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!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Bad dog

Today I learned something very important:

Never leave Ozzie alone in a room with a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs. Right, Ozzie?

"Think of your dog as having come into your life for a reason – to make you a stronger, confident, more assertive person."
- Cesar Millan

Friday, June 12, 2009

Rutgers Anthro

The study abroad in Bolivia program is getting a lot of press around Rutgers these days, as is our program in Cultural Anthropology. Check out this discussion of my work on the University's Research Highlights page.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Making progress

Things are shaping up. Last year the details involved in running this program made me ill - literally (see my old blog posts). Too much coordination, too many changes, too much uncertainty. To avoid that, I am trying to lay as much of the ground work now as possible, knowing, of course, that in Bolivia everything is constantly in flux. Nevertheless, through the good work of my friends at Bolivia Cultura (see the photo, above), I am making good progress. We now have schedules for our language classes and service work - a big advance over last year, when coordinating these things was the bane of my existence. We also have defined three clear projects for our students to be involved in, offering a much stronger, more focused service plan that last year. Overall, I am very encouraged.

Monday, June 8, 2009

So many details

There are so many little things to take care of, before this train can leave the station. Each of the 12 charges in my care has her or his own needs and requirements and difficulties. This one has no passport. That one can't get a plane ticket. Another is worried about vaccines. And then there are the folks in Bolivia, who have their own requirements as well. One man with whom we work has a lot of complaints, I am told, and can't wait till I arrive so he can express them. Wonderful. Here's how I feel about it at this exact moment:
But I know that this feeling will pass, as all feelings pass. Better not to spend too much time on it. Tomorrow's weather may be different.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Primer Viernes

Today is the first Friday of the month of June, which means it is time for the q'owa. On the first Friday of every month, Bolivians burn ritual offerings to the Pachamama, purifying their homes of any bad spirits that may be inhabiting the premises and ensuring themselves prosperity in the weeks ahead. Walking down the streets of Cochabamba on a night like this, one strolls through clouds of sweet fragrant smoke billowing out of every house and shop. I can smell it even now.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Community center

Last year in Cochabamba, our students worked collaboratively with local residents of an urban barrio to begin construction on a community center. They worked in the dirt every Sunday for six weeks, digging the trenches and laying the foundation for what they hoped would some day be a functional building where community residents could hold meetings, activities and events. The idea of a finished project, though, seemed like a distant dream.

Yesterday, my colleague Ruth sent me this picture of the community center, which now is an actual building! Following our departure, community members used the remainder of project funds to continue construction. Now the building has walls, a floor and a roof. It still lacks doors, windows, finishing work and landscaping - all projects that our students will undertake this summer. By the time we leave in August, we hope to be able to inaugurate the completed community center.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A student's perspective

Last summer, Nicole was one of the 13 students from Rutgers who participated in the international service-learning program in Bolivia. Here is what she has to say about her experience:

"Traveling to Bolivia through the RU Study Abroad program was the most amazing thing I could have possibly done with my summer.  It was 7 weeks of traveling in one of the most beautiful countries in Latin America, meeting the most interesting people, speaking the most beautiful language, contributing substantially to a community through service work, and studying the most interesting subjects: cultural anthropology and Latin American studies through the lens of human rights, justice, and law.  This trip was actually my first experience with cultural anthropology, and my first time traveling to South America, and I ended up falling in love with both!  The trip even made me ready to finally declare my major and hone my interests for future studies, travels, and work experience!  The service-learning aspect of the project was incredibly significant, as we were able to learn about rights and justice in Bolivia while accomplishing sustainable projects and building long-term support for a community in Cochabamba .

"One of my favorite parts of the trip was traveling to el Chapare, a region of dense rainforest and indigenous communities.  While we got to explore this magical place with such a wide variety of plant and animal species, we also learned about the political history of the indigenous communities there in which many injustices had been and still are happening.  The trip overall had a great balance of travel, learning, service, and fun.  I highly recommend this trip to anyone who likes to travel, experience a culture very different from their own, learn or speak another language, and understand how the history of an ancient place can shape the future of its modern citizens."

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Writing is hard work

Part of an academic's work - one of the best parts, the part that got most of us into this gig in the first place - is research and writing. Yet many of us struggle with it, especially the writing. The research is fun: Go off to Bolivia, hang out with people, jot down lots of notes and so on, eat out on the NSF's dime. But then you've got to sit down and write it up. And though I love to write, I find it to be a very challenging task. 

Summer time is the academic's time for writing, and for me that time is particularly compressed, as I tend not to get too much writing done while I'm leading the study abroad program. But this summer started out really well. In the first two weeks after classes ended, I revised an article for resubmission to a journal, and wrote and submitted another one. But now it is time to sit down and start writing my new book. A book! How does one begin such a task? Before I can even begin, I have to wade through thousands of pages of fieldnotes, interview transcripts, secondary documents, and published texts, all to figure out what I want to say. Only then can I decide how to say it. A truly daunting prospect.

I will admit, though, that I have written the first five pages of the introduction. So maybe its not as bad as it feels at this moment. The enormity of the project has to be understood as a series of small steps, each day adding a little more to the cumulative result. It is easier to write a couple of pages than to write a book.