Reflections on our visit with Bolivian Friends March to May 2011

Ultimate Frisbee Crew
                When we first arrived in mid-March, I had very little facts in my memory bank with which to compare our experience of Bolivia. I had volunteered on the Internado Committee, helping with fundraising primarily, for about a year. And my three children and I had pretty good Spanish. We had talked with Newton Garver when he attended New England Yearly Meeting, and participated in his workshops. We had met Ruben on his visits to New England. We had done some reading on Bolivia. But Bolivia is so seldom in the US news,  that we did not know much about what to expect.
                Our plan was to spend two months in Bolivia, helping out at the Internado and BQEF in whatever ways might be useful. Our knowledge of English, and the presence of my three teens (age 19, 14, and 14), made teaching English a natural, so much of our volunteer time was spent doing that. We taught at the Peñaranda School in Sorata and the Bolivia-Noruega School in La Paz, at the request of Bernabé. In addition, I offered to the beca students  a one-day workshop on setting up a micro-enterprise business, my field of expertise.  
The staff of BQEF, Bernabé, Rubén, Juan and Alicia, took very good care of us, helping us to get situated, to find housing as needed, to get to know the local organizations and to attend various Quaker meetings on Sundays. They were unfailingly attentive to any needs we might have. They allowed us a peek into the work they are doing:  Rubén’s work bringing the Aymara language to the web with committed volunteers, the new environmental program in the schools, and Alicia’s management of the beca students and the Internado. They were and continue to be open to suggestions and collaboration on their inspirational work.
                What was surprising to us? I think the most surprising was the style of worship. Although we had attended programmed worship in Kenya, Cuba and here in the US, we were not accustomed to the more emotional form of worship that many in Bolivian meetings use. To summarize, I would say that there is less focus on alabanzas, or praise songs, and more focus on individual accountability for our sins. But of course this varies from meeting to meeting, and from day to day. The worship services were always interesting, many times very lovely and moving. We were always welcomed with open arms and invited to introduce ourselves with a song or a short story. After meeting, a wonderful lunch was often provided. We loved hearing the different ways in which people experience their faith, and to note that within the wide diversity of Friends’ worship the currents of our shared testimonies run deep.
                Another thing that surprised us was how easy it was to feel a part of the community, to feel welcomed and loved, and to hear that our contributions were helpful. Living in the Internado, at Sorata, was essential to this feeling. The teens living there are open to new activities that volunteers may bring, and enter into them with open hearts. We had brought silkscreening materials and a shirt for each of the students to make their own, with the hope that eventually they may decide to produce silkscreened shirts for sale to tourists. We also brought Frisbees and taught the rollicking game of Ultimate Frisbee, at which many of the kids excelled right away. While we were there, we realized that the students had not learned typing, and their computer skills were slowed by the need to “hunt and peck” for keys. So we downloaded a free typing program and helped those who were interested to get well on their way to learning to type. This is an example of the openness of Bolivian Friends to new programs. The Internado is a wonderful community, a place where residents and guests can share their lives with each other, and a place where residents can feel supported.
                In La Paz, we rented rooms from non-Quakers Marta and Luis (tel. 7301 0575). They have 5 bedrooms for rent in Miraflora, a neighborhood not too far from the office and the main part of La Paz.  Getting to know the family was a treat, and the situation was perfect for our family with free use of kitchen and living room, and plenty of living space. We were too many to be hosted by a Quaker family with only 1 bedroom available, which is what most of the smaller groups of visitors do. I personally preferred living in La Paz, near to interesting urban outings, and the somewhat warmer temperatures, than we would have found living in El Alto. For example, we were able to experience some of the frequent street demonstrations on the Prado (a lesson in activism!) and to visit the feminist center, Virgenes del Deseo, in Sopacachi.
                One week, we traveled around Bolivia by bus, visiting Potosi, Sucre and Cochabamba. On another trip we visited Copacabana and Lake Titicaca. These visits were so interesting and helped us to understand more about Bolivia, though the travel itself was challenging (long bumpy rides with no bathrooms). We had the opportunity to visit with Friends in Cochabamba and to forge links between their small meeting and our own.
                 I heartily recommend travel to Bolivia for sharing our gifts with each other, for the richness that volunteering brings to all involved, and for witnessing how God moves in lives different from, and yet similar to, our own. If you have any thoughts or questions for me, feel free to email me at