Bolivia | The Garden

We were sitting around in the garden chopping vegetables and potatoes for the daily lunch. It had been slow at school that week, just how it goes. The kids come only when they wanted to, it was totally voluntary. So that day it was just some of us volunteers, a couple of the bigger boys, two little girls and Ester and Janeti, the cooks. Janeti is the most important person at the school: a big woman with a bigger heart who cooks great meals for little money. She talks non-stop and looks after the bigger boys, tries to keep them on the straight and narrow. Her relationship with Luis is a great example. He is twenty-five and has come up through the school system. He came to the school as a troubled youth years ago, a street fighter. Now he works here doing maintenance and helping in the kitchen. I have seen some funny moments with Janeti chasing him around the garden with a big frying pan. I’ve never seen her connect, but she regularly gets him in the back of the head with her hand.  Luis can be good and bad. He looks after the kids, they look up to him, he is always smacking them around. It is just the way here. Even the grownups show their affection by smacking each other. I still get a kick out of it.

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Lena was sitting in my lap cutting peppers. I was cutting garlic. She was complaining about the garlic. I was going on about how I love it. She said I was crazy. Yes was always my reply. Jan Luis showed up and started giving me shit saying here I was helping my girlfriend, again, Don Janeti. They all laughed. We finished up with the chopping and I went into the shop and got out some tools to fix some of the wooden benches. As usual the chicos showed up and took over the job, taking the tools out of my hands and fixing the bench. More chicos showed off giving advice. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not. I just let it go and fixed what went wrong later.

Roberto was one of the commandeers, he was on the hike. It is something to see these kids at school, but it’s something else to get a glimpse of their lives on the outside. I was still shaken from the day of the hike when I was walking with Roberto and Ever in the streets of Sucre and ran into his mother and his brother Andros on the street. They were sitting on the sidewalk selling candy. Andros was curled up next to her like a stray dog. What shook me was her appearance; this woman of thirty-four looked older than sixty with a long scar under her left eye from an auto accident in which she lost two of her eight kids. Her clothes were ragged and she looked haggard. Her kids always look so well dressed. It really shook me, and I can’t really say why. I was told they live just out of town in a one-room house with no electricity or running water. They had to walk ten minutes to a dirty river to bathe. This is how it has been, always the layers of understanding revealing another reality.

I had to eat lunch in a rush. I was supposed to be at the cemetery to help the kids build their wooden ladders. I arrived by cab with my box of tools—it costs fifty cents to go anywhere in the city. A twelve-year-old boy met me and took me by the hand through the cemetery and down some stairs to a shaded spot under big cedar trees. There was a pile of at least twenty-five wooden ladders. Holy shit, where to begin? I took out four hammers and a kilo of nails and began the work. More kids showed up and the circus began. We took ladders apart, salvaged the good parts and rebuilt ladders. The hard part was pulling the nails from the stubborn hardwood. I would be helping some kids when there would be the hand tapping my back wanting help elsewhere. The kids who did not have hammers were using big sticks to take ladders apart. I just kept moving, going where I thought I could help the most. One girl of eight with one of those high tone little girl voices took it upon herself to direct me. Quite the little bossy boots, that one. Two of the hammers broke from pulling nails, and one of the bigger boys made a handle out of a tree branch. The little one made me fix the other one by whittling down one of the broken handles and refitting. These kids were not deterred by any setback. Get ‘er done. When we ran out of nails they took the bent ones and straightened them for reuse. It was really something to watch. These kids were workers. After four hours of this I was exhausted, and only three ladders were left to fix with two girls and a boy remaining. The guards blew the whistle to clear the cemetery for closing. The kids worked on ignoring the guards until the job was done.

Bolivia | Tidbits

The kids call him Chu Chus which in Quechea means “Tits”. Why is beyond us all. The fertile brains of the youth and their inside jokes. It was his twenty-fifth birthday. He stood before his cake and all the kids stood on chairs and tables with great smiles, happy to be involved in the celebration of the birth of this man who had come into their lives and given them comfort. From France but speaking fluent Spanish, he had been with the school for four months with two to go. He coaches the chicos in soccer, helps with the swimming and tutors them with their homework. He’s patient and gentle, and they love him for this. I was outside leaning into one of the open windows with Natalo and Juan Carlos leaning over me, taking it all in. After he blew out the candles they all started clapping and chanting cabesa en postre. He put his face close to the cake and Pablo pushed the back of his head so his face went into the top of the cake. A tradition here in Bolivia. Photos were taken of his face covered in cake with lots of laughs. Then of course thin slices were cut so all could enjoy.

I was standing on the corner of a busy street getting ready to cross when a small hand entered mine. I looked down into the open eyes of Rolando, a four-year-old boy who visits he school daily with his mother for lunch. That simple act completely disarmed me. That social barrier we carry in public was dissolved in seconds with trust this little boy placed in me to bring him across the street. His mother trailed behind us as we crossed. On the other side we all stood facing each other with Rolando still holding my hand. In the other he carried a box of candy, which he was trying to sell by the piece to people in the street. I asked the Senora where they were going, and she pointed in the opposite direction I was heading. I freed my hand from his warm clutch and placed my other on the top of his head and said, “I will see you later.” He looked up into my eyes, making it hard to walk away.

I call him Tiger, because often he comes into the shop after lunch and is a force to reckon with. Whatever we are doing he wants to do. If we are nailing, he grabs the hammer out of the hands of the bigger boys and starts hammering. They try to discipline him in Quechea, but it rarely works. His persistence is something else. I have learned to give him a small hammer and nails and some scrap wood and let him have at it. That boy has some skills. If he bends a nail by a miss hit, he pulls it out, straightens it with the hammer and sends it home. The chicos from the dorm get a big kick out of him. They love to rough him up, wrestling and kick boxing with him. How they laugh enjoying his fierceness in rough play.

When I was sitting on the bench in the shop he asked if he could sit on my lap. Normally they don’t ask, they just make their way there. I wrapped my arms around him and held him tight, knowing that’s what he needed. He melted into me with no resistance. It was an overwhelming experience. At the same time, I felt both empowered by the complete trust and sad for the knowledge of why. Fifty percent of the population in Sucre is below the age of eighteen. The street in the morning and evenings before and after school is a river of Yutes. They come to Sucre from the countryside for the schools. There is no work to speak of here, so their fathers are far off in places like Santa Cruz working the sugar cane fields or in Argentina picking grapes and in some cases in Spain working illegally and sending money home. Or the father has run off starting a new family with another woman. The kids are with their mothers or aunts or grandmothers, and some are alone living in shacks out by the airport. The kids’ need for male comfort is overwhelming at times. All the men at Nanta give what they can but it is very sad. The needs are endless. I could go on about the negatives of the adult world here but I won’t. If there is anything I have learned from these kids it is that regardless of the hardships before you, you greet each day with a smile and look to the sun.

Bolivia | The Union Meeting

I wanted to kick back that Sunday, but I had to get going. I headed over to the cemetery for the union meeting of the children who clean the tombs. People here believe that if the bodies of the dead are above ground the soul is closer to God, and if you hire children and the handicapped to clean the tombs, even better connection to God. Thus they have, for those with the money, rock tombs with glass door openings that hold flowers and remembrances in front of the blocked off coffins. Eight doors high, it looks like a beautiful colored wall. I was going to the meeting to meet the children and pick some days to come and help them rebuild their wooden ladders that are essential in the job of cleaning the wall of graves.

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But first I had to stop by the Café  to support the Fajita Fundraiser dinner for the school. Linda from the Netherlands runs the cafe. She brings in the money that runs the center. The profits from the cafe and donations carry the brunt of it. Linda has been here seven years. Her dedication to the children is amazing.

I walked into the back bar that divided the kitchen. Lina and Roberto, kids from the school, were sitting at the bar cutting up a pineapple for the fruit salad. Natalo was there, as was Lina’s sister, Patrice. The kids were there to help wait on the tables and help in the kitchen. Hey, “All fish under.” I helped by harassing the kids then sat down with them to sample the fajita dinner before the crowds were to arrive. Got to love that Mexican food. I sat across from Roberto and Lina, and their affections towards one another prompted me to ask if they were brother and sister. Lina moved close to Roberto and said, “Yes.” He said, “No.” She said, “Yes,” again. He said, “No,” even louder. Well, Lina gave him a dead leg so hard I felt the vibrations through the floor. Roberto winced in pain then gave a smile my way that said, “See the way she loves me.” Some people started coming in and Lina went over to take their orders. She lounged across the table and looked up at them with those shiny timeless eyes, slowly writing down their order. Not the actions of your everyday waitress.

I had to get going to the meeting. I walked across town, then entered the open streets lined with tiendas selling food and fruit drinks that dead end to the majestic gates of the cemetery. I stood knocking on the locked gate looking at the beautiful cedar trees that lined the walkways of the cemetery. The door to a small church opened and a chico peered out and then came to see what I was about. When I said I was the carpenter he opened the gate and led me into the church.

I was not prepared for so many kids; about sixty of them all peered my way, about eight to twelve years old, girls just outnumbering the boys. Pablo, the president of the union, was up front and announced, “Ahhh, the carpenter is here,” and all the kids gave me an applause. Pablo, about seventeen and his vice president, sixteen, tried to keep order up front. Their helpers of the same age were wandering the rows maintaining discipline by smacking the kids on the head that were smacking the kids next to them. It was quite something to watch in action. Pablo called me to the front and I gave a small talk on why I was there and that I was ready to set up some days to come work with them. After my little talk, one of the boys close to the front was causing so much trouble the keepers of the peace got a hold on him and put him in one of the corners of the church facing the wall. He was not there more than a minute before he made his merry way to the front table, placing himself between the President and V.P. He laid across that table with his arms out before him, surveying his peers and liking the view. Some of the kids up front were pointing at him and looking at Pablo for action, but he ignored it, all too consumed with controlling the circus.

When the question of days was put out, all seemed to speak at once. Pablo tried to hear it all but soon his face turned to confusion raising his hand for control as the crowd got louder. Well, the boy in between the keepers of the meeting started pounding on the table yelling, “Silencio!” It took all I had to keep from busting a gut right there. Well, some silence did come, sort of, and days were picked. Other business was taken up with me still standing up front. One of the kids was sound asleep and the chico of discipline went over to him, took his index finger and thumb, and opened up one of the eyes of the sleeping boy. He peered inside and shook his head—it was hopeless to try to wake him. Well, the madness went on until the end, with the kids rushing and screaming for the door. Those close to me shook my hand or smacked my back on the way by. Without a doubt it was an experience of a lifetime.

Bolivia | The Family

In the fall, you can hear the crickets in the afternoon on sunny days. That slanted light just before twilight, so rich in the trees. The sun hides a welcome chill in the air. I dreamed of the sea, the sound of the surf, and wind playing in the dune grass back home. Air, sweet salt air is what I need. Being here has been like swimming in pudding with a clothespin over my nose. The high altitude and the pollution in the streets in Sucre has taken a toll on my health. Some days are better than others, but it’s a daily struggle for my old strength.

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A new family of kids came to Nanta, three girls and a small boy of five. They were shy at first, all huddled together, not sure of their steps around all the madness of the other children. The girls looked after their brother like their mother would. Dirty faces with grand smiles. Two of the girls sported big pocketbooks for backpacks, one black with fake alligator skin, the other white, both chock full of school supplies and stuff to survive in the streets with. That first day they sat with me at lunch looking at me with wide dark eyes, trying to feel me out. I was struck with the care Patricia took with her brother, moving the bowl of soup close to his place at the table then arranging his shirt so the spills would not dirty it. He sat staring at me while she coaxed him to eat. I asked her age, only six yet so responsible. She said she shines shoes near the central market place, probably only one of the three girls in all of Sucre to shine. That’s a boy’s world here. When I found out she had no shoeshine box I told her she could make one here. “Cuantos?” “Gratis,” the eyes wide and big on that one. “Cuando?” “Mana despues comida.”

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They followed me into the shop that next afternoon with anxious faces. I handed Patricia the pieces of wood and divided the glue and nails amongst the rest to bring out to the table in the garden. After she applied the glue to one of the pieces, I held them together and told her to nail. “Me?” “Yes you, nail!” Her was brother there with his chin resting on the table. The two sisters huddled close waiting the action. The first taps were soft and uncertain, but with each stroke she gained confidence until she sank her first nail. Big cheers from the family. Lou Lou, one of the Bolivian staff of eighteen, was at the sink watching in awe as this young girl invaded the boys’ territory with each swing of the hammer. Her brother and two sisters were there for total support through the whole project, inching closer and closer to me making contact with their small bodies. Their collective breath was so bad it could knock a bear over. Just one of the job hazards at Nanta. The next day her sister built a caja and that broke the dam for the other girls to want to build cajas and money boxes. It was a mad day for me, trying to grant their wishes and keep it all together. The boys watched with territorial suspicion. I was exhausted at the end of the day.

Bolivia | Father’s Day

It was Father’s Day here, and we were celebrating on a Saturday at the school. The kids put on a show for us in the music room. All of the fathers were invited but only one showed up. He sat there on that wooden bench looking shy but dapper with his hat with a pink feather in it. Beth had told the volunteer men many times throughout the week: be there, no falta. The kids had mentioned us all by name and looked to us as fathers. When we finally all gathered and sat down, three of the boys of about eight sang a song about what fathers meant to them. Well, that one brought the old lump to the throat. Then came some of the boys and girls creating a human pyramid, which was really funny knowing the cast of characters involved. Next were the dancing couples. The girls with their braided hair and nice skirts and blouses, que linda. The boys dressed in black pants and white shirts. The dance was a traditional one that I have seen before. They act out some of the male female relations with the boys trying to sneak a kiss on the girls’ cheeks and the girls pushing the boys away. They did a good job of it. For the last act, some of the boys from the dormitory came in dressed like women and started dancing with some of the volunteers, very funny. Then some of the kids presented each of the volunteer males with a Father’s Day card that they had made. Florin presented my card to me and gave me a hug and a kiss on each cheek. Some of the crowd went out in the garden to wait for lunch while a group of the chicos and Marylu played music. A base and snare drum accompanied with reed flutes of various sizes. A lot of the kids were sitting around listening, when in came Linda who grabbed me for a dance. I swung her around for a bit, then we grabbed some of the kids holding hands and dancing in a circle. I kept grabbing more of the girls dancing with them in the middle of the circle. They tried acting shy but they loved it. Leave it to Linda to get the party going. A lot of the kids and volunteers were up and dancing by now in circles and in couples, great fun. I was out of breath and went out in the garden. The one father was there sitting in the sun holding the card his daughter gave to him. He held it like a treasure. I could picture the wall in his kitchen at home with the one picture of his wedding the cross of Jesus and now that Father’s Day card.

Bolivia | The Streets

We took to the streets to let the working boys know the shop at the school was open to fix their shoe boxes and build new ones if needed. Of course they all wanted new ones. Their hands were black from polish and their faces aged beyond their years, some as young as six. Two Bolivianos for a shine, eight to make a dollar. They came in small groups, some dragging a younger sister in tow. One boy complained that he had just gotten beaten up by some bigger boys because they saw a gringo hand out twenty Bolivianos for the shine. The Gringo thinks he is helping, but it only led to an ass kicking out of envy. The kids have hard lives. Some nights when I was out late I saw the ones from Nanta at twelve at night selling candy in the bars and streets. Some say their mothers won’t let them in the house until they have sold the whole box, but who knows.

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The bus drivers went on strike the week before, blocking the major roads with the buses. At rush hour in the mornings they blocked other major roads with their bodies. At one intersection I watched a truckload of riot police get out and push the group back to the sidewalks. When they got back into the truck the crowd went back to blocking the street. A taxi came up to the crowd and tried to talk his way through, and they just let the air out of his tires. For once there was little pollution in the streets from the buses. I was happy for the strike.

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The boys came to the shop all wanting to be first to build the shoe boxes. I made a list of their names and we started building. The kids here are like a pack of raccoons. They can’t keep from hitting one another. I gave them one warning—none of that crap in the shop If it happens again they are out. They listened. We worked on, and more kids came all wanting to be first and all saying they were carpenters and giving advice. I was exhausted and overwhelmed. I closed up the shop and went upstairs to use the bathroom. The door to the infirmary opened and Andros was there looking worse than I felt. He and Marcelo had just spent the last four hours working through lunch on a boys backside who had scabies. I felt like an ass for my problems in the shop. They work every day on the kids. Lice, flies, infections all over their bodies. The problems of poverty. Marcelo never complains, always a smile and laughter. I had to dig deeper in myself to find patience.

I went to a tourist cafe to buy an English speaking book, in need of some literature. A football game was on the TV—Germany versus Argentina. Three German men were watching the game. When an Argentine player tripped a German, one of the men watching raised his hand for the yellow card. When the card was raised they cheered. What a contrast I thought. I see these kids every day in the lunch line scrapping for every inch. It does not matter how big or small, if someone gives them grief, they go for them. The girls pull the boys’ hair, they grab sticks and brooms and smack the boys. Fair is clearly not in their game, and there is no referee to make their lives right. They have to make that fight on their own. Argentine 1 Germany 0.

Bolivia | School Life

I could hear the patter of small feet before I felt the hands around my waist. A brother and sister who attend the scholl spotted me in the street and ran to greet me. I was out buying supplies for the shop and was making my way back. They walked along, those little bodies falling in rhythm with mine. They said they had been doing homework all morning long, so I started singing out numbers and they added them in song. It was like this all the way back. Andres is eight, his sister Patrice, seven. He is fierce and shows no fear of the bigger kids. I have seen him going after them in the lunch line. She often has a look of fear in her eyes, and I wonder what horrors go on at home. After lunch they are off in some corner squirreling leftovers into their packs, I am told it is for their mother.

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Andres was my first student in the shop to build his shoeshine box. What a smile he had on his face when he sent his first nail home. That alone was worth the long trip here. When it came time to put on the tiny hinges with little screws, he got frustrated and went for the hammer. No, no, amigo, steady with the driver. How that boy can swear in Quecha. Now more boxes have been made and the kids really love to work in that tiny shop. I am not even halfway through with lunch when they sit around me wanting to know when they can get to work. They’re jumping up and down when I open up. I can only work with one boy at a time, but there is a bunch of them leaning over my shoulder leaning into my side giving commands. There is only one of me and so many of them. How they want to learn. There are days when I get overwhelmed with the demands and get short with them raising my voice. How they go to shame when I yell. Heads down in silence. It stings my heart some to see it, but they need the discipline. All the contact is good for me, though. I am not used to being touched so much. It is nice how they are always in contact with hands on my back and shoulders.

For a few days I worked over at the old location that was much bigger but too much for them to afford. The new school is way smaller but a better price. The little buggers have done some damage to the old place. I am rebuilding raised panel doors with a skill saw and chisel—a challenge there, I am telling you. For the second day in a row the saw was gone to shit. But here in Bolivia there is always a small shop to fix anything. Today I did not have a key to get into the old place so I was waiting for Ulysses to show up at school with the key. Waiting is a common thing here. All the tools, what few there were, were over at the old place, so I went into the kitchen to help the cooks prepare lunch. Salsa music was playing so I danced a few turns with Mary Beth around the concina before sitting down to chopping carrots. When Ulysses finally showed up, he came to the door of the kitchen and yelled at me saying I am carpenter not a cook, “Vamos.” I got a great laugh out of that one.