Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Departure day looms. The familiar last minute scramble, trying to get everything organized, final errands completed. Unexpected crises suddenly popping up, needing to be managed before I can leave. The feeling of mounting pressure, like a kettle heating to a boil on the stove top. Any minute the steam will come shooting out my ears, like in an old-time cartoon.

Tomorrow will be even crazier - getting to the airport, the check-in, the security check...and then the endless waiting. But I know that once I am in the airport, on that plane, the pressure will begin to drop. I am on my way, and even if the plane doesn't leave on time, or a student misses the flight, or I end up in Paraguay (as has happened, on occasion), at least I am on my way. No more time for additional errands, no more planning, now just the doing, which I find infinitely preferable.

Next blog entry - from Cochabamba!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Blog explosion

Suddenly there are four (count-em, four) Bolivia blogs. Including my own, three students - Lauren, Natasha, and Ayesha - are also keeping blogs. Links are to the right.

This is unprecedented. There will be so much coverage of this program, I may have to write a book...

Friday, June 25, 2010

Saying goodbye

It is never easy to say goodbye to our loved ones when we go away from home. I've been leaving home for years - I do it several times a year, some years - and it doesn't get easier with practice, though I keep hoping it will. But it is not just about saying goodbye when leaving home - it can be just as hard, I have recently learned, when people say goodbye to you.

Yesterday we drove Eli, 11 years old, to Laguardia airport, where he would be catching a flight to summer camp in Maine. It is his first year going to camp, his first time leaving home. When we made these plans, I was relieved. Every year when I go off to Bolivia, I have to say goodbye to Eli, which is incredibly sad. This year, I thought, it would be so much easier, since he would be going away and I would be staying home - at least for a few days.

Not so. Saying goodbye is just as hard, whether you are the one leaving or the one staying behind. The one leaving has to face all the uncertainties of life in an unfamiliar place. But the one staying has to confront the defamiliarization of the familiar, the sense that this house seems the same, but is profoundly different, because some of the liveliness and joy has left it. For me, this is a much harder thing to face.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Missing summer

One of the hardest things about going to Bolivia every year is that I end up missing a good chunk of summer. Bolivia, of course, being in the southern hemisphere, has winter while we in the north have summer.

Missing summer has its positives and negatives. On the plus side, I miss the intense, wet heat of July. The taste of it I get in June is enough to remind me how much I hate humidity, the way it makes my shirt stick to my back, and makes me glad that I get to escape it on June 30. Winter weather in Cochabamba is crisp and dry, with a nice cool tang to the evening air, even as the days are warm and temperate. Give me cool and dry over hot and humid any day.

The down side is that I miss the best of summer. I miss the swimming, the lazy days, the ice cream and the bike rides. I miss my kids as they do summery things. Summer brings back the sense of my own childhood, spent by the lake in upstate New York, and not being part of summer on an annual basis makes me ache for lost youth.

In the end, though, it all works out. Missing the heart of summer means I appreciate all the more the time I have to enjoy it in June and late August. Welcome the time we are given, make the most of the time we have got.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Things to think about

At the beginning of a great adventure, it is important to ask yourself a few questions. Why am I doing this? What are my expectations? What do I hope to get from this experience? You may not know the answers to these questions, but thinking about them can help prepare you for what lies ahead. The important thing is to be alert to the new things you are about to discover, many of which will be entirely unanticipated.

Over the years I have been amazed by the many students who have told me that the Bolivian program was a life-changing experience. They describe discovering aspects of themselves that they had not previously imagined, dimensions of who they are that somehow being far from home, in a strange and different place, brought into consciousness. It's like walking into your house, a place you think you know perfectly well, and finding that there are whole new rooms there that you didn't even know existed, and are there for you to explore. Others describe the thrill of meeting new challenges, and how this led them to discover previous unknown capacities in themselves. These experiences range from the dramatic to the mundane - from hiking up incredibly steep hills and squeezing through tiny spaces in underground caverns, to simply speaking a foreign language in daily encounters.

The point is that there are so many things we don't know about ourselves, which we can discover when we put ourselves in new and challenging situations. It is easier to stay at home, in comfort and safety, where our assumptions will go unquestioned and our worldviews will remain unchanged. This is a comfortable way to live, and it is not surprising that most people choose to live this way. But for those of you willing to put yourselves out there and challenge yourselves, the potential for growth and discovery is limitless.

It is sometimes said that, "wherever you go, there you are." And indeed, we can't escape ourselves by traveling to faraway places, for we inevitably take our baggage, emotional and otherwise, with us wherever we go. But there is also the possibility that the "you" you find in that other place may be different from the one you thought you knew. And that can make all the difference.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Packing List

"Pack light" is my mantra for going to Bolivia. Try to keep it to one bag, under 50 lbs. to avoid the overweight fees that the airlines will charge you. Here are some tips to help you along.

For those of you who have never been to Bolivia before, you may be surprised by the number of things you can buy there that are familiar from shopping in North American stores. You can get your Old Spice deoderant, for example, your Head and Shoulders and Crest Super Whitening. So when packing for Bolivia, don't feel you have to bring jumbo sizes of every product you might need.

It's also very easy, and cheap, to buy clothes. If you've ever donated anything to Goodwill, maybe dropped your old jeans in one of those big metal boxes in the supermarket parking lot, thinking they would be given to some poor homeless person, think agin. Your jeans were bundled with thousands of other pieces of donated clothing and sold in bulk to international clothing vendors, who in turn sold them to distributors in various countries around the world. They were then bought by local dealers who, in Bolivia, sell them in stores and market stalls. So if you find yourself in need of clothing, you may be able to buy back your old jeans while you're there.

You will also see people wearing t-shirts with English-language logos, having no idea what their shirts say. I once stopped a guy in the street who was wearing a Rutgers t-shirt, but he had no affiliation to Rutgers and thought I was kind of crazy for stopping him.

Here are the top five items that you should buy, which may be harder to find in Bolivia. Some of these things may indeed be available there, but they are things you want to have immediately upon arrival.

5. Hat - It is extremely sunny in Bolivia, and you should bring a broad-brimmed hat to protect yourself from the sun's rays. You can of course buy hats in Bolivia (see image), but some of these are less useful than others for sun protection. Along these same lines, get yourself some...

4. Sunscreen - You will want to slather yourself with this whenever you go out.

3. Reading material - Finding good books in English is almost impossible in Bolivia. Bring along a few good novels, to while away an evening, time spent in travel, and so on. If you are not in the habit of reading for pleasure, this is a good time to start.

2. Shoes - Of course you can buy shoes in Bolivia. But Bolivian shoes are stiff, uncomfortable, and tend to be kind of dressy. Bring comfortable, sturdy walking shoes. You will need them.

1. Imodium - I don't really need to explain this one, do I? Remember, don't drink the water. And don't eat the lettuce.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

This year for the first time, our students will be doing service work directly through a project run by a non-governmental organization that I helped to found in 2007, and which has helped to run the summer program each of the past two years. The group is now operating two human rights and access-to-justice centers in two Cochabamba neighborhoods. The project aims to teach barrio residents about human rights, provides counseling and legal services, offers training in non-violent conflict resolution, and helps to create new understanding and opportunities in the barrios.

The project will be the site of our students' community service and anthropological research this summer. Students will be assigned to one of the two barrio sites, and will work with groups of men, women and children to design activities, prepare materials, and help lead workshops and trainings. At the same, the students themselves will learn alongside barrio residents about the nature of human rights and HR defense. Some students may work to develop curricula for teaching about HR in schools; others will help the trainers work with kids to discover the importance of non-violence through, somewhat paradoxically, martial arts; others will work with women's groups to help develop new income-generating opportunities.

Unlike past years, the students this year will work directly through an established an ongoing project. Whereas previously we developed stand-alone projects in which students engaged, this year the students will work with an established and ongoing project, which will give their work more lasting value and provide a framework within which they can learn about Bolivia, human rights, and so on. I expect it to be a very productive collaboration.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Blog is Back

Welcome back to the Bolivia blog! As I have each summer since 2008, I will be keeping this blog so that those of you who can't come with us to Bolivia can keep track of what we are doing there. Please post your feedback to this site and share with us your responses.

It is June, and once again I am preparing to return to Bolivia with a group of Rutgers students. This will be the third consecutive year for the Bolivia-RU summer study abroad program, and I am again very excited about the program. We have 12 students again this summer, from a range of backgrounds, majors, and levels of international experience. It is a diverse group of men and women, all of whom seem excited to learn about Bolivian reality while contributing their knowledge and energy to helping transform the difficult situations that the people with whom we work regularly encounter.

Keep watching this space for updates. Departure day is June 30!