Saturday, June 27, 2009

school's out...for winter

It honestly does seem like just last week I was blogging about students arriving for the beginning of the semester. Which is why I can hardly believe that the end of the first semester has already arrived.

Concentrating: UAC-CP student Maria Nela León.

Today students are finishing up with final exams and professors are frantically grading papers and filling out their planillas (class grading sheets). Though some exams extend into next week, most students will be finished by the end of today which means they're packing up their things and preparing to leave for winter break. 

Agronomy students looking over the schedule for second semester classes which start in about three weeks.

By next weekend, things will be pretty quiet around here...for a short while.  Winter vacation only lasts for about three weeks; students will be back at the end of July to begin classes on the 28th!

Pre-University students packing up their belongings and saying goodbye before leaving for winter vacation.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

san juan

Tonight we celebrated San Juan. According to an op-ed piece in yesterday's edition of La Razon (the daily newspaper from La Paz), the fiesta of San Juan is dedicated to St. John the Baptist ..."even though he didn't have much to do with fires."

A bonfire rages in the patio of Campus Manning.

Trusty Wikipedia states that: "The evening of June 23, St. John's Eve, is the eve of celebration before the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist. The Gospel of Luke states that John was born six months before Jesus, therefore the feast of John the Baptist falls on June 24th, six months before Christmas. This feast day is one of the very few saint's to mark the anniversary of the birth, rather than the death, of its namesake." 

The tradition here, on the eve of the feast day of St. John the Baptist, is to start fires. The idea, is to burn old belongings (like the clothing of the recently deceased) which, according to the newspaper article, is to show renewal; fire is a symbol of purification, it explained.  Here in the southern hemisphere, San Juan also coincides with the winter solstice--which is the longest and supposedly the coldest night of the year (even though many of us were wearing t-shirts).

San Juan has always been one of my favorite Bolivian festivities. Tonight the UAC-CP community gathered around the fire for fellowship and merriment.  Students roasted hot dogs (as is also the tradition) and marshmellows and danced around the fire. It's nearly midnight now and the chatter of San Juan festive-goers continues to drift up through my open window and into my room.

Monday, June 22, 2009

la saya

Many people who visit Carmen Pampa are often surprised to learn about the Afro-Bolivian communities in the Yungas.  The descendants of slaves brought to Bolivia from Africa to work in the silver mines of Potosi in the early 1600s, Afro-Bolivians eventually settled in the sub-tropical, coca-growing Yungas.  

A young woman dances the Saya in Coroico. The women's costumes, typically white dress with colorful details, incorporates the cholita dress with the full, pollera skirt.

Today, there are several Afro-Bolivian communities scattered throughout the Yungas.  Most of our Afro-Bolivian students here at the UAC-CP come from the small village of Tocaña--about a half hour drive from Coroico. (In fact, several of our graduates and students have been working to promote tourism in the little village--it's a potential land mine for tourists, who would undoubtedly love the experience of Tocaña, if they knew about it. Any travel guide I've seen makes minute mention of Afro-Bolivians.)

On Saturday night I went to Coroico to see the first annual International Saya Festival which (coincidentally?) was also the Aymaran New Year. It was a showcase of La Saya--the music and dance of the Afro-Latino people. A Wikipedia entry about the Saya says:  "The biggest African influence in Bolivian culture is Saya music or La Saya. Saya, which is growing in popularity in Bolivia, is still very misunderstood. In fact, no one except the Afro-Bolivians themselves seem to be able to interpret it. The reason for this lack of understanding of Saya is because the interpretation of the instruments as well as the rhythm is very peculiar. It involves Andean instruments incorporated with African percussion." 

Men beat the drums and play an assortment of other Andean "music-makin'" instruments.

For me, it's impossible to listen and watch the Saya without feeling. The music--the drum beat, the singing--is physically moving. And the words, the lyrics, are the music's emotional counterpart.

Saturday night, the first group to dance represented the Afro-Bolivian town of Chicaloma located in the South Yungas. As women and men danced, the strong voice of an Afro-Bolivian man sang "Orgullo. Orgullo. Orgullo. ...Orgullo ser campesiño." Proud to be a peasant farmer.

Other songs had similar messages--they told the stories of former slaves, who now work harvesting coca; the stories of people who are proud to be Bolivian; the stories of people who are ready to move forward, without forgetting who they are or where they come from.  In fact, the last Saya I watched on Saturday was about raices--roots.

Men and women from an Afro-Bolivian community dancing La Saya in the streets of Coroico. 

Traditional music and dance here in Bolivia is such a central part of peoples' lives. In fact, to call it 'as American as apple pie or baseball' would be a grave understatement.  I know it's something that I, as an outsider will never be able to completely appreciate. Though on Saturday, as I waited for a midnight ride back to Carmen Pampa, a UAC-CP student provided me with sincere and valuable insight.

"La Saya," Fabiola said, "is so important to the Afro-Bolivian community. They are people who have suffered so much; they have had so many things taken from them. They have had to work so hard to have so little in their lives. But the Saya," she continued, "the Saya belongs to the Afro-Bolivian people, it's theirs. And nobody can ever take that from them."

Full disclosure: The pictures on this post were taken by a visitor at Coroico's October 20th festival last year.  It was much too dark to take pictures at the International Saya Festival on Saturday night!

Monday, June 15, 2009

the gift

I consider it a very special gift--the opportunity to be welcomed into the private lives and homes of Bolivian families.  

I spent part of yesterday and today at the home of UAC-CP students Veronica and Zulma Calles. Veronica, a thesis student (click here to read about Veronica) and her sister Zulma, a first-year Agronomy student, are from the small community of Santana--a 40-minute walk from Coroico.

Veronica poses in front of the one-room Little-House-on-the-Prairie-style school house in the nearby village of Mira Flores where three grades are in one classroom. 

Though Veronica and Zulma are the youngest of six children, their nine-year-old nephew Nando has lived at their home for the past eight years. They consider him their little brother more than their nephew, and they treat him like their son. I was immediately struck by the fifth-grader's personality--an animated and curious little sort, he was the perfect blend of calmness and energy. Thanks to my digital camera, we were friends from the start.

Their father, Don Francisco, is a farmer who primarily grows coffee and citrus on the family's near-17 acre farm. Their mother died very suddenly of a brain hemorrhage four years ago--a tragic loss, her absence is obviously still felt each day. 

Last night when Don Francisco returned home from a three-hour-long meeting at Nando's school, he and I talked while the others busied themselves with homework. Don Francisco told me about his life--his parents, his time in the military during the reign of Hugo Banzer, and his work in Caranavi.  He told me about how he met his wife, recounted the births of their children, and explained how the family came to live in the home where they now reside (a landslide destroyed their previous home).  He told me about Nando--how he came to live with the family and how Don Francisco is grateful for his companionship.

Zulma, a first-year student at the UAC-CP, prepares a spicy sauce for Sunday's lunch. 

We also talked about education. He has a third-grade education, he said.  "Back then people thought that if a man could sign his name, that was good enough.  And women? They didn't need to know anything." Today, he admitted, Nando has surpassed his reading level which means Don Francisco feels a bit helpless when the fifth-grader has homework questions.

When I commended him for placing such a high value on education (particularly realizing the importance of higher education for his daughters), he responded by giving thanks to people like Hugh Smeltekop who have made steadfast commitments and personal sacrifices to help young people from the rural area obtain their undergraduate degree. "The College," he said, referring to the UAC-CP, "is a blessing for people like us because studying in La Paz would be impossible."  

It was at the end of our lengthy conversation about education when Don Francisco spoke of the evening and morning prior to his wife's death. He carefully recalled what happened. Despite the years that have passed, it's obvious that it all still seems like yesterday in his mind. Today, he can't help but wonder if they could have done something differently, if they could have saved her.  When he finished talking about the feelings that have ensued since her death, we sat in silence. I didn't know how to respond; I was both surprised and touched that this man trusted me with something so personal to him.

Don Francisco prepares for work this morning.  "You have a beautiful family," I told him. "You must be very proud."

Last night for dinner we all sat on an assortment of short little stools in the Calles family's kitchen.  With no table, our plates, piled with rice topped with fried onions and tomatoes, sat perched in our laps and our tin cups filled with hot sultana (a drink made from the dried husks of the coffee bean) rested on the floor.  At one point, as Veronica, Zulma, Nando and their father talked, I sat and listened--feeling very privelidged to be sitting among them, listening and watching them interact.  It was, I couldn't help but think, much like any other family with kids home for the weekend from college. 

They discussed and made plans for the following morning. Nando, they explained, had to leave for school no later than 7:30 in order to arrive for the 8:30 start time. When school gets out at 12:30 each day in Coroico, he walks home, eats whatever is left over from breakfast (primarily rice and boiled platain) and then goes out to find his dad in the field where they work harvesting coffee (today, at least). Listening to this exchange, it's obvious that Nando is much more self-sufficient than the average nine-year-old in the U.S.  

Nando, dressed in his school uniform, eats breakfast in the family's kitchen. He is my new favorite fifth-grader...and I think I just might be his new favorite gringa!

This morning in the kitchen as Veronica packed a lunch of rice and cooked vegetables for her father to carry to the field, I sat next to Nando and watched him smear Jiff peanut butter* on a piece of bread that would normally be eaten plain and dipped in his cup of sultana. Don Francisco appeared in the doorway with a giant bag of mandarine oranges. As if they hadn't already given me enough by graciously welcoming me into their home, he presented me with the oranges, thanked me for my visit, and encouraged me to come back again (with Hugh!). 

Graciousness and hospitality--the things I consider the most precious of gifts.

*Thanks, Theresa! Your recent gift of Jiff was a simple, but fun thing to share!  :)

Saturday, June 13, 2009

an orange winter

As a native Midwesterner, it seems impossible to me that here in Carmen Pampa we are nearly one week away from the official beginning of winter.  Yes, it's "cold"--at least by Yungeño standards (which I've now adapted to be my own).  But as soon as I catch myself complaining of "freezing" temperatures here, I can't help but think that this would still be considered shorts and sandals weather in Minnesota. 

One of many bags of oranges and mandarines that can be found in the volunteer house. While a glass of fresh squeezed juice in the U.S. might cost $2-3 a glass, here at home it costs us just the physical labor of squeezing.

It's also bizarre to me that as the temps drop the amount of fresh citrus in our house has spiked.  Within the past four days we've had a couple local community members bring giant bags of oranges and mandarines, picked fresh from their trees, right to our door. You just can't beat free, front-door service!

In the U.S. I rarely buy oranges--fearful of biting into a dry, tasteless fruit, I prefer not to take the risk (or pay the price!).  But here, while the citrus sometimes doesn't look all that great on the outside, the inside is almost guaranteed perfection--juicy and sweet!  In one sitting, we can easily eat 2 -3 oranges as dessert or a snack.

Which, considering the multiple pounds of citrus that we now have in our house, that's a good thing.  We shouldn't have any problem eating our way through the mountain of fruit--especially considering Andy's "mandatory quota" that each person in the Volunteer House must eat "at least ten oranges per day." By my calculations, considering the that there are five of us in the house and assuming no more people come bearing bags full of fruit, we should be out of oranges by the first part of July!

Winter, it seems, is a lot more tolerable with the presence of unlimited access to Vitamin C!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

corpus christi

Twelve years of Catholic school education and my response when I heard about Corpus Christi was, "Huh? Like the city in Texas?"

Bread and grapes were set at the altar for the all-school mass this morning. Corpus Christi is a celebration of the Eucharist.

To be fair, when I pressed students for the reason behind the festival that is recognized as a national Bolivian holiday, nobody could really give me a good explanation. "We spend the day at home with our family," one professor told me. "The tradition is to eat peanuts and fruit," a student said.

"Okay," I accepted the family, fruit, and nuts explanation. "But what IS it?" I pressed.

Everyone told me that it is a Catholic feast day...which, with a name like Corpus Christi, I think that is pretty obvious. I just couldn't understand why it isn't a big-deal holiday in the U.S., let alone a day I remember celebrating at church.

Male faculty and staff from Campus Leahy faced off against their counterparts from Campus Manning.  Manning put the smack down on Leahy...with help from our very own Andy Engel who had a goal!

A search on Wikipedia explained that it is a feast day which celebrates the Eucharist, the body of Christ.  While in the U.S. we always celebrate it on Sunday (which is what threw me for the loop), here in Bolivia, Corpus Christi is recognized as the first Thursday following Trinity Sunday...and it comes complete with a whole day off from work.

Today at the College, in honor of Corpus Christi, all classes are suspended.  An all-school mass was held this morning followed by games (basketball, futsal, and soccer) between administrators, professors, and students.  At 2pm everyone gathered in the patio on Campus Manning to have lunch and conversation.  This afternoon games continue.  So this confirmed the part about spending time with family/friends.  But I'm still not sure where the fruit and nuts fit in!?

I know for sure if we celebrated Corpus Chrisit this way in the U.S. I would've known that this feast day is about a whole lot more than some city in Texas.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


On Sunday afternoon Hugh and I got a whirlwind tour of about four different government hospitals that are all clustered together in the Mira Flores neighborhood of Bolivia's capital city, La Paz.

Lic. Lidia Cuevas, Director of the UAC-CP's Nursing Department, invited us to accompany her and UAC-CP Nursing instructor, Lic. Maria Luisa Rodriguez, on a brief tour of the hospitals so that we could see our Nursing students in their element.  Not wanting to cause disruptions (as our students were officially on-duty), we briefly said our hellos, snapped pictures, and went on our way.

UAC-CP Nursing students check the vitals of a baby in the neonatal section.

But between the children's hospital and our final stop at the intensive care unit, I couldn't help but feel a little awkward. Though we weren't entirely random and Lic. Maria Luisa served as our guide, I felt a bit intrusive.
The big, institutional space provided nothing in the way of privacy. In one area, makeshift "rooms" were made of curtains that separated every two beds. In another part, 20 single beds all lined up against the wall, filled a room. With no walls or dividers, conversations and physical consultations were for all to hear and see. If privacy laws exist, they are definitely not enforced.

UAC-CP Nursing instructor, Lic. Maria Luisa helps one of our students insert an IV into a patients arm.

As Hugh and I walked through areas of the hospital compound that I'm not convinced we should've been allowed to enter, I realized how much we, in the U.S., take our privacy for granted. For us,  it's a right we've come to expect, for Bolivians it's a seemingly foreign concept--personal space and privacy are essentially not recognized.

This is especially true in the countryside. Our students, for example, come from homes where often their entire family of 5 - 6 people lives in one or two rooms; beds are commonly shared by at least two siblings (when I've stayed with UAC-CP families, they've slept three to a bed to accommodate me with my own place to slumber). Here at the College, our students live 20 to a room; bathrooms, showers, everything is shared.  

The same is also true for health care. I clearly remember a trip to a local community with the UAC-CP doctor.  I overheard each patient describe their symptoms; I saw people give urine samples in the corner of the room; I saw shirts pulled up and pants pulled down...and all their neighbors saw and heard the same thing.  It's no wonder Bolivians often say: "Pueblo pequeño, infierno grande."  (Little town, big hell) Private lives are hard to keep and gossip is a popular alternative for those without televisions.

Though the majority of UAC-CP Nursing majors are women, there are a handful of men who choose the profession.

I believe there is a sense of dignity that comes with having access to privacy--knowing that your business is your own; that it is for you to decide with whom you want to share it, assuming, of course, that you want to share it. 

Hopefully that's part of the training our Nursing students receive--the ability to treat people with tender care and attention...and with concern for their privacy.  In this way, the sick can at least know the feelings of security and peacefulness...that is privacidad.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

jornada scientífica

Yesterday afternoon the UAC-CP's Research Institute hosted its bi-annual jornada scientífica--a public, science exposition of student research projects. 

Groups representing all five of the College's academic departments (Nursing, Agronomy, Veterinary Medicine, Ecotourism, and Education) presented various investigative work they had done during the past semester.

Fr. Freddy stands with Agronomy students waiting to present their research findings to the judges.

Before the four invited judges started evaluating each group's work, Fr. Freddy, Director of the UAC-CP, spoke to the student body about the importance of research.  He said that the Research Institute is a core component of the College; it works to fulfill the vision of the Unidad to create change and development; and to provide answers and solutions that lift people out of poverty. 

A Nursing student explains the results of an experiement in which she and a classmate determined that by using the roots of the Motacue tree, commonly found in the Alto Beni (and, I learned, some parts of Carmen Pampa), one can effectively treat certain human parasites.

A crowd gathers behind two of the judges to listen to students explain their research project.  Approximately 20 groups of 2-5 students each shared their investigative work.

Some Ecotourism students did a study to determine the effects of tourism on the natural environment.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


As difficult as it is to believe, the calendar doesn't lie.  Already it has been a little more than four years since I set out on a solo journey to find a handful of UAC-CP students with USAID scholarships who live in scattered and remote communities in Bolivia's Alto Beni.

Some of our students live in places that aren't accessible by road. In 2005 Gladys Jahuira and I took a boat on the La Paz River in the Alto Beni in order to arrive at a UAC family's home.

My mission was to visit their homes, meet their parents and assess their living situations (family income, standard of living, etc.).  In the end, apart from accomplishing my mission, I came home to Carmen Pampa humbled and inspired. To understand our students, I realized, one must know the places they call home.

One of the names on my list that January was Gladys Jahuira--a shy young woman who had just completed her first year at the College.  Just as I was trying to figure out how I would even begin to locate her family's remote, rural home, I fortuetously ran into Gladys on the street (she happened to be in Palos Blancos for the weekly market).  So together, she and I made our way to her family's casa where I met her parents and siblings.  

The memory of the conversation that ensued is so clearly etched into my mind. In my report for USAID, I wrote: "Through tears, first-year Agronomy student Gladys Jahuira's father told me that he is extremely proud of his daughter."

In January 2005, I took this picture of Gladys (center) with her parents and three siblings outside their home.

On my visit to Palos Blancos last weekend, I once again randomly met Gladys on market day. Finished with all of her coursework at the College as of last semester, she is now living at her parents' home outside the village of Sapecho. She plans to begin her thesis research project in a few weeks with SIEMPRE-FORJA (a nearby bio-pesticide research and production company owned by UAC-CP graduates). Meanwhile, she's working with a cacao cooperative in her community of which her parents are members. She organizes local farmers who grow cacao for Bolivia's well-known chocolate company, CEIBO. Things are going well, she explained; based on her work she has been offered a part-time job managing the cooperative's finances. 

This past Saturday, with Gladys voluntarily at my side for visits and interviews, I kept having flashbacks--I couldn't help but think about the young woman from four years ago compared to the Glayds Jahuira I know today.

On the streets of Palos Blancos, Gladys ran into a member of the cacao cooperative she manages.

Four years ago, Gladys Jahuira was shy and reserved; she guarded her emotions and thoughts. She said very little. 

But not the Gladys Jahuira I know today. She's a pretty serious young woman who radiates confidence and maturity that is so unlike most of her female peers who live in the rural area. She isn't an overt talker, but these days Gladys easily makes conversation--sitting in the plaza, she and I discussed politics, cultural differences, and women's rights. She's ambitious; she's a visionary. She holds her own...and then some.

Lunch with UAC-CP graduates Fortunato Velasquez and Andres Florez and UAC-CP thesis student Daniel Criales (center left) in Palos Blancos. Gladys will be doing her thesis research with their local business SIEMPRE-FORJA.

Twice during the day we ran into men who were members of the cacao cooperative she's managing.  "Don Emilio," she told one man as we sat in the backseat of his taxi, "the cacao you brought me is not good quality." Gladys insisted he bring a different batch.  He gave her a wise, flirty retort and stepped out of the taxi for a moment. Gladys looked at me and rolled her eyes. "Machismo," she said, "But I know, he will bring a different batch of cacao."

I can only imagine that the way I feel about witnessing the metamorphosis that Gladys has undergone since her time at the UAC-CP is something similar to the way parents feel watching their children grow and mature. It's exciting to see how she's blossomed into a self-assured woman.

"Do you know what's different about me, I think?" she asked  as we talked about the traditional roles of women in Bolivia's rural area.  "I don't feel lost in life; I know what I want." And she's made the decisions and sacrifices to make it all happen. I'm curious to know where she'll be in another four years.

Monday, June 1, 2009

salud pública

Tonight I returned from a brief three-day visit to the Bolivian lowland towns of Palos Blancos and Caranavi--located seven and four hours, respectively, from Carmen Pampa. 

Sign along the side of the gravel road in Palos Blancos indicates the hospital is 100 meters to the right.

The pueblos are, for reasons quite obvious to me, not tourist destinations (Caranavi, though barely mentioned in the Lonely Planet travel guide, is accompanied by the words "uninspiring" and "stuck here"--which, to be fair, is more mention than Palos Blancos receives). Needless to say, this trip was straight-up UAC-related; my main objective was to visit UAC-CP Nursing students who are doing their required public health practicums. 

Nursing students Alcira Pacajes, a native of Caranavi, and Vilma Callizaya, from Coroico, work at the hospital in Palos Blancos as part of their public health course.

In Palos Blancos, I met with fourth-year Nursing student Alcira Pacajes and third-year Nursing student, Vilma Callizaya.  On-call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (in exchange for basic housing and food), the women had to ask for special permission to spend a few hours talking with me about their work in Palos.

Because Palos Blancos is a bit short on professional staff, both women have a variety of responsibilities.  They work in PAI (Amplified Immunization Program), DOTS (the World Health Organization's Stop TB strategy), and the hospital's sparsely equipped emergency room. Part of their public health responsibilities also requires them to give talks in local schools, participate in community health fairs, and visit homes in the countryside.

Compared to their experiences in hospitals in La Paz, both Alcira and Vilma said that they see much more need in the rural area for adequate access to health care and education.  They also said they see more incidence of accidents and disease. "Many people in the rural area do not trust modern medicine...and for that reason, people--especially pregnant women and children--die or become severely ill," Alcira said. Educating the public, often in their native Aymara, is one of their primary jobs.

Posters about Dengue Fever were plastered all over both hospitals in Palos Blancos and Caranavi. Dengue, transmitted by mosquitos, presented a severe epidemic in Bolivia's lowlands this past January and February. Some of our students are currently recovering from Dengue.

Though there are six UAC-CP Nursing students currently working as interns at the Caranavi Hospital (all of whom are responsible for paying for their own food and housing), I spent most of my time with third-year Nursing students Rosa Sejas and Gabriela Mamani. They work in the hospital's DOTS program that provides outpatient care to people with tuberculosis.

Gabriela Mamani stands next to an information panel outside the Caranavi hospital that explains how people can be tested for TB and the way the disease is transmitted.

"There is a very high incidence of tuberculosis here in Caranavi," 24-year-old Rosa said. Her classmate Gabriela explained that it is mainly attributed to poor nutrition--diets generally consist of very little meat/protein. 

"Because of the economic situation [ie. incidence of poverty], people here mostly eat a lot of rice, yucca, and plantain," Gabriela said.  She also said that unhygienic living conditions, high levels of stress, and inaccessibility to health care all contribute to the higher rate of tuberculosis in this area.  In Caranavi, she admitted, it's easy to understand why tuberculosis is referred to as the poor person's disease.

It's easy to identify our UAC-CP Nursing students--as demonstrated by this pocket protector.

All the students I met with agreed that while the health-related problems facing people in Bolivia's rural area are overwhelming, change is happening. Talking to our Nursing students I felt quite confident that they are part of this change.

Gabriela, who comes from the Isla del Sol--an island in Lake Titicaca located three hours by boat to the town of Copacabana--said public health practicums like the one she's doing in Caranavi will make her a better nurse.  "I hope to return to my community once I graduate," she said. "Right now there isn't much in the way of health care." In times of emergency, people must go to Copacabana.  And for emergencies that occur at night, people must wait until the morning. But often, people can't wait until the morning. "Many people die from things that they shouldn't have to die from," Gabriela said. "Maybe I can help make a difference; that is why I want to be a nurse."