Wednesday, September 24, 2008

a day in the hospital

Yesterday I spent a good deal of time at a couple La Paz hospitals--both as a patient and as a visitor.

In the morning, I had a medical appointment at El Hospital de Torax. The visit, complete with X-rays, laboratory work, a physical, and a dental check-up, was required by the government as one of the many steps in aquiring Bolivian residency.

As instructed, I arrived at the hospital at 8 am with my blank medical form and secured my place in line. After providing a copy of my passport and paying the 180 Bs fee, I was shuffled to the "statistics" office where a secretary filled out my basic information form. Once my papers were in order, I was bounced around from office to office--spending most of the 3 hour visit waiting for my name to be called.

Though I´m generally not a fan of hospital visits--particularly visits to hospitals that aren´t quite as hygenic-seeming as I´d like--I found the whole experience to be relatively painless (minus the blood sample). At 11am, I was sent on my way with a clean bill of health and a mini-lecture from the doctora about the importance of wearing insect repellent and sun screen.

Concepcion Huanca works 8pm - 8 am in the maternity ward of El Hospital Juan XXIII

After an afternoon of fingerprints and photographs at the police station (other residency requirements), Bill and I ventured to El Hospital Juan XXIII to meet UAC-CP nursing student, Concepcion Huanca. As part of her nursing rotation required for graduation, Concepcion works the 12-hour night shift in the hospital´s maternity ward.

Donning her white uniform, blue UAC-CP sweater, and starched nursing cap, she showed us around the fourth floor of Juan XXIII. Her responsibilites are varied, she said. Since arriving a few weeks ago, she has assisted with live births, C-sections, pre- and post-natal care, and all other duties (like cleaning and paperwork!) that a nurse must perform.

As I watched Concepcion carefully attend to a new mother and her baby girl, I couldn´t help but think that I would´ve felt a bit more comfortable during my hospital visit at Torax had Concepcion been by my side. The next time I need to go to the hospital, I decided, I´m bringing a UAC-CP nursing student along with me.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


On Sunday I attended my first professional soccer game in La Paz. It was el classico--which pitted the two rival La Paz teams, Bolivar and Strongest, against one another. El classico is essentially the equivalent of the NYC subway series--you´re either a Bolivarista or a Stronguista. And, like any other sport in the world, allegiances run deep.

The stadium in La Paz has seating for approximately 45,000--though crowds sometimes swell to more than 65,000

I attended the mid-afternoon partido with UAC-CP agronomy graduates (and recent newlyweds), Carlos Gutierrez and Erica Calle de Gutierrez, and Erica´s younger brother, Vladimir. Upon arriving at the stadium and buying our 15 Bolivano ($2.20) tickets for the nosebleed seats, the three insisted that I pick my favorite team. Based purely on my preference for the colors blue and white, I pledged my allegiance to Boliviar...not realizing that Carlos and Vladimir, diehard Strongest fans, would make me sit amid the Strongest crowd wearing a goofy Bolivar hat through the entire duration of the game. Needless to say, Erica (also a Bolivarista) and I didn´t cheer all too loudly when "our" equipo scored.

It was an exciting game--complete with several fights, lots of fanatic foul-mouthed fans, and last minute penalty shots that kept spectators on the edge of their seats...and players literally on their knees praying. In the end, the teams tied 3 -3.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

la brecha b

One of the highlights of my recent five-day trip to the innards of Bolivia was a visit to the Brecha B—one of many small communities on the outskirts of Palos Blancos.

While Palos Blancos is hands down one of the most unattractive little towns I’ve ever visited (it’s dry, dusty, and waterless), 10 minutes outside of town at the Velasquez homestead I discovered near-paradise conditions: oranges, pineapples, mangoes, lemons, papayas, bananas, and a variety of previously unknown-to-me fruits. They all grow abundantly on the land surrounding the family's very rustic, yet welcoming casita.

Jorge Gallardo, Don Ignacio, Ruth Velasquez (holding her daughter, Anita), Andres Florez, Fortunato Velasquez, and Sra. Velasquez

UAC-CP agronomy graduate, Fortunato Velasquez, and his sister, Ruth, a UAC-CP elementary education thesis student, have lived in the small wood-framed home on their family’s land their whole lives. Their father, Don Ignacio, laid claim to the land when he arrived from the Altiplano in 1963. Though he’s now retired, he worked for many years harvesting cacao (chocolate) and platano (banana). He talked about how he worked the land with his bare hands and his machete.

Today, 79-year-old Don Ignacio, a man who never learned to read or write, is proud that his children have returned to their home village to work as professionals and provide services to the local people. He's also pleased, he said, to welcome two other UAC-CP agronomy graduates, Andres Florez and Jorge Gallardo, living with the family ("These two young men are like sons to me.")

Together, Fortunato, Ruth, Andres, and Jorge have started their own business dedicated to research, production, and education in the rural area: SIEMPRE – FORJA (Integrated Systems of Research and Education through Ecological Production –Fortunato, Jorge, Andres).

Andres Florez talks about the honey production project--one of several of the group's initiatives

“We think that research is fundamental in order to grow…and Bolivia needs more research around conservation and sustainable development,” Fortunato explained. “And we hope to be a bridge between the bigger markets [in La Paz] and the local communities with small projects. What we want to achieve is for them [local producers] to recognize us as a center for advice about biodiversity and ecological production.”

Their company focuses on organic production—specifically the ecological management of pests. They hope people living in the area will learn to grow things with a bit of social conscience in the zone—a conscious, they believe, that will grow out of the environmental education they intend to provide.

Since last March, Jorge and Andres have rented a small place in Palos Blancos. One room serves as both their shared bedroom/office/kitchen and the two additional rooms are used as make-shift laboratory space where they’re currently working on a product that will help cacao farmers.

The label used on SIEMPRE - FORJA's products

“Local cacao producers lose approximately 30-40 percent of their crop to chinchis (a pest). What we want to do is to provide farmers with a solution that effectively allows them to combat the chinchis. Additionally, we need to make sure that the price of the product we sell is affordable,” Jorge said. The product they’ve developed to fight the plague sells for 20 Bolivianos (approximately U.S. $3) per bag—a price, they said, that is fair and affordable to local growers. The product, in fact, has drawn the attention of CEIBO, a well-known brand of chocolate in Bolivia, with which they’re negotiating a potential partnership.

They’ve also made contacts through their fellow UAC-CP graduates. FUNDACOM (see August blog), for example, is interested in buying honey from SIEMPRE – FORJA. Andres admitted there is plenty of demand for their product—their main concern for now is obtaining the capital needed to begin.

Fortunato, Jorge, and Andres agreed that while they are currently working as intermediaries between local farmers and larger markets in La Paz, in the future they hope to have their own brand for a variety of organically grown products. “We want to have a product from within this zone that is known for its good quality. In this way, the producers will benefit so that we can buy from them…and pay them just wages,” Fortunato said.

Fortunato’s sister, Ruth, recently joined the group. “Someone may wonder what an elementary education major is doing working with agronomists,” Ruth said. “But it’s important that we teach people about biodiversity—about how to care for the earth.” Ruth believes her training in teaching methodologies from the UAC-CP will allow her to effectively teach young people who come to their research and production center about how they can change their behavior to improve their living conditions and the overall environment in which they live.

They also hope the research center will be an educational tool for UAC-CP students. Three or four UAC-CP thesis students plan to come and work with SIEMPRE – FORJA this fall—an opportunity that will benefit both parties. The group’s research center will provide a simple place for thesis students to stay and live and SIEMPE – FORJA will benefit from the results of students’ research work.

“One of the characteristics of the College [UAC-CP] regarding the formation of young people is to be sensitive to the environment; to take care of what we have and to think of the future generations,” Jorge explained. “It’s not just about making money….to take advantage of the land to earn money in big quantities to live relatively well. We need to conserve the land.” That, they agreed, is the core of what they hope to do—improve the quality of life for people through research, production, and education.

Friday, September 19, 2008

bolivia: mas adentro

Last night I returned from five days of travel to the hot and dusty Bolivian lowlands (or lower than Carmen Pampa-lands, at least). Squeezed four or five people across in the backseat of a small station wagon, I arrived first to the town of Caranavi and later to Palos Blancos. There, I visited UAC-CP students who are doing their student teaching; I reunited with graduates and learned about their current work; and I "pulled the ears" of a couple students who, while they've finished their coursework, need to complete their thesis in order to receive their diploma.

Without a doubt, the best part of my trip was the conversation--all of the conversations, really, but mostly the conversations with former students--UAC-CP graduates. At their homes and places of work, we caught up on each others lives. I asked about their work, their families, their theses defenses. They asked about the UAC, former volunteers, and, of course, Sr. Damon-- "Como esta la Hermana?" everyone wanted to know.

More often than not, as UAC graduates and I talked about their current work and reflected on their time at the College...and remembered Sr. Damon...we always found ourselves discussing the mission of the UAC-CP. Frankly, it was incredible to sit around and talk with students about how we've all come to understand the mission.

Florentino Mollo, Oscar Quispe, Sarah, Carmen Pardo, and Tito Calle work together at ANED (a micro-finance group) in Caranavi

One conversation with a group of students was particularly interesting as they independently reflected on the College and it's role, they believe, in promoting peace and understanding in their country--specifically considering the recent, tumultous political situation in Bolivia. I taped our nearly two-hour conversation and think the following few passages are worth sharing.


"There's a fundamental thing about the UAC--it's an example, more than anything, during these days of conflict in our country over racial struggles and regional struggles. We [the UAC] are an example for our society here in Bolivia. At the UAC, people come from all over Bolivia...really, from all origins. There are people from the Orient, people from the Altiplano, people from all parts. And we are, more than anything, like a brotherhood at the UAC. We are able to sort out all sorts of prejudices--about where someone is from or what language they speak or whatever other differences that may exist. Because of this, learning together, we are better formed with a united vision of progress.

Really, that is the UAC--a place where we've made such great friendships. As they say, we're like a family at the UAC. We're one big family...the College. And it's a project that is an example for many univerisities here in our country. Because it's an integral's not just the academic piece it's the spiritual formation that helps students develop into better people." --Ing. Jorge Gallardo, UAC-CP '07

Fortunato Velasquez, Andres Florez, Sarah, Ruth Velasquez, and Jorge Gallardo at the researh and production center the group is developing in Brecha B outside of Palos Blancos

"The form of teaching [the mission] isn't really about talking to students. It's about doing. That's what Sr. Damon always said: "Do. Don't speak." ... And it's true. We can't be telling others how to live. In the end, one has to demonstrate how to live. Simply by doing, people are going to learn. I think that's one form of expressing the mission and vision of the UAC." --Ing. Andres Florez, UAC-CP '08

"The way in which students come to the UAC and plainly see the [College's] mission...that's a form of teaching. The UAC is a concentration of people from distinct social backgrounds, origins, etc. What happens is, it's a place where students, with minimum conditions, begin to study. That's the education--the life that a student has there, their interaction with each one of their classmates. I think that has a strong incidence in this process of construction [in Bolivia].

[The UAC teaches that] it's not just about's about values. Something that Jorge [Gallardo] talked about regarding what's currently happening in our country--I think it's more of a problem, not so much economic, it's a problem about values; it's a problem about morals.

Time will tell...with this generation that is going to graduate from the UAC. I think there will be a population of young people with a different way of thinking...a more integral way of thinking. And I expect that because of that, there won't be any more talk about a "camba* nation" or an "indigenous nation" or anything like this....that it will be a nation of that, in the end, we're called by the one thing that unites us." --Ing. Fortunato Valasquez, UAC-CP '03

Thanks to all for your kind emails and notes regarding the current political situation in Bolivia. Right now, all is calm and peaceful here in Carmen Pampa. Hopefully a peaceful resolution will be found in Bolivia sooner than later.

*Camba is the name for people who live in and around Santa Cruz. People from La Paz are called Pacenos.

Friday, September 12, 2008

el profe

Today I returned from a two-day trip to Santa Rosa de Quilo Quilo--a small town located about three hours from Carmen Pampa. UAC-CP volunteer, Mary Murphy, a visiting math lecturer from Smith College (and seasoned Bolivian-dweller), invited me to accompany her on this special adventure. Together, we went to visit Ruben Pari, a UAC-CP education student who is currently teaching high school math in Santa Rosa.

Santa Rosa de Quilo Quilo, a remote little town, is nestled in the mountains--a winding and gorgeous drive from Coroico.

Mary and Ruben share a special bond--Ruben once worked as Mary's teaching assistant when she taught math in the College's pre-university program. Which is why Ruben was particularly excited to have Mary visit Santa Rosa on the day of the high school's math fair--an event he planned and organized. The fair consisted of 26 booths--each one with a theme that students were required to explain, demonstrate, and apply to real-life situations.

Mary and I, much to our surprise (and protests!), were asked to judge the expositionists. With her math expertise as my guide, I listened as young, shy campo kids reminded me of math lessons long past. For more than three hours we judged presentations on logorithms, compound interest, geometric equations, etc. And it wasn't until the fair ended at 7pm, with the sun long gone, that Ruben explained the difficulties his students had preparing for the math fair with no text books and very few resources.

UAC-CP volunteer Mary Murphy listens as two students present their work

Watching Ruben interact with his students and hearing Mary talk about her experience of working with him in the classroom, I came to the pretty obvious conclusion that Ruben is one of those people who is a natural and gifted teacher. Which is why, I think, I was so struck by the story of how he ended up studying education in Carmen Pampa.

Though his life story is longer and more complicated, his Carmen Pampa story started when he came to work at the College as a mechanic. Inspired by his sister, he considered the possibility of studying at the UAC-CP and took the entrance exam. A couple of the other mechanics, he said, teased him that he wasn't smart enough to study at the college level. But when names of the students who passed the test were released, Ruben proved them wrong.

Ruben Pari, far left, poses with two members of the Santa Rosa de Quilo Quilo school board.

Choco, the head mechanic, encouraged him to officially register for classes at the UAC-CP. But Ruben didn't think it was possible. "I told him no. I told him it was too expensive and insisted that it just wasn't possible. And Choco finally just gave me this look and then said, 'okay.'"

But the next day, working off a tip from Choco, Sr. Damon called Ruben to her office. "She asked me why I was choosing not to study and told me that I received a really good grade on the test and encouraged me to reconsider." He told Sr. Damon that, because of his situation, he couldn't afford to be a full-time student. But Sr. Damon countered with an offer that he found hard to refuse--a scholarship. And in 2002 he began classes in the school's education program.

Today, Ruben is a dedicated teacher (two months ago, unable to catch a ride from Coroico to Santa Rosa, he walked--for 10 hours--to arrive on time for Monday morning classes). He lives in an extremely modest and sparsely furnished room off the main plaza; he hikes up to the high school to use the bathroom and shower facilities.

He told Mary and I that students often come by his room at night with questions about their math homework. And some evenings, he said, he sits in the plaza (which, with lights powered by hydro-electricity, is sometimes dark during the dry season) and talks with students.

Although it's a demanding job, he's happy in Santa Rosa, he assured me. And it seems his students feel the same way. "Any talk of him leaving," a sophomore boy told me, "and we will threaten a road block!" For now, they say, the road is wide open.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

the daily traffic report

My days of battling rush hour traffic are long over. Now, aside from the occasional muddy road or flat tire, there is little that gets in the way of my daily commute to work here in the campo.

Ride up to Campus Leahy in the afternoon in the back of a camion.

Those who have visited the College know that the UAC-CP is composed of two campuses: Campus Manning (home to Veterinary Science, Nursing, Eco-Tourism, and the Volunteer House) and Campus Leahy (home to Agronomy, Elementary Ed, Pre-University, and the central administrative offices). The campuses, Manning at the “bottom” of the mountain and Leahy at the “top,” are connected by both a switchback road and a relatively steep footpath.

The UAC-CP provides rides to the upper campus every morning at 8 am and every afternoon after lunch at 1:45. But if I miss my ride or need to be on the upper campus early, I must rely on my trusty “all terrain” New Balances to bring me to my office.

Apart from the rainy days when I find myself poncho-less, I look forward to my commute home…on foot. I love the tranquility of walking home—sometimes accompanied by students or community members and sometimes accompanied by nothing more than my thoughts and the light of the stars and moon.

Whereas my commute home from work used to be something I would dread, it’s now one of the most relaxing* moments of my day.

*Assumes all barking and biting dogs are settled in for the night.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

the room with a view

When I arrived in Carmen Pampa at the beginning of August, la casa de los voluntarios was bursting with visitors, so I gladly accepted Sr. Jean's offer to let me live in el convento for a couple of quiet weeks. But now that things have settled down a bit (there are "only" nine of us), I've returned to the old hacienda house turned volunteer abode.

I'm back in my "old" bedroom at the top of the stairs. It's a great room--a big, built-in desk with shelves, a sufficient space to hang my clothes, and a pretty comfortable mattress. Probably the greatest perk, though, is the view. The entire wall of my bedroom is a series of windows that offer a panoramic view of the mountains by day and the southern cross by night.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

la visita a la escuelita

Bill and I hiked up to Campus Leahy early Monday morning to meet four UAC-CP elementary education students: Domitila, Erik, Walter, and Nenci. We accompanied them to the nearby village (6km) of San Pablo to observe them as student teachers in the classroom.

UAC-CP student Domitila Cruz poses with one of her second graders before class.

We lucked out, the foursome told us, as we hitched a ride to San Pablo in a passing minivan. Normally UAC-CP students, who travel to rural villages to work with the gente in various capacities, walk several hours there and back. Teachers aren't the only ones who walk long distances to get to school. I met a little fourth grade girl named Silvia who said she walks an hour every morning to arrive at school.

San Pablo student raises the Bolivian flag

Mondays in San Pablo begin at 8 am with the acto civico--complete with the singing of Bolivia's himno nacional, raising of the bandera, and a few presentations reminiscent of a talent show. After, students in grades kindergarten through high school march off to their respective classrooms.

Due to the relatively small size of the school and lack of teachers in rural areas, most of the classes combine grade levels. The first classroom we visited, for example, was for 5th and 6th graders. In a cramped room with a single bulb hanging from the middle of the ceiling, UAC-CP student Walter Paco gave a lesson on the difference between the "v" and the "b"--two letters in Spanish with identical sounds that cause lots of spelling problems.

A fifth grader listens to UAC-CP teacher Walter Paco

As we made our rounds visiting each UAC-CP students' classroom, I couldn't help but compare my experiences in U.S. classrooms to that of this school in San Pablo. The kids were like all other kids I've ever met--cute, rambunctious, and curious. And while the school itself lacked many of the things people in the U.S. consider basic necessities (like textbooks, for one), it was obvious that learning happens there. Teachers in rural areas of Bolivia make due with what little they have. Andres Pardo, director of the elementary education program at UAC-CP, told me yesterday that he has seen some schools in rural Bolivia without desks, chalkboards or pencils and yet people, called by their vocation to be teachers, are able to make learning happen.

When students were dismissed at 12:30, we packed up our things and started the uphill hike to the main road. Unfortunately, we didn't have much luck catching a ride back to the College, so we were hungry, tired, and covered in dust by the time we arrived at 2pm. Yet, somehow, we timed our arrival just right: a UAC-CP student had just arrived with a bag full of oranges fresh from his family's house and offered to take our picture!

Domi, Sarah, Bill, Nenci and Walter with a bag full of oranges. (Not pictured: Erik stayed in San Pablo)

Wednesday, September 3, 2008