Tuesday, July 8, 2008
Monday, July 7, 2008
Thursday, July 3, 2008
The computer lab is up and running in the barrio where our students are doing service. Twice a week a group of students attends the lab, giving instruction to children and adults in the basics of computer use. Just learning the difference between right-click and left-click has been a challenge, but the people are making good progress, with some of the kids showing signs of being true computer prodigies. The computers, donated by Rutgers University's Office of Undergraduate Education, will remain in the community after we have gone - our students are preparing a plan for the ongoing operation and maintenance of the computer lab, so that residents of the community can continue to enjoy the machines, and future generations of Rutgers students can continue to participate in this form of service-learning.
Friday, June 27, 2008
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
I had been feeling poorly for several days, with a sharp headache that felt like a lightning bolt striking the left side of my head. Oddly, the skin in that same area was sensitive to the touch. Then I developed an incredibly painful earache. I thought it was TMJ, brought on by grinding my teeth when I sleep, a problem I've had occasionally in the past, but never with such force. But then I developed an odd skin rash, again on the left side of my head and face, and that's when I went to the doctor. She diagnosed shingles, a common but extremely painful reappearance of the chickenpox virus, typically brought on by stress and exhaustion. Hmm.
Now I am in bed, my face swollen on the left side, and incredibly ugly. I can't really open my mouth for the pain and swelling, and the occasional lightning bolt of pain still shoots through my left ear, causing me to spasm in agony. But the good news is that I have excellent Bolivian colleagues here who can run the program just fine in my absence. The students by this point are well-established in their routines of language study, coursework, and service, and are developing relationships in their fieldsites with local people. All of this means that the program has reached the point where it requires much less intervention on my part than it did at the beginning, so my illness won't impact things too severely. And the students are off on a vacation trip to Toro Toro with the folks from Bolivia Cultura on Thursday. Hopefully by the time they return on Saturday night, I will be well enough to resume my duties.
Saturday, June 21, 2008
But for us in the Study Abroad program at least, Saturday is the sabbath, our day of rest. A few students had to take a makeup Spanish class today, but most got to just chill out. Our team got time to spend with their families, and the students got a break from our very demanding schedule. I spent the morning walking - I walked from my hotel to the cancha, where I visited my friend the priest at his parroquia, and then walked all the way back. Then I read a novel, taking a full day off from work. Unprecedented.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
We spent two days this week in the nation's capital of La Paz. After an early morning flight from Cocha- bamba, our group was met at the airport by a tour bus which took us to Tiahanacu, the pre-Incan archaeological site, where we toured the ruins and had lunch. Then we rode to La Paz itself, descending from the rim of the altiplano down into the bowl that holds the city, the Andean Cordillera brightly lit by the late afternoon sun. For some reason, we found ourselves lodging in yet another luxury hotel - on each of our excursions we have ended up with very comfortable accommodations in the most sublime of settings. In La Paz, we found ourselves in a beautiful, white-washed hotel pressed against the rock wall of a cliff overhanging a river. Though we were quite a distance from the center of town, the students didn't seem to mind, availing themselves of the heated pool and sauna on site at the hotel.
The next day we played tourists, visiting the Museo del Oro and the Museo de Instru- mentos Musicales. The highlight of these visits was a chance encounter with the contestants in the Miss Cholita La Paz pageant, who were happy to pose for pictures. For a change, we had middle eastern food for lunch, which was incredibly filling, and visited the witches' market and artesan shops around Sagarnaga. G. and I went shopping as well, and he was particularly pleased with the Tigger baby sling he found for his daughter in the market. We made a brief stop at the hotel to collect our bags before returning to the airport and the short flight "home" to Cochabamba. Personally, I was happy to escape the altitude of La Paz for the milder climes of the valley.
Monday, June 16, 2008
Meanwhile, the rest of the students worked on the construction of the community center. They laid rocks into the trenches they had dug last week, and helped to mix cement for the foundation. Unfortunately there was a shortage of materials, so work ended early. The sky was overcast, which provided some merciful cover against the strong sun of Cochabamba.
In the afternoon G. took Kelly and Tom over to Concordia Central to set up the computers which we had donated last week – classes will start on Thursday. Another group of students went to attend the afternoon knitting session that the Loma Pampa women’s group holds every Sunday, and which our program is also supporting. The rest of the students ran an English class for kids in the barrio. Probably 30 kids and teenagers showed up, and practiced some rudimentary English phrases while teaching our students how to say the same things in Quechua. Afterwards, our students joined the barrio kids in a variety of games that spontaneously erupted following class. Movies follow this posting.
Tomorrow morning we are off to La Paz for a short visit to the highlands.
Amy teaching English
Jacob and Aida in Loma Pampa
Katie plays with the kids
The next day we visited Chimore, another town in the Chapare and headquarters of the various coca eradication and interdiction forces. These include the FTC (joint task force of the Bolivian military), the UMOPAR (the Bolivian rural coca police), and the DEA, who live in a bunker off to one side and are not seen very often out in public. We first were taken to see an actual coca field eradication, something that outsiders rarely get to glimpse. We were led by a Coronel, commandant of the FTC, who gave us an orientation on Bolivian coca policy before sending his group of young conscripts out to pull up the coca bushes. Coca growing is legal up to a certain limit in Bolivia today, but anything grown beyond that legal limit (such as this particular field) is subject to eradication. The Coronel went out of his way to impress upon us his recognition that coca is not the same thing as cocaine, even offering our group some coca leaves to chew. (Lisi did her best in this regard, but didn’t seem to enjoy the experience.) This alone indicates the change in coca policy under the Evo Morales administration. After the eradication tour, we returned to the base where we received a lecture on Bolivian drug law from the Chapare prosecutor’s office, and then toured the cocaine museum set up by UMOPAR. The tour was led by another friendly Coronel in camouflage fatigues, who showed us all the clever ways that narcotraffickers have found to smuggle cocaine base out of the Chapare. The museum also included mock ups of drug processing labs, where coca leaves are converted into cocaine paste, which is then transported to more sophisticated labs (largely in Colombia) for conversion into powder cocaine.
Following this rather intense experience, we visited a nearby cooperative farm, where small farmers participate in a project of growing and marketing hearts of palm. This farm has been very successful, using start up support from USAID and later the Spanish government, recently becoming more independent and experiencing a great demand for their produce. It was encouraging to see this success – most of the reports on “alternative development” have described its many failures in the Chapare. But here they have been able to gain a lot of local support – it helps that the canning factory is located nearby, and it is easy for producers to sell their product without long transportation costs and marketing problems. Other crops being grown on nearby fields include black pepper, which is difficult to grow but turns a good profit. The farmers are experimenting with organic farming, and recycle their waste as compost which they both use and sell to other farmers in the area.
The only real problem we had in the Chapare (besides the nasty armadillo that Tom ordered for lunch one day) was at the Parque Machia, where they take in and rehabilitate injured animals. Machia is known for its monkeys, which come down from the trees to pick the pockets of visitors – a site our students were eager to see. We visited the park four times, and were never able to get in. The first two times it was raining, and the woman at the gate said that the monkeys get nervous when it rains and sometimes bite visitors. The third time we went it was not raining, just overcast, but again we were unsuccessful – the woman told us that the monkeys get nervous when it is cloudy and sometimes bite visitors. The fourth time was on the morning of our departure, when the rain and clouds had finally cleared and the sun shone down brightly. The same woman at the gate told us that the monkeys were eating breakfast, and we would have to come back in an hour. I have to admit that at this point I lost my cool, calling her a “nazi” and a “fascist” and threatening to write nasty letters to the tourist guidebooks denouncing their treatment of foreign visitors. I think the students may have enjoyed this display almost as much as they would have enjoyed the monkeys.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
We celebrated Yury's 21st birthday at Casa de Campo, where we all ate extremely large amounts of classic Bolivian dishes. This was followed by a cake, which was also enormous, and in Bolivian style had to be consumed in its entirety. (Nina: Why are cakes here so wet?) G and his wife brought their new baby to show off to the students, and she was adorable in her yellow jumper. Tomorrow we will begin getting ready for our trip to the Chapare on Thursday.
Monday, June 9, 2008
Sunday - our first day doing service work in Loma Pampa, one of the barrios where our students will be spending time and doing research. We arrived in the barrio at 10 AM, and were greeted by Don David, the president of the community. He then introduced us to the group of people working on the project of building the community center, funded by our Study Abroad program. Everyone in Loma Pampa has to take a turn working on the project - each Sunday, another group of 20 people assembles to help, and strict records are kept to record everyone's participation. Don David explained to us that without a community center, the barrio currently has nowhere to provide medical care for barrio residents, to hold meetings, to celebrate anniversaries or hold funerals. The center will be a vital part of life for people in this marginal community, and for that reason everyone is willing to pitch in and help. (They also want to avoid the fine levied for non-participation.)
At first the people on the construction crew - men and women both - seemed skeptical about a bunch of gringos showing up offering to help in their work. But after watching our students labor for a few hours, everyone was very impressed. As was I - our students took to it with great enthusiasm, hacking away at the rocky earth with picks and shovels, sweating in the midday sun. Jacob, who worked like an old pro, was given the honor of laying the first stone of the foundation in the newly dug trench. During breaks, some of the students got up the courage to make conversation with the people there, and learned a little bit about life in the community. Some people asked if we could offer an English language class to kids in the barrio, an idea that our students readily embraced. We will initiate this activity next Sunday.
When the work concluded, some of the students went off to meet the women's group of Loma Pampa, where they will be participating in the women's knitting cooperative and finding ways to be of service to that group. Others of us went to the nearby barrio of Concordia Central, where our project is donating computers and setting up a multimedia library. People in Concordia greeted us with great enthusiasm, offering many flattering speeches and inviting us to a meal in our honor. People were very kind - when the dryness of the area caused Amy's nose to start bleeding, a woman quickly produced some herbs to shove up Amy's nose, which seemed to do the trick.
It was truly an exhausting day, with the heat and sun, the dryness and the hard work. We returned to our houses, tired but satisfied.
Saturday, June 7, 2008
This morning we had a presentation from Katherine Ledebur, the director of the Andean Information Network. I had asked her to bring our students up to date on the current political and economic situation in Bolivia – no small task, but Kath did a great job taking us from the collapse of the Goni administration through the election of Evo Morales, the Constituent Assembly, and the emerging autonomy movement in the country. She also gave us a lot of information about the coca trade and the US “war on drugs” in Bolivia, which will prepare us for our visit to the Chapare next week.
In the afternoon, while some students had Spanish class, I went with Group B (Yury, Jacob, Amy and Carolyn) to meet the ambulantes, the group with which they are going to do research and service. The ambulantes are ambulant market vendors who sell on the streets and sidewalks of Cochabamba, without benefit of a roof over their heads or a permanent place from which to sell. Nevertheless, they make up a large part of the informal economy of Bolivia, which by some estimates employs up to 70% of the country’s working population. The ambulantes suffer abuse at the hands of police and municipal officials who continually harass them for selling on the street (technically illegal in Cochabamba); from the owners of stores and fixed market posts who chase them away; from thieves who rob them of their meager wares; from pollution and bad weather and traffic on the city streets. Many of the ambulantes earn about 10 or 15 bolivianos (about 2 dollars) per day, and have perhaps 50 to 100 bolivianos worth of capital to their name.
A particular problem for the ambulantes, as the leader of the group told us at our meeting yesterday, is the lack of any kind of childcare facility for parents who work on the streets. Many of the ambulantes are single mothers, who for lack of a better alternative have to take their young children with them into the streets to sell. These children get filthy and sick playing in the streets, or get hit by cars or trampled by pedestrians. Some mothers tie their children to their carts, so they can’t wander off and get in trouble. This is a grim situation, and we have agreed to work with the ambulantes to create a plan for a childcare center that would help to alleviate this problem. Such a center would be a complex and expensive proposition, but our students are eager to engage the task and to try to find ways to make it work.
In addition, our students will be working with the ambulantes to make videos of their lives and work, and to create a website that would help them to publicize their situation to the outside world. Using our video equipment and in collaboration with our students, the ambulantes will learn how to shoot and edit video and design a website, so as to shape the public perception of themselves and their profession.
The ambulantes received us with warmth and friendship. For people who are ordinarily reserved around outsiders, they greeted us with open arms and many elaborate speeches of welcome and appreciation. I hope we can live up to the expectations they have of us, and actually do something positive through our service. I also hope that the students will learn something about this population, and what it means to be poor, indigenous, and illegal in Cochabamba. From what I have observed, I think the process is already underway.
Friday, June 6, 2008
We held our first class session today. Prior to their arrival, students had been asked to read Kohl and Farthing’s “Impasse in Bolivia,” a book that chronicles Bolivia’s political and economic history, with an emphasis on the years since the 1952 national revolution, and the turn to neoliberalism in the 1980s and 90s. Many of the students showed a real engagement with the material, and were able to offer insightful critiques of the impacts of neoliberal reforms on Bolivian society and economy. This knowledge provides an important background for understanding Bolivian reality today, and the conditions in which people live in the communities where we will be working.
In the afternoon we visited the offices of the Defensoría del Pueblo, the human rights ombudsperson charged with defending the rights of the population against violations by the state. “Why is there no Defensor del Pueblo in the United States?” our guide asked, tongue in cheek. “Some of the problems that Michael Moore has publicized could be addressed by a Defensor.”
My efforts to plan and coordinate continue apace. Things keep shifting, as new opportunities emerge which conflict with existing plans. I have tried to explain to the students that this is the nature of things in Bolivia, where everything is flexible and plans are constantly changing. As I’ve told them, this is the first year of this program, and my first year running it, so we have to approach this experience as an adventure, a process of exploration in which they and I are both engaged. Rather than the usual top-down educational experience, this is one in which they will be fully part of the process of discovery, and I expect to learn as much from them as they do from me. Being flexible and ready for change and disruption is thus the most positive and productive orientation they can take to their daily routines. Still, I hope they are not getting fed up with the changes to their schedules, or with the fairly demanding pace of the program thus far.
Thursday, June 5, 2008
The homestays seem to be going well. The students have all reported being comfortable in their new homes, with some describing how quickly they have been adopted into their new “families.” Aida reported that her new “mother” insists that she call her “mamá,” and so hasn’t even been able to learn the woman’s actual name. Several students are clustered in the same neighborhoods, with some living within a few houses or blocks from each other. These students describe how their new “parents,” who are friends of one another, have been calling each other up, comparing notes on their new “children,” asking “What should I serve for breakfast?” and so on. The families are also working with the students to orient them to the local transportation system, helping to figure out bus routes, taxis, and the like. All of this is very positive and encouraging.
We took a bus tour of downtown Cochabamba in the morning. It was one of those red, two-decker buses with an open top, and we all roasted in the sun as they drove us around town pointing out the sights. Traffic was heavy and the sun strong, and some students dozed off, but at least they were able to get oriented to the city.
So far our experiences have been concentrated in the wealthier, more middle-class or upscale parts of Bolivia. This includes our time in Santa Cruz. Nicole observed to me that she enjoyed staying in the fancy Santa Cruz hotel, because it gave her a glimpse of the luxury and comfort that is available in this country (as in every country) for those with the resources to afford it. This was an excellent observation, something I had not considered when I first determined that we should spend a couple of nights in Santa Cruz before traveling on to Cochabamba. Now in Cocha, students are living with middle-class families and seeing the developed urban center, giving them a baseline for comparison when they begin to visit the poor barrios where we will be working. Indeed, even in the homestays, students are realizing the differences between the “middle class” in the US and in Bolivia. Some students expressed surprise at the bathrooms, for example – Katie described how her bathroom was a single room with a showerhead in the ceiling, and when she showers it soaks the whole room. Amy mentioned that the shower she took that morning was the coldest of her life, with the water intermittently stopping and starting. None of these students complained of these conditions, by the way, but observed them in good ethnographic form. Hopefully this openness to the unexpected and difficult will last for the length of the program.
Organization has been, for me, extremely complex. I am trying to juggle six different Spanish schedules, five service projects, an academic course, and 13 homestays. With my colleagues, we are coordinating trips to the Chapare, Sucre, and Potosí. Trying to get this all to work in concert is challenging, as events overlap and conflict. I hope that as we move forward this will settle into some kind of rhythym, but for now I am, shall we say, logistically challenged.
We had a slow morning today, taking time to catch up on some sleep, still not completely regained after the long trip south. At 11:00 we checked out of the hotel, and boarded another taxi caravan for the airport. Though we had arrived in the international Viru Viru airport, our departure was out of El Trompillo, a much smaller airport in the heart of old Santa Cruz. The airport, with its low ceilings and small check-in counters, reminded me of an old Florida airport, the kind they used to have before everything became multiplexed and modernized. There was even a guy pushing around a little cart, selling homemade sandwiches wrapped in cellophane.
Having had problems in the past, I watched carefully as the baggage man put tags on all our luggage. I asked him for his name, which seemed to surprise and irritate him, and one of the women at the counter asked me suspiciously if I was worried about my bag. I explained that yes indeed, Aerosur had "lost" my luggage once, and I didn't want that to happen again. She scowled and went about her work.
The theme for today was "forgetting." While we waited for the flight to board, a student realized that she had left her cell phone at the hotel. We called, and they were able to send it to us in a radio taxi. Arriving in Cochabamba we disembarked and collected our luggage, when another student suddenly realized she'd left her laptop in the overhead compartment. She was not allowed back on the plane to look for it, and the inept Aerosur staff were of course unable to locate it before the plane again took off. But E., my colleague in this program and a lawyer, bawled them out (she is still simmering, I think, over her inability to help me recover my lost suitcase the last time I flew Aerosur), and when the plane landed in La Paz they were able to recover the laptop. They promised to send it to Cochabamba the next day.
J., one of the owners of Bolivia Cultura (the agency that is coordinating our homestays) was waiting for us at the airport with a bus to take us and our gear back to his offices. There we ate pizza and listened to J's orientation about the homestay experience and life in Cochabamba, with an emphasis on security, and respect for the families, the rules of the house, and the local customs. One by one, the families came to collect the students. They all were genuinely happy to meet the students, greeting them by name with handshakes and kisses, and helping them to drag their suitcases out to waiting vehicles. Amy's family was the last to arrive, and she waited patiently like a little orphan girl until they finally arrived, with apologies for being late.
Shortly thereafter, a student called to say that she had left a blue bag at the office. I told her we'd hold it for her until she could pick it up the following day. Sigh.
The orientation, I thought, went very well. (Students, your feedback here?) We touched on a variety of themes, apart from the practical details of what they can expect from the program, and how they can stay safe and healthy in Cochabamba. We spent a good amount of time focusing on what their goals are for the program. I asked them first to define their goals (in writing), and then to list some measures or indicators that might help them to realize whether or not they are in fact achieving their goals. It is fine to state your goals, but without concrete (qualitative or quantitative) measures to assess your progress, it is hard to know if you are actually achieving them or not. The students did very well with this, and though some expressed a sense of being overwhelmed by the possibilities, opportunities, and challenges, I think (I hope) that the exercise might add some clarity to an otherwise vague process.
We also devoted some time to the topic of Respect, which I consider to be a key theme to the entire program. Together we defined four groups or areas in which we need to show respect in the course of the program: respect for ourselves, respect for our host families, respect for the culture and the people, and respect for the program. Then I asked them to list ways in which expressions of respect would be visible in each of these four areas. Students did an excellent job of coming up with these expressions, which we listed on paper and which I will compile into a kind of contract or (less formally) a reminder of this very important issue.
The orientation went on for four hours, which surprised me, after which we had lunch and then went in to look around the Plaza Principal of Santa Cruz. Upon disembarking from the small flotilla of taxis that carried us into the center of town, we were descended upon by a group of eager money changers, including one enormously fat man with a gushing enthusiasm for Santa Cruz. ("Bolivia begins over there," he said, gesturing to the far distance, "this is Santa Cruz. Autonomía, si!") They were actually offering a very good rate compared to what you can get in Cochabamba, so a number of us changed money, before going off to tour the Cathedral. The students then broke into small groups to explore the streets and shops around the plaza, while G. and I returned to the hotel to write blogs and rest up, as old men are wont to do. Tomorrow we head for Cochabamba.
We arrived in Santa Cruz late last night, after a very long day of travel to Bolivia. Students arrived in Miami from various destinations around the New York area. I had been nervous that their flights would be delayed - when are they not out of Newark and LaGuardia? - but by some miracle everyone arrived on time, though Yury had to run to catch the flight and we were concerned that her suitcase might not make the transition with her.
The flight down was unremarkable, which is always good where air travel is concerned. Though we all bought our tickets independently, for some reason we were all seated in the same rows. I sat next to Yury and Nicole, who had the window seat and had to visit the bathroom with an alarming frequency. ;-) Lisi was seated behind me, Aida and Kelly were in the row opposite, and Carolyn in the row behind them , in the middle seat, having selflessly surrendered her middle seat so that a mother could sit next to her child. (I have to admit, I would not have been so generous.)
The highlight of the trip, I suppose, came when the flight attendant cleared away our meals (yes, you still get them on international flights). She was a rather squat woman, very jovial for a flight attendant (who tend to be rather surly lately, I've found). Her joviality may have been provoked by the fact that every time I allowed my right elbow to stray into the aisle, she happened to be there, and I jabbed her in some private region of her body. ("Don't poke my bottom!" she told me at one point, as she was bending over to serve someone a diet Dr. Pepper.) Nicole, who had brought her own food, being a vegetarian, handed the trash to the flight attendant, and subsequently realized that she had accidentally thrown away a candy bar along with her orange peels. I was required to (once again) rise from my seat, while Nicole and the accomodating flight attendant rummaged through the trash in an unsuccesful attempt to rescue the missing chocolate bar. This, as I said, was the high point of the flight. (We also got to view back-to-back showings of the "The Water Horse" and "The Bucket List," both rather maudlin tear-jerkers, both very much about death, which I found both fascinating and disconcerting.)
We arrived in Santa Cruz and had no trouble getting through the visa process. As expected, the officials in Migración had little interest in the various documents that the students had so diligently assembled, being much more concerned with the US$100 payment that each visa recipient is required to provide. Nor did we have any trouble finding our bags and getting through customs, despite the ominous and confusingly worded new customs form that each of us had to fill out prior to arrival. Outside, four taxi drivers awaited us, bearing signs with our names. We piled into the vehicles, one devoted entirely to suitcases, and made the mad dash into Santa Cruz and the Hotel Camino Real. The hotel, as always, is beautiful and commodious. The students seem to like it, and paired up without much fuss into the shared accomodations. G.'s flight from Cochabamba was late, but we met up for a late dinner at the hotel before crashing for the night.