Bloqueos Stink

After two days in the highlands of southern Bolivia, we received a call over the radio — return to Tarija immediately. There were protests scheduled for the next day and the city would essentially be paralyzed. The taxi drivers and all social servants were going to create a “bloqueo¬¥¬¥ or blockage of all major roads to make their point. I¬¥ve been asking what that point was for more than a day now, and coincidentally no one truly knows. Bolivia is a hotbed of political unrest these days and when the home office says “come home now,¬¥¬¥ there isn¬¥t much time to ask why. You just drive, quickly and alertly through the night to avoid the unrest and get within the city limits before the chaos begins.
We did just that and it was an exhausting experience. From San Lucas, at 10,000 feet in the Andes, we were 7 hours from Tarija. That´s 7 hours of dusty, dangerous switchback driving that is not fun during the day when you can see the giant bus coming toward you and even more nerve-wracking at night when you just have to cross your fingers and hope for the best. Thank God we made it back in one piece.
I spent most of yesterday sleeping, eating and enjoying hot showers. I am not used to political anything. Honestly, most Americans don´t vote. So to see these people in the streets once we got within city limits was a bit terrifying. Thankfully, all has calmed down today and the president (remind me to discuss exactly what I think of Mr. Evo one day) called off the protest last night.
So, here I am, safe in the city, working away. Alas, yesterday we were supposed to have spent the day in Potosi, one of the largest silver mines in the world. I had dreams of new earrings and a pretty cross. Another day I suppose.
Friday I travel to the capital city of La Paz where my friend Alma and I will meet. From there, we´ll be off to Lake Titicaca (yes Beavis and Butthead fans, that place actually exists!), before traveling to Peru and Ecuador. I am quite tired of discussing disease and poverty in each moment of the day and a bit of vacation sounds lovely at this point. I get to the point where I´ve been so bombarded with information and new experiences that I dream about them at night and can´t seem to escape the work. I´m simply ready for a break after nearly two very intense weeks of work on the road.
I promise loads of photos when I return. I can´t wait to share the beauty of Bolivia with you soon.


When in Rome

Forgive the excessive posting; I know I won´t have Internet access for the next few days, so I am writing yet again while I have the time.

One strange observation I wanted to share: all of the churches in Bolivia are currently tagged with graffiti reading, “Evo is God.¬¥¬¥ This is thanks to President Evo Morales recently trying to take religious education out of the national school curriculum. I¬¥m all for separation of church and state, but Bolivians aren¬¥t. They are really unhappy about the idea of not having their “traditional¬¥¬¥ religion included in their studies. This is a country where one is essentially born Catholic and only the weak stray elsewhere.
Those who agree with Evo, in turn, bought spray paint and coordinated national tagging of the country´s churches. It is seriously heartbreaking. Many of these buildings were built by the Spanish in the 1500 and 1600s and are made of carved stone work. You know they took slave labor once upon a time to construct. They are incredible, and yet now they wear the ugly tattoo of recent politics.

Bolivians do not eat tortillas, nor do they appreciate the influence of Mexico on their culture. They liken this to the Americanization of their culture and it is the gringos fault that they even know what the word gringo means.
Their national bread is crusty french bread, if you can imagine. I´m not sure how it came about, but when in Rome/Paris/Tarija, slather it with some strawberry jam and call it breakfast.

Have I mentioned I am at least a foot taller than any other Bolivian I´ve met? I´ve yet to travel to a country where my height (5´10´´) is the norm. So to my brother and the others who have joked that my stature and the size of my feet are Amazonian, I would just like to point out that no, no they are not. They are very American, with good nutrition during childhood. Amazonian women are much smaller than me. Oy.

I am a wee bit homesick. There, I said it. I miss y´all, with extra emphasis on my family, the Ya Yas, NPR, bagels and my running routine. (Not so much on the heat or commute, though.)

Thank you for the sweet comments many of you have left. I am paying for Internet here by the Boliviano, so I´m not responding to each comment as usual. Forgive me for the time being. I´ll be better when I return. I can´t tell you how nice it is to read your thoughts and well wishes. Mil gracias!


Um, I meant Coca Cola

Yesterday I entered a small curio shop in Entre Rios — a village in southern Bolivia. I was thirsty and wanted a break in the day. I asked a girl working behind the counter for a ¬¥¬¥coca¬¥¬¥ and in any other Hispanic country I¬¥ve visted, I would have received a tall, icy glass bottle of sugary refreshment. While I¬¥d nearly kicked my soda habit state-side, in Bolivia the water is parasite ridden and I¬¥ve already gone through too many Immodiums on this short adventure. Instead of handing me the expected Coca Cola, she passed over a small green bag full of leaves. I looked at them for a second before I realized she¬¥d handed me coca leaves — the plant from which cocaine is produced.
Um, no.
It is cuturally acceptable here to chew a large wad of these leaves as though it were chewing tobacco in the big leagues of baseball in the mid 1980s. Yet to get the full effect, you also need alkaline. I´m no chemist and didn´t ask any more questions than I had to, but I nearly fell over from shock when I watched one of the Bolivian surgeons this week stick a handful of leaves and then a small gray stone in his cheek before entering the surgery suite.
According to the Bolivians, coca leaves cure everything from headache to heartache to diabetes and cancer. They love to tell detailed stories of how their coca plantations still send large amounts of ¬¥¬¥legal¬¥¬¥ cocaine to the Americans to be put in Coca Cola. I just nod and smile and keep my thoughts to myself. (These coca leaf thoughts are filed right next to my Evo Morales thoughts — both of which are better expressed with both feet fully planted on tierra firma/Americana.) This trip has been eye-opening and fantastic in so many ways. We accomplished 27 sugeries in three days, helping people who would otherwise have lived in pain for the rest of their days. The patients were young and old, fat and skinny, dark and light skinned, but all exceptionally poor. These are rural farmers who plant what their families can eat and what they hope to sell in the market for a few Bolivianos. You can imagine what an abdominal hernia would do to put a kink in that routine. Gall bladders, hernias and varicose veins were the surgeries du jour. It was shocking at first to be standing next to the surgeons, watching them perform a choreographed dance of elegance that I couldn¬¥t have previously imagined. The blood and gore of it all took a bit to stomach, but by the end I was handing off suture and smiling when the patients came too, gurgling and gasping for breath. This work is awesome.
On a personal note, this trip has already brought me back to earth. Yesterday I met two 26-year-old Bolivian women who were in the hospital maternity ward. One had just given birth to her fourth child, a girl. The other had given birth to her third child, a boy. I looked at these women and their children and couldn´t believe that we were the same age. We couldn´t be any more different. And yet, I bent down and asked one of them if she was a little bit scared and with dark eyes shining, she admitted she was. Even though she´d done this several times before, this wee one at her breast has us both amazed. Sometimes we are all more alike than we immediately see.
Bolivians are a kind, generous people with true national pride. I am enjoying my time in their country.
In a few days I head out to a different rural province to see our public health projects at work. We are fighting Chagas disease in this country. If you haven´t heard of it, I hope you´ll take a second to look it up. It is a horrible parasitic disease that preys on the poor and is endemic in Bolivia. More than 60% of the population is infected and there is no cure. The treatment is too expensive (at just $30) for most.
It will be great to see how we are preventing this disease and helping a few families along the way.

Hasta luego amigos,

The adventure begins

I arrived safely in Bolivia yesterday after 24 hours of door-to-door travel. I was weary, but in good spirits. I slept nearly the entire flight from Miami to La Paz and was happy and more than a touch relieved that my Mexican Spanish was well understood in this South American country.
Yesterday I met with one of our employees in Santa Cruz — Bolivia¬¥s largest city of more than 2 million people. She showed me around the city and took me to an excellent restaurant for a traditional Bolivian dinner. The food was muy sabroso, as they say. Grilled chicken seasoned with lime juice, white rice with parsley, pinto beans, grilled yucca with tomatillo salsa. Yes, I could easily be fat and happy in this country.
I asked Ruth why there were so many tourists from Japan on my flight to Bolivia. I wondered if it were a strange coincidence, or if she knew of a Japanese community in the country. She said after WWII and the bombing of Hiroshima, the city of Santa Cruz extended their friendship to the Japanese and let the country know that anyone who wanted to come farm in Bolivia was welcome. There would be land available for them to start over. Many Japanese took up the offer and today this large city is peppered with pagoda architecture, TV stations in Japanese and a market full of Hispanic and Asian delicacies. It is the odd cultural story like this that makes me love travel. Who would have ever guessed central Bolivia was the home to a large Japanese farming community?
No photos yet, but I promise tomorrow to take many. I´m off to a rural community for four days to work with our surgical team. Apparently they are short a nurse, so I am actually going to work in the operating room as a helper. I´ve never been anywhere near clincal health in this manner, so I´m more than a bit nervous. Hopefully I don´t faint at the sight of blood.
One more quick note — when I was in Santa Cruz with Ruth, she kept pointing out the indigenous people who were selling different trinkets on the streets. Many weren¬¥t selling anything, but were begging. I couldn¬¥t help but stare. Their clothing and features are so distinct. The woman have long, jet black hair they plait (thanks Min!) in two perfect braids that run down their backs. Their babies are swaddled in brightly colored blankets that look hand-woven — blankets not terribly different from those of the Native American reservations in northern Arizona. These women are tiny and their skin is dark; their black eyes shine with beauty. Ruth could tell the region the women had traveled from by their clothing. The brightly colored blankets were from Potosi — the silver-producing region of Bolivia. The other ladies in more current clothing were from Cochabamba, to the north.
Off to find my group and get something for dinner!
Wishing you well,

P.S. In the US, no toothpaste or deodorant. In Bolivia, no knitting needles or scissors. Damn it! I am going to be stinky and miss my needles once I ditch my checked luggage and travel to Peru next week.

P.P.S. Alma, if you read this, bring books! I´m already through two of the four paperbacks I brought. (No knitting.)

Be Back Soon

Love this map, I am going to paint one of these

I’m off for my South American adventure. I hope to be checking in regularly via email and blogging. Thanks for all of your well wishes and support for this trip. I’m happy to report I’m bringing more than 14 packages of Polaroid film and 18 stuffed Bolivian Bolsitas. Gracias!
I’ll be back in the U.S. in three weeks. Adios for now!

Swap Gallery Posted

The “It’s a Wristlet World” swap gallery is posted. I was delighted by the response, and everything I’ve learned from the participants. We had gals from Europe, South America and the US play. You should see some of the beautiful things they’ve created!

Just to give you a peek!

Giving Deadline a New Meaning

Anyone else shake their heads this weekend listening to the news in the Middle East? You know, when Israel and Hezbollah continued to kill at rapid speed, right up to the UN deadline for peace. Either you agree to peace or you do not. There shouldn’t be a handshake on Tuesday with the understanding that you wait until Thursday to stop killing each other. I’m not even taking sides in this battle. I am saying you are both wrong!

If you need a great reason to root for peace, look at this beauty:

Baby Rory

Baby Rory at four weeks. My goodness, she is just gorgeous.

Me and baby Rory

Nice Kleenex box. Oy.

Here’s a photo of her mama, to jog your memory. For this baby girl and all the others in the world — Jew and Arab alike — I wish you a peaceful and happy Tuesday!


Jittery? Who’s jittery?

When I get eager about traveling, I tend to go a bit over the top with things I love and will miss.

Like running and swimming. I can’t usually run in the countries I visit. Shorts are typically out of the question and the one time I ran in Mozambique, I was chased by children. It was fun, while a bit odd. So, I’m thinking I’ll leave my Speedo at home and wear my running shoes with the hope I’ll at least be able to get in some great walking. Something tells me a lap pool is too much to ask to find in the Andes, but you never know. (There is in fact a lap pool in Mozambique. No kidding.) I’ve run a couple dozen miles in the last week and been in the pool nearly every day. I’m living strong for Rex — who just finished his first round of chemo and is doing well.

And eating. I usually avoid dairy when I travel because I’m getting more sensitive and more picky about what I’ll eat. One gulp of unpasturized milk and I am a goner. I also love to eat vegetarian beforehand because it seems greasy mystery meat is a staple of the developing world. This week: veggie burro, enchilada style green with mucho queso por favor.

Then there is the crafting. Singer, how I will miss thee. Thankfully my knitting needles are portable. After a marathon session of domesticity this weekend, voila — six new Amy Butler bags. (Did I mention I brought home a new favorite drink from my recent trip to Seattle? Cafe Americano is a shot of espresso with water. Add a couple of Splenda and I’m in heaven. Make any correlations you please.)

New crop of swing bags with African fabrics

Swing it, baby.

In town bags2

We’re going in town with these fruity pieces of arm candy.

Off to Starbucks! I’m going to get all this working, packing, running, cleaning and writing done before I leave even if I have to climb behind the counter and put on a green apron myself.


Rocky Mountain High!

Rosie spoiled me rotten. She drew the short stick and got me for the wristlet swap. I have so enjoyed getting to know her and hope we can one day catch up in Denver, if I ever get my lazy butt to Colorado to visit my brother.

Check out what she sent:

Colorado wristlet from Rosie

Isn’t that wristlet beautiful? And she made it out of recycled clothing, because, “Colorado is environmentally friendly.” I love it! The chapstick is beer flavored — from a Colorado beer. Chocolate, tea, a beer cozy — all the goodies are just awesome. As if that wasn’t enough…

Bolivian bolsita from Rosie

A second wristlet for the Bolivian Bolsita project. WOW! And it was stuffed with very thoughtful personal hygiene items. I am just bowled over by her kindness.

She also sent me a clock! Super cool. She made it out of a box of earl grey tea. And a lovely bar of lavender soap that I’ve already enjoyed.

Thank you very much Rosie!

You other wristlet participants have just a few hours to send in your photos. The flickr album with all the details should be up later in the week — along with a list of prizes.


My Mother is a Saint

My mom has put up with all my grouchiness this week and shown me support that I cannot fathom. Do you ever have those moments when you look at your parents, spouse, friends, and think, “My God. I don’t know how they are being so nice to me. I’m a total pain!” I realized that yesterday after screaming at her and listening to her say, “Honey, I’m sorry you are stressed. Talk to me. What is going on.”
She should have told me I was being a cranky bitch and hung up, but instead, she found some sort of super-human patience (that maybe comes with parenthood?) and was sweet and caring. It was exactly what I needed and I felt so much better after having her listen to what was going through my mangled, grouchy mind.
I love that woman.

The bad mood has lifted and God knows you don’t come here to read about my annoying complaints in life. Rex is starting chemo today. Thanks for all of your kind thoughts and comments. Today is also his birthday, if you can imagine. Earlier in the week, he mentioned being hungry for an apple pie.

A great apple pie

With a bit of help from my grandma, a couple of hours worth of prep and my teeny home smelling like cinnamon and nutmeg, voila — an apple pie. I’ve never gotten the knack of rolling pie crust. My crusts always seem a bit off. Not this one. For irony’s sake, this one came out just right.

Apple pie

Why ironic? Oh, because Rex cannot eat today. He is on a fast for the chemo. No one told me. So when I showed up this morning to greet him with gifts and his favorite dessert, he begged me to get it out of the room. He couldn’t have water, much less sweets. (Note to self: nice move, dumbass.) The opportunistic and hungry hospital staff, however, loves me and I figure that can’t hurt Rex. So, whatever. Someone will enjoy it.

Another friend’s birthday is tomorrow — the perfect reason to stay up until the wee morning to sew, after a hard swim last night.

First swing bag

I’m not thrilled with the way this looks in the photo, but it is actually quite cute. I used Amy Butler’s swing pattern, minus the bow. I think we all agree — giant bow = fugly.

First swing bag, open

The bag is lined with some fabulous African fabric Jen brought me from Namibia. Speaking of Jen, I get to see her tonight! And have dinner at one of my best friend’s homes. They are sisters-in-law, you see.

I hope you have a peaceful weekend filled with great food and friends!