Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Close of a Chapter

I would like to thank you for reading this blog, even if just once I thank you for having visited and I hope you enjoyed what you read or the pictures you saw.  Choosing what to write was sometimes a challenge because there was so much to think about.  I thank you for being patient with me and for accompanying me in the process.  It's been a pleasure having had people with whom to share my experience, my questions, my joys and my challenges.

As I have closed my chapter as a missioner with Franciscan Mission Service, I'm opening a new chapter by going back to Bolivia, serving with Franciscans International.  If you are interested in following my experience and staying in touch, please go to

I leave you with the words of an old Irish blessing...
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The LARGEST salt flat in the world and Thanksgiving!

“Am I ever going to make it?”  That’s the question that went through my mind at least twenty times on the 4th of November, 2012.  I did not think going to the Salar de Uyuni (salt flats of Uyuni) was in the cards for me as I was supposed to have gone two other times earlier in the year and it hadn’t work out and now this-- I almost missed my bus from Cochabamba to Oruro because I had to go to the bathroom, then we DID miss the train from Oruro to Uyuni because the bus arrived so late.  After scrambling into a taxi to take us to some unknown corner where there were cars that drove out an hour and half in the same direction as the train, we hopped into one praying we could outrun the train and catch it at its next stop.

The driver stopped on the side of road in almost total darkness telling us to walk down a path and we’d arrive at the train station.  I fished out my flashlight and found the “path” toward a little light about 100 yards away, and sure enough there was a tiny train station with a little platform and about 30 people bundled up in the cold sitting on their aguayo cloths or standing and smoking, waiting for our train.  What do you know!

The night really turned around when as the train pulled up and was coming to a stop, I heard one of the conductors yelling out my name at the top of his lungs as he hangs out the train car window, “Nora! Nora!” I jumped in surprise and started running towards him.  I happened to have a friend on board, who had told the conductor I didn’t know what I was doing and would need some help so he kindly offered to scream my name out, and it worked, I found my friend.
As it turns out, I was able to see the largest salt flat in the world, at a whopping 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 sq mi) in size and with an elevation of 3,656 meters (11,995 ft).  You can see it from space, so I’m told.  It was really amazing, full of animals (flamingos, vicuña), sights ("island" of cacti, green lakes, red lake), geological formations (volcanic rock, a stone tree) that I’d never see anywhere else but in Bolivia. 
 As I took everything in, I was once again amazed at creation, amazed at the stunning beauty, the extravagance of the night sky filled with stars.  I wish that the kids in the city of Cochabamba could afford to go there and see how majestic their country is, how important it is to preserve it, take care of it.  Likewise when I have visited national parks in the US, I gained a connection with the land, with the country, and I fell in love just a little more, as if the Artist of the world were trying to woo me.  I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have gone and seen all that I saw, I highly recommend it.

On my return, not only did I find myself thankful for the salt flats, but also very thankful for the whole experience of entering into people’s lives the last three years in Bolivia.  As I was preparing to return to the US, I decided to celebrate Thanksgiving with my Bolivian friends by baking them three “autumn” American desserts as a way of thanking them for being a part of my life and for all they’ve taught me.  I made apple crisp, pecan diamonds and carrot cake with cream cheese frosting.  It was a nice time and a good way to be thankful on such a great American holiday and also end my time in Bolivia with Franciscan Mission Service.

5 things I’m thankful for today: the smell of baking apples with sweet cinnamon; people’s patience with me; (slow) progress in cleaning; the immensity of people’s hearts and how hard it is to leave them; YOU reading this blog post, I’m grateful for you, thank you for reading and thank you for listening to my stories.

Monday, December 31, 2012

The Cycle of Life

For me, one of the blessings of being in someone else’s home, culture, country, house of worship etc. is having my eyes opened to another way of seeing, another way of interpreting life and its events.  Oftentimes I come away enriched, able to see more clearly or at least experience more deeply.  This is very true for me in my experiences of death while here in Bolivia.  

I have seen very dear loved ones leave this life both from a distance in the United States, and also here in Cochabamba.  I have accompanied people in their sorrow as they have lost family members.  Coming into mission, I never knew death would be such a prevalent part of my time.
At the end of St. Francis’ life, he wrote a canticle praising God and all Creation, and at the very end is the most curious part to me.  Be praised, my Lord, for our Sister Death, whom we must all face. I praise and bless you, Lord, and I give thanks to you, and I will serve you in all humility.”
In referring to death as a sister, he implies that death is like part of our family, and in a way it is.  To what family does it not visit?  To what family does it not greatly affect? Yet, there is something hopeful in Francis’ words, giving thanks and recognizing that Sister Death takes us on to a different life, to the source of all Good, Love and Joy.  Death is NOT the end, it is a transition.
For many people in Bolivia, this transition of death is marked by wearing all black for a year and usually visiting the cemetery on Sundays, bringing flowers to the grave and praying.  The poor are also always present at the cemetery, usually young boys or adolescents, people will walk around offering to pray and sing or even play music for the deceased loved one.  I have witnessed many people offer these prayers and songs and I’m touched by them every time.  In return the people visiting give some money to the people praying as a gesture of appreciation.  Of course family members visiting pray too, but the way I see it, it is a way for people who might never otherwise have an interaction to share a moment of accompaniment in times of grief and sorrow, feelings every human being knows no matter where they come from or where they live.  There is something in the giving of prayers, in sharing those difficult moments that is beautiful to me.
Looking back on the last 12 months, many of the memories that stick out to me are around death and the sorrow is heavy to carry, which is why I don’t think we should ever carry it alone.  In mourning, there is also accompaniment by our community, our friends, our family, and that is what impresses me the most—the love that shines through, the love shared with the person who has passed on and the love shared by the ones who remain in this life.  One of my favorite books is Tuesdays with Morrie, and one of the many wise things Morrie said about death was the following:

“As long as we can love each other, and remember the feeling of love we had, we can die without ever really going away.  All the love you created is still there…Death ends a life, not a relationship.” P174

As we honored the dead for All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day the 1st and 2nd of November in Cochabamba, I was reminded of the truth in that statement, “all the love you created is still there”.  Many people prepared tables in their homes with the favorite foods of the deceased, many more visited the gravesides with flowers and prayers, and memories were shared.

Something different that happened this year is that a group of people wanted to remember the souls of the indigenous people who lost their lives in the process of marching from the jungle to the high altitude of La Paz protesting the construction of a highway through their protected territory and national park.  Outside my office they set up a table with pictures and food as a way of honoring the people who passed away and praying for them.
If you have lost a loved one this past year, my sincere prayer and hope is that you receive peace and cherish the love you have with that person because that love never dies but is always with us.

5 Things I’m Grateful for Today: the ability to be in Cochabamba and experience the many traditions around death and honoring the dead; being received into people’s homes with such open and loving arms; the chance to change and grow; hugs; more hugs; witnessing families who take care of each other.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot

I find myself recently reminded of the words from the Joni Mitchell song “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t what you got till it’s gone…” It’s true, isn’t it? In Absence is where I often encounter how much I appreciated someone or something. I could talk about many people, but today I’d like to talk about my neighbors who have moved away, the kids I often talked about (even sometimes complained about their noise or pestering) who have shared the building I live in.

When a child gets a really bad burn and doesn’t have the resources to get all the proper follow-up treatment or surgeries, they often end up in a program that helps Bolivian children in their recovery and recuperation. This program used to have its facilities in the building I live in, but recently they finished the construction of a house, with lots of space and built just for them, which means that they no longer are my neighbors, and I miss them, oh how I miss them.

I miss walking in the door and being greeted by loud shouts of “NORA, NORA, NORA!” or depending on who is there “MORWA, MORWA, MORWA!” accompanied by arm waving and dancing. I miss going into the hallway to go to the bathroom from my room and having a ball kicked by me because I’ve unknowingly walked into a soccer game. I miss cleaning my room and having so many helpers just because they like to help not because I ask them…and then those that don’t help play make-believe cars running around the ground with my shoes on their hands
I miss all the hugs and kisses. I miss baking cakes together for peoples’ birthdays and seeing the eagerness and joy in their eyes at being able to participate in the process and enjoy the fruits of their labor afterwards. I miss their silly jokes and hair styles. I miss the help in the garden. I miss seeing them grow month to month..
I miss the energy, the LIFE they gave this place, the LIFE they gave to me. Sure I complained about the noise super early in the morning, or the nagging, but the truth of the matter is that these neighbors of mine made all the difference to me. They made it “home”. That aspect has gone with them, now it feels like a building in the middle of the city.

When we chat with friends or family, we may ask how work is going, how family is, how our hobbies are, but it’s rare that someone asks you upon meeting or reconnecting, “How are your neighbors?” Despite this, it’s actually a pretty important part of our lives, or at least it can be, and if it’s not, why not? Having a good relationship with my neighbors helps me feel more connected and increases my sense of belonging and security. Since I am coming upon the end of my time living here, maybe this is good as it helps me to disconnect. I still miss them though. “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t what you got till it’s gone…”

5 Things I’m Grateful for Today: the two plus years I’ve had to be a neighbor to the kids recovering from burns; the cereal Craklin’ Oat Bran; music that lifts my spirit and makes me dance; getting 3 pineapples and a little watermelon all for less than $2 this morning at the market; my friends and family who bring me so much love and joy, thank you!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Seeing the Beauty in Life

I don’t realize how good I have it. I’m not talking about just today, a Thursday in September, I’m talking about every day of my life so far.

Recently I had the opportunity to accompany a friend who is a Christian Brother, and a small group of volunteers from Argentina on a home visit. The Christian Brothers tend to work in education, and when they came to Cochabamba, Bolivia they realized that they couldn’t tackle education without addressing the population of kids who don’t go to school or don’t go frequently because they are working on the streets in the very large outdoor market in Cochabamba.

Why are kids working on the street and not in school? Poverty is the main reason. If mom and/or dad don’t earn enough to feed, clothe and house the kids, the kids need to work. It’s not always that simple. Sometimes kids don’t only work on the streets but also live on the streets and oftentimes the push factors for kids include violence within the family and lack of money to care properly for the kids. My friend explained that some kids fall behind in school because they don’t have the money to buy the books (they have to buy books each year) and they’re too embarrassed to tell the teacher for fear of being reprimanded or looked down upon, so they stop attending school. Each case has its own circumstances, I’m just giving some examples.

After getting to know so many kids who work in the market, the Brothers also get to know their families if possible. We went to visit the family of a set of brothers who both worked. We started out in the market and it took maybe a half hour or a little more to get to the end of the line of the public transportation. When we got out of the car (like a bus, but it’s a minivan with a route), this is the scenery we saw
We walked for about 45 minutes with a drink stop before we reached the house. This included walking up a very steep hill on dirt roads and then descending a mountain-side, also very steep, and through the brush and cacti. My friend explained to us that the kids in the family have to walk all that way every day to go to school and the mom has to walk that in order to bring home any groceries or really anything. Oh! And she has a baby on her back while she does this.
When the six of us arrived, they greeted us with smiles and glasses of a no-name brand soda. There were not seats for everyone, so she put a blanket down for some to sit on. The boys’ little sister showed us her homework, while the two teenagers from Argentina went to play soccer in the dirt with the brothers and a couple of their friends.
The house they live in is rented. Its walls are not extensive enough to cover the whole house, and I can only imagine what it is like at night when the slight wind we feel in the afternoon becomes brisk and stronger. The mom and her husband have been able to buy a plot of land even further out, but it is theirs. They want to build a house but construction materials are especially expensive right now so they have to keep paying rent.

The Brother and his coworker brought seeds to share with the mom because she is taking advantage of the very small plot of land in front of the house (maybe 10 ft. by 50 ft) to plant onions, beans, potatoes, swiss chard and other vegetables for both family consumption and potentially to sell at the market. Currently the mom sells fruits in the market when she can. This requires getting to a fruit drop-off location at 3:30am and camping out a spot on the street in the market, because if she doesn’t get there that early, someone else will have taken the spot and she won’t have a place to sell.

Can I imagine being one of her kids and having to go work in the market that takes more than an hour to get to, and also go to school and do my homework, and get home before dark ideally? Can I imagine what it would be like to be the mother trying to find a way to care for her kids and make sure they go to school, but at the same time struggling to get them food, clothing and school supplies? All this while having to walk up and down a very steep hill/mountain-side with unsteady footing every day (good muscle development, that is for sure). The short and simple answer is “no”, no I cannot even imagine what my daily life would be like.
As I started out saying, I don’t even realize how good I have it. Not only do I have enough to eat, I have extra. I have plenty of clothes and books to read and learn from. I have a roof over my head and it may leak but I don’t get wet. I never had to walk more than 5 minutes to catch the school bus (because I had a free bus that picked me up and brought me back home every day). I may walk a good distance carrying my groceries but a bus is there if I really need to take it, for me walking with a heavy load is a chosen exercise—ha, what a novelty.

All in all, I learned a lot in that one afternoon, and I most enjoyed seeing the joy in the kids’ faces while playing soccer. Kids love to play, no matter where you are. Adults do too, but we’re less likely to admit it and unabashedly show our excitement. Hopefully I can remember them the next time I get stressed or worried about some deadline or task, and remember how beautiful life is in its simplicities.

5 Things I’m Grateful for Today: having a hammer and a screwdriver to unclog the shower drain because I have a shower (that family does not); my health; visits from four family members in August; enjoying the last bit of my favorite cereal that I received in the mail from a dear friend as a surprise birthday gift; my friends who make me laugh and bring such joy to my life.

Saturday, June 30, 2012


Living in Bolivia and working in the radio programs aimed towards raising awareness and dialogue around social and environmental issues, teaches me something new every week. This past Tuesday was International Day in Support of Victims of Torture and as in the majority (if not all?) countries of Latin America, torture is a part of Bolivia’s recent history and some argue there are incidents in the present as well. We did an interview with a Bolivian non-profit that works in rehabilitation and therapy for people who have been tortured either physically or mentally.

Under international law torture is a crime and cannot be justified in any situation, because as the UN states, it “seeks to annihilate the victim’s personality and denies the inherent dignity of the human being”. In order to help people understand the reality that there are many men, women and children living today who have been tortured in some way, every year on the 26 of June there is a worldwide campaign to share about torture practices and their effects, as well as put pressure on governments to act against torture.

An example from Bolivia: In the year 2000 a 19 year-old male was detained under the law regarding the controlled substances and coca. According to information published in the national press, two times a week he went through what could be called “the pulling exercise” where two people sit on top of the person and two others pull the person. It was indicated that this exercise is practiced in the early stages of detention in order to get information. This practice was learned in formation at the School of Americas in Georgia. The detainee started coughing up blood as a result of this treatment and was given medicine for tuberculosis without a diagnosis and eventually went to a public hospital where he died within two weeks.

Whether the guy did horrendous deeds or not, it strikes me as cruel and unusual punishment, something I’m grateful to say I was taught at an early age in public schools is not only wrong but unconstitutional. This is an extreme example because there are plenty of people who are alive and functioning who have gone through tremendous experiences no human being should have to go through; they’re in Bolivia and they’re in the United States too.

Another example less drastic comes from a friend of mine. He told me the other day that in the 50’s he was teaching religion at a Catholic school and accompanied one of the Franciscans to his friary at lunch time. When they arrived, there were a group of political activists who accused my friend of being against them and a spy. As a result, they seized and held him captive for a week, which included not only verbal but also physical abuse in order to get information from him, of which he had none since he had nothing to do with the politics. They let him go, but he said it was quite an experience and still to this day as an 82 year-old man, he gets pain in his neck where they hit him.

I’m hopeful that with time there will be less and less stories like these because political parties, law enforcement, militaries etc. will not break this international law, and more importantly moral code. I think it starts as kids, learning that violence in words or deeds is not the best or “only” option to handle things. The toughest part is probably breaking the cycle because the effects can be life-long. I maintain hope!

5 Things I’m Grateful for Today: hot water in the shower; a new cake recipe that is delicious; progress made in various projects; sharing a good meal with good conversation; one more day.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Fly Like a Bird

Sometimes we find ourselves in the right place at the right time and things come together that we could never have planned or thought of at the start of the day. Being a part of the radio shows allows me to contact a lot of different people asking for information or for an interview, which has opened up many great conversations.

Recently I met José, a biologist who teaches at the university and is a bird expert. For those of you who aren’t bird fanatics, it just so happens that there is an International Day of Birds (or migratory birds, depending on which source of information I read) and this year it happened around the second weekend in May. José agreed to come speak on the radio show about birds, and it was really very eye-opening.

Bolivia is extremely rich in biodiversity. Despite its smallness in size, it is in the top eight countries in the world in biodiversity. According to online sources there are 1,448 species of birds in Bolivia. While on the air the biologist invited us all to go to the local manmade lake the upcoming Saturday for some bird watching. My Franciscan friend and I agreed it would be a perfect opportunity to take the kids from the social center to see.

As a reminder there is a group of kids recovering from bad burns who live in the same building as me and they’re constantly looking for ways to get out and be active outside these 4 walls. Of course when I proposed the idea of going to the lake to see birds and walk around, they jumped at the idea.

We got there later than is ideal for bird watching, but we were able to see some. We learned that many species now don’t come to the lake anymore. A major part has to do with the contamination (it’s quite bad) and another factor has to do with the changes in climate that we are experiencing. It’s one thing to hear about the changes but it’s another to actually see, hear and smell them.

The kids participated in a drawing competition and in the end everyone went home with a little backpack with goodies inside. They really enjoyed being at the lake and learning about the birds and we made up over half the people there so both the planners of the event and we were happy. Making my parents proud, I made sure the kids all said thank you at the end!.

5 Things I’m thankful for today: meetings that are productive; jumping rope; pictures of the kids in my extended family which remind me of them; warm blankets at night; access to delicious exotic fruits like maracuyá.