Thursday, December 25, 2008

feliz navidad

Officially, by my clock, it's Christmas!  And apart from one too many dogs barking, all is pretty quiet in Carmen Pampa tonight.  All the UAC-CP students finished classes and took their final exams a couple weeks ago, so most everyone is gone away on summer vacation.  But the locals are here and tonight we celebrated Christmas with the people from Carmen Pampa and surrounding villages.

Little girls dressed up as cholitas and the little boys dressed with their chullus and vests.

As is the more recent custom in Carmen Pampa, there was a mass in the church that was well attended.  At the mass, young children from surrounding villages came dressed up in colorful, traditional Bolivian dress.  Holding hands, they danced down the center aisle during the offering of the gifts of wine and bread and, in boy-girl pairs, each took a turn bowing before the empty cradle.

Boys from the community pose for a picture before mass.

Following mass there was a mad rush for the back of the church where each child under 10 years received a gift bag with Christmas goodies.  Then everyone proceeded over to the main hall in Campus Manning where the few UAC-CP students who stay on campus during break to work helped served bread and hot chocolate.   Friends, family, neighbors, etc., all sat and chatted for an hour or so before getting on their way home.

After mass with my godson, Daniel, Padre Alejandro, Kristia (Daniel's sister), Fico, Dani, and a seminarian.

I was invited, along with Hugh and Sam, to the home of Fico and Dani Carrizales--two UAC-CP thesis students and administrators.  Their son Daniel was baptized during the mass and I was his godmother, so they had us over to their home for a meal and cake.  We sat and talked and ate and looked at pictures.  A lovely way to spend Christmas Eve.

Feliz Navidad a todos!

P.S.  A picture of my godson Daniel with his baptismal cake...because he's just that cute!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

look at me!

When I sat down to eat lunch at Doña Panchita's kiosk today, the last thing I expected to do was cry.  But then Maria Eugenia showed up.

I hadn't seen Mauge* (as everyone affectionately calls her) in more than three years.  Though she taught classes at the College and worked at the hospital in Coroico following graduation from the UAC-CP's nursing program in 2003, for the past year she has been studying (on scholarship) for her master's degree in public health at Austal Catholic University in Santiago, Chile. Her first day back in Bolivia for summer break and she came straight to the UAC-CP to see if there was any work for her to implement some of her coursework.

Maria Eugenia Quispe Nina is a 2003 UAC-CP Nursing graduate.

Though she wasn't hungry, she said, Mauge sat down beside me at the table and we chatted away--catching up on life, reminiscing about former volunteers, UAC-CP students, and the smattering of Franciscan Sisters who played such a significant role in the founding of the College.  

I told her that just before I returned to the UAC-CP I attended mass at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Minneapolis where Fr. Tom Garvey, a long-time friend of the Carmen Pampa Fund, gave a homily about the UAC-CP and told the story of the time Sr. Damon sat on Mauge's bed in the women's dormitory waiting, in the dark, knowing that Mauge was staying out past curfew.  "Believe me," Fr. Tom told the crowd that Sunday morning, "Sr. Damon is the last person you want to find sitting in your bed waiting up for you." 

In her animated, giggly way, Mauge shrieked.  "Yes! I crept into the dorm and sat down on my bed and it was Sr. Damon!  Oh my gosh! How does he know that story?" she asked me. "I don't know," I confessed, "but now about a thousand more gringos know about your wild ways!"  She laughed and talked about how the College serves not just to educate young professionals, but to provide them with a formation that they might not get anywhere else. That's what happened in her case, at least.

She said there was a time as a young adult when she made poor decisions and when her family lost faith in her.  At the age of 18, at the College, she became pregnant with her first daughter.  "My parents thought that because I was going to have a baby that I would have to quit school. They thought I had lost any opportunity I had to become a professional.  They were shocked when I defended my thesis and got my degree."  She credits her success to the people at the College, particularly Sr. Damon, for sticking with her, for believing in her unconditionally.  Sr. Damon, she said, helped her out in some of her lowest, most difficult moments.

Mauge admits life was a lot more difficult after having children, especially as a college student (today, her two gorgeous girls are ages 6 and 11).  "But my daughters, they give me strength. They make me want to work harder so that they can have better lives.  I need to be an example for them."  

She also used her daughters to be an example to others.  Mauge reminded me of the days when she would ride a motorcycle out into the communities to do public health and extension work.  She carried her baby Alex on her back and, stepping through the straps, carried a backpack on her lap.  She encouraged women to attend community meetings with their children.  "I'd be giving talks and breast feeding my daughter at the same time.  I wanted to show the women of the community that I am one of them; I am a mom...and I am also a professional.  This is why the women in the campo trust me."

There was a pause in the conversation and Mauge leaned back and looked over at one of the UAC-CP buildings that she helped build with her own two hands as a student back in the day. She let out a long sigh.  "When I look at these buildings, I think, 'What would have happened if the UAC-CP didn't exist?'"  She paused, as if in thought, but then went on, "And I know that I would be working in the field with my parents.  I would be so far from where I am today.  I am so grateful to the people who made this all possible--the people who never gave up on me, the people who always believed in me. Will people ever know how grateful I am for what they did to help me become who I am today?  I'm indigenous...I'm Aymaran, I'm a woman.  Look at me!" 

Her eyes filled with tears and that is the moment when the unexpected happened--I cried at Doña Panchita's lunch table.

*Pronounced mau-hey

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

la familia paredes

Last night UAC-CP Education student David Paredes helped me transcribe some of my Quechuan "interviews" from my trip.  It was most interesting to watch his reaction to the recorded, one-sided conversation I had with his mother.  Because he was here at the College when I was visiting Apolo, it was strange for him, he said, to think that I had gone all the way to his house and met with his mother...without him.  

The picture to prove it: David Paredes' mom. She lives about an hour walk from the community of Juan Agua.

Doña Maria had already left to go work in the field by the time Edwin and I arrived unannounced at the family's home around 10am. But David's nephew ran to go get her and within 30 minutes she was sitting next to me, telling me about her life, crying. 

"I want my son to study," she said. "I don't want him to have to live like I have lived...working here and living in these poor conditions."  She said she's unable to help her son with tuition costs because she doesn't have the money.  Worse, her husband, David's father, died last year, and as an elderly widow, she's having a hard time maintaining her farm work.  "We live off coca," she said. "When there isn't coca, we are unable to survive."  Sometimes, she added, they are able to receive a little money from coffee, but it isn't as lucrative a crop as coca.

A picture of the inside of David's home.

Doña Maria spoke nonstop for nearly 45 minutes.  (Last night David laughed and said, "My mom is a talker, isn't she?")  That, she is.  The day I was there, I only had a vague idea of what she was talking about as she gave Edwin very little, if any, time to interpret.  And Edwin, respectfully, let her talk, never once interrupting her.  I was really proud of him.

"I think maybe your mom just needed someone to listen to her," I told David last night, as we both listened to her voice, waivering on the verge of tears, spout out from my little voice recorder.  "Yes," David agreed.  "Thanks for going my see how we meet my mother."

Saturday, December 13, 2008

la familia abelino

A little more than a week ago, UAC-CP student Edwin Zapata and I set out from Apolo's town plaza to find the house of former UAC-CP Education student Donato Abelino and his younger brother, Alejandro, a current UAC-CP Agronomy student.

There were two things I knew for certain about the family before I arrived: 1. they live far away from Apolo and 2. they are very poor. So, it didn't surprise me when, after an hour and a half ride down a muddy, washed out road in a taxi, we finally arrived at their home to find very primitive conditions--no electricity, no running water, dirt floors, thatch roof, no gas tank for cooking (they cook with wood on an adobe "stove"), etc. 

Donato Abelino with his family: father, niece, mother, and sister at the family's home outside the community of Copacobana.

Because they consume most of what they produce--the family generates very little income. They listed only five things that they generally buy: soap, salt, rice, candles, and matches. The Abelino family represents the poorest of the poor who come to study at the UAC-CP.

And, unfortunately, for the poorest of the poor, graduating from college is all the more difficult because of limited financial resources.  In the case of Donato, although he finished his required coursework at the UAC-CP more than a year ago, he has yet to write and defend his thesis in order to officially graduate.  When I talked to Donato, he seemed doubtful that he would be able to complete his thesis, which is costly and time consuming.

I reminded him that in the past year UAC-CP students have recently been graduating in record numbers thanks to the Cuartel de Tesis (Thesis Bootcamp) which helps students finance their thesis work.  Though Donato is aware of this assistance and admits the money would help him complete his thesis project, he seemed unconvinced that he could afford to leave his mom and dad; as the oldest of four siblings, his parents need his help at home.

A well-worn, patched up awayu hangs from the clothesline. An awayu is a traditional piece of heavy, colored fabric used for a variety of purposes (like carrying babies or food) in Bolivia.

It's heartbreaking that the only thing that should stand in the way of Donato and his thesis is money...especially considering how hard he worked just to arrive at the UAC-CP.   In high school, for example, he walked five hours every Sunday afternoon to the town of Apolo, carrying all the café and yucca and arroz he planned to consume for the week (he lived at the high school during the week and walked back home on Friday afternoons).   When he first came to the UAC-CP, he had saved barely enough money for the two-day trip; his father sold a cow so that he had enough money to pay for the inscription fee.  In awe, I asked him, "And did you ever think of giving up?"   He responded with a confident, "No."

As my Quechua interpreter, Donato later introduced me to his parents.  He explained to them that I was from the UAC-CP and that I was there to learn more about their lives and the hopes and dreams they hold for their children's futures.  Donato's father, who is not well, sat on a bench next to his wife as she explained that she is a poor, illiterate farmer who has worked hard her whole life, making sacrifices so that her children can study.

As his community's chatechist, Donato is responsible for organizing the building of a new church.  Above is the community's former church.

She is grateful, Donato's mother said, that her son Alejandro has a full scholarship from the Diane Watson Scholarship Fund.  While the family is able to send money (about $30 US, they estimated) every few months, they are unable to afford the already subsidized cost of tuition at the College.  Alejandro's scholarship allows him to study.  "There are no other opportunities," she said.

And oportunidad, it seems, is what all parents want for their children--the opportunity to have a better life.  Apart from this desire, the Abelinos also want their children to be good people, examples for others in their community.

Although Donato hasn't finished his degree, his mom noted that, as a college educated young man, Donato is an active member and well-respected leader in their community.  Most recently, he has participated in a series of talks aiming to resolve land ownership debates among indigenous groups in the area.  He's also organizing a group of young people from his community to start a cooperative farming project.

While I hold out hope that Donato will be able to eventually finish his thesis project, Donato's family hopes that Alejandro will some day be able to graduate from the UAC-CP.  "Like our son Donato," their mother said, "we want Alejandro to come back here after college and help us. We hope that, with his degree in agronomy, he will be able to help us improve our lives."

And that, quite simply, is the mission of the UAC-CP.

Friday, December 12, 2008

going the distance

You can't quite fully comprehend the miracle of the UAC-CP until you see where our students come from, until you experience the way they live and understand the great distances they go (both literally and figuratively) to be educated.

It took us one hour driving and one hour walking to reach this UAC-CP student's home outside the community of Juan Agua.

When I hear students matter-of-factly recall the multiple hours they walked to attend grade school and high school; when I hear their parents tell me that they themselves can't read or write because they never had the opportunity to study; when I visit their homes and see that they grew up--not only without books, but without electricity and running water (and so many other things that I consider basic necessities), I can't help but think that it seems quite improbable that many of our students would have ever graduated from high school, let alone college.

And yet, they do graduate from college. In fact, one young man just did this morning.

As I explained in my last post, I recently traveled to the faraway town of Apolo with UAC-CP student Edwin Zapata.* Together, Edwin and I spent three days visiting families of our students who live in and around the town of Apolo. We traveled by public mobility, private taxi, and on foot. We traveled down roads, across rivers, and over bridges that, at the time, all seemed impassable. We traveled, by my estimation, an average of 10 hours each day--locating families that live, by their estimation, up to 5 or 6 hours away from the town of foot.

Edwin walking in the countryside on our way to visit a family of a UAC-CP student.

We arrived at each home unannounced, but always welcomed (and always sent on our way with homegrown gifts: bread, bananas, beans, eggs, mangoes, etc). Invited into their one or two-room homes, I sat poised with a notebook and pen, a handheld voice recorder at my side, and Edwin nearby to serve as my Quechua interpreter.** And I listened as mothers and fathers explained why they believe education is the key to transforming their lives.

Every student at the UAC-CP has a story. In the coming days I hope to share some of the stories they shared with me during my visit to Apolo.

I visited the house of UAC-CP Education student David Paredes. I was welcomed by (L to R) one of his older sisters, David's niece, his mother, Maria, his nephew, and his brother-in-law.
*Apolo is located so far away from the College, in fact, that by my calculations it actually takes me less time to travel between Carmen Pampa and Minneapolis than it does for students to travel back to their homes in Apolo--which explains why they seldom go home.

**The majority of people, primarily older people, in this area of Bolivia speak only Quechua, the indigenous language spoken by the Incans.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

apolo, apolo...te doy mi corazón

This morning I returned from a six-day journey that took me to the Bolivian towns and villages that generally aren't worth mentioning--in the guidebooks, at least.  

The idea was hatched about two months ago when 24-year-old Edwin Zapata, an Agronomy thesis student, invited me to go with him to visit his hometown of Apolo--Bolivia's version of cowboy country northeast of La Paz.  I gladly accepted his offer as it presented me with the opportunity to meet UAC-CP students' families and catch up with graduates and thesis students in a part of Bolivia that I had yet to experience.

Edwin and I started our journey together early Saturday morning in La Paz.  Our bus, filled primarily with jovial Apoleños headed back to their hometown to celebrate the town's annual festival on December 8th, left the city promptly at 7am.   As we made our way across the brown, barren altiplano, passing the infamous Lago Titicaca, the woman across the aisle cried out what was to be the first of many hometown anthems: Apolo, Apolo...te doy mi corazón! (Apolo, Apolo...I give you my heart!)

By noon, the sun had made way for cold, misty weather and I woke up from a nap to see alpacas grazing the rocky countryside, fearlessly walking across the road in front of our bus.  

After a brief bathroom stop in Charazani (elevation 10,000 feet, mas o menos) the road started to drop and we entered greener and, more importantly, warmer, territory.  Edwin, ever the agronomist, was quick to point out plants, animals, and points of interest along the way. From the window, he took pictures of waterfalls and the mountain scenery.

A photo Edwin snapped from the window of the bus--about 4 hours away from Apolo and about 45 minutes before our flat tire.

Originally, he had told me that Apolo was about 12 hours from La Paz by bus.  But, due to some technical glitches (i.e. flat tire and no gas) and the fact that the bus moved at, according to Edwin, "a turtle's pace," we didn't arrive to the main plaza until 10:30pm--more than 15 hours after leaving Bolivia's capital city.  

Anxious to be off the bus, we gathered our things, exited the flota, and walked to the outskirts of town.  In the dark, we made our way to Edwin's family's house where his parents, worried that we had not arrived sooner, anxiously awaited our arrival.

Immediately, I felt welcomed and at home in their casa.  Edwin's mom quickly made us something to eat--she fried up yucca and the UAC-CP smoked sausages that had survived the journey with us to Apolo.  By the light of a lone light bulb that dangled from the ceiling of what was to be my bedroom for the next three days, the four of us sat and talked--primarily about education.  Because neither of his parents have had the opportunity to visit the College, they asked about their son's studies.

Edwin pictured on Sunday morning with (from L to R) his mother, paternal grandmother, uncle, and father.

"You told them, right?" I asked Edwin.  "About yesterday?"  Edwin shook his head no and I gave him a disgruntled look that prodded him to share his exciting news.  Sheepishly, he admitted that the day before he had defended his thesis pre-defense, one of the final steps to officially graduating from the UAC-CP.  His parents beamed; they immediately wanted to know when he would graduate.  Probably February or March, Edwin told them.

"We never thought a poor family like us," Edwin's dad said, "would have a son who would graduate from college."  Edwin's mother said she just couldn't believe it.

"Well, believe it," I said, smiling at Edwin as he washed down his yucca with a glass full of guarapo, the traditional Apoleño sugar cane drink.  "The next time he comes home to Apolo, he'll be Ingenerio Edwin Zapata."

Thursday, December 4, 2008

la cooperativa

The other day I was invited to eat lunch with students at the Virgen del Carmen Cooperativa--one of three food cooperatives at the College.  What originally started as a small group of UAC-CP students pooling together what little money the had to be able to eat, has since turned into the College's primary cafeteria system.  Today, most UAC-CP students are socios, or members, of the food cooperatives.

A typical meal at the cooperatives:  a bowl full of rice, potato, lettuce, platano, and meat.

Though it had been a while since I had eaten lunch there, I am no stranger to the co-ops.  When I worked as an administrator at the College in 2004 and 2005 one of my primary responsibilities was to manage the cooperatives.

I worked with groups of students, elected by their peers, to manage each of the co-ops.  The governing board makes and enforces the rules, decides turns for cooking, cleaning, and grocery shopping, and manages all the finances.  They also make sure that all members have paid their monthly dues--a difficult task considering students often don't have the money.

Lunch with Jeronimo Payhuanca and Gladys Rivera (the picture taker) at the Cooperativa Virgen del Carmen.

Thanks to the generosity of the Roach Family's gift to the Carmen Pampa Fund, the College is able to subsidize the cost of the food coop.  Though it actually costs about $30 for a student to eat at he co-op (this covers food, salaries, kitchen utensils/appliances, and building upkeep), UAC-CP students each pay approximately $20 per month.  Still, for some students, this cost is prohibitive.  Many look for work off campus or receive help from their parents.

Though the primary function of the co-ops is to ensure that students have three regular meals to eat each day, there are other benefits, too.  For one, students learn (often difficult) lessons about working together as a team.  They also gain valuable leadership experience--I've watched shy, introverted first-year students transform into confident, respected leaders.

That said, the coops are by no means problem-free; it's a lot of work to organize college students to feed nearly 300 people three times a day.  But on the day I visited, as students went out of their way to make sure that I had a bowl full of food and mug full of jugo, I couldn't help but notice the good things about the co-ops--like the camaraderie of sitting together and sharing a meal.

Saturday, November 29, 2008


On Thursday evening I attended the graduation ceremony at the Catholic University in La Paz. As a branch of La Católica, our UAC-CP students are invited to participate in the University's official pomp and circumstance.

Richard Agramont's mother (left) and aunt made the six hour journey from their home in Irupana (South Yungas) to see Richard receive his diploma.  An agronomist, Richard is employed at CARITAS in Coroico where he travels to rural areas to work with coffee farmers.

About 40 UAC-CP students, donning caps and gowns, graduated with degrees in nursing, agronomy, and veterinary science.  Many of them had participated in the graduation ceremony held this past August in Carmen Pampa, but for others it was the first they had heard their name called to stand up before a crowd of more than 1,000 people and receive their college diploma.

It was a pretty proud and emotional moment to watch our students walk across the stage. Graduating from college is a major feat for most anyone, but particularly so for our students who beat incredible odds to make it to that moment.  

Coroico natives Micaela Soliz and her younger sister pose after the graduation ceremony at the Catholic U.  Mica now works for the Carmen Pampa Health Post.

As I rushed around taking pictures and congratulating graduates and their families following the ceremony, one of our recent grads said to me, "Can you imagine where we would be today if the UAC-CP didn't exist?  If Sr. Damon never dreamed to start a college?"  While I've obviously considered the question before, I was caught off guard by it at that exact moment; I didn't know how to respond.  

I don't know where our "kids" would be if they didn't have the opportunity to obtain a college degree.  It's a little disheartening to think about because I'm pretty sure they wouldn't have been standing in front of me, diploma in hand, smile flashing across the face, feeling on top of the world.

Nursing graduate Lucy Cabrera with her parents at a post-graduation meal. An El Alto native, Lucy currently works at a pharmacy in La Paz.  Once she has her paperwork in order, she would like to look for work in the Yungas.

At a small family celebration for one of the graduates later that evening, UAC-CP nursing graduate Lucy Cabrera's relatives sat in a circle in their small living room area and talked about how proud they are that she's the first in the family to graduate from college.  As her dad sat quietly and admired her diploma, Lucy's uncle told her to never give up, to keep on going forward.  "Sigue adelante!" he told her.  

While everyone enthusiastically nodded their heads in agreement, I leaned over and whispered in her ear, "And when you go forward, wherever you go, don't forget to bring the mission of the UAC with you."

Thursday, November 27, 2008

acción de gracias

A tried and true U.S. holiday, Thanksgiving is obviously not celebrated here in Carmen Pampa (our small gringo community non-withstanding--we, of course, plan to have oven baked chicken, mashed potatoes, and green 10am to accommodate a regular, busy school day).

Recently, as I've been explaining the concept of "Turkey Day," I've asked some students that one question we're commonly asked to consider as we're sitting around the dinner table on Thanksgiving: "What are you thankful for?"

A few of their responses:

"I am grateful for the opportunity to study here at the UAC-CP...and I'm grateful to everyone who has given all of us here the opportunity to better ourselves through higher education."

Pre-university students Fernando Mollinedo, Sonia Poma, Amira Luque, and Willy Ramirez pose in front of a series of prayers of thanksgiving they wrote and posted on the wall behind the altar in the Campus Leahy chapel.

"I am thankful for my parents--for their constant love and care."

"I am grateful to all those who have, in some way, helped me economically and morally.  People like Sr. Damon (UAC-CP founder)--who always encouraged me--and Hugh (current UAC-CP vice director)--who, for me, has been like a second father.  I'm grateful to these people."

"I am thankful to God for giving me my life and allowing me to achieve one of my life goals: to get my college degree."

"I am thankful for the friendships I have--especially the people who have come into my life when I needed them most."

So whether we're eating pumpkin pie at grandma's house or sitting in an eco-tourism class on Campus Manning, we all have things to be thankful for on this day.  Happy Thanksgiving from the UAC-CP!

Monday, November 24, 2008

dreaming big pays off

In September, I wrote about my visit to the Brecha B--a rural community located about seven hours from Carmen Pampa where UAC-CP graduates recently started their own business, SIEMPRE-FORJA (Integrated Systems of Research and Education through Ecological Production).   The budding company is dedicated to the education, production, and research of bio-insecticides.

Last week SIEMPRE-FORJA was awarded the grand prize in a national competition: Ideas Emprendedoras ( competition of business ideas and plans.  Out of approximately 2,000 entries nation-wide, their company won the $10,000 first prize for innovation and a $5,000 second prize for biodiversity sustainability!!

UAC-CP agronomy graduates Fortunato Velasquez, Andrez Florez and Jorge Gallardo with UAC-CP education thesis student student Ruth Velasquez outside their company's (under construction) research center.

When I interviewed them in September, the four-some admitted that maybe their idea was a bit "crazy"--they were investing a lot of time, energy, money, and hope in the dream of owning a business that, while being profitable, will also aim to help local farmers increase production and protect the natural environment.  "I know it's pretty crazy," Andrez told me a couple months ago, "but we believe we can make it happen."

Today, in addition to the fact that their recent award will help to ease some of the financial burden they are experiencing with initial start-up/capital costs, it's also an important and nationally-recognized vote of confidence and an example to other UAC-CP graduates and students of how they can implement the mission of the College:  make an honest living and serve the people of rural Bolivia.   Our UAC-CP familia is very proud of Fortunato, Andrez, Jorge, and Ruth!

To read my September blog entry about SIEMPRE-FORJA, click here

Monday, November 17, 2008

more than a thousand words

They say a picture tells a thousand words.  But tonight, as I look through the photos I've taken in the past several months (and posted online:, I'm afraid that my pictures really don't even begin to tell the full story of our students here at the College.

Behind the the smiles, the pensive looks, the posed group shots, and the beautiful faces are the stories of awe-inspiring young people who have, and continue to, amaze me as they beat incredible odds.  Each picture, each face, each name has an extraordinary story to tell...and there are so many!

I see the face of Alvaro who, his first year at the College, gave up his coveted spot in the food cooperative because he realized that one of his classmates, who wasn't eating, needed it more.

I see the face of Christina, a confident, tough (she plays futsol barefoot!) young woman who, when her mother died unexpectedly in a car accident four years ago, moved off campus to raise her two younger brothers while continuing her studies at the UAC-CP.

I see the face of Andrez, an agronomy graduate, whose wisdom, insight, idealism and commitment to fulfilling the mission of the UAC-CP both humbles and inspires me.

I see the faces of young men and women that I feel so fortunate to know and wish others could know them, as well.

A few of the faces I've photographed and posted online in the past few months...

UAC-CP Agronomy graduates Hector Espejo, Vladimir Torrez, and Aldo Estevez.   We recently had lunch (and shared many laughs) at one of the Campus Leahy food kiosks.

UAC-CP agronomy student William Nova is working on his thesis.  William is from the Afro-Bolivian community of Tocaña, located approximately 15 km from Coroico.

Rosa Quisbert is an eighth semester education student at the UAC-CP.  Her parents own a small store in Coroico.   Formerly one of my very shy students in the Pre-University program, Rosa is now an outgoing, vibrant young woman.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

my fried chicken has a face

For as many times as I had eaten a banana, I hadn't really ever considered where it came from or how it arrived at my breakfast table...until I lived in Carmen Pampa.

Bananas grow abundantly throughout the Nor Yungas.

I come from a country where I don't have to think too much about where things come from or where things go.  In the U.S., my garbage was hauled away every week and I never had to see it again.  Almost magically, natural gas always arrived to my kitchen stovetop and oven.  And there was never a doubt that (hot) water wouldn't come rushing out of the faucet at whatever moment I decided to take a shower.

Coffee trees loaded with the red and green beans hug the trail that links the College's two campuses.

In Bolivia, it's hard not to consider the source of each and every thing that I use.  Here, I've picked and roasted the coffee that gives me my morning boost. I've ground and seasoned the sausage I put on homemade pizza.  I've squeezed several oranges by hand in exchange for a full glass of juice.  I've nearly escaped bee stings extracting honey from the hive.  I've hoisted the heavy, grimy gas tank up onto the public mobility and, later, dragged it into the kitchen and attached it to the stove.  I've stepped across the mountain spring that feeds water to our kitchen and bathroom faucets.  I've seen the feet, feathers, and face of my fried chicken.

A UAC-CP veterinary student prepares a chicken to be sold at market.

Yes, there are plenty of days when it would be nice to just pull a bag of frozen, pre-cut veggies out of the refrigerator or not have to see and smell the community's mounting garbage at the local "dump."  I'd rather not recall that cute little piglet at the exact moment I cut into a UAC-processed pork chop.  But, as they say here, "asi es"--that's just how it is.

And truthfully, I do feel more grateful of where things come from...and I like that feeling.  In fact, this morning as I watch and listen to the rain fall down, I'm not just loving it because the campus looks like a lush, subtropical wonderland, but also because I know and appreciate that ample rain makes way for a shower and a cup of coffee in the morning. 

Saturday, November 8, 2008

by foot

Whenever asking a Bolivian to measure distance with time, it's always important to ask the clarifying question:  "A pie o en mobi?"  (By foot or public transport?)

In the U.S., if someone told me that they lived three hours away, I'd never consider asking if that meant a three hour walk or a three hour car ride.  But here, our students tell stories of walking multiple hours to arrive at school, work, or home.

A UAC-CP student walks along a path wearing his abarcas--simple, yet sturdy sandals made of used tires that are commonly worn by people in the countryside.

Students who work at the College's Coroico Viejo Goat Project, for example, walk more than 2 1/2 hours round-trip (rain or shine, up hill both ways) to earn about $4 for a day's worth of hard, physical labor.  Those who vie for the coveted jobs at the Goat Project walk over every Monday and use their salary to pay for their monthly food cooperative dues.

Though Carmen Pampa continues to see an increase in the number of minibuses offering daily service to nearby Coroico, most other rural, Bolivian communities only have access to public transportation once-a-week.  In these remote areas, people often have no other option but to call upon "Taxi number 11"--their two feet.

Something to keep in mind, for me at least, the next time I'm circling the Target parking lot looking for a spot closest to the door.  Suddenly the empty spaces at the far corner of the lot don't seem so far away.

Friday, October 31, 2008

happy halloweeny birthday

At the moment, there are 10 of us living together in community here in Carmen Pampa.  Some of us work as administrators at the College, some of us teach classes, and some of us do both.

All of us are usually pretty busy, always going in different directions.  For that very reason, there is a large dry erase board on the wall in the kitchen that helps us all stay connected despite the comings and goings.  (For the past two days the most prominent notes have read: "Has anyone seen the plunger?" and "Could someone please check on the status of the gas tanks that were sent into Coroico?" )

A post-dinner picture of the volunteer house gang.  In the back row, left to right: Sam Clair, Andy Engel, Hugh Smeltekop, Bill Wrobleski, and Dan Lechtenberg.  In the front row: Lee Lechtenberg, Mary Murphy, and Tanya Kerssen.  (Not pictured:  Jean Lechtenberg and yours truly--the picture taker)

But tonight, we had nearly the whole crew together at the table to celebrate volunteer Andy Engel's birthday.  The youngest in the house, he turns 23-years-old tomorrow.  

Andy shows off his Happy Birthday sash and toots his party favor.

I signed up to cook with the intention of making pizza, but limited supplies made way for a change in the menu.  Instead, I prepared a colorful vegetable stir fry, all the ingredients picked fresh from the UAC-CP's garden this afternoon.  

Volunteers Lee Lechtenberg and his son Dan complimented my meal with dessert: chocolate mousse and homemade wafer cookies presented in champagne glasses with a mini flag bearing birthday wishes.  Andy, adorned with a Happy Birthday sash, blew out a jack-o-lantern candle and humored us with an unrehearsed, yet harmonic rendition of "The Birthday Song."  

¡Feliz Carmen Pampa Cumpleaños, Andres!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

my shadow

Today after lunch I had two little friends accompany me on the walk up to my office on Campus Leahy: eight-year-old Fatima and her five-year-old brother (whose name is escaping me at the moment).   

While I'm a pretty big fan of most all the little kids in Carmen Pampa, I've been feeling especially kindred to Fatima lately--mostly because she's former UAC-CP volunteer Nathan Kensey's goddaughter and partly because I'm intrigued by her tender persona.  And I get the sense that Fatima seems to be quite fond of me as well; she follows me around so much I've taken to calling her mi sombra, my shadow.

Eight-year-old Fatima predicts she will be 17 when she graduates from high school.

We often see each other after lunch--around the time I'm going up to my office and Fatima's making the trek back to her house after school.  Today she spotted me as I headed toward the trail and asked if I was walking up.  "Vamos!" she said, when I told her that I was going arriba.

Walking along the first section of the path, we met Don Emilio, a Carmen Pampa local who was returning home, machete in hand, from the cemetery.  He had been cleaning the weeds and brush away from his wife's grave, preparing the cemetery for this weekend's todos los santos (All Saints).  As we bid Don Emilio goodbye and continued on our way, Fatima talked about the todos los santos traditions of making tantawawas and stopping by people's homes to pray for their deceased family members.

"Do you want to go to the cemetery?" she asked, as we passed the small piece of land just below the road where people from the community are buried.  "We can visit my grandma's grave."  I agreed and the three of us carefully made our way down the steep embankment.  Careful not to step on graves, we weaved around the three community members who were cleaning off the tombs of their dearly deceased.

A simple grave noted with a mound of dirt and a wooden cross.
We made several stops in the little cemetery.  We reminisced at a couple sites, remembering the people buried there.  We sighed at the little graves--several, really, considering the small number of people in Carmen Pampa.  And then we ended our visit at her grandmother's cement tomb.

"Do you miss her?" I asked, thinking especially of my own grandpa who died last week.  "Yes," she said matter-of-factly.  Her grandma died last December, two days after Christmas. Fatima's account of the details surrounding her grandmother's death both surprised and saddened me.  

"But I think she's in heaven," Fatima told me later as we continued our walk up the road, her brother trailing behind.  "Good people go to heaven and sinners go to the devil," she said.  "That is what my mom tells me.  ...and my grandma was a good person, so I know she's in heaven.  Her spirit will come back to visit in todos santos."  

As she talked on about spirits and God and death (and made seemingly random comments, like: "Your feet are so big!"  "Why are you so tall?" "How far away is Australia?"), I looked over with amazement at this blooming little character, my third-grade shadow.

When we parted ways on Campus Leahy--I to my office and Fatima off to her house ("to work in the field"), she asked if I know how to pray.  After some clarification, I recited, en espanol, the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be.   Apparently impressed by my performance (or, at least, not disappointed), she extended an invitation for me to join her during todos santos, to visit peoples' homes and pray for the dead.  

"Come along with me," she encouraged.  "I will show you what to do."  And I smiled, realizing that I would be shadowing my little sombra.

Nathan, if you're reading this, Fatima wants to know when you're coming back to visit.  And, quite frankly, so do I!  Love from the campo, mate.

Monday, October 27, 2008

monday, monday

To accommodate people who need to travel to La Paz to conduct business, classes at the UAC-CP are held Tuesday through Saturday.  Sunday is a free day and Monday is generally a work day.  

 Mondays are a popular day for doing laundry.  Thankfully today is a beautiful day and anything washed this morning should be dry by early evening.

So, today is the day when students who have scholarships work around campus on a variety of projects: cleaning, construction, grounds crew, etc.  Those who stay on campus over the weekend, but don't have work-study jobs or have completed their required 80 hours of trabajo comunitario--the community work required of all students--often spend their Mondays doing homework or catching up on laundry. 

A student in the pre-university program sifts cement for a campus construction project.  He has a CFCA scholarship and must work 60 hours per semester.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

new eyes

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes."  --Marcel Proust

Morning view of the volunteer house and the church taken from the Sisters' chapel

View of Coroico 

I'm always grateful for the people who come to visit us in Carmen Pampa--and not just because they bring the token gifts of peanut butter, chocolate, and parmesan cheese.  Visitors also bring new eyes, fresh ways of looking at things.  They have a way of pointing out details in the Bolivian campo that, while those of us who live here more permanently have come to find very ordinary, are actually quite extraordinary.

A local chola woman wearing the traditional full skirt, long braids, and bowler hat walks down the road to Carmen Pampa carrying a colorful awayu on her back and a bag of coca in her hand

Tonight, one of our short-term visitors, Mary Beth, showed me some of the photos she's taken during her two week visit.   Admiring Bolivia through her lens, I realized that she just took pictures of the things that are really quite average--the things  I don't generally consider photographing; the things I will miss most when I'm not here.

Kudos to Mary Beth for allowing me to share some of the everyday wonders of Carmen Pampa through her eyes.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


I always tell new volunteers that if they ever find themselves in a conundrum while visiting La Paz city, they should make their way to Turbus Totai.  

Totai is the little bus company that, among other things, arranges for transportation between La Paz and Coroico (the closest pueblo to Carmen Pampa).  For a little more than $2 U.S., Totai passengers are driven the spectacular 70 km (44 mile) mountainous stretch between Bolivia's capital city to Coroico.  Weather and landslides permitting, the one-way trip generally takes about 3 hours.

Minibuses such as this one are the most common form of transportation between La Paz and Coroico (and between the UAC-CP and Coroico).  They have room for 15, but I've seen more!

Because nearly the entire UAC-CP familia travels via Totai it's pretty much guaranteed that you will find someone you know when you show up at the bus company's small La Paz office.  In fact, I think Totai could adapt a Spanish version of the Cheers theme song--it really is the place in La Paz where everybody knows my name.  

A rider leans up against the Turbus Totai sign that sits out front of the office

I remember one time in particular a few years ago when I was running out of money and not sure how/if I would be able to return to the College considering protests and road blocks. Alone in La Paz, I showed up at the Totai office and a UAC-CP professor loaned me his cell phone to call Sr. Damon and a group of students helped me figure out a way back to Coroico. It's comforting to have a place to go when in desperate need of a familiar face.

 "Sarah de la UAC!" is generally how I'm greeted by Oscar, jefe of Totai, when I show up unannounced to buy my ticket to Coroico.  

Saturday, October 18, 2008

carmen pampa fund visit

This morning, before the sun even considered rising above the Altiplano, Sr. Jean, Hugh, and I bid farewell to the Carmen Pampa Fund contingent: Interim Executive Director, Sue Wheeler, Program Director, Joel Mugge, and board president (and one of the founders of the College) Ann Leahy.  The trio spent the past week with us at the College as part of the Joint Planning and Oversight Council.

The Council, which held its inaugural meeting last April, was developed to help strengthen the relationship between the College and the CPF.  The group, made up of members that represent the CPF, UAC-CP, Bolivian community, and Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, met for three days to discuss organizational goals that will bring both the College and CPF closer to realizing their shared, underlying mission:  to transform the lives of Bolivians through higher education.

Ann Leahy, Sue Wheeler, and Joel Mugge shared a special meal with memebers of the College's student body council

Apart from the administrative meetings (which help bridge the physical distance between St. Paul, Minnesota and Carmen Pampa, Bolivia), it's important for representatives of the Carmen Pampa Fund to visit the College so that they can meet the students who benefit from the generosity of CPF donors.  Sue, Joel, and Ann had several opportunities to meet with UAC-CP students: they had dinner with the student body government, they attended Danitza Ramos' thesis defense, and they participated in the Agronomy department's 15th anniversary celebration.  Each instance provided very powerful and emotional reminders of why both the College and the Carmen Pampa Fund are committed to improving the lives of young people in rural Bolivia.

Ann and Sue pose with the UAC-CP's newest graduate, Ing. Danitza Ramos, following her thesis defense

Ann noted that it was her 12th visit to the College in 15 years...but she doesn't expect that it will be her last.  The Joint Planning and Oversight Council plans to meet regularly every six months--which means Ann and the CPF crew will be back in April!  We're already looking forward to their visit.

Friday, October 10, 2008

it takes a village

The Minnesota-based radio show "It Takes a Village" recently interviewed Carmen Pampa Fund director, Sue Wheeler, and UAC-CP Vice Director General, Hugh Smeltekop, about how they collaborate to provide higher education opportunities for youth in rural Bolivia.

The program, which officially airs on a variety of radio stations on Saturday, October 11th, can currently be heard online.  To listen to Sue and Hugh reflect on their experience with Carmen Pampa Fund and the UAC-CP, visit the program's radio show archive page and click "listen to show."

 "It Takes a Village," the website explains, is "a place to talk about, and hear inspiring stories about how you can easily change the world starting one community at a time."  

Friday, October 3, 2008

the uac's quincinera

Yesterday was the kickoff to the UAC-CP's annual Intercarreras--a four day festival at the College that could probably be likened to a mini-olympics, of sorts. Students, according to each of the five carreras (majors), comepte in a wide variety of competitions: soccer, music, volleyball, basketball, karaokee, futsol, drama, comedy, dancing, and overall spirit and cheer.

There is no rest for the weary during this time. The days are long (students are generally up around 6 am) and the nights are even longer (shows on the Campus Manning stage have been known to go pat 1 am). Though I'm not sure where they get their energy, I can imagine that the cheering and chanting (Agro! Agro! Agro-no-mia!) and waving of flags that correspond to their major area of study, is what keeps them going. That, and their intense desire to win the entire Intercarreras.

The Intercarreras coincides with the UAC-CP's anniversary on October 4th. This year, the College is celebrating 15 years of providing higher education in rural Bolivia. At last night's opening ceremony, Fr. Freddy de Villar, director, talked about all the accomplishments the College has seen in the last 15 years--mostly talking about the numbers of graduates and the number of students currenly enrolled. He thanked all the people who play an important role in the livelihood of the College, especially Sr. Damon and Dick and Ann Leahy--who made the dream of the UAC a reality, and the faculty and staff--who dedicate themselves to educating and forming young people.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

the mother of invention

Today, as Agronomy student Judit Mamani guided me around the garden plot she´s cultivating for her thesis project, I took special interest in the nozzle adaptor she made for a garden hose. With a hot needle, Judit poked several small holes into a short piece of plastic tubing. She fit the tube into the hose, tied it off with rubber, and topped off the end with a wooden cork.

Judit waters her plot of land with a hose she adapted to genty spray water.

Now, Judit explained to me, she´s able to lightly water the small budding spinach plants in her garden plot. "I couldn´t afford to buy any type of adapter," she told me. "But Ing. Desiderio (a UAC-CP professor) gave me this idea and it´s worked really well!"

I can´t help but believe that the average person here is a bit more creative. It´s not to say that Bolivians are more creative people, but when you are financially limited and live and work in an environment that lacks many modern conveniences, it´s necessary to think of (inexpensive) alternatives. Judit´s hose adaptor is one of many examples here of creative and effective solutions.

UAC-CP volunteers also find themselves coming up with ways to adapt certain comforts from home to life here in the countryside. One of my favorite inventions in the volunteer house is the toaster that John Carr created during his visit to the UAC in 2004. Cutting a large tin can in half and poking several holes in the bottom, he welded pieces of wire across the opening and...WOILA!...we have a toaster! Again, it´s a simple design--it merely keeps the bread elevated above the gas flame--but without it, making toast would be a bit more of a chore. I think of John every time I eat toast for breakfast.

The toaster in the volunteer house (it looks much less intimidating in person).

The other day when I came home from lunch, UAC-CP volunteers, Andy and Sam, showed me their newly designed softball equipment: the bat (a long, skinny piece of dried wood) and the ball (a wad of paper crumpled up and wrapped with duct tape). After lunch, four of us played a few innings in the Sisters´ yard. Making up many of the rules as we went along, we used rosebushes and orange trees as bases and agreed that anything hit into the banana tree would be considered a home run.

While I don´t think softball (or a toaster or a hose adaptor, for that matter) can really be considered a "necessity," the desire to have it--to make life a little easier or a little bit more enjoyable--is definitely what drives our creative juices here in Carmen Pampa.