Saturday, December 19, 2009

'tis the season

For me, there are just certain things that signify that the Christmas season has arrived: snow and cold weather; Christmas trees, wreaths with giant red ribbons, and outdoor lights; Jingle Bells-infiltrated radio stations; Advent wreath-adorned tables; a live production of The Christmas Carol; gift wrapping; and, last but definitely not least, peppermint ice cream. But those things that traditionally symbolize Christmas for me in the U.S. are hard to come by here in rural (subtropical) Bolivia.

Which is why for the past couple weeks, despite the small tree in the main office, my co-worker who listens (and sings along) incessantly to the Christmasy song Belen, and the abundance of panetones (Latin America's version of the fruitcake), I have found it hard to believe that the Christmas season is upon us. When I sit in a t-shirt and shorts reading emails from Midwest-based friends and family about holiday parties, Christmas-themed theater, and Secret Santa exchanges, it doesn't compute. "It's like if you suddenly started celebrating Christmas in July," I wrote to a friend the other day.

Christmas tree at our all-staff luncheon on Campus Leahy.

But despite the heat and the lack of red and green M&Ms, I always end up getting into the spirit of Christmas...eventually. Considering that Christmas here really doesn't start to appear until a week before December 25th (as opposed to a week before Halloween in the U.S.), I just have to have more patience in knowing that the warm fuzzies of the holidays will arrive...on it's own, non-commercial timeline.

For me, the spirit struck me yesterday at our UAC-CP all-staff Christmas party. It came first at mass, during the sign of peace, as the near 60 people employed by the College in some administrative capacity, energetically moved around the chapel to share la paz--peace. It was through the lively and sincere exchanges of handshakes and hugs that I felt Christmas--the feeling of being among friends and family, mi familia Boliviana. And then it continued through the fraternal fellowship that followed as we all shared the typical Bolivian Christmas meal, picana. And just like that, in an average-esque afternoon, Christmas presented itself in sunshine-filled Carmen Pampa.

Eight-year-old Kristia Carrizales (daughter of UAC-CP graduate/employees) stands next to her family's little Christmas tree.

Honestly, I love Christmas in Carmen Pampa--it's always simple and pure. Which is why, even though I'm excited about my upcoming travels with friends, I'll miss celebrating Christmas Eve in our little village this year. I'll miss the the big church--packed with locals from the surrounding communities and their children, dressed in traditional outfits who come prepared to sing and dance. I'll miss passing out modest gifts to grateful, grinning kids. I'll miss baking bread and making hot chocolate with the UAC-CP students who stay to work over break. I'll miss sitting around and talking with the people from neighboring communities. And I'll miss the peace and quiet of Carmen Pampa the following day. That whole evening--that, for me, is Christmas.

May the spirit of Christmas, whatever it means and however it feels to you, find you wherever you are.

Feliz Navidad y Prospero Año Nuevo...desde Bolivia

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Last week Daniel Condori completed his third year of studies in the College's Agronomy Program--it was probably the most difficult year of his life. But the difficulties had nothing to do with homework or tests.

Last April Daniel's father Manuel, a construction worker in nearby Coroico, was severely injured in a work-related fall. Although we originally received word that he had died, Manuel unbelievably survived the accident and now, nearly nine months later, he is living at at home where he is confined to a bed--unable to walk and talk.

Daniel Condori with his mother outside their home in Coroico. Daniel's mother earns about $30 US a week for harvesting coca.

The accident has caused a dramatic change within their family unit. It's taken a toll on Daniel, the oldest, who feels torn between his responsibility to take care of his family and continue with his studies at the College. Understandably it's been incredibly stressful for him. A few months ago he came to my office to talk about how juggling school, work, and family was leaving him physically and emotionally exhausted.

But somehow, Daniel made it. Determination and hard work, mostly. "I've worked a lot of construction jobs," he said. This way, he's earned enough income to pay for studies, food, and family. Unfortunately, all the work has left him with no time to complete the hundreds of practical internship hours required for his area of study. "I've had to make difficult choices," he told me, "and unfortunately my studies suffered because of it. But what other option do I have?"

Daniel pictured with his dad in his family's living room/bedroom. (Photo credit Cross International)

Even with his job and his mother's earnings, the family is unable to afford the 30 Bs a day ($4 US) for regular hospital attention for his father. "Imagine! That would cost us 900 Bs ($130 US) a month!" he said, appalled at such an outrageous cost. So Daniel and his mother, with the help of two other siblings, have developed their own physical therapy routine. Daniel also credits the local priest who comes every Sunday to celebrate a mass in their home and help bring his dad to the hospital for doctor visits.

Shamefully, I have to admit, I've only gone to visit the family once--in early October. It was a very sad situation. His father, laying in bed, groaned and moaned as he seemingly tried to explain to me what happened in the accident. Though impossible, Daniel seemed to be able to communicate with his father in some way.

These days, Daniel is feeling optimistic. He reports that his father can respond with "Sí" or "No" and, with help, he can stand up. It's painfully slow progress, but it's nonetheless encouraging. In fact, Daniel smiles and laughs when he talks about his dad's simple, yet seemingly miraculous abilities.

And then laughter quickly turns to eyes welling up with tears as he tells me, "I love my dad and I give thanks to him for everything he's given me throughout my life. I just want him to get better; I can't stand watching him suffer."

Daniel is the oldest of three siblings. His youngest brother (left) is in high school. His other brother (right) just finished his obligatory year of military service and wants to study in the UAC-CP.

In the end, Daniel knows that he can't let his situation get him down. And I know he recognizes that in some bizarre way this experience will make him stronger--I know this because that's what he tells me.

Daniel is definitely ready for the two-month summer vacation. He plans to spend some of that time in La Paz with his father looking for someone who can help them with physical therapy support. "So I'll see you at the end of January for class registration," I confirm as we say goodbye in the traditional Bolivian way with a handshake and kiss on the cheek. "Yeah," he responded unconvincingly.

But because Daniel made it through this past year, I am pretty optimistic he'll be back next semester. That's what his dad would want.

Friday, December 11, 2009

nursing grad in the new york times

A few months ago The New York Times asked readers to submit photos that they believe show the importance of educating girls and empowering women. They published the photo I submitted of UAC-CP Nursing graduate Genoveva Orosco--a photo that I feel captures the confidence and the pride and the social and economic change that happens--often in just one generation--when people have access to education.

The photo published online in the New York Times Magazine shows Genoveva, in her nursing uniform, standing with her very stoic and traditional campesino parents on graduation day in Carmen Pampa, August 2008.

Genoveva, like many of her UAC-CP counterparts, could easily be one of the women featured in the now widely read and Oprah-touted "Half the Sky"--a book by NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn that makes the argument for how women in the developing world have the capacity to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.

One of six children, Genoveva is not an ordinary college graduate. She is the daughter of extremely poor potato farmers who barely finished grade school. She is a young woman who first came to study in Carmen Pampa in 2003--traveling alone, up to 12 hours away. She is a proud, indigenous person who, with little to no financial help from her parents, carved out a future by working weekends and summers* in order to pay for part of her studies (she also had a partial scholarship). She is the first of everyone in her family to graduate from college and work as a professional.

Genoveva on a recent visit to Carmen Pampa.

Genoveva is also a young woman who exemplifies the mission of our work here at the College. Today, one year after graduation, she lives in her home community of Sapanani (a town located about 20 miles from the Bolivian city of Cochabamba) where she works as the coordinator of a public health center. While the health center is part of a larger network of clinics funded by Fundación San Lucas, at her site she manages three other people. Her job, she told me, not only helps her to support her family, but she feels good about providing medical consultations for the people of her community.

Even though she isn't mentioned in Kristof's book, Genoveva goes down in my book as a testament to the power of education to transform lives. And because she now has a college degree, Genoveva has choices she never would have had otherwise...which means the sky--whether or not she holds it up--is the limit.

*For those of you who have been to the Volunteer House in Carmen Pampa, Genoveva helped paint most of it during summer vacation 2005.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

evo time

A couple weeks ago in Coroico I made an impulse buy. I wasn't at all in the market for a new watch, but when a Bolivian friend half jokingly suggested that I purchase the Evo Morales-themed time keeper, I couldn't resist. Despite the relatively steep $5.80 asking price, I couldn't fight the strong urge to augment my political kitsch collection.

Tiempo Boliviano: half past Evo Cumple. (Not a super clear photo, I know...but you get the idea)

So that's how it came to be that I'm now the proud owner of a black plastic watch that pays homage to Bolivian president Evo Morales. It features Evo (who I swear is winking at me) and the phrases: "Bolivia Change" and "Evo Cumple." As if the face of the watch wasn't crowded enough, it also displays the word: "Yangkey," which I thought was a misspelled attack on yankees/gringos, but it's apparently just the brand name of the watch...which, incidentally, was made in China.

The timing of my purchase (pun intended) is a bit coincidental. Tomorrow is December 6th--election day here in Bolivia. It's been four years since Evo was elected as the first indigenous president of Bolivia and tomorrow voters will return to the polls and, assuming all goes as my lunch crowd tells me is expected, Evo will earn himself another term as the jefe máximo of Bolivia.

Ricardo Ramos won the first-ever (Sarah Mechtenberg-sponsored) "Evo Lookalike Contest" at the College this past year. Online voters agreed it was his thick crop of hair that garnered him first place: an Evo-lución t-shirt.

Though I'll refrain from making any personal political commentary, I will say that Evo's political party, MAS, has been out in full force for the past couple weeks. But here in La Paz (due to travel restrictions,* I had to come to La Paz yesterday in order to pick up visitors on Monday morning), all is tranquilo. Now that the campaigning is officially over, the pre-election energy that I felt last weekend in La Paz (marchers, press conference with Vice Presidentis Alvaro Garcia, media frenzy, etc) seems to have evaporated. For today, only graffiti remains.

Tomorrow, I've been told, most everything will be shut down here in Bolivia's capital city. Without transportation, everyone will be pretty much contained to their homes and neighborhoods--the only place they need to get to are the polls. So, apart from accompanying a native friend on a field trip to experience Bolivia's democratic system, I'll probably meander around La Paz on foot--with Evo, of course, strapped to my wrist...winking at me.

*Voting in Bolivia is obligatory. Also, national law requires that there is no purchase/sale/consumption of alcohol 48 hours prior to election day. It also prohibits travel on the day of the election (except in rural areas such as Carmen Pampa where they travel to neighboring towns like Coroico).

Thursday, December 3, 2009

learning to breathe again

It could be interpreted many different ways. But UAC-CP Nursing graduate Agustin Apaza chooses to see how his life has been filled with fresh starts and new opportunities. His brilliant smile and bubbly persona are the result of having a positive outlook on life, he told me when I sincerely questioned how he never seems to let difficulties get him down. "Imagine if I'd lived my whole life feeling sorry for myself," he posed. "Do you think I would have ever been able to achieve anything? No!"

An orphan who was found abandoned in a plaza in La Paz as a baby, Agustin grew up in a system of public and private orphanages--always longing for the mom he never knew, often feeling alone and forgotten and discriminated against. And then, as a child, he was diagnosed with a life-threatening heart defect. He spent more than 10 years in and out of hospitals before a Rotary Club in La Paz (#4690) made it possible for him to travel to the U.S. for surgery.

Going into the surgery, Agustin (15-years-old at the time) knew that if it wasn't successful "they wouldn't be able to do anything more to save me." Death was at the door, but Agustin emerged anew. "It felt...kind of weird...because basically, I was reborn," he explained. "I had to learn to walk all over again. Because I had no strength in the beginning, I even had to learn how to breathe again."

In some ways, Agustin said, it was the same for when he arrived to study here in Carmen Pampa. Released into the world as a young man without any type of resources and unable to afford the cost of college anywhere else, he came to the UAC-CP on a scholarship. And it took some adjusting to get used to living life in the countryside, but it was at the UAC-CP where he was once again given a new chance at life.

Having grown up in hospitals, the College's Nursing program was the last thing he wanted to be a part of. "I was treated so poorly by nurses for most of my life," he explained. "I told myself, 'I am never going to study nursing. One, because it's just a dirty job and also because the medical staff were so mean. Plus, I knew the cost of studying would be too expensive." But through a series of events that he believes are more than mere coincidences, he ended up studying Nursing. "Now look!" he smiled, noting the irony. "The thing I wanted least of all for my life, that's what God chose for me!"

"Nursing is about service; it's to help the people that need--that's how it helped save me. And God changed me so that I could go on helping others. I was a very, very sick person for most of my life..and in a bizarre way, I believe that is what saved me." His illness, he said, is what has made him a more dedicated professional--he understands that it also has a very emotional and human aspect.

At the same time, he feels that the UAC-CP has technically prepared him for his professional work, too. "The principle thing for our Nursing Department at the College is the promotion of health and prevention of disease in the rural area--that's why we have the major here. We are all prepared to work in the rural area, we have the experience," he said. "Each semester we leave and do practices in hospitals and clinics throughout the Department. And what we see and experience is that we have the power to give back and make change and spark development in the rural area."

"I think each of us in life has a mission," Agustin told me after I asked him to talk about his understanding of the College's mission. "And this is my mission--to reduce the pain and suffering for people." Which, he admits, is easier said than done. "For me, working in the rural area is the saddest part. Partly because we see people who have been forgotten by our government, people not well taken care of, people who don't have basic services, and people that are very far from health services."

"Truthfully," Agustin said, "it's painful because you see people in need and you feel helpless because you don't have the necessary supplies to improve the situation. How beautiful it would be to have equipment and medicines and such to be able to attend to their needs. But considering the reality, you know the person is sick and often you can't do anything."

"Public health is very sad," Agustin said after recalling a couple particular incidences of visiting the homes of poor, farming families. "But it also gives you much joy. Sometimes you make a house visit and attend to a patient and feel like you've really made a difference--you do it, you cure them. And then days or weeks after that, the family will come to the hospital or clinic and say, "Thank you." It's the best gift for those of us who work in public health--it's not, 'Here, take my chicken,' or 'Here, I brought you fruit.' No. Not for me. For me, it's that they say, 'Gracias,' and smile and that's sufficient. With a smile and a thank you, you feel so satisfied. It always makes me happy because I know I did my job and I completed my personal mission."

When I reminded Agustin that he also completed his mission of graduating from college, he flashed me his giant trademark smile. "I can't believe it. I can't believe it!" he said, shaking his head in disbelief. "I am so happy to have finished. And so, so proud that I finished at the Unidad Académica Campesina-Carmen Pampa. So proud."

"That is what I hope for--for people to always take the spirit of the UAC-Carmen Pampa with them in the work they do, to be proud of who we are and what we accomplish for the poor and marginalized. ...Wherever I go in this world, I am always going to say that I am from Carmen Pampa. Always. Always."

Agustin officially graduated from the UAC-CP in September. He is currently employed by Medicus Mundi and works on a Chagas disease project in the rural area around Tupiza, Bolivia.