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.