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.