La Paz Americana Girls Club

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
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.

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 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 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.