Monday, January 26, 2009

trippin' around bolivia

Call me biased, but Bolivia is one amazing country! Its diverse ecosystems, rich history, beautiful landscapes, distinct cultures, and friendly people (to name just a few) make way for fascinating travels and memorable experiences.

The magnificent Yungas--pictures really don't do them justice.

Yes, it's true, Bolivia is generally touted as a country for thrill seekers. A recent NY Times article, in fact, wrote that Bolivia is a great travel destination for "the young and daring who are willing to exchange safety, comfort and convenience for thrills on the cheap." But frankly, I think the press (and those of us who live here) often exaggerate Bolivia's dangerousness for dramatic appeal. Seriously, who doesn't like bragging rights!?

A half hour outside of La Paz, alpacas roam the barren foreground and snow covers the distant mountains.

In truth, there are many very safe and comfortable ways to experience the magic and wonder of Bolivia...without having to add the word "extreme" to your vocabulary (just ask my mother!!). This week, for example, I'm traveling with a relatively "high maintenance" gringo pal to Bolivia's world-famous Madidi National Park. Wanting a bonafide adventure without having to compromise safety or comfort, I've found a way for the both of us to satisfy all of our trip-to-the-rain forest expectations.

All to say that it's definitely possible to visit Bolivia without eyebrows raising or hearts pulsing. This April, for example, Carmen Pampa Fund and Augsburg College's Center for Global Education are sponsoring an all-inclusive, educational trip to my Bolivian backyard.

The trip, Working for the Common Good: Education and Development in Bolivia, will explore the indigenous Aymaran's concept of ayni--the mutual responsibility and sharing and protecting of resources on behalf of the common good. Of course, it will consider this concept and how, specifically, it relates to the mission and vision of the UAC-CP. It will be a way for the less-adventuresome to experience Bolivia outside the realm of peligro. People interested in learning more about this travel opportunity can contact me or Carmen Pampa Fund.

As with travel to anywhere, I have reminded my amigo del norte that despite our comfortably scheduled itinerary, he should definitely leave room in his suitcase for patience and a good sense of humor. Because, in the end, it wouldn't be a trip to the Bolivia I know and love without at least one flat tire!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

aprendizaje es metanoía

There were a lot of uneasy looking faces walking around the upper campus yesterday. They were the faces of the nearly 200 young people who registered for the College's entrance exam. The test determines the incoming class roster for the first semester of 2009.*

En pocas palabras, I love this time of year at the UAC!  It's the time when I am most aware of the transformation that happens in our students' lives during their years of study in Carmen Pampa.  It's the time when I'm able to compare our new arrivals to their older, more self-confident counterparts and realize that I truly am a witness to the power of the College's motto:  aprendizaje es metanoía.

A close up of a mural on campus that has the words "aprendizaje es metanoía" on the pages of a book with a green, mountainous backdrop.

Aprendizaje es metanoía.  Those are the words painted on the side of the Pre-University residence hall facing the Campus Leahy courtyard.  The motto is a message and a reminder to students that learning is change. But more than a change, really, it's a fundamental--some may dare translate it as a spiritual--transformation. 

Every year, young men and women gather up their courage and arrive in Carmen Pampa with a heart full of hope and, as UAC-CP director Fr. Freddy said: "a discover the alternative opportunities that the College provides."  From near and far, they come to the UAC-CP. Most, especially those who come from small, remote communities, are very shy and timid. And without fail, I spend at least the first three months asking new students to speak more clearly, to look at me when they talk...if they talk to me at all. 

Sorted and ready for review, piles of exams sat in the main office yesterday afternoon.

But something happens mid-way through their first year: posture improves, eyes make contact, homesickness dissipates, personalities shine, and leaders begin to emerge.  And by the time they graduate, by the time they stand before a panel of professors and defend their thesis in front of a group of family, friends, and classmates, our students, the same ones who once cast their eyes to the ground, are proud, confident, well-spoken adults.

Truthfully, it's one of the primary reasons I attend thesis defenses--to be reminded that despite all the hardships, disappointments, and seemingly impossible challenges that are faced every day at a College dedicated to serving the poor, I am here to somehow be a part of the extraordinary change-the metanoía-that happens at the UAC-CP.

Not to be misunderstood, not all of our students undergo a profound transformation.  But it happens enough and quite significantly, I think.  That is why I am here.

It is also why, yesterday, I couldn't help but consciously look around at a classroom full of nervous test takers and consider how much their young lives will change in the coming years. And on behalf of all their worries and insecurities, I felt for them a grand sense of confidence that, like the UAC-CP pioneers who came before them, they too will have the opportunity to learn, to grow, to experience metanoía.

*See comment section.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

"mi querida universidad"

Last month I sent out a mass e-mail to UAC-CP graduates asking them to respond to a few basic questions like: Where are you currently living? What do you do for work? Have you continued studying? How do you believe you are realizing the mission of the UAC-CP in both your professional and personal life?

I purposely left the final question of my on-line inquisition open-ended by asking them to share anything that they hadn't already addressed in their previous answers. And, as I had hoped, the vague questioning led to some beautifully written comments.

A couple days ago I received the following message from UAC-CP Veterinary graduate Miguel Angel Quisbert that I thought was worth sharing:

"The truth is, I consider myself a very fortunate person and give thanks to God for having been able to study at the UAC-CP.

I also give thanks to Sr. Damon Nolan who instilled me with great values. During my life at the College I experienced both very sad and extremely happy times and Sr. Damon was always at my side to give me the support that I very much needed in those moments. I believe that without her support, I would not be who I am today.

I know that behind Sr. Damon existed many people who supported her dream to build the College. I believe that without their support, nothing would've been possible. Because of them, I was able to study at the UAC-CP with the help of a scholarship. For that reason, I also give thanks to the Carmen Pampa Fund and other institutions and people who have supported me and the UAC-CP.

I give many thanks to all the people who made and continue to make the UAC-CP a reality."

Today, Miguel wrote, he is working as a consultant and advisor in the elaboration of plans with Nueva Economía--work that has brought him back to the College where he has given presentations and workshops about how to create business plans for current students, faculty, and staff. Miguel also teaches a course at Loyola University in La Paz and works with Dr. Roger Carvajal Saravia, the ex-vice minister of science and technology, on a project to develop protocol for bio-experimental medicine.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

they're baaa-ack

Our nine-person "UACing for a Cause" contingent is back in Carmen Pampa! Monika, one of our three UAC-CP Eco-tourism guides on the Ecovia trek, noted our official arrival time as 5:30pm. Which, when I crunch the numbers, means that we hiked a total of 18+ hours in two days!

Gregorio and Tara at the beginning of the hike in Chuspipata.

We started our journey in Carmen Pampa early Monday morning under the fading moon. In a minivan, we rode up to Chuspipata, a small community located near top of the infamous "Road of Death." At Chuspipata, we ate a quick snack and started our walk--a relatively wide road that had been cleared many years ago with the intent of connecting La Paz to the Amazon by railway. Needless to say, the train idea fell through and the result is the, at times wide and at times nonexistent, Ecovia trail.

Monika poses with the South Yungas in the background. The Sud and Nor Yungas are separated by the La Paz River.

Today, overgrown weeds, countless landslides, marshy stretches, and small rivers formed by rushing waterfalls don't allow passage for any type of mobility, let alone a train. In fact, at one point, a giant hole in the middle of the trail that plunges several, if not a hundred, feet downward made the trail nearly impassible on foot.

Kimberly, Juan and I stop for a picture in front of a rock formation covered with soft, lucious green moss.

For the most part, the path was clear, but we did encounter a handful of landslides that made passage a bit more difficult.

We were kind of an improbable cast of characters to be spending an overnight journey together: Monika, Juan, and Ismael (three UAC-CP Eco-tourism students), Tara Nolan and Kimberly Lane (niece and friend of UAC-CP founder, Sr. Damon), Gregorio and Paulina (long-time Carmen Pampa residents, recent newlyweds, and former UAC-CP administrators), Sr. Helen Bubu (a Franciscan sister from Paupa New Guinea), and me. What really brought us together was the one thing that all of us have in common: the UAC-CP.

Despite a very soggy night of very little sleep in our makeshift campground and trudging through almost entirely all wet ground during the first day and a half, I think we unanimously had a terrific time. It was good-natured humor and positive attitudes that won out over our blistered feet and carried us through. We also couldn't help but recognize that despite wet tents and sleeping bags and some mist off and on during the day, we were struck with some sort of inexplicable fortune to have had beautiful weather during one of the rainiest months of the year!

A picture of my shoes and wet, muddy pant legs...BEFORE the trail got really bad. (I initially scoffed at the plastic bag idea, but one too many river crossings and sloppy, mud infested trails later, I gave in to the plastic bolsa.)

The times when I trusted the trail enough to let my feet do the walking without a watchful eye, I saw spectacular mountain views! The number of orchids, particularly during the last half of the second day, was also incredible.

In the end, I think we came to several conclusiones: 1. Never plan an overnight trekking adventure in the Yungas (or any other cloud forest) during the rainy season; 2. There is a big difference between what first-time trekker and on-line fundraiser extraordinaire Kimberly Lane considers "uphill" and what Bolivians call "una subida;" 3. The UAC-CP's Eco-Tourism program needs better (ie waterproof) camping equipment; 4. Never underestimate a cute, little nun's ability to powerfully wield a machete; and 5. We are definitely doing this again next year!!

After setting many a blistered foot on official Carmen Pampa ground, the gang celebrates...sitting down. From left to right: Gregorio, Paulina, Monika, Ismael, Kimberly, Tara and Sr. Helen.

During some of the more challenging parts of the trail there was some "debate" between Kimberly and I about whose idea it was to do the hike in the first place. Although I do admit it seems entirely unlike her, I'm pretty sure it was Kimberly's idea. Either way, now that it's over, we're in agreement that it was definitely worth it. To date (read: it's still NOT too late to give--either through firstgiving or Carmen Pampa Fund), Kimberly and I have raised about $4,600 for Carmen Pampa Fund's Scholarship Partners Program!

We couldn't have achieved our goal without the help of generous people who made donations to Carmen Pampa Fund. We also couldn't have achieved this goal without the UAC-CP Eco-tourism students and Gregorio (who carried Kimberly's hefty pack) and Paulina.

About one hour from home! Gregorio, Paulina, Sr. Helen, Kimberly, Tara, Sarah, Juan and Monika pose with Uchumachi in the background.

So, MIL GRACIAS to everyone for their monetary, moral, and (in the case of Gregorio) physical support!

Friday, January 9, 2009

UAC-ing for a Cause

On Monday, January 12th, despite the threat of potential torrential downpours (it is the rainy season), I'm lacing up my sneakers and beginning a two day trek on the Ecovia trail.  I'll be accompanied by two visitors from the U.S. (Tara Nolan and Kimberly Lane) and a handful of UAC-CP students. 

Lugging along tents, sleeping bags, food, and water, we're hiking the Ecovia to raise awareness for the Carmen Pampa Fund's Scholarship Partners Program which provides scholarships to some of our most needy and deserving students here at the College.  In addition to raising awareness, we're also hoping to raise money for the Scholarship Partners Program. 

At the moment, Kimberly and I are in a fierce competition to determine who can raise the most money!  I'm hoping to raise at least $2,000--the actual cost for a student to study and live at the UAC-CP for one year.  Currently, I'm at a whopping $1,075!!! But still, I'm trailing Kimberly "just a little" in the dollar department...and she seems to think that the "loser" has to carry the other person's pack.  As Kimberly is a bit more high maintenance than I, there is no way I'm carrying her enormous pack!!!  So I'm putting one final call for help out there.

Please consider supporting my walk!  Donations can easily and securely be made at or click on the link on my blog under "donate."

Thanks to those who have already given!  Assuming I survive the hike (under the weight of Kimberly's pack), I'll post wild tales and pictures of our journey some time next week.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

a kind of miracle

When UAC-CP Agronomy graduate Eddy Alarcon defended his thesis last September, he received one of the highest marks ever given in the College's 15 year history.  Regardless of his impressive grade, the fact that Eddy made it to college and graduated at all is, in his own words, a kind of miracle, that I think is worth sharing.

Eddy is from the small community of Santiago located 16 hours by both road and river from Carmen Pampa.  His mother, a tea farmer, and his step-father, who died several years ago while working in the mines, earned only enough money for the family to survive.  Because his parents always believed that education was the only way to escape poverty, they made every sacrifice for their son to attend school.

UAC-CP Agronomy graduate Eddy Alarcon

Eddy studied in the school in his village through the 7th grade and then continued his studies in Mapiri, the closest town with a high school.  Unable to make the 12-hour, round-trip commute to school by foot, he moved to Mapiri at age 12 and lived on his own until he graduated from high school at the age of 17.

In Mapiri, Eddy met a nun who told him about the UAC-CP. With her encouragement and that of his mother, he came to study in Carmen Pampa in 2000.

Though his first semester in Carmen Pampa was admittedly difficult, he stuck it out and eventually secured a scholarship to cover the cost of his food and studies.  His mom sent what little she could (about $5 a month) and Eddy worked odd jobs to earn extra money for clothes, class materials, and transportation.  He wouldn't have made it, he says now, without his scholarship--a scholarship that he worked hard to earn back after he lost it for a semester for failing grades and a poor attitude.

But he's come a long way from having to prove himself responsible.  Today, Eddy works in the College's entomology lab on a collaborate project with the Benson Institute.  Based on his undergraduate research project, Eddy has been offered the opportunity to study at Brigham Young University in the Fall of 2009.  Now, his greatest obstacle is learning English.

But Eddy is obviously not deterred by obstacles.  His life is proof of that.  "I never thought I could achieve the things I've done," he said. "Really, considering my life, I think sometimes the things I've achieved have been kind of a miracle.  The good thing now is that I know I can do excellent work--that's what I have learned.  I know that I can do whatever I want."

Sunday, January 4, 2009


In early December I wrote about my trip to Apolo to visit the homes and families of UAC-CP students and graduates.  Agronomy thesis student Edwin Zapata served as my guide and Quechua interpreter for the five day adventure.  And his family served as my hospitable hosts--despite their simple (to say the least) living conditions, I felt very much at home.

Edwin and his abuelita on the road between their home and the town of Apolo.

While his parents and siblings all speak Spanish, his 73-year-old grandmother speaks only Quechua.  At meal times, I sat at the kitchen table with Edwin and his parents while his two younger brothers and one younger sister stood by the table or sat on one of the low stools along the wall.  Their grandmother, however, always sat stoically on the floor, on her matt made from woven leaves of a banana tree.  "That's what she is used to," Edwin's father explained when I expressed concern that I was perhaps sitting in her place at the table.  "She grew up sitting on that, sleeping on it."

Edwin's little sister and his grandmother sit near the family's wood-fueled adobe stove looking on as Edwin's mom fries plantains for breakfast.

Though she was a very quiet woman, Edwin's abuela would occasionally say something in Quechua and family members would laugh and then conversation in Quechua would ensue.  I savored the moments, rare as they were, when they would all speak Quechua. I realized that it gave me a break from having to pay attention to conversations and, instead, allowed me some time to focus on their body language, their facial expressions.  And I swear, they laughed more, smiled more frequently when they spoke in Quechua.  I had no idea what they were talking about, but I loved being with them, observing and listening as bursts of laughter exploded amid conversation.

Edwin's grandmother sits on her matt outside the family's home.

On the final day as Edwin's grandmother sat outside the family's house on her matt and watched me bid farewell to family members, she asked Edwin's uncle to give me a message. "She says, 'Thank you for coming to visit us...and thank you for what you do for my grandson,'" Edwin's uncle said.  In response,  I asked Edwin's uncle to tell her: "Thank you for sharing Edwin with us.  It's a pleasure to  know him." 

Then, speaking that unwritten, universal language with which we had communicated for the previous several days, we smiled at each other and shook hands.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

the pututu

I had been living in Carmen Pampa for at least eight months before I first heard it.  And the only reason I heard it in the first place was because someone told me about it.  It's such a calming, unassuming sound that if you aren't aware of it, you probably won't even hear it.  

It being the pututu.

The pututu, a trumpet made from a hollowed out cow horn, has long been used as a method of communication throughout the Andes.  Though we do have wireless internet connection here in Carmen Pampa, it is the far-reaching sound of the pututu that indicates important news to be shared and discussed in the community.

Carmen Pampa's pututu is currently the responsibility of former UAC-CP student and Carmen Pampa native, Willy Aliaga, who is an elected leader in his community.  Carmen Pampa's pututu has been wrapped several times with masking tape to repair cracks.

In the time of the Incas, chasquis (or "messengers") blew the pututu to announce their arrival and impending news.  Today, elected officials in rural Bolivian communities like Carmen Pampa sound the pututu to organize meetings or announce emergencies within the community. 

Carmen Pampa community leader and UAC-CP veterinary science thesis student Willy Aliaga told me that its a very important role to be responsible for the pututu.  In the case of Carmen Pampa's pututu, it's been in the community for more than 20 years and mishandling or misuse of the horn can result in fines.

Willy explained that every community's pututu has a very specific sound depending on the age of the cow and the size of its horn.  So while the people in Carmen Pampa are able to hear the calls of pututus from at least three nearby communities, Carmen Pampeños (as they call themselves) never mistake another community's call for their own.  "It's just something that, when you hear it," Willy said, "you know what it recognize it."

Inspired by the pututu and the idea of recognizing ways in which we are called together, called to act on behalf of common beliefs and causes, Carmen Pampa Fund's 2008 Annual Report highlights ways in which people are called to actively participate in the work of the College.  To learn more about how and why people have been called to educate, study, serve, lead, exemplify, and donate, please click here.