Monday, August 10, 2009

Saying goodbye

The last few days have been marked by several tearful farewells - at the orphanage, and with the women's and girls' groups with which our students have been working. Yesterday was our last day in Loma Pampa, which was also the anniversary of the barrio. We participated in the celebrations and activities of the day - our students participated in several relay races and events, and took home the prize in the egg toss and dance competitions. They also served cake to the entire community, and received certificates of recognition from the local leadership. The appreciation that everyone expressed for the work we have done in the community was very strong and moving.

Today, students begin the process of packing up and returning home. The program is officially over, with just a few loose ends to tie up. Everyone will be taking home incredible, lasting memories of what they have experienced here; no one, it is safe to say, will ever be the same as when they left home six weeks ago.

This will be my last blog entry of the season. Below are some photos of the last few days. See you again in June, 2010!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

First despedida

The process of leaving Bolivia is marked by despedidas – goodbye parties. For us, these began yesterday, as the group that has been working with the women of Loma Pampa said goodbye to their friends in the barrio. The students had spent the morning preparing a meal of charque - dried llama meat - which they brought to Loma Pampa in the afternoon and served to the women assembled. The food was great, and the women so appreciative - our students and the leaders of the women's group all spoke movingly of their time together, and the women expressed their hope that the students would return some day. Our students should be extremely proud of themselves - they helped to found this women's group (and the girls' group, which has its despedida on Saturday), a space for women to get together, share their thoughts and feelings with one another, and learn to do crafts and other activities.
In the evening, another group of students attended a community meeting in Alto Cochabamba, another barrio where they have similarly been working with a group of women, helping them to learn how to bake bread and pastries. At this meeting, the students and our colleagues donated an oven to the community, which will be used by the women in their future activities. This was received by the women there with much joy and appreciation, as indicated by the confetti which they rubbed in everyone's hair. This group has its despedida tomorrow.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Learning to Cueca

Sunday in Loma Pampa was busy, as usual. This week we were accompanied by two British students, whom our group met up with during their trip to Torotoro, and whom they invited along to share the fun. They did their share, digging in the dirt to help level the ground for the metal awning (which hopefully will be installed this week), and hacking through dense rock to make the post holes to support the structure. I wondered why two people, backpacking through South America, would want to give up a perfectly good Sunday to sweat in the dirt of Loma Pampa. Aida thinks it's because we have such an amazing program, which offers opportunities unlike any other. People - young people, especially - from all over the world have the desire to help out, to do good for others, even for people they have never met before and will never meet again. Surprisingly, perhaps, the chance to do meaningful work of this kind can be hard to come by. Our program offers this opportunity, in a way that students feel the immediate impact of their contributions.

After classes with the children, don David's daughter-in-law invited our students to learn to dance the cueca, Cochabamba's traditional dance, and somehow convinced them to perform it at the anniversary celebration in Loma Pampa next Sunday.

Friday, July 31, 2009


Today is the last day of July, which means we have been in Bolivia for a month now. It always amazes me how time passes here. It feels like we've been gone forever, but at the same time, like we just left yesterday. Each day goes by so quickly, but the overall passage of weeks seems to drag. In any event, we head for home in less than two weeks, which seems very strange. Many of the students are already sad about leaving, wondering why the program can't go for eight weeks, or a semester.

The group comes back from Torotoro tomorrow evening, and Sunday morning we're back in Loma Pampa, finishing up the work we've been doing on the community center - painting the woodwork inside, and helping to level the field out back for the giant metal awning we hope to see installed before we leave.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What's wrong with the Red Sox?

I know this is irrelevant to you Bolivia watchers, but the students are on their way to Torotoro (where they will spend three days hiking, caving, and splashing beneath waterfalls), and I am following the Red Sox via MLB radio on my computer. The Sox have dropped 7 of the last 10 games and now trail the Yankees by 2.5 games in the AL East, after leading by 3 at the All Star break. And after blowing a seven run lead last night against the A's (one of the worst teams in the AL), they trail 5-0 after one inning in Boston. What is the deal?

Being far away and unable to watch the games, I feel disconnected from my team, and somehow partly responsible for this train wreck. I've got to get home so I can start watching again, and things can return to normal. Yes, I am that powerful.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Public speaking

Recently a former student (hi Alana!) posted a comment to this blog, asking incred-
ulously if the building in which we are holding classes in Loma Pampa is in fact the same building that students helped to construct last summer. Indeed it is. Not only classes, but many other functions are held there as well, including the regular end-of-the-month meeting, which we attended yesterday.

Our purpose at the meeting was to speak to the community about our various activities there. Several of our students had a chance to practice their public speaking skills. We were warmly received, with much applause and expressions of gratitude from barrio leaders and residents. We also made several donations, including a soccer ball, a bag of used clothing, and some gifts in support of the barrio anniversary on August 9. That will be the last day of our program, a good day for a despedida.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


Another visit we made during our trip to the Chapare was to a local factory where they pack palmitos: hearts of palm. These are grown in fields out back (which we also toured), and then brought into the factory where they are processed and canned for export, mostly to other Latin American nations. This is one of the few successful cases of alternative development in the Chapare - local farmers were convinced to give up growing coca about 8 years ago, and in return got a stake in this enterprise, which has since flourished (though the global economic crisis is impacting its income at present). I suppose it is a sign of the deindustrialization of the North that this was my first-ever visit to a factory. It was the cleanest, nicest-smelling place in Bolivia that I had ever visited.

Before entering the facility, we were all made to dress up in protective gear, though whether to protect us or the palmitos was unclear (probably the latter, given that everyone in Bolivia seems to think that gringos are invariably carrying swine flu). So we all dressed up like doctors and headed in for our tour.

Fun fact: The name "Chapare" comes from "ancha para," or mucha lluvia (lots of rain) in Quechua.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Chapare

We've just returned from three days in the Chapare, the lowland tropical region of Cochabamba department. It was an exhausting but enjoyable few days, and students had the chance to see another part of Bolivia, while learning about the war on drugs, alternative development, tropical agriculture, and jungle ecosystems.

The trip was exhausting mostly because of the bus which was our mode of transportation for this adventure. Though we had arranged for a long-distance bus (a flota) to take us to the Chapare, the driver showed up on Sunday with a local city bus (a micro), not designed for long trips or passenger comfort. It was a classic bait-and-switch, and we had no time to arrange an alternative. So off we went.

The bus had trouble climbing the hills out of the Cochabamba valley, but even more trouble with the long descent into the Chapare. The two-lane highway winds for miles down from the heights of Cochabamba (about 7500 meters) to the town of Villa Tunari (290 meters above sea level), and our driver did not seem to understand the use of the lower gears to slow the vehicle. Instead he rode the brakes, which soon overheated. We spent upwards of a half hour standing on the side of the road waiting for the brakes to cool down, and then set off in first gear all the way down the mountain. A trip that should have taken three to four hours took nearly seven,
and we arrived tired, bruised, and extremely hungry - Ivan repeatedly yelling "Carne!" from the back of the bus during the final two hours of the trip, and several students plotting to eat Ayesha, the vegetarian of the group, before we finally pulled into Villa Tunari at about 10 pm.

Our students from last year will remember some of the activities from the Chapare, including a visit to UMOPAR, the Bolivian anti-drug police, who described to us their efforts in trying to fight narcotics trafficking in Bolivia. We also got a tour of the UMOPAR cocaine museum, where we all received a lesson in how to process coca leaves into cocaine paste for easy transport to foreign markets. Very educational!

New this year was a visit to La Jungla, a theme park consisting of rope bridges, tree forts, and
zip lines stretched between jungle trees. There were also rope swings hanging from sequentially higher starting points - our students and the braver among our faculty (yours truly not included) climbed to the top of the wooden platforms and leapt off, swinging out into space and screaming their lungs out.

We also finally made it into Parque Machia, the wildlife park in Villa Tunari. Students from last year's trip will surely remember our many failed attempts to access this park, ending with me screaming "Fascists!" and "Nazis!" at the intransigent park employees who refused to allow us entrance. But this year, after one failed attempt (the park is not open on Mondays, who knew?), we gained admission on our final day, and it was worth the wait. We saw all kinds of wildlife, particularly monkeys and birds, and hiked up a huge mountain to a waterfall.

On returning from the hike, I sat on the steps of the park office drinking from a bottle of water, and was approached by what appeared to be a monkey family: a mom with a baby riding on her back, and another adult whom I assumed anthropocentrically to be the dad. These three sat beside me and appropriated my water bottle, drinking casually till the water was gone and then ambling off in search of more goodies. The "dad" eventually found his way onto our bus, where he stole G's ham and cheese sandwich before escaping through an open window.

There were other events (including a failed attempt to find some Inca ruins) which I will relate at another time. For now, I am glad to be back in Cochabamba - the humidity and the insects of the Chapare, while a nice diversion, get tiresome after a few days. Glad to be back in the llajta.

Friday, July 17, 2009


Just in case anyone thinks it's all fun and games down here in Bolivia, let me assure you that we are also hard at work. Not only throwing rocks around and shoveling in the dirt, as the previous posts suggested, but also engaging our brains in academic work. Of course, being Bolivia, we have class outdoors in a lovely garden, our chairs in a circle under an awning, interrupting our studies with traditional pastries and Coca Cola, the national beverage.

This is all part of the service-learning philosophy: To be truly meaningful, community service has to be combined with study and scholarly understanding. Through our readings and discussions, our students learn about the larger historical and political-economic context in which Bolivia is situated, and how a variety of forces have conspired to produce the conditions of extreme poverty and social inequality in which Bolivians today find themselves.

Our students also study the techniques and practices of cultural anthropology, learning, in effect, how to learn about the world around them. Each week, the students have to complete an ethnographic research project, using a particular technique of anthropological data gathering. This week is it kin diagrams: Students have to interview field "consultants" who will share with them the details of their familial backgrounds, which the students will diagram using formal techniques of genealogical mapping. In this way, they learn not only about the histories of their consultants, but also about family patterns in Bolivia, migration trajectories, naming practices, and so on. We will share the results of our work at our next class meeting.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Videos from Loma Pampa

Here are two videos, filmed and narrated by Jovanna, of our work in Loma Pampa last Sunday.

Hard at work


Teaching class


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Soccer balls and cuñapes

On Tuesday we presented a donation of three soccer balls, plus a pump, to the children and teachers at Casa Nazareth, the orphanage where we are volunteering. The balls were provided by the Global Futbol Initiative, whose work I described in an earlier post. The boys weredelighted to receive the balls, which we delivered along with two computers donated by ourproject. All of these materials will be used by our students in their teaching and activities with the kids at the home.

Another group of students is working with a group of women in the barrio of Alto Cochabamba, where they are helping to organize a club de madres while working alongside the women as they learn to bake different kinds of breads and pastries. The idea is to offer women training in this skill, which they can then use to increase their income, while also gathering with other women to form bonds of community. Most of the residents of Alto Cochabamba are ambulantes, street vendors who work in the Cancha and other markets around the city and the valley region. While they do this work the students also do ethnographic research with the women, learning about their lives and community through mapping exercises, charting kin relations, observation and interviewing. This combination of research and service-learning is the hallmark of our program.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A good day in Loma Pampa

Another Sunday spent in Loma Pampa doing community service. The students and the rest of us were at it from 8:00 AM, when the bus picked us up from my hotel, until 5:00 PM, when it finally brought us home. The day was hot and sunny, and dusty as always in Loma Pampa, but incredibly rewarding.

We began with construction work on the community center (the sede), which our group began last year and which has progressed to a remarkable extent. Half the students worked alongside community residents, moving rocks and shoveling dirt to level the ground for a large concrete floor and aluminum awning that will be erected outside of the sede, for public meetings and events. The other half painted inside, sanding the wooden doors and frames before applying the reddish-brown paint that I had helped don David to select the day before. After a while the groups switched, so that everyone had the opportunity to get blisters on their hands and paint on their clothes. After three hours of hard work, the students were treated to an ice cream by members of the neighborhood directorio.

After lunch in the shade, some students went up to watch the women's futbol league tournament, before returning to the sede to teach classes to the barrio children. Fewer showed up than the previous week, probably due to the futbol tournament, but there were still plenty on hand. We divided into three groups - one for English classes, one for drawing classes, and one for photography lessons. Though the sede is still incomplete, it was wonderful to see it already in use, buzzing with activity as the children and students worked on their various lessons.

On their way down to the sede, four students were stopped by a woman who came running out of her house, yelling excitedly and waving her arms. At first the students were unsure of what she wanted - was there some sort of emergency? But no, she just wanted them to come inside her house, which they obligingly did. Inside, the woman and her husband invited them to eat birthday cake and drink soda with them. The man explained how grateful he was that we were here working in the community, that in all his years he has never seen outsiders come into a community for the purposes of doing work for and with the people who live there. He was very moved, as were the students by this encounter.

It is stories like this that make all of the effort, the energy, the sacrifice worthwhile. I am amazed to stand there and survey this work, and to realize that all of it exists because of the efforts we have made to bring this into being.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

One of the more disturbing things to emerge from reflections last night was that our students seem to be consistently mistaking mannequins for real people.

One student described being downtown, a bit confused as to his whereabouts, when with relief he turned to someone who seemed to be an American - white skin, blue eyes, modern looking clothes. As the student began to ask this person for directions, he realized that it was not a real person at all. Another student observed an American woman in a clothing shop who seemed to be spending a long time examining the merchandise on a particular rack, before realizing that she, too, was a mannequin.

Mannequins are meant to embody ideals of beauty, often in exaggerated ways. In Bolivia, the mannequins are usually made to resemble white people. Our students, out of the corners of their eyes, perceive these "people" to be their fellow countrymen.

Friday, July 10, 2009


Tonight we will have our first meeting for "reflections," an integral part of the service-learning experience. (I wish I could say that I had taken the above photo, but unfortunately I can't.) Every day, our students write in their personal journals, commenting not only on their experiences and observations, but on their thoughts and feelings in response to these experiences. During reflections, we gather to share some of these insights. I share my own thoughts from my journal, which is less robust this year given that I spend a fair amount of time writing this blog instead. But there are some personal things that I choose not to share with the world, but which I do share with my students during reflections. Last year, this was a very important part of our students' experience in Cochabamba. Reflections allows them a space to freely share their reactions to the unprecedented experiences they are having here in Bolivia, to express the often profound emotions that their encounters here raise for them, and to have those validated by their peers.

Leading such a process (as is the case with leading this entire program) is really beyond my training as an academic, but I find myself to be surprisingly good at it.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

At the orphanage

Some of our students have started doing service work in an orphanage here in Cochabamba. Perhaps because this is in some ways a "classic" service environment, it has sparked a great deal of interest among our students, so that several who are assigned to other service projects have also been visiting the orphanage. After only one day, I can tell that it is going to be a very successful project.

The orphanage, housed in what was once home to an upper class Bolivian family, is home to some 25 boys between the ages of 6 and 12. It is run by Amanecer, a Catholic organization that administers many homes throughout Cochabamba. Casa Nazareth, where our students are working, is a second stage home - kids coming directly from the streets first go to another home, and after a while are moved to Nazareth. Our students will be doing a variety of activities with the boys, including providing help with their homework, instruction in computers and English, and games designed to foster group dynamics, self-esteem, and interpersonal communication skills.

One of the surprising things about this orphanage is that the definition of "orphan" is a bit different, and in many ways even sadder, than our typical, Oliver Twist conception. That is because in many if not most cases, these boys actually have families. But their families are so dysfunctional - torn by alcoholism, violence, and neglect - that the boys end up on the streets, where they quickly fall into lives of crime and drug abuse (glue sniffing in particular). If they are on the streets longer than a couple of months it may already be too late, as they quickly become hooked on glue and have no desire to change their lives. So Amanacer rescues those it can, and works to reunite boys with whatever family they might possess, reinforcing that family with employment, economic and other support, in the hopes of building or rebuilding families.

This is the environment in which our students will be working and learning. Given the eagerness of the boys to work with them, their warm welcome and openness to these strange foreigners, and the enthusiasm of our students, I think it will be a rewarding experience for all concerned.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

4th of July

Last night we gathered at the restaurant El Olivo to celebrate the Fourth of July. As I noted in my last post, the food was not typical of the day, but one of the dishes did have hot dogs in it. Despite the unorthodox setting and menu, no one seemed particularly sorry to be here rather than in the US celebrating the Fourth in more conventional ways.

The students seem to be doing well adjusting to life in Cocha- bamba. For the most part, students are happy with their homestay assignments, speaking lots of Spanish (and in some cases, Quechua), and getting used to the Bolivian routine. After getting adjusted to Bolivian middle class life, our students will not confront urban poverty, as we head today to two of our field sites in barrios of Cochabamba's southern zone.

Saturday, July 4, 2009


We are safe and sound in Cochabamba. The journey was long, and for most of us it began at about 3:30 in the morning on Wednesday July 1. The taxi picked me and Ben up at our house at 4:00, and we were at the airport by 4:30, where a number of students were already checking in. American Airlines, typically, made things unnecessarily difficult - one student was denied permission to board because she lacked her yellow vaccine card, though she already had the Bolivian visa. Instead, she had to go home, find her card, and fly standby that night, arriving in time for the orientation the next day.

The orientation in Santa Cruz went well, as we covered all the bases
of the program. New this year, we met in small groups with the individuals who will be leading our service activities. The students all seemed very engaged with their projects, and were fast coming up with lots of ideas for how to develop the projects to which they have been assigned.

Friday at noon we headed to the Santa Cruz airport, and flew the short hop to Cocha- bamba. Our students are now with their host families, and today (Saturday) enjoyed a day of rest. Tonight we are gathering to celebrate the 4th of July over pique macho (see photo - not exactly classic American fare, but it does have hot dogs on it) and picante de pollo. Tomorrow will be our first day in Loma Pampa, site of many of our ongoing service projects.

Monday, June 29, 2009

We are poised to depart. Bags are packed, documents assembled, goodbyes said. One more day to get things organized and then we're off. Next post will be from Bolivia. Feliz viaje!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The wisdom of packing light

As I prepare to travel, I struggle with what and how much to take along. I can imagine any number of scenarios in which I can use the things I own. Especially problematic are books - I always take too many books wherever I go, and books of course are especially heavy. 

We pack, I think, in much the same way that we live - anticipating possible eventualities, and feeling that if we are only well prepared, we will be able to deal with whatever we encounter in a way that will not cause us too much discomfort. We project our anxiety about the future onto things - if I have my wool socks my feet will never be cold, if I have enough books I'll never be bored, and so on. Our things become fetishes, magical objects that can ward off the malignant spirits that seek to do us harm and cause us to suffer.

But there is a wisdom to be found in not overpacking for a trip. By traveling light, we show an acceptance of the reality that we are destined to suffer. Despite all our preparations, our planning and packing, we inevitably will find ourselves in difficult and unpleasant situations. We cannot reasonably hope to guard ourselves from all that might befall us. When we realize this, we may come to see our things as burdens rather than guardians, weights that drag on us and limit our mobility. Walled in by mountains of stuff, we are cut off from the thrilling challenges of life. 

Having made the incredibly daring decision to go to Bolivia, push it one step further and truly open yourself to the possibilities.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Waiting Game

It is Friday morning and we leave for Bolivia on Wednesday, July 1. I am busily putting things in readiness. At home, this means buying gifts for a range of people, getting shots and haircuts and new shoes, cleaning equipment and making sure I have the right batteries and cables for all my little electronic gadgets, putting together a syllabus and arranging for the readings to be available. On the receiving end, it means lots of emails to Bolivia, squaring away the funding, setting up various projects, figuring out what I owe people and trying to have everything I need to bring them.

My main goals for this summer: to have a successful program; to do some research and writing; to have fun, see friends, make good on promises; to maintain my equanimity.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Sun

The sun in Bolivia is incredibly strong. I've often wondered if the high altitude has something to do with it - at 8000 feet, are we really that much closer to the sun that it burns more fiercely? In any event, I have learned to be prepared when going outdoors. Though it is winter now in South America, it is still easy to get sunburned and dehydrated.

Be sure to bring a hat and sunscreen with you to Bolivia. Use them when you go outside. Drink lots of bottled water. Simple precautions will keep you healthy and happy.

Monday, June 22, 2009

House gifts

Natasha asked me today about what to bring as gifts for the families with which we will be staying. Good question. It is not obligatory to bring a gift, but it is a nice way to thank people in advance for their generosity in taking you into their home, and to start things off on the right foot. I don't know the details about your homestays, so I don't know, for example, if there will be children in the family. If you are really eager to know, you can contact Lee Cridland ( at Bolivia Cultura for more information.

Some appropriate gifts might include:
• hand towels or bath towels
• kitchen items
• books and magazines in English
• small hand tools
• toys for children (even if none live in the house, they will know people who can use them)
• baby clothes
• clothes for adults 
• other small items for use around the house

Generally speaking, I am not the best person to give advice on being nice. Your mom might have additional insights into this topic.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What to expect

When you first arrive in Santa Cruz, expect to be really tired but excited. You'll pass through customs, and be surprised at how easy it is (unless, of course, you're surprised by how difficult it is - one never knows). Everything will be different - the food, the money, the styles, the smells and sounds. You'll miss home but wouldn't want to miss a thing in Bolivia.

Someone will get sick on the first day in Bolivia. Don't let it be you. Wash your hands a lot. Don't drink the tap water. Don't brush your teeth with the tap water. Don't eat food that you buy on the street. Eat only in restaurants that you know are safe. Don't eat fruit or vegetables that have been washed in tap water.

When we arrive in Cochabamba, you may feel funny at first from the high altitude. It may be hard to sleep the first few nights. You may feel nauseous, especially if you drink alcohol.

You will feel uncomfortable speaking Spanish at first, if it is not your native language. Don't be shy - people have low expectations and will be happy with your attempts. Be polite to people and they will think the world of you. Shake hands with everyone upon joining or leaving a group of people. Say "provecho" or "gracias" when finishing a meal. Little things go a long way.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

---- Walt Whitman
"Song of Myself"

Monday, June 15, 2009

Prepare for your trip!

Students traveling to Bolivia this summer are reminded to read "Impasse in Bolivia" by Ben Kohl and Linda Farthing, prior to their arrival. It is vital that you have an understanding of the political and economic background to recent Bolivian history, so that you can have an informed perspective on contemporary Bolivian reality. Remember, you are traveling as an anthropologist, not as a tourist.

We will have a quiz on this book at our first class meeting, so come prepared!