Saturday, July 31, 2010


I went to La Paz for the day yesterday, to speak at a conference on racism in Bolivia, and on my way back to Cochabamba I had a TIB moment. The students coined this acronym (TIB = This Is Bolivia) to refer to a range of circumstances that are best explained by the fact that, well, this is Bolivia, and anything that can happen, will happen.

The event I was attending ended much earlier than I had anticipated, so I called my travel agent in Cochabamba to try to book an earlier departure than my scheduled 8:50 PM flight on BOA airlines. She was able to get me a flight leaving at 7:30 on TAM airlines, for only $40 (airfares being relatively cheap in Bolivia). Being a savvy Bolivian traveler, I asked the travel agent to leave my original BOA ticket open: If something were to go wrong with the TAM flight (TIB), I wanted to have the backup option of my original 8:50 flight. So I headed to the airport a good two hours in advance, as the traffic is really bad out of La Paz to the airport in suburban El Alto, got my ticket, paid the airport departure tax at a separate window, and went to the boarding gate.

At about 7:15, the gate attendant announced the boarding of a flight, but it was not my flight - for some reason (TIB), another TAM flight was slated to leave at 7:45 from the same gate as my 7:30 flight. There then began a great chaos, as Bolivians on two different flights clashed and intermingled, one group (the 7:45 flight) clamoring to board (Bolivians are always extremely anxious to board flights, buses, you name it, reserved seats be damned) and the other group (my 7:30 flight) trying to find out what the hell was going on. Of course (TIB), no explanation was given, though the TAM gate attendant had an extremely annoying smirk on her face that seemed to imply some secret knowledge. This was revealed at about 7:40, when the 7:45 flight was entirely boarded, at which time the gate attendant announced that our plane had not yet arrived, and that our 7:30 flight would be leaving about 45 minutes late. People in the boarding gate actually hooted and whistled, like at a villain in an old-time silent movie. I approached the still smirking gate attendant and asked her if the flight was actually en route, and she ensured me that it was and would certainly arrive by 8:15.

This is when my own Bolivia craziness kicked in (TIB can also describe one's own state of mind when contending with these kinds of situations). Deciding that the gate attendant was lying about the plane being en route, and noting that my original 8:50 BOA flight was scheduled to depart from an adjoining gate, I opted to check in to the BOA flight, so that I would have two options ready to go. So, I headed back out to the terminal (I had to persuade the security attendant to let me go back in the wrong direction through the checkpoint, there being no other exit back to the terminal, which for some reason he allowed me to do, TIB) and checked in to the 8:50 flight. (BOA, it turns out, also had an 8:10 departure to Cochabamba, and one woman waiting to check in to the 8:50 flight was getting ugly in line, trying to pressure the counter people to allow her to board the earlier flight. I tried the same thing, but to no avail.) I paid my airport tax for the second time, passed through security again (no need to remove your shoes, TIB), and again stood at the departure gate.

Now armed with two tickets on two separate flights, I determined to leave on the first one that seemed likely to depart. This, it turned out, was the TAM flight: The gate attendant was not lying, the plane arrived at 8:15, and by 8:40 we were winging to Cochabamba. So for $40 and a whole lot of hassle, I managed to leave La Paz ten minutes earlier than I would have if I had simply waited for my original 8:50 BOA flight.

Sigh. TIB.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Last night I went with don David and his family to eat charque. This was a special occasion - don David's daughter was celebrating her 13th birthday - and so they chose something special to eat. (In Cochabamba, every event is marked by eating, usually in large quantities).

Charque is dried llama meat, shredded and fried to a fatty crisp. I don't know if they eat it elsewhere in the Andes, but it is a specialty in Bolivia. My son Ben loves it, and had been asking for it since we arrived in Bolivia, so he and his friend Pete enjoyed the evening immensely.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


The students are off for a three-day trip to Torotoro, a lovely pueblo in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by some of the most astonishing natural wonders in Bolivia. Students will hike through steep-walled canyons, scramble through tunnels both dry and wet, splash under waterfalls, and step in the footprints of ancient dinosaurs. In addition, this weekend Torotoro is celebrating its annual fiesta, highlighted by parades, dances, and bull fighting (in which the bulls, unfortunately, are required to fight each other). The students will come back to Cochabamba on Saturday night, exhausted but, I hope, invigorated, and ready for the human rights fair that we are running in Loma Pampa on Sunday.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Defensoría del Pueblo

Today I gave a public talk at the Defensoría del Pueblo, the office of the Bolivian Human Rights Ombudsperson. I spoke for an hour on problems of justice and rights in the periurban communities where I work, and then my colleague spoke about our ongoing project to bring legal and psychological services into these communities. The talk was well received.

What do we have in the United States that is equivalent to this office? If a citizen has a complaint against an entity of the government, to whom can they turn? It strikes me as remarkable that we don't have a similar office in the U.S. But then again, we don't really think of ourselves as having human rights in the U.S. Sure we have civil rights, but we seem to think that human rights only belong to people in faraway lands. How is it that Americans have excluded themselves from possessing something that is meant to be the universal property of all humankind?

Monday, July 19, 2010


We have reached the halfway point of the program. Three weeks lie behind us, three weeks lie ahead. This is always a good time for reflection.

The students have shown themselves to be a really great group. They all work hard - in service, in their classwork, in the optional activities we make available for them. They don't complain, even when rain spoils their plans, or when I put more on their plates than they can handle. They have dealt admirably with the trials they have so far faced, including tragedy, and have emerged as a strong, tight-knit community. I am proud of them.

The work on the project goes well, though I am having to put in extra work to try to bring it to a conclusion before our departure. We are painting the community center (in hues of yellow and electric green, which I did not choose but which the people of Loma Pampa seem pleased with), which is an elaborate process. We had to sand the walls to remove irregularities in the plaster, and then seal them by brushing on a liquid made from boiled cow's hooves. Then three coats of paint (walls and ceiling), using paint excessively thinned in order to stretch it (don David, like any good Bolivian, is always economical in his use of resources). We also want to paint the doors of the new bathrooms to match the ones we painted last year. All of this work is more than we can accomplish in a month of Sundays (well, six weeks), so I and a few diligent helpers have been making midweek visits to the barrio to get ahead in the work. My hope is that this year, for the first time, our students will actually be able to see the fruits of their labors before they leave. With only three weeks to go, time is already pressing.

Friday, July 16, 2010


After a difficult few days, things have stabilized in Cochabamba for the Rutgers contingent. The first couple of weeks are always challenging, as students find their way in a new culture, adjust to host families, communicate in new languages, and discover the difficulties of doing anthropology and providing service to others. I have been especially swamped with coordinating the details of 12 people's experiences, and smoothing over the rough edges of cross-cultural contact. This year, things were infinitely complicated by the tragedy in Loma Pampa, which propelled us deeply and unexpectedly into the harsh realities of Bolivian life.

But now things are finally on a more even keel. The students are well-ensconced in their service projects and language classes. Their work seems to be going well, and all of them seem to be thriving. Things have found their rhythm, as I knew they would. If this paragraph can bear another metaphor, it is this: after running through the rapids, we are now in calmer waters.

Tonight the "kids" left for an overnight in the lowland Chapare region, where they will hang with monkeys, swing through the jungle, and enjoy the humidity of the Bolivian tropics. Dad has the night off. 'Bout time.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A prayer for Wilmer

Lauren posted this on her blog; I think it bears reproducing here:

Dear Wilmer,

You finally escaped the barrio but not in the way i had wished for you. You sprouted wings and flew off into oblivion and i didn’t get to say bye. I had wished that you were going to come to class on tuesday morning so that we could teach you arts and crafts but instead of making origami stars, you were touching the stars. I wish the world wasn’t so cruel to you Wilmer, but I hope where you do go that you are able to have clean clothes and running water. I hope that they have food for miles for that empty stomach of yours. Dear Wilmer, it’s not fair that you’re gone but that’s how life is in Bolivia. At your funeral there was no silence like i had wished and the whole day i felt so is it possible such a little innocent being as yourself can be taken so easily? I just tell myself it was for the better, your suffering is now over Wilmer.

Rest in Peace

The funeral

I got the call notifying me of Wilmer's death early yesterday morning, from some students who had just arrived in Loma Pampa for their service work. I immediately notified the rest of the students, and as a group we headed to the barrio. We viewed the body, strangely doll-like in its wooden box, surrounded by candles and sobbing relatives, laid out in the same one-room adobe house where Wilmer spent his days. Eventually a hearse arrived - no small feat, there on the far fringes of the city - and a group of men carried the small white casket from the house to the
street. People piled into vehicles for the long, slow procession to the cemetery. There we gathered around the grave, as prayers were said, coca leaves were chewed, and alcohol was sprinkled on the ground. The casket was lowered in. People threw flowers into the grave as men shoveled dirt into the hole. It thudded heavily on the lid of the box. Important people made speeches. We watched as the day gradually faded away, and then retired to our vehicles to return home.

It is difficult to write in standard blog-speak about Wilmer's passing. The linearity of the narrative, reflecting the linear nature of the day, does not capture the experience. My mind was all over the place. I thought of Wilmer, two years ago and just five years old, making a nuisance of himself during the construction work in Loma Pampa. I thought of the future he would not have, and what it means for people to live in this kind of a situation. Most of all, I thought of the structural conditions that precipitated this tragedy. How alcoholism destroys families. How Wilmer's father would toss him out of the house at 5 AM to go sell popsicles. How Wilmer, cold and lonely in the darkness of the morning, would sleep on the street corner until the day brightened and he could head out to work. How a family of seven could share one room with no furniture. No furniture! And how Wilmer would always show up at the community center whenever our Rutgers students came around, finding there the friendship and affection he couldn't get elsewhere.

Should we cry over such things? I don't know whether to be sad or angry - probably both. Our students certainly were impacted by these events, beyond anything a book or a classroom might teach them. Going forward, I don't imagine any of them will ever forget the events of this day.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A passing

Yesterday afternoon, Wilmer Vargas, a 7 year-old resident of Loma Pampa, was trying to cross a busy highway with his older brother when he was struck by a speeding taxi. He died instantly.

Wilmer was a constant presence in the community center in Loma Pampa. All our students knew him, in 2008, 2009, and 2010. He was a regular participant in all of our activities in the barrio, joining our classes and trying to help out in the construction projects in his own small way. On our first Sunday in the barrio this year, he participated in group games with other children and a few of our students. One student remembered fondly how Wilmer just couldn't grasp the subtleties of duck duck goose - he would just keep running around the circle, unaware that he was supposed to sit down once he returned to his spot. Eventually someone had to grab him and force him to sit so that the game could proceed.

Wilmer came from one of the poorest families in Loma Pampa. He lived in a single adobe room, bare of furniture, sleeping on the dirt floor with his four brothers and sisters. His mother speaks only Quechua, his father is prone to drink, and they struggled to provide him with the kind of care that a young kid needs. But things seemed to be improving. The first year we came to Loma Pampa, Wilmer was covered in warts - on his face, but especially his hands, which were thick with them. I had never seen anything like it, and would hesitate when he would beg to use my camera. By this year, though, he seemed to be improving. The warts were mostly gone, and he seemed happy and cleaner than in the past.

But Wilmer was from a poor family, and like so many other poor kids was encouraged, even at a young age, to go out and try to make some money to support his family. When he was killed, Wilmer was down on the main road with his brother selling frozen popsicles from a small styrofoam container that hung from a strap across his chest. It is not uncommon to see young boys doing this and other kinds of work, to be able to bring a few pesos home to their families.

It is the poorest, here and elsewhere, that are the most vulnerable. Poor children like Wilmer stand very little chance of making it out of poverty. More likely they wind up like him, with nothing but a blog posting for an obituary. It is a tragedy beyond measure.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Another Day at the Office

Some photos from another hard day's labor in Loma Pampa. Some students dug and moved dirt to fill in holes around the underground water tank we are installing for the community center, while others sanded and prepped for painting. Next Sunday I expect we will devote all of our energy to painting two rooms in the center, and prepping the third. I hope to have the place entirely painted in time for the barrio anniversary on August 8th - our last day in Loma Pampa.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


Last night was our first "reflections," when we gather to share our thoughts and emotions as recorded in our daily journals. Reflections is an important component of the service-learning process, requiring participants to think carefully about what they are feeling and experiencing even as they are living through it. Their insights as a result are deeper than they might be otherwise, and through sharing they come to realize the commonalties and divergences in their collective experience.

An interesting theme to emerge last night was the question of whether the Bolivia program could "change your life." Some thought it would, or had, while others were skeptical. I am not a big believer in the idea of "life changing," as it implies that our lives are stable and constant, and can change suddenly from one particular state or condition to another, rather than being more of a continuum that is always in flux. But I think that living here in Bolivia for six weeks, doing the kind of work we do with women and children in poor communities, can change one's perspective. Students reflect on their own privilege and the lack thereof of their barrio friends. They recognize how difficult it is to create lasting and meaningful change in the lives of others, despite our best intentions, but also how even the smallest efforts are significant and
appreciated. And through this kind of awareness, they begin to understand their own positions relative to others in entirely new ways. They begin to relativize their own problems through juxtaposition with those of others, and they start to think differently about what role they might be able to play in building a new kind of society. So while their "lives" may not necessarily change by being in Bolivia, students do, I think, come to see the world, and their place in it, through a different set of lenses.
(Photo credits: Natasha Bennett; Lauren Giannetti)

Monday, July 5, 2010

Sunday in Loma Pampa

Things have gone incredibly well since our arrival a few days ago. Our friends welcomed us with open arms, and everything was in place for our students to begin their work. The students have settled into their homestays, and seem content with those situations. I am very impressed with this group of students - they are upbeat, enthusiastic, and seem ready to meet the challenges that they will confront in Bolivia. This was demonstrated most clearly in the way they threw themselves into their work yesterday in Loma Pampa, the barrio where we have been working the last three years on various projects.
The community center which our first two groups of students helped to build looks fantastic, and the huge metal awning out back of it that our students helped erect last year adds a big outdoor space for activities. Under that awning, don David and members of the community welcomed us with flowers and kind words, followed by salteñas and Coca Cola. Then our students went to work, laboring alongside barrio residents to move a huge pile of rocks and dirt from one side of the community center to the other, to try and level out a piece of ground to be used for a patio. It took some persuading for the barrio directorate to allow us to work - aware that it was July 4th, they felt uncomfortable that we should be laboring on our national holiday. But our students were not to be denied, and they worked in the hot sun for almost two hours moving rocks. Starting next week we will begin constructing retaining walls around the awning area, as well as doing painting and other work in the center itself.

In the afternoon, students split into two groups. One group helped to run the jiu jitsu class that are offered on Sundays under the awning, expanding the curriculum to include dodge ball, tag, and other group games. The rest of the students worked with children inside the community center to make music, banging away on drums and other instruments they had brought for the occasion. They also taught the kids to play "Pato, Pato, Ganso" (Duck, Duck, Goose) and musical chairs, which they couldn't get enough of.

When classes ended, we went as a group to Viva Vinto, a restaurant outside of town, where we ate phampaku and lit off fireworks in honor of our national day.

Saturday, July 3, 2010


We are all safe and sound in Bolivia, following a long but uneventful series of flights. Pamela's suitcase did not arrive till yesterday, but otherwise we made it through customs and two flight changes without too many hassles. The students are now all settled with their homestay families, and all seem to be doing very well. Yesterday was spent in marathon orientation sessions, as the group learned about the program, their service projects, and the basic rules of life in Bolivia. Today they have free, but tomorrow we begin in earnest, celebrating the Fourth of July with a day of service in Loma Pampa, followed by a group dinner.

Coincidentally, the day before we left the States, the New York Times' Frugal Traveler published an article exalting the many wonders of Cochabamba - check it out here.