Wednesday, May 27, 2009

mother's day

Today is May 27thel día de la madre (Mother’s Day)—in Bolivia.  Much like in the U.S., it’s a day to remember the mothers in our lives who have cared for and nurtured us.

One of my greatest joys and privileges is visiting with the parents of our students. And I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many UAC-CP moms—women who, in most cases, have lived difficult lives, to say the very least.  In fact, without fail, once they become comfortable with me during an interview or casual conversation, its not uncommon for mothers to say, through tears: “I have suffered so much.”  An enormous understatement, if you ask me.

Eva Abelino with her mother Monica outside their family's very rustic, one-room adobe home in rural Bolivia. 

“You know,” former UAC-CP student Eva Abelino told me last December after a visit to her family’s very poor home outside the town of Apolo.  “My mom isn’t stupid.  She’s really smart, she just never had the chance to attend school.”

Victor Hugo Flor's mom hugs him as they both stand outside the thesis defense room at the UAC-CP and wait for the panel to decide his final grade.

An orphan since the age of three, Eva explained, her mom started working “for her daily bread” at the tender age of five.  “My mom always wanted to read and write and learn to speak Spanish.  And she’s really a quick learner…” Eva’s voice trailed off.  “But she never had the opportunity; she would've taken advantage of the opportunity.”

The mother of Ecotourism student Sandra Barrera told me that it was her daughter Sandra who gave her the courage to confront an abusive husband.

Today, like most UAC-CP mothers, Eva's mother, Doña Monica has passed on the hopes and dreams she once held for herself to her children. Doña Monica’s life, one of intense physical labor, suffering and sacrifice, is a life that I cannot imagine living...even for a day. Yet, she continues to forge ahead, determined that her children will have the opportunities she never received. Her youngest son Alejandro is now an Agronomy student at the UAC-CP and her oldest, Donato, finished all his coursework in the College's Education program.

I found Rosemary and Rosalia Mamani's mother sitting outside the family's home in Charazani chewing coca. Because of distance and cost of travel, she has not seen her daughters in several years.

Returning to Apolo in the backseat of our taxi, Eva and I talked about her mother’s determination, her tenacity, her love.  “Only a mom,” I finally concluded, when it seemed there was nothing more to say.  And Eva, looking out the open window with air rushing in over her face, didn’t smile—looking quite serious, she merely nodded her head and looked to her lap where her 3-year-old son was fast asleep. Of course, I couldn't help but assume that she was probably thinking about the opportunities she herself has lost and the sacrifices she will now make as a young, single mother.* 

So today, a special salute to the mothers everywhere--especially moms like Monica and Eva--who make great and grand sacrifices for their children so that they may have better lives and bigger opportunities.

One of my favorite mother-son pictures. Edwin Zapata who, as of yesterday, is our most recent UAC-CP graduate, with his mom outside their home in Apolo. I only wish his mother...and father...could've been here to see him defend his thesis. Either way, what an amazing Mother's Day gift!

*After her first year at the College, Eva became pregnant. With no help from the father of her now 3-year-old son, she dropped out of school. She currently lives with her parents and older brother.  To read more about the Abelino family, please visit my previous blog entry: la familia abelino.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

la reunión de nueve horas

Today, UAC-CP faculty and staff met with the staff of CARITAS Coroico.  It was a meeting that lasted for nearly nine hours!*  

Granted, there was a lot to talk about. The meeting provided employees of the UAC-CP and CARITAS Coroico the opportunity to exhibit their work--objectives, goals, difficulties, outcomes, visions for the future, etc., for each academic field, extension program, and production area.

Msgr. Juan Vargas serves as the Bishop of the Coroico Diocese and as President of both CARITAS Coroico and the UAC-CP.

Though we've never had an official relationship with them, CARITAS Coroico is by no means a stranger.  It employs 37 people (three of whom are UAC-CP graduates and three others are UAC-CP thesis students) and has offices based in three rural pueblos within the Coroico diocese (Sorata, Coroico, and Caranavi).  Like the UAC-CP, CARITAS Coroico works in various extension projects that intend to improve the lives of the rural poor.  Many of our services, in fact, are very similar.  So, one of the positive outcomes of the (painfully long) meeting was that it provided a forum to talk about ways in which we can support each other's work in order to achieve our separate, but similar missions.

After lunch, Msgr. Juan Vargas, Bishop of the Coroico diocese and president of both CARITAS Coroico and the College, spoke briefly. He reminded everyone about the importance of our work.  "We are here to do three things," Msgr. Vargas said, "One: to share the Good News of the Gospels with the people. Two: to create economic and social development in Bolivia's rural area.  And three, and perhaps the most important: we are here for la promoción humana." Human promotion.

"We [CARITAS and the UAC-CP] need to arrive at the hearts of the people, the people who live such difficult lives in the campo. Our job is to help people come to believe in the opportunity to improve their lives. And while we know we won't be able to reach everyone, we can hope that the people whose lives we touch we infect those who we are unable to help."

"Life can't continue this way for our brothers and sisters in the rural area," the Bishop continued. "We have all seen how people live; we have all witnessed the marginalization of the poor--many of us here in this room have even lived this.  So that is why it is our work to help offer nuestra gente better, more dignified lives.  This is the culture we must have here."

"We need to enter the hearts of our students, the hearts of the people we serve.  I want you to be able to put the heart of the missions of our institutions into the work that you do each day. In this way, offering ourselves to our work, we will ensure that people live dignified, just, and peaceful lives."  

Despite the length of the meeting (okay, I admit, I didn't last through the whole thing--I skipped out early to attend Edwin Zapata's thesis defense!) I think we all walked away today with a good feeling--knowing that we, in fact, have allies who are also dedicated to providing peace, justice, and equality for Bolivia's poor.  While our work sometimes seems outrageously impossible, it's nice to know we aren't going it alone.

*That "official" time does not include the one-hour we had to share the meeting table.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

favorite fotos

A few of my favorite photos that I've taken in the past five months...

The stone sign that greets us when we come around the bend on the "upper" campus. The first sight of this lets us know we're home.

UAC-CP student Beatrice Mamani at Tihuanaco, the ancient ruins on the Altiplano.

A house situation along the Choro Trail that we walked over Easter weekend. And what I think is Bolivia's national flower, the Cantuta--it has all three colors of Bolivia's flag.

UAC-CP Ecotourism students participate in an adventure tourism course in January.

Ingrid, a Nursing student at the College, waited with me for several hours one Sunday for a ride to Coroico...before I finally gave up and went back inside the Volunteer House.

Coffee beans piled up in a leaf in the College's cafetal.  This particular day, students were selecting quality beans to be used for cultivating new plants.

Agronomy students line up before the College's inaugural mass at the beginning of the 2009 school year.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

the morning the lights when out in carmen pampa

For an unknown reason, electricity was out for most of the morning here at the College. Since my office work nearly comes to a complete hault without access to my computer, I find these electricity-less mornings (it usually returns before lunch) to be good times to organize myself—clean out my desk, sort through and file piles of paperwork, and make to-do lists.

This morning was no exception. After I finished plotting out work tasks, I sifted through a folder in the back of my file cabinet that contained old Carmen Pampa Fund literature.  I marveled at one in particular that stated how the College “would provide education in agriculture and nursing for 400” students.

The orange cover of an old fundraising brochure caught my eye this morning as I dug through the depths of my file cabinet.

The brochure, titled “Not long ago it was a crime for us to learn to read and write. Today it is a crime if we don’t,” provides, among other things, the personal testimony of Jose Tintaya, a Carmen Pampa community member who served as committee chairman of the College during its initial years.  Jose is currently on staff at the UAC-CP—helping with general maintenance on the College's campuses.

Jose’s words take up one panel of the tri-fold brochure: "Making up for 600 years in two generations is no small task.  Up to 1952, most of the indigenous people were indentured servants and learning to read and write was illegal.  My father came to Carmen Pampa when I was six-years-old. As a military veteran, he was free.  But the Patron [landowner] of the hacienda insisted that my father live as an indentured servant. He refused and was taken into the hacienda with the whip-man and the Patron. When my father returned home, his clothes were torn, his body was bloody and bruised. This was the way of the Patron. It was not unusual for the hacienda foremen to whip the women in the fields because they were tardy."

Jose Tintaya's stories remind us that education should never be something we take for granted.

"When we were freed in 1952 after 600 years of servitude, I attended school just until the 4th grade, my wife to the 3rd grade. But today things have changed and I see hope for our future. I have a daughter in high school. She will go on to college next year to earn a degree…My vision is to see that all of our children have the opportunity for an education and a better life."

As proven by this morning’s electrical outage (which, admittedly happen less frequently these days), sometimes things here move at a dreadfully slow pace.  But I appreciate the moments when we can look back and see that we have made amazing amounts of progress in a relatively short amount of time.

To think that the original visionaries hoped to educate 400 students in two areas of study…today we have more than 700 students and more than 200 graduates in five different degree-granting areas.  To think that Jose Tintaya, formerly enslaved and forbidden to attend school…today has children studying at the UAC-CP and a daughter who last Fall defended her thesis and earned her college degree (check out Hugh's November 26th blog post).

Despite it's slow pace, change does happen. But (and forgive the blatant cliché) we often can’t appreciate how far we’ve come until we pause and look back at where we were.  So it was perhaps a strange twist of fate that it took the lights going out in Carmen Pampa this morning in order for me to find an old brochure that so clearly illuminated the College's path...from where it has come and to where it is going.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


We lost a young member of our UAC-queña family this past weekend. Brigida Alvarez, a 23-year-old native of nearby Coroico, was in her third-year of studies as a nursing student here at the College. I'm still unclear of the exact cause of death (recently, I was told it was a brain hemorrhage), but in any case Brigida was transported to a hospital in La Paz late last week and that is where she passed away.

Brigida dancing at a UAC-CP event in 2007. Her funeral this afternoon drew a large crowd of mourners to the church in Coroico where friends, family, and the UAC-CP community said goodbye.

For the size of our College (a little more than 700 students at current count), we seem to lose a lot of young, vibrant people—people whose lives are cut short for usually inexplicable or unnecessary reasons.

Often the causes of death (for both our students and their family members) reflect the fact that we live in the poor, rural area of a developing country where health care is either lacking or completely unavailable and diseases (like Tuberculosis), essentially eradicated from developed parts of the world, still frequently prey on the poor. For example, in the Nor Yungas, the mountainous region that is home to the UAC-CP, one of the leading causes of death among children under five is diarrhea—attributed to unsafe drinking water and inadequate sanitation.

Part of our mission at the College is to change those frighteningly deadly statistics through education, research, and community extension. But when the very same young people who champion our work fall victim to the things they set out to conquer, it’s an especially sharp stab to the heart.

During the three years that I’ve lived in Carmen Pampa, I have experienced and witnessed the sadness and pain of prematurely saying goodbye to several of our students. And while I'd like to think that Brigida will be the last UAC-CP student we will have to bury for a long time to come, I am doubtful that will be the case. Until adequate health care is available for everyone in the rural area, we will continue to lose some of our most precious students who believe that higher education is the primary force behind positive change and development.

Friday, May 15, 2009

universal language

Considering that we're "just" a small little village located in rural Bolivia, there are quite a few languages spoken here (i.e. Spanish, English, Quechua, Aymara, German, French, and Italian).  This week, with the arrival of the South Dakota State University contingent (several professionals who are participating in an exchange between SDSU and the UAC-CP), we have the murmurs of yet another language on campus--the Latin-based, scientific one spoken by scientists throughout the world.

SDSU professor Dr. Gary Larson points out a plant to UAC-CP professor Ing. Desiderio Flores. The men, obvious agronomists at heart, share only the common language of the sciences.
As I've stated before and will unequivocally restate again: I am no scientist. Which also means I'm often not much help when it comes to interpreting for visiting scholars.  "I don't even know these words in English!" I tell our students.  "Let alone in Spanish." The names of species and families and genus--all those things I learned about during my freshman year of high school Life Science--go way over my head.

But what I've discovered is that I don't need to have the scientific vocabulary.  I fill in the missing pieces of common verbs and nouns and then let the science-types fill in the blanks with the scientific names that, with a little tweaking of accents and vowel sounds, are really the same throughout the world.

Ing. Desidero Flores climbs a steep embankment and passes off a leaf sample to Dr. Gary Larson.  

Yesterday I accompanied long-time UAC-CP Agronomy professor Ing. Desiderio Flores and Dr. Gary Larson, a botanist from SDSU, along the road that leads to the Puerta del Viento (Door of the Wind) located on the ridge above the College.  As we meandered, one man would excitedly point to a plant and say a word I didn't understand (a family or genus name?) and the other would nod his head...sometimes in agreement, sometimes in doubt.  

The whole while, as I walked in between the accomplished Agronomy professors, filling in the small details of colors, shapes, seed and flower types, local usage, etc., I was most amazed that while neither spoke the other's language, they were able to communicate their shared scientific verbage and their common love for all that is the plant world. Two men with seemingly very little in common able to share their wonder and awe in a language that I doubt I'll ever speak.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Last week I left behind the glorious sun-filled, warm weather days of the Yungas and traveled through the high plains of Bolivia and Peru.

A sea of salt.

The highlight of my vacation was a trip to the Salar de Uyuni--the largest salt flat in the world. Situated in Southwest Bolivia at an altitude of nearly 12,000 feet, the Salt Flat covers an area of almost 7,500 square miles. It formed as the result of the drying up of Lake Minchín--a prehistoric salt lake that covered most all of southwest Bolivia.  Today it's a popular tourist destination for international and national travelers.

Two workers use shovels to load up this camion with salt to haul away for processing.

The immensity of the Salt Flat is beyond my comprehension.  And its ability to play tricks on the mind is boggling. When we stopped at the Isla de los Pescadores (Fishermen's Island) and looked out from the cacti-filled land mass, I felt like I was at sea--the whiteness of the salt like an ocean and the occasional land masses popping up in the distance like islands.

View from the Isla de los Pescadores where giant cactus, more than 1,000 years old, crowd the island.

Ever the sociologist, I was most curious about the people who live out in the Salar.  We briefly visited one small village located a two-hour drive from the main town of Uyuni.  I asked our driver/tour guide, Mario, about the types of services that existed for the people of the little village located at the base of a volcano.  He explained that there is a grade school, but no basic health services. Transportation, he said, passes by once a week.  

The Wiphala--the flag of the indigenous people of Bolivia--flies in the middle of the Salar de Uyuni.

"They are very leary of outsiders," Mario said. "They have very little experience with people outside of their villages because they live such remote lives.  They do not trust foreigners." People in the area, Mario told me, work in the salt industry...or they are miners or famers (quinoa).  From what I saw, it's a very difficult and cold life. 

Things could change though.  Last January and February major news outlets reported that Bolivia's vast salar is home to the world's largest lithium reserve--an essential element for making the batteries to power electric and hybrid cars.  Meanwhile, as the whole world flirts with Bolivia to gain access to its lithium-filled reserve, the Salt Flat remains relatively untouched... except by tourists like me, who come curious and leave amazed.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


I remember Sr. Damon saying that the UAC-CP isn't just about the academic part; it's also about the human formation--particularly helping young people develop successful leadership skills.

Juan Carlos, a UAC-CP Education student, has finished all of his classes. He needs to write and defend a thesis project in order to graduate from the College.

She always talked about how in small Bolivian communities, people usually turn to the local teachers to help solve problems because teachers are considered the peace makers in remote areas where police, lawyers, judges, etc., are nonexistant. So when our UAC-CP students return to their home communities, Sr. Damon said, they will be seen as educated and experienced leaders--which means they will be called upon to be the peacemakers and leaders of their villages and towns.

In fact, that is exactly what happened with UAC-CP Education student Juan Carlos Quispe. This past February he was elected by the members of his town, Trinidad Pampa (located on the other side of the mountain ridge from Carmen Pampa) to a leadership position: secretaria de actas. It's a job that had him exercising his leadership and peacemaking skills for a few days last week as a mini "civil war," of sorts, broke out between two neighboring communities.

Essentially, Juan Carlos explained, members of two communities were arguing about land. The disagreement, which had apparently been a couple of years in the making, escalated to the point where one man was killed and several were taken to hospitals in La Paz to be treated for serious injuries.

Juan Carlos was a bit shaken when I talked with him in my office last Thursday, but from what he told me, it seemed he handled himself and the situation really well. "I listened to each side," he said, "and of course everyone has their own story, but I listened and I didn't take sides. I think it's important to listen now, make decisions later." He added, "I walked the middle road with them."

Juan Carlos, former president of the UAC-CP student body, said that for now, things are calming down. That said, things are also far from over. "I believe we'll find a solution," he said, "but it will take some time, some mediation."