Friday, July 31, 2009

la asunta: parte dos

One of the coolest things about visiting students in their homes or places of employment is that I get to see them in their realm. I'm on their turf--the place where they are proud and confident; they are always excited to introduce me to their family or to show off their work. For me, it's a phenomenal opportunity to know our students in a way that I really can't know them at the UAC-CP.

Janneth Quispe, a UAC-CP thesis student currently working as an intern with ARCo in La Asunta, credits her Carmen Pampa Fund scholarship for allowing her to study at the UAC-CP.

For example, Janneth Quispe. I've known Janneth pretty much the entire time she's been at the UAC-CP. But during the two and a half days I spent in La Asunta a few weeks ago, visiting her at the ARCo offices (where she's doing a five-month internship helping farmers develop business plans), I gained a new appreciation of Janneth. I admit, she even surprised me a bit. I was wowed.

In a country that, especially for young indigenous women, doesn't have many opportunities for (higher) education or professional work, Janneth proves she is an exception. I couldn't help but notice that Janneth was solidly holding her own as the only woman in an obviously male-dominated environment. "You know," she told me later, "I'm a feminist...and I'm proud that the UAC-CP is a place for women...where women can go forward."

Janneth almost lost her opportunity to 'go forward.' "Actually," she confessed, "I was going to leave the UAC-CP." After her first year in the College's Pre-University program, she explained, her parents were having very rough financial times and, as the oldest of four children, she was planning to leave her studies to go work. The cost of the College, though minimal, would have been unaffordable.

Though she was prepared to leave, her classmates encouraged her to apply for a scholarship. "My friends told me to wait and see," she recalled. "They said 'You're a good student, maybe you will get a scholarship.'"

Janneth enters data before heading out for an afternoon (and evening) visiting farmers in the countryside. In the background is a giant map of La Asunta and all of the many communities in which she works.

In fact, to Janneth's surprise, the College awarded her a full scholarship from Carmen Pampa Fund based on academic success and financial need. It's a scholarship she's maintained throughout her academic career at the UAC-CP. "It helped me so, so much," she said. "And when I think that maybe I wouldn't have returned to college the following year...Who knows? I'll never know."

What Janneth does know is that she's going to graduate from college. Her thesis project, a study of the application of vermicompost on four varieties of garlic in the community of San Pablo (near Carmen Pampa), is in its final stages. When she's not working at ARCo, she said, she's interpreting data and writing her thesis. She hopes to present the first stage of her findings at the end of August.

When I asked her about her experience at the UAC-CP, especially now as she considers her work with ARCo, Janneth told me: "At the College, I have learned so many things. But I feel especially grateful for the training I received from my professors. The truth is, I am really capable of the work I do; I'm confident and comfortable with the person that I am. And," she said, "I think I would be very different if I didn't study in Carmen Pampa."

Because of her determination and her CPF scholarship, Janneth will never know what might've or could've been. Instead, Janneth Quispe will be one more name I'll have the pleasure of adding to our list of graduates.

Monday, July 27, 2009

second semester

Tomorrow, as I travel back to my beloved Minnesota for a visit with family and friends and a barrage of Carmen Pampa Fund activities, UAC-CP students will be settling in for second semester classes.

UAC-CP Vice Director Hugh Smeltekop greets students last Friday morning who returned from winter break to register for second semester classes.

Students returned to Carmen Pampa last Friday and Saturday to register for the new semester--a tedious process in which students must wait in line to present required documents (national identification card, high school diploma, health certificate, etc.)

Usually, students are able to return for the start of the semester with some money in their pockets--money that they've been able to earn during the three-week break. With these earnings, they will pay their first of five tuition payments for the semester. But, for some, it's often a scramble to come up with the resources to register. Though many have worked during the break (earning approximately $5-6 a day), it's hard to cover all expenses (travel costs, school supplies, computer lab and student activity fees, food cooperative membership, etc.)--despite the College's already subsidized tuition costs.

UAC-CP thesis students Ariel and Paula and UAC-CP graduate Vilma Yujra help with the College's registration process.

Last Friday I found a student sitting alone on the steps facing the Campus Leahy courtyard looking a little glum. When I checked in with him, he confessed that he wasn't sure he would register for classes this semester, even though he had made the 24-hour journey from his family´s home with the intention of doing so. "I have enough money to pay for registration," he said. "But once I pay that, I know I won't have the money to pay for the remainder of the semester...or for the food cooperative."

I happen to know this student very well. From a visit to his home, I know his family has virtually no income--his parents, both illiterate and uneducated--are subsistence farmers in a remote, rural area. It´s a miracle he graduated from high school, let alone arrived at the UAC-CP.

Of course, he's the perfect candidate for a scholarship, but with too many students in need and too few scholarships to provide this semester, he didn't make the final cut when it came to grades. And yet, when it comes to character--I know him to be responsible, honest, hardworking, and kind. He's the type of student we can't give up. To tell him he can't study because he is poor isn't an acceptable answer.

"Register," I told him. And when he asked about how he'll afford the yet-to-come costs, I shook my head and told him honestly,"I don't know. But we'll find a way...and whatever it is you'll have to work hard to earn it.'s really important that you stay and study this semester." Still looking a bit doubtful, I assured him everything will be fine. Even though I, myself, am unsure of how the ends will come together, I have faith in the common Bolivian mantra: "todo es posible." Everything is possible.

Tomorrow morning, just about the time my U.S.-bound plane bids farewell to the runway of the La Paz airport, UAC-CP students will be settling in for their first class of the second semester. I hope they'll all be concentrating more on their coursework than worried about how to pay for food or tuition. And, more importantly, I hope nobody slipped through the cracks because they were afraid they couldn't afford to return for the second semester.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

embassy visit

It isn't every day that we have traffic jams and body guards here in Carmen Pampa.  But it isn't every day that we have a visit from the top U.S. Embassy official, either.

This morning, an entourage of SUVs arrived at the College's upper campus--Campus Leahy. In addition to USAID officials, they brought Dr. James Creagan, the Chargé d' Affaires, a.i., at the U.S. Embassy in La Paz, who is, for all practical purposes, serving as U.S. ambassador to Bolivia (though, officially, we have been without an ambassador for nearly one year).

Bishop Juan Vargas, Fr. Freddy del Villar and Dr. Mary Norris (Director of USAID's Office of Integrated Alternative Development) look on as Dr. James Creagan meets with Carmen Pampa native Amadeu Aliaga, manager of the UAC-CP's meat factory.

Our special visitors made the three hour journey from La Paz to Carmen Pampa to see first-hand how the UAC-CP, with financial and technical assistance from USAID, is a working model of successful, sustainable development in the Yungas--the mountainous rural area northeast of Bolivia's capital city.

Lidia Cuevas, Director of the UAC-CP's Nursing Department, talks about the College's focus on practical experience. She is pictured with Nicolás Quenta, former governor of the Department of La Paz, Jose Luis Beltran, UAC-CP Agronomy Director, and Msgr. Juan Vargas.

The contingent started their tour on Campus Leahy. Near the new dormitory project, UAC-CP Director Fr. Freddy del Villar talked about the history of the College. He reminded all of us of the time, not so long ago, when there was no possibility for a young person from the rural area to study at the college level--the time when there were literally, and figuratively, no roads leading out of Carmen Pampa.  

Fr. Freddy told our special guests about how Sr. Damon Nolan, working with the local Diocese of Coroico and the Villa Nilo Sub Central (governing Aymaran nation), built the impossible: a college for poor, young people from the rural area. Sixteen years later, here we stand, Fr. Freddy said--on one of two campuses of an internationally recognized college that educates approximately 700 students a year and has more than 200 graduates currently working in their field of study (in fact, UAC-CP graduate Pamela Rocha who now works with USAID also attended today's visit). 

Of course the group toured the College's laboratories, library, meat factory, and coffee plant. But I was most happy to see Dr. Creagan take the time to literally sit down and talk with a group of UAC-CP students. Casually, the students each introduced themselves and talked about their areas of study and plans for the future. "What I have learned from these students," Dr. Creagan later said, "is that they have the desire to return to their communities, to improve their zone."

Aurelio Catari asked that I send special greetings on his behalf to Sr. Damon. "I worked very hard alongside Sr. Damon to make sure education would be available to people in the countryside. The College is a work of God."

A few leaders representing various institutions within the Municipality of Coroico also joined us for part of the day. They all expressed their appreciation for support received from USAID and talked about the importance of working together in the future.  

"I don't think there is a more noble cause than education," said local farmer and community leader, Aurelio Catari. "We are the only college in the Nor Yungas. Before the UAC-CP, we had no opportunities to further our studies after high school. But now," he continued, "the College provides a future. I want to thank USAID, Sr. Damon Nolan, and all the people who support the College to make education possible."

Dr. James Creagan and Fr. Freddy del Villar pose for a picture at the College's coffee plant.

"I am really impressed by what you have here and what you are doing," Dr. Craegan told a group of USAID and UAC-CP representatives before lunch. "The College is small, but growing and I see a real future here. You are doing great work." He added that he would like to see both government agencies and individuals join forces to support the College.

While the road out of Carmen Pampa has been built, it has yet to be smoothly paved. Hopefully visits and testimonials from people like Dr. Craegan will help us secure funding and support so that we can offer our students the best education--so that we can fulfill Sr. Damon's original pre-road vision: to ensure that people live dignified lives and that less injustice and poverty exist in the world.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

la asunta: parte uno

Two weeks ago, I journeyed to La Asunta--a mid-sized pueblo, remotely tucked away in the South Yungas that is best known (even featured in last Sunday's newspaper) for growing coca. Coca is the traditional Andean plant that is a central part of indigenous culture and custom. It's also the same plant that sits at the forefront of international debate because it is the base ingredient for cocaine.  

Streets in La Asunta are literally draped during the day with coca sitting out in nets to be dried in the sun. The drying process is the final step before coca is bagged and taken to market in La Paz.

It seems that people from all over Bolivia (particularly the East), have come to La Asunta in search of a better life. This means they have come to claim their stake to land and cultivate coca--one of the most lucrative ways for people to etch out a living in the rural Yungas.  The people I talked with explained that, really, they come to La Asunta out of necessity. "If I didn't grow coca," one farmer told me, "I don't know how I would be able to provide daily bread to my family."

Coca. It can be a pretty sensitive topic...especially when it comes to the word "erradicacion." Eradicating coca, people feel, is a direct threat to their livelihood. "I would be very happy to do something else for a living," Don Eliodoro, the father of UAC-CP student Alvero Alejo told me when I visited their home in La Asunta. "I know that in years from now, my land is going to be ruined from the coca.  But what other option do I have? I'd really like to have a chicken farm, but that takes an investment and I don't have money to do that." He looked at his son, a first-year Agronomy student, and said he has hope his college degree will open up new doors for the family once he graduates.

Porfirio Apata meets with an area farmer to talk with him about the potential of developing a business plan for coffee.

As part of an effort to provide a viable economic alternative to coca in a region where it's still legally grown, yet (supposedly) "controlled," USAID programs ARCo and ACDI/VOCA have set up offices in La Asunta and are working with farmers in the countryside. ARCo, in particular, works to help farmers develop lucrative business plans and find markets to sell sustainable products...other than coca.  Several of our UAC-CP students work, both as full-time employees and as interns, with these two separate USAID programs to help organize farmers and provide technical farming and production assistance. 

In La Asunta, I met with UAC-CP students Janneth Mamani and Sixto Quispe who are doing 5-month internships with ARCo and Porfirio Apata, who was recently hired full-time by the project. They are working as rural technicians, offering agriculture expertise and advice to farmers who want to organize themselves into associations and grow crops (i.e. pineapple, bananas, stevia, coffee, honey, fish, etc.,) to sell. Janneth specifically works with stevia (a sugar substitute), Sixto works with plantains and pineapple, and Poririo works with coffee. 

Sixto Quispe, a UAC-CP thesis student, has a paid internship with ARCo in La Asunta.

I tagged along with Sixto and Porfirio one afternoon. We drove two hours outside of La Asunta to the community of 10 de Febrero where, taking advantage of the weekly feria (market day) when all people from the surrounding villages come to town to buy and exchange goods, they set up a table to register people interested in developing business plans.

Sixto explained that after an initial study in which they asked farmers what they would like to grow and studying potential markets to determine whether or not the viability of growing, producing, and selling those products was feasible, they are now helping farmers execute their business plans. "Essentially, we support groups of people to start businesses," Janneth explained. "We [ARCo] don't fund everything though; we expect farmers to contribute something--whether its land or physical labor. By asking them to contribute to the project, they are investing themselves and there is a greater chance of success."

This may just look like a black square, but in this picture are about 20 farmers piled into the back of a pickup truck. On this night, I was out visiting rural communities with Porfirio Apata and Sixto Quispe until 9:30 pm.

They all laughed when I asked what hours they work. In the campo, they said, there are no "hours." "We often leave around 6 or 7 in the morning and get home at about 9 or 10 pm at night," Sixto explained. This proved to be true as our driver navigated us around the rural mountain roads in the dark.  With no street signs or maps, I marveled at how they knew their way around the back roads.  Lots of time spent on the road, they admitted, has made them experts on the area. This was obvious as I listened to them talk about particular people or communities as if they had known them for years.

It was also obvious that the three love their work. "It feels good!" Porfirio shined. "Helping people with my knowledge, sharing my experience of extension work and supporting and motivating farmers. That's my job," he simply summarized. "You know, Sarita," he said into my little, red recording device, "My job is also just sharing with people, treating them as an equal..." and for that reason, Porfirio explained, "they don't see me as a professional, they consider me as their friend."

Thursday, July 16, 2009

dar a luz

It was about 11:30 pm. I was home alone in the giant ex-hacienda when I heard pounding on the front door. As soon as I saw her standing there with a flashlight, I knew: there was an emergency.

Micaela Soliz, one of our UAC-CP Nursing graduates, works at the local health post here in Carmen Pampa. Considering her line of work, there is only one reason she would come to our house late at night. "Sarita, you know how to drive, no?" she asked. "Ummm...sí," I responded--partially afraid of what the emergency might entail and partially relieved that I purposely bought a car with manual transmission two years ago so I could learn to drive stick shift...anticipating this type of scenario.

"Que milagro!" Mica exclaimed, obviously relieved to have solved her transportation conundrum. A woman is in labor, she said, and needs a ride to the hospital in Coroico.

Logistics-wise, the baby picked perhaps one of the worst nights to decide to enter this world. In addition to the fact that the entire College is on winter break, it's also a two-day holiday (in honor of La Paz's bicentennial) and it's Carmen Pampa's annual multiple-day fiesta. With the UAC-CP completely desserted and the locals preocuppied with their party, I was Mica's only hope for a dark and rainy midnight ride to the emergency room.

It's important to note that while I drive the Toyota land cruiser nearly every day, I only drive up and down between the two campuses. Not a fan of driving in general, I've intentionally chosen to stay off the relatively narrow, dirt road that connects my village to the mid-sized pueblo of Coroico located about 40 minutes away on the other side of Cerro Uchumachi. Why, I wondered, must my virgin voyage to town be a late night emergency situation?

Side door panel of our ambulance. The vehicle, donated by former UAC-CP volunteers, is also used for public health visits to surrounding communities.

Prior to this occassion, I had only driven the ambulance once (a non-emergency), and wasn't a fan of its loose handling, its sensitive clutch. Last night, bumbling along in second gear, Mica pointed out that the bumpy ride was not only painful for our patient, but might also help induce labor. "You don't want the baby born on the road!" she laughed. I freaked. On cavernous, rural Bolivian roads there isn't much one can do to ensure a smooth ride and my clumsy, nervous abilities made it all the worse.

We drove the first part of the way in silence, interrupted only by the pregnant woman's groans as we took on potholes like ocean waves. "You aren't sleeping, are you?" Mica called out from the back. As if I'd be dozing off at a time like this, I thought! To assure her and the mother-to-be that I was, by now, wide awake, I annoyingly sang aloud in Spanish: "We will be at the hospital soon! We will be at the hospital soon! Just wait a little, baby. We will be at the hospital soon!"

My heart sunk a bit when we finally pulled up to the hospital and found the entry closed off by a giant gate. A hand-scribbled sign indicated that because of the two-day holiday, few staff was available; they would only attend to "emergencies." I've heard enough stories of babies born in taxi cabs and elevators to know that I wasn't going to attend to a live birth just outside the gates of a hospital. As Mica jumped out to talk with the guard, I mentally prepared to argue that this, indeed, constituted an emergency. Thankfully, the guard agreed and let us in.

I parked the green beast outside the emergency room. Sitting in the driver's seat while Mica went off to call a doctor, I turned to the young woman grimacing from pain. "Your first?" I asked, in a lame attempt to make conversation, hoping to fill the awkard silence. She gave me a blank stare and said nothing until finally she nodded her head. Yes.

Like the stereotypical father, I paced outside the emergency room in my pajamas and slippers and made chitchat with the night watchman who seemed happy to have the company. Inside, I could hear the two doctors, interns begrudgingly working the holiday shift, give Mica a hard time for having brought the woman to the hospital. She should have had the baby in the Carmen Pampa health post, they said. But Mica, an experienced midwife, calmly argued that because of her age, she was afraid the patient could potentially suffer from life-threatening complications.

In our small community, I know most everyone. But this young woman I hadn't recognized. Just Mica and I on the early morning drive back home, I started prodding for answers to questions I had refrained from asking earlier. Who is she? What is her name? How old is she? Where is she from? Why is she alone?

Her name, Mica explained, is Jovanna. She's the 17-year-old younger sister of a UAC-CP Nursing student. The father of the baby wants nothing to do with her or their child and, afraid to tell her parents about the pregnancy for fear that she might be beaten or kicked out of the house (a common reaction to young, unwed mothers), Jovanna came to live in Carmen Pampa with her sister--far from anyone who might know or recognize her.

"Ella está muy solita," Mica said sadly. She's all alone. 

Dar a luz. The Spanish phrase meaning "to give birth" literally (and beautifully) translates to: "to give to light." Last night, as I crawled into bed at 2:30 am, both exhausted and wired, I couldn't think of anything other than Jovanna--a young, single mother all a new light to the world. A little baby who might someday be told the story of the dark and rainy night s/he was born...the night the gringa piloted her first trip to town.

Monday, July 13, 2009

the journey

It's not about the destination, they say, so much as the journey. That is what I kept telling myself last Wednesday as I traveled a lesser-known road that connects the town of Caranavi to the village of Puerto Rico where I planned to catch yet another ride to my final destination: La Asunta. La Asunta is an isolated pueblo in the heart of the South Yungas where UAC-CP students and graduates live.

Sign in the windshield indicates that "my" minivan is bound for the community of Puerto Rico in the zone Bolivar.

In the minivan, I sat front and center, wedged between the driver and a man who intermittently slept and chewed coca (interesting to me because coca is a stimulant used precisely to avoid shut-eye). Other passengers don't generally allow for sleeping in the front seat--its contagious, they say, and will spread to the driver. But in this minivan, the 14 adults and six children squeezed into seating intended for 12 people didn't seem to mind that my cocalero companion dozed off on occasion.

We plugged along at a speed I can merely describe as "pretty slow" as the broken speedometer didn't allow for the velocity to be assigned a numerical value. Considering the wild, death-defying ride with Hugh and his sister Paula the previous day, I was more than okay with the driver's steady pace--especially when I looked to the edge of the narrow, gravel road and considered the steep, plummeting alternative.

My direct line of vision was blocked by a pine-scented, U.S. flag-decorated, air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror.

As is the case with most all public transportation in Bolivia, I was quite uncomfortable. I craned my neck around the little iconic air freshener to score a good view out the vehicle.  My lower half was twisted in such a way as to avoid disconnecting the loose wiring that powered the giant floor speaker--the one that repeated the same the same six or seven cumbia songs throughout the five-hour venture.  I had to carefully keep rearranging my position to avoid both the driver's repeated downshifting and to ease the burn of my seat which seemed to be unnaturally heated by the engine.

Climbing up mountains, we passed small villages and secluded single-family homes made of either wood or adobe, most with thatch or corrugated tin roofs. In this region, people are dedicated to the production of coffee--as evidenced by the beans sitting out to dry in the sun. It's a very poor life. Schools, health clinics, stores, etc., were notably absent as far as I was concerned. As always, I found myself marveling at how people manage to survive such rough, remote living conditions.

A typical roadside stand...with not much to offer in the way of food or supplies.

After three hours on the road, the driver stopped at a seemingly random spot and grabbed a bottle of alcohol out of the side pocket door. After sprinkling some of the alcohol out the window, he took a small swig. Then he gave it to the man on my right who did the same. I recognized the ritual--a blessing drivers regularly do before descending Bolivia's infamous World's Most Dangerous Road.  I subsequently feared that our tranquilo ride would become more life-threatening...but the chofer, whose wiry body drowned in his dress pants and once-white t-shirt, proceeded with calma.

Direct transportation between Caranavi and La Asunta is rare--most Bolivians don't even know it's possible. In truth, I wasn't able to find a ride to take me the entire way. Which is why I could only find a ride as far as Puerto Rico--a town my Caranavi friends had never heard of before. 

Despite the fact that I found it to be a sad, little river village, I was happy to have arrived in Puerto Rico. I jumped down from my seat and planted my feet on the dusty ground. The driver, handing me my backpack from the roof of the minivan, explained that within an hour I could probably find transportation to take me to La Asunta. I calculated that I would be in La Asunta around 6 or 7pm.

It's a good thing it's about the journey, I thought. Because it was 3pm; my destination was still a few hours away.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

the boys

Next weekend, when I return home from my visits to the households and workplaces of UAC-CP students and grads, I'm going to find the Volunteer House a little bit quieter. Volunteers Andy Engel and Sam Clair are leaving Carmen Pampa this week--they've finished one year of service at the College.

Sam and Andy inside the little hut we stayed in during our 3-day Choro Trail Inca Hike in April.

Andy and Sam (or "The Boys," as I've taken to calling them), both graduates of University of Wisconsin-River Falls, arrived in Carmen Pampa last July. By the time I got here a month later they were already well-invested in their work. While they mostly lent their efforts to teaching English in the Ecotourism Department, they also found their niche in other areas. Specifically, Andy helped me with CPF development work and Sam managed one of the student Agronomy learning labs in the College's vegetable garden.

Of course we have all appreciated their ability to be responsible and reliable. They are hard workers and we're grateful for their service to the College. But, it is their energy that I will miss most--their good natured, easy-going and youthful spirits that will leave a hole in our volunteer community.

Andy (back in his clean-shaven, short hair days) with Agronomy student Bryan Gonzales at the College's Intercarreras Festival in October '08.

Life in Carmen Pampa is not for everyone.* It takes what some may consider to be obscene amounts of patience, creativity, and understanding. It takes an extra special sense of adventure and a sense of humor--to laugh at both yourself and situations. It takes the ability to make lemonade out of lemons, as they say....or, as Sam showed us, to transform a peach pie recipe into a delicious mango pie-esque dessert.

We have lots of short-term volunteers who come and go throughout the year, and it's usually never easy to say goodbye (like, Smith College math instructor Mary Murphy is leaving this week, too, and we´re gonna miss her motherly touch--for both our students AND the gringo community). But considering that I've been sharing the same living space with The Boys' tranquilo dispositions for the past year, it will be a particularly more difficult farewell.

Clearly, I will really miss them. I will miss Andy's fresh baked bread and Sam's homemade sauerkraut. I will miss being greeted each morning in the kitchen with ready-made coffee and the Smoky '08 "Airplane Song." I will miss their random mid-afternoon visits to my office, our spontaneous Jackson Five and Boney M dance parties, and our "nights out" for chicharron. And, of course, I will miss the ongoing conversations (and conspiracy theories!) about all those infamous Bolivian tubers.

Sam shakes the tambourine at an all-staff retreat.

But more than anything, I will miss their energy, their enthusiasm. I will miss their willingness to challenge themselves, to try new things. They are both gifted in their ability to approach people and situations with an open mind and to process experiences with curiosity, humor, and appreciation. I will miss that.

Whether they know it or not, they've made my time here so much richer...more laugh-out-loud hysterical. I wish them the best of luck in their future endeavors (Andy is going to travel for a while and Sam, inspired by his work with our Agronomy Department, is going back to college to study horticulture).

Q' les vaya bien, chicos. Obviously.

*Sam's mom Carol will back me up on this, I know! Right, Carol?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

good start to the day

So much of a good day seems to be highly dependent on how it starts out.  Yesterday, for example. I should've known it was going to be a good day when I came down to the kitchen to find a plate stacked with pancakes waiting for me (compliments of Hugh).  

In addition to pancakes, I started the day with a couple of my favorite people--if I dare attempt to publicize favorites! 

For starters, sitting at our breakfast table was UAC-CP graduate Andrez Flores. Andrez, who I've blogged about before, started the award-winning organic, bio-pesticides business SIEMPRE-FORJA with two of his fellow Agronomy graduates. Committed to production, research, and education, Andrez came to Carmen Pampa on official business on Wednesday to meet with people about current UAC-CP thesis students who are doing research projects with him and his crew in the Alto Beni.  For me, Andrez is always a welcome visitor. I find his insight and outlook on life to be inspiring and refreshing.

With no place to stay the night the night before, we invited Andrez to stay in the Volunteer House before making the 6+ hour journey back to his home in the Brecha B.  So, after breakfast he and Mary Murphy and I started walking up to Campus Leahy where he would wait for transport to Coroico, I would go to my office, and Mary would venture off to the garden in search of fresh veggies.

Carmen Pampa community member Don Emilio starts his morning by emptying bags of coffee to be dried in the sun. I love his smile!

Barely five minutes into our ascent, we ran into one of my other favorite people: Don Emilio. The long-time Carmen Pampa community member, who is probably much younger than I think him to be, has one of the cheeriest dispositions of anyone I know--despite the fact that I also know he suffers from severe back pain.  This morning, we found Don Emilio outside his home unloading bags of coffee beans to be dried in the sun.

"Señorita y Señora!" he called out to Mary and me. "Buenos días!" And then he called out to Andrez:  "Joven, buenos días!" Good morning, young man.

Andrez and Don Emilio greet each other. "It's so good to have you back for a visit," Don Emilio told Andrez.

"Señorita," he asked me after we exchanged a few pleasantries, "do you know this young man?" In fact, I explained, I know Andrez quite well--he served as my chief advisor and confident in the years I served as the coordinator of the food cooperatives and he served as president.
Somewhat to my surprise, Don Emilio said he also knows Andrez quite well. Apparently, Andrez explained, as a student at the UAC-CP he did a research project in Don Emilio's coffee field. The project studied the effect of broca on coffee--a small beetle that reaps havoc on the crop that, for some, is their livelihood.  

"So good to see you!" Don Emilio told Andrez. "This is a great young person," he told Mary and me with his signature smile flashing across his face. 

Andrez and Don Emilio humored me by posing for this photo.

I admit, I was loving this moment. Two of my favorite people from relatively random parts of my Carmen Pampa life know each other, I thought, and have the same great mutual respect for one another. I needed a picture!

After Don Emilio's photo shoot, we continued our climb to Campus Leahy. "What a great man, no?" I asked Andrez. He concurred.  "I love starting me day like this," I added.  "Sí, no?" he again concurred.


On last Sunday's ride into Coroico on public mobi, I introduced Don Emilio to my iPod. He loved it!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

tunki y mariposa huntin'

This past Sunday several members of our UAC-CP gringo community set out for an all-day adventure to "hunt" down some of the natural wonders of our beloved Yungas. In particular, we really wanted to see: butterflies and a tunki (or Cocks-of-the-Rock, as they're called in English).

After catching the first public mini-bus out of Carmen Pampa at 7am, we contracted a ride from Coroico to Chairo. The small village, home to a couple UAC-CP students, is snuggled in a little corner of the Yungas mountains along a river.  Chairo is best known as the end (or stop along the way, depending) of the Choro/Inca Trail.

UAC-CP volunteers Mary Murphy (Smith College) and Lee Lechtenberg (Franciscan Mission Service) listen as our guide shows different types of butterfly species found in Chairo.

For about three years, the community of Chairo has been working to implement an economically sustainable project that, simultaneously, protects and preserves the environment. With help of outside experts and funding, they developed Nayriri -- a butterfly house and orchid sanctuary.  

Led by two 20-something Chairo natives, we first visited the laboratory where they grow and harvest butterflies. We later saw the greenhouse where they plant and cultivate orchids.  Our final stop was inside the net-covered butterfly garden. Unfortunately, we didn't see many butterflies. But we did get a better idea of how the community project functions -- the future goals it has for tourism, land restoration and preservation, and butterfly exportation.

Sign outside the ranger station at Cotapata National Park.

From Chairo, our 6-member contingent backtracked toward Coroico and stopped off at the ranger station for Bolivia's Cotapata National Park.  After a brief peanut butter and bread lunch, we hiked up the river bed in search of the electric-orange-colored tunki.

Butterflies congregate along the riverbed.

While it was gorgeous day to be out and about, the Tunki was nowhere to be seen. The emblematic bird of the Municipality of Coroico escaped us. But our trip wasn't in vain. We saw giant, colorful orchids in bloom and a variety of butterfly and bird species. Trudging in and out of the river, we also saw animal tracks. At one point, I sat and watched a small school of fish zip around a shallow pool of water.

Back at the ranger's station, the national park employee wasn't at all surprised to hear that we didn't see a Tunki.  I need to come back in the madrugada, he said.  Considering transportation and distance, I think the only way to place me there in the early morning is if I return for an overnight camping trip. Which, I'd welcome.  ...Anything to see a tunki!