Sunday, August 7, 2011

Goodbye yet again

Another season in Bolivia comes to an end, with a despedida in Loma Pampa as we said goodbye to our cherished friends. It has been an amazing year. We have accomplished so much, with a great group of smart, energetic and enthusiastic students. Will we be back again next year? That is not a question I can answer as of yet. But it has been a great four years.

More pictures can be found on my Facebook page. Vayan con Dios!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Despedida in San Ysidro

It is the final week of the program, and as is the case every year, we are all busy with the ritualized goodbye celebrations known as despedidas. In each of the communities where we have been working, the people express their thanks for our presence and contributions by making speeches, exchanging hugs and handshakes, and most of all, by inviting us to consume large amounts of food.

Yesterday we celebrated the conclusion of the baking project in the barrio of San Ysidro. Over the last six weeks, our students have worked alongside the women of that community as they learned to bake cakes, pastries, empanadas and salteñas, all of which they shared with us at the despedida. The women positively glowed with pride as they showed off their products, insisting that each of us eat at least one of each of the items on display. I have high hopes that this project will continue after our departure, especially once the kitchen that we have helped to finance is completed and the women have a dedicated space in which to do their baking.

For much of the summer, it must be said, our students were unsure of their contributions to this community. Though they organized sports and English classes for children and worked together with the women as they learned to bake, the students often felt as though they weren't actually "doing" anything. But at the despedida last night, all of us were blown away by the extent of the women's achievement and their deep gratitude for what we had provided them. Women praised our students, and the kids with whom they have been working gave them enormous hugs and begged them not to leave. The students, I think, realized for the first time the nature of their contribution - that just being present in this community, getting to know people and providing the resources through which these women could improve their lives and the lives of their families, they had accomplished a great deal.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

16 de julio

I just found some pictures on my other camera from the 16 de julio celebration from three weeks ago. "16 de julio" means July 16th, which is the anniversary of the founding of the city of La Paz. "16 de julio" is also the name of one of the barrios where our students are working, a barrio that was settled by migrants from the city of La Paz, and so they celebrate their hometown anniversary with a big parade on July 16. Our group attended, and somehow got drafted to parade alongside the costumed dancers, performing the morenada (a traditional dance that is, fortunately, quite easy to learn). For two hours we danced through the streets of the barrio, adding a foreign accent to a decidedly local celebration.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


My mom has been complaining that the blog this year is both boring and infrequently updated. To try and address these critiques, I have included an exclamation point in the title of today's posting.

This weekend we celebrated the 12th (I think) anniversary of Loma Pampa with our barrio friends. The highlights of the event this year were the performances by our students, who sang and danced and put on a show unlike anything ever seen in the barrio. Against the backdrop of the mural painted by last year's group, Aman sang an original version of "Gringa Bonita," the best line of which went "we can't help it if we're gringos," which brought big laughs from the crowd (who apparently thought we could help it). This was followed by a big dance performance that featured such classic tunes as "YMCA," "Thriller," and, unexpectedly, "Cotton-Eyed Joe." After the big number, some of the students led a group of children in a dance activity, and then Joyelle and Carmen, a friend from Cochabamba, performed an improvisational modern dance number. The whole thing was quite spectacular.

Another exciting moment came in the big dance competition that followed these performances. Several pairs of students participated, along with a few barrio residents, performing traditional and not-so-traditional Bolivian dances. Though the pair of Hayden and Blondeen made it to the final round, the prize was won by our own Pamela and Guery, who then turned their prizes over to the people in the crowd, who eagerly accepted the bags of pasta, bars of soap, and bottles of cooking oil that they distributed.

The efforts of our students, both today and over the past month, have not gone unrecognized by the residents of Loma Pampa. As part of the anniversary event, the barrio leaders called each student by name to approach the microphone, and presented them with certificates of appreciation for their work.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


The students are traveling, and I get a few days off. Most of them went to Torotoro, where they will hike across stark plateaus and through dramatic valleys; swim beneath waterfalls; wriggle on their bellies through dark, sandy caves; and examine the fossilized turds of ancient dinosaurs. A smaller group has gone to Lake Titicaca, to visit the lakeside town of Copacabana, and the Isla del Sol. Everyone will be back Saturday night, in time for our regular visit to Loma Pampa on Sunday.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Appreciating Cocha

After three days in La Paz, I am remembering why I like Cochabamba so much. To most people it probably seems like a dry, boring town, but to me it is peace and tranquility. Yes the traffic is bad, and I get sick way too often; but the light has a quality that fills up spaces, making them glow from the inside. The air is too polluted, but it is always warm and gentle, and holds you without letting you drop. Not like the air in La Paz - at 12,000 feet the air is so thin and insubstantial, it barely offers enough to breathe, and does nothing to buffer you from the harsher elements. And it is cold! In Cochabamba, even in winter, the cold does not penetrate your bones as it does in La Paz. Here it is mostly warm, the people are mostly warm, the sidewalks are mostly warm, the sunsets and sunrises. There is room here to breathe.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

On the road

Tomorrow we leave bright and early (4:30 AM!) for the trip to La Paz. We will be visiting the pre-Incan archaeological site of Tiahuanacu before heading into the city itself. There we will meet with some researchers from the Observatorio Sobre Racismo, and the next day with some young Aymara rappers in the nearby city of El Alto. Home to Cochabamba on Saturday night. Feliz viaje!

Monday, July 18, 2011

At play

The weeks are going by quickly. We have been working the students hard, with extra trips and projects in addition to their usual load, but they have responded brilliantly. This is a great group, fun and friendly and really committed to the projects they have undertaken. This coming week will be a shorter one, as we are leaving on Thursday for a three-day excursion to the altiplano and La Paz.

Yesterday was our third Sunday in Loma Pampa. After working on the construction project and finishing the painting of the playground, the gringo team played its second match of fulbito (5 on 5 soccer played on a basketball court) against the Loma Pampa team. Whereas in the first game we were soundly defeated 4-1, this time the gringos triumphed, scoring three quick goals and then hanging on for a 3-2 victory. The Bolivians seemed rather stunned by their loss, and insisted that we play the tie breaker next Sunday.

After lunch, the students again ran various classes for children in the barrio. Some older boys learned basketball, while younger kids did arts and crafts, making string bracelets under the students' tutelage in the community center. Meanwhile, other kids played games and sports on the patio out back, including "lobo lobo" (duck duck goose), "hielo y sol" (freeze tag), and learning to jump rope (including double dutch, which even our students seemed to find challenging). The enthusiasm for all these activities was tremendous - students and kids even were engaged in the litter collection that Pamela organized, receiving prizes of plastic toy dinosaurs for their participation.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The man who taught me how to write

When I published my first book a few years ago, I sent a copy to my tenth grade English teacher, James Todd King. Mr. King - Todd, or JTK as I came to know him later on - was perhaps the most influential teacher I ever had. Cool and funny and tough, he loved literature and gave that love away freely to his students, many of whom maintained contact with him long after his early retirement, brought on by illness. Mr. King could tear apart an essay and help you to build it back up again. From him I learned argumentation, analysis, grammar and style, skills that have benefitted me throughout my life.

So after I published that book - an ethnographic account of my research in an urban neighborhood of Cochabamba, Bolivia - I sent him a copy, which I inscribed as follows:

"For JTK, who taught me how to write. With best wishes," etc.

Shortly after sending him the book, I received the following email:

"Thumbnail review from last night's scan and plunge approach: This is no dry academic text whatsoever. Full of colorful anecdotes, both the macabre and joyous terror of these Latino 'outliers' is fully felt…It is a good book, Dan, that I read for an hour too long last night. I'm proud of you. JTK"

It was not long afterwards that word came that JTK had passed away, far too young and too soon. I think about him often.

It is a year later and I am again in Bolivia, now running a study abroad/service learning program for undergraduates. Students are reading and discussing my book. As I circulate around the classroom, eavesdropping on their small-group conversations, I notice that one student's copy of the book is swollen and frayed from water damage that her luggage experienced courtesy of American Airlines. The book also bears a large yellow "USED" sticker, indicating that she bought it secondhand, perhaps through Amazon or some other online dealer. Drawn to the oddly misshapen text, I pick it up and open it to the first page. And there I see it, my very own inscription:

"For JTK, who taught me how to write."

I stare at the page in dumb disbelief. The floor seems to tilt beneath my feet and I gasp for breath, struggling to make sense of what I hold in my hands. Across thousands of miles and a million strands of possibility, the very text that I had given to my friend and teacher has somehow found its way back to me. Why did I even pick up that copy and flip through the pages? Had the book itself somehow sought out the pool of water in the plane's cargo hold, just to warp itself and so call itself to my attention? Had it left JTK's library after he no longer had need of it, to bring him so strongly to my mind, so far from and yet so near to its origins?

I cannot, of course, answer these questions, and don't know what to make of this phenomenon. But holding this inscription again, this gift that has returned to me across unfathomable time and space, I feel joy, sadness, and deep gratitude.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Painting the playground

Our work this Sunday focused on renovating the playground in Loma Pampa. Students, working alongside a bunch of children from the barrio, worked to sand and then paint the swings, see saws, slide and other apparatus on the hillside park. Though we are not finished the results are already evident, as the once drab playground has come to life in a riot of primary colors.

Students also worked with some adults from the community to plant wooden posts around the playground, so that the local transportation line can no longer use it as their parking lot. The only snag came after the work had been completed, and we discovered that one of the workers' cars was still parked inside the ring of posts. I don't know how he will get it out, but Don M. joked that he might need a helicopter.

Friday, July 8, 2011

At work in Loma Pampa

We began our community service work last Sunday in the barrio of Loma Pampa, where we have worked the last three years on various projects, in collaboration with local barrio residents and leaders. Since our last visit, the residents finished construction on the new bathrooms for the community center that we have helped to finance and build. They are now the finest bathrooms in the entire southern zone of Cochabamba, with running water and nice little wastebaskets and liquid soap dispensers.

This year we are working to level the ground in front of the community center, to turn it into a small park for the barrio. Students threw themselves into the work on Sunday, shifting dirt and rocks around and helping to dig a ditch for a retaining wall. Next Sunday the work will continue, and students will be starting sports classes and other activities for kids in the neighborhood.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A brief stay in the Bahamas

Finally, a moment to breathe. This has been a whirlwind, since I left home three days ago.

I wrote that sentence on Sunday, and didn't get any further. It's now Tuesday night, and I'm trying again. It has been crazy busy, but things are finally settling down here in Cochabamba. Our journey to Bolivia was disrupted by bad weather in Miami, which caused a number of flights to be delayed or canceled (or in my case, briefly diverted to the Bahamas for refueling before continuing on to land in Miami). So about half the students missed their connections in Miami. In addition, most of us who did arrive on time found that our luggage had not made the connection. Gotta love American Airlines - charged me $200 for excess weight and then couldn't manage to deliver it on time.

But now, on Tuesday, our group is finally all here, and the last suitcase is supposed to arrive tonight. We have a great group of students, and all the projects (in six different sites!) are now underway. I am super busy visiting all the sites, rearranging schedules, managing individual situations, and making sure everything gets off the ground (unlike, ahem, American Airlines). It has been exhausting, but I think I may get a break on Saturday :)

Too tired to upload photos. More to come.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Here I am, here we go

On the eve of departure - we leave tomorrow for Bolivia. I approach this year as a great adventure: Heading off into the unknown with a new group of students, ready to take on a new bunch of projects, not knowing what the outcomes will be, but determined to be fully engaged with every moment of the experience. That goes for the trip itself. So often with traveling, I am anxious about all the things that could go wrong - missed flights, lost luggage, sick students, visa problems - the list is endless. So often it feels like all of these are obstacles that get in the way of my experience, that interrupt what the program is supposed to be. But from another perspective, these mishaps - which inevitably will happen, airlines being what they are, human beings being what they are - are part of the experience, they are the experience itself. My mantra this year: Here I am. Here I am missing my flight. Here I am losing my luggage. Whatever life throws at me, I will meet head on. That is the adventure of this trip.

Sleep well, boys and girls. The adventure begins!

Monday, June 27, 2011


We leave for Bolivia on Thursday, for the overnight flight through Miami that gets us into Cochabamba on Friday. It is a long trip, but a fun one. I love going through the Miami airport, which is like a great international festival. Walking through the now-updated American Airlines terminal, you feel like you have already arrived in Latin America. People from every Latin country pass through that terminal, speaking Spanish, Portuguese, French, Creole, and a million other languages from around the hemisphere. There is even some decent food to be had (aside from the Chili's, which, as I confessed in a previous blog posting somewhere, I habitually visit on my way home from Bolivia). The Miami airport is a big crowded mess, but it gets you ready for Latin America.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Coca issues

The question of the coca leaf remains a major issue in Bolivian - and international - politics. While the complexities of this matter are too involved for one blog posting to cover, one of the most basic facts is that while many Bolivians and other Andean peoples consume coca as a basic staple of daily life and a key element of much ritual and religious practice, the leaf itself remains labeled a narcotic by the international community. This is the case even though the leaf itself is not a drug, but only becomes one after it is chemically processed into cocaine. Although Bolivia has lobbied to have this changed, the United Nations refuses to remove coca from its list of narcotic drugs, under pressure from the United States, which has long held the stance that, because "we abuse it, you can't use it."

In response to this refusal, the Bolivian government is now moving to withdraw from the international narcotics convention in protest (thanks to our friends at the Andean Information Network for providing information on the coca question). Anyone interested in Bolivia should follow this ever-developing issue with close attention.

Friday, June 17, 2011

What lies ahead

With less than two weeks to go till our departure, it is natural to be feeling a bit apprehensive. We are about to head off to a place and an experience that to most of us is completely alien, forcing us to question our most basic assumptions about life and the way the world works. It is therefore not surprising to feel, what? Scared, exhilarated, nauseous, edgy, confused. Your confusion may manifest as anxiety - a dread about what the future might hold - or as excitement, a positive anticipation that is in many ways anxiety's flip side. Both emotions are about uncertainty in the face of change, a sense of possibility that may be wonderful or terrible. I alternate between these feelings myself, though maintaining an overall positive view of the prospects ahead.

What are you feeling right now? Program alumni, what do you remember feeling two weeks pre-departure? Post a comment to this blog and share it with the rest of us.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Required reading

An old teacher of mine used to say, you have to become historical so you don't become hysterical.

On that note, I remind all of our students traveling to Bolivia this summer 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!

Thursday, June 9, 2011


A third project site this year will be in a local orphanage, run by an organization called Amanecer. Spanish for "dawn," Amanacer is supported by the Catholic church, and does a great job providing a home and family enivronment for children who either don't have families, or whose families are unable to care for them due to a variety of social and personal problems. The place where we work - and where our students have worked during the last two years - is home to about 25 boys, ages 8 to 13. They are rough kids, having spent time on the street before coming to Amanacer, but warm up quickly and love working with our volunteers. In the past we have donated computers and sports equipment, and offered classes in a range of areas, including English, athletics, and math tutoring. What will our students do this year? That will be for them to determine.

Sunday, June 5, 2011


Another one of our groups of students will be working this summer with women in a local community. In the past, our students have organized various classes, workshops and activities for women's groups in different neighborhoods. Usually these activities have have been productive in nature, aiming to help women learn new skills that could hopefully lead to new income-generating opportunities. Some of these classes have focused on knitting and other handicrafts; using what they learn, women have made items of clothing for their families, and produced things to sell locally in the city. Other classes taught women how to bake, and their activities quickly became self-sustaining as they sold the produce of their work.

What these activities will be this year remains to be seen. In all of our projects we aim to identify local people's own desires and match them with our students' interests and talents. In this way, everybody benefits.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Water Rights

Water has long been an issue in Cochabamba, and this summer some of our students will have a chance to get involved directly in the struggle for what in Bolivia are known as water rights. Cochabamba is internationally famous for the "Water War" of 2000, when residents of Cochabamba's various neighborhoods took to the streets to protest the government's plan to privatize water service by selling the rights to water to a transnational corporation. After days of protest, the government backed out of this agreement and returned administration of water to the municipal utility company. This event has been hailed as a defeat of the forces of globalization and the assertion of local rights to natural resources.

However, in the poor barrios of Cochabamba, people continue to live without access to water through a public delivery system. Instead, they have to buy their water from trucks that deliver it to their homes, and store it in barrels until they are ready to use it. To try and improve this situation, many communities formed local water committees, which work to bring water services into their neighborhoods.

This year, for the first time, two groups of our students will be working with water committees in two different barrios, to help them in these efforts. We are lucky enough to be working with Marcela Olivera, a Cochabamba-based activist who has been collaborating with the water committees for many years, and who was involved herself in the original Water War. Marcela will also be a visiting scholar next fall at Rutgers' Center for Women's Global Leadership. This will be an amazing opportunity to learn about the struggle for water rights while contributing to the ongoing campaigns to improve access to water for local residents.

For more information about the Water War and Marcela, watch this video clip from the program "Democracy NOW!":