Snapshots by Gloria Freeland -- Jan. 15, 2004


A different sort of holiday

For an adult, the holidays are often a somewhat bittersweet experience. We look forward to Christmas with eager anticipation just as our children do, but often for very different reasons. Their heads are filled with thoughts of gifts, while we wonder how they will enjoy what Santa, their parents and others will give them. But those of us who have left our childhood far behind for most of the year find our thoughts drifting back to our own youth with fleeting feelings of wishing we could return to those times.

And New Year's Day can easily produce an even stronger sense of mixed feelings. We look ahead to the new year which lies before us while reflecting on the old one which has passed.

All of these feelings were amplified for my family this year. While Art went North to be with his relatives, Mariya, Katie, Mom and I went South to Bolivia to visit my sister and family. It was the first Christmas in our 16 years together that Art and I were apart. We didn't like being separated, but we knew we would both have a good time and could share what we were experiencing through daily e-mails.

The reasons for going this particular year also produced a blend of emotions. Mariya will be completing high school in May, which is a traditional turning point in most lives. And my niece Gabriela reached 15 in early January, the age in Bolivia where a girl crosses the imaginary line to become a woman.

On Dec. 21 we said goodbye to winter and the low relatively flat plains of Kansas. The next day we arrived in Bolivia's capital La Paz, which is surrounded by the peaks of the Andes mountains. No capital city in the world has a greater elevation. Its two million people live at an altitude about twice as high as Denver. The comparatively thin air takes a while to get used to and some visitors experience problems with headaches caused by a lack of oxygen.

My sister Gaila, her husband Humberto and their two girls were waiting for us at the airport. We jostled through the immigration and customs lines and then got into two taxis that took us to their home in the southern zone of the city. We spent most of the remaining part of that day resting.

But by the next day, we were ready for some Bolivian-style shopping. We went downtown to find street vendors, men and women in business suits, women in felt bowler hats and colorful embroidered shawls, men bent over by the heavy loads they were carrying on their backs, and mangy dogs competing for space on the sidewalk. The narrow cobblestone streets were filled by buses, trucks and compact cars.

Bolivian culture is a strange blend of Catholicism mixed with native beliefs, such as deep reverence for the Pacha Mama -- Mother Earth -- and the custom of carrying small figures of different animals to ensure luck in certain aspects of life -- a condor for safe travels, an owl for knowledge, a frog for fortune, a turtle for long life, a fish for good health, a snake for courage or a puma for power.

I again felt a strange mixture of emotions. Our senses were overloaded by the sights, sounds and smells. One moment I was enjoying the multi-colored aguayos -- textiles the women sling over their backs and tie around their necks to carry babies or produce -- the spectacular colonial architecture and the wonderful aroma of baking bread. The next I was repulsed by the odor of rotting vegetables or feeling sad for the beggars extending their hands for a few Bolivianos, worth about 13 cents each. Then I was startled by a vendor saying, "Señora, cómprame papas" -- Lady, buy some of my potatoes.

We didn't buy potatoes, be we did purchase some alpaca scarves and hats, tiny nativities constructed inside eggshells and painted clay vases.

It was still two days until Christmas would arrive, but our emotional Christmas stocking had already been stuffed to overflowing.

A woman sells llama fetuses and good-luck charms at
the witches’ market in downtown La Paz, Bolivia.

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