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

MIA

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

Amanecer

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

Señoras

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!":

video