Chile: The Promised Land

The crossing into Chile FROM Bolivia was a much calmer and easier crossing than entering INTO Bolivia. Alli and I were able to transfer directly from our salt flat tour in Uyuni, Bolivia, to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. However, we couldn’t escape the madness that is Bolivia quite yet…

Before being freed, we had to get our Bolivia exit stamps, and then drive about 20 minutes to the Chilean border crossing. Our driver decided to pile the 50 backpacks of each passenger into a pickup truck instead of on the bus. Okay. (This is South America… We try to just go with the flow…) Despite numerous protests, they piled the bags literally 10 feet higher than the back of the pickup truck and secured them with an old, leftover string.

Most people could see that the small string wouldn’t be enough to hold 50 heavy backpacks, especially when you’re flying down the highway at 100 mph. The drivers of the bus and the pickup truck seemed to think the bags would be fine, and they proceeded to RACE down the highway, playing leap frog and passing one another to arrive first in line at the Chilean border.

As we barreled down the highway, suddenly one of the other passengers shouted that they saw a backpack fall from the pickup truck to the side of the highway. The buses screeched to a halt to investigate. Everyone immediately assumed it was their bag, and our massive bus begins to back up on the highway to recover it. (Of course, didn’t we all learn in drivers ed. that backing up on a highway is a really safe move? )

We end up recovering the backpack and all of its contents strewn about the highway. We awaited with bated breath to see whose backpack had been completely destroyed by the negligence of the Bolivian drivers. To the dismay of an Israeli girl… It was none but hers. It was ripped pretty bad, as well as it seemed some of her electronics had been thrown about the highway. Alli and I were actually a bit disappointed that it wasn’t our backpack… It would have been a funny story, and after everything that happened in Bolivia I don’t think we would have even been mad.

After about a 20 minute shouting match between some very angry backpackers and the driver, we backed up on the highway (yet again) to look for more backpacks. The driver was impatient and drove only about 100 meters more, and ignored the cries to keep searching for more lost backpacks.

We arrived at the border and saw that our bags were safe under 20 other bags. Another backpack was actually knocked off at some point, torn up, lost a few items, but was picked up by a kind stranger. (Remember, our backpacks literally have everything we own inside them). The Bolivian drivers were quite unconcerned…

The guards at the border of Chile were overly kind and welcoming, happy to have us in their country. One of the guards even gave us each a Chilean keychain to welcome us! And just like that, WE MADE IT to Chile!!! Despite that fact that I paid the $160 reciprocity fee just 3 years earlier, Chile and the US are now on much better terms and we were accepted (fo’ free) with open arms.

Alli and I found our way to the absolute cheapest hostel in town, which turned out to be just what we needed. We decided to do an astronomy tour our first night, we ended up chatting under the gorgeous stars and galaxies until about 2:30am… (due to Chileans being suuuper chill and loving to chat.) We were awake for 23 hours straight. We’re both used to these long hours as former night-shift nurses, but we arrived back at our hostel absolutamente MUERTAS (dead).

The next day we made our typical delicious breakfast of eggs, onion, tomato and bread, then went on a tour of the Valle de la Luna. Our tour was complete with a handsome Argentinian tour guide and we watched the sunset over the valley with Pisco sours in hand (the typical Chilean alcoholic drink). We lucked out that our tour was cheaper than anyone else’s AND we were the only group to get snacks and free booze at the end. Boomshakalakah. (Alli and I hate to brag… But we LOVE to brag about the deals we get).

We went out with some of the friends we met in this tour (one girl happened to be an Irish lass we had met weeks earlier on our same Death Road tour!). Alli and I ended up having two different conversations (one in English, one in Spanish) with two middle-aged Chilean men, trying to convince them of the existence of God. (You know, light stuff). It was an enlightening conversation for all… This was not the first or last time that would happen…

We ended our night singing karaoke (Nicky Jam, “Travesuras”) to a bar full of beautiful people we did not know. They were extremely supportive of our bad Spanish rapping!!

The next day we rented bikes and rode out 12 miles on pure dirt and rocky roads to Laguna Cejar, the saltiest body of water on the earth behind the Dead Sea. We basked in the burning desert sun, swam in the salt water, and marveled at the experience of being completely supported by the density of the water. Even if you couldn’t swim, I’d feel comfortable pushing you in.

We rode our bikes back to town (which was difficult because the seats + rocky dirt roads were meant to murder your rear end). We found a place to post up our hammocks on the side of the road, and based off the looks, laughs, and double/quadruple takes we were given, you’d think we were doing something no human has ever done before…

After our adventures in San Pedro de Atacama, we continued our journey to visit Alli’s college friend, Nolan, in Antofagasta. Immediately upon arrival, Nolan picked us up and took care of us. He showed us one of the poorest immigrant neighborhoods in town, where he helps the community by organizing high school kids to come tutor the immigrant kids. We got to attend their final end of the year Christmas party, and play with the adorable kids. After that, we made our way out to the beach north of Antofogasta for the next 2 nights.

Camping on the beach in Chile requires very little. We showed up at the beach, along with Nolan, Gabby, Daniel, and Pablo, (a Jesuit priest). First time I’ve ever been camping with a priest…! We set up camp, then heated up the pre-prepared paella made by a true Spaniard. Alli and I must have been exhausted, because the next day we slept until 11am… Despite our blazing hot tent. Sleeping on the beach with real waves crashing in the distance makes for some great white noise!

We explored and hung out on the beach for 2 days… Made janky shade/sun-blockers out of our extra tents, swam in the powerful waves, played rugby, read, ate, sang songs around the campfire, made food together, and made absolutely “no planes” the entire time we were there. We were blessed to have another priest and another Spaniard friend join us for the last day we were there. We even had mass on the beach just before we left. Again, those two days were JUST what Alli and I needed! Thanks Nolan for such a great and relaxing time!

In order to break up the 22 hour drive to Santiago, Alli and I decided to jump on a 12 hour night bus (despite the fact that we hadn’t showered in 3 days) to La Serena. Trust me, once you’ve gone that long without showering, another day or two makes no difference.

We chilled in La Serena and the surrounding towns for a few days before making our way down to Santiago.

We had to arrive in Santiago in time to meet up with Alli’s sister Liz, as well as Aunt Sue and Uncle Stu, who were to visit Liz all the way from Indiana, USA!

Alli and Liz spent some solid sister time together for a few days, then Aunt Sue and Uncle Stu arrived. In order to provide some proper family time, I made my way out to Limache, about 2 hours outside of Santiago, where I stayed with one of my good friends, Rodolfo. His family is extremely kind and generous, and loved and fed me well. It’s incredible how wonderful it is to spend time in a real HOME after wandering from hostel to hostel for 7 weeks! They refreshed my weary body with a comfy bed, the BEST food, and no shortage of GOOOD Chilean wine.

Alli and I didn’t know what to do with being apart after being CONSTANTLY together for 7 weeks. The longest we had been apart was when I went to get a quick haircut in Bolivia (I was gone max 1 hour). Of course we immediately missed one another, but we met up a few times  throughout the week with her aunt and uncle. (Who, let me say… Are a RIOT and a great time!) It was a packed but also relaxing week of time with family and friends.

So- what are we doing for Christmas??

I actually just landed in Chicago (found time to write this on the plane) to go home for Christmas. No, this is not yet the breaking of the fellowship between Alli and I, but a quick pause. I decided I wanted to fly home to be with my family for Christmas, then I fly back down to Santiago in just a few weeks! Our adventures resume come January. In the meantime Alli and her sister, Lizzy get to spend some solid sister time together and are spending Christmas with Liz’s Chilean host family.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!!! Until next blog!

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Guest Post: Mac-Daddy

Have Hope, Will Travel
I had the privilege to be the first visitor from home for Alli and Elizabeth, and they so graciously asked me to write a guest post highlighting the week and my thoughts on it. Being one to extract every ounce of meaning from my experiences, I have happily obliged, and the product is before you:
To start my Bolivian adventure, we must first go back to the weekend before the girls left. I have been assigned to a work project about 60 miles west of NYC, and I made the trip into NYC to see Elizabeth on my first weekend to wish her well on her trip. During the visit, she, almost off-handed, suggested that I come out and see them during their trip. Due to the long term work assignment away from home, I get a few extra days off every 6 weeks. Realizing that this time off would come right on the heels of Thanksgiving, I excitedly called Alli and dropped the bombshell that was my intention to come visit them. I had originally planned on visiting them and then going to see Maccu Picchu, but they (thankfully so), convinced me to just spend as much time with them as I could. I gave them the dates I would be available, and I waited as they were forced to plan a month in advance. The longer I stayed down there, the more I realized how difficult a task it is to plan a trip when your schedule is already full, and you have limited access to the internet. Much appreciated ladies.

I landed on a Friday night, after a long trip down. The girls had prepped me for my customs experience in Bolivia, and it went relatively smooth, even though I didn’t feel like admitting it at the time. I grabbed a cab and met them at their hostel in Santa Cruz, and, after a few excited hugs, joined them in the pool. This still is one of the highlights of the trip because I had been carrying so much stress over the past several months at work, but it all dissolved as soon as I hit the water.

It was an amazing week, but to keep this blog post shorter than a novel, I will touch on the highlights:

– We spent about a day and a half in Sucre, the old capital of the country. It was a beautiful city in the mountains with old, beautiful architecture. It was here that I was first introduced to the Bolivian culture as we walked around the town and the girls explained everything I was seeing. We made dinner at our hippie hostel, watched the sunset from a hotel terrace we snuck into, talked about life, grabbed beers at a local bar, and tore up the club. It was on the forbidden hotel terrace where we started the list of “things Mac breaks” when I tried to impress the girls by opening a beer bottle on a ledge. The entire bottle ended up getting shattered into 1,000 pieces… They weren’t impressed.

– We crouched, climbed, ducked, and walked carefully through a silver and zinc mine in Potosi. Our guide was a former miner, and you could see his appreciation for those who work in the mines. He teared up when he talked of the struggles the miners endure to provide for their families, including putting themselves in potentially dangerous situations daily. Personally, I have worked in tunnels before, so I found it really interesting to see the difference in working conditions between Bolivia and the US. After that tour, we all walked away a little more grateful for the life we’ve been given.

– Uyuni was the next stop, and the highlight of my trip. We spent 3 days touring the salt flats in southern Bolivia. We were joined by Guatemalan Susie, her son Lionel, and Seb, a 29-year old Frenchman. Our driver and leader through the salt flats was our less-than-joyful guide Samuel. It became our goal to “kill him with kindness”, as he just didn’t seem thrilled to spend time with us and did not offer explanation for any of the beauty we were seeing. We softened him up a bit by the end of our three days, however. The landscape changed from expansive salt flats, to highland plateaus, to towering volcanos, to mountain lagoons filled with flamingos, to other-worldly boiling mud and steaming geysers.

– Traveling to new cities became either the low points or the high points of the trip. Traveling in big open buses in the afternoon, watching the sunset over the mountains and just relaxing was awesome. The night buses not so much.

– The last evening on the salt flats was easily the highlight of my trip, which was appropriate as it was the last night I had with the girls. We spent the evening in a building surrounded by absolutely nothing for miles and miles, powered (for a meager 2 hours) by generators. We had met kindred-spirit Aussie friends at our hostel the night before, and were SO disappointed they ended up in a different hostel than us. However, we ended up making the most of our last night together. After a few drinks and laughs at dinner, two guys, one from Russia and one from Israel, pulled out their guitars and we started requesting songs. Despite having a 3:30AM wake-up call to get on the road early, we sang and played until 11:00 in the night. At one point, the power went out and we only had the light from a headlamp to continue singing. Before going to bed, Elizabeth and I went out to check out the stars and just about fell over upon leaving the doorway, partly because of the cold, but mostly because of the sheer brightness of the stars above us. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the intensity of the stars almost knocked us over. It was incredible.

The next morning came quickly, but it led us to a set of geysers early enough and cold enough to see the steam in full effect. This was yet another hidden gem in such a remote area. Save for a few quick pit stops, our last big stop was the hot springs where we were able to bathe for the first time in 3 days. A fitting way to end our time together! (Hundreds of dirty bodies bathing for the first time in the same small hot pool meant we got SUPER clean…)

On our ride to drop the girls off at the border to Chile, I allowed myself to reflect on the week. My mind was racing with thoughts, but I kept coming back to hope. I had been struggling to find peace before coming on this trip and had fallen into despair as things have not been working out as I had imagined. I had let the difficulties I was encountering darken my spirit.

It’s nothing new to state that everyone encounters difficulties in life. As a young adult, I’m faced with the vast unknown that is supposed to be the rest of my life. Alli, Elizabeth and I, along with probably many others that we encountered during my week down there, are trying to figure life out. Sometimes, when my dad asks me how I’m doing, I respond with “good, just trying to figure out what I want to do with my life,” to which he responds, “me too.” I think that’s part of the human condition, to be traveling along the road of life, not fully knowing where it leads or when you’ll get there. If you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans, right?

Being human means living with the tension of the unknown, but that doesn’t require us to be consumed by it. The light will always push out the darkness, we just have to let it. Engage the tension and embrace it, but embrace it with hope. Become familiar and comfortable with the unknown. Hope gives us the ability to wade through the difficult moments, knowing that on the other side is something greater that can only be reached by embracing and rejoicing in the difficulties.

On my day layover in Panama City en route to the US, I met a nice couple from California that owned a place nearby. When I left, I said something to the effect of “take care,” under the assumption that I would never see them again. They responded with something to the effect of “looking forward to seeing you soon.” I found this statement childish, because there was almost no chance I would see them again. But I see why they said it – they held onto hope.

In the matter of a month, I planned and went on this amazing trip with two wonderful girls. Looking forward to what this month will bring me.

Hope you enjoyed the guest post!

UP NEXT: Crossing into Chile from Bolivia… (Nowhere near as dramatic as the crossing from Peru into Bolivia)

Crohn’s blog post #2: Planes, trains, and automobiles (and buses, and hostels, and….) 

Hello all! We are now six and a half weeks into our travels, so I have gotten very used to the routine of traveling with my meds! And just as a health update- I feel GREAT. Other than an episode or two of the normal ‘South American runs,’ Elizabeth and I have decided that South America has cured me of Crohn’s. I have been feeling great. However, although it has not taken away from our time here, it has not been easy or a very ‘fun’ memory of the trip to travel with four months worth of important and extremely expensive medication. Once we reach our destination and find a hostel (with a fridge), all is well. But while in transit and/or homeless for an extended period of time, things have gotten a little stressful at times. 
Fridges are of plenty in South America, which I was thrilled to find out. Every hostel we have stayed at has at least one fridge, and they are always willing for me to keep my meds in it. Freezers (for the ice packs) are less common. It’s worth it to search for a freezer so that the meds can stay cold for the next 8-12 hour bus ride. We also found that there is virtually no ice sold or given out in Peru or Bolivia, so we couldn’t rely on stocking up on ice if my packs became warm (we haven’t needed to try in Chile, so I can’t speak to that here yet)! 

I have also learned that you must have a ‘no shame’ attitude and ask any hostel worker, hotel or restaurant owner, shop worker, etc. if they have a refrigerator for my meds…. It’s been the only way we have been able to successfully keep the meds safe while we’ve been here. A few will say no, but you will always find kindness and generosity no matter what country you are in in the world. 

I’ve also learned that I must keep a ‘tranquila’ attitude and have trust in people when I leave my meds in someone else’s possession. It would be way too easy to worry all day, every day if my meds are safe/the right temperature/going to get stolen/etc. God has been good and our prayers have constantly been answered! And we have had to keep the meds in some sketchy places…

Here’s been the overall track of my Cimzia thus far:

Lima: Meds were left in our hostel’s private fridge for 5 nights while we traveled to a northern city (We knew we would have to return to Lima to go to our next destination, so it was a God-send to be able to leave my meds there and to return to the hostel before we left Lima for good. I highly recommend doing this if you ever pass through a city twice. Definitely worth the lack of stress!) 

Cusco: Meds left in our hostel refrigerator while we did the 5-day Machu Picchu trek. This time, the hostel refused to admit they had a private fridge (I’m always slightly skeptical 😊), so I had to leave the meds in the fridge that they sell their cold water/soda/beer in…. I felt super uneasy about this, but it all worked out! (Just make sure you write out exactly who you are and what the meds are, when you return, etc). 

Copacabana, Bolivia: Meds left with the kindest Bolivian restaurant owner for two days while we traveled to a neighboring island (it would have been nearly impossible to find a fridge on this remote island, so we were blessed that Rudy allowed us to leave the meds in the bigger city). 

La Paz, Bolivia: Meds left in our hostel’s beer and soda fridge again. Found a freezer in the kitchen for the ice packs. All was well! 

Cochabamba, Bolivia: We were only here for a day, so after getting turned away at a few places, we wandered into a hotel where Virginia, the owner, gladly took the meds for about 12 hours. Wonderful lady! 

Yapacaní, Bolivia: The nuns had a fridge and freezer, so I was set for a week! 

Santa Cruz, Bolivia: Literally left my meds in a soda fridge in a random side-of-the-road shop…. Open to any passerby… Might not have been the smartest decision, but we were desperate and they ended up being just fine. 

Sucre, Potosí, and Uyuni, Bolivia: Hostel communal fridge, easy breezy!

Antofagasta, Chile: Shout out to my good friend and fellow Zag, Nolan Grady, who we spent a couple days with! He graciously let me keep my meds in his school’s fridge. 

San Pedro de Atacama and La Serena, Chile: Hostel communal fridges

***That time we almost ruined all the meds….***

Our one ‘almost huge mistake’ occurred during our three-day Bolivia Salt Flats tour. Long story short, it would have cost us a ton of time and money to return to the city that we started the tour in (since we were continuing on to Chile directly after the tour and they literally drop you off at the Chilean border at the end). We checked with our tour company about fridge accessibility. The first night we would have a fridge and freezer, but the second night there would not be a fridge. But, it got very cold each night, right around 35 degrees Fahrenheit (which is the temp my meds must maintain), so our tour company said it would be easy to leave them outside for the night. It was probably stupid, but I was convinced. We woke up after that second night and it was FREEZING. It had gotten way colder that night than is typical, and I had left the meds locked in the car outside. We inspected them immediately, and the first syringe I picked up was cracked/frozen (they cannot be frozen)….Elizabeth and I both about had heart attacks…. But then, the rest were safe! So, we have had one casualty, but that is nothing in the grand scheme of things down here. Praise Jesus! 

Santiago, Chile: I will be spending the next month in this area with my sister/best friend!…. And I am SO excited to get to keep the meds stored and safe for this long at one time! 

The more entertaining/tricky part of the Cimzia puzzle is how to travel from place-to-place via plane, bus, car, foot. Here has been my experience this far with our different modes of transportation: 

Planes/Customs/Border Crossings 

I was well prepared for traveling with my meds, with all the TSA regulations and such. TSA allows medication as a carry-on, and their website states that you must have proper documentation/prescription, and to announce that you are carrying them before putting them through security. Here’s what I experienced going through US airports (JFK in New York City and Fort Lauderdale in Florida)– 

I brought multiple copies of my doctor’s printed prescription and one of the original boxes that each dose of syringes comes in (I was worried they would not allow the meds to get through unless they were in their original box). Turns out, I needed NOTHING. I did not announce I was carrying medication through but just waited to see what they asked. Security did not ask me any questions about the syringes, nor take a second look at anything. 

I was also worried that customs at each country’s border would be tough to get through…. I was prepared to explain how they are NOT narcotics nor anything that anyone would want, unless they want less inflamed intestines…. 

Peru customs (and Lima airport security) asked me absolutely nothing. 

Bolivia customs asked me absolutely nothing. 

Chile customs asked me nothing. 

The only time I was questioned was at the Santa Cruz, Bolivia airport after we went through security. They did not ask for any documentation or prescription though…. We think the only reason they stopped me was because my ice pack was not completely frozen, so it showed up as a liquid. I explained what the meds were, and we were on our way in about 30 seconds. 

****Just a note– if I’d have known flight security would be so easy, my whole plan with my meds might have changed. We have a few visitors that are joining us along the way, and I could have had them bring the meds to me. I just figured TSA would never allow someone to carry someone else’s meds into another country, but I honestly think this would have worked out just fine. And it would have saved me a whole lot of trouble! 

Buses…. Aka the Enemy

We expected buses to be an interesting travel situation, since we would use them the most often, and bus rides can get long, hot, and stuffy. And we guessed correctly! I soon learned that no buses in South America have a fridge or cooler that they are willing to admit to ( I remain skeptical). We’ve also learned that Bolivian buses do not have any air conditioning, let alone air circulation…. 

My bus routine is as such: divide syringes into packs of 4-5 syringes each, each with their own ice pack, and then all packed together into a larger cooler (lunch cooler size). The best place I’ve found for them to be on the bus is in the overhead compartment…. When there is air flow and/or air conditioning or even an open window, it surprisingly remains the most cool up there. 

**To note: I did not originally bring a proper cooler for my meds. It wasn’t even insulated, I’m embarrassed to say. I bought it because of its small and foldable size and shape, but I regret not buying a better one. So, my ice packs would not stay cold for long enough time. Thanks be to God for a good friend, Judy Iwata, and a Cimzia representative, who heard about my travels and managed to get me a Cimzia-made travel cooler with a fantastic refreezable ice pack. I received this precious gift five weeks into traveling (another thanks to my sweet mom and Mac Gills for bringing it to me), and it has allowed me to be in transit place-to-place for way longer with the piece of mind that my meds are cold. (I’ve gone up to 15 solid hours.) 

So, my advice in retrospect would be to call Cimzia or whatever drug company you use, and ask them for something like this! I had called Cimzia prior to my departure, but they did not offer it to me the first time. Just be explicit in what you are doing, and they are happy to help. 

The Frios

I keep my Frio cooling devices (the ones that only need cold water to activate) as a back up for extremely long trips. I’ve used them a couple of times in dire situations (like on the disgustingly long and hot Bolivia night bus, when my ice packs were fried). When they have proper air flow from the outside environment, they usually stay pretty cold, which is good. However, they are just not quite big enough in size to fit the Cimzia syringes, and I bought the largest size they sell. Cimzia syringes are big and bulky, unfortunately, so I have to force the syringes into the Frios, and I risk bending the needles and losing some medication each time I use the Frios. So, they have helped in a few instances, but overall, the Cimzia cooler with refreezable ice pack has been the best device. And when I get back to the States i’m going to work on patenting a proper Cimzia size travel cooler….. 

Although frustrating and stressful at times, we have somehow made this crazy ‘travel with Cimzia’ idea work. Both Elizabeth and I have been so moved by the kindness that people have shown to complete strangers in need, and we hope to mirror this unreciprocated generosity to others in our own lives. I’ve never felt so strongly the ‘pay it forward’ philosophy until this trip. Humanity truly can be so kind and generous! I also have to thank my travel buddy another time…. Elizabeth has just as much an attachment to these meds as I do, and we joke that we both have Crohn’s now…. She has been so patient and calm in the most stressful of times. And thank you all for your prayers and thoughts! I am so incredibly thankful. 

~Alli 

A Call to the Convent? Our Nun Immersion Week

So there we were. (Not so) fresh off of our second night bus in a row. Night buses have turned out to be one of our least favorite things here, but a necessary evil at that. And this one was quite possibly our worst night bus ride yet, complete with 8 hours of nearly no cabin air circulation and a side of the road bathroom break (we’re constantly promised a bathroom on our buses in Bolivia, and they somehow always turn out to be ‘squat in the grass/gravel’ toilets…..) 
Hot, sticky, and exhausted, we were kindly dropped off on the side of the road in Yapacaní, a small lowland town on the eastern side of Bolivia. It was 6 am, and the town was just waking up. As is our typical travel routine, we didn’t quite know where we needed to go. Prepared only with a priest’s name and the name of a mission, we found a church that looked promising and literally ran into Padre Arturo, just the man we were looking for. Although semi-surprised by our arrival, he had us in the car and heading to our home for the next week in a matter of minutes. 

He drove us to San Carlos, an adorable ‘pueblito’ about 20 km outside Yapacaní. There, the Sisters of Providence run “El Centro de los Niños,” a center for malnourished children. (Bolivia has the second highest rate of malnourished children in South America, behind Haiti). Although extremely surprised by our arrival, Madre Clara (the head honcho of the Sisters) welcomed us with open arms. We were so exhausted and emotional from our travels, we hadn’t eaten, we hadn’t showered for days, yet Madre Clara knew exactly what we needed. She fed us, showed us to our room, and let us shower and nap. Four hours later, we woke up feeling like new humans. 

El Centro de Niños Desnutridos:

We spent the afternoon getting to know El Centro. It is located literally right next door to the sister’s house, and is a one floor, square ranch style building with a beautiful courtyard comprised of trees, flowers, parrots, and adorable Bolivian babies up to no good. They separate the kiddos into two groups- one room has the younger and/or ‘sicker’ kids, and the other has the older and slightly more independent kids.   

The Routine 

Each day at El Centro and living with the Sisters had a similar routine, but with constant curveballs. The routine went as such: wake up between 6 and 7 am depending on if mass was in the morning or at night. Mass or morning prayer in the chapel, a light breakfast with coffee and tea, bread, marmalade, and cheese from THEIR cows (Elizabeth and I finished off about a pound of cheese during our week there…. The Sisters definitely noticed). Then we’d walk next door to El Centro and begin our day with the kiddos. 

The routine with the babies went as such: dress them, feed them (meals were of utmost importance here, obviously), cry, diaper change, play, laugh, diaper change, eat, cry, play, diaper change, eat, sleep, play, and so on. They also take the kids’ temperatures a couple times a day, and a nurse gives them medications a couple times a day.

 Each day ends with bathing the kiddos before bed, and we finish just in time for Liturgy of the Hours (twenty minutes of readings sung aloud in Spanish) with the Sisters in their chapel, and then dinner. 

Las Hermanas- the Sisters

…”Elizabeth, it seems to me that we might be living in a Convent”… It took me until day four to realize this, probably because I always imagined convents to be constantly quiet and serious places. Well shoot, was I wrong!

The Sisters run a tight ship at El Centro, but we soon learned that they have the most fun and laugh more than anyone we’ve ever met. There are four of them living at the Convent, three from Bolivia named Noelia, Agatha, and Hortencia, and one from Italy, Clara. Each of them had their own quirks and beauty, and each got along so well. 

It was an incredible 9 days in San Carlos, too much to fully describe here…. But, here are some highlights, lowlights and most precious memories from our week: 

– Bottle feeding the infants. The youngest was 9 days old and two more one-month old babies arrived our first day. These Bolivian babies were CUTE. 

-Mealtimes with the non-bottle feeders. Aka FORCE FEED. Every meal is prepared by the cook and nutritionist to specifically meet each child’s nutritional needs, and there is no excuse for the child not to eat. Elizabeth and I had never seen so many babies act like eating was the worst thing that ever happened to them. Sometimes, just setting them into their chair in preparation for the meal would make them start to scream and bawl their eyes out. Every meal was a war zone, and we were directly in the line of fire. At one point, I held little Jose in my lap, strapping his arms and legs down (gently….) while Elizabeth opened his mouth and forced each spoonful of food in. At another point, I was force feeding a crying toddler who clearly did not want the food, and turned to the niñera (worker) to ask if this was really what I was supposed to do. I THINK she says yes (they seem to mumble in Bolivia, which doesn’t help a Spanish learner at all) and then the poor cutie throws up all over me 5 minutes later…. But rest assured, by the end of the week, Elizabeth and I got so good that we were teaching high school students how to feed the babies, and they thought we were pros. 

– Walking with Ninét, a 16 year-old wheelchair bound sweetheart, who had obviously been neglected. Although we carried a lot of her weight with each step, by the end of the week, Ninét was taking strides and walking a couple of feet each day.

– Our four wheeling field trip to the neighbors house for mangos and occurro (some of the best fruit you’ll ever eat). Imagine this: Sister Hortencia and Sister Noelia tell us we are walking behind El Centro to a fruit tree with some of the kids. We somehow take six kids, three who are barely old enough to walk and two of whom are in wheelchairs, 1/2 mile down a treacherous dirt road with rocks, falling mangoes, and tons of other obstacles along the way. Something told us this would never have been allowed in the US. But the kids LOVED it. And the hospitality by the neighbors who had nearly nothing was simply astounding. We came back with a massive wheelbarrow full of fruit and overjoyed (but also very poopy) kiddos. We’ll refrain from describing the details of baths that night… (Also, why can neither of us seem to escape work revolved around poop?)

– Unquenchable hunger. We ate SO well at the Convent: the best Bolivian food, fruit, and refresco we’ve ever had. We also averaged five fresh-off-the-tree-in-the-backyard mangoes a day. But for whatever reason, we were never QUITE full. On day four, our secret snacks ran out, so we strategically offered to go to town to replenish some of the communal food for the Sisters…. About 8 packs of cookies and a couple empanadas somehow made their way into our bags as well.

– Speaking literally no English to anyone besides Elizabeth. No one knew ANY English there. The highlights to this- Elizabeth and I could talk freely at the breakfast table as to how obvious it was that Hermana Hortencia did not partake in the morning private prayer time when she moseyed into the kitchen half awake and rubbing her eyes….. The lowlights to this- I was once again the quiet, dumb friend for the week 🙂 I could not partake in most mealtime conversations or ask properly what else I could help with unless I was prepared to be laughed at or not understood, or if Elizabeth was there to translate. This was such a humbling experience and reminded me to be extremely conscious and patient of anyone learning English. I will treat them so differently now. 

– Friday night fun with the sisters: five of us gals pile into their shared jeep and drive through huge puddles and mud on our way to church in the town’s plaza…. We were laughing and screaming the whole way, while these badass sisters were wearing their white habits while four wheeling and driving stick shift. You go girls. 

– Playing the card game “Uno” with the Sisters. Just because you’ve entered holy life doesn’t mean you can’t be competitive 🙂

– Teaching the sisters and niñeras about first aid and pediatric CPR. On one of our last days, we FINALLY realized how we could actually help El Centro. Through our discussions about nursing and our past ICU jobs, we realized that the workers at El Centro as well as the sisters had little knowledge of medical emergencies with the kiddos. So, we put together a presentation and demonstration for nearly all the employees! (Elizabeth did a lot of the talking, I did a lot of the demonstrating).

– Day trip to the larger, neighboring town of Yapacaní. Padre Arturo took us to a senior center in town where they treated us like queens. We ate lunch there and chatted with the ‘ancianos’ in town. He also brought us to the Catholic radio station where we were forced to do an impromptu live radio interview…. #CrushedIt  

Our time in San Carlos opened our eyes to a true Bolivian experience. After feeling constantly unwanted in this country, we were taken in and loved on by so many wonderful people. We realize that short term volunteer stints are not the most effective way to help a community, but we left the sisters and the beautiful babies with full hearts and a desire for more. We were so touched by the people, their hospitality, their way of life, and the ease to give whatever they had and share with others. We’re still questioning if God is simply calling us to a more devout faith and prayer life, to enter life as a sister, to kidnap a Bolivian baby, or to return to El Centro for a longer period of time… but we do know we want to live and love more like the Sisters, the babies, and the people of San Carlos. 

Next up: Our first visitor from back home joins us for a week! We’ve invited him to summarize his week with us in the first ever “guest blog post.”