Thursday, November 25, 2010

thankful for raúl's lesson

Today, on Thanksgiving, those of us in the U.S. are reminded of everything for which we have to be thankful. Many times, we even speak of this day in terms of our "bounty" and "abundance." As a Minnesota/South Dakota-native living and working in rural Bolivia for nearly five years, I often find myself inspired by the young people here at the College who are able to recognize and give grace and gratitude for what they have...particularly in terms of opportunities that come without abundance.

I think of UAC-CP student Raúl Carita – a young man genuinely grateful for the opportunity he's been given to study at the College, despite the challenges and difficulties that accompany it.

Raúl Carita.

A first-year student in the UAC-CP's Nursing Department, I first met Raúl a couple of months ago when our Food Cooperative manager handed me a list of names of students who she heard weren't eating regularly and asked me to check in with them individually.  Raúl's name was at the top of the list.

A day later, sitting on the bench outside the Volunteer House, I encouraged Raúl to tell me why he wasn't participating in the Food Cooperative Program. And so he explained: he is the youngest son of poor citrus farmers who live here in the Bolivia's mountainous Yungas. "My parents are old and they work really hard for little money," Raúl told me. "I can't bare to ask them for extra financial help."

Which was why Raúl was barely eating. He was skipping meals – drinking only juice, eating only crackers – because he couldn't afford the monthly $22 subsidized cost for lunch and dinner in the College's Food Cooperative Program. (Thanks to Cross International, the College offers a free breakfast program for all students and donations to Carmen Pampa Fund help provide a subsidy for lunches and dinners). Any money Raúl was able to save he used to pay for school supplies and his nursing uniform.

"So, why do it?" I asked him in all sincerity. "I mean, how is it that you want to study so badly that you're willing to put your studies before your stomach?" Raúl's answer was simple. He came to study in Carmen Pampa because he knows first-hand the abject poverty that exists in Bolivia. And he knows he has the ability to do something about it.

"I have seen the way people are forced to live in remote, rural communities. They have no access to public health or education and it makes me very sad. But I believe, with a college degree, I can help improve the health and livelihood of my people. I feel called to do this."

Raúl's tender disposition and dedication to helping people charmed me immediately. As did his ability to solve his food problem.  "I talked with the president of the Food Coperative," he told me later. "And we agreed that I will work in the kitchen every day and help the cook." In exchange for his work, Raúl said, he is able to eat for free. A great solution for Raúl! (But unfortunately not something that will work for all students who need financial help to pay for Food Cooperative dues.)

"You know," Raúl said into the microphone my iPod voice recorder, "I really feel called to be a nurse, to help the sick and suffering in my country. Yes, it is a difficult time for me as I work to achieve this goal. But I at the same time I am so grateful for the opportunity to be here [in Carmen Pampa]; to have this chance to improve myself and serve other people."

Today, as I consider my blessings, I think of Raúl. And I find myself truly appreciating that, in the midst of so much need (adequate food, accessible health care, quality education, etc.) and in the absence of abundance and privilege, here in Bolivia there are young people like Raúl who not only recognize grace, but turn it into opportunity and change.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

comfort vs. adventure: travel bolivia-style

Travel in Bolivia can be described in many different ways--none of which, in my opinion, would ever make use of the word "comfortable."

I was reminded of this yesterday when, in a hurry to return to Carmen Pampa from La Paz, I opted for a seat in a 15 Boliviano ($2.15 USD) 15-passenger minibus that was leaving ahorita.*  I hesitantly chose the minibus over the faster and more comfortable 25 Boliviano ($3.50 USD) minivan option that I usually take on my weekly treks to Bolivia's capital city because there weren't any minivans available.

Giant buses like the one pictured here are generally reserved for longer, overnight rides. This was a flat tire on a 17 hour trip to Apolo.

So, unable to run the risk of not getting home, I found myself smashed smack dab in the middle of a minibus. With not enough leg room for me to sit forward, I turned my body to the right--resting part of my back on the man sitting to my left and claiming floor space of the young man to my right. With no room to put it on the floor, I held my bulky messenger bag on my lap carefully trying not to bother the braids of the woman sitting in front of me. It was immediately obvious to me why I generally splurge the extra dollar for the minivan option.

There seems to be an unwritten rule in Bolivia that for every seat in a car, bus, or van, there is the capacity to hold 1 1/2 x's that amount. On trips to Caranavi (three hours away) four or five people are often squeezed into the backseat of a station wagon that should only have seatbelts for three. Once, seated far in the back of a 15 passenger minibus with my parents on a trip from Tiahuanaco to La Paz, my mom shouted aloud (in English) when the head count surpassed 22 people: "What? How many more people are going to get on?" (The answer, we learned, was two).

A minibus from Carmen Pampa carries a spare tire, soda bottles, and a local kid on top.

And when people don't fit inside the vehicle, they go on top. Bolivians like to joke that the fare actually costs more because those "seats" come with air conditioning and a panoramic view. But, as a product of a country that enforces relatively strict seatbelt laws, it never seems quite right to me when I see children, live animals, and propane gas tanks sailing harmoniously atop clunky Toyota minibuses!

That's not to say I'm immune from riding in non-traditional fashion. I have done my fair share of riding standing up in the back of pick-up trucks and the larger, semi-truck-esq camiones.  In fact, apart from the slow speed, possibility of getting rained on, and the safety concern (there is always the threat of going over the cliff!), I hold firm that one of the best ways to travel from the hot lowlands back to Carmen Pampa is hitching rides with truckers carrying giant loads of rice or coffee. The bags containing either of these products naturally contour to the shape of your body as you nestle in for an evening of Southern Cross gazing and shooting star watching.

Yesterday, as I loathed my physical discomfort, I was hit with an odd nostalgia as I recalled all the times I had traveled in uncomfortable conditions.  And that's when I realized that some of my most vivid memories of Bolivia have centered on uncomfortable travel. Whether it was begging the driver to let me off a non-stop 15+ hour bus ride so I could go to the bathroom. Or the time I hitched a ride with a bus of young military guys who dropped me off in the middle of nowhere at 1am as the fork in the road leading to our separate final destinations forced us to part ways. Or the overnight bus I ended up on with all elderly Quechua-only speakers who I accompanied across the cold, dark Altiplano listening to the song "Sunshine Reggae" played repeatedly. (I of course had to purchased the song off of iTunes once I got home.)

This truck, eventually carrying about 16 people,  didn't make it to our final destination...we arrived on foot.

It has been in some of the most physically uncomfortable modes of transportation that I have experienced some of my best and most memorable adventures. They are the hot and dusty adventures of listening to countless hours of cumbia music. They are the reflective adventures of looking out the window and feeling overwhelmed as I watch Bolivia's poverty whiz by. They are the quiet adventures of traveling across the barren Altiplano. They are the conversations with local folks about politics and economics and social conditions. They are the unforeseen, three dollar adventures of sing-alongs and flat tires and near-miss head-on collisions on winding, gravel roads that weave throughout Bolivia.

Almost all of them are the types of adventures my back and legs and patience would prefer not to repeat. Yet I am so grateful to have experienced every moment.

Yesterday, as I sat for 40 minutes inside the tight confines of the minibus that had yet to leave the terminal, I felt my patience waning. And then, as the bag of coca started to be passed around and the murmur of the native Aymara language began to bubble up, I reminded myself that I'm not here because Bolivia is "comfortable." I'm here because I love traveling on a journey full of adventure!

*The Spanish word ahorita, by definition, means: "right now, right away."   However, I have found it to mean: "any time between right now and five hours from now."

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

cutting edge: advanced studies

"It's the latest thing!" UAC-CP Veterinary Science graduate Reyna Carrizales told me last Saturday when she surprised me with a visit to my office. "It's great that the UAC-CP is offering this program," she said, referring to the College's new post-graduate diploma program that focuses on developing businesses to specifically serve Bolivia's rural area.

Reyna Carrizales is a 2009 UAC-CP graduate and is currently registered in a post-graduate diploma program at the College.

The South Yungas native said the specialty program (which requires her to travel to Carmen Pampa every other weekend for two, long days of classes) is very applicable to her current job where she works as a health inspector for a unique slaughter house that serves llama breeders in Bolivia's Altiplano. In her free time, Reyna has been helping an association of poor farmers from the Altiplano organize themselves to sell llama jerky. "Everyone I work with is very excited for me that I'm registered in this diploma program," she said. "Because they know it will only make me a better employee."

Reyna graduated from the College last year after defending her thesis--a research project that focused on the cleanliness of the slaughterhouse in the nearby town of Coroico. She researched different types of disinfectants and application processes to determine the most effective way to kill microorganisms. "The objective of my thesis was to improve the health of people in Coroico," she said.

As a result of her work, Reyna was able to respond to the needs of the people of the people from the rural area to help address a community problem. "That is what a thesis has to do," Reyna explained, "respond to a problem in a simple way and in a way that the average person or farmer from the rural area can understand the solution and affordably implement changes."

Today, Reyna is applying both her thesis project and her post-graduate diploma studies to her professional career.  "We graduate from the UAC-CP confident in our abilities to be able to create change."

Monday, November 1, 2010

entomology eddy

Almost two years ago, I wrote about UAC-CP Agronomy graduate Eddy Alarcon. Eddy, who hails from the rural Bolivian community of Santiago (Mapiri), is the son of poor miners who barely earned enough money to put food on the table while he was growing up.

UAC-CP graduate Eddy Alarcon stars in a short video that features the work of the College's entomology lab.

With nothing but a mid-sized wooden box full of his few belongings, encouragement from his mother, and hope in his heart, Eddy made the 16 hour journey by boat, bus, and foot to study at the College in 2000. And eight years later, after lots of bumps and bruises along the way that were eased with scholarship assistance and moral support (and tough love) from classmates and UAC-CP faculty and staff, Eddy graduated--with one of the highest scores ever awarded for a thesis project to date.

Recently I received a link to a short video that features Eddy and his work in the College's entomology lab (to watch the video, click here). The video was made by former UAC-CP volunteer William Wrobleski who spent a semester in Carmen Pampa in 2008 interviewing faculty, staff, students and community members about the impact of the College on their lives.

William's interest in Eddy's thesis project is what I presume inspired him to make this video, which not only features Eddy but serves as an important reminder of ways the College's service extension projects empower young men and women like Eddy to respond to the needs of poor farmers. The College's special projects, like the entomology lab, provide UAC-CP students with a way to learn by providing education and services to local farmers.

For those who have visited the College, this three-minute video will help bring you back here to Carmen Pampa for a moment. And for those who haven't had the opportunity to experience Carmen Pampa, I expect William's video will introduce you to the sights, sounds, and people--like Eddy--who are part of the UAC-CP's mission and vision. The mission to provide higher education to the poor; to prepare young men and women who are called to serve the poor; to guide young adults in their search for truth through education, research, and community outreach; and to integrate the work of the College throughout Bolivia's rural area.

Mil gracias, William, for helping others meet the people of Carmen Pampa through your lens!