Saturday, November 28, 2009


I am quite aware of the expectation that I'm not supposed to have favorites. But since she's the only girl her age that I know in the town of Caranavi, I think it's safe for me to proclaim that Paola Calle Ticona is my favorite 8-year-old friend in the sweltering river town located three hours from Carmen Pampa.

Paola Calle Ticona.

Paola is the oldest daughter of Tito Calle and Flor Ticona--who also happen to be the first UAC-CP students I met when I first arrived to Carmen Pampa in December 2003. [You don't forget those kind of things--the people who first showed me kindness.] Six years ago, Tito and Flor were young parents, financially strapped and struggling to make their way through school. Paola was their first and only child at the time--a gorgeous, polite little girl who everyone on campus knew and loved and, in some ways, helped raise.

Today, Paola is a bubbly second grader at a private school in Caranavi. She's a brilliant little one (I offer unbiased proof: she carries the flag in all school events, which means she has the highest grade in her class). Her favorite subject is math and she wants to be a mathematician when she grows up. She spends her free time doing extra-curricular activities, playing Barbies, reading books, coloring, and helping to care for her three younger siblings.

A year ago, Paola learned to play chess at an after-school program. A skilled player, she now helps her teacher coach other students at her school.

I marvel at Paola's life as it is an almost unbelievable leap from that of her parents'--her mother, especially. Flor, the youngest of nine children, comes from a remote Quechuan community located in the rural area outside the town of Apolo--more than 24 hours from Carmen Pampa by public bus. Faced with no other educational opportunities, Flor came to Carmen Pampa at the age of 15 to study at the boarding high school. "I earned 70 Bolivianos ($10 US) a month," she told me, to help cover costs. "And I rarely afforded to go home, so I would normally stay and work over summer and winter break."

On a scholarship, Flor continued her studies in Agronomy at the UAC-CP where she met Tito, had Paola, married, and now lives with her family (they have four children) in Caranavi, where Tito is the regional manager of ANED (a micro-finance company). While Tito graduated from the College, Flor is still one class and a thesis defense-away from officially being counted among the titulados. She wants to finish and has people willing to make that happen, but it's more difficult with children, she told me. Truthfully, she dreams of returning to Carmen Pampa and I dream of helping her do it.

Flor and Tito with their children: Alex, Alda, Alan, and Paola outside their home in Caranavi.

In any case, Flor has experienced the transformative power of education...and it shows, especially as I see it trickle down to her kids. Though her poor, Quechuan roots are evident in her reserved, stoic personality, when Flor speaks of her children she exudes confidence and tenacity. "My girls," she said, motioning to Paola and 3-year-old Alda, "they are going to go farther than I could have ever imagined for myself."

Paola is one of very few children living in rural Bolivia who can claim that both of her parents are college educated. In Paola (and the other children of UAC-CP students), I see the power of education as it gives them opportunities that their parents only dreamed of and their grandparents never imagined possible. "When you think," Flor told me, "that my parents can't speak Spanish--they can't read or write in any language--and then I went to college. Now I look at Paola and all the opportunities she has that I never had because my family was so poor..." Flor stopped talking and looked over at her daughter quietly reading a book. Neither of us said anything. If you don't believe education can lift people out of poverty, I thought to myself, try telling that to Flor Ticona.


Hands down, Paolita is one of my favorites. And, I admit, it makes my heart happy to know that I think she classifies me, in some way, as her favorite, too. "Is that your aunt?" I heard one of her little friends whisper to her in Spanish as we sat watching Tito play soccer on a Sunday afternoon in Caranavi a couple weeks ago. "La Sarita?" Paola responded in a confused sort of tone. Then she looked up at me and smiled. "No, she's my good friend!" she if every 8-year-old in rural Bolivian towns have 32-year-old gringa friends. "No ve, Sarita?" she asked, as if to confirm that the feeling was mutual. "Sí, Paolita." I told her. "We are good friends."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

last minute pardon

Though the pilgrims never made it to Carmen Pampa, the gringos did...and with us, we brought our Thanksgiving tradition.

This past Sunday, a group of about 20 people representing at least six different countries, came together to share in the feast of Thanksgiving. On the patio outside the Volunteer House, we delighted in the culinary wonders that annually make appearances on U.S. dinner tables the fourth Thursday of November.

Our fearless leaders: Hugh, Fr. Freddy, and Tom.

It was a team effort with a plan mapped out on the dry erase board in the Volunteer House. Mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, canned cranberry sauce*, fresh baked bread, stuffing, beet salad, deviled eggs, and a variety of pies (pumpkin, apple, and mango).

Of course, it wouldn't be Thanksgiving without the quintessential bird. Or, in this case, the birds. Though we had hoped to prepare one of the two free-range turkeys we've watched grow up over the past couple months in the coffee plant area, when I stopped by to strike a deal with the turkeys' owners last Friday, we agreed that the birds still had a couple months to go before they'd be ready to eat. So, we had to settle for chicken--four of them.

In the end, Tom the Turkey actually did make an appearance at the special afternoon meal, but not in the traditional way. As we gobbled up chicken with all the fixings, Tom strutted around the yard relishing in his last minute pardon.

*Special Thanksgiving Shout Out to Kimberly Lane for sending down the cranberry sauce! If you couldn't get on the AA flight, we're at least happy that the cranberry sauce did!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

head of the class

Last week I attended a couple days of workshops in Coroico. Presented by the Inter-American Institute for the Collaboration of Agriculture, those of us in attendance were employees of the UAC-CP and CARITAS Coroico--a Catholic, social service agency whose extension projects nicely compliment the five academic areas at the College.

Graduates Richard Agramont, Paola Surco, and Victor Hugo Flor work in social service extension projects for CARITAS Coroico. Miguel Manuel Manrique manages the College's entomology lab. They were a few of the UAC-CP alumni present at a recent workshop in Coroico.

As my eyes wandered a bit during the presentation, I found myself counting the number of UAC-CP graduates who were in attendance. Fifteen. Out of approximately fifty attendees, 15 were graduates of the College. Many of them, in fact, were students I had in class back in the day--an ironic twist that didn't escape me as I would occasionally awaken from day dreaming to find a couple of them sitting next to me taking copious notes.

The same students whose homework I used to grade, whose food cooperative fees I used to collect, whose futsol games I used to cheer on...are now my colleagues. Now, I thought in the moments when my mind wandered away from the theme of project development, we are working with them to create change, instead of for them. It definitely left me with something to think about during two long days of workshops.

For those of you on Facebook, check out Carmen Pampa Fund's page with recently updated photos of UAC-CP graduates.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

true confessions of an unhappy camper

This past Saturday morning, a few hours before I set off on a long-weekend camping trip with 75 Pre-University students and a few UAC-CP staff, I stood outside in my pajama pants whining to Hugh. "I just know that I'm going to regret singing up for this whole camping thing by the time I wake up tomorrow morning," I told him.

In fact, I was wrong. I didn't regret it the next morning; I regretted it much sooner--about twenty minutes after leaving Carmen Pampa I had become one unhappy camper. One of 75+ people packed, standing up under the midday sun in the back of a giant camion, I was contemplating ways I could politely excuse myself from the commitment I had made to my co-worker and camping trip coordinator, Carlos Fernandez. By the time we finally arrived to Coroico, I had a text message from an all-knowing Hugh: "Having fun yet?" Absolutely not, I thought.

Me climbing into the camion where we waited about 20 minutes before actually leaving.

Even though my name means "princess" in Hebrew, I generally like to think that I'm not a high maintenance person. Gringo friends who have visited me here in Bolivia would agree--my definition of "roughing it" is often a bit more liberal. But this past weekend, despite slightly more than three years of life in Bolivia, I received a zap of culture shock.

Part of the reason I was annoyed was that I felt the entire outing was very unorganized. "I don't know any of the details," I told Hugh, before he graciously took time out of his busy morning to drive me and my supplies to the upper campus. I've worked in non-profit programming and education long enough that I come to expect certain pre-activity requisites: schedules, objectives, goals, and...details! "Nobody has told me what the plan is!" I said. "And does this really surprise you?" Hugh asked. He had a point there. No. It didn't surprise me. ...but, still, it annoyed me!

Without tents/sufficient camping equipment for everyone, some students had to build their own tents of plastic and tree branches.

I had also been fooled by the word "camping." When I think of camping, I call to mind words like: quiet, relaxation, solitude, mother nature, hiking, reading, s'mores, etc. Bolivians, I quickly learned (particularly in groups of 80), have a different idea of camping. What I had assumed would be a weekend of reflection, reading, and nature hikes turned into a pseudo Survivor-esque reality show of student groups competing to build the most exquisite of campsites that would have done Gilligan, Mary Ann, and the Skipper proud.

Within a couple hours of our arrival to the campsite, students (split into seven teams) transformed a flat, grassy knoll into a type of Gypsy-looking camp. "These are true campo kids," Fr. Freddy said proudly as we watched students, in ant-like fashion, scramble to build tables and camp stoves out of rock and lash branches together to make tents and clothes lines. It's true--our students from the rural area are amazingly innovative, creative, and adaptable.

Students in "my" group built a traditional underground oven to cook Sunday's lunch: chicken, yuca, potatoes, and plantains.

Of course the low-impact camper in me was concerned with other things, though. What about the bathroom situation? What are we doing with the organic and inorganic waste? Should we really be digging up all this earth? Why are you moving all these rocks around? Can't we make just one fire pit instead of seven? My inquiries were received with looks of confusion; I was left feeling like the queen of prissiness.

My bad attitude was called out by my good friend and UAC-CP graduate turned UAC-CP staff member Carlos Vergara. "Sarita, why are you looking like that?" he asked in his impeccable English, as I sat along the river (apparently scowling) as I watched students frolic in the swift current (I wasn't keen on entering--I had seen too many pieces of garbage float by). Carlos, who is my ever-so-trusty cultural beacon, had no sympathy for my displeasure. "Sarita, this is what we do for camping. You have another idea of relax, but that is not what my people do. This is what we love!"

Group of students eats breakfast--hot chocolate and a piece of bread--before starting the day.

Carlos had a point. The students loved it--that I could not argue. Despite the fact that I was the only one whose tent survived the rain and wind storm on Saturday night, all the students were loving the experience. Working together, they took turns hunting for firewood, cooking, and washing dishes. Free time was spent playing games, swimming, and preparing for Sunday evening's talent show. "I wish we could stay another night," Olga, a beautiful and timid young woman from Potosi, told me over breakfast. "Don't you want to stay?" she asked me. I didn't have the heart to tell her.

Truthfully, I wanted nothing more than to go home. The 50 percent of me that Myers Briggs has identified as introverted, needed to be set free from the big group. Which is why this morning (day three) as I started to watch the clouds roll in and feel the rain begin to fall, I decided to start packing up my things. And then, by some grand miracle, my phone rang. It was Sr. Jean and UAC-CP driver Javier Tintaya coming back with visitors from La Paz. They would be passing by Pacallo--would I like a ride back to Carmen Pampa they asked. Yes!

Within twenty minutes of that phone call, I was seated in the front seat of the SUV telling the backseat gringo contingent all about my weekend (making it clear that my dissatisfaction was an exception to the rule and acknowledging my straight up bad attitude). Sr. Jean, perhaps used to my more positive spin on things, laughed. "I can't wait to see how you blog about this one!" she said.

Alas! The true confessions of an unhappy camper...very happy to be back in Carmen Pampa.

Friday, November 6, 2009

chasquis vs. fiber optic cables

More than 500 years ago, the success of the Inca Empire's intricate communication system relied upon chasquis--messengers who delivered important news or transported special objects between distant locations. Typically, chasquis were exceptionally strong men between the ages of 18 - 25-years-old who ran for miles, often in high altitude and poor weather conditions, to complete their assigned tasks. They were, in essence, the information super highway of the Incan era.

I couldn't help but think of the chasquis the other day as I watched a team of IT specialists from La Paz working to install fiber optic cables to connect the UAC-CP's upper and lower campuses. Once complete, the College will have an internal telephone system and better Internet connection--a modern-day information super highway right here in Carmen Pampa.

With no cell phone signal in Carmen Pampa, my "pink brick" serves only as an alarm clock. It's convenient for when I'm in Coroico or La Paz, however, as it has phone and texting capabilities.

Although chasquis in the traditional sense are no longer used, communication in rural Bolivia mostly still relies on the same general concept--if you want to send a message or a package, you send it with a person. Even here in Carmen Pampa where our Internet and phone access are an exception to the rural Bolivian rule, we are constantly relying on one another to deliver things via chasquis. "Are you going to the other campus?" we frequently ask one another. "Will you tell [insert name] that [insert message]?"

Although cell phones are quickly making their way into the lives of rural Bolivians (they are relatively inexpensive to buy and maintain), cell phone signals have yet to arrive in most tucked away areas (Carmen Pampa, for example). Of course, for the younger generation there is e-mail and the Internet has made an appearance in some major rural towns (it's become a great way for us to maintain contact with UAC-CP graduates), but unlike in the U.S., people here are unable to check e-mail with relative frequency making it an unreliable way to send urgent information.

The word-o-mouth method is better than nothing--even though it's unarguably very slow and unreliable. It's painful, too. Last June one of our students from a very poor village about 15 hours away from the UAC-CP was unaware that his father had died until a classmate from the same hometown arrived to Carmen Pampa with the news. Sitting in my office with a hand over his face to cover his tears, Francisco said he couldn't believe he had missed his father's funeral. His family had no way to contact him. His story is unfortunately not unique.

As part of his required community work hours, UAC-CP student Rinel Apaza helps to install new wiring on Campus Leahy.

Chasquis and fiber optic cables; pututus and wireless internet. These juxtapositions show how rural Bolivia finds itself at a tremendous communication crossroads. It's an intersection that is gradually bringing modern technology (cell phones, Internet, etc.), in contact with old communication methods still used today (as I write this, I can literally hear the call of the pututu announcing a community meeting for the locals).

Though it seems a long time coming, looking back it's really incredible to consider just how fast our communication abilities at the College have evolved. When I arrived here for the first time six years ago the Internet was essentially non-exist and and our lone office phone on Campus Leahy provided spotty, expensive service. Generally, to communicate with the outside world it was at least a 45 minute trip to Coroico (wait time not included) to use painfully slow and relatively costly Internet (according to my watch, it took about four minutes just to open a single e-mail).

Today, I have wireless Internet in my bedroom! The other night, in fact, with the help of Skype (an online software program with phone and texting capabilities) I dialed up a taxi driver from Coroico to ask that he send a car to pick up visitors from the UAC-CP. After I hung up, I was ecstatic--a task that once might have taken me a good chunk of time, energy, and money to arrange, took me no longer than two minutes and about 30 cents. Even the most robust chasqui couldn't compete with that!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

javier alvarez: a positive outcome

John Estrem, Executive Director of Carmen Pampa Fund, reminded me recently that the success of the UAC-CP shouldn't be measured so much by the outputs (e.g. number of graduates), but by the outcomes--the work of our graduates, for example, and their response to the mission of the College. Of course, with numerous graduates and thesis students spread throughout Bolivia, it's difficult to effectively capture and measure outcomes; it's a tedious task that often requires the sharing of unique and individual stories.

Javier Alvarez, a 2007 UAC-CP Agronomy graduate, is one of many of those stories.

Javier Alvarez in his office in La Asunta in July 2009.

Since April 2007, the 38-year-old Charazani native has worked for ACDI/VOCA--a branch of USAID that supports rural development. Javier is stationed in La Asunta, South Yungas, where ACDI/VOCA is focused on two projects: 1. The implementation of social projects (potable water, bridge and school construction, etc.); and 2. The implementation of productive projects (farmer associations for crops and livestock).

Of the four projects that ACDI/VOCA is currently focused on--plantains, coffee, stevia, and apiculture (bee keeping), Javier is in charge of the latter. The organization's concentration on these four crops was determined after doing a technical study last year that identified the needs and capabilities of local farmers, Javier told me.

"What we do is this," Javier exlained. "we work directly with farming communities in the South Yungas." The process begins with beekeeper training that Javier provides to farmers in rural communities twice a month for 3 or 4 months. "We do the training in the most practical way that we can by coming to farmers in the countryside. As they are older people, and they learn by doing, we concentrate on the practical part more than the theoretical." The workshops also bring farmers on field trips, of sorts, so that they can meet with other beekeepers. "In this way, they learn farmer to farmer--they learn better..they can speak in their own language. And they can learn first-hand whether its worth it, the difficulties, the success, etc."

Javier's ACDI/VOCA project has contracted with FUNDACOM (a honey business owned and operated by UAC-CP graduates in Coroico) to build bee boxes for their training program.

After the basic training program, farmers form associations made up of people who are fully dedicated to the project. "The training allows us to see who has real abilities to implement the program. Some people like it, others don' this is how we do the workshops in each community."

"Interested families can receive up to five bee colonies," Javier said. Seeing the look on my face, he anticipated my question before I had the chance to ask. "Why five? Because we did an analysis of the flowers in the sector. We could give each family 10 - 20 colonies, but the bees depend on the flowers for their alimentation..and we decided that the five colonies can be divided in their lots. Fifty columns for one sector is a lot, so we have determined that five is a sustainable number."

When I talked to him in July, Javier was working with six communities (about 90 families, he estimated). "Once the farmers have their product, the idea is that they will be able to work with ARCo (another USAID branch) that has more strength in commercialization. Whether it is ARCo or us, we will help them guarantee a market so that, in the end, they increase their family's income." Javier said the work is a way to help foster economic and social justice for Bolivia's rural poor.

Once he had finished explaining his work, I asked Javier how he interprets the mission of the UAC-CP. He explained that the mission of the College has a lot to do with human formation. "We learn how to transmit our knowledge to the people in the countryside so that they can also develop in the same type of way. More than anything, we are trained to help contribute to rural development. In my case, those of us with this project [UAC-CP at ACDI/VOCA] are working to help farmers implement successful production so that they can improve their income."

"I believe that I am realizing the mission [of the UAC-CP]," Javier told me, pointing to ways in which the College infused him with values of responsibility, honesty, and respect. "These are the values that we need to spread throughout the communities we reach. It is our duty as graduates of the Colege to help community leaders learn these values so that justice exists for people. And by people," Javier continued, "I include women, too, because in the countryside there does exist a problem with the marginalization of women. They are valued very little and that's not good. So, more than anything, our work is to insert the human values we've learned into rural communities. That, for me, is most important."

"Thanks to God, things are going well for me in my work," said the married father of two. "I've earned my place in this world...and I feel good because I think I'm supporting people that really need."

Sunday, November 1, 2009

bread babies

As my country folk spend the day recovering from their Halloween sugar highs, those of us in Bolivia are gearing up for Todos Santos.

Todos Santos (All Saints) is a multi-day, government-recognized holiday that, melding indigenous and Catholic beliefs, celebrates the lives and pays tribute to the memories of deceased family and friends. Essentially, it's Memorial Day--with a twist.

Todos Santos is characterized most commonly by t'antawawas (a word in the indigenous Aymara that means "bread babies"). Ceramic faces representing people and animals are sold so that people can bake them onto the bread. They are left on altars prepared for the spirits' return and they are handed out to visitors who come to pray for the deceased.

As is custom, people prepare altars in their homes to remember those who have died--particularly family members who have died within the past year--and to welcome the spirits for visits. The kitchen tables-turned-altars are covered in a collage of things: momentos that represent the deceased (pictures, keepsakes, etc.) as well as candles, bread, fruit, chicha, and sweets. Neighbors and friends visit the homes and pray before the altars offering up their wish for the deceased to safely find their way to the afterlife. In each home they usually prepare and eat the favorite meal of the person(s) they are remembering.

The altar prepared in the Volunteer House last year for Todos Santos. The ladder is a common symbol (often in bread form) that represents a way for the spirits to "climb up" into the afterlife.

Tomorrow people can be found visiting the local cemeteries where they will gather around the eternal resting places of their loved ones. As a community, they will gather together to eat, drink, chew coca, and listen to music. Like other visitors, I am more than welcome to join them. As I did last year, tomorrow I plan to make my way around the cemetery with a big bag in hand to accept the gifts of t'antawawas, popped corn/rice/wheat, and candies that they give in return for praying with them.

It's a lovely tradition and one of my favorite Bolivian celebrations.

For more information, try a google search for "Todos Santos" or, for those of you who read Spanish (or for those of you who don't, but want to see some pictures), click here to read an interesting, more in depth description.