In case you couldn’t tell from my last entry, October was a little bit insane. And just as quickly as it all came, it left and things went back to normal. The older student I wrote about ended up spending a week living in town with someone else, and as far as we know has stayed out of trouble since his return to campus. The morning after we stayed up late guarding the gate from potential intruders, it was like nothing had happened and we have been reassured it won’t be a problem. We taught classes, worked on fund raising, and cooked everything except fried rice. I'll try and update you all on some of the things that happened in November.
End of an Age
In fact, things became even more relaxed than I expected. The older kids, including all but two students in our class, are part of Conquistadors. This is essentially Adventist Boy Scouts for kids in South America. Every year, Conquistador groups from all over Bolivia and neighboring countries meet at a camporee where kids get to play games, build stuff, and engage in competitions to see which group is the best. It costs a lot of money to attend, so we weren’t sure if the kids would be able to go this year. However, thanks to the tireless efforts of Lisiane and Hermana Emi, the generosity of many donors, and God, we were able to raise enough money to send them. This meant a whole week off from classes to practice tying knots, build rafts, memorize songs, and stitch uniforms. This also meant a whole other week off from classes to actually attend camporee. There were even three government-mandated vacation days thrown in this month that were decided should be simply rounded off to an even week of preparation and chore days as well. In addition, the student missionaries spent most of a week in La Paz, and the arrival of the parents of some of the student missionaries meant another week off from classes. So in the last two months, Elizabeth and I taught about six nonconsecutive days worth of classes.
We found this a little disheartening. We’ve seen a lot of progress in our students this semester who are fighting to learn despite our frustrating inability to fully understand them and the overwhelming curricula we all deal with. Elizabeth and I were also just starting to gain access to materials that we can actually use to lesson plan in Spanish, get the kids at least somewhat interested in learning, and feel like we’re accomplishing something. However, with the end of the Bolivian school year just a few weeks away, it seems like we won’t have many more opportunities to teach.
Things are looking up, however. Next year Elizabeth and I will unfortunately be split up and partnered with student missionaries who can speak Spanish fluently, but we will be teaching by subject instead of grade, so we can put more time and thought into a specific topic instead of trying to teach all subjects broadly.
Also and Meanwhile
Because all the older kids were gone on camporee, most of the adults went with them. This included the house parents for the Guerreros (older boys) and Leones (younger boys), and with their departure, we had to do some reshuffling of responsibilities. Carlo and Sierra moved into the Leones house for four nights. This essentially meant giving up the privileges of sleep, personal space, silence, and time to sit down. By the power of God they took on the huge responsibility with resolute determination and grace.
All of the Guerreros are in Conquistadors, so all of them left, and with them, our responsibility of being their house parents on Sundays when Saray has her day off. Well, almost all of them left. Daniel is only nine years old and couldn’t go with his older Guerrero brothers. That meant he got to move into our spare room! At first he was hesitant to leave behind his bed and familiar surroundings, but Emilianne hyped it up that he would be hanging out with us and having a sleepover. Once he saw the snacks on our shelf, he was sold.
When we started setting up his bed in the spare room, he was preoccupied with some toy soldiers Zoro brought from home. By the time bedtime rolled around though, I could tell he was a little homesick, especially hanging out with just me, who was on the phone, talking in a foreign language. I asked him if he wanted to sleep in our room since Carlo would be leaving an empty bed while he was over at the Leones. He gave his stereotypical “don’t know” and grin response. I realized this would probably be his first time he ever had slept alone in a room. After repeating that he would be in the spare room in the dark all by himself, he shrugged his shoulders and bashfully agreed to sleep in the room with Zoro and me.
For those four days Daniel was possibly the most over-indulged child in Bolivia. He got to eat the elaborate breakfasts prepared by Sierra with the rest of the volunteers, he didn’t have any of his normal chores, he got to play with Zoro’s toys and my knives, he stayed up late with us, and Zoro fed him candy for dinner once. He sat quietly at our table while we talked and turned his head when he heard someone say, in English, that he was adorable or cute. And we were just as pleased to spoil him. It was like being a grandparent, we got to pretend he was ours and then send him back to his real home after it was all over. Undoubtedly it was a fun and positive experience but it some ways it felt wrong to only be given such a short time to invest in a whole human.
Parenting Crash Course
During that time, Daniel and I hung out at the Leones during the day. I didn’t have classes to teach, and despite Carlo and Sierra’s impressive competence, they looked like they could use all the help they could get taking care of eight wildly adorable and wildly naughty boys from the ages of four to nine.
As anyone who spends any time parenting the Leones can tell you, spending any time with the Leones takes a lot of energy. They are constantly hanging off your arms, find new ways to break things, fighting with each other, and of course, disobeying. With their normal house parents and authority figures gone, they were ready to test every boundary.
Honestly, it can get frustrating when a tiny 6-year-old won’t do what their told. It can be overwhelming when a little kid throws a fit and starts trying to break everything they can get their hands on, including your face. But it’s hard to stay mad when you know they do it for a reason. It’s hard to stay mad when you can tell they’re not just fighting because someone was in their way or because they have to do their chores, but because they’re angry and hurt deep down inside and have no idea why, or what’s normal, or how to express it. Carlo has learned a good chunk of how and why each kid disobeys, and he’s shared that sometimes some of the Leones will get in trouble just to get attention. Obviously they are perfectly able to disobey for inexcusably arbitrary reasons, but it’s different when you know they have been moved around between relatives, government organizations, orphanages, houses, and house parents. It’s different when they crave attention so badly they will do whatever it takes to get it in any form they can. It’s different when you know they feel totally unwanted.
Because for sure, most of the Leones came from situations that no child should have to be in. But living here doesn’t magically free them from their trauma or prevent new trauma from arising. Even here, the vacuum of love they were missing before they arrived is not completely filled. The Leones’ normal house parents had a difficult conversation with some of the student missions explaining how they want to love these kids like their own, but know that they can’t. They don’t want the kids to think of them as parents because the Leones or their house parents could be forced to leave Familia Feliz. They don’t want to show too much affection because they don’t want to make them feel even more abandoned by a family figure when that affection is eventually taken away.
This meant that when the house parents were gone, it was just the student missions taking care of them. And for better or worse, we can’t help but give them affection.
I think one thing that makes parenting them so draining for Carlo and Sierra, especially Carlo, is his superhuman intentionality. The kids disobey just to get attention because they know Carlo will sit them down, listen to them, hold them when they cry, and sit with them no matter how long the temper-tantrum takes. Granted, Carlo is also willing to sit on them to get them under control, and Sierra has the scars to prove she’s put in her time preventing them from hurting themselves, each other, or anything fragile within reach.
Although I always respected Carlo and Sierra for parenting the Leones, my time there definitely helped me realize just what a huge responsibility it is. We may disagree with how their normal house parents do things, and we may want to love these kids as if they were actually our own children, but being there helped me realize that there is simply a fundamental difference between how student missionaries and Bolivian house parents interface with this amalgamation of kids. Maddy pointed out that we can put our everything into patience and caring for these kids because we know we’re going home. We have a deadline and we have to love as much as possible before we’re torn away. But for the ones who stay, the ones who’ve given up so much of their lives to stay here, don’t get to leave. This is their life. And it’s just not sustainable to put your entire heart into individual kids who are constantly coming and going in your life.
This is sad, and this is something that doesn’t have a solution. I just hope the Leones and everyone else at Familia Feliz are getting the best of both worlds and not the worst: the constant but stark love of the house parents, and the intense but temporary affection from the student missionaries.
Our time at the Leones was cut short by the return of the Conquistadors. Although relieved, I felt like the little guys had just started to respect the authority of the student missionaries and were beginning to behave themselves right as things went back to normal. Fortunately for those who were more exhausted than me, we all got a break the next week.
Apparently, it had become possible for us to fly to Bolivia’s capital city to retrieve our carnets: identification cards that make extended residency and work legal in Bolivia. I’d been excited for this chance to see other parts of Bolivia since our first week here, when I’d been told we would be going to retrieve our carnets a few weeks after arriving in Bolivia, and now it was the perfect time for a break. The only bad thing about the trip would be that we’d have to leave behind Lisiane, who is at a different stage of her paperwork process and wouldn’t have been able to get her carnet at the same time as us. So early Wednesday morning we piled into the truck and groggily stumbled through the single-room airport in Rurre, across the tarmac, and onto a tiny plane.
At first we were simply excited to exist in cold weather after stepping out of the La Paz airport. That gust of wind was probably the best surprise I’ve ever received. But then, on our taxi ride to the government building, we realized La Paz was, in fact, one of the most beautiful places we’d ever seen. I think suspended tram cars are about the coolest possible form of public transport. I’ll simply let the photos speak for themselves.
We also learned some valuable lessons in communication and planning since we spent most of our time being lost in various separated groups. I’d say we know the tram system inside and out by now, and Elizabeth and Emilianne can tell you all the places not to visit in La Paz.
The next week was also quite different, as it marked the arrival of Katie-Jane and Sierra’s families. We were extremely grateful for their willingness to haul gifts from all our parents across the continent. Thanks to them I have some stuff I’ve needed but forgot in the states, and I have a backpack I can use for traveling over break!
We were also thankful for their willingness to hit the ground running. On their second night here we made tortillas from 7pm until 2am so that we would have a tasty treat when the government officials Melissa had invited to inspect the school arrived in the morning. While we would have enjoyed a bit more of a warning that a complicated snack would need to be made, we enjoyed cooking together until the early hours of the morning. And fortunately the officials were impressed with the school and the care of the children so they decided not to return for the next two days as initially planned. Praise be!
The other special occasion of this week was Thanksgiving. I spent most of Thanksgiving in town on my day off by myself so that I could get closer to completing some grad school applications. Selflessly, the other volunteers spent the afternoon and evening cooking a shocking assortment of Thanksgiving dishes for dinner. Sierra alone made about eight dishes. I am extremely grateful to be here in Bolivia, eating Bolivian versions of Thanksgiving classics at 11pm, with people who are willing to spend all day cooking while I contributed absolutely nothing. The generosity of angels.
The day after Thanksgiving we wanted to share our food and traditions with the kids, so we planned a potluck were each house prepared something. We combined all the tables on campus into one long one in the middle of field, and contributed our Thanksgiving leftovers to the already heaping table of food. In typical Bolivian fashion, we started eating at about 8:30pm, and after worship we all sat and ate together. Well, the kids ate together. The student missionaries were swarmed at the food table, trying to dole out fair portions of a dozen dishes and fend off the wild animals that kept returning for seconds despite the tireless explanations that they could not, in fact, have seconds until everyone had gotten at least a little scrap for firsts. However, I was glad we were able to give the kids a memorable and fun experience eating by candle light in the field together.
One thing I’ve been struggling with is trying to figure out how to stay helpful and relevant. This has been a theme in my journal entries here, but it’s become more of a personal problem and less of a corporate issue in the last two months. With my grade effectively ending classes 2 months early, I’ve been out of a regular job. It’s also been difficult to work on the website and fundraising without internet on campus and fuel shortages making it problematic to go into town to use WiFi. And with my Spanish falling dramatically behind everyone else, the language barrier still keeps me from relating to the boys and being able to talk to them openly.
I’m very grateful that the other student missionaries are able to build strong connections with the kids. They love and trust them and are able to confide in them. I’m just hoping and praying the time I spend with them is also beneficial and that I’m helping more than being in the way.