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!

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