Friday, May 27, 2011
I have put a countdown to our June 30 departure day on the blog. It is a little geeky, I guess, but I enjoy playing around with this blog, finding new ways to decorate it. I need to learn more about html, so that I can really refine things. For instance, there are many counters on the internet that one can freely download, but I went with this one because I couldn't get the others to fit in the space available. Apologies if the numbers are too small.
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Today I sent the manuscript of my new book off to the publisher. I have been working on it all year, and finishing up this first draft is a big accomplishment. Now I can get busy writing my next book! And start making plans in earnest for going to Bolivia.
I'm not so good at celebrating. When I finish one thing I tend to just move on to the next. That is something I have to work on.
Saturday, May 21, 2011
Whenever I'm in Cochabamba, I stay at the Hotel Anteus, and over the years it has become the place I rely on to welcome me back to Bolivia. It is not the fanciest hotel in Cochabamba, but it is comfortable and relaxed, and the people there treat me like the King of America.
The Anteus has a good little restaurant and a peaceful garden walled in from the world, with plastic tables and chairs and canvas umbrellas to block the sun. I have spent many a morning in that garden, reading, preparing, doing whatever I do to run the ISL program and try to squeeze some research in around the edges. I always get the same room at the Anteus - number 11 - and going back there time and time again eases the transition and helps me to feel at home.
Monday, May 16, 2011
While the price of gas may not seem to have a lot to do with studying abroad in Bolivia, in fact it impacts us directly in the most obvious of ways. The price of a plane ticket to Bolivia is now about 40% higher than what it was this time last year, and the airlines blame it on gas prices. It is a terrible shock to go online to hunt for plane tickets and find that their costs significantly exceeds the amount you budgeted.
High gas prices have had less of an impact in Bolivia itself. The country gets a good price on Venezuelan fuel oil, and also produces a fair amount of oil and gas for its own consumption. In Cochabamba, the majority of cars have now been converted to burn natural gas instead of gasoline, significantly reducing the price at the pump (and the environmental impact). The state also subsidizes the cost of gas, something that the government tried to reverse last December, only to face a major uprising by outraged citizens. These protests, internationally known as the "gasolinazo," were a surprise to the president, Evo Morales, and his party, though why they should have been is not clear - Evo's predecessors were ejected from office precisely over such neoliberal moves (are you reading your Kohl and Farthing, students?).
In any case, I hope our students are buying their plane tickets now - the prices likely will only continue to increase as our departure date approaches.
Sunday, May 15, 2011
Andean societies value reciprocity. People engage in frequent, non-quantified exchanges, in which I give you something today, and though I keep no kind of record, I know that sometime in the future you will give something back to me. This form of give and take keeps people connected through ongoing ties of obligation and friendship. It is a foundation of community in Andean society.
As we go and immerse ourselves in this kind of society, we would do well to remember that we are immediately entering into a relationship in which we are, and probably always will remain, indebted. The people in Bolivia who welcome us into their homes and their lives may be compensated for their efforts, but what we take away from the experience far outstrips the money we pay for our homestays and language classes. Going in with this awareness can inspire in us a sense of humility, which can ground us and help us appreciate what we are giving and what we are gaining from this exchange.
As you enter your homestay, remember that you are under no obligation to offer a gift to your homestay family. People will certainly not expect anything from you, asking only that you respect house rules and comport yourself as would a member of the family. Still, giving a gift is a nice way to thank people in advance for their generosity in taking you into their home, a way of immediately trying to address that balance sheet on which you are always in the role of debtor. While I am not necessarily the best judge of what homestay families might like to receive, the following is a list of gifts that have worked for others in the past. Readers of this blog, please add to this list based on your own experience:
• hand towels or bath towels (the soft fluffy kind)
• small kitchen items
• books and magazines, in English or Spanish
• small hand tools
• toys for children
• scarves, jewelry, clothing
• baby clothes
• small household items
• something from your university - a t-shirt or sweatshirt, perhaps
Whatever you offer will be accepted with gratitude and appreciation.
Friday, May 13, 2011
Having decided to begin the blog again, I also decided I had to go back to old posts and do some housekeeping. Specifically, I decided to remove all real names and images of Bolivians from the blog. Not all - there are still a few pictures of people whom I don't know, who randomly showed up in the backgrounds of some photos. But people who appeared regularly I had to remove, so that they could not be identified from this material.
Though it is not strictly a rule in the case of a blog, it is nevertheless a good idea to protect people's anonymity by always using pseudonyms - fake names - to disguise real identities. It is highly unlikely that any harm could come to anyone from their association with this program, but one never knows and it is best to play it safe. It is also a rule in ethnographic research, that real names should nearly always be replaced by pseudonyms. It is a standard technique in data collection, and one that I urge all students to practice.
So, if you are a frequent reader of this blog, don't be surprised to see mention of people whom you've never heard of – "don David," for example, or the guy I just refer to as "G." – either in new posts or in older ones. And if you post a comment to the blog, please refrain from using people's real names as well, or I will have to delete your comment.
By the way, I have not changed the name of the actual place where we work. Loma Pampa is still Loma Pampa, because people in that barrio specifically asked me to maintain the real name of the place. For some people in marginal communities, this project and the blog are ways of calling attention to their small barrio, of which they are justifiably proud, even while they may prefer to have their own identities kept private.
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Each year around this time, I debate whether or not to begin this blog again. I have maintained it each of the last three years, to document the activities of our study abroad program in Bolivia, and people seem to have read and enjoyed it. But each year I wonder if I really want to take on the work of keeping the blog again.
That is perhaps not surprising, seeing as how each year I also debate whether or not to return to Bolivia with another group of students. It is, after all, a lot of work. But, like the blog, each year I determine it to be worth the effort.
So here I am again, writing once more, anticipating another return to Bolivia, my home away from home. The past three years leading this program have been wonderful and inspiring, and I hope to continue the success this year. We have more students participating than ever before (17), and have drawn students from seven different universities, including Rutgers, our home institution. The program, in other words, is growing, and word of it is spreading. I am excited and energized for another go.
And of course, I am excited to return to Bolivia. When I left last August, I thought I would not be back this year, or perhaps only for a brief visit. But by about February, I was longing to return. I missed the people, the food, the weather, the whole experience of living in Cochabamba.
Now it is May, and it still feels like the right decision to return. I will keep this blog as faithfully as I can, but I make no promises. Unlike past years, my plan this year is to take things slowly, to absorb the experience each step of the way. That is my plan, anyway. We'll see how it goes.