La Paz Americana Girls Club

Lists - Final Bolivia Post
Things At Home I’m Excited About:
A transportation system I understand
Signs being in English
Indoor heating
Unlimited hot water
Internet that doesn’t turn off at night
Seeing my family
Walking my puppy
Drinkable tap water
Not having to worry about the altitude when doing rigorous physical tasks I.E., going up stairs
Being able to drive places
Making food
The Daily Show
Things I Will Miss About Bolivia:
My immediate Bolivian family- Maira, Chossi, Nayell
Maira in generally. It’s indescribably wonderful to have someone at your side at all times, making sure you’re okay
My sweet classmates who cried a little when I left today
The amazing spine-mountains
Being able to skip school and blow off homework without consequences
Seeing cows and goats on my way to school
Girls texting “jajaja” instead of “hahaha”
How cheap everything is
Bolivian music
Bolivian food- especially saltenas.
My whole Bolivian extended family. My new aunts and uncles, cousins, sisters, brothers, half-cousins, step-aunts, everything. Graffi and Pajo, Veronica and Ernesto, Hiara, Mateo, Gunther, Nayell, Chossi, Augusta and Teddy (despite being American I think they count as Bolivian family).
Just the wacky Bolivian-ness in general.
Anyway. With that, I’m off. Thank you for reading this blog- if you have been reading- and for all your kind supportive emails Facebooks messages and general love. I’ll see you all stateside.
Aug 1

Lists - Final Bolivia Post

Things At Home I’m Excited About:

Things I Will Miss About Bolivia:

Anyway. With that, I’m off. Thank you for reading this blog- if you have been reading- and for all your kind supportive emails Facebooks messages and general love. I’ll see you all stateside.



Jul 27

School Day 1

Maira wakes me up at 7:15 on Tuesday. She says, We’re going to school. You have half an hour to get ready.

Breakfast is four slices of toast with ham on them. I do all the usual morning things: bush my hair, put on a little makeup, brush my teeth. My clothes (which I laid out the previous night) are freezing. I have one notebook and one pen. It feels sort of like getting ready at home but colder.

Once we’re ready, Maira and I wait for a minibus. The sun is still in the process of rising so everything has a quiet, frosty glow to it. When the minibus rolls up we are the only people inside. It stays with way for the next two buses we take.

The school is a large rectangle of a building with a basketball court, bleachers and two soccer fields. There are big glass windows all up and down the front and a small shop that sells sweets ouside. It looks a lot like a school in the states. Maira and I meet a couple of her friends outside the gates. They all ask my name, where I’m from, and why I’m here. I answer as best as I can.

Walking to the door of the school is like walking through a montage. People turn from their conversations and stare shamelessly like I’m a celebrity. Or a murderer. Then they turn back to their friends and speak in hushed, quick voices. I have no doubt they’re talking about me. It’s not self-absorption. I can catch bits of a lot of the conversations. Tall. United States. Exchange student. Blonde. It’s off-putting to say the least.

Out classroom is a small yellow room with 5 lines of desks and a green blackboard (are they always green? We don’t have them at my school. Why are they called blackboards if they’re not? Mysterious and enigmatic.) On the front wall is a calendar with the Virgin Mary in on and, above this, a cross with a hanging golden Jesus. The more I look at it, the surer I am that the calendar is the same one the nuns had but without the glitter. I decide it’s cute both ways.

On the back of the room there are posters that Maira tells me her class brought in and put up. They’re like a flashback to 2004. The posters in right to left order: Avril Lavigne in a tie, Dragon-Ball Z, Dragon-Ball Z, Dragon-Ball Z, System of a Down, Tony Hawk for Playstation, Dragon-Ball Z again, and Blink 182 staring moodily at the back of my head. I couldn’t have designed it any better.

In the classroom, again, I am stared at. I have learned by this point that this class is the Humanities kids so they study less math and more Spanish. They’re certainly not shy. I am swarmed by well-meaning girls in the uniform asking everything about me. I am on the verge of giving them my blood type when the bell rings.

Classes are hellish. I know we’re off to a bad start when the first teacher, a small man in a weird collared shirt, has me repeat my name four times because no one can pronounce it. The next three teachers have my say my name and where I come from in front of the class. The worst is the very kind Spanish teacher. She actually comes to my desk and asks my name while everyone else is working on an assignment. I tell her I only speak a little Spanish and she says if I need help to come to her desk after school anytime. It is a very sweet offer I will never take her up on. Maira has to leave right after school and I cannot make it home alone.

Instead of a lunch break we have a half-hour recess. Maira and I each buy a muffin at the little store cafeteria. There are 7.50 Bolivianos to a dollar as of my writing this. The muffins coast 3 Bolivianos each. It’s not an expensive country.

After recess we have English class. Instead of sitting in I am told to go see the English director. I and two other girls shuffle off to stand in front of a closed door. They explain to me how they just got back from a year on a foreign exchange program- one to the Netherlands and one to Germany. They speak very nice English. We’re in the middle of a discussion of Germany vs. The States vs. Bolivia when four other kids ample up and join us. They’re also back from exchange programs, mostly to the States. A huge boy- probably taller than I am, which is really something in Bolivia- strikes up a conversation with me. He spent a year in Iowa, he tells me. Why Iowa? I don’t know, he says. Iowa is a dump. Bolivia is better. The parties here are siiiiiiick.

I am charmed by his unnecessary slang. We talk for the next 20 minutes while the other kids are called into the office. Finally he is asked in. Germany, who went first, pats my shoulder and says it’s cool I’m here.

A tiny, ancient white woman with eyes the size and color of the moon pokes her head out to call me in. At the exact same moment a man reaches the top of the staircase we’re all clustered around. I realize he’s the headmaster at the same moment he shouts in Spanish “You need to wear a uniform! Welcome to Bolivia!” He vanished back down the stairs as I process what he said. Welcome to Bolivia indeed.

The woman, who I gather is the English director, has me wait in her office while she talks to the exchange kids about their English placement levels. The “office” is a musty floral print chair in front of a desk. There’s a file cabinet and an ancient, wheezing desktop computer. Everything here is a little removed from the present.

After what feels like infinity but is probably 15 minutes, the woman scuttles back in and shuts the door. She introduces herself as the head of the English department and welcomes me to La Paz. She has an antiquated English accent. It is striking. She says, So I hear that you are from Seattle. Do you speak Spanish? I explain my lack of communication ability and she nods. She walks me to the library while explaining in quick, crisp Spanish that Perhaps I should spend my time here while the other students are in English class. I can read simple books to improve my Spanish. Perfect! Fun! I am not as thrilled as she seems to be.

The rest of the school day proceeds similarly. Everyone speaks Spanglish to me and I understand little. The classes are senior level, halfway through the year, in a foreign language. I feel like I’m sinking.

When school ends Maira says that we have to go to a rehearsal. What? A dance rehearsal, she explains. The senior class puts on a carnival at the end of the year and they all dance. So, we have to go practice. They happy every day, sometimes in the morning, sometimes after school. I sign a little. Okay. Dancing.

We take a cab to a basketball court where the rest of her class slowly arrives. A lovely girl friend the science branch of the school has a difficult conversation with me in Spanish. She wears a white sweater covered in little fluff balls, a bow in her hair, and soft cat eye makeup. She looks like someone I would meet at a music festival back home. I like her very much despite forgetting her name on contact.

Then the dancing starts. I have a bad left knee and a tough time with the altitude so I sit on the sidelines and read Grapes of Wrath. The girls dance to Beyonce and Rihanna. The boys have their own numbers, mostly involving fake stripping and hip thrusting. I slowly grow cold as the sun sets behind the mountains. Finally, two hours later, they break it up. Maira and I catch a cab home and eat lunch at 6:30. I shower, read, eat dinner, and collapse into a dreamless sleep.

Jul 19

The Jungle

A quick author note to everyone reading this. I know that I haven’t been updating frequently. It is very overwhelming here and I have been having a lot of trouble recently with keeping my motivation up. Speaking Spanish and conforming to cultural norms is exhausting. Thank you for sticking with me on the journey! I should be updating more frequently now that I am home from the jungles and getting settled into school. On to the writing.

On the first day of my jungle adventure I wake up at 5 in the morning to get ready for a trip that is supposed to be off at 5:30. Bolivians are not a prompt people generally, so needless to say I am picked up at 6:30. However as soon as we all converge, we’re off! 5 days in the jungle! Adventure at its finest!

There are a lot of us going, so I’ll do some quick descriptions. First there are Ernesto and Veronica, a married Bolivian couple I’d guess to be in their 50’s or maybe 60’s. Ernesto is muscular, an ex-gymnast, grey haired, and handsome, with a sense of humor that I am sure is hilarious if you speak Spanish. Which I do not. Veronica is thin in all ways: thin lipped, thin armed, thin haired. She wears high wasted pants and polyester shirts and I find her excellent and hilarious. They bring their two dogs. Ernesto and Veronica’s guests are also on the trip. They are a short haired wisecracking mother named Andy and two beautiful identical twins from the California desert. The twins are 18 years old and named Theodora and- wait for it- Augusta. This produces some superb moments of Augusta confusion that I wish someone filmed. We end up calling her Gus and her sister Teddy.

The third family on the trip is in some way related to the family I am staying with. The father is named George (Spanish pronunciation- Hor-hay). His two children are the ones I am riding in the car with. They are Hiara, a lovely and quiet 13 year old girl, and Mateo, a hilarious stick-thin 16 year old boy. The most hilarious thing about him is that his English mostly consists of shouting “WHAT’S UP!” and smacking himself in the chest every time he sees me.

What I can gather about our trip in the beginning is this: We will spend one day camping, one day in a city called Apollo, another day camping, and then do some driving and maybe some camping I don’t really know don’t worry about it. Plans are clearly flexible here.

I spend the first morning and afternoon of the journey with George, Mateo and Hiara. Mateo and Hiara are in the back of the massive green pickup truck while I sit in the front with George. I sleep and watch the countryside while George chain smokes Derby cigarettes out the window. We listen to James Taylor in the car. This is a little weird, especially because we listen to each album like three or four times and no one ever sings.

The country is beautiful. We go from desert flatlands to high, rolling hills, which are empty except the occasional tiny village or giant heard of llama. The kids teach me the names for farm animals in Spanish. I am pleased with my progress. All the different cars stop for lunch on a huge hill. The American girls drink beer while I look for rocks to bring home to my little sister. There is a massive statue of Jesus on top of the hill. This strikes me as odd because there is nothing else for hundreds. There are no trees, no houses, nothing but Derby cigarette butts and stray dogs. It’s rather lonely country.

The drive continues for hours. Hours. Hours and hours and hours. The drivers have short range walkie-talkies and they bark directions in Spanish every few minutes. I am bored out of my mind. Eventually we descend out of the highlands and into flatter, warmer country. It’s not the jungle but it is something. There are Eucalyptus trees. The smell reminds me of Los Angeles and I am suddenly, sharply lonely. This loneliness is interrupted by our car almost hitting a cow in the middle of the road.

I realize at some point that the cars are slowing down and taking distinctly different paths than the main road. We’re getting somewhere! Yes! I’ll be able to walk soon! We get lower and lower, slowing down, taking curves slowly, and finally stop. I throw the door up and jump down in excitement. We’re here! Camping!

We are all parked in a field. Not a gentile, grassy New England field. A hay field. There are cows chewing on the hay. There are donkeys tied to trees. They stare at me and I stare at them. One of the donkeys farts. This is the exact moment when I come to the realization that camping in Bolivia is not like camping in the States.

We couldn’t make it to the campsite we were hoping for, George explains to me. Ernesto is going to ask these farmers if we can camp here. He seems genuinely excited about this idea. The American girls come up to me and start chirping about Did We Bring Ground Pads and Do You Need Some Toilet Paper. I excuse myself for a moment and pace the site. Only after a full walk around do I accept the conclusion that we are, in fact, going to be sleeping on hay. Thrilling.

The group sets up camp. Gus, Teddy, Andy and I set up our tent while Veroinca makes dinner. George smokes and unloads the truck with his kids. As the only person without a group I am a little purposeless. I chat with Andy about her aspirations to become a travel writer but pretty soon she’s called away to Do Something Very Important With The Adults so I take one of the two dogs out to a different field and we play fetch till it gets dark.

Dinner is a huge bowl of spaghetti and sauce. Dessert is marshmallows, which I like a lot. I watch the stars. There’s no light pollution here, and it’s another hemisphere, so I have fun making up names for the different constellations.  There’s Ball of Yarn, Kitten in a Factory, and Miley Circus, just to name a few. Then it’s lights out. I curl up in a ball in my tent and think about absolutely nothing till I fall asleep.

The next day is all driving. We listen to Abba in Spanish. I didn’t know that was a thing nor did I want to. Welcome to global culture I guess. My legs, back, arms, stomach, butt, and every other part of my body with muscles cramp and ache at the same time. I would be hungry but the smell of cigarettes keeps me feeling slightly sick enough to ignore it. Lucky me this is the part of the journey where we really get into the jungle.

The trees are jungle trees. The rivers are jungle rivers. Picture a movie about explorers in the Amazon. Basically that but without the cool outfits. There are butterflies everywhere in every color and pattern. They range from the size of my pinky finger nail to the size of my head. Sometimes we have to stop because there’s a waterfall we need to look at. Sometimes we drive right across rivers because there are no bridges. The sun is clear and strong. Everything is green. I feel like I’m in a movie except all we’re doing is driving in silence which is a terrible plotline.

Finally, after the sun has set, we arrive in Apollo. It’s a good sized town in the middle of what I can only describe as a bare stretch of dirt. There are teens walking barefoot in the street, drinking sodas and speaking in slang. The doors are all painted bright colors. Every shop is selling the same thing: Huge racks of rainbow candy, drinks, mystery meat, ice cream, loafs of bread, plastic jewelry, and once you’re inside, a little bit of actual food. We stop at a gas station with the cutest puppy in the world like PROBABLY ACTUALLY THE CUTEST PUPPY IN THE WHOLE WORLD. The girls and I are very excited.

We drive on. The adults have been discussing how we’re going to be staying at “a hotel”. I guess I have been picturing a Motel 6 with carpeted hallways and little bars of soap because that’s just what I associate with road trip hotels. Wrong. After driving for a few minutes through the down, we pull up at a very dark gate with vines growing up it. Super architectural and very cool. Perhaps we are making a pit stop, I think. Perhaps we are entering a different section of town.

The gate swings open. A nun appears inside the gates. A nun. I realize suddenly that this is a convent. We are staying in a convent. Another nun shows me to my room, which I will be sharing with Gus. She is wearing a wimple and a habit (are those the same thing? What even are they exactly? How do you fasten them? I should have asked!). I am so struck by the convent-ness of our surroundings I forget how to speak Spanish for a while. There are pictures of the Virgin Mary covered in glitter in the hallway. This is not a Motel 6.

I fall asleep faster than I thought would be possible given the print-out of Jesus staring at me from the opposite wall. When I wake up, the nuns (who we have been instructed to call Sisters) serve us breakfast. It is excellent. The best part is that instead of a painting of The Last Supper they have a printed out photo of the painting The Last Supper. I am truly loving the convent. I head back to our room only to discover that no one thought to bring shampoo. Let me repeat: NO ONE THOUGHT TO BRING SHAMPOO. Our shower only has cold water so I was my hair with a bar of soap which leaves it the exact color and texture of straw.

One of the sisters takes us on a walking tour of the grounds and explains everything. They are an order that want to help people and spread their message in Apollo. They grow vegetables and feed the poor, house travelers, make their own wine. They seem really awesome. The walking tour takes us through small vegetable gardens, in-between massive trees, under parrots, through herds of goats, down long empty stretches of deserted road and past large buildings with perfect lawns. In order words it takes a long time. It is very very hot here in the sun because we’re at a much lower altitude than La Paz. The only drinkable water is what I brought in my bottle and that is quickly used up.

I am starting to feel a little faint when we finally get to what I’m now told is our destination: A coffee shop in the middle of nowhere. Nowhere being actual nowhere. There are no buildings or people anywhere close by. It’s just sort of there in the middle of the flatlands. But I am told that they make some of the best coffee in the world so I sit down inside to try it.

We order a round of vanilla iced coffees. When they come I drink mine down like my life depends on it. It is some of the best iced coffee I have ever had in my life. Not that I have much to compare it to, but this coffee was SO GOOD. So worth the very very warm walk. I watch a telenovela on the crappy tv and drink another iced coffee while the others sit around and talk about plans. The second one is even better.

Then we walk back and its lunch time! After lunch someone makes the decision that it’s time to go swimming so I get my suit on and we all pile into the car. I am told we are going to Lemon River. I assume that this is close by because everyone keeps saying how lucky we are that Lemon River is close by.

Distances are different in Bolivia. We drive for 2 hours to get there. 2 hours of grueling, bumpy, near-impassible roads with no bathroom breaks.

When we finally arrive, however, Lemon River is very nice. It’s a little strong current wise but very refreshing. The sun is setting so the rocks and trees and butterflies are all turned a sort of pleasant gold color. Everyone swims a little- Mateo does a couple cannon balls- but we’re all sort of being eaten alive by mosquitos so we decide to head back after half an hour.

After 2 more hours in the car we make it to the convent. The sisters serve Mystery Meat for dinner and everyone loves it. I am exhausted from a full day of Doing Fun Things and I can feel my mosquito bites starting to swell as Gus and I discuss our lives back home before bed. Turns out she’s going to college in the fall. I think I fall asleep in the middle of congratulating her.


I am told that we are doing a three-town jump today: One town in the morning, one town for lunch, one town to sleep in, then back to La Paz tomorrow. It’s supposed to be a drive from 6 in the morning to 6 in the evening, which sounds like a long time but not so bad. I’m glad we’re going back and excited to see the jungle once more. I am hoping to maybe get a glimpse of the monkeys I’ve been hearing about.

It becomes clear by mid-afternoon we are not going to make it on time. Mateo is in the back of the car on the walkie-talkie transmitting his father’s messages. We have not reached our first town. It is noon. My butt is already irritated by the amount of sitting I’ve done today. I am apprehensive.

George is on god knows what number cigarette when we reach the first town. The sun is setting. We have listened to the entire album of Abba’s Greatest Hits in Spanish at least 4 times. This is not good.

We drive on. We drive through rivers and streams. We drive across bridges and footpaths. Mostly we drive on dirt roads that are so bumpy and full of unfilled potholes I feel like a sack of turnips. My bones ache by nightfall.

10:30. We have not reached the second town. Moral is low, as are sweets. Mateo and Hiara are asleep in the back. I am listening to my Learn Spanish Phrases- Level 2 track on my iPod because it has come up 4 times on shuffle and I’m pretty sure God is trying to tell me something. I am exhausted. George is tired but driving well. Dinner does not look like it’s coming.

Midnight. We pull into the second town. Everyone looks beyond tired because we have been driving since 6 this morning. Dinner is giant slabs of meat on weird mashed rice and what can only be described as a shot of Coca-Cola. Ernesto says we have to keep driving. There’s nowhere to stay in this town. We plow on.

Four in the morning. I am jostled awake by the car stopping. We have been driving for 24 hours. We’re sleeping here, George says. I look around for where here is before realizing it’s the car. I want to shout I AM 6 FEET TALL AND THERE ARE BAGS AT MY FEET HOW CAN I SLEEP IN THIS CAR but I am too tired to do anything but nod.

I sleep on and off through the “night”, which is really only a few hour stretch between stars and sunrise. I dream of home and of my parents reading to me from Swiss Family Robinson aloud. We haven’t done that since before I was 10. When I wake up I feel another moment of intense loneliness. It’s foggy and my iPod says that it’s 7. I read The Grapes of Wrath till everyone is more or less awake and we start off again.

We drive to an animal sanctuary and eat breakfast there. I accidentally let a monkey in the kitchen. An Israeli girl tells us about how she got her job for the summer. We all drink strong, strong coffee and don’t talk much.

The drive back to La Paz only take a few hours. I think I sleep the whole time. When we get home I collapse into bed without taking off my shoes. The shower afterwards feels like the greatest moment of my entire life. My body is covered in bug bites, which are the best souvenirs of all. The jungle adventure camping trip ends on a note that is not, perhaps, what we were all hoping for, but it is something to remember from my time in Bolivia.

Jul 9

Day 4.

Maira wakes me up at 7. It’s barely light out and as cold as anything. 12,000 feet and the dead of winter does not a kind morning make. She says, we have to get going in the next 45 minutes. Community service. I say, okay, great, let me get dressed. I roll back over and stay under the covers for the next 15 minutes.

When I finally get dressed I have a revelation. I haven’t actually seen my toes since I got here. I don’t think I even looked at them in the shower. I take my socks off and puzzle over them for a few minutes. They look like home. I never knew toes could be comforting.

Breakfast is more dehydrated milk and cheerios. Maira said yesterday that we’re going to help the mentally impaired. Actually what she said is “people who are crazy”. I don’t think that’s the best place for my camera, so I don’t bring it, which is why the photos for this entry are all after the fact.

Transportation. First, I get in the family car with Maira, Chossi and Maira’s sister Nayel.  We drive down out of Achumani (our neighborhood). Chossi drops us somewhere around the middle of La Paz. Then we take what I’m going to call a Minitaxi. It’s like a Minibus but in a taxi. This means it’s smaller, smellier and there are even more opportunities for accidentally touching strangers thighs. Then we get out of the Minitaxi and get on a Minibus. It careens in and out of traffic till we get to a section of La Paz I’ve never been to before. Before we climb out, someone hands me a pamphlet called “la solucion a la angustia existencial”. I decide to save it forever. Maira pays the whole time because I am incompetent. Graffiti highlight of the trip: A shiny Barbie-pink cupcake with a perfect cherry on top spray painted on an alley wall. Underneath, in the same cotton candy color, is the lettering “666”.

This new part of La Paz is not actually where the community service is, Maira explains. We’re just meeting a friend who’s going to be coming with us. Her apartment is a few blocks away. On the way we walk past mirrored car dealerships full of spotless Chevys that blaze with chrome stripes. Outside sit homeless men in plaid rags and not much else. I think about what it must be like to live here with sights like this every day. I have to remind myself that where I live isn’t so terrifically different. In Seattle there are starving people walking past the Ferrari showroom every day. I know because my school is right there. I’ve just gotten used to the cardboard boxes and piss smell. I wonder if it’ll look different when I come home.

Maira’s friend lives on the 6th floor. Maira has to call her several times because she’s asleep. She comes to the door in her pajamas, introduces herself as Maraian and quickly has us come into her room so she can change. Her bedroom bears a striking resemblance to a friend’s back home. The walls are bright green, there’s lot of shelving, and Mariana has an excellent collection of CD’s ranging from Avril Lavigne to The High School Musical Soundtrack. The most immediate feature, however, is the cardboard cutout of Nick Jonas lurking behind one of her curtains. When I ask Mariana says he’s the love of her life. I cannot tell if she is joking and decide to never bring it up again.

She brings in donuts and she and Maira devour a few while discussing outfits and boys in fast Spanish. A few minutes later they decide it’s really time for us to go. After a bit of walking we meet up with a group of girls and two boys who are clearly friends of Maira and Mariana. Most of the girls are from a made-up sounding European country. A few are local. One of the local girls tries to have a conversation with me as we walk through a marketplace to get to the next Minibus. I get so tongue tied and panicked that I stutter on my own name and can’t answer the simplest of questions. She takes pity and ignores me completely for the rest of the trip.

We get on a Minibus that I think they must have hired because our group takes us the entire bus. We start the drive out of the heart of the city. It only now occurs to me to ask what exactly we’re going to be doing. Mariana says, helping out young children. I think they’re orphans. All I can think is, that’s classic.

The drive takes about an hour. It is a miserable hour. The temperature has increased to Almost T-Shirt Weather as we’ve been driving and I forgot water. The roads are as twisted and scary as my spaghetti. I am carsick, dehydrated, and culture shocked. Every time we slow down I think we’ve reached our destination and every time I’m wrong. It’s normally for a stupid reason, like Not Hitting A Dog or Not Driving Off a Cliff. I keep having flashbacks of the time I barfed all over the floor of a secondhand store in LA because I didn’t drink enough water on the bike ride over. This flashback inevitably leads to me remembering the awful denim shorts I bought on that trip because I felt bad puking and not paying. This makes me feel even sicker. It’s not a nice car ride.

When we finally get there I am given water. I instantly feel better. Only then can I appreciate the fact that I am in the middle of some of the most imposing and magnificent country in the world. There is really no way to describe it. It’s so beautiful I lose my breath a little. I finally understand why Bolivians might have wanted to settle 12,000 feet into the mountains so many hundreds of years ago.

We walk down a massive ridge to a school situated on an outcropping. It’s a bunch of small buildings on a plateau. In rapid Spanish our guide explains that some of us should go with the little kids. I volunteer. The European girls and I head out to the young girls room. The rooms are small and smell faintly of pee. When we walk in Cinderella is playing in Spanish. As soon as I sit down, five girls are on me, asking my name in Spanish and sitting on my lap and brushing my hair. We have an excellent time trying to get the children to listen to us because we all speak broken Spanish and none of them speak English. One girl won’t let go of me. She’s 8 and adorable. Eventually, after some Cinderella and a lot of piggy back rides, we go outside to the playground. I push one girl while watching another do flips on the money bars. A third shouts at me to watch her while she goes down the slide on her stomach.

Eventually we have to leave because it’s lunch time. The ride back is equally miserable in terms of length and heat, but at least I have water this time. When we get home I collapse. I think that I need to help more orphans when I get home.

Jul 6

Day 3.

In the middle of the night I decide it’s time to get serious about being warm. I put on two pairs of thick socks, flannel pants, an undershirt, a long sleeved shirt, two sweaters and a pair of cashmere gloves. Then I burrow like a rodent under the blankets till the only thing visible is my unwashed hair.

In the morning it’s the same. Breakfast with Maira, small talk, silence. She watches Wimbledon and I read Into the Wild. The matches wind down. Lunch comes quickly. I move onto Grapes of Wrath; she falls asleep on the couch.

The phone rings and jerks her awake. She says, I’m going to a hip hop dance class. You can come if you like but maybe better to stay here and rest. Don’t want you getting dizzy. I agree wholeheartedly. Standing up is no longer a challenge, but running is a little outside my range.

I spend all afternoon with a little girl. She’s the daughter of Carmencita, the woman who cleans the house. Her name is Sara, she tells me in Spanish. When I ask how old she is she holds up 5 fingers. I give her my last chocolate from the flight over and she dances to my music when she thinks I’m not looking.

When Maira comes home she says Let’s go to the mall and get dinner. They’re having a 4th of July celebration. It’ll be fun. Okay, I say. I need to get out of the house. Perfect. Why 4th of July? We’re in Bolivia. She says, I don’t know. To attract people I guess.

We take a Minibus. I wear a parka. Hilarity ensues.

There’s bumper to bumper traffic on the way to the mall. I ask why. Because it’s movie night, she says. You pay for one and two people get in. Everyone comes. It’s a family thing. I say, how cool. In the United States my family goes to parties or for picnics on the 4th. Maira says she’s always wanted to go on a picnic. They’re always having them in the movies.

The mall is packed. Not packed in the “wow honey looks like you might want to scout a table while I order our drumsticks” kind of way. Packed like “honey hold onto Jimmy while I bring the suburban back around it’s fine we’ll just go to Trader Joes”. The elevator, escalator, stairs and ramps are jammed with people, every table of the hundreds there are taken, every line for every restaurant is twenty people deep. I am the only white person and probably the tallest. Maira and I finally find a tiny Mexican food place with a table. The TV is playing music videos from 2008. Taylor Swift blinks coyly down at me as I eat my quesadillas.

I meet two of Maira’s friend outside the mall. There’s a girl and a boy, Andrea and Rodrigo. Andrea is very sweet and asks me if I like sports or play sports. I say, umm, well, sports, yeah, sports are cool. I like some basketball I guess. (Note: I am not the most well-versed in sports). She tells me her favorite team is the Celtics. Five minutes later, when I drift into conversation with the boy, he asks the exact same thing. Do you like sports? Do you play sports? I’m considering lying just to pass the time when the hilarious band stationed at the front of the mall starts playing an awful cover of“Own Private Idaho”. We both break into song. A lifelong bond is formed. Sports are avoided for the rest of the night.

Jul 4

Day two in Bolivia.

In the very early hours of the morning I am woken by the whining of Bono. He rams his head against my door and cries. I open the door and he and Sharloo slide in past me. Bono smells things and Charloop climbs on my bed and falls asleep. Bolivia is as cold at night as that circle of hell that people go to if they eat too much (I may need a fact check on this one). Even wearing two pairs of socks I feel like my toes will fall off when I stand up. I consider showering but no one else is up. It’s not worth it. The dogs and I sleep in a pile.

When I wake up again it’s noon. I grab a sweater and walk to the kitchen. As soon as I get there the altitude hits me. It’s like hearing everything over a bad phonecall- Maira sounds very far away. I sit down and feel intensely and suddenly sick. Minutes later I puke what’s left of my soup into the toilet. I realize that I did exactly what my dad told me not to and drank the tap water when I was brushing my teeth last night.

When I recover Maira offers me breakfast. I have whole grain Cheerios with dehydrated milk that comes in a huge can. Maira has to show me how to use it. Just add water! Presto! It taste nothing like the milk we get at home, but it’s not bad. I like it, it’s interesting.

After breakfast Maira helps me get settled. It’s a boring process mostly consisting of me putting away my clothes and plugging in electronics. Highlights of the room: a Japanese sword, an empty bottle of liquor called After Shock, an electronic drum kit, a pencil case that looks like a sneaker. We walk up and down her street. In daylight La Paz is even more incredible. The spinal ridges from last night have huge slashes up and down the sides. The whole city is tan and coppery under the sharp blue sky. It’s much warmer outside than it is in the house.

Lunch is chicken, rice, and broccoli. Maira warns me not to eat too many vegetables. I take a nap with the dogs. They are warm and furry. I love dogs. After we watch a hilarious program on the bio channel called ESTADO PARANORMAL. It’s an American ghosthunter program dubbed over in Spanish. The voices of the children are adults with irritating high voices. There are ads for a program about Gene Simmons. Then there’s Phineas and Ferb in Spanish. It’s as good as the American version if not better. The Simpsons features the Space Needle. A period drama with subtitles. Pan Am. Maira says she and the family watch Once Upon A Time together on Tuesdays, and I’m welcome to join them tonight if I like.

Maira says, let’s go meet up with my brother and sister. We can all go out for dinner. I’m happy to do this. It turns out that there aren’t busses in La Paz, though there are “Mini Busses”. These are small vans crammed full of people and covered in flashing signs and lights that barrel through traffic and don’t seem to work on any system I can figure out. They just sort of drive around. Maira says we’re very lucky if we get one soon because they stop running. When?, I ask. Hmm. 5:30 or 6? But sometimes they just keep going. I am suddenly missing my faithful 2 bus, which runs like clockwork up and down past my house.

We wait across the street from Las Colinas, where I live now. Three street dogs run past us. A pink pig trots along as if he’s heading to work.

When we finally get a ride it is bumpy and hilarious. We pass thin cows tethered to stakes, chewing grass in crumbling construction sites and backyards.

Once we get there we wander around the streets for a while trying to meet up with her brother. He leads us back to his apartment where a bunch of Bolivian young adults sit around drinking a thick, foul tea that I really like. They speak so fast and laugh so much that I find myself answering their questions in Spanish without even thinking about it.

We all go out for dinner, and it’s pizza. I meet Maira’s aunt and uncle there. They speak slow, deliberate Spanish to me, which is quite a relief. The uncle whose name I have forgotten already says that later in the month they are going ‘adventuring’ in the jungle and that I am invited. I say yes, despite being scared out of my wits. We’ll see what happens with that. I get the feeling that plans are flexible in Bolivia.

A few things I’ve learned. No one in La Paz wears seatbelts. Ever. I try to wear mine, but it appears that they’re so underused you can’t really move them. They’re stuck behind seats, and when they’re not, the buckles are hidden away beneath cushions. Another thing. You cross the street whenever it looks like you probably won’t be hit. Traffic is like a river. It’s fast and confusing and you probably shouldn’t wear nice shoes if you’re going through it. Half-empty buildings can still be used for things. You kiss people on the cheeks when you meet them and when you say goodbye. It’s hard to understand very fast Spanish. And many, many other little cultural things it seems silly to write down, like Bolivian’s don’t put napkins on their laps and you say “chao” to everyone all the time and the native women wear these tall hats at bus stops.

I’m exhausted. More to come.

Jul 4

Day one in Bolivia.

I take a flight to Miami. The ride isn’t so bad- 5 hours, give or take, and the seat next to me is empty. I stretch my legs sideways and sleep in between bouts of note-taking. As we take off we have the most incredible sunset view of Mount Saint Helens and the moon. It looks like the surface of an alien planet.

Once I get to Miami I have to go from one end of the airport- the N gates- to the exact furthest point away, the J gates. To do this I have to physically leave the airport and then come back. The lady at the desk says in broken English that, at 6 in the morning, it is too early for me to check into my 4 o’clock flight and to come back at 10:30. Then I will have to go through TSA security again. The only thing to do is sleep. I find what looks like a couch and pass out for a solid two hours. When I wake up it’s broad daylight and I realize that the “couch” is almost certainly an art installation that I have been drooling on. I try to convince myself otherwise- wouldn’t someone have woken me? Then again, it was the international section. They may have been afraid I would only speak Swedish. I wipe away my drool and then make a fool of myself at customs mispronouncing my own name.

Every 15 minutes a woman comes over the intercom and announced, in English and Spanish, what time it is. I spend 10 hours in the Miami airport. I do not appreciate the constant reminders.

I take a flight from Miami to Lima, Peru. A dramatic switch occurs here: they say the instructions to everything on the flight in Spanish first, English second. The English makes total sense but I am still struck by the feeling of being out of place. This time no one shows up in my row so I stretch out across the whole things and sleep. I feel that this must somehow be rude but I can’t figure out how.

I was expecting the Lima airport to be dramatically different in some way from the dozen other airports I’ve been to in my life. It was exactly the same with two key modifications. One, it’s a lot smaller. Two, there’s the Spanish-first English-second thing. The English here is not making total sense. In fact it makes less sense to me than the Spanish. It’s nonsensical. I end up waiting in line with the wrong group of passengers to board the plane because I can’t read my ticket. A nice woman in blue eye shadow takes pity on me and lets me through anyway.

On the flight to Bolivia I am asked to fill out forms. Not only is the English translation of what they’re looking for gibberish- “PORT OF ENTRILIZATION” and “NUMBER OF FAMILY IN FAMILY” are my favorites- but my pen explodes from the pressure change halfway through. The Danish man next to me judges me while eating his potato salad and reading a book where the O’s have slashes through them. I am a little put out. Luckily the flight is only two hours long so I can just listen to my iPod and try not to make eye contact with the sympathetic Latin man in the isle seat.

I arrive in Bolivia at least 24 hours after I left Seattle. The thinner air/higher altitude thing instantly becomes apparent as I wobble and bump into a sweet Bolivian girl. She only pats my back sadly. When I get my bag and head out the door Maira and Chossi are waiting for me with big smiles. Maira is my age, beautiful, with long curly dark hair and impossibly thick eyelashes. Chossi is her mother. She has aquatic eyes and smells like flowers. It’s very cold outside, a fact emphasized by my one exposed leg. The zipper of my news boots broke and I can’t close one of them anymore. Luckily I overpacked shoes and have an extra pair of boots. They are not as warm but also not as broken.

There’s a cab waiting for us. Maira explains that we have to go through all of La Paz to get to their home. And wow. La Paz is amazing. We pass a church called San Francisco Church. It’s a massive grey rock structure with tight carvings coating the outside like scales. Bums lie outside in thin cotton sleeping bags. Everything is covered in graffiti. It’s mostly in Spanish, but I find a few I can read. One says “WEED” next to a detailed drawing of male genitalia. Another says “SUCK MY DICK”. In this immature, totally inappropriate way, I feel very at home. We pass by the high school I’ll be going to with Maira next week. Our cab smells faintly of shisha. The driver talks on the phone while running red lights and driving on the left side of the road. I would be worried, but there is no one on the streets. Even in el centro it’s a ghost town. We pass 6 cars and only a few more people during the half an hour journey. Once, we turn onto a street and there are stacks of rocks the size of my head just sitting in the road. We drive around them without comment. The driver keeps switching sides of the road so I can’t figure out if you drive on the right or left here. We gently sideswipe something coming up a hill. In the rearview mirror it looks like a dog. It stands and watches the cab as we drive away.

La Paz itself is beautiful. It’s shaped like a huge bowl, with a thick cluster of nondescript shimmering lights at the center. Huge exposed ridges of earth jut out from the urban sprawl. In the 2 AM darkness they look like the diseased spine of a buried creature.

The house has no heating, but it has two very large dogs. One of them is a chocolate-and-pumpkin colored Rottweiler named Bono. He makes a weird noise when I come in, like he’s angrily talking at me. The other is a shaggy guy with a difficult to understand name. Shaloo? Charloop? Whatever it is he’s adorable. They are both wearing flannel sweater-shirts and I feel underdressed.

Chossi feeds me a big bowl of warm, thick white soup with yummy green bits. The three of us sit in the freezing cold together in silence as I make ungodly slurping sounds. The soup is quite good and I didn’t eat enough in the airports. I’m shown my room, which is nice and comfortable. After some hugs I fall directly to sleep.

Day 1. Getting ready to go to the airport!

The basics of the trip:

This will be a month long trip (I come home August 2nd).

I’m going to be staying with a very nice family in La Paz, Bolivia.

I’m going to be going to a Bolivian school- Colegio San Ignacio.

I’m going to be speaking Spanish, taking lots of photos, blogging and making friends (fingers crossed).

I’ll have internet access basically all the time in case you want to reach me! Letters should go to:

Avenida Javier Del Granado,

Condominio Las Colinas,

La Colinas De Achumani, La Paz, Bolivia

I’ll do my first real entry tomorrow. See you then!

Jul 1
July 1st, 2012