Saturday, December 19, 2009

'tis the season

For me, there are just certain things that signify that the Christmas season has arrived: snow and cold weather; Christmas trees, wreaths with giant red ribbons, and outdoor lights; Jingle Bells-infiltrated radio stations; Advent wreath-adorned tables; a live production of The Christmas Carol; gift wrapping; and, last but definitely not least, peppermint ice cream. But those things that traditionally symbolize Christmas for me in the U.S. are hard to come by here in rural (subtropical) Bolivia.

Which is why for the past couple weeks, despite the small tree in the main office, my co-worker who listens (and sings along) incessantly to the Christmasy song Belen, and the abundance of panetones (Latin America's version of the fruitcake), I have found it hard to believe that the Christmas season is upon us. When I sit in a t-shirt and shorts reading emails from Midwest-based friends and family about holiday parties, Christmas-themed theater, and Secret Santa exchanges, it doesn't compute. "It's like if you suddenly started celebrating Christmas in July," I wrote to a friend the other day.

Christmas tree at our all-staff luncheon on Campus Leahy.

But despite the heat and the lack of red and green M&Ms, I always end up getting into the spirit of Christmas...eventually. Considering that Christmas here really doesn't start to appear until a week before December 25th (as opposed to a week before Halloween in the U.S.), I just have to have more patience in knowing that the warm fuzzies of the holidays will arrive...on it's own, non-commercial timeline.

For me, the spirit struck me yesterday at our UAC-CP all-staff Christmas party. It came first at mass, during the sign of peace, as the near 60 people employed by the College in some administrative capacity, energetically moved around the chapel to share la paz--peace. It was through the lively and sincere exchanges of handshakes and hugs that I felt Christmas--the feeling of being among friends and family, mi familia Boliviana. And then it continued through the fraternal fellowship that followed as we all shared the typical Bolivian Christmas meal, picana. And just like that, in an average-esque afternoon, Christmas presented itself in sunshine-filled Carmen Pampa.

Eight-year-old Kristia Carrizales (daughter of UAC-CP graduate/employees) stands next to her family's little Christmas tree.

Honestly, I love Christmas in Carmen Pampa--it's always simple and pure. Which is why, even though I'm excited about my upcoming travels with friends, I'll miss celebrating Christmas Eve in our little village this year. I'll miss the the big church--packed with locals from the surrounding communities and their children, dressed in traditional outfits who come prepared to sing and dance. I'll miss passing out modest gifts to grateful, grinning kids. I'll miss baking bread and making hot chocolate with the UAC-CP students who stay to work over break. I'll miss sitting around and talking with the people from neighboring communities. And I'll miss the peace and quiet of Carmen Pampa the following day. That whole evening--that, for me, is Christmas.

May the spirit of Christmas, whatever it means and however it feels to you, find you wherever you are.

Feliz Navidad y Prospero Año Nuevo...desde Bolivia

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Last week Daniel Condori completed his third year of studies in the College's Agronomy Program--it was probably the most difficult year of his life. But the difficulties had nothing to do with homework or tests.

Last April Daniel's father Manuel, a construction worker in nearby Coroico, was severely injured in a work-related fall. Although we originally received word that he had died, Manuel unbelievably survived the accident and now, nearly nine months later, he is living at at home where he is confined to a bed--unable to walk and talk.

Daniel Condori with his mother outside their home in Coroico. Daniel's mother earns about $30 US a week for harvesting coca.

The accident has caused a dramatic change within their family unit. It's taken a toll on Daniel, the oldest, who feels torn between his responsibility to take care of his family and continue with his studies at the College. Understandably it's been incredibly stressful for him. A few months ago he came to my office to talk about how juggling school, work, and family was leaving him physically and emotionally exhausted.

But somehow, Daniel made it. Determination and hard work, mostly. "I've worked a lot of construction jobs," he said. This way, he's earned enough income to pay for studies, food, and family. Unfortunately, all the work has left him with no time to complete the hundreds of practical internship hours required for his area of study. "I've had to make difficult choices," he told me, "and unfortunately my studies suffered because of it. But what other option do I have?"

Daniel pictured with his dad in his family's living room/bedroom. (Photo credit Cross International)

Even with his job and his mother's earnings, the family is unable to afford the 30 Bs a day ($4 US) for regular hospital attention for his father. "Imagine! That would cost us 900 Bs ($130 US) a month!" he said, appalled at such an outrageous cost. So Daniel and his mother, with the help of two other siblings, have developed their own physical therapy routine. Daniel also credits the local priest who comes every Sunday to celebrate a mass in their home and help bring his dad to the hospital for doctor visits.

Shamefully, I have to admit, I've only gone to visit the family once--in early October. It was a very sad situation. His father, laying in bed, groaned and moaned as he seemingly tried to explain to me what happened in the accident. Though impossible, Daniel seemed to be able to communicate with his father in some way.

These days, Daniel is feeling optimistic. He reports that his father can respond with "Sí" or "No" and, with help, he can stand up. It's painfully slow progress, but it's nonetheless encouraging. In fact, Daniel smiles and laughs when he talks about his dad's simple, yet seemingly miraculous abilities.

And then laughter quickly turns to eyes welling up with tears as he tells me, "I love my dad and I give thanks to him for everything he's given me throughout my life. I just want him to get better; I can't stand watching him suffer."

Daniel is the oldest of three siblings. His youngest brother (left) is in high school. His other brother (right) just finished his obligatory year of military service and wants to study in the UAC-CP.

In the end, Daniel knows that he can't let his situation get him down. And I know he recognizes that in some bizarre way this experience will make him stronger--I know this because that's what he tells me.

Daniel is definitely ready for the two-month summer vacation. He plans to spend some of that time in La Paz with his father looking for someone who can help them with physical therapy support. "So I'll see you at the end of January for class registration," I confirm as we say goodbye in the traditional Bolivian way with a handshake and kiss on the cheek. "Yeah," he responded unconvincingly.

But because Daniel made it through this past year, I am pretty optimistic he'll be back next semester. That's what his dad would want.

Friday, December 11, 2009

nursing grad in the new york times

A few months ago The New York Times asked readers to submit photos that they believe show the importance of educating girls and empowering women. They published the photo I submitted of UAC-CP Nursing graduate Genoveva Orosco--a photo that I feel captures the confidence and the pride and the social and economic change that happens--often in just one generation--when people have access to education.

The photo published online in the New York Times Magazine shows Genoveva, in her nursing uniform, standing with her very stoic and traditional campesino parents on graduation day in Carmen Pampa, August 2008.

Genoveva, like many of her UAC-CP counterparts, could easily be one of the women featured in the now widely read and Oprah-touted "Half the Sky"--a book by NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn that makes the argument for how women in the developing world have the capacity to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.

One of six children, Genoveva is not an ordinary college graduate. She is the daughter of extremely poor potato farmers who barely finished grade school. She is a young woman who first came to study in Carmen Pampa in 2003--traveling alone, up to 12 hours away. She is a proud, indigenous person who, with little to no financial help from her parents, carved out a future by working weekends and summers* in order to pay for part of her studies (she also had a partial scholarship). She is the first of everyone in her family to graduate from college and work as a professional.

Genoveva on a recent visit to Carmen Pampa.

Genoveva is also a young woman who exemplifies the mission of our work here at the College. Today, one year after graduation, she lives in her home community of Sapanani (a town located about 20 miles from the Bolivian city of Cochabamba) where she works as the coordinator of a public health center. While the health center is part of a larger network of clinics funded by Fundación San Lucas, at her site she manages three other people. Her job, she told me, not only helps her to support her family, but she feels good about providing medical consultations for the people of her community.

Even though she isn't mentioned in Kristof's book, Genoveva goes down in my book as a testament to the power of education to transform lives. And because she now has a college degree, Genoveva has choices she never would have had otherwise...which means the sky--whether or not she holds it up--is the limit.

*For those of you who have been to the Volunteer House in Carmen Pampa, Genoveva helped paint most of it during summer vacation 2005.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

evo time

A couple weeks ago in Coroico I made an impulse buy. I wasn't at all in the market for a new watch, but when a Bolivian friend half jokingly suggested that I purchase the Evo Morales-themed time keeper, I couldn't resist. Despite the relatively steep $5.80 asking price, I couldn't fight the strong urge to augment my political kitsch collection.

Tiempo Boliviano: half past Evo Cumple. (Not a super clear photo, I know...but you get the idea)

So that's how it came to be that I'm now the proud owner of a black plastic watch that pays homage to Bolivian president Evo Morales. It features Evo (who I swear is winking at me) and the phrases: "Bolivia Change" and "Evo Cumple." As if the face of the watch wasn't crowded enough, it also displays the word: "Yangkey," which I thought was a misspelled attack on yankees/gringos, but it's apparently just the brand name of the watch...which, incidentally, was made in China.

The timing of my purchase (pun intended) is a bit coincidental. Tomorrow is December 6th--election day here in Bolivia. It's been four years since Evo was elected as the first indigenous president of Bolivia and tomorrow voters will return to the polls and, assuming all goes as my lunch crowd tells me is expected, Evo will earn himself another term as the jefe máximo of Bolivia.

Ricardo Ramos won the first-ever (Sarah Mechtenberg-sponsored) "Evo Lookalike Contest" at the College this past year. Online voters agreed it was his thick crop of hair that garnered him first place: an Evo-lución t-shirt.

Though I'll refrain from making any personal political commentary, I will say that Evo's political party, MAS, has been out in full force for the past couple weeks. But here in La Paz (due to travel restrictions,* I had to come to La Paz yesterday in order to pick up visitors on Monday morning), all is tranquilo. Now that the campaigning is officially over, the pre-election energy that I felt last weekend in La Paz (marchers, press conference with Vice Presidentis Alvaro Garcia, media frenzy, etc) seems to have evaporated. For today, only graffiti remains.

Tomorrow, I've been told, most everything will be shut down here in Bolivia's capital city. Without transportation, everyone will be pretty much contained to their homes and neighborhoods--the only place they need to get to are the polls. So, apart from accompanying a native friend on a field trip to experience Bolivia's democratic system, I'll probably meander around La Paz on foot--with Evo, of course, strapped to my wrist...winking at me.

*Voting in Bolivia is obligatory. Also, national law requires that there is no purchase/sale/consumption of alcohol 48 hours prior to election day. It also prohibits travel on the day of the election (except in rural areas such as Carmen Pampa where they travel to neighboring towns like Coroico).

Thursday, December 3, 2009

learning to breathe again

It could be interpreted many different ways. But UAC-CP Nursing graduate Agustin Apaza chooses to see how his life has been filled with fresh starts and new opportunities. His brilliant smile and bubbly persona are the result of having a positive outlook on life, he told me when I sincerely questioned how he never seems to let difficulties get him down. "Imagine if I'd lived my whole life feeling sorry for myself," he posed. "Do you think I would have ever been able to achieve anything? No!"

An orphan who was found abandoned in a plaza in La Paz as a baby, Agustin grew up in a system of public and private orphanages--always longing for the mom he never knew, often feeling alone and forgotten and discriminated against. And then, as a child, he was diagnosed with a life-threatening heart defect. He spent more than 10 years in and out of hospitals before a Rotary Club in La Paz (#4690) made it possible for him to travel to the U.S. for surgery.

Going into the surgery, Agustin (15-years-old at the time) knew that if it wasn't successful "they wouldn't be able to do anything more to save me." Death was at the door, but Agustin emerged anew. "It felt...kind of weird...because basically, I was reborn," he explained. "I had to learn to walk all over again. Because I had no strength in the beginning, I even had to learn how to breathe again."

In some ways, Agustin said, it was the same for when he arrived to study here in Carmen Pampa. Released into the world as a young man without any type of resources and unable to afford the cost of college anywhere else, he came to the UAC-CP on a scholarship. And it took some adjusting to get used to living life in the countryside, but it was at the UAC-CP where he was once again given a new chance at life.

Having grown up in hospitals, the College's Nursing program was the last thing he wanted to be a part of. "I was treated so poorly by nurses for most of my life," he explained. "I told myself, 'I am never going to study nursing. One, because it's just a dirty job and also because the medical staff were so mean. Plus, I knew the cost of studying would be too expensive." But through a series of events that he believes are more than mere coincidences, he ended up studying Nursing. "Now look!" he smiled, noting the irony. "The thing I wanted least of all for my life, that's what God chose for me!"

"Nursing is about service; it's to help the people that need--that's how it helped save me. And God changed me so that I could go on helping others. I was a very, very sick person for most of my life..and in a bizarre way, I believe that is what saved me." His illness, he said, is what has made him a more dedicated professional--he understands that it also has a very emotional and human aspect.

At the same time, he feels that the UAC-CP has technically prepared him for his professional work, too. "The principle thing for our Nursing Department at the College is the promotion of health and prevention of disease in the rural area--that's why we have the major here. We are all prepared to work in the rural area, we have the experience," he said. "Each semester we leave and do practices in hospitals and clinics throughout the Department. And what we see and experience is that we have the power to give back and make change and spark development in the rural area."

"I think each of us in life has a mission," Agustin told me after I asked him to talk about his understanding of the College's mission. "And this is my mission--to reduce the pain and suffering for people." Which, he admits, is easier said than done. "For me, working in the rural area is the saddest part. Partly because we see people who have been forgotten by our government, people not well taken care of, people who don't have basic services, and people that are very far from health services."

"Truthfully," Agustin said, "it's painful because you see people in need and you feel helpless because you don't have the necessary supplies to improve the situation. How beautiful it would be to have equipment and medicines and such to be able to attend to their needs. But considering the reality, you know the person is sick and often you can't do anything."

"Public health is very sad," Agustin said after recalling a couple particular incidences of visiting the homes of poor, farming families. "But it also gives you much joy. Sometimes you make a house visit and attend to a patient and feel like you've really made a difference--you do it, you cure them. And then days or weeks after that, the family will come to the hospital or clinic and say, "Thank you." It's the best gift for those of us who work in public health--it's not, 'Here, take my chicken,' or 'Here, I brought you fruit.' No. Not for me. For me, it's that they say, 'Gracias,' and smile and that's sufficient. With a smile and a thank you, you feel so satisfied. It always makes me happy because I know I did my job and I completed my personal mission."

When I reminded Agustin that he also completed his mission of graduating from college, he flashed me his giant trademark smile. "I can't believe it. I can't believe it!" he said, shaking his head in disbelief. "I am so happy to have finished. And so, so proud that I finished at the Unidad Académica Campesina-Carmen Pampa. So proud."

"That is what I hope for--for people to always take the spirit of the UAC-Carmen Pampa with them in the work they do, to be proud of who we are and what we accomplish for the poor and marginalized. ...Wherever I go in this world, I am always going to say that I am from Carmen Pampa. Always. Always."

Agustin officially graduated from the UAC-CP in September. He is currently employed by Medicus Mundi and works on a Chagas disease project in the rural area around Tupiza, Bolivia.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


I am quite aware of the expectation that I'm not supposed to have favorites. But since she's the only girl her age that I know in the town of Caranavi, I think it's safe for me to proclaim that Paola Calle Ticona is my favorite 8-year-old friend in the sweltering river town located three hours from Carmen Pampa.

Paola Calle Ticona.

Paola is the oldest daughter of Tito Calle and Flor Ticona--who also happen to be the first UAC-CP students I met when I first arrived to Carmen Pampa in December 2003. [You don't forget those kind of things--the people who first showed me kindness.] Six years ago, Tito and Flor were young parents, financially strapped and struggling to make their way through school. Paola was their first and only child at the time--a gorgeous, polite little girl who everyone on campus knew and loved and, in some ways, helped raise.

Today, Paola is a bubbly second grader at a private school in Caranavi. She's a brilliant little one (I offer unbiased proof: she carries the flag in all school events, which means she has the highest grade in her class). Her favorite subject is math and she wants to be a mathematician when she grows up. She spends her free time doing extra-curricular activities, playing Barbies, reading books, coloring, and helping to care for her three younger siblings.

A year ago, Paola learned to play chess at an after-school program. A skilled player, she now helps her teacher coach other students at her school.

I marvel at Paola's life as it is an almost unbelievable leap from that of her parents'--her mother, especially. Flor, the youngest of nine children, comes from a remote Quechuan community located in the rural area outside the town of Apolo--more than 24 hours from Carmen Pampa by public bus. Faced with no other educational opportunities, Flor came to Carmen Pampa at the age of 15 to study at the boarding high school. "I earned 70 Bolivianos ($10 US) a month," she told me, to help cover costs. "And I rarely afforded to go home, so I would normally stay and work over summer and winter break."

On a scholarship, Flor continued her studies in Agronomy at the UAC-CP where she met Tito, had Paola, married, and now lives with her family (they have four children) in Caranavi, where Tito is the regional manager of ANED (a micro-finance company). While Tito graduated from the College, Flor is still one class and a thesis defense-away from officially being counted among the titulados. She wants to finish and has people willing to make that happen, but it's more difficult with children, she told me. Truthfully, she dreams of returning to Carmen Pampa and I dream of helping her do it.

Flor and Tito with their children: Alex, Alda, Alan, and Paola outside their home in Caranavi.

In any case, Flor has experienced the transformative power of education...and it shows, especially as I see it trickle down to her kids. Though her poor, Quechuan roots are evident in her reserved, stoic personality, when Flor speaks of her children she exudes confidence and tenacity. "My girls," she said, motioning to Paola and 3-year-old Alda, "they are going to go farther than I could have ever imagined for myself."

Paola is one of very few children living in rural Bolivia who can claim that both of her parents are college educated. In Paola (and the other children of UAC-CP students), I see the power of education as it gives them opportunities that their parents only dreamed of and their grandparents never imagined possible. "When you think," Flor told me, "that my parents can't speak Spanish--they can't read or write in any language--and then I went to college. Now I look at Paola and all the opportunities she has that I never had because my family was so poor..." Flor stopped talking and looked over at her daughter quietly reading a book. Neither of us said anything. If you don't believe education can lift people out of poverty, I thought to myself, try telling that to Flor Ticona.


Hands down, Paolita is one of my favorites. And, I admit, it makes my heart happy to know that I think she classifies me, in some way, as her favorite, too. "Is that your aunt?" I heard one of her little friends whisper to her in Spanish as we sat watching Tito play soccer on a Sunday afternoon in Caranavi a couple weeks ago. "La Sarita?" Paola responded in a confused sort of tone. Then she looked up at me and smiled. "No, she's my good friend!" she if every 8-year-old in rural Bolivian towns have 32-year-old gringa friends. "No ve, Sarita?" she asked, as if to confirm that the feeling was mutual. "Sí, Paolita." I told her. "We are good friends."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

last minute pardon

Though the pilgrims never made it to Carmen Pampa, the gringos did...and with us, we brought our Thanksgiving tradition.

This past Sunday, a group of about 20 people representing at least six different countries, came together to share in the feast of Thanksgiving. On the patio outside the Volunteer House, we delighted in the culinary wonders that annually make appearances on U.S. dinner tables the fourth Thursday of November.

Our fearless leaders: Hugh, Fr. Freddy, and Tom.

It was a team effort with a plan mapped out on the dry erase board in the Volunteer House. Mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, canned cranberry sauce*, fresh baked bread, stuffing, beet salad, deviled eggs, and a variety of pies (pumpkin, apple, and mango).

Of course, it wouldn't be Thanksgiving without the quintessential bird. Or, in this case, the birds. Though we had hoped to prepare one of the two free-range turkeys we've watched grow up over the past couple months in the coffee plant area, when I stopped by to strike a deal with the turkeys' owners last Friday, we agreed that the birds still had a couple months to go before they'd be ready to eat. So, we had to settle for chicken--four of them.

In the end, Tom the Turkey actually did make an appearance at the special afternoon meal, but not in the traditional way. As we gobbled up chicken with all the fixings, Tom strutted around the yard relishing in his last minute pardon.

*Special Thanksgiving Shout Out to Kimberly Lane for sending down the cranberry sauce! If you couldn't get on the AA flight, we're at least happy that the cranberry sauce did!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

head of the class

Last week I attended a couple days of workshops in Coroico. Presented by the Inter-American Institute for the Collaboration of Agriculture, those of us in attendance were employees of the UAC-CP and CARITAS Coroico--a Catholic, social service agency whose extension projects nicely compliment the five academic areas at the College.

Graduates Richard Agramont, Paola Surco, and Victor Hugo Flor work in social service extension projects for CARITAS Coroico. Miguel Manuel Manrique manages the College's entomology lab. They were a few of the UAC-CP alumni present at a recent workshop in Coroico.

As my eyes wandered a bit during the presentation, I found myself counting the number of UAC-CP graduates who were in attendance. Fifteen. Out of approximately fifty attendees, 15 were graduates of the College. Many of them, in fact, were students I had in class back in the day--an ironic twist that didn't escape me as I would occasionally awaken from day dreaming to find a couple of them sitting next to me taking copious notes.

The same students whose homework I used to grade, whose food cooperative fees I used to collect, whose futsol games I used to cheer on...are now my colleagues. Now, I thought in the moments when my mind wandered away from the theme of project development, we are working with them to create change, instead of for them. It definitely left me with something to think about during two long days of workshops.

For those of you on Facebook, check out Carmen Pampa Fund's page with recently updated photos of UAC-CP graduates.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

true confessions of an unhappy camper

This past Saturday morning, a few hours before I set off on a long-weekend camping trip with 75 Pre-University students and a few UAC-CP staff, I stood outside in my pajama pants whining to Hugh. "I just know that I'm going to regret singing up for this whole camping thing by the time I wake up tomorrow morning," I told him.

In fact, I was wrong. I didn't regret it the next morning; I regretted it much sooner--about twenty minutes after leaving Carmen Pampa I had become one unhappy camper. One of 75+ people packed, standing up under the midday sun in the back of a giant camion, I was contemplating ways I could politely excuse myself from the commitment I had made to my co-worker and camping trip coordinator, Carlos Fernandez. By the time we finally arrived to Coroico, I had a text message from an all-knowing Hugh: "Having fun yet?" Absolutely not, I thought.

Me climbing into the camion where we waited about 20 minutes before actually leaving.

Even though my name means "princess" in Hebrew, I generally like to think that I'm not a high maintenance person. Gringo friends who have visited me here in Bolivia would agree--my definition of "roughing it" is often a bit more liberal. But this past weekend, despite slightly more than three years of life in Bolivia, I received a zap of culture shock.

Part of the reason I was annoyed was that I felt the entire outing was very unorganized. "I don't know any of the details," I told Hugh, before he graciously took time out of his busy morning to drive me and my supplies to the upper campus. I've worked in non-profit programming and education long enough that I come to expect certain pre-activity requisites: schedules, objectives, goals, and...details! "Nobody has told me what the plan is!" I said. "And does this really surprise you?" Hugh asked. He had a point there. No. It didn't surprise me. ...but, still, it annoyed me!

Without tents/sufficient camping equipment for everyone, some students had to build their own tents of plastic and tree branches.

I had also been fooled by the word "camping." When I think of camping, I call to mind words like: quiet, relaxation, solitude, mother nature, hiking, reading, s'mores, etc. Bolivians, I quickly learned (particularly in groups of 80), have a different idea of camping. What I had assumed would be a weekend of reflection, reading, and nature hikes turned into a pseudo Survivor-esque reality show of student groups competing to build the most exquisite of campsites that would have done Gilligan, Mary Ann, and the Skipper proud.

Within a couple hours of our arrival to the campsite, students (split into seven teams) transformed a flat, grassy knoll into a type of Gypsy-looking camp. "These are true campo kids," Fr. Freddy said proudly as we watched students, in ant-like fashion, scramble to build tables and camp stoves out of rock and lash branches together to make tents and clothes lines. It's true--our students from the rural area are amazingly innovative, creative, and adaptable.

Students in "my" group built a traditional underground oven to cook Sunday's lunch: chicken, yuca, potatoes, and plantains.

Of course the low-impact camper in me was concerned with other things, though. What about the bathroom situation? What are we doing with the organic and inorganic waste? Should we really be digging up all this earth? Why are you moving all these rocks around? Can't we make just one fire pit instead of seven? My inquiries were received with looks of confusion; I was left feeling like the queen of prissiness.

My bad attitude was called out by my good friend and UAC-CP graduate turned UAC-CP staff member Carlos Vergara. "Sarita, why are you looking like that?" he asked in his impeccable English, as I sat along the river (apparently scowling) as I watched students frolic in the swift current (I wasn't keen on entering--I had seen too many pieces of garbage float by). Carlos, who is my ever-so-trusty cultural beacon, had no sympathy for my displeasure. "Sarita, this is what we do for camping. You have another idea of relax, but that is not what my people do. This is what we love!"

Group of students eats breakfast--hot chocolate and a piece of bread--before starting the day.

Carlos had a point. The students loved it--that I could not argue. Despite the fact that I was the only one whose tent survived the rain and wind storm on Saturday night, all the students were loving the experience. Working together, they took turns hunting for firewood, cooking, and washing dishes. Free time was spent playing games, swimming, and preparing for Sunday evening's talent show. "I wish we could stay another night," Olga, a beautiful and timid young woman from Potosi, told me over breakfast. "Don't you want to stay?" she asked me. I didn't have the heart to tell her.

Truthfully, I wanted nothing more than to go home. The 50 percent of me that Myers Briggs has identified as introverted, needed to be set free from the big group. Which is why this morning (day three) as I started to watch the clouds roll in and feel the rain begin to fall, I decided to start packing up my things. And then, by some grand miracle, my phone rang. It was Sr. Jean and UAC-CP driver Javier Tintaya coming back with visitors from La Paz. They would be passing by Pacallo--would I like a ride back to Carmen Pampa they asked. Yes!

Within twenty minutes of that phone call, I was seated in the front seat of the SUV telling the backseat gringo contingent all about my weekend (making it clear that my dissatisfaction was an exception to the rule and acknowledging my straight up bad attitude). Sr. Jean, perhaps used to my more positive spin on things, laughed. "I can't wait to see how you blog about this one!" she said.

Alas! The true confessions of an unhappy camper...very happy to be back in Carmen Pampa.

Friday, November 6, 2009

chasquis vs. fiber optic cables

More than 500 years ago, the success of the Inca Empire's intricate communication system relied upon chasquis--messengers who delivered important news or transported special objects between distant locations. Typically, chasquis were exceptionally strong men between the ages of 18 - 25-years-old who ran for miles, often in high altitude and poor weather conditions, to complete their assigned tasks. They were, in essence, the information super highway of the Incan era.

I couldn't help but think of the chasquis the other day as I watched a team of IT specialists from La Paz working to install fiber optic cables to connect the UAC-CP's upper and lower campuses. Once complete, the College will have an internal telephone system and better Internet connection--a modern-day information super highway right here in Carmen Pampa.

With no cell phone signal in Carmen Pampa, my "pink brick" serves only as an alarm clock. It's convenient for when I'm in Coroico or La Paz, however, as it has phone and texting capabilities.

Although chasquis in the traditional sense are no longer used, communication in rural Bolivia mostly still relies on the same general concept--if you want to send a message or a package, you send it with a person. Even here in Carmen Pampa where our Internet and phone access are an exception to the rural Bolivian rule, we are constantly relying on one another to deliver things via chasquis. "Are you going to the other campus?" we frequently ask one another. "Will you tell [insert name] that [insert message]?"

Although cell phones are quickly making their way into the lives of rural Bolivians (they are relatively inexpensive to buy and maintain), cell phone signals have yet to arrive in most tucked away areas (Carmen Pampa, for example). Of course, for the younger generation there is e-mail and the Internet has made an appearance in some major rural towns (it's become a great way for us to maintain contact with UAC-CP graduates), but unlike in the U.S., people here are unable to check e-mail with relative frequency making it an unreliable way to send urgent information.

The word-o-mouth method is better than nothing--even though it's unarguably very slow and unreliable. It's painful, too. Last June one of our students from a very poor village about 15 hours away from the UAC-CP was unaware that his father had died until a classmate from the same hometown arrived to Carmen Pampa with the news. Sitting in my office with a hand over his face to cover his tears, Francisco said he couldn't believe he had missed his father's funeral. His family had no way to contact him. His story is unfortunately not unique.

As part of his required community work hours, UAC-CP student Rinel Apaza helps to install new wiring on Campus Leahy.

Chasquis and fiber optic cables; pututus and wireless internet. These juxtapositions show how rural Bolivia finds itself at a tremendous communication crossroads. It's an intersection that is gradually bringing modern technology (cell phones, Internet, etc.), in contact with old communication methods still used today (as I write this, I can literally hear the call of the pututu announcing a community meeting for the locals).

Though it seems a long time coming, looking back it's really incredible to consider just how fast our communication abilities at the College have evolved. When I arrived here for the first time six years ago the Internet was essentially non-exist and and our lone office phone on Campus Leahy provided spotty, expensive service. Generally, to communicate with the outside world it was at least a 45 minute trip to Coroico (wait time not included) to use painfully slow and relatively costly Internet (according to my watch, it took about four minutes just to open a single e-mail).

Today, I have wireless Internet in my bedroom! The other night, in fact, with the help of Skype (an online software program with phone and texting capabilities) I dialed up a taxi driver from Coroico to ask that he send a car to pick up visitors from the UAC-CP. After I hung up, I was ecstatic--a task that once might have taken me a good chunk of time, energy, and money to arrange, took me no longer than two minutes and about 30 cents. Even the most robust chasqui couldn't compete with that!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

javier alvarez: a positive outcome

John Estrem, Executive Director of Carmen Pampa Fund, reminded me recently that the success of the UAC-CP shouldn't be measured so much by the outputs (e.g. number of graduates), but by the outcomes--the work of our graduates, for example, and their response to the mission of the College. Of course, with numerous graduates and thesis students spread throughout Bolivia, it's difficult to effectively capture and measure outcomes; it's a tedious task that often requires the sharing of unique and individual stories.

Javier Alvarez, a 2007 UAC-CP Agronomy graduate, is one of many of those stories.

Javier Alvarez in his office in La Asunta in July 2009.

Since April 2007, the 38-year-old Charazani native has worked for ACDI/VOCA--a branch of USAID that supports rural development. Javier is stationed in La Asunta, South Yungas, where ACDI/VOCA is focused on two projects: 1. The implementation of social projects (potable water, bridge and school construction, etc.); and 2. The implementation of productive projects (farmer associations for crops and livestock).

Of the four projects that ACDI/VOCA is currently focused on--plantains, coffee, stevia, and apiculture (bee keeping), Javier is in charge of the latter. The organization's concentration on these four crops was determined after doing a technical study last year that identified the needs and capabilities of local farmers, Javier told me.

"What we do is this," Javier exlained. "we work directly with farming communities in the South Yungas." The process begins with beekeeper training that Javier provides to farmers in rural communities twice a month for 3 or 4 months. "We do the training in the most practical way that we can by coming to farmers in the countryside. As they are older people, and they learn by doing, we concentrate on the practical part more than the theoretical." The workshops also bring farmers on field trips, of sorts, so that they can meet with other beekeepers. "In this way, they learn farmer to farmer--they learn better..they can speak in their own language. And they can learn first-hand whether its worth it, the difficulties, the success, etc."

Javier's ACDI/VOCA project has contracted with FUNDACOM (a honey business owned and operated by UAC-CP graduates in Coroico) to build bee boxes for their training program.

After the basic training program, farmers form associations made up of people who are fully dedicated to the project. "The training allows us to see who has real abilities to implement the program. Some people like it, others don' this is how we do the workshops in each community."

"Interested families can receive up to five bee colonies," Javier said. Seeing the look on my face, he anticipated my question before I had the chance to ask. "Why five? Because we did an analysis of the flowers in the sector. We could give each family 10 - 20 colonies, but the bees depend on the flowers for their alimentation..and we decided that the five colonies can be divided in their lots. Fifty columns for one sector is a lot, so we have determined that five is a sustainable number."

When I talked to him in July, Javier was working with six communities (about 90 families, he estimated). "Once the farmers have their product, the idea is that they will be able to work with ARCo (another USAID branch) that has more strength in commercialization. Whether it is ARCo or us, we will help them guarantee a market so that, in the end, they increase their family's income." Javier said the work is a way to help foster economic and social justice for Bolivia's rural poor.

Once he had finished explaining his work, I asked Javier how he interprets the mission of the UAC-CP. He explained that the mission of the College has a lot to do with human formation. "We learn how to transmit our knowledge to the people in the countryside so that they can also develop in the same type of way. More than anything, we are trained to help contribute to rural development. In my case, those of us with this project [UAC-CP at ACDI/VOCA] are working to help farmers implement successful production so that they can improve their income."

"I believe that I am realizing the mission [of the UAC-CP]," Javier told me, pointing to ways in which the College infused him with values of responsibility, honesty, and respect. "These are the values that we need to spread throughout the communities we reach. It is our duty as graduates of the Colege to help community leaders learn these values so that justice exists for people. And by people," Javier continued, "I include women, too, because in the countryside there does exist a problem with the marginalization of women. They are valued very little and that's not good. So, more than anything, our work is to insert the human values we've learned into rural communities. That, for me, is most important."

"Thanks to God, things are going well for me in my work," said the married father of two. "I've earned my place in this world...and I feel good because I think I'm supporting people that really need."

Sunday, November 1, 2009

bread babies

As my country folk spend the day recovering from their Halloween sugar highs, those of us in Bolivia are gearing up for Todos Santos.

Todos Santos (All Saints) is a multi-day, government-recognized holiday that, melding indigenous and Catholic beliefs, celebrates the lives and pays tribute to the memories of deceased family and friends. Essentially, it's Memorial Day--with a twist.

Todos Santos is characterized most commonly by t'antawawas (a word in the indigenous Aymara that means "bread babies"). Ceramic faces representing people and animals are sold so that people can bake them onto the bread. They are left on altars prepared for the spirits' return and they are handed out to visitors who come to pray for the deceased.

As is custom, people prepare altars in their homes to remember those who have died--particularly family members who have died within the past year--and to welcome the spirits for visits. The kitchen tables-turned-altars are covered in a collage of things: momentos that represent the deceased (pictures, keepsakes, etc.) as well as candles, bread, fruit, chicha, and sweets. Neighbors and friends visit the homes and pray before the altars offering up their wish for the deceased to safely find their way to the afterlife. In each home they usually prepare and eat the favorite meal of the person(s) they are remembering.

The altar prepared in the Volunteer House last year for Todos Santos. The ladder is a common symbol (often in bread form) that represents a way for the spirits to "climb up" into the afterlife.

Tomorrow people can be found visiting the local cemeteries where they will gather around the eternal resting places of their loved ones. As a community, they will gather together to eat, drink, chew coca, and listen to music. Like other visitors, I am more than welcome to join them. As I did last year, tomorrow I plan to make my way around the cemetery with a big bag in hand to accept the gifts of t'antawawas, popped corn/rice/wheat, and candies that they give in return for praying with them.

It's a lovely tradition and one of my favorite Bolivian celebrations.

For more information, try a google search for "Todos Santos" or, for those of you who read Spanish (or for those of you who don't, but want to see some pictures), click here to read an interesting, more in depth description.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

all hands on deck

There are definitely some disadvantages to living smack dab in the middle of the place where I work. But living in a small community peppered with talented young people has its advantages, too. And I make full use of that convenience!

Like a couple months ago when a volunteer's going away party happened to land on my night to cook. While I can usually hold my own in the kitchen, this particular evening I was desperate for help. The guest of honor had requested her favorite Bolivian meal: chicharron de pollo with fried yuca. Apart from tracking down the chickens and the yuca, I had no idea how to begin preparing the meal for our near twenty guests.

Nursing students Gimena Cadena and Jose Luis Gomez prepare chicken for dinner at the Volunteer House. As I am unskilled at preparing Bolivian cuisine, they were my dinner party lifesavers!

With two hours before show time, I walked out to the Campus Manning courtyard (i.e. my backyard) and easily persuaded two first-year Nursing students to help. While I provided the entertainment (music and intermittent dancing), Gimena Cadena and Jose Luis Gomez put on aprons and set to work. And within no time a delightful dinner was being shared among a table full of hungry guests. Potential dinner party disaster diverted!

Jose Luis and Gimena saved me that night--as many of our students save me in last-minute emergencies or tight pinches. Here, it's handy to have a plethora of people to ask for help--many of whom have unique talents.

Ecotourism students Damian (pictured) and Ruly Antonio stepped up to the plate at the last minute and accompanied my visiting friend Kelly Abraham and me on the Ecovia Trek. Their fire-starting skills were rewarded with S'mores!

The electric shower in the Volunteer House isn't working? We call on Beto, a sixth semester Ecotourism student. He's a trained electrician and can, within minutes, ingeniously solve any type of electrical problem. Need a chair or an end table fixed? Talk to Eddy who works in the UAC-CP's carpentry shop on the upper campus. He'll drill a hole, put in a bolt, and even load the repaired item back into the truck. Foot infection or stomachache? Go see UAC-CP Nursing graduate Sr. Carmen who lives next door. The contents of her first-aid kit, combined with her sweet bedside care, will heal sickness and infection.

UAC-CP students represent a hodgepodge of abilities that range from sewing and painting to mouse trap setting and bat chasing. I rely on students to help carry luggage and groceries, unclog sinks, and fix broken locks.

Of course there are generally no financial transactions for these services. But I usually try to find some way to thank students or compensate them for sharing their time and talent. Often, their "payment" somehow aligns with the context of their good deed. Like, Gimena and Jose Luis stayed and had dinner with us on the night they cooked and Beto always takes a hot shower in our house once the electrical situation is under control (a nice change from cold showers in the dorms).

There are definitely days when I long to be a little less in the middle of it all, but I also recognize the advantage of being surrounded by so many talented and able-bodied young people who can come to the rescue when I need it most. Without their help, my dinner parties (and my work) would be less flavorful.

Friday, October 16, 2009

sleepless night

Despite a deep sleep last night and a strong cup of UAC-CP coffee this morning, I'm still feeling the effects of my overnight stay in the women's Pre-University dorm on Wednesday.

Erika Sarmiento is an Agronomy student who serves as a resident assistant in the women's Pre-University dorm. Above, she's pictured with two Pre-University students, Martha and Lidia.

According to my calculations, it's been about 15 years since I first came to know the life of all-nighters, meal plans, and roommates. And truthfully, I can't say that I miss dorm living. But I can say that I do have really fond memories of it--living in close community with some of my dearest friends during a really exciting time in my life.

Here at the UAC-CP, the dorms are a stark contrast to the now seemingly luxurious facilities I had as a college student. In fact, here our students live in dorms that exemplify "close quarters." In the Pre-University dorm, for example, 38 women share one giant room packed with 20 bunk beds (an overflow of 15 additional female students live in old offices that were transformed to dorm space to meet the growing demand). Each student has a "caja" (a box) and a shelf next to her bed for personal belongings. A bathroom with five toilets, five cold water showers, and a sink for both hand washing and laundry serves as their communal facilities.

But while the amenities and comforts at the UAC-CP are lacking, it was neat for me to see on Wednesday night how our students are having an experience very similar to the one I remember and cherish--close friendships and good fun. As I walked around visiting different bunks throughout the evening, I found young women were working on homework, listening to music, talking, and laughing/giggling.

Many Pre-University students arrived at the UAC-CP last February as strangers and now consider each other best friends.

The women insist that the close quarters and limited facilities don't bother them. In fact, they claimed, they like living together as one giant group. "One of the great things is that we get to know each other so well," one student explained. "The beauty of this College is that we live together* and that gives us the opportunity to share in each other's lives--our joys, fears, sadness, and success! This experience is just as much a part of our academic and human formation as our classes are."

Some students admitted that it is difficult living with so many people in the room--especially when it comes time to sleep (this, I was soon to discover for myself). While some people (me, for instance) like to go to bed around 11 pm or earlier, others stay up with the overhead lights turned on. And others like to lay in bed and chat with their "neighbor."

Between the lights, the chatting, the giggling, and the paper thin mattress, I'll admit: I didn't sleep too well on Wednesday night. But I tried to make the best of the situation as I laid on the bottom bunk under my sleeping bag listening to conversations and laughter and remembering a long-lost, but beloved time when dorm life was my reality--when sleepless nights were the norm.

*The UAC-CP is very unique in that it provides housing and a food program. Most all universities/colleges in Bolivia do not provide opportunities for room and board which is part of why costs at other institutions of higher learning are prohibitive for many students from the rural area.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

creating change...poco a poco

Remote. Isolated. Far. Uphill.

Those are the words that kept running through my head yesterday as I made my way to Villa Copacabana--a community of about 40 families perched high in a tucked away corner of the Nor Yungas mountains that is accessible only on foot.

I was part of a four-person contingent that set out from Coroico at 6am. The purpose of our visit to Villa Copacabana was two fold: I was going to visit UAC-CP Education student Ruben Pari who recently founded a one-room schoolhouse in the community. My companions (Sr. Carmen and Fr. Israel) were going because Ruben had asked representatives of the parish in Coroico to celebrate a mass and offer the sacrament of baptism to community members.

A 9-year-old girl hauls provisions up the trail to Villa Copacabana...with her piglet in tow.

After a two hour drive along the road between Coroico and Caranavi, we arrived at the sad little river town of San Pedro. From there, our driver Salvador parked the jeep and we set out to finish our commute on foot. Slow but steady we made the 1 1/2 hour hike upward to Villa Copacabana.

Sometimes, even though I know the answer, I ask the question anyway so I can hear someone else say it aloud. "How do they get all their belongings to their community?" I asked Sr. Carmen, a native of Peru of who comes from a poor, rural family. "They carry everything on their backs," she responded. "Incredible, isn't it?" Incredible, if not almost unbelievable.

But not entirely unbelievable as all the way up we passed (and were passed) by members of the community carrying large loads on their back. We met one woman with a week's supply of food (rice, potatoes, etc.,) for her family of nine strapped to her shoulders. In her hands she carried a thermos of water and a giant 2-liter bottle of cooking oil. Her oldest daughter, age 14, also carried a load on her back in addition to carrying the family's newest member, 4-month-old Ana, in her arms. They make the trip down and up at least once-a-week for food, they told me. I promised myself right then and there: no more circling the lot on beautiful summer days looking for the closest parking spot to the door of the grocery store.

Ruben Pari, far left, stands at the head of the class. The dirt floor, he said, often turns to mud when it rains and water leaks through the roof. The community recently stuccoed the inside walls.

When we finally arrived to Villa Copacabana we were welcomed by Ruben and his flock of little wide-eyed pupils. Sweating profusely from our final ascent under the hot sun, I was happy to find shade inside the one-room, adobe schoolhouse. As I caught my breath and re-hydrated, I started quizzing Ruben about his work. Question number one: "How did you ever end up in this remote village?"

Thirty-year-old Ruben, who hails from a small community near Carmen Pampa, said he learned about the need for a school in Villa Copacabana through the mayor's office in Coroico. A young man whose vocation to be a teacher is, I think, both unique and inspiring, Ruben said he chose to live and work in Villa Copacabana about seven months ago because he believes in the power of education to transform and improve lives.

Ruben outside the home the community built for him. He is one of four siblings to study at the UAC-CP. His sister Karin is a graduate of the Veterinary Science Department.

"I want to be a part of making change. And these kids," Ruben said, gesturing to his students, "are the future of their community, the future of my country." Ruben explained that many children from the countryside grow up and leave for the city because they don't learn to value what they have and are unable to appreciate who they are. That's why Ruben's goal is to empower children with not only the basic reading, writing, and arithmetic abilities, but to provide them with technical training and human formation.

Shy at first, this young student took to calling me "tia" (auntie) by the end of our 6-hour visit.

Ruben admitted that living in a remote area isn't easy. There is no water, for example, which means a 25-minute hike to retrieve and carry buckets home. And a few weeks ago when Ruben became severely ill, he had to rely on community members to carry him down the mountain in search of immediate medical attention. Funding for the school itself, Ruben said, is also in peril which means his salary has no long-term guarantee. Currently, his students work a communal plot of land where they harvest and sell coca in order to purchase basic school supplies such as paper, chalk, etc.

But despite the difficulties, challenges, and uncertain future, Ruben remains positive and optimistic. He has to, he told me--the kids need a place to learn and he feels called to educate them. "Do you like what you do?" I asked Ruben, who has a tendency to look and act rather serious. A smile immediately consumed his face. "I love it."

Under a makeshift tarp, Fr. Israel celebrated mass (in Spanish and Aymara). "Today, we are here to share and celebrate our gratitude for all that we have; to give thanks for our lives, our families, our health, and the addition of your new little school."

Again, I didn't have to ask. I already knew the answer; it's obvious that Ruben loves his work. Though he's paid for teaching 8:30 am - 12:30 pm every day, his students and community members tell me he often works until 6 or 7 pm. It's also obvious that everyone loves having him there. "He's so dedicated to his work," the village leader told me at lunch (the second of two lunches the community fed us). "We hope he stays with us regardless of what happens with school funding."

In addition to working as a teacher, Ruben also finds himself in the role of community organizer and student. He's using part of his teaching experience at the school for the basis of his thesis project--a graduation requirement at the UAC-CP. And he said he's gaining important experience as he helps the community learn to determine how they want to structure the school and what vision they have for themselves as a group. They want to grow; their hope is to provide education for students through the eighth grade. (The nearest high school is a four hour round-trip walk each day which one student in the community currently makes).

Me, Sr. Carmen, Fr. Israel, and the community leader of Villa Copacabana pose with Ruben (in the doorway) and seven of his 11 students.

By the time lunch was served at 1 pm I had had a few hours to observe and interact with Ruben, his students, and Villa Copacabana community members. I had a better understanding of why the addition of the little school was so significant.

As I looked at the plate of food set before me, feeling very conscious of the fact that everything on it--the potatoes, the hard boiled egg, the cheese, the lettuce, even the plate itself--had been carried up to this place on some one's back, the same words from earlier that morning came to mind: Remote. Isolated. Far. Uphill. But as I started to feed my growling stomach, I noted in my notebook a new segment of words that rushed over me: Gratitude. Value. Inspiration. Human spirit.

The ability of people to survive with so little. The appreciation for education in its rawest and purest form. And the passion and determination of young people like Ruben who are committed to making the world a better place...poco a poco. "You have to start making a difference somewhere," a community member told me soon thereafter, "why not here?"

Additional photos of the visit to Villa Copacabana can be viewed here on my picasa site.

Friday, October 9, 2009

dance nation

As much as I enjoy it, I will never be able to fully appreciate the relationship Bolivians have with dance. It's one that, while common throughout Latin America, completely fails to exist in the culture I come from.

Education students danced Tobas at the College's recent Intercarreras festival.

During any first round of get-to-know-you questions, I'm often asked by Bolivians about my preference for dance. What's your favorite Bolivian dance or music? Have you been to Carnaval in Oruro? Have you seen La Paz's Grand Poder? I've lived here long enough that I can hold my own in these conversations; I have the verbiage to impress Bolivians with my ability to rattle off the names and hum the music of a variety of traditional dances. But, it's when they ask: "What are the folkloric dances you do in your country?" that I stumble over choosing the proper way to respond. "Mmmm... The Polka? The Twist? The Electric Slide?"

Really, in the U.S. we have nothing that compares to the overwhelming number of folkloric dances here in Bolivia--the ones that are celebrated at community festivals, school events, and city celebrations. Each dance tells an important story and expresses deep sentiments about Bolivian culture. Some dances tell the story of Bolivia's history--its struggle for liberation from Spain. Some dances tell the story of the indigenous belief in Pachamama (Mother Earth)--their reverence for the land as they ask for blessings upon the harvest. Some dances represent modern day life--backbreaking work in the field to make sure bread arrives at the table.

Pre-University students waiting to dance Tinku. They went on to win second place.

Me pictured with UAC-CP Director Fr. Freddy dressed up and ready to dance Pujllay with the other UAC-CP administrators.

Visitors and volunteers here are always amazed that everyone here dances. Men, women, and children all spend hours committed to learning the proper steps, moving their bodies in the same rhythmic motion. Their love and passion for the dance is something that I am unable to equate to anything that we have in our melting pot culture in the U.S.

Agronomy students sit in the shade waiting for their turn to dance El Chacarero--a cowboy dance that comes from Bolivia's Chaco region. It's characterized by the male part which involves high kicks and fierce boot stomps.

Last Sunday as part of the College's four-day festival, the entire day was dedicated to traditional, group dances. Seven groups participated, each representing one of each of the College's five major academic departments as well as the Pre-University Program and the College's administrators (with whom I danced Pujllay). Each group paraded onto Carmen Pampa's soccer field and dancing in front of a panel of judges and an enormous crowd of locals who flocked to see the major attraction--as events of this magnitude don't generally happen in the countryside.

In the end, the Veterinary Science Department took home the first place win for their interpretation of the Cocalero. Wearing homemade costumes and using a local band of Carmen Pampa area farmers on pan flutes, the Veterinary Science students simulated all of the many parts that compose the reality of coca growers in a very political, social, and cultural way. The last group to dance, they were for every one of us watching, I think, the obvious winner.

Veterinary Science students won first place with their dance of Cocalero. Their unique interpretation, which included all homemade costumes (like the paper machete mask of Bolivian president Evo Morales), paid tribute to the local people who make a living by growing coca.