Friday, November 24, 2006

Turkey Day

November 23rd, Thanksgiving, national holiday, a day to gorge ourselves on turkey, a day to watch the Macy´s Parade in the morning and football in the afternoon, a day to spend with family. This November 23rd was quite different. It is the first holiday that I have spent away from my family, the first holiday that I did not follow tradition and the first holiday where I think I truly learned the meaning of giving thanks.

I woke up on turkey day not to the parade but to rush to take a shower and head to class. This past week most of the North American students at school have worked on preparing a presentation about the true meaning of Thanksgiving; the origins (both good and bad), decorations and most importantly a feast for all to share. Turkey was carefully prepared, mashed potatoes and gravy, green-been casserole, corn on the cob, sweet potato casserole and stuffing were all set out. We shared our holiday with our Bolivian teachers who had never eaten stuffing or green-been casserole and kept asking for the recipes. Overall I enjoyed the experience of presenting something new to a culture that has been sharing itself so willingly with me. We cleaned up the mess from the feast and Thanksgiving at the Institute was over. Yet the day had only just begun.

Next was a stop in the post office, which unlike in the states was open, as was everything else, since Thanksgiving is not exactly a Bolivian holiday. It was an interesting experience to walk around to all of the shops here, knowing that they would all be closed back home. A few of us stopped for a bottle of wine on the Prado, the main drag of Cochabamba, complete with wonderful cafes and eateries. We sat and enjoyed the over-priced bottle of wine and talked about our presentation, which we agreed went really well. We soon realized it was time for dance class, so we quickly headed back to school to prepare for the end of the year talent show. Two hours later and many frustrations danced out, it was onto the next activity, a conference for missioners in Latin American countries. To be honest I only went because of the promise of free pizza after, but what I learned and the people I met were well worth the time spent. I was surprised by the variety of Latin-Americans working in mission all throughout Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Argentina. I typically assume it is North Americans who travel to work in other countries, not people from Latin-America to work here as well. I even met a Chilean, who true to form, showed more pride in her `tierra` or land than anyone I have ever encountered. She made me excited to be headed to Chile with people who love their country and who take pride in where they come from. Finally, after a long day, I headed back to my host family and my Bolivian house.

At home I sat and reflected on the day that I had just had. It was so busy I hardly felt that I was missing out on being at home, while at the same time really wishing that I was eating my mom’s perfectly cooked turkey and stuffing. But, while I was wishing that I was gorging myself on her turkey, I realized more than ever before how much I have to be thankful for. I am so incredibly grateful for everything I have: the family who loves me more than anything, the friends who support me in my crazy adventure to South America, my community members here who let me cry when I was sad, the food I have to eat, the clothes on my back, the shoes on my feet, the comfortable house which I call home, my college education, my faith, my life, my experience in Bolivia and soon my experience in Chile, everything. I lack nothing. So, on this Thanksgiving I learned such a valuable lesson that, although it was different and difficult, I would never trade to be back at home because when I do go back home, I will never again take for granted waking up to Katie Couric commenting on the wonderful marching band in the Macy´s parade and I will never again take for granted a home cooked meal and never will I forget this Bolivian Thanksgiving, for this is the true meaning of a holiday, coming together, sharing and just being.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

We call it Volley, they call it Walley

Imagine yourself in a racquetball court. There is a net strung across the court, separating the small court into even smaller halves. Teams are divided into three to four persons, you’re handed what looks like a beach volleyball and the walleyball game begins.

What is walleyball you ask? Well, it is the Bolivian version of volleyball, played in a racquetball court. The most tricky part of the rules to walley is that you USE the side walls, but NOT the back walls. Now, it sounds easy, but when you are used to serving the ball in an outdoor court, your forget your own strength and smack the ball right into the otherside´s back wall, earning a point for that team. Which points out yet another change in rules, you earn points for your team simply by not being able to return the ball back to the other side, whereas in outdoor volleyball when you fail to return the ball, the other team gets to serve for points. Tricky does not even begin to describe the point system, especially when some people try and cheat you out of points, which does happen from time to time.

Some of the best moments here in Bolivia with my Bolivian family have been spent in las canchas (the courts) playing walley with both my host family and the HCA group. The level of competition each time we play rises as does our ability. Every time we get to the court, all rules are left at the small door and we just let loose and have a blast. We fall down, we laugh, we get balls to the face, yet we always manage to come out from the game excited about the next court reservation. Plus, I have never seen grown men (my Bolivian dad and brother) be so competitive, where they play the whole court and steal your opportunities to spike the ball, granted my host dad is by far the worst ball-hog. I think I went through a whole game without once touching the ball or if I did touch the ball, it was a mistake on his part.

It’s a funny sport this walleyball, yet I have really come to love it. It’s great for me to play, since the net is slightly shorter than regulation nets and I can pretend to be Gabrielle Reese and spike the crap out of the ball. Plus, it’s a wonderful chance to bond with not only my Bolivian family, but with the HCA group as well. So, if I had to pick between walley and volley, I might actually go for the Bolivian version, after all, where else can I pretend to be the queen of the court?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Me Jane, you Tarzan...

The Chaparé, the Bolivian´s version of the jungle, what an adventure. A couple of weekends ago, weekend a group of students organized a trip to the jungle, complete with monkeys, rope swings and giant spiders, it truly was a blast!

The trip started out at 4am, with 8 people pilled into a mini-van of sorts and we were off. The roller-coaster ride had the three priests travelling with us praying for our lives and those prayers must have been answered because we made it in one piece. In fact, there was a brief period in time when we stopped so that our driver could splash some water on his face. Perhaps next time we take a trip we should start the adventure at a more appropriate time of day, say 7am.

We arrived in Valle Tunari around 8am, ate a quick breakfast, dropped our bags off at an interesting hostel (more to come on the hostel later) and headed to Parque Machia, a elementary school field trip haven, complete with wild monkeys, pumas and lots and lots of parrots. Now I had heard about this park from my Bolivian host family and all I gathered from them was protect your camera from the monkeys who love to steal shiny objects. You know, they weren´t kidding. At the entrance to the park, we happily locked up our valuable possesions and went to find the monkeys. Within minutes, the monkeys were literally crawling and jumping all over us. Katie had a sucker with her and as like a flash of lightening, a monkey jumped on her shoulder, grabbed the sucker, hopped down and was happily eating the sucker, after the wrapper had been taken off of course. It was nuts I tell you! Where else do you get to hold monkeys who steal? We then started a climb up to a wonderful vista of the confluence of two rivers with the jungle in the background, it was absolutely stunning. Lots of walking in mud followed and then it was off to our next activity.

Parque Carassco: We were told while we were eating lunch that this park was even better than the first park, to which I at first was a bit pessimestic, but David our guide was right. Parque Carassco was like walking through The Jungle Book. When you start the afternoon off with a giant spider in the bathroom, you know that the rest of the day will be full of adventures, which it was. First, we crossed the raging river in a steal cage suspended above the water on cables, and headed off into the jungle with our guides explaing every tree, plant and flower on the way to the bat caves. There are several different species of bats that live in the park, but thankfully the ones we visited were the fruit eating variety. I have never before climbed willingly into a cave full of bats, but when in Bolivia do as the guides tell you and climb away. We were standing in the cave as the flashlights illuminated the bats all nestled into groups sleeping the day away upside down, granted a few were flying around which I must say, was creepy. After the bat caves, we kept hearing this strange noise, like a wild tiger growling, only to find out it was these blind birds, Guarachos, that hiss to keep away predators. We completed the circle around the park and crossed the river once again, squished 9 people into a cab (including the driver) and headed back to town to our hostel.

The hostel: Well, that was a trip in itself. First off, we could have picked something slightly nicer, but since we were only staying for one night, no one argued and I think we were too tired to care. It was right off the main road, which meant it was a noisy night for the guys who slept in the room facing the street. I think Patrick, Katie and I were too tired because despite the noise we all slept soundly through the night. All I can say is, thank goodness we only stayed for one night. So, half of the group woke up refreshed and ready for the next day, while the other half was sleep deprieved. So, some of us were ready for the next adventure and other were not.

Next up a botanical garden, which just happened to be closed. I was ready to turn around and move onto the next item on our agenda, but no, instead we broke into the park and enjoyed the orchids, crocodiles and turtles all for free. Again, when in Bolivia... the garden was really interesting despite the fact that it wasn´t quite orchid season and the flowers were lacking. The crocodiles were enough to keep us occupied since the fence between us and the ancient reptiles was literally 3 feet tall. We escaped the botanical garden without any penalty and headed off to yet another jungle adventure.

La Jungla: another field trip oasis, yet this park came with dangerous rope swings suspended from trees that I swear moved when you were swinging. In fact, Katie was saved by the safety harness on the 18 meter swing. I think my heart skipped a beat when I saw that she wasn´t on the small piece of wood they considered a seat, but hanging in between the seat. La Jungla was tons of fun simply for the fact that you could pretend to be Tarzan and scream and yell as you went swinging through the trees. After La Jungla is was time to head back to Cochabamba and thus back into reality, leaving behind Tarzan, Jane and all of our monkey friends.

Overall, the short trip to the Chaparé was simply an amazing weekend. I´ve said this to many people before, but not many places in the world are as diverse as Bolivia. Where else do you get the Andes mountains and the beginning of the Amazon basin in one country? So, was it worth the sleeping in the sub-par hostel and risking our lives on the drive up there? You bet. Would I do it again despite the giant spider in the bathroom and the stealing monkeys? In a heartbeat.