To say our family has had a lot of “quality time” together during these past 14 months of nomadic travel would be like saying Rapunzel had a lot of hair or Jimmy Fallon tells a lot of jokes. We are together all the live long day. Every meal. Every conversation. Every experience. Non-stop.
So it’s been really refreshing to have friends again. YAY!! People to talk to who aren’t legally or biologically obligated to spend their time with me! We’ve not only been lucky enough to spend a lot of time with some old and new friends, but it’s also been inspiring just to get to know them. Their amazing stories are examples of people making personal sacrifices to improve the world.
My college friend, Misty, came to Bolivia with the Peace Corps over a decade ago and spent years of her life living in a rural village building latrines and improving access to clean water. It was during this time that she met Marco, her husband. After living in the United States for a few years, they moved back to Bolivia with their son, Ciprian. Misty has remained involved with the local nonprofits and NGOs working to improve lives in Bolivia.
Misty introduced us to a lot of people making a difference in Santa Cruz de la Sierra. We met both locals and expats doing important work, like orchestrating tutoring programs for students, improving services for children with disabilities, working to stabilize families in crisis and running orphanages for children who have lost their parents to drugs, poverty or disease. These people have given up the comforts and conveniences of the first world to become part of the Bolivian community and create better futures for those who had much tougher starts in life. It’s inspiring and humbling to hear their stories and learn from them.
One particular family we’ve gotten to know really well very quickly is the Kozels. Alex and Julie run Stansberry Childrens Home, a place we’ll be talking about a lot more in the posts to come. They have three children, Tatiana, Micah, and Christian, who are all close in age to our girls. Within 24 hours of meeting them we were getting together for dinner, sharing stories and watching their viral YouTube video featuring their pet tortoises. (Warning: May not be appropriate for those that haven’t had the “birds and bees” talk.)
Julie even became our local tour guide. While Misty, Marco, Ciprian and Alex all had to stay in Santa Cruz due to other obligations, Julie and her kids showed us Santiago de Chiquitos in eastern Bolivia. Our family rented a 4-wheel drive vehicle and headed to San Jose, a small town about 4 hours from Santa Cruz, for our first night of the trip. During this initial experience out in rural Bolivia we learned a lot. Piles of dirt can serve as effective road blocks, livestock creates more traffic issues than cars and Brian can find scenery worthy of a photography stop absolutely anywhere.
The next day we met up with Julie, Tatiana, Micah and Christian and followed them out to Santiago de Chiquitos where we would spend three days exploring the area. Having close friends who live in Santiago, the Kozels had visited many times and knew people in town and things to do. The kids had freedom to run around this tiny town together, visiting the playground and the local shops. We stayed at a great hostel called Churapa, which we highly recommend. In our days there, Julie took us on a gorgeous hike to a natural stone arch, showed us sweeping views of forested valleys extending into Brazil and hooked us up with great local restaurants.
The highlight of our time there was our trip to “the boilers.” A series of hot springs heat a nearby stream and the lake it feeds into. The result is nothing short of bizarre. At different spots in the stream the sandy water bubbles up due to heated air escaping from these geologic pits. We would step into these holes, sink in to waist level and then float from the force of the spring’s upward pressure. It’s quite possibly one of the weirdest experiences I’ve ever had. Like swimming around in quicksand – minus the slow, panic-stricken death part.
The last stop on Julie’s awesome tour of the Chiquitos region was Chochis, which served as a good stop to break up our drive back to Santa Cruz. This tiny town sits at the foot of a red rock monolith known as Devil’s Tooth. Rising several hundred feet above the surrounding hills, it’s an obvious feature on the area’s skyline. The church sitting at its base, Sanctuario Mariano de la Torre, is filled with intricately carved wooden statues and pillars depicting historical events in the region. We spent just an hour or so hiking around the spire and exploring the church before grabbing some lunch at a little restaurant featuring a friendly and curious macaw. Chichos was a very unique and memorable place, and we could have easily spent the better part of a day there if we didn’t have a day of travel ahead of us.
Our friends in Bolivia and our trip with some of them to Santiago de Chiquitos reminded us of the tremendous value of friendships. Family is certainly important, but friends have a special role in life that can’t be underestimated. They laugh at your old stories and help you make new ones. They give advice and let you feel useful by asking for yours. Some friends you see every day, while some friendships need a digital connection. Whatever form friendships take, our family now has a renewed appreciation for them. Misty, Julie, Marco, Alex and the kids have all given us many good reasons to return to Bolivia again someday.