Thursday, August 26, 2010

El Camino de la Muerte

I am determined to finish blogging about the past several weeks of my adventure! I have to share these memories and visions that have been circulating through my mind and providing me with endless entertainment. I don't think I will ever be board again...every chance I get, every quiet moment alone, I find myself thinking back on some part of my trip...often with a smile, sometimes I laugh out loud, occasionally I cry or feel sad...but I am always entertained :)

Man! Let me tell you about the eight hours I spent on the world's most dangerous road (WMDR). The road runs along the absolute edge of a portion of the Andean mountains connecting the Altiplano terrain of La Paz to the Amazon basin near the city of Coroico. The road starts at 4650 meters of elevation and quickly drops to 1200 meters over the course of 38 miles. It's ability to boast an average of 200 deaths per year since it's creation in the 1930s earned it the official title of "The World's Most Dangerous Road" in 1995 by the Inter-American Development Bank. Most of the two-way road is no wider than 10 feet and the only guard from falling over the edge are the crosses and memorial shrines that can be noticed along every corner and dangerous mile!

The road was built by prisoners of war from Paraguay from 1932-1935 and, for a long time, was the only way to get from La Paz to Coroico and other parts of Bolivia. Most local people who have been forced to risk their lives on this road did it out of necessity...there was no other option. However, there are a few locos out there who make the conscious decision to brave this path for no other reason beyond pure thrill...I can now be included in that group of crazy people!

In my defense, I didn't know too much about the history of the road before signing up for the popular attraction. I figured it was more of a tourist trap and likely not all that dangerous...I did however take care to go with only the most respected agency that is known for it's quality bikes, experienced guides and general respect for the danger of the road. A lot of people make the mistake of going through a cheaper agency to save a few Bolivianos...big mistake! Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking (the group I went with) is the only agency with top of the line bikes, carefully thought out system of keeping tabs on the riders and guides who are trained in rope rescue (which can mean the difference between life and death, come to find out).

Anyway, despite having promised my Dad I wouldn't before I came to Bolivia, I decided that, being the athlete that I am (hmm...was), I simply couldn't leave La Paz without riding down the World's Most Dangerous Road!...
During the course of risking my life, I saw some of the most breathtaking views of my life...absolutely breathtaking! I was soaring past snow capped mountains trying not to focus on the fact that I was on the edge of 11,800 foot mountains going 40 miles per hour! As the elevation quickly dropped, the world around me changed before my eyes...the snow capped mountains turned into waterfalls, the vegetation became more abundant and tropical, layers of clothes began to come we traveled from the freezing Altiplano to the warm jungle basin. It was fascinating!!
The hardest part was keeping my eyes on the road. Our guide strongly warned us ahead of time to ONLY LOOK WHERE YOU WANT YOUR BIKE TO GO! He told us a story about a man who recently fell off the edge of the road but, thankfully, survived. When asked what happened, he said that he was looking at a bird flying by and next thing he knew he was in the air dropping off the edge! Due to this warning, I was so focused on the road that I even missed a huge eagle that soared right over my head (as I was told by one of the other bikers who apparently was not heading the advice of our guide). The guide also told us to stay to the left (closer to the edge) due to the traffic rules of the road....ummmm, no freaking way! I stayed as far to the freaking mountain wall as possible...who was he kidding! Luckily, the traffic on the road is mostly support buses for the bikers since a safer alternate road had been constructed in 2006. Despite the new road, many locals do still brave the WMDR as it is a more direct route between La Paz and Coroico.
The 38 miles were split up into about 30 portions for our group. There was always a guide in front and guide in back of the group. We had to keep at least 75 feet between each bike and regrouped after each leg of the ride. I am going to admit that my competitive spirit was alive and well throughout this dangerous adventure. I didn't want to let the guide out of my sight and was determined to keep up with him and another impressive rider at all times...we often finished each leg looong before the other riders in the group. I did stay within my abilities but it scares me in hindsight to think of how fast we were going and what grave danger I was risking so that I could prove that I could 'keep up with the best of 'em'.
Anyway, the 4 hour bike ride was ABSOLUTELY AMAZING!!! We ended near Coroico and spent the afternoon relaxing in a wildlife rescue in the jungle...eating, drinking, and talking about the ride. The rescue had all kinds of animals roaming around freely...birds, turtles, monkeys, dogs...all rescued from the black markets.

At this point, I was honestly considering moving to La Paz and becoming a guide for Gravity. Our guide, Darren, had moved from the US and was spending 10 months living in La Paz and taking groups of bikers down the road 5 times per week. I told him that it seemed like an exciting life and he informed me that they were in need of more guides! Score! I was all about it....until we took the bus ride back up the road to return to La Paz...

This is when Darren pointed out all the crosses and memorials along the edge and gave us some history behind the road and various deaths. Since 1998, 18 cyclists have lost their lives on the road and many more injured. One woman died as recently as 3 months ago! The deaths are brutal. Often, the people may have been saved if their guides had been trained in rope rescue (as my guide was). There was one story of a bus that fell over the edge killing 200 in one shot. Along our ride up the road, we came head on with other trucks twice. The majority of the road can only accommodate one car so the other trucks had to back up on this windy road until they got to a spot where we could squeak by and was horribly scary!

(This is Ariel almost getting hit by a crazy bus coming back from a freaking scary at the time but hysterical after).

The worst part of all...and the part that made me realize for certain that I do not want to be a guide or ever go on this road again...was when we passed a smashed bus that had JUST been involved in an accident on the road killing 13 and injuring 27 (I found out the details on the news that night). It was big news in La Paz and my "Bolivian Mom" and friends back in La Paz had been so worried that I might have been involved. Never again...I can't say that I wouldn't recommended it to others but I, personally, could not risk it again knowing what I do now.

Sorry to have put you through the worry Mom and Dad!! I told them the night before that I was doing it and my Dad was just like "Thanks for telling us" in a very dry manner as if to say "great now we are going to spend the next day worrying". Well, I survived and promise not to do crazy things like this again...or at least not tell you ahead of time ;)

Overall, my day on the World's Most Dangerous Road was one of the most memorable days of my life...I don't think I'll ever top the thrill. I learned so much about mountain biking too! Watch out Muddy Buddy 2011!

(this is a point of the ride back when the road was blocked with big rocks and we had to get out and throw them all off the edge so we could drive by)!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Para los Niños

Para los Niños
Here I am, finally in Peru on the next leg of my journey! The past few weeks have been filled with new adventures and emotions as I tried to squeeze in everything possible before I left La Paz...hmm, it makes me sad to even write that. If I could have dreamed the perfect trip it would not have compared to the time I had over the past 6 weeks in Bolivia! I have new memories that will, without a doubt, remain with me throughout my life.
I can already tell that Peru is filled with even more amazing adventures for me to I figured I should reflect on the last few weeks in Bolivia before I am consumed by the beauty of Peru :)
Para Los Niños

By far, the images that I can´t get out of my head from La Paz almost always include the kids and adults that I came to know through Para los Niños (PLN). PLN is a non-profit organization that provides a home for abandoned, abused and lost children along with children and adults with disabilities. Through this organization (and Reach Bolivia), I was able to spend the past 6 weeks doing my best to enrich the lives of the infants of I.D.I.A and adults living in the Erick Boulter Center.
Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings I couldn´t wait to get to the orphanage to spend time with the kids. I knew that it was up to me (and two other volunteers working with the ¨infants¨) to unstrap the kids from their chairs and initiate some kind of activity. I worked with all the kids on some level (reading, singing, etc) but specifically with one boy, who I will call H (approx 6 years old). He is going to be moved to an orphanage for more typically developing kids soon but has a lot of catching up to do. He has a condition from birth which limits his use of his right arm and leg. At this point, he does not walk or communicate verbally. He is still little and cute and can get away with scooting around, grabbing and crying to get what he wants. This method of interaction will not work as he gets older and bigger and is moved to the other orphanage. If he does not learn to walk, he will soon require a wheelchair for mobility for the rest of his life. I am confident that, if he had access to consistent, quality therapy (speech, physical, occupational), he would be walking, talking and learning at a level appropriate for his age. Over the past 6 weeks, I have been amazed at how much he has been able to achieve-especially in the area of self-feeding. I know the momicitas were impatient with me at times because this process was very messy and caused H to take much longer to finish the meal, but I had to stick to my goals and remember that I was there to help the kids to develop and not to appease the nurses.
This issue is actually deserves elaboration. I found it to be a constant struggle to find ways to work on my goals while still respecting the women who work day and night to keep the kids fed and clean. They of course have their own ideas of what is best and often it is more a function of expedience for them and lack of training in the area of child development, understandably. For example, there was one time when H was crying and they were obviously punishing him for behavior. He was happy and playing with a book and next thing I know, he was crying because his book had been taken. I went to comfort him, figuring he had dropped the book. The mamicitas immediately instructed me not to give him any attention because he was being punished for not cooperating yesterday!? Yesterday?? ...I´m pretty sure H had no idea why his book was taken and therefore the punishment was not effective in modifying the behavior. It was hard for me to keep silent but I had to respect the difficult job that these women have and my hope was to help them through example by modeling a perhaps more effective style of interaction with the kids.
My initial impression of the way the ¨hospital¨was run was very poor...I still believe that the conditions are not conducive to child development but now I have a better understanding of why the mamacitas deal with the children the way that they do. Another example; I was horrified when I saw that the kids spend most of the day literally tied into their chairs. I still think it is very far from ideal, but realize that, given the lack of staff and resources, it is sometime the only way to prevent injury. Wheelchairs are old, broken and not adequate for the childrens’ needs. One child does not have the strength the hold his head up- his chair does not have head support and he sits with his head flopped to the side almost all day. Another child was in a chair missing a wheel the other day and, as a result, the chair tipped over and he crashed to the ground. Due to wear and tear, most of the original straps on the chairs are not functional and therefore, the kids are strapped in with ropes.
I always wondered why the mamacitas tied up one of the boys, in particular. He can walk well and constantly indicates that he wants to get out of his chair. I found out that he has seizures and falls and therefore the mamacitas are terrified of him hurting himself. He already has several impressive scars on his head from falling during a seizure. Once morning, we had him out of his chair wearing a helmet when he had a seizure which caused him to fall and strike his head on the ground. Even with the helmet, a pool of blood began to form. I realized that I was useless to help him so instead I took a baby from one of the momicitas so she could assist the boy. (Let me just say that the boy ended up being ok with several stitches in his head). At the time I didn´t know that he was, relatively, OK and I had a catastrophic physical reaction. I went in the other room to finish feeding the baby for the was obvious that the ¨baby¨was not a baby (full set of teeth) and had very obvious dysphagia...I couldn´t feed him knowing this but I also knew that there was no other option. Anyway, all of this was going on at once and I couldn´t handle it. I started to get really sick. I put the little boy with dysphagia down and crawled into the bathroom...I couldn´t hear or see and my whole body hurt so bad...I seriously thought I was going to die on the floor of the orphanage. I am so thankful for one of the other volunteers, David. He is a medical student in Australia and was able to convince me that I would be okay and was having a vasovagal reaction and therefore my blood pressure dropped (plus the high altitude equals a bad situation). I was okay after about 15 minutes on the floor...but it was a really intense experience and still upsetting to think about. The experience only heightened my respect for the mamicitas and what they have to handle everyday.
Anyway, H made impressive gains in the areas of self-feeding, walking and attempting verbal communication. We developed several routines to get him started...At first when we walked together he wanted to sit all the time and I´d have to assist the forward movement of his affected leg with my foot. By the end of my time with him, he would move both feet independently and even lift the affected limb to climb steps. He also stopped attempting to sit down so much. Of course, he still requires a lot of support to walk but I hope he is a little closer now to the ultimate goal of indepent mobility. We also worked on dexterity of his affected hand, opening his hand, picking up items and recognizing the function of his affected arm (usually he pretty much ignores his right upper limb). Actually, I had more success with physical and occupational gains then speech...go figure. Wow...I could talk about these kids forever.
I also went to the center on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons to play with the adults at the Erick Boulter Center. The center houses deaf and mute adults along with women with mental disabilities. We had tons of fun playing with puzzles, drawing, cutting, playing soccer and catch, etc. I think they got used to seeing me and knowing that it was time for some activity. I hope more volunteers decide to spend time with the is so easy and actually really fun. The last day, I gave each of the adults either a puzzle, book or ball. It was apparent that they did not initially understand the concept of a gift...they kept trying to give the items back as I packed up to go. Some of their reactions were woman screamed with joy, kissed me and ran away to look at the book :) Priceless.
I am really looking forward to seeing some positive changes to the orphanage in the coming year. Reach Bolivia is expecting a group of volunteers to come early next year to take down an old, dangerous playground and construct a new play area for the kids. Also, there is a plan in the works for a sensory stimulation room with two staff therapists. A few weeks ago I bought tickets for my ¨family¨ (la casa de Gloria) to attend a benefit for the kids. I thought it would be low key given that the orphanage has no money, but I wanted to support it all the same. I was blown away when we arrived...turns out one of the long term residents of the orphanage (35 years) has a famous hair stylist uncle who sponsored the event. It was an answer to my prayers. Some of the kids were able to attend including the three that I was working with the most :).There was a dentist who presented free dental exams for all the kids! I´m sure the event raised a ton of money that I believe will be used to restore a pool for hydrotherapy! Reach Bolivia and Para Los Niños are getting more volunteers than ever and I hope to see some wonderful changes for the kids and adults within the next few years.

Iwas so happy to be video interviewed by a volunteer from Australia who is working to enhance the Para Los Niños website. She is going to include video clips of past volunteers talking about their experiences to, hopefully, encourage people to come work at the center. I want potential volunteers to realize that you don´t have to be a therapist or speak Spanish or have experience working with kids with disabilities to make a valuable difference at this center. If you have some time, can smile, read a book, sing a song or roll a ball you are adequately qualified to make a difference.
I think I am going to have to return to La Paz in the next few years to check out the progress in the orphanage. I´ll never forget my positive experience with an orphanage in the Dominican Republic several years ago. The first year I visited, the place was in desperate need of so much. The kids needed attention, safety, clothes, etc. The orphanage was the shame of the surrounding town. When I returned the following year (through OrphanageOutreach), it was a completely different place! The kids had everything they needed and more. In fact, OrphanageOutreach had shifted it´s attention to the needs of the surrounding town and we spent time teaching English in the local schools. The orphanage was now the absolute pride of the amazing! I wish the same for this orphanage in La Paz. The kids deserve everything good in the world and I will pray every night that they are allowed an opportunity to develop to their full potential.

I have to do another blog about the past few weeks besides my volunteer work!! Including the biking at 40mph down the world´s most dangerous road (38 miles long-no joke and I don´t think I would do it again), Cholita´s Wrestling, my first futbol (soccer) game (Columbia vs Bolivia), my wonderful friends and my last night in La Paz, which was like a dream!!
I am safe and sound in Peru and being treated like a princess. This is a great transition time between La Paz and going back to my previous life. It may have been too much to take to go straight back to the states. I am so excited for J-Rod to join me here in 2 days and then off to Cuzco and Machu Pichu!! Life is so good :) Miss you all xoxoxox

Monday, July 26, 2010

¡Que linda!

The past few weeks have been really busy here in Bolivia but very exciting and full of new adventures! With traveling, volunteering, taking classes and soaking in the culture here in La Paz, I am exhausted by the end of each day but I am truly so happy with all that I am doing down here.

Trip to Salar de Uyuni and Southwest Bolivia

Let me start by saying that if I would have known what I was in for ahead of time during this trip, I likely would not have I am glad I didn´t know because it was an exciting adventure complete with 3 days of ¨ohh´s¨ and ¨aah´s¨ as we soaked in the amazing scenes of natural beauty. The weather was extreme (cold, windy, strong sun, dry) and the accommodations were...basic (no electric, no hot water, nasty bathrooms, etc), but we made the best of it and it turned out to be a wonderfully memorable trip.

Uyuni sits at an elevation of 3669m and is in the coldest part of Bolivia. The town of 20,000 doesn´t have much to offer (besides a train graveyard in the middle of nowhere) but it is the starting and stopping point for most travelers interested in touring the Southwest Circuit of Bolivia. I personally could not wait to get out of the town once back from our adventure...they had turned off all the electricity in the town due to extreme wind and we had so much trouble getting service, let alone food, at any of the packed restaurants. The inhabitants of the town don´t bat an eyelash when the electricity is turned off, they just light candles and serve pizza cooked in a gas oven. At that point I was soooo ready to get back to the comforts of La Paz (prior to this trip I never imagined I would say those words)!.

Anyway, Uyuni is where we (Sharon and I) met up with the rest of our group and set out for the trip. I could not have hand picked a better group of people to share this adventure with. There was Rachel from Wales, Alex from Greece, Matt and Erwin from Switzerland and our driver and cook Fabio and Maribel. We got along from the start which was such a blessing given what we were about to experience together (we even had to sleep together in the same room)! I enjoyed our conversations about learning and knowing various langauges and dialects within various languages... that´s the language scientist in me... it was fascinating. I got to work on my accents as well :)

The trip took us through Salar de Uyuni, a 12,106 sq km salt flat resulting from a dried up lake, I think. The pure white environment is blinding and leads to some crazy visual illusions. If it haden´t been so harshly cold, we could have played with photos a little more taking advantage of the skewed sense of depth perception. In the middle of Salar is an Island of rock and Cacti. I enjoyed climbing to the top of the island, which was a feat due to the wind :) Well worth the trek however!! The sights at the top were breathtaking...although that may have been due to the lack of oxygen at 3660m.

The hostal that we spent the first night in was completely made from salt (no I didn´t lick the walls to make sure)! I was so worried about freezing to death since me and Sharon forgot to rent sleeping bags and all advice we had received implied that we may die without sleeping bags :) We survived the night, obviously, but I had to wear every piece of clothing that I packed. Thankfully the blankets provided were warm and cozy as long as I ignored the fact that they probably don´t get washed often...eew!

We left the hostal in the morning for an exciting day of driving through southwest Bolivia on an unpaved route far far from any sort of civilization. We visited beautiful lagoons and volcano ranges that were sort of like oasis throughout our cold, DRY, bumpy, windy journey. We got out of the jeep at one point to check out some huge boulders that have been formed into interesting shapes (a tree). The wind was so severe (blowing sand and dirt like bullets) that everytime I touched someone I got a horrible electric shock. When I tried to open the jeep door I got shocked so bad that it threw me off and the wind blew me 10 feet back! It was awesome :)

The hostal that we stayed in the second night was like something straight out of a horror movie! Everytime the freezing wind blew, the air filled with dust from outside due to broken windows and cracks in the roof and walls. So freaky. Thankfully we all slept in the same room because I think everyone was a little scared. We even had to go to the bathroom in teams (one flashlight) with caution due to freezing pee and water on the bathroom floor! We were soo happy to leave that freezing place in the early morning.

The third day was my favorite because we had a chance to get into a natural hot spring...glorious in addition to being the first warm thing I touched in several days. Since I haden´t been able to shower in 3 days, I couldn´t resist the urge to dunk my head...sort of a bad idea but lovely at the time. My hair and wet underclothes froze instantly upon exiting the spring! It was so invigorating and, to me, the best part of the trip!

Overall, I appreciate the harsh conditions so much because I realize that if these places were easy to get to, then there would already be paved roads, hotels, and Starbucks all around! The beauty and mystery that I experienced were well worth all the discomfort that I had to endure ;) By the way, no one is EVER allowed to call me High Maintainance Amy ever again!

Beautiful weekend in Lago Titicaca- Copacabana and Isla del Sol

After last weekend´s harsh adventures in Uyuni, me and Sharon decided to strive for comfort for our next trip to Lago Titicaca! Even without sparing expense, living in ¨Bolivan Luxury¨ for the weekend was not too costly. Lago Titicaca is a huge (8400 sq km) lake sitting at 3808m and is the world´s largest high-altitude lake....and it is absolutely sapphire and brilliantly georgous straddling both Bolivia and Peru.

Copacabana is an interesting place to´s a cute town with a beautiful Church and two mountains with religious shrines on top. I climbed to the top of the Catholic mountain but had no energy left (or time) to trek to the top of the other. I didn´t partake in any of the superstitious rituals that take place both atop the Catholic mountain and surrounding the cathedral in the middle of town (I took pics though). I felt like it was sort of sacreligious, actually a mix of both ancient religious practices (i.e. Aymara) and Catholic. The rituals include purchasing miniature items (cars, luggage, homes, fake money) then praying over it, throwing confetti on it, lighting it on fire and then pouring beer on it!! If the hike up the mountain wasn´t hard enough (altitude) the smoke from all the rituals made it even worse! I was further shocked to see the ritual in front of the Cathedral where people bring their new cars, decorated with ribbons and confetti, and pour beer all over them (including the motor) as a sacrifice for its protection. My car is almost 3 years old and I would freak out if someone poured beer on it...culture shock!

That was Copacabana (very nice for one night of exploring). The best reason to go to Copacabana is to catch a boat ride to Isla del Sol. The beauty of this island is so striking that pre-Incan peoples and the Incas connected it with mystical events, including the the birth of the sun, moon, god ¨Viracocha¨, and Incan civilization itself!! You can´t immagine the beauty of this place!!! I never knew such beauty existed. We were blessed with perfect weather and hot, strong sunshine! Once docked on the Island, we had to hike for about an hour up up up to nearly the top of the island where our ecolodge (La Estancia) was located. Talk about short of breath...I had to stop every 20 steps to slow my heartrate. I gave the man who carried all of our luggage up a huge tip (by Bolivan standards) because I could barely carry my shirt, let alone 150 extra pounts of weight!

The trek was well worth the pain, our accommodations were splendid with excellent food, HOT WATER (solar heated), warm beds, solar heated clean rooms, amazing views and excellent company. I was in paradise..I would only barely hesitiate to call it heaven!
The worst part of this trip was that Sharon ended up getting very sick (likely altitude sickness since the Island is even higher than La Paz). I felt so bad that she couldn´t enjoy a lot of the sights that required tough climbing to more remote areas. I ended up doing a lot of the exploring alone but found the time to be so wonderful and peaceful...just me, the sounds of undisrupted nature and all the spactacular views! ...I guess I could have waited for our guide, but he was hard to understand and a little akward so I left him in my dust :)

I met a lot of interesting people during this trip...from various parts of the world and on various parts of their journys. Some people have been traveling for months and months and others were just beginning their adventures.

Trout was introduced to Lago Titikaka about 80 years ago to improve the protein intake of the locals...I had trout 6 times during this trip :)

I´ve been back in La Paz now for a week and am not planning any trips for this weekend. Sharon and Ariel are leaving this weekend :( So I want to be here to spend time with them. There is also a big celebration in the city this weekend with a parade and a full day of traditional dancing, eating and drinking :) I hope to go to the Amazon next weekend for my last weekend before leaving for Peru. I am in love with the volunteer work that I have been doing during the is exhausting but amazingly rewarding and much needed. I am going to really have a hard time makes me sad to think of it just for a second!

Next post will be all about my volunteer work and some exciting changes that I hope to see happening for the kids soon :) Being down here has made me so much more aware of my blessings and I go to sleep every night going over them in my friends and family back home always come to mind you all and miss you xoxoxoxoxox!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


¨La cocaina es una droga, la coca no¨

Hola from La Paz!! I´m still very happy to be here and am doing exactly what I planned...learning, traveling, helping, growing... Todo esta bien aqui!

After being here for 11 days, I have begun to notice some common dangers that newbies to the city have to look out for...most I have personal experience with and others, my roommates have graciously found out, the hard way, for me.


Whether a driver or pedestrian, the method of navigating the streets here is unorthodox, at best. Where to begin, pedestrians cross the streets whenever and matter if a car is coming. ¨Look both ways before you cross the street¨is not a concept that is recognized in these parts. In an effort to teach pedestrians safer methods of crossing, the city started a program many years ago that uses young adults, dressed as Zebras, to direct walkers of all ages on where and when it is safe to cross...seriously!

Interestingly, I have not witnessed or heard about any accidents involving cars-on-car or car-on-person. Given the way people drive around here, I would expect to see beat up cars with dents and missing bumpers but that is not the case. Some speculate that, since people do not have car insurance here, they are very skilled at avoiding collisions. These people are used to driving in this ¨crazy¨ way and have learned from the start how to navigate in La Paz. If I attempted to drive on these streets, I would not last a block without causing major problems.

Crime schemes aimed at tourists!
This is one of the dangers that Sharon, the Spanish teacher, found out for us the hard way!
I am so thankful that I bought the Lonely Planet travel guide last minute before coming. It warned of these schemes and how to avoid being a victim. Unfortunatly, Sharon did not read this information and, self admittedly, is too trusting of people. We were all planning to visit the Witches Market together and Sharon decided to meet us there. She was going to take an autobus while we walked. While waiting for a bus, a ¨nice woman visiting La Paz from Brazil¨approached Sharon and suggested they split a taxi. Sharon agreed and the woman proceeded to deny several passing taxies until a specific one came along (WARNING WARNING). Of course, the taxi did not take the route Sharon would have expected and, what do you know, an undercover cop stopped the taxi and got in the front seat demanding to search the tourists´ bags for illegal substances. The woman stayed in character the whole time, shaking and crying. Once he had gone through all of her bags, they dumped Sharon out on the street and drove off. It was then that she realized what had actually happened and that her credit card and phone were gone. She was lost and really upset. Thankfully she was not hurt physically and is considering this a lesson learned for all of us.
Fake police have become a huge problem in La Paz. So much so that a law has been made that common clothed officers are not allowed to approach tourists and ask for identifying information or perform searches.
Due to the pollution from cars, dust from the dry dry environment, and severe altitude, breathing could be considered dangerous. The last I posted, I hadn´t had any problems associated with breathing and altitude. Since then, my competitive nature got the best of me..and my lungs. Since I am not running regularly, I refuse to take a bus up the steep, long streets that we have to trek everyday. The other night I decided it would be good exercise for me to run up one of the longest, steepest streets and attempt to beat the autobus that the rest of the family was taking!! I beat the bus but thought I was going to have to go to the hospital! My trachea and lungs were burning sooooo bad and I smelled blood on my breath!!! I might not try anything like that again...but I did beat the bus!! :)

Random Holes
Not only do you have to be on the constant lookout for cars, but, oddly enough, gaping holes in the ground as well. I´m not sure what this is all about, but it is definitely a phenomenon worth mentioning. I have started a new collection of photos depicting what could happen if you are not paying attention while walking around here.

Random stray dogs, everywhere!

And not the cute, cuddly kind. These are maingy trashpickers that bark all night long and keep me awake. They are kind of like the squirrles of La Paz. I suppose they do their part to dispose of garbage left on the street but overall they are kind of scairy to pass while walking alone. I haven´t heard of any of them approaching a person but I still feel uncomfortable passing them on the streets. The dogs are better at crossing the chaotic streets then I am....

Gastrointestinal problems

This is another danger that one of my roommates learned for all of us. Although I have been warned that I am bound to get sick due to exposure to all these new germs. The way foods are prepared and presented here is...hmm...very different than traditional food storage and preparation methods that I have been exposed to up until now. Food is sold all over the place and along every street. Some of it smells good but I have been told that I should avoid eating this traditional Bolivian style food on the streets until I have been here for 3 years and can build immunity to various germs. I an not that tempted anyway. The food (i.e. raw meats) sits outside in the sun all day. I do drink the fresh squeezed fruit juice on the street far haven¨t been sick. I still get to eat traditional Bolivian cuisine, however, because my Bolivian family has a maid who prepares delicious dishes and soups every day for lunch :) This is a picture of Ariel trying to combat some stomach problems with coca tea...she is a vegetarian and having a hard time figuring out how to eat here. The main ingredients for most dishes are meat, potatoes and rice. There are a lot of fresh vegetables and fruits available everywhere but, if included in a traditional dish, are mostly cooked until they have no more nutritional value... I will have to do an entire blog just to cover the food and eating in La Paz.


This has, by far, been the hardest danger to deal with since being here. I visited the hospital
that at which I will be volunteering this past Monday. It is called a hospital but is really an orphanage for infants, children and young adults with severe physical and mental limitations (autism, cerebral palsey, etc). The conditions are like nothing I have ever imagined and it was very hard to take in the reality. Most of the residents spend all of their time inside mulling around with no activities or significant stimulation. This is especially bad for children with autism or problems with sensory integration. I saw a lot of children rocking and even one boy tied to a bench because he self-harms due to lack of proper stimulation. He stays tied to the bench all day. When I walked into the room with the young adults, many of them grabbed onto me begging for attention. They are older and strong so it was hard for me to get out of their grip; Truely a horrible sight. I went to visit the room with the infants (infant-6ish) at what happened to be potty time. Potty time consists of the children being strapped to toilet seats in one room until they go number 2...sometimes it takes more than an hour. I saw one boy eating his diaper and no one seemed to think this was an issue...the response was, oh he has autism so he does that. I was truely crushed while traveling home from the hospital. I am not sure how seeing this is going to affect me in the long run but the shock made me very depressed. It is hard to see people living with such excess when there are poor little children everywhere who are not even getting their basic needs met. I cannot blame anyone specifically for what I am seeing is all due to lack of resources and staff. The women who take care of the children do not have any training on special populations and seem to see their focus on keeping the rooms neat and clean.

Since Monday, I have cut back on buying gifts and souvenirs for myself, family and friends at home. I want my money to go towards improving conditions for these kids. A little money can go so far down here and the kids (and adults) could be entertained with the most simple thing for hours (i.e ball, colored pencils, puzzles).

There is a positive light on the sad reality in this hospital. Para los Niños and Reach Bolivia have been getting more volunteers than ever. There is a little more consistency with therapy for the children. There was an occupational therapist who was here before me and she created wonderful profiles on the kids that I am working with. She included recommendations and insights that help me to get started more quickly without having to spend time figuring out strengths, weaknesses, etc. I am going to be playing speech therapist, occupational therapist and physcial therapist for the next 5 weeks. I will create reports regarding communication with hopes that another volunteer can come in after me and continue to guide progress. Also, Para los Niños received a great amount of money recently and they are going to be able to create a sensory integration room...pretty state of the art!

I realized that I am not going to fix the world and make these kids college-bound in one month...thinking like that is so overwhelming. I have accepted that I can contribute to small improvements and hope that more and more people realize how easy it is to make these small differences.

Another sad sight are the ¨shoe shine boys¨ who can be found everywhere you look. Almost all of them cover their faces with a stocking because they are embarrassed that their friends will recognize them. Most don´t have families or have to support themselves. They approach everyone asking to shine their shoes in exchange for money. I learned that, on a good day, they may make 10 Bolivianos (about $1.50) a day. That is just about enough to have a small meal. The people here work their butts off just to get by day to day.

I am off to Salar de Uyuni tonight (12 hours on a bus) until Sunday. It should be quite a beautiful sight! Volcanos, hot springs and a huge desert of to come I am sure. Missing everyone! xoxox

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Todo Bien!

It is shocking to me as I sit here and realize that I have only been in La Paz for 5 days! I have never grown, learned and experienced so much in just 5 days in my life! ...and I´m not even really trying.

Since last I blogged (which seems like a lifetime ago) I have decided where I will focus my energy regarding volunteer work. I met with another woman, Siobhan (from Dublin) who works for ¨Para los Ninos¨ on Tuesday. She suggested that I work at the Erick Boulter center for Deaf children...only difference is she wants me to work with the adults who have various disabilities. The adults who live there have ¨graduated¨from the children´s program but, obviously, cannot just be kicked out onto the street...most would not last an hour independently. It is wonderful that there is a place for them to live and be cared for here. I will be the first volunteer to work with these adults...most volunteers request to only work with the cute little ones. When I walked over to the center and saw all the adults (with various disabilities- most not deaf) just sitting around in the yard with no activity, I resolved that this would be where I spend my time. I would like to help by organizing stimulating activities for them in the afternoons to improve their interaction with each other and quality of life.

Today I went to the center after Spanish lessons just to introduce myself to the other workers and observe and interact with the adults who live there. I wanted to get an idea of their various levels of abilities (i.e. physical, communicative, etc.). I brought a few balls and some various colored balloons to prompt physical movement and communication. It worked pretty well...most of them were thirsty for interaction and very curious about me. I brought paper and pens also to assess writing abilities. I got a lot of information and realized that I have my work cut out for me!

All of the adults are physically imapired in some way...however, physical abilities, as a whole, are their strength. I talked with the social worker (who was skeptical and shy with me initially, as most Bolivians tend to be). Once I was able to communicate my intentions (I had practiced in Spanish lessons earlier this morning) she warmed up quickly and was gracious for my help. I had a lot of fun today playing with the adults and encouraging them to participate. I look forward to this challege!

I must comment about the women I have met while here so far. I feel blessed to be in the company of such motivated and intelligent people who have recognized areas of need and suffering in the world and worked their butts off and sacrificed to make positive changes. For example, Alix Shand, the woman who helped make this all happen for me. She owns the institute where I study and is one of the ¨go-to¨people in La Paz if you wish to volunteer. I am going to try to attach a recent blog that she created after traveling deep into the coutry here to translate for a group of volunteer doctors from Holland. It is very interesting. Another woman, Iris Palacios, started Reach Bolivia and works so hard with almost no resources to improve the lives of the children in a local hospital here in la Paz. There are so many others...they are all compassionate women who are brilliant, hard-working and tough as nails (Even I wouldn´t talk back....yet). So inspiring to me.

Iris, who I mentioned above, has been almost begging me to work with her organization as well. She has two children in the hospital (long term hospital- more of a home) who desperately need speech therapy for language development. I am going to volunteer three mornings a week at the hospital and 2-3 afternoons at Erick Boulter. (plus classes 2-3 x per week). Whew! But this is what I´m here for!

Truely, I haven´t even scratched the surface of my observations and experiences (in only 5 days!). My next post will include more about La Paz and Bolivia in general regarding the fascinating culture and geography. I am going to be traveling to Salar de Uyuni for 5 days next week and hope to post again befor that.

Interesting fact...found out the hard way: Because of the altitude, carbonated beverages (i.e. beer) tend to have a frothier head :) It is a local superstition that the frothier your beer, the more money you have. Mine overflowed instantly, so I hope the superstition really means ¨the more money you will get¨!