Sunday, May 31, 2009


Water has long been an issue in Cochabamba. The town is naturally dry, and population growth over the last several decades has far outstripped the local water supply. Most interesting, as Olivera's book details, are the conflicts over water in Cochabamba. Water is seen not only as a natural resource but also as a basic right, something that the urban poor in Cochabamba believe is part of the nation's property, not a commodity to sell or profit from.

In local communities throughout the southern zone of the city, cooperatives have formed to manage water for local residents. These cooperatives preceded the Water War in Cochabamba. They enable community residents to participate directly in the decision-making around how this valuable resources will be distributed in their neighborhoods. This can mean, at times, that some benefit from it while others don't - a topic I explored in my book on Villa Sebastián Pagador. Another perspective on water cooperatives and their operation in Cochabamba today can be found in this recent article, which is also about Villa Pagador. 

Saturday, May 30, 2009

One of the more disturbing and disappointing bits of news to come out recently has been the accusation, made by Israeli intelligence sources, that Bolivia and Venezuela are selling uranium to Iran. The alliance between Bolivia and Iran is well known and quite public - building ties with governments antagonistic to the United States is part of Evo's (and Chavez's) effort to develop ties to other nations, and so create new possibilities for trade and diplomacy that don't include the colossus of the north. But the relationship with Iran is troubling in many ways. Ahmedinijad, of course, is an idiot, a Holocaust denier, and a wild card who does not contribute in any positive way toward peace or stability in the Middle East. He may also be on his way out, with an election in Iran upcoming. If Bolivia is supplying uranium to what might be an Iranian nuclear program, it is positioning itself as a facilitator of further conflict and uncertainty worldwide, which certainly doesn't benefit Bolivia or Evo's other initiatives there.

Bolivia, for its part, vehemently denies producing or selling uranium to anyone, including Iran. Let's hope this is true.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Global Futbol Initiative

This summer, Rutgers in Bolivia is partnering with the Global Futbol Initiative, an organization that provides free soccer gear to kids in Latin America and elsewhere around the world. They will be providing us with soccer balls, which we will take to Bolivia and donate to children in the orphanage, and in the barrio in which we will be working.

The Global Futbol Initiative belives in the power of futbol "to impact change, promote peace, and improve the quality of life. 

"The power and beauty of futbol is a truly global phenomena and there is a tremendous opportunity for much of the world to use their resources to aid less privileged areas. Global Futbol Initiative was enacted on the basis of a very ambitious goal to allow every single child on earth to have access to balls, boots, and other gear. 

"We believe in our motto 'Futbol 4 Everyone' and intend on doing as much as we possibly can to help people all around the world enjoy the beautiful game with the proper equipment. The task is tough, but we believe we can accomplish all of our goals."

RU-Bolivia, the Fundación Pro Justicia, and the Global Futbol Initiative look forward to a long and fruitful collaboration.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Staying connected

When I first went to Bolivia in 1993, the internet did not exist. No such thing as email. No Facebook. No Twitter. No cyberspace at all. To stay in touch with folks back home, I had to write letters (imagine! Prehistoric). I would take my handwritten pieces to the post office and mail them off, hoping they would reach their destination. To receive mail I rented a postal box and would periodically check it, unlocking it with my tiny little key, hoping to get a letter from home.

How different things are now, in such a short period of time. Today I can remain in instant contact with my friends in Bolivia, and when there, with my family and friends at home. Many places have wireless connections, and there is an internet café on every corner. Cochabamba is fully of the technologically modern world.

Which makes the isolation of the marginal barrios so telling. No internet, of course, but not even land lines for the telephones. There are cell phones, and everyone has one, but no public utilities to link people to the rest of the city, the country, the world. To be connected, like so much else in people's lives, is an individual responsibility.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

On not drinking coffee

Of all the drugs to claim our addiction, caffeine is one of the hardest to break. It's not because the drug itself is so powerful - we tend to think, with our pharmaceutically determinist view, that the substance itself is the key factor in creating our dependency. The caffeine is certainly part of what drives our addiction to coffee, but not the whole of it. It is also the circumstantial dimension, what an anthropologist might call the context of coffee drinking, that gives it such a powerful hook. The ritual of brewing and then consuming the coffee, the rich smell and warmth of it on a cold morning, the routine of having that cup upon getting out of bed - these are the elements of addiction that seem so benign and yet hold such power over us, controlling our lives and decisions, orienting our daily routines, exerting influence on our physiology and emotions.

I have been coffee free for years now, and yet I still, on occasion, long for a cup. I certainly drank coffee in Bolivia, back in the day, but always Nescafé. People think, oh, South America, they must have really good coffee there. But no - Bolivia doesn't really produce coffee, and what is produced elsewhere on the continent is reserved for export to foreign markets and gourmet coffee bars. People in coffee-producing countries drink crap: freeze-dried, the worst of the worst. The kind of coffee made from "flavor crystals," that upon dissolving in hot water  leaves a white foam floating on the surface, like effluent. "No es café,"people call it, a play on Nescafé, which dominates the Bolivian coffee market. I used to drink the stuff every day. I even came to like it, testament to the addictive power of the drug and its seductive delivery system.  

Saturday, May 23, 2009


It is Memorial Day weekend and I am at the shore. But Ozzie, poor guy, has to stay with the dog sitters. Actually, he loves it at the dog sitters, as he gets to play with other dogs and has none of his usual responsibilities (namely, trying to figure out what I want him to do). But I, for one, miss him. This separation is a kind of trial run for when I go to Bolivia. I have no idea how he will do without me, or I without him. We have been constant companions for the last six months. It will probably be difficult for both of us, though I may feel it more than he will.

Friday, May 22, 2009

For reflection

Part of our service-learning experience in Bolivia involves reflection: active thinking and writing about what we are seeing, feeling, experiencing while in this foreign place. There will be many new and strange things in Bolivia - new ways of doing things, different sets of expectations that people have, new tastes and smells (not all of them pleasant) - and the best way to face these is to be open to them, to be aware of them, and to think and write about your reactions to them. These are our reflections, and we will be writing them on a daily basis and sharing them once a week.

As a guide to reflecting, I present the following questions. Go buy yourself a notebook (any one will do, nothing too fancy) and start keeping a journal now, as I am keeping this blog. Get in the habit of writing every day. Think about things like:

- What are you most hoping to get from your Bolivia experience?
- What scares you the most?
- How do you think/hope this experience will change you?
- What don't you know now that you hope to know by the time you get home?

I will post other suggestions for reflection as our departure date nears.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Extradite Goni

In October 2003, poor Bolivians in the city of El Alto took to the streets to protest the Bolivian government's plan, authored by president Gonzalo ("Goni") Sanchez de Lozada, to export natural gas at bargain prices to foreign markets. Goni called out the military to confront the protestors, an encounter that left 67 people dead and over 400 wounded. In the aftermath, Goni was forced to resign the presidency and flee the country. He has been living in the United States ever since, given protection first by the Bush administration, and now by that of Obama.

This week, the Bolivian Supreme Court is holding a "Trial of Responsibility," trying Goni in absentia for human rights violations committed against his own people. But whatever the outcome, this trial will be in vain if the United States continues to refuse to extradite Goni back to Bolivia to face the charges against him. 

Why is our government protecting this man? Ask President Obama - see the report from the Democracy Center to find out what you can do.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Donate a camera

One of the great things about this project is that it brings out individual creativity in so many ways. This year Tina, one of our students, came up with the idea of donating digital cameras to kids in Cochabamba and teaching them how to use them. Her plan is to help the kids to document their own lives through photography, and then to display their work so that others can appreciate it and learn from it. One of our service-learning sites this summer will be in a local orphanage in Cochabamba, home to 25 boys ages 6-12. Tina and some of our other students will be working in the orphanage, doing recreational and educational activities, and Tina will be doing her photo project there. But she needs more cameras.

So, if you would like to donate a digital camera of any vintage to this project, please post a comment to this blog indicating how to get in touch, and Tina will contact you directly. An old PC laptop might be useful as well. You can also just send your camera to the Rutgers Center for Latin American Studies, 106 Nichol Ave, Corwin B, New Brunswick, NJ 08901.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What we take with us, what we leave behind

It is more than exciting to go off to visit a new country for the first time, or to return to a country that one has come to know and love from years of experience. But why do we travel, and what do we hope to find when we get there? Sometimes we hope to "find ourselves" by changing our surroundings, that in a new place, freed from the constraints that define us at home, we can really emerge as our true selves. This is perhaps possible - it is true that by changing our external environment we can sometimes open up new possibilities for changing our internal one as well. On the other hand, "wherever you go, there you are" - wherever you might travel, no matter how the externals might change, you bring your baggage with you. So how to reflect on that baggage, to be fully aware of that baggage and experience it as the reality of the moment, and not just hope (to keep with the metaphor) that the airline loses it along the way?

When I travel, especially lately, I think about both what I might discover and what I am leaving behind. Usually and most significantly this means my family. This year, my older son, Ben (13) will be accompanying me to Bolivia, but my younger son, Eli (9), will be staying at home with mom and Ozzie (more on him later). The excitement of departure is tempered by the difficulty of the leaving. This is something that has gotten easier over time - it used to tear me apart, almost literally, to have to leave. But now I recognize that a necessary part of myself is in that other country, and I have to return, even if it is difficult. Not that my true self lies there, but an essential part of myself nonetheless.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Los Ambulantes

Last post I mentioned the ambulantes, one of the groups with which we work in Bolivia. The ambulantes (or, more properly, the Asociación de Comerciantes Minoristas "Los Angeles") are a group of some 1500 illegal street vendors, who sell on the streets of Cochabamba because it is the only way to support their families. Many of the vendors are women and single mothers, have very little in the way of investments, and make the equivalent of about $2 a day selling juice, fruit, fried meat, shoelaces, or other small items. The government considers them to be illegal because they lack work permits and compete with more established vendors, but the ambulantes claim they have no other option, and deserve to have their right to work respected. In 2008, our students worked with this group to try and establish a daycare center, so mothers would have someplace to leave their children while they are out selling in the streets. Two of our students created a website and video to document the situation; these can be viewed at

This summer, the ambulantes have expressed a desire for a health clinic, and we are going to try and help them to establish one. They have arranged for some Cuban doctors to staff the clinic (the Cuban government has sent doctors throughout the world to work in poor communities, often free of charge), but they need a space in which to set them up. Finding and creating this space will be one of our students' tasks in Bolivia.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


This morning in New Jersey is gray and wet, with a low-slung sky overhead. It is deep spring now: the azaleas and rhododendrons are popping out their flowers, the smell of mulch is in the air, and all sorts of tree junk is falling like rain over the porch furniture, coating everything in a pale green dust. Daily now, the temperature creeps steadily upward and soon, suddenly, we will find ourselves in the midst of summer, running the AC and fantasizing about winter. At least, I will.

In the global south, of course, they are just entering the fall and winter months. While we are contem- plating heat and humidity, people in Bolivia are watching the temperatures drop. For those of us traveling there, it means we lose a big chunk of summer, exchanging the Jersey heat for the crisp, cool air of a Bolivian winter. 

In Cochabamba it never gets particularly cold, nor does the weather vary a great deal from one day to the next. But, like people everywhere, Bolivians talk constantly about the weather. Every day people will remark to one another "Que frio!", hugging themselves with a mock shiver to indicate how cold it is. I always laugh, and tease people that they don't know what cold is, having never lived through a winter in the Northeast. It hasn't snowed in Cochabamba in years, but sometimes it does in the mountains that ring the city. On waking in the morning, I throw open the curtains and look toward the north, at the white-crested peaks enclosing the town in their frosty grip.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Getting ready for summer '09

The semester has just ended, and I am preparing to lead a second group of students to Bolivia. It comes as a surprise to me that this blog was read rather widely last summer - the first thing people say to me when I tell them I'm returning with students to Bolivia is, "Will you be doing the blog again?" I am happy to oblige. 

This blog serves as an informal means of communication between myself and the wider world - mostly parents and friends of my students, myself, Rutgers University, and Study Abroad. It provides a window on what goes on in Bolivia during our travels, and helps to spread the word about the many things we are experiencing and learning during our time away. 

What to expect in Bolivia? Some things this summer will be the same as last year. We will still be working with La Fundación Pro Justicia, a Bolivian NGO that works to improve access to justice for marginalized urban peoples. The members of Pro Justicia - Guery, Eric, Ethel, and Ruth - will be our companions and guides, helping us to learn about Bolivia and its various challenges. We will still be doing homestays and language classes run through Bolivia Cultura and Volunteer Bolivia (, where Lee Cridland and Javier Molina do a fantastic job making sure all the details go smoothly. We will still be doing service-learning with the people of Loma Pampa and the ambulantes of the Cancha, the ambulant vendors in Cochabamba's giant outdoor marketplace - but more on them later.

What's new this summer will be our efforts to create a health clinic for the ambulantes group. We will be doing construction work in Loma Pampa, putting the finishing touches on the community center that our students began work on last summer. And we will be working with the children in the local orphanage, helping them in their studies and recreation. There is a lot to look forward to.

Please follow this blog for regular updates, both prior to departure and after we have arrived. Departure date is July 1!