Long time no write!
Happy New Year to all! It has been over a month since I last wrote and to be honest, I’ve been dreading putting pen to paper, metaphorically speaking. Truly so much has happened and I feel like I have been on a continuous roller coaster and haven’t had much time to catch my breath. But, all thanks be to God, I've had a little time to reset and recharge over the last couple of days. Today I'm coming at you all with a clear mind and a happy heart. Here's what's been going on!
Mid-December I embarked on a week-long trip with other volunteers to two vastly different areas of the country. We went to the Uyuni Salt Flats, aka the largest salt flat in the world! Then we flew over to Santa Cruz and we adventured within Amboro National Park, one of the most biodiverse places in the world. We also got to spend some time in the city, which I have to say was a rather strange experience because it did not feel like the Bolivia I know (AT ALL). The city felt more European than Latin American and I honestly experienced a little bit of culture shock being there!
Where to even begin? This was definitely the craziest trip I've ever been on. One series of unexpected events after another– but I wouldn't have expected it to go any other way given the unpredictable nature of this awesome country. The Uyuni Salt Flats are absolutely incredible: I truly felt like I was transported to another planet. After rain falls on the flats, the sun reflects off the thin layer of water and creates a marvelous natural mirror that leaves you wondering if what you're seeing is even real. The pictures cannot capture it– at least mine couldn't. We stayed the night in a hostel made completely of salt (bed frames, floors, tables, chairs…everything), visited a pink lagoon filled with hundreds of flamingos, swam in natural hot springs in the middle of absolutely nowhere (5-6 hours of driving after your last human contact), and ended the trip feeling like Bolivia has enough diverse terrain to be 5 different planets.
The unphotographed parts of the trip included: 65792367 hours cramped in a car, no cell service for several days on end (not such a bad thing:), getting up at 4am for sunrises that never happened, lots of peeing behind rocks (you wanted details, right?), a crazy drunk guy banging on my car window and me jumping out of my socks, chasing after flamingoes who don't want to be anywhere near us (HAHA), elevation sickness (we were higher than 12,000 ft!), and our car breaking down and us waiting for a replacement for hours... etc etc etc. The unexpected parts will be the most memorable, I'm sure. Mom & Dad-- I am very much alive and well. <3
Once we got to Santa Cruz, we spent some time in the city (& you BET we took advantage of the only Starbucks in the country), but the main attraction of the city is its use as a home base to embark on outdoor adventures near the city. About a two hour drive from the city is Amboro National Park and we had the best guide (look up Nick's Adventures if you ever come to Bolivia!). He was so knowledgeable about the country and informed us on the unfortunate political effort to drive away tourism from one of the most biodiverse parks in the world in order to use the land to grow, well, ya know... I feel very grateful to have seen it while I could.
We happened to be traveling in the rainy season and that made our trip to Amboro veryyyy interesting. We stayed at hands-down the coolest lodging I have ever been to. It was in the middle of the rainforest located in a very small clearing that was run across and now serves as a peaceful, remote oasis lying beneath some pretty unbelievable mountains & boulders. The remoteness bit us in the butt though when a crazy amount of rain left us trapped in there for a bit and we eventually had to hike our way out alongside the other guests. Once we finally made it out, we then had to begin our drive back to the city and were confronted by roads that were covered in landslides caused by the rain. After driving around boulders the size of our car, we finally made it out just in time because the road ended up closing indefinitely just about 10-15 minutes after we got out! I know that I will be telling stories from this trip for a very long time, and I feel so so SO grateful to have had the opportunity to do some traveling around Bolivia before the girls came back from their time visiting family.
When we got home from our travels, the adventures didn't stop! As funny as it sounds, and for reasons I won't delve into here, the volunteers ended up being at the hogar by ourselves for Christmas. We weren't aware of this prior to arriving home, so I will say that I felt quite homesick around Christmas. But don't feel too bad, us volunteers celebrated together and still had ourselves a joyful– and surely memorable– Christmas. We made stir fry for dinner and made mulled wine and went to Christmas Eve mass and had a gift exchange of fun Bolivian goods!
As the girls started trickling back in from their time away visiting family, we took advantage of the small number of girls and took them all out to eat in the city at our favorite restaurant for Chinese food! On the day I’m writing this, all but a couple of our girls have returned to the hogar and it has been so fun to welcome them back one by one. One of the girls is about to turn 18 and is currently preparing to move to Spain where her godmother lives and is sponsoring her to come as well. Some may recall that I studied abroad in Spain in college and I have had so much fun talking to her not only about all the things that she needs to do/places to visit, but also about what it’s like to move to a new country where everything is so different from what you’re used to. I’m still a novice at living abroad but it has been fun to share with her what I’ve learned so far.
Some more changes are coming to the hogar as we have 8 girls leaving. Two have recently moved to the Casa San Miguel, which is a transitional home where the girls have the option to live in once they turn 18 and have the opportunity to pursue further education here. As previously mentioned, one is moving to Spain! And then three more of our older girls are leaving for an experiential year to explore what it would be like to be a sister (nun). They are still very young so it is not a commitment, just an experiential opportunity that they decided to pursue. And then 2 more girls decided to leave the hogar to live with their family again. We will miss all eight girls dearly. But that also means we have room for some new littles to make their way into the hogar here soon! Please pray for all of those girls who are transitioning into and out of Hogar Maria Auxiliadora in the coming months.
Lastly, I want to give a shoutout to the one and only Ann Steffan, who just concluded her time as a volunteer for a year at Hogar María Auxiliadora. Ann departed for home right after Christmas and passed the torch off to a new awesome volunteer, Hannah Mercado (shoutout #2!! :). Ann, I want to say thank you for being the absolute best leader and role model I could have asked for for my first few months in Bolivia. I truly don’t know what I would have done without you here to show me the ropes, and I am so grateful to have made a new friend in you! You may have left the hogar group chat, but you won’t get rid of us ANY time soon :)
P.S... Just a small conclusionary note to acknowledge the obvious, MY HAIR IS GROWING! Woooooo. If you're curious about my hair story, check out my YouTube channel. (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCDJlOErRCz9O7Fr41yOZFCw )
That’s all for now! Enjoy some other photos that I wanted to share below. <3