Friday, July 29, 2011

Giving Thanks

I am very grateful for the privileged lifestyle that I live here in Bolivia. I think of this sometimes when I am passing people on the streets in the city or when I am going out to a nice restaurant that I know many people around here would not be able to afford. I also recognize my status almost daily here at the compound. I am very fortunate to be receiving an education at Emory and although I am taking out incredible amounts of loans to pay for school, in theory they are covering our expenses for the summer. In part this means that they are paying for our food and lodging while we are staying here at the MAP compound in Chilimarca. From my understanding thus far, the money that the University is paying for us to stay here is actually a way for the organization to make money and so it doesn't just cover the expenses of our housing and our meals. I am not exactly sure how much is being paid but I imagine it to be roughly $250 a week which is a lot for being here in Bolivia and would be enough to live off in the States. I don't know how much the people that are helping us out make, but I am certain that it isn't much. A lot of the staff members come to help fix things in the house if there are any problems but there isn't anyone dedicated to maintenance up here. It is also a slow time of year for visitors so it seems like it isn't really necessary.

The biggest help that we get comes from the woman who cooks our lunches and dinners during the week, going shopping for our groceries, and cleans the house once a week. We have had two women that have been here throughout our two months here. At first Margarita was here because the main cook Mercedes was out of work because her son and husband had been in a terrible car accident. A couple of weeks later Dona Mechies (Mercedes) came back and Margarita was no longer with us. We got to know Mercedes fairly well and are always appreciative for the things that she does for us. Unfortunately it seems that her son's health has gone downhill again and he has been in and out of the hospital. Dona Mechies also had an accident in the kitchen and cut her right hand very badly and may have even cut a vein. She is out of work again and I am not exactly sure why. I also don't know if she has insurance for her son who is disabled, or if she gets any type of paid leave while she is gone. It is a very unfortunate situation. Since she has been gone I have been selfishly missing the fresh-squeezed orange juice that she had been making for me with greater frequency after she learned how much I loved it. Honestly though I could care less about my missing out and I just hope that she and her family are ok.

In the meantime Margarita is back with her. I am equally grateful for all of the things that the has been doing for me and my team from Emory. She is a great cook and always prepares lovely meals for us that include a soup and then a segundo or main course that usually entails fresh vegetables, cut cucumbers and tomatoes, a meat of some sort, and often time potatoes and/or rice and/or pasta. Before she leaves in the afternoon, often to go to her second job she leaves another course which could be lentils, lasagna, or a quiche for our dinner to go with the leftovers from lunch. Once a week she comes to clean the house and sweeps and mops, cleans the bathroom, and takes out the trash (including our toilet paper from the bathroom because you don't flush it here). We also pay her a couple of dollars extra to do our laundry once ever week or two and she seems very grateful for the extra income. Margarita has also been kind enough to share some of her culinary secrets with Betsy and I and we have begun learning how to cook like real Bolivians. A lot of the stuff is not that complicated but things are done a little differently here. What I still really want to learn is how to make the incredibly rich soups that we have everyday. They range from potato soups, to cream of peanut soup, to this pureed spinach soup that sounds disgusting but is absolutely delicious. Through conversations while cooking I have come to learn a lot more about Margarita and about the hard life that she lives. I still don't know how old she is and I think she only appears to be old because of her short round stature but I imagine she isn't much over thirty. She has three children aged 15, 10, and 8 and although she loves them, she is a single mom and has a very hard time taking care of everyone. She has told me that she wishes she could be like me and not have any children still. She works at least two jobs including her work here and also sells vegetables during the evening and I don't even know what else. It seems like she might pick up a few things for herself when she goes to the big market between 3 and 5 am on Wednesday and Saturday to pick things up for her other business and for our food here. It should also be mentioned that she carries all of this food on her shoulders and on her back to get through the market and then to get from wherever the bus drops her to here. I promise not to complain about carrying groceries from the car to the house ever again. I am also very thankful for supermarkets and for the baskets or buggies that we have in them. Margarita has lived a hard life and seems resigned to working hard and doing the kind of work that she does. She is a great cook and learned to cook when she was 13 and was working in the Taquina beer factory not far away preparing meals for the workers. When I asked if she was in school at the time, she explained to me that she grew up with her grandmother and that they didn't have any money for her to continue to go to school and that her grandmother was getting old and needed someone to support her so she went to work very young. I mentioned that the good thing about her having three children was that they would be able to take care of her as she got older and maybe she wouldn't have to work so much but she didn't seem very confident in that as a possibility. I know that her children are in school but I don't know how she manages to support all of them on what I imagine is a very very very modest salary to say the least. She is a good woman and makes me recognize and appreciate the position that I have in society, and helps me to remember that it is not something to be taken for granted and that I should be reminded to do good things for others or to leverage my position to make the world a little bit better of a place.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Land Before Time

Monday, July 25, 2011

After finishing the beast of a grant application that I had been working on all week long I left with the girls for a weekend trip to Toro Toro National Park in Potosi. I had NO idea what the trip would entail. After a lot of running around and asking for directions we arrived at the bus stop for the bus for Toro Toro. Fortunately, the hotel we were staying at had already purchased tickets for us and so we just had to arrive and get on the bus. We were running late so we hopped on the bus only to find out that we had gotten on the wrong bus and so we switched to the bus in front of it. Our departure was scheduled for 6:00 but the sun set and we continued to wait until nearly 8:00 before officially departing the area. Apparently it takes a while to secure things like bedframes, tables, chairs, and months worth of food rations to the top of a huge tourist bus. I prayed that we wouldn't be on a rough road and end up tipping the bus over from being top heavy. Although I was less than excited to be leaving so late, I was glad to be on the road none the less. We tumbled one a dirt and cobblestone path away from the city and down through riverbeds until we reached Toro Toro at roughly 2:00 am, a bit later than the scheduled 11:00 arrival I guess.

We checked into our lovely little ecofriendly hotel at the Villa Etelvina and promptly collapsed in the beds. The next morning the girls and I were up bright and early for a lovely breakfast with nice hot breads, fresh juice, real butter, and an overall beautiful setting at the foot of the mountains. I was surprised at how friendly and attentive the staff were, how clean the place was, and how beautiful the setting.

After breakfast we made our way to town to check into bus tickets (which was a hassle) and then find a guide for the day. The town was a simple Bolivian town with a colorful Potosi flair and a surprisingly well developed tourism industry despite the recent (4 years ago) arrival of electricity to the town.

In the tourist office we ended up adding a Peruvian and English couple to our group to split the cost of the guide and selected a trip to El Vergel for the day. We thought we would have a lovely and relaxing day down by the waterfalls but five hours, 10 K of rough terrain, and over 1600 steps in and out of a canyon we thought otherwise. The day was absolutely breathtaking but also absolutely exhausting. The scenery was so intense and rough and it was no challenge to imagine this as the land of the dinosaurs. Our guide Pablo did a wonderful job pointing out dinosaur footprints and other historic relics along our journey to El Vergel. There were easy casual parts and challenging parts that required a lot of lifting, pulling, and trekking. I was constantly amazed by the natural beauty of the adventure and delighted that we had the park all to ourselves until we arrived at the river in base of the canyon. For hours it was just our little group crossing natural bridges, climbing up rocks, and huffing and puffing down the side of the mountain. The water at the bottom was fun, but freezing and as we arrived relatively late we had limited time as the sun began to go down just over the walls of the canyon we prepared to leave and head back up the mountain. It was exhausting, exhilerating, and astonishing. Once we arrived back in town we returned to the hotel where I took a glorious hot shower with great water pressure. After everyone had freshened up we asked for an early dinner and had some pizza and beer, and LOTS of water along with a few rounds of rummy before turning in early from our tiring day.

We started the day with a hike to the Ciudad de Itas (Rock City in Quechua) which was really all about the hike to get there rather than the actual rock arches. Before we even reached the starting point by car I could feeling the heaviness in my lungs from the altitude. It was hard going but incredibly rewarding. Don't get me wrong, they were really lovely but the feeling of being on top of the world and all of the beautiful mountain views along the way were just awe inspiring. Again we had the park almost entirely to ourselves and only once saw a group far below us and then passed a small group right as we were leaving the area. Everything was really enjoyable and lovely except for the part where we had to climb up a cliff with a rope to hold onto but no harness. I was pretty scared and had to seriously strategize about the safest way to get up and although our guide was really great, I still didn't entirely trust the system and being right on the edge of an enormous cliff didn't help at all. Unfortunately, a lot of those photos are on another camera and you won't be able to see them until I come home. Anyway, it was just beautiful and brought so many emotions to me including excitement after conquering, awe at the scenery, peace when just reflecting on a mountaintop for a bit, adrenaline rushes and energy as we continues to climb, and relief after making it back.

There were many similar emotions in the huge cave of Umajulanta that we went to next but I have to say that the repelling and climbing were easier there when it required any kind of equipment. I suppose it also helps when it is dark and you don't quite know how close you are to the edge. There were quite a few times that I did see the edges and cliffs in the cave and was a little less than comfortable but knew that I could make it through everything. It was exhausting and thrilling, terrifying and beautiful. Once again the group and I were beat as we emerged from the cave and ready for the view on the hike back but dreading the climb to get there. I know someone who would be very proud of me though because I made it out of the cave as the cleanest of far! I wish I could explain it better and although I do have some nice pictures, it is still really hard to illustrate. Overall it was just amazing.

Sadly we had to return today and barely got tickets on the bus. Please note that I said tickets here, not seats, as we had to sit in the floor in various capacities as we rumbled back through the rough road on our five hour return trip. It was so worth it though and I would go back in a heartbeat.

The morning

Friday June 22, 2011

I know that things have been quiet the last couple of weeks but I have been swamped at work with a grant for the European Commission. I was working with the Health Communities team to try and get a huge grant together and we were attempting to do the impossible, complete this grant application in one week whereas it usually takes professional months of work to get the grant together. It was a lot of work but I think it all worked out as best it could and we did have a finished product to turn in.

Throughout the week it took a lot of concentration to separate my thoughts from the grant process and all of the stuff we were working on when I was at home. Thanks to barking dogs, racing thoughts, and one of the higher stress times while I was here I was having trouble sleeping and waking up quite early. Here is a thought from Friday morning when I woke up. .

When I left the house this morning to go make myself a cup of tea and a piece of toast I noticed that it had rained last night. This is only the second time that it has rained since my arrival here in Cochabamba and coincidentally both rains coincide with our travel weekends. I just pray that the rain doesn't follow us to Toro Toro. The ground was softened by the rain and the dirt look more familiar to me than the dessert like dust that I usually kick up on my way to the kitchen. The air smelled sweeet and spicy, hard to pinpoint but somehow almost like an Indian restaurant. The air I have become accustomed to smells like hay as we are in the dry season and all of the tall grasses are dry and ready for the cows. I looked up the hill on my way out the door and saw that the cows were indeed doing their job and were now grazing closer to our home and approaching the end of the tall grasses. The moisture from the soft rains still hung in the air, soon to be eliminated by the rising sun. Although any rain during this time of the year is almost unheard of, I am grateful for these showers and I just hope that the farmers are grateful as well and that these strange rains have not brought any undo troubles to their fields or their harvests.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

From the Amazon Basin to the snow covered peaks

What a trip! We set out from CUBE just before noon on Friday. We had worked the previous Saturday so we thought it would be reasonable to take off a couple of hours early to catch our bus to Villa Tunari, a much needed tropical retreat. After our names were called at the trufi taxi station for Chapare Region we paid our $25 Bolivianos and loaded in the van. Fortunately we had the middle section all to ourselves but the children sitting in the back were continually leaning up, putting an elbow on my hair, and burping in our ears which made the trip a bit less comfortable. As soon as we left the city we hit rain and it continued to rain and be extremely misty on our whole trip but we imagined that it would let up once we arrived in Tunari. Our driver passed every large truck and other taxi on the winding mountain roads that he possibly could and I mean EVERY one possible. There were more than a few times that we had no idea how we would cut in front of the other cars before the oncoming vehicles smashed into us and sometimes we even had to slide back into our previous position when there wasn't enough room. It was a bit hectic to say the least but despite the eradic driving and unstable zones that weren't paved we were all enjoying the change of scenery. Visibility was very limited due to the fog and the rain but what we could see was an incredible transition from dry grasses to lush large leafed tropical vegetation. Around each corner we saw new darker more tropical plants and before we knew it we were deep in the Selva, surrounded by the jungle.

After the three hour rollercoaster ride we arrived in Tunari, a strip of dumpy tourist spots alongside the roadside and our driver dropped us off a the taxi station so we could get a ride to our hotel. A few kilometers of bumpy cobblestones, dirt paths, and mudholes later we arrived at the incredibly secluded Hotel Selva El Puente. Upon check-in we learned that we would be the only guests in this lovely little place. It seems that the cold front that would be around for roughly a week kept anybody in their right mind out of town. Despite our disappointment with the weather we decided to make the best of it enjoy having the property all to ourselves. It didn't look like we would be swimming in the pozas or the pool like we had envisioned, but at least we could have a nice drink and a decent meal, right?

After putting our things down it was time to explore and as Betsy wasn't feeling too well in the stomach, Lise and I decided to take the path down to the pozas ourselves and do some exploring. We made it down the slippery path down the mountain fairly easily and when we arrived at the bottom it was again not quite what we had envisioned but pleasant none the less. Essentially it was just a river coming through the woods with a rather deep and calm part; not much for where I come from but apparently a lovely destination for Bolivia. I played with the rocks and just sat by the river with Lise for a while before we went back up to the top. In exploring the property we saw lovely plants and trees and even spotted a crazy electronic sounding bird that only chirps once it sticks its hindfeathers up in the air.

Soon enough we were back in the room checking on the increasingly sickly companera and getting ready for dinner. We went up to the restaurant and ordered a drink and got a fire started for us in the chimney while we looked over the menu. The food was rather pricy for Bolivia but we figured it would be pretty nice. Apparently the staff had to go out to kill the cow, and catch the fish for our dinner because it took an impressively long time for dinner to be prepared. Meanwhile we were warming up and getting hungry but at least one of the maids had taken some warmer blankets to our room.

Once the food finally arrived it was again quite different than what we had hoped for. Lise's garlic Surubi was mediocre at best and my meat and cheese sandwich reminded me of street vendor food here in the city but the greasy french fries weren't too bad, and somehow had less grease on them than the fried yucca. I guess I can't complain too much because poor sick Betsy had asked for some spaghetti pomodoro with the sauce on the side and when it arrived not only was it on top of the pasta, but it was a pomodoro sauce with chunks of meat, not really the best for a vegetarian. We ate for a bit and tried to find some humor in the experience and make the most of the private lodge type atmosphere right by the fire but soon it was just too much for Betsy and she was back in the room. Lise and I turned ourselves toward the fire and sat our feet right on the edge of the chiminea to warm our toes and actually had a really nice conversation about life experiences and we were just really starting to talk about Kids4Peace when we were interrupted by an old man from the hotel who told us he would be leaving us for a soccer game. He hadn't been gone for a minute before he came back and began serenading us with his guitar songs, leaving for a couple of minutes and then returning with another song. After a few Bolivian songs, and even one he had written about his home in the Yungas his soccer game must have started...thankfully.

We hung around for a a few minutes longer as the fire died down and then made it back to the room with a piece of bread and a bottle of water for Betsy. Unfortunately when we got there all of our thoughts were confirmed and she was far beyond having a stomach ache, it was clearly what I came down with a couple of weeks ago. We did what we could to make her comfortable and then began to plan our getaway for the next day. It was also at this time that another worry of mine appeared to be confirmed. I checked my funds and it looked like I was missing a couple hundred Bolivianos and I am pretty sure that the lady who brought our blankets took the liberty of going through our things and found our money. I of course questioned myself and thought maybe I was wrong but as I am writing this we have pretty much figured it all out.

The night was long and the music from some drunken party that the staff was having was loud but we survived. Our breakfast on the patio was actually quite nice and I even had some watermelon in honor of the fourth of July coming up. Soon enough we were packing our things and had a taxi called to get us out of there. Getting a trufi taxi from the bus station was easy and we were packed in and headed on another rollercoaster exursion within minutes. I think our prayers and concerns were much more on Betsy and getting her back in one piece than the crazy ride, and in some ways it was nice to be back as quickly as possible. The view was actually much better on the way back because the fog had lifted in some areas and we could see the incredible tropical mountains and the lush vegetation.

Three hours and a handful of near misses later we were back in the city and jumping into a cab to Chilimarca. We made it back and walked straight into the clinic but unfortunately could only get some Ibuprofen for Betsy until tomorrow when Teo comes back in. We came up and got Betsy into bed and then I went to make a tomato sandwich for lunch, buy some powerade, and borrow some movies and now I am just relaxing, not at all upset about leaving Tunari early.

Final report- highlight=chatting with Lise by the fire, sitting by the river, and the vegetation. Lowlight=being robbed, but at least I don't have parasites anymore.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


June 27, 2011

My blog and my friends have heard little from me this week for two reasons. The first rather insignificant reason is that there were two national holidays this week, meaning that most things shut down including the offices and the internet. The real reason is so small that it would seem insignificant but is actually quite the terror on the system. It seems that I have come down with some parasites so I have hardly been able to function as a normal human being, much less work and update everyone. It has not been a very exciting week at all and things seem to be turning up just a bit but I think it might still be a long road to recovery. I think once I can finally sleep through the night I will feel much better.

However, this week has given me a ton of time to think and although it has been hard to record many of my thoughts, there are some that have stuck with me. Inspired by a recent email from a classmate I decided to take note of some of things that just don't make much sense and i can't quite figure out why in the world these things are the way that they are.

So...why in the world is our shower on the same level as the rest of our bathroom without any kind of ledge or barrier? When we shower the water gets all over the floor and the entire bathroom is soaked. It seems like it might make more sense to put it down in a whole or to build a ledge up around where the water falls. It might also make sense to put a curtain in so that the toilet doesn't get soaked. I guess if you want to be able to use the bathroom and shower at the same time then this arrangement makes perfect sense. I guess we'll just keep squeegying the floor after our showers so nobody slips in the pools of water.

Why in the world are there so many wild dogs? Fortunately, it is fairly well known and they even put green strings on the necks of those that have had rabies vaccines but we have a few that stay here inside our compound and it is not unusual to see these grimy mutts inside a dining room or even under your chair in the computer lab.

Why in the world did people ever think it was a good idea to cross and orange and a lemon to make a lima? It didn't come out well and it is just like a weak version of a lemon and an orange with a funky bitter aftertaste. Not something to get excited about, and no, it is not a lime.

Why in the world would you tell someone you had just been in prison for two years for being falsely accused of drug trafficking if you are trying to get money from Americans? There was a man who followed us and told us in English about the time he had lived in Texas only to ruin any chance he had of maybe getting a Bolivian out of us with the prison talk. Good thing I was quick thinking and used the excuse of having to track all of our expenses.

Why in the world is Nescafe so popular? Bolivia could be and in some places is great for cultivating coffee but this ridiculous Nestle company has the most serious kind of monopoly going on here. At the same time, why in the world does Betsy love it so much?

Why in the world do none of the doors seems to fit right? With a little proper hanging they wouldn't be scraping the ground when you try to close them or if you shaved the bottoms they would stop doing it and making that terrible sound. I also don't understand the cracks in all of the doors, it lets the cold night air right in.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Hace frio en los Andes

June 16, 2011

Today was the best day so far. First let me say mountains. Now let me explain. We left the center this morning before 5:00 and began our trip out way past Morochata through the National Park of Tunari into a 100% AmerIndian village where all spoke Quechua or Quechuanol. It was still dark for a few hours after we got on the bus to the mountains but I just couldn’t sleep. As we began our ascent into the mountains I was so anxious for the sun to come up that I couldn’t go to sleep. I was also FREEZING and couldn’t have gotten warm enough to sleep if I did want to. I was enthralled by the journey that I couldn’t take my eyes away from the windows because with every hairpin turn and bump along the dirt road the scenery continued to change. The mountains got taller, more rigid, and more beautiful as we progressed. Eventually we crested the mountains and throughout our decent we were watching as we passed the llamas on one side and saw the clouds below us on the other. We continued to twist and to turn for hours until we finally arrived at our destination just as the sun was warming the entire mountainside, a very welcome visitor.
We arrived at the house of Asunta, one of the most well known and well respected health promoters that MAP has trained. She has been working as a volunteer health promoter for nearly 20 years now and has seen some very serious transformations in her village. Asunta never did marry much to the dismay of her family originally but now her father, who only speaks Quechua recognizes the incredible wisdom that she has. She attributes much of her dedication to a spiritual calling from God to serve others in the work that she does. She also carries a great deal of pride for her village and her traditional way of life and hopes that people can learn to celebrate the traditional way of life. There are many people that are migrating out of the villages and usually when people receive training they leave the village for a better job in the city.
There is really incredible work being done in these places and I am happy to be a part of it. Of course there are frustrating times and challenges but for the most part I am very thankful.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A picture story of sorts

Please note that some of my favorite photos are being omitted based on the guide and requests from MAP Bolivia