Tuesday, October 27, 2009

all hands on deck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 16, 2009

sleepless night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

creating change...poco a poco

Remote. Isolated. Far. Uphill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 9, 2009

dance nation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

the godmother

Padrinos y madrinas (godfathers and godmothers) are to Bolivia what baseball and apple pie are to the U.S.

Unlike what most people may think of the traditional godparents who are elected at the birth of a child to participate in the Christian rites of baptism, confirmation, etc., godparents in Bolivia are named for most any occasion.

Here, for example, I have been the godmother of a good variety of things, like: Coca-Cola, soccer jerseys, Christmas toys, bridal clothing, flowers, hair cuts, sports tournaments, cakes, graduation parties, and live animals--to name a few.

Baptism in Carmen Pampa officiated by UAC-CP director Fr. Freddy del Villar.

Just as asking someone to be the godparent of a child at baptism is an official form of taking on responsibility for that child during his/her life, Bolivians invite people to be godparents of things as a way to fund/sponsor all or part of an event or things. Some things, like weddings, might be entirely unaffordable if left to the host/ess. That's why bits and pieces are farmed out to people who are named godparents. At weddings there are always godparents of the rings, invitations, cake, decorations, reception hall, etc. "You mean you the couple and their family pays for the whole thing?" Bolivians ask me increduously when I explain our godparent-less custom in the U.S.

Of course there are the traditional godmothers and godfathers in the way most people probably interpret the word. In fact, being named a godparent of baptism is, as they say, kind of a big deal. It's a serious commitment; a promise of sorts to be part of someone's life...forever. Which is why I take this request most seriously and I don't always accept the offer.

But a couple weeks ago, Agronomy student Alex Aguilera gave me the thumb to forefinger hand gesture that means: "Can we talk for just a second?" And, as expected (thanks to Hugh tipping me off), Alex made the pitch. "Will you be my madrina?" he asked.

I told 25-year-old Alex what I tell any UAC-CP student who asks me to be their godmother. "If I accept, that gives me every right to make your personal life my business. Are you sure you want to invite me into your life?" Albeit briefly, he considered this. "Okay," he replied. And so it was during mass this past Sunday that I became, yet again, a godmother.* Now begins the custom of Alex calling me madrina (godmother) and me calling him aijado (godson); of both of us always having some kind of unique connection to the other.

Of all the times I've been madrina of Coke, cake, and t-shirts, I've most enjoyed being madrina for Daniel Carrizales.

"Madrina!" my 6-year-old godson Daniel Carrizales called out to me last night as he dug around in a pile of odds and ends under the stairwell of the Volunteer House. "What is this!?" he asked, walking into the living room holding a bat and ball. "Que es esto!?" I repeated, mocking his emphasis on the word "this." "That," I said, "is a ball and a bat. It's called baseball; it's a game we play in my country." Baseball. One more lesson to teach my godson. Right after we bake an apple pie!

*Hugh, by a long shot, holds the record for most godchildren. People are pretty sure every child in the neighboring community of Chovacollo are his aijados.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

the grand fiesta

With all the noise going on, you may have already heard: today marks the first of four full days of festivities here at the UAC-CP.

The annual fiesta, which grows bigger and bigger every year, celebrates the anniversary of the founding of the College. This year we celebrate 16 years of serving Bolivia's rural sector through higher education!

Ecotourism classmates wait for the relay runners to arrive at Campus Leahy. The festival starts Wednesday evening with a relay run from the Puerta del Viento--a well-recognized notch in the mountain above the College.

The olympic-esque tradition dates back to the day when the College had just barely enough people to make one or two soccer teams. They competed in the Inter-UACs--fending off against their peers at the other four UACs* located on Bolivia's high plain. But as the UAC-Carmen Pampa started to grow rapidly and successfully, it was decided that there were plenty of talented athletes, musicians, dancers, actors, etc. right here in Carmen Pampa.

An Education student watches a futsal game.

Today, with an average student body population of 700 students, there are plenty of willing and able competitors. Identified by the color of their t-shirts, the name on their flag, and the rhythm of their cheer, students in Nursing, Agronomy, Ecotourism, Veterinary Science, Education, and Pre-University participate in a variety of events: sports, dancing, poetry, chess, singing, etc.

While students busy themselves with events, UAC-CP administrators work behind the scenes--preparing lunch for everyone. When I walked down to the 25 de Mayo food cooperative this morning, faculty and staff were busy toasting rice, peeling carrots, and cutting potatoes. "We have 800 potatoes to prepare," I overheard someone call out. It takes a lot of potatoes to feed 700 active young people!

Andres Pardo, Director of the UAC-CP's Education Department, and Jose Luis Beltran, Director of the UAC-CP's Agronomy Department, prepare peas for today's lunch.

The festival will end on Sunday with the entrada--a parade of traditional, large-group dances that will weave its way down to the village of Carmen Pampa and finish on the College's soccer field. Administrators, students, and graduates will all be on hand to celebrate together!

By the time Sunday evening arrives, the winners will have been awarded, the cheering will have died down, and the flags and banners and costumes will have been put away. Students will be exhausted from multiple days of giving it their all. And on Monday we'll go back to "normal" as we continue on with our mission and work to serve through higher education.

*There are four other Unidad Académica Campesina colleges. They are financed and managed entirely independent of the UAC-Carmen Pampa.