On Wednesday, April 20th, thirteen strange people sat in my living room and entertained the idea of going to Bolivia. Every Wednesday, we met in the same place at the same time, and planned our week in Cochabamba. We met various people on Skype, and we threw around different words and names such as “Tammy,” “The Cancha,” “La Paz” and “Ninos Con Valor.” Lauren came up with the entire VBS schedule from top to bottom. Gloria and I thought of craft ideas for the afternoons. We all prayed for each other every moment that we could. Andrew brought his guitar. Endel and Kate taught us some Spanish words. We were part of each other’s lives every week. We made each other excited for the adventure that we were about to be going on together.
Before going to Cochabamba, I was not prepared for the hard things that I was going to see, experience and be a part of. Different thoughts ran through my head prior to our departure. It will all be fine and fun and exciting, I thought to myself as I was running errands for crafts that would be going in my suitcase. I am a daughter of the One True King. He won’t let anything stop me from having a good trip. My mind said as I sat in church, hearing our trip being announced to the congregation. My mom will be there. She won’t make me do anything hard or uncomfortable, I thought as I walked alongside my mother, talking about our trip together. Nothing bad will happen. I won’t have to do anything hard. It’s just being with people and hanging out with kids, right? What’s so hard about that?
As it turns out, I was very, very wrong. On our trip, we had to do many things that weren’t easy. God put my teammates and me in situations that were tough and hard to comprehend, and as a result, I became more open to different things, more resistant to different things, and able to handle myself in different ways. On top of that, out of every hard thing that we did, something good came, too.
Since returning from the sweet city of Cochabamba, Bolivia, I have been waking up every day with a new feeling of bravery and confidence. I’m able to communicate with people much better now than before our trip. I am better at corralling children and making them behave after being a tia to the ninos and ninas of Ninos Con Valor for hours at a time. I’m more open to learning a new language, and I believe that my capacity for it has gotten bigger and better. This feeling of bravery has definitely come from a big theme of our trip: doing difficult things.
First of all, communication was a very hard thing. I’m entering my sixth year of French in the fall, and I know approximately fourteen Spanish vocabulary words. Obviously, in Bolivia, English is not a language that is spoken. I love people, and I love getting to know their stories. In the US, the way I get to know other people is by talking to them and by using words. In Bolivia, I wasn’t able to do this because my words were limited. The most I could do was say things like mi nombre es Graciela and muchos gracias. I like to talk, and I like to know others through talking. It made me uncomfortable and feel so unequipped to be in the country that I would be calling home for the next 11 days. The first day that we were there, we went to both of the homes that we were going to be working with during our trip. My favorite thing to do is mentor to younger girls, and I was especially looking forward to hanging out with the middle and high school aged girls at the Girls Home, just like I love to do at home in Virginia. When we left the home that first day, I felt sad and angry. I can’t communicate with these girls, I thought to myself. How will I ever get to know their stories and get to laugh with them if I don’t even know or understand what they’re saying? The next time we came to the home, I was ready to learn. I tried my best to communicate. I danced with the girls, ran around and chased them, did crafts with them, and laughed with them. Even small actions went a long way. Although communication was hard, there was lots and lots of good that came out of my experience with Spanish. Now I know the full power of a hug or a smile rather than words. I am able to say “I love you!” to the girls just by hugging, pointing to things, holding their hands or linking their arms, and giving and receiving smiles. These actions, for me, are much better than speaking, much more powerful, and much more like Jesus loves us.
Second, our “Reality Tour” was really hard for me. We left on the Friday morning of our trip, and traveled to three different homes in Cochabamba. First, we toured a large, state-run home that was the place for children just like the kids of Ninos Con Valor. It was very spacious, with individual houses on the property, housing 10 boys or girls per house. There was a tia living in each house with the children who fed them, helped them with their homework, dried their tears, and tucked them in at night. Each house had large, high ceilings, artwork, and comfy seating. The people there were very welcoming. As I was boarding the bus to leave, one of the tios stopped me. “When are you coming back?” he asked in accented English. “As soon as possible!” I said, smiling and taking one last look at the property, the children, and their caretakers. “Good,” he said, smiling and tapping his cane on the ground. “Your house is my house. You are always welcome here!”
The second home we visited was very open with us about the things they were struggling with. The very day that we toured, they had found out that they needed to close their home down. When we arrived, one of the tios talked with us about the home, its history and its future. As he told us the news about closing, which was recent news for us and for him, he was clearly very moved and concerned about the future of the children in his care. After meeting him, we met some of the children. We met lots of babies and toddlers, and got to spend time with them in their room, complete with cribs, artwork, and happy music. For me, being with them after hearing hard news was refreshing, and like a bright spot in the middle of a broken place. Then, we headed over to the boys’ area, and got to hang out with them. As I walked into their house, I didn’t know what to expect. Would they be loud and rowdy? Did they know what their future was going to be like? What activities did they like to do? One of the boys greeted me by running up to me and giving me a giant hug. “Tia, tia, vamos!” He said excitedly, and dragged me over to one of the couches. He handed me a book and settled into my lap. Wiping happy tears from my eyes, I began to read to him, completely in awe of his love for me, a stranger from America who he hadn’t even known for a minute.
The third home we visited was a home for children with special needs. This was the hardest home to see, and as we were walking through and seeing the place where these children were cared for, I tried to keep an open mind and a heart of love. It was in a quieter area of the city, and it was a large, comfortable property with lots of bedrooms, classrooms, and areas for the kids to live and be. The home was operated by nuns, and the staff was kind and generous to us. We met lots of children, and we saw their bedrooms, classrooms, playgrounds and other things that they get to see and be with every day. In one of the rooms for older children, I met a sweet, joyful girl who loved to dance, laugh, and be with others. She invited me to sit and eat her lunch with her, and she giggled and smiled the whole time. She introduced to her friends by bringing my hand to theirs, and she left me with a feeling of joy and peace about all that I had seen and experienced. As we were leaving, I looked around at the children who were in such tough situations, and I began to cry. It made me upset that their families were not involved with them just because of the special care that they needed. I knew that Jesus loved them more than anything, and I tried to remind myself that He would welcome them into his kingdom someday.
This tour was one of the hardest parts of the trip for me. It was hard to comprehend why these children are in these situations, and it was hard to see them and not be able to do anything about it. Although it was so hard, it was so necessary to see. I gained a better understanding of the struggles of Bolivia, and I felt deeper pain for the people there. Through the tour, I also got to see the beautiful things that had come out of these children’s homes, such as loving, caring tias and tios, beautiful space, and children who are in a safe home with people who love them.
Lastly, returning home and saying goodbye was so hard. In Bolivia, I had felt such a sense of peace from everyone around me. Working with the kids and feeling their love and affection had filled me up with joy. Meeting new friends and being with them had been refreshing to me. I didn’t want to go home and leave all of that behind. On the plane, I wrote down my experiences. I wanted to carry them with me, even though I wasn’t in that special place anymore. I was so afraid of losing the relationships I had formed. I didn’t want to lose all of the memories and friendships that I had formed during my time in Cochabamba. After returning home, I realized quickly that none of that was true. These experiences that I had would always be with me. I would always remember stories about people, conversations that I had had with people we met, the kids’ beautiful faces, the games we played, the meals we had shared, and everything else about my experience in Bolivia. My relationship with Jesus is different because of my experiences. Even if I’m not physically in the country now, I would have the memories from the trip and the opportunity to experience it again someday.
Even though parts of our trip were challenging, it was one of the best and most fulfilling experiences I have ever had. This year, I’m beyond excited to take the knowledge that I gained from my trip and use it with those around me. Additionally, I am excited to return to Bolivia one day to see the sweet faces of the children, the beautiful mountains, the barking dogs, the kind people, and the love of Jesus Christ all around me.