martes, diciembre 20, 2005

Madre de Dios

Mariela and me
Originally uploaded by erostkowski.
Madre de Dios is the orphanage where I worked a few days a week during my language study in Cochabamba, Bolivia. It is home to 80 girls, ages 4-16. While the girls are living there for a variety of reasons, most of them have been abandoned or taken away from their families because of cases of neglect and sexual/physical abuse. Many of their stories just break your heart.
I know that you aren't suppose to have favorites when working with children, but sometimes you just can't help it. This is my little amiga Mariela. She and her 6 brothers and sisters are divided between almost as many orphanages in Cochabamba. One of my first days at Madre, I was helping to put together a puzzle on the floor when she crawled onto my lap and fell asleep. From that day on, I couldn't help but love her. Sometimes, walking back from the orphanage, I would think about how crazy it must be to have children of your own. I mean, in three months I grew so attached to the little ones, I can't imagine the feeling you must have when they are actually yours.

Okay. Storytime. I was dreading my last day at the orphanage. To know I had to say goodbye and that the chances are I would never see the girls again ripped at my heartstrings. As I was getting ready to leave, one of the girl found me outside and brought me into the room where they having their afternoon snack. When I walked in they started singing to me to see me off. Then, little Jhovana stood up on her chair and gave a little farewell. She's 7 so it was absolutely adorable. When she was finished, she looked down at her wrist and took of the bead bracelets that she had made earlier in the day and slid it on to my wrist. One by one, girls were taking them on and giving them to me. These girls don't have much. They wear the same tattered and stained clothes most days. They don't sleep in their own beds let alone their own rooms, yet they chose to share with me the little material beauty that they had. Of course tears were flowing down my cheeks at this point. I now always wear a few of the bracelets on my wrist to remind myself to try to give as much as I can of myself to the people around me each day just like the girls did for me.

jueves, diciembre 15, 2005

The mines of Potosì

Originally uploaded by erostkowski.
The week before we left Bolivia, Ryan, Roy, Caitlin and I went on an adventure to Potosi and Sucre in the south (about 12 hours by bus). Potosi isn't really a tourist destination except for the crazy fools who feel like spending many hours in tunnels underground, and yes, we did fall into that category. This is a picture of me in my mining gear ready to descend into the mountain in the backdrop ''Cerro Rico.''
Potosì, although I am pretty sure that you are unfamiliar with it, has many credits to its name. First, it's the highest city in the world, (which was very apparent by the altitude sickness that I encountered.. not pleasant) Second, it used to be not only the largest city in Latin America, but also one of the largest cities in the world in the 1800s, nearly reaching the population of 800,000. Third, the silver extracted from the mines of Potosì funded a sizable chunk of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. They say that using the amount of silver taken from the mines you could build a bridge of silver from South America to Spain and still had silver to carry over on the bridge.

The mines that we entered were built over 400 years ago and the colonial arches are still visible underground. The conditions are virtually the same as they were then: dusty, hot, and miserable. The miners work long hours often beginning before sunrise and ending after sunset. Many enter the mines as young as 13 or 14 and then leave in their mid-thirties, after the mine has taken a toll on their health and they are no longer able to work. Respiratory diseases, as you can imagine, are very common and lead to early deaths among the miners.

The experience itself, of being in the mines, is something I will never forget. At points it was downright scary. We descended with our guide four floors under the earth, meeting miners and giving them gifts of coca leaves (which give them energy and help them to breath) and refrescos. The further down we went, ducking and sliding on our bellies through small passageways, the hotter it became, reaching 45 degrees C (upper 90s F).

I was never happier to see daylight than when we finally reached the mouth of the mine. The craziness was not yet over. Our guide had convinced us to buy some dynamite earlier in the day from the miner's market. Playing with explosives isn't something I normally would support, but for less than $2 in supplies, how could you pass up the opportunity, right? (there is a video of the explosion on Ryan's site is you are interested)