta can contract to live if they are attending university in the city. The missioners do a variety of things. For example, Steve and Evelina teach at the school as well as play music for the church. Steve also leads a youth group, and Evelina visits parishioners in other villages and drives them to different community activities.

On an excursion ‘out of town’ yesterday afternoon while waiting for cattle to cross the road so we could pass, Evelina and I surmised that, in many ways, life in Loma Alta is probably similar to what we perceive North American life to have been during the early 1900’s. It’s a small town where everybody knows everyone, where the neighbors’ chickens, cows and pigs roam freely about, where kids walk dirt roads “uphill both ways” to school, and where the local Christian church serves as the pride and pillar of the community. Clay roofs and cement walls are considered upgrades from the ‘old’  thatched roofs and mud huts; outdoor plumbing and makeshift showers are the standard; gas stoves and refrigerators are just beginning to become popular; the wash is still done by hand, and a dishwasher … what’s that? The only difference is that darn near everyone has a cell phone—even if they have to climb to the top of a tree to get reception.

Making chocolate chip cookies one last time in Bolivia with my Canadian friends Jenna and Colleen

On our way to church Sunday morning, Evelina pointed out the canicería (butcher shop) where, she explained, “if tonight there’s a cow tied to the ‘chopping block’ (as I termed it), there will be fresh meat in the morning.” When we returned to church later that evening, there indeed was a cow tethered to the wooden post with one single light adorning the spectacle. (“Advertising,” Steve and Evelina explained.) And the next day when I accompanied the girls to school, all that remained of ol’ Bessy were a few choice dinner cuts and fond memories.

It’s been fun this past week to reunite with friends, resurrecting game nights and chocolate chip cookie making, and to share our experiences—so similar just six months ago, but now quite different. It’s been yet another unique perspective of mission and life in Bolivia to enhance what I already consider an amazing adventure.

Lifelong lessons
Friday morning, I fly back to the U.S. and spend the night in Miami before returning to Kansas City Saturday afternoon. Several of you have asked me what I’ve missed most, what I’ve learned and discovered, what my biggest surprises were, and what I’m most looking forward to upon returning. Since the first and last questions are similar (and the easiest), I’ll answer those first. Of course, friends and family are the undeniable obvious answers, but running a close second (and third and fourth…) are: a hot bubble bath, a bowl of cottage cheese, a home-delivered Pizza Hut supreme pizza, the changing of seasons, snow (yes, snow), and attending a college football and basketball game.

One of my unexpected simple surprises is how much I’ve come to enjoy cooking and concocting new culinary creations, especially with all the fresh fruit and vegetables that are readily available in Bolivia. I’ll definitely miss their constant availability, but I hope to continue the cooking when I get home.

I also was surprised at how much I missed teaching. The volunteer program director likes to remind me that in my volunteer application, I wrote that I preferred NOT to teach during my time in Bolivia, but rather try something new like working in an orphanage. What I discovered, however, was that: 1.) Working at an orphanage as a full-time ministry was not as life- or energy-giving as teaching was, and 2.) God has a great sense of humor. Why? Because after stating that I preferred not to teach, I ended up working in a second-grade classroom and tutoring two students in the evenings. I still continued to work at the orphanage two afternoons a week, but I (re?)discovered that my passion remains teaching—specifically immigrant and disadvantaged children in the United States—and I can’t wait to start back in August.

But the most significant lesson that has continued to manifest itself over and over has been the power and gift of presence

Two weeks ago during a phone conversation with my dad, he asked me whether I thought my time in Bolivia had been a success. I thought for several seconds about his question, but realized I didn’t have a response. That’s because I don’t have the same definition of “success” as I did before coming. If—as I had defined it prior to arriving in Bolivia—success meant DOing something for which I could show measurable, tangible results, then my answer was an unarguable no.

That’s because I didn’t do anything that would likely be deemed “successful” by these standards: I didn’t start a program to feed hungry people or build a shelter to house the homeless. I didn’t help start a transitional work program for women leaving prison, or provide water to a barrio that had none. I couldn’t even help Gerardo raise one nota (grade) to ‘passing’ after the first trimester.

But something Profesora Olga shared with a parent at my despedida (goodbye/farewell party) a couple weeks ago helped me put into perspective the value of my volunteer experiences and time here. “I’m not a very patient person and I tend to get very frustrated with the kids,” Olga shared. “But Denise’s presence has changed my character. Having (Denise) here has helped me work toward being a better person.” I was both floored and humbled by her words, because patience is not one of my strong points, and I was sure my many frustrations had been apparent. Many times, I felt more like a burden than a help because I didn’t even have a firm grasp of the language.

But as Profesora Olga reminded me, I was present. And I engaged. I showed up every day and sometimes just sat in the back of class while she taught. I sat with slow or struggling students and helped them finish lessons. I played with and helped feed the kids at the orphanage. And I kept my commitment to tutor Gerardo, sometimes just sitting with him as he finished homework or constructed a house out of shoeboxes for Mother’s Day. As one of the former volunteers, Larry, so matter-of-factly explained the significance of presence: Your presence is sufficient, because people have to react to it.

Perhaps, then, our most valuable contribution—but also our biggest challenge—is the authentic gift of self, of time, and of being truly present. Maybe that comes in the form of a smile, a phone call or 10 minutes of complete, undivided attention. Maybe that’s agreeing to accompany someone to a court trial, the airport, a funeral, or some other place we’d rather not go. But when we agree to enter wholeheartedly into an encounter with another—to just BE with them—then we create a space in which God can work—(that’s through us!)—and through which real ‘mission’ can happen … for both people. Our program director likes to remind us that’s why they’re called “The BE-atitudes” and not “The DO-atitudes.”

When I think about it, that’s how Jesus affected and changed the world in His time. He didn’t start a comedor (lunch program), build a homeless shelter, join a political movement or fire up a nonprofit. What Jesus did do was engage and be completely present to those with whom he had daily contact—often one person, one relationship at a time. He sat with the woman at the well and stood with the woman caught in adultery in all their pain, embarrassment, disappointment and sadness. He made time to dine and discuss with the Pharisees and tax collectors alike. And He always managed to reorder his plans when someone wanted His healing along the way. He always found a way to be present when people needed Him.

Something my brother emailed me several months before leaving for Bolivia is just now starting to make sense and take root:

“Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on … you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no results at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.

And there, too, a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”  —Thomas Merton

I wonder if that’s how Jesus felt about His own mission…

I know that a multitude of other lessons and learnings will continue to manifest themselves long after I return to the Midwest and have reintegrated. But if I can continue to remember and practice the special gift of presence that I have been fortunate enough to learn, then I could definitely answer that yes, Dad, my time here has been a success.

I have posted a few last photo albums, if you’re interested:

*Loma Alta (this past week with my Canadian friends, the Van Brugges, in their mission);
*Despedida (the goodbye party from my class at school);
*Orphanage (some of the cutest kids you’ll EVER see, though I can’t post their names for privacy purposes); and
*Miscellaneous June (a final hurrah from Bolivia).

Thank you for accompanying me on my journey. When you hear from me next, we’ll be on the same side of the equator again. And as Jenna and Colleen—my two smaller but very wise friends from Canada—say, I’ll have just ‘one more sleep’ until I’m home. Nos vemos pronto on the flipside!

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When I make plans with Bolivians or other foreign missioners or friends, one of the questions I make sure to ask is whether the time we have agreed on is Bolivian time or gringo time. In Bolivia, a 10 a.m. Mass begins around 10:15. Guests begin to dribble in to a 7 o’clock party around 8:00 (but won’t actually end up eating for another hour), while an 8:30 a.m. session at the International Climate Change conference doesn’t get  underway until 10 a.m., after the location has already been changed twice in the same morning. Yet no one—at least, no Bolivians—ever seem to get too upset, too uptight, or too bent out of shape. “Asi es la vida” (“that’s life”), and everything continues as usual. That’s because time is relative here.

I’ve asked myself countless times why this way of operating just seems to work in Bolivia. The first reason I came up with is that, perhaps when you have a public transportation system that is inconsistent and sometimes unreliable, a punctual, “on time” arrival is never guaranteed, and meetings, reunions and social gatherings take this into account. Given the fact that more than 90 percent of Bolivians don’t have a car and use public transportation, time becomes relative.

But perhaps the more relevant reason is that Bolivians, and Latin Americans in general, just aren’t as preoccupied and fixated with the concept of time and punctuality as we in North America are. That’s because they live in the present—in the moment that is happening right in front of their eyes—and not in the future, what should be or what could be.

Someone once described this value to me by explaining that if you were a Bolivian who had plans to meet someone at 1 p.m. for lunch, and another friend stopped by to visit and chat at 12:45, it would be considered rude to refuse the unexpected visitor and continue with your original lunch plans. What would be more gracious and respectful, according to Latin American custom, would be to entertain the unexpected visitor and, unfortunately by North American standards, keep your lunch date waiting. At the very least, perhaps you could call your lunch date and explain that you would be late or could reschedule for another time. But the way many Latin Americans see it, the only time we truly have is now, i.e., the visitor at our doorstep, and we should live in that time as fully as possible.

My Bolivian family taught me this lesson well…

I usually woke in the morning with a mental agenda of my day and a general list of things that I wanted to accomplish before day’s end. This included a mental timeframe for each activity or commitment as well. In Bolivian culture, however, plans are rarely made ahead of time. I can’t count the number of times I returned from volunteering at the orphanage on Sunday afternoons to find my Bolivian mother waiting to tell me that we were leaving in 10 minutes to eat lunch at her son’s house. (In Bolivian time, “10 minutes” can be anywhere from the actual 10 minutes to more than an hour.) That typically left me ‘10 minutes’ of awkward unspoken tension to decide whether or not to join them: Should I go—knowing that the visit could be anywhere from from two to seven hours, and also knowing that I had a family Skype commitment later that afternoon? Should I stay here and expect Elba to scrounge up something for me to eat? After similar situations had occurred several times, I finally asked my Bolivian dad how long he planned to spend at his son’s house so I could plan accordingly. From the searching and somewhat hurt expression on his face, I could tell I had crossed a cultural boundary by even posing the question of time in the first place.

Latin Americans don’t plan extremely far in advance or overload their schedules with prior time commitments and social obligations, so they aren’t constantly preoccupied about where they need to be or what they need to do next. When you’re with family and loved ones, time is relative. Or should I say irrelevant.  And if Latin Americans do have other commitments, it’s perfectly okay—often even expected—that they will arrive late. That’s because they allow life to happen as it will and live it accordingly. Because of this, they can live in the moment, treasure the people they’re with and truly be present to them.

The value that time is relative has been freeing for me, but also a difficult concept for this often Punctual Polly Planner to accustom herself to. Although I’ve learned to become much less frustrated when there is no plan or things don’t begin at the designated time, it’s still difficult because I come from a culture and tradition that values punctuality, which ultimately translates into efficiency.

But that’s one of the most significant reasons that Bolivia—and the Latin American culture, in general—Works.

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Bolivian wawas tranquilly take in the world as Mom goes about her daily task of vending in La Cancha.

During the two days I stayed in Uyuni I saw three baby strollers, which is three more than I’ve seen the entire 11 months in Cochabamba. That’s because a majority of the women there carry their babies on their backs in aquayos, a brightly colored, sturdily woven cloth that is also used to cart a slew of other things: blankets or large pots of soup to vend in La Cancha; vegetables, fruits and other items purchased from La Cancha; or personal belongings and a day’s or week’s worth of necessities for a long trip.

Maggie, who is a Maryknoll sister from Kenya working in Bolivia, shared with me that the mothers in Africa do the same thing to provide the wawa (an indigenous word for “baby”) with a constant maternal connection and a sense of security and protection.

It reminded me of a movie I overheard some housemates talking about a couple months ago. In the movie, “Away We Go,” a young couple who discovers they are pregnant sets out on a trip across the United States to find a suitable city in which to raise their new addition. On their trek, they meet several parents and families who have chosen to live alternative lifestyles. On one stop, they attempt to find “the family without the stroller,” as the family is identified by many of the neighbors. When they finally locate this “family without the stroller,” the couple brings them a stroller as a token of their appreciation for allowing them a glimpse of their personal life. The family, in shock and aghast that someone would actually purchase a stroller, replies “We don’t PUSH our child into the world!”

It was a humorous contrast to the way many of the Bolivian indigenous raise their wawas. I’ve seen children up to three years old being toted in an aquayo on their mother’s back, and I can honestly say that never have I witnessed such a child upset or throwing a tantrum. Rather, the child—wide-eyed and inquisitive, but safely attached to their mother’s hip—is tranquilly taking in the world as their mother makes her way through it.

As Jenna, one of my housemates, so beautifully describes in her blog:

“In the U.S. babies like to be strolled. In Bolivia they are swaddled in a brightly colored aguayos and then slung over the backs of their mothers. In the novel “The Help” they like plump people and in “Like Water for Chocolate” they like kitchens and warm ovens the most. … In Bolivia I’ve seen a child no more then two and a half feet high carrying her baby brother down the street. Instead of the blind leading the blind, it is the babies carrying the babies, while their moms are selling pomegranate in La Cancha, preparing squash soup for lunch, or hanging little socks out to dry.

I´ve never seen so many babies together in one church before the mass of Epiphany in our neighbourhood. They give out chocolate and biscotti afterwards so all the kids are sure to come. The priest, newly ordained, must have confirmed his committment to celibacy 1,000 times over in that hour celebration. In the U.S. we hardly let go of our babies. But Padre David had to stop mass halfway through to request that mothers go find their children who were sliding off the pews, swimming in the baptismal font, and chasing after neighbourhood dogs that had found their way into the chapel.

Babies are not hard to come by here in Bolivia, and neither are plump women or warm ovens that these new-to-the-world sense driven creatures love so much. But through all this, what appears to be chaos to North American eyes, I have but three times heard a baby cry. I continue to observe but now am starting to take notes.”

I have no doubt there is something innately significant in the intimate closeness shared between a baby and its mother. For Bolivian babies being toted so closely on the backs of their mothers, perhaps it’s nothing more than the simple security of knowing that, wherever you go, “I’ll Go With You,” as one painting of the subject matter I saw so eloquently titled it.

But that’s another reason why Bolivia Works.

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On the train to Uyuni a couple weeks ago, I overheard a Bolivian woman talking on the phone. I wasn’t listening close enough to the conversation to hear what she was actually saying, but there came a point when she must have needed or wanted the person on the other end to do her a favor, because she used what I refer to as the annoying Bolivian whine:

“Por favoooooorrrrr, podría hacerme un GRAN favor?” (Translation: PLEEEAAASE, would you please do me a BIG favor?)

It was the same ‘whine’ I experienced when Olga approached me with the news that she was going to be leaving me in charge of the class for several hours while she took care of personal things, and a similar whine to the one my Bolivian mother used when she wanted or needed something. And every time I heard it, I have to be honest and admit that annoyed me even more.

A couple weeks ago during Spanish lessons, I shared these experiences and my frustration with Reginaldo, and asked him why Bolivians didn’t just ask for something or for a favor with a ‘normal’ inquisitive voice, rather than with an apparent, pleading, whimpering whine.

“You have to remember,” Reginaldo reminded me, “that many Bolivians are in a position of poverty, or were at one time. In order to get anything or to get anywhere in this world from authorities or people in power, they’ve had to use that ‘tone’ and ask like that because they often come from a position of dependence and/or desperation. They’ve had to ‘beg’ out of a position of inferiority.”

I had never considered it from that position or perspective before … yet another humbling lesson for me.

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Salar de Uyuni

Smack dab in the middle of 12,000 square kilometers of salt with two of my traveling companions, Regina and Josef.

Last Tuesday, I left Cochabamba to travel 12 hours outside of the city by bus and train to Uyuni, a small town of 14,000 whose temperature temporarily transported me back to the throes of a Midwest winter. Gloves, hat, scarf, turtleneck, fleece and layers were in order. Uyuni serves as the launching pad for tours around the “southwest circuit” of Bolivia, a corner vastly different from the mild valley of Cochabamba. These three- and four-day, 900-kilometer tours are done with five other people (usually unknown to you before the trip), a driver and a cook in a Toyota Landcruiser. The adventure has been described by native Bolivians as “magical” and by tourists and other South Americans as “the best part of Bolivia.”

I spent Tuesday night in a hotel and went looking for a tour company the next morning. (One never has to plan or do too much ahead of time in Bolivia.) With more than 80 tour companies peddling their business on the streets, it was somewhat annoying, but I consulted my Lonely Planet guide and settled on a company that was touted to have good guides. When the time came to load up and leave, I discovered my traveling companions consisted of a German couple in their sixties (Josef and Regina), a Belgian couple in their twenties (Stephen and Griet), a Peruvian woman my age (Cosi), and a driver and cook (Lino and Ana) who reminded me a lot of my own parents—disciplined and responsible. I felt truly blessed.

On our way through the Salar

Off we headed that same morning at 10:30 to visit the Cementerio de Trenes (train cemetery) just outside of Uyuni. This is a large collection of historic steam locomotives and rail cars which may be part of a railway museum someday, but most likely will continue to rust right where they are. We then headed off to Uyuni´s fame, the Salar de Uyuni, which is the world´s largest salt flat. It sits at 3,650 meters and covers more than 12,000 square kilometers. From 40,000 to 25,000 years ago, Lago Minchin occupied much of southwest Bolivia. When it evaporated, the area lay dry for 14,000 years before the appearance of Lago Tauca, which lasted 1,000 years. When it dried up, it left two large puddles and two major salt concentrations, one of which is Salar de Uyuni. This part of the altiplano is drained internally with no outlet to the sea; the salts deposits are the results of the minerals leached from the mountains and deposited at the lowest available point. Besides being a center of salt extraction and processing (nearly 20,000 tons every year), the Salar de Uyuni is also one of the world´s largest reserves of lithium, a hot worldly commodity right now. According to Lino, the depth of the salt is six to eight meters, under which is a layer of mud, and then the liquid which contains the lithium. A company from Belgium is currently working in the Salar to determine the feasibility of lithium extraction.

Josef, Stephen, Griet, me and Regina on Incahuasi

Following lunch at a salt hotel, we headed to Incahuasi (translation: “home of the Inca”), which is thought to have been an island where the Incas fled during the Spanish conquest. Its coral rock formations suggest that it was once submerged by Lago Poopó (now Salar de Uyuni), but today it only boasts cactus.

Two hours later across the white abyss, we arrived at our lodging accommodations for the evening, another salt configuration in a sleepy pueblo just off the salt flats. Electricity (i.e. light), we were informed, is only available from 7 to 10 p.m., and there was no heat (and showers Stephen later discovered). We claimed our rooms (as many as five other tour groups also occupy the hostel), and Lino then took us back out to watch the sunset from the salt flats. Absolutely amazing! Back to our hostel for a delicious Bolivian dinner (“pique macho”) prepared by Ana, and then it was lights out—literally. I´m just glad I didn´t have to stumble my way to the bathroom through salt pellets that night.

The following morning, we were off at 6:30 to visit several different-colored lakes (made that way from minerals), semi-active volcanos, and a beautiful drive across desert-like landscape. After traveling for more than six hours in the dry mountain- and sand-strewn scape with no plant or animal life, or even our lodging for the night in sight, a humorous (at least to me) thought popped into my head: “I wonder if this is similar to the Israelites’ desert experience? Seriously, when’s our next stop?”

Lodging accommodations the second night

When we arrived at our hospedaje (hostel) that night, I briefly thought that the Israelites may have gotten a better deal. But then I remembered that I only had to endure the sub-zero temperatures without heat one night, not 40 years. It was a cement structure with a plastic fabricated roof that was held on only by heavy rocks. Obviously, it had been constructed for crazy foreign tourists who needed a place to “lodge” during their trek through southwest Bolivia. Two other groups lodged with us that night, and after eating Ana’s scrumptious spaghetti dinner and learning how to play Cascasonne from Griet and Stephen, I retired for the evening decked out in long johns, my hat and mittens. Bless their hearts, Lino and Ana also filled two-liter pop bottles with hot water so that we could have something to keep our feet warm during the night. Luck was again on my side, as I didn’t have to make the frigid trek to a dark bathroom in the middle of the night.

Friday morning, we were out the door at 6:30 again and off to Sol de Mañana, a geyer basin situated at 4,850 meters—the highest altitude on our trip. Then we headed to the Termas de Polques (thermal baths), a small 85-degree hot spring pool that served as the only ‘bathing’ opportunity on our trip, but more importantly, was an absolute paradise for my icy feet. Following a stop at Laguna Verde (“Green Lake”), we dropped Josef and Regina off at the Chilean border and then made the six-hour trek back to Uyuni.

I agree with the natives in that southwest Bolivia, especially the Salar, truly is a magical place. Standing in the white abyss of the eerily silent salt ‘lake’ or the volcanic deposits of the desolate, dry desert, one truly experiences the grandeur and awe of God’s creation—and our seemingly small, humble place in it.

For pictures, click on the “Salar de Uyuni” link at right.

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Competition

Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to visit the American International School of Bolivia. My friend Emily, who is originally from Canada and who I met through activities at the Language Institute, teaches there. (For pictures, see the “American International School of Bolivia” link at right.) Emily and I had swapped teaching stories a time or two, so I wanted to see what an “American” school in Bolivia looked like. The contrasts were quite stark.

My friend, Emily, teaches prekindergartners at the American International School of Bolivia. This is almost her whole class—17 students—preparing to make waffles as they learn the sound of "W".

For starters, Emily has only 17 pre-kindergartners (3- and 4-year-olds) in her class. The day I was there, only 14 were present. I know you can do the math, but that’s one-third of the total number of kids in a typical Bolivian classroom. The school grounds were immaculate (there is a swimming pool and basketball/volleyball court at the entrance—I’m not exaggerating!), and the classroom was stocked full of supplies, books, manipulatives, and interactive stations and centers. The classroom I was in also had four computers.

The real eye-opener for me, however, was the reading achievement ceremony that I attended that morning. The previous weekend, the school held a talent show, so the first business of the day was to award first- and second-place recognition for each performance category: solo singing, group singing, dancing etc. The top two finishers in each category received a prize, though I don’t know exactly what it was. For the reading achievement awards, the students who read the most pages at each grade level (kindergarten through fifth) were rewarded with books or backpacks or pencils holders, i.e., something academic related.  The ceremony was similar to Pizza Hut’s “Book It” reading incentive program in that kids were rewarded for how many pages or books they read. However, it was different in that only the top two achievers at each grade level were recognized, whereas with “Book It,” each student is awarded individually for his or her personal effort. As I witnessed the first and second graders who had read 6,000+ and 3,000+ pages, respectively, collect their first- and second-place lute, a troubling thought popped into my head:

“What about the struggling reader or student with dyslexia who read 100 pages—or 15—and considered that an accomplishment in and of itself, but is receiving no recognition? Does the American educational system, as I was witnessing it here in Bolivia, breed competition? Or is the competitive educational system simply a result of something else? Is this how our educational system defines “success”? What exactly was being rewarded anyway? So-called intelligence? Efficiency?” 

It reminded me of a shirt I saw a couple years back that read “Second place is the first loser.” Is this really how we view and/or validate our existence?

I then remembered a comment that one of the panelists—a U.S. citizen and very respected college professor—made at the Climate Change conference last month. He proposed that capitalism is a system that breeds competition, and is a system in which happiness can never be attained because we are made to believe that we consistently need more. The goal is to produce and consume as much as possible without consideration for the human, social, spiritual, emotional and ecological expense.

Hmmmm… now that was something to chew on for the next couple of weeks (or years). 

As I sat there watching the “successful” students receive their awards, I reflected back to my own youth and educational experience, and I had to admit (sadly) that I was instilled with a competitive attitude. I don’t believe that my competitive perspective then (and still now, to an extent) was solely the result of my education, but also the constant barrage of media messages, propaganda and peer pressure that I received on a daily basis. How many times had I received the message via television, radio, advertising, even well-meaning friends and family that I wasn’t good enough, didn’t have enough stuff, didn’t have the right kind of stuff, or that I should and could be better or more?

What I felt sitting there watching the “successful” kids be rewarded flew in the face of what I have experienced these last 11 months in Bolivia and with the Hispanic population in general. The first time Profesora Olga let me fly solo with the class while she left for two hours to take care of something, I decided to keep them on task (NOT an easy undertaking) by giving each table that was doing so a point every time I looked at my watch (which I did at inconsistent intervals). The three tables with the most points at the end of 30 minutes, I told them, would get a small “treat” the following day. (Little did I realize I was breeding competition right under my nose…) When, at the end of the 30 minutes, I announced the “winners,” more than half the class (i.e., those who hadn’t “won”) stood up and BOOed me. I’m not exaggerating. Those who were going to receive the treat did nothing—no cheering or celebrating—while the other 28  6-year-olds booed. That was the first time it struck me that perhaps competition isn’t a defining part of their culture. I felt almost as if I had done something wrong, or even insulted them.

During another class period this year, Profesora Olga asked if I knew of a game to play with the students because we had some free time. So I offered to teach them an addition game whereby the students had to look for their addition “partner” and match up correspondingly. I thought of it as an innocent, fun way to practice math skills. But when I said “Go!”, the students went around helping one another find their respective partners rather than looking for their own. I was surprised, and I have to admit, somewhat frustrated because they weren´t trying to “win”. If these experiences haven’t brought my own competitive attitude—and its futility—to the forefront, I don’t know what would…

I’m not intending to propose that our systems in the States are bad; to the contrary, they support and encourage creativity, ingenuity, discipline and hard, honest work, which is how I was raised. (Thanks, Dad!) But the experience at the school coupled with many experiences I’ve had through the years have propelled me to ponder to what extent such systems—be it educational, political, economic, the media, etc.—breed and instill an unhealthy, uncompromising, relentless attitude of competition at the expense and demise of others. Does one person really have to “win” while everyone else “loses”?

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