Last September, one of our parishioners told us about his grandchildren’s experience at a Maryknoll mission in Bolivia. The primary purpose was to gain a fluency in Spanish and choosing the Maryknoll program added a faith dimension, enabling them to mingle with and minister to Bolivian people.
One of the grandchildren, Michelle, graciously agreed to share her thoughts about the experience with us.
Dear Parishioners of my Grandparent’s Parish,
My name is Michelle and I am writing to you to describe my and my brother's recent experience as students of Spanish at the Maryknoll Mission Center in Bolivia. After my Maryknoll experience, I and my family spent time visiting my grandparents. We told them about our Bolivian experience and they suggested I share my story with you.
My brother, Sean, and I wanted to spend the summer studying and improving our Spanish in a Spanish-speaking country in preparation for college entrance exams. We heard that the Maryknoll Sisters run a language institute in Bolivia and decided to see if we could study there. A kind Sister replied saying we could as long as we were accompanied by an adult, so our Mom agreed to come with us.
After three different plane flights from Newark we arrived in Cochabamba, Bolivia on a bright, but cold July winter morning. A winter’s day in July? Yes, as Bolivia is below the equator, the seasons are the opposite of ours. The air was fresh, crisp, but thin as so much of the country is at elevations over 10,000 feet with mountain ranges viewable in the distance.
The school had arranged for us to stay with host families so as to always be practicing our Spanish, my brother with one family and my mother and I staying with another. Both families were waiting to greet us at the airport and took us directly to their homes where we would be staying. None of them spoke English, but they always greeted us with a smile and great “comida” or meals and made our stays so comfortable.
The language classes were taught at the Maryknoll mission center. Class sizes were small, no more than 2 students. As Maryknoll is a Catholic order devoted to working with the poor, the Spanish classes had a focus on charitable work and actions. While we were taking classes, our mother volunteered at the local “ofanato” or orphanage, caring for abandoned children.
The ages of the children ran from a few weeks to ten years old. Sean and I helped out in the afternoons. There were some twenty children there and there could be “mucho ruido,” a lot of noise, but it was great fun to work with the children on their homework and to play games with them. We did our best to show the power of God’s love.
On weekends, staff from the school took us on trips around the Bolivia. We went to Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. One weekend we went to the capital of La Paz, which is at such a high elevation and with roads so steep that for cars to run properly they must be outfitted with special devices.
Although there is a growing middle class in Bolivia, there is still much of an old world feel. Indigenous people still speak their ancient languages. Women with weather-beaten faces wearing bowler hats carry “guaguas” or babies wrapped in blankets secured across their backs up steep mountain steps. Unfortunately, there is still much poverty.
One thing that surprised us about the Maryknoll Center is how the decline in religious orders has impacted it. There was only one nun left working there.
And then, as if it had yet to start, it was over. Our six weeks of classes ended, and we returned home.
Just as we were told by those who recommended the Maryknoll program, we had so much fun and learned and did so much that the six weeks were over in what seemed like a day. Sean and I learned a lot at the Maryknoll Center and would recommend this program for any high school or college students or to anyone looking to help others the while gaining the utility of learning Spanish. We have a new appreciation for a different culture and we are now among the best Spanish speakers in our school.
If you would like more information about the Maryknoll Bolivian language programs go to their websites:
www.cmmmailbolivia.org/en, www.maryknollvolunteers.org, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or contact St. Michael’s Parish Center.