Leaving Bolivia

I have two weeks left in this country. What started as “at least one year” has now turned into nearly 3 incredible years in Bolivia. No, I don’t feel ready to leave. But I’m doing my best to get myself ready. Am I excited to be going home? Sometimes. But more often I’m sad to be leaving home. I’m excited to see people I’ve missed, and also having a really hard time saying goodbyes. I read in a missionary blog (that I can’t find anymore) about the important “and“. Rather than saying “It’s hard, but it’s good”, as if one cancels out the other, why can’t it be both hard and good? I’m trying to make the most of my normal everyday life that I love so much and will soon change. I’ve transitioned my projects to other engineers, and have some important meetings my last week to clarify long-term direction of partnerships and projects. I’ve had many despedidas (goodbye parties/events) and there are more to come. I’m trying to appreciate all I have here, while also trying to get excited for what’s ahead. I’ve been accepted to Columbia University for a master’s in Earth Resources Engineering. Meanwhile, I’ll go to Minneapolis for the last two weeks of June to do a dance intensive with a company that does interdisciplinary work with scientific research. In July I’ll be based in Chicago, and go to Oklahoma for some continued work with Engineers In Action and the Methodist Church (I suppose a volunteer position like the one I’ve been doing doesn’t have a definitive end), and North Carolina for a friends wedding. So there are great moments to come, both during my final two weeks in Bolivia, and after.

Last Sunday, went to a park with one of my best friends, soaking in the view overlooking La Paz and remembering great moments.

Last Sunday, went to a park with one of my best friends, soaking in the view overlooking La Paz and remembering great moments.

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Fire ants –> empowerment

Today I welcome my first guest blogger, Rebecca Yoo. She is a student at Georgia Tech University, and came to Bolivia as part of a water quality research team.

I brought them to Sica Sica, the county where Konani is located. The municipal technicians and engineers have asked for our help in improving their capacity to monitor water quality in their 82 communities. As a step towards that, the Georgia Tech team measured water quality in 7 communities, comparing high-tech lab techniques with various low cost, simple field techniques. That way, they will find out which field techniques are most reliable and replicable for rural areas.

A municipal technician Maclovio, community water committee president Nasario, and G.Tech researchers.

A municipal technician Maclovio, community water committee president Nasario, and G.Tech researchers. Testing for contamination in Culli Culli Alto, where EIA is starting a new water project.

A (mis)adventure involving fire ants led to some unexpected waiting time at a health clinic with Rebecca, which led to an opportunity for community development. Though all of this, I loved watching and hearing Rebecca process her experiences. Many short term international trips are reported as “life changing”, but the person soon returns to the same life patterns. In Rebecca’s case, I think I actually witnessed a day that impacted her life. I’ll let her tell you more about it: without further ado, here’s Rebecca Yoo!

Day 6: Growing Up, Sica Sica

Repost from gtboliviawater.wordpress.com

I woke up to my alarm at 4:30 AM with Aaron´s (our Teaching Assistant) Mr. Miagi speech still ringing through my ears. Last night, he had decided to hand over the baton of water sampling leadership to myself, as well as words of wisdom to combat any unforeseen challenges. Little did I know how precious his words would be.

Our two hour drive today was to Sica Sica, a small town beyond El Alto. Although Carlos, Melissa, Kaitlyn, and I nervously felt Aaron´s absence, we were luckily accompanied by Lauren, an intern at Engineers In Action who had graduated from University of Minnesota with a degree in mechanical engineering. She had arranged for a partnership with the municipality of Sica Sica in order to sample various rural sources. As we cruised in a Jeep with several community leaders throughout the area, we sampled taps at schools, households, and water tanks. Unfortunately, we hardly reached our third source location before trouble arose.

As I was examining acidity by a tank on a beautiful grassy hill, I suddenly felt sharp stings on my feet – a fire ant attack. Unfortunately, my fashionable decision of wearing Sockos (Chacos with socks) had backfired into discovering a new allergic reaction and adventuring to my first Bolivian clinic. More surprises awaited after receiving medications at the clinic, as a ring of women and children steadily filled the clinic room to hear an unplanned lesson on proper water usage. Although Lauren and I were awaiting the Jeep´s arrival at any moment, Lauren obliged to the women and children, who had already formed a circle to listen.

Lauren´s lesson consisted of the importance of clean water and simple treatment methods. Despite the short notice of the lesson, I was amazed at Lauren´s fluency in engaging the community throughout her lesson by asking simple questions such as ¨Who here drinks water?¨ and  ¨What are some ways you can purify water?¨ She continued her lesson by explaining how to rid harmful waterborne microbes by exposing bottles of water to sunlight and filtering water through layers of cloth. She ended the lesson by allowing community members to ask questions or express any concerns. I thought Lauren´s water lesson was amazing for an impromptu mini-speech, but what struck me the most was the way in which she empowered the community throughout the meeting. Never once did she speak as a know-it-all scientist, nor a community leader in charge of their daily lifestyle, but rather challenged the community to test the methods for themselves. She even jokingly told them they could call her a liar if the children´s health did not improve after a month of water treatment. It was then that I realized the importance of community empowerment – allowing a community to realize dignity through independent strength, as opposed to community provision, which creates dependence and a hierarchical attitude.

As Lauren and I waited after the lesson, I looked around the room full of women and children whom I had never met. It suddenly dawned on me that I was in a foreign community far away from home, had no clue when the Jeep would arrive, and was without any clean water. For a split of a second, I panicked- not because I was afraid for my safety, but because I felt trapped. I felt trapped in the area, trapped with dirty water, trapped with a community whose voice was not heard. For the first time, I felt my eyes being opened to the gravity of my ignorance, despite the time I had spent thinking about these communities and their challenges. I realized no matter how much education I received, I would always have much to learn from these communities, as I could never understand the weight of poverty more than those who have experienced it. As for me, my responsibility was to acknowledge what I have yet to learn and to diligently contribute the knowledge which I have gained.

Today, I revisited my goals with a new light.  As a new generation of civil and environmental engineers receives the baton to lead international development, I realized the great potential young engineers could have by cultivating an attitude of partnership and humility. As this week slowly comes to a close, I think of my friends back at Georgia Tech and hope our lessons from Sica Sica reach ATL soon.

-Rebecca Yoo

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Giving an impromptu workshop on water use.

 

Upcoming

Exciting things are in store! With 2015 under way, here are five things coming up:

  • New co-workers. The IEMB (Evangelic Methodist Church of Bolivia) elected new national leaders, and I am grateful for these partners to work more effectively and efficiently to selflessly partner with the poor to meet basic needs. Also, Engineers In Action will be hiring two new engineers, one of whom will start next week.
  • A project in Carani. Last year, EWB-Idaho (Engineers Without Borders) was in Bolivia for another project when they unexpectedly had a couple extra days. The same week, a miscommunication led the community Carani to believe I was bringing a team of engineers to work on their water system. In this case, two wrongs made a right, and EWB-Idaho visited Carani. Now, they have a long-term partnership to improve current infrastructure and install water distribution pipes. One graduate student from Idaho is even writing her thesis about the project, giving us a great head start on finding the best solution.
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Though I told the community we were bringing our own food and sleeping bags, they still prepared 3 meals a day and walked up to an hour in the dark to bring wool blankets for us, their guests.

  • The Konani project is coming to a successful close. We have done an in-depth technical analysis and conceptual design of how to improve water provision. We installed large tubes to cross a major highway, and made other small modifications. I have been working since 2012 to consolidate two separate water administrations, physically combining the systems and improving operation and maintenance. That finally has happened! Now, a unified system is operated by a trained water committee, with technical and financial support from municipal (county) engineers. The committee, with help from the municipality, already made improvements to the infrastructure, and will finish the work of building a new tank and installing more pipes as recommended by our team of US engineers. This is what we aim for! Outsiders offered expertise that wasn’t readily available locally, and local actors are making the final decisions and carrying out the majority of the work. Now I get to become a background supporter, as the community runs, maintains, and improves their own water supply.
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A community leader signing the agreement in which the church donates the water system to the community, so that the trained water committee can operate one unified system.

  • New projects. Because of the project in Konani, the Municipality has asked Engineers In Action to partner with them in additional communities. The municipality of Sica Sica is part of a national pilot project to provide 100% coverage of water and sanitation by 2025, achieved by investing in experienced personnel to oversee the work and focusing on capacity building, community participation, and a service-oriented approach. This means that one-time projects are only part of the bigger picture to make sure water is delivered as a public service every day to everyone. EIA is thrilled to play a part, and hopes to contribute a vision of detailed up-front analysis in order to find the best long-term solutions. In November and December I visited many potential partner communities, and we found a few where we will start new projects this year. They are highly motivated, organized, willing to work together with visiting engineers and have great need for water and other basic necessities. I will also visit more potential partner communities in the following months.
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A girl collecting a sip of water in a used plastic bag, in Murmuntani- a small community where we are evaluating the feasibility of a potable water project. Photo credit: Adam Kirchner

  • Research partnerships. I have helped coordinate a project between a Bolivian and US university to make improved wind-powered water pumps from recycled materials, for small-scale irrigation. The prototype has been built, is being tested in the lab, and soon will be ready to place in a community. The goal is to improve the design enough that it can be replicated across Bolivia, sold at a low cost and distributed to rural farmers by a small start-up. Based on the initial success, a new larger partnership is underway regarding cyclical human/environmental systems. I’m coordinating the visit of two US professors in February for this project.
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A Mechanical Engineering professor, the Director of Engineers In Action, and me with an early prototype of the wind pump.

I love my work, if you haven’t gathered that. Perhaps unfortunately, I love it so much that I want to learn to do it better and have applied for graduate studies. I still don’t have a date for leaving Bolivia, but it’s possible it will be in 2015. We are starting to recruit for my position- if someone comes well before I leave, all the better. If you know a great candidate, please email me at lauren.butler [at] engineersinaction [dot] org. Meanwhile, I have plenty to keep me busy!

P.S. Remember my previous post about unique Bolivian fruits? This picture of my snack the other day might trump all the rest:

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Acción de gracias

On Thursday we had a “Thanksgiving brunch” in the EIA office, with rolled deli turkey and sweet bread with zapallo- a Bolivian squash that tastes like pumpkin. 10704128_699487440147890_7102303470006758857_n

On Sunday my roommates and I had a full Thanksgiving dinner with a few friends and coworkers. It turned out quite well!

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In Spanish, Thanksgiving is translated to “Dia de acción de gracias”- Day of Action of Thanks or Day of Thanksgiving Action. I love the action part of it. In the U.S., we give thanks for ALL we have on Thursday, saying we have everything we need, then many the next day go out and crazily buy all the things they don’t have and don’t need.

That’s why I love the “Giving Tuesday” movement. In light of all you are thankful for, what will be your “thankfulness action”?

Through the Methodist church, donations on Tuesday will be matched one-for-one, just like last year. Donations to my personal support are NOT eligible to be matched, but to still multiply your impact you can donate elsewhere! You could support water projects in Bolivia (let me know so I can follow up). Or there’s other types of sustainable projects on the Bolivia-Peru border, and many Methodist Advance projects. It’s best to give at or soon after 12am (Monday night) to ensure the match.

Thank you for considering these options, or donating to ANY charity in honor of Giving Tuesday.

2 years and fancy fruits

Today, September 25th, marks the start of my THIRD YEAR in Bolivia! Anniversaries are a big deal here; most every institution celebrates the date of its official creation.  Last Sunday, I preached in a church for the very first time, in honor of the anniversary of their Young Adults’ group.

In these two years I have learned more, done more, and grown more than I ever imagined when first heading down to manage water projects for “at least a year”. Now, I’ll be here at least until sometime next year. What that means, God knows. Good thing he does, because I trust him.

Speaking of trust and fruit (wait what?), over the last few months I’ve taken pictures of some funky fruits that cycle through the local markets. Though I conveniently live across the street from a supermarket, I still try to get as much as possible from the regular markets (Bolivian regular market ≅ U.S. farmer’s market). There’s a small one I pass daily, walking to and from the office. Some days they even bring fresh trout caught that morning at Lake Titicaca. Then there’s mercado rodriquez, a huge open air market where I bought most of the fruit shown below. That’s where I find the lowest prices in La Paz, e.g. all these strawberries for $1.75 (shown on a big dinner plate).

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Now for more fun fruits:

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Guayaba! or Guava in English. It’s used in ice cream and other desserts but I like to scoop it out with a little spoon and eat it straight- it’s gently sweet and naturally has the texture of sorbet.

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Of these related fruits native only to South America, you eat or use just the seeds and flesh inside. The upper left is granadilla (granadia). It has a pleasantly sweet taste. The upper right is maracuya (passion fruit), which is very sour. I don’t like to eat it alone; I put it on top of oatmeal or cereal- that is, when I’ve been lucky enough to find coconut milk. Or, I have maracuya juice which is mixed with sugar (speaking of the sweet tooth mentioned in Wait, Dont Help). The fruit in the front middle is tumbo (Wikipedia tells me we would say “banana passionfruit” in English). Tumbo has a flavor somewhat between granadilla and maracuya- sweet but tangy.

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Kinotos (kumquat) are like tiny little oranges. To be honest, I only bought these out of curiosity. Not a bad flavor, but not worth squeezing out each inch-long fruit. Supposedly you can blend and use them for baking, but since my blender has been broken I ended up throwing them out. This reminded me of a “Food Systems Sustainability” course I took, in which I learned that 1/3 of food is that is produced doesn’t end up in a human stomach. Whoops. I am the problem.

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This little fruit I had no problem eating quickly. They have a natural little covering, so after a quick rinse or maybe not I would pop ’em like candy or put them on salads. They are like tiny sweet tomatoes with a subtle but pleasant taste, and make a great marmalade. I’ve heard them called aguaymantos (which means “water and cape”) and uchuva, but apparently they have innumerable names like Incan/Aztec berry, Peruvian groundcherry, and my favorite “love in a cage” translated from French.

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Carambola or starfruit. Used in fruit salads, juices, and jams. Usually muy rico (very delicious) but this specific batch was not; buying from the market is variable, with most things fresh and delicious but the occasional food rotten or worm-infested.

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Pacay. Oh, Pacay. My mouth is watering as I write this. The journey to get to the fruit only makes it more special. You break off one end, then peel down one side of the tough green covering, like peeling a banana. Then open it up hot-dog style, and white fluffy cubes are lined up like peas in a pod. Each one is as soft as a baby’s blanket, and in the mouth it melts just like cotton candy. You spit out the seed in order to make room for the next light-as-a-cloud but juicy treat. No wonder it’s also called the “ice-cream bean”.

IMG_1413Yet still, the best has been saved for last. Meet Chirimoya.  It’s grown around 2000 m (6-7,000 ft) of elevation (we call those the “low” areas or valleys), and is the most expensive fruit at $1 or $2 when they’re in season. I cut it in slices, poke out the seeds, and eat it raw. Blended with water, it tastes like a milkshake. But don’t take my word for it: in 1866 the travelling Mark Twain reported back to U.S. readers that Chirimoya was the “most delicious fruit known to men”.

And there are many more fruits, like red bananas, achachairú from Santa Cruz, purple-red tomatoes that taste like orange/tomato/pear/tart/sweet/foot depending on who you ask, and tuna: a cactus fruit that has tiny spikes. I once picked a tuna fruit off the ground in a community, which provided onlookers with great entertainment and me with hours of finding invisible thorns in my palm.

Fresh fruit juice is prepared on-the-spot at restaurants, corner stands, and rolling mobile carts.

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My Bolivian coworker didn’t understand why there wasn’t fresh fruit juice widely available in the U.S. when we traveled to a conference last year. She took a sip of her “orange juice” and spit it out and told me it must be rotten (it was normal Capri Sun). Dissapointed, she said “there’s fruit at the appetizer bar, why can’t they just blend it up?” She has a point. I love being able to get a mandarin-carrot-celery-apple juice, or any mix I ask for, for $1 or less at my local market. Or make juices myself again, once I find a new pitcher for my blender. That will require a trek up to the household electronics market, where goods from small stores overflow onto the street.

May the adventures continue as I turn the corner of another “anniversary”!

 

Wait, Don’t Help

I got a desperate phone call from Konani, a town where I have a water project.

“It broke! The system isn’t working, we can’t pump water to the houses! Can you come and help?”

After getting more details, I politely declined. Truth is, I could have arrived the following day with my voltmeter and tracked down the problem. It would be either electrical or a failed pump, because a few months earlier our tests showed the well itself is healthy. I could have quickly identified the problem component, contracted a technician if needed, and found money for the solution.

Instead, I told them, “The project money is not for routine maintenance; that is the responsibility of the community.” I know they have the capability of replacing a pump on their own- they’ve done it before. I suggested they find out how the previous administrators paid for the last pump and who installed it (putting into practice community resilience theory: how did they overcome problems in the past?). With that, I ended the conversation.

That’s right: I intentionally let families’ water taps run dry.

Now, if it had been a matter of life-and-death, I would have tried to help ASAP; but this town has a second water well. Families with dry taps will just have to walk a couple blocks to get water until repairs are finished.  Maintenance is the most important part of a water system, and that’s why I shouldn’t do it. I’m not in the community long-term. If outsiders jump in to fix every maintenance problem, the community will never become self-sufficient. They need to see that I won’t post an emergency blog post asking my readers to donate towards a new pump; rather, the water administrators need to collect enough money, monthly, from system users to save for big things like a new pump.

So I didn’t “save the day”. I waited.

And kept waiting.

It’s been two months. Major test of patience.

Slowly but surely, the local leaders have made progress. They tracked down the technician who replaced the pump 13 years ago. They’ve figured out how they will get most of the money for a new pump.

And YESTERDAY the technician brought his equipment to Konani, took out the old pump, and tested and diagnosed it! The waiting has been worth it for me, because people in the community are taking the lead. And in the future, they will now be better equipped to deal with this the next time it comes up. And hopefully they’ve been reminded to collect a couple extra cents from the families for a cushion fund.

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Julian Calle and the pastor Justo Catacora. Along with Feliciano Fabrica (not pictured), they are responsible for yesterday’s achievement of hiring a technician to come to Konani. Picture from March, with quinoa fields in bloom in the background.

I’ve played a supporting role. I saved them money by explaining that they don’t need to have the technician rehabilitate the well. I cross-checked with other companies to make sure they are getting a fair price. I’m helping identify a new, reliable pump that is 50% more powerful: they can sustainably pump water out at a faster rate because the water flows in so quickly from the aquifer. And to show that this slight increase in capital cost is worth it, in order to provide much more water, we will contribute a small amount of money from the project fund.

It may be slow progress, but I think it qualifies for the much overused s-word: “sustainable”. I don’t know about you, but whenever I want to make a change in my life (eat healthy, time management, etc.), slow change is the kind that sticks. I can drastically change and eat mostly veggies for a day or two, but who am I kidding- that’s not sustainable for a sweet tooth like me. Rather, each year I try to eat more good things and less bad things. It’s almost imperceptible change.

Communities are often the same. Small changes are gradually woven into the fabric of life. Any big or seemingly sudden project work, in order to have long-term impact, is connected to years of patient preparation and years of follow-up.

 

 

To Minneapolis!

Hi from Canada! After successfully passing the Fundamentals of Engineering exam (a step towards the Professional Engineering license), a great time so far in Canada- with my family at the lake where I’ve gone most years of my life- I’ll be heading to Minnesota.

If you are near Minneapolis, stop by Corner Coffee (514 N 3rd St, Minneapolis) anytime between 4-7:30pm this Sunday, Aug 17th to hear about Bolivia and catch up. Old friends and new, all are welcome.

Then back to Bolivia on Wednesday, and immediately to the Engineers In Action yearly Staff Retreat. We will be evaluating our successes and failures this last year, planning for the next year and some growing partnerships, discussing and incorporating best practices and doing impact evaluation of our projects. That way, we will be able to show more concretely the anecdotal evidence we currently have of water systems improving health, economic opportunities, and community empowerment. Exciting things are coming!

Helplessness, Hope, and a Hashtag

Some of the female patients admitted that being beaten regularly was the cause of their pain, in a rural clinic where I translated recently for visiting doctors. Indeed, I started noticing that more women than men seemed to be missing teeth, and most women complained of headaches, vision and hearing loss, or pain all over the body. While those symptoms can have other causes as well, there’s no explaining away the symptoms of the women who told me the ugly and unjust cause of their pain.

Upon returning to the city, I asked some knowledgeable friends, “What resources are available to these women? What could I have told them?” I felt that we had been irresponsibly unprepared; by not saying much at all in response to these women, we told them very clearly that their situation is expected and not solvable. Never have I so efficiently translated such clear meaning using so few words. 

My friends painted a dire picture of un-met Bolivian gender equality laws and limited programs and organizations struggling to serve women in the city. As for unemployed women in the countryside? Maybe with education things will get better… for future generations, but probably not for these specific women. They at least offered some insight on what to say: remind the woman that violence is not an acceptable part of life, and remind her of her worth, that she doesn’t deserve abuse. Realizing how narrow is the chance for hope (the best hope being in Christ, but christians, His hands and feet, often ignoring or doing harm in the name service) I finally, two days after returning from the community, let the heaviness of what I heard hit me. “God, your children are hurting your daughters down here!” I cried out. Later, with dry and sore eyes, the voice of another crying young woman echoed in my head:

“My eyes hurt.”

“When do they hurt?” asked the doctor.

“Almost all the time. I think it’s from crying everyday when my husband beats me.”

And I almost lost it again, even though I didn’t think my desert-dry eyes could have produced another tear.

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I’m creating a dance about gender and water in rural Bolivia. One inspiration is a study showing that in times of drought in Bolivia, domestic abuse increases. I struggle with how to respectfully represent the complicated realities of rural, indigenous, economically disadvantaged women who suffer domestic abuse and worry that their kids might not live through this dry season. How can I choreograph about something from which I’m so removed?

How can I make sense of women visiting a clinic, most of whom have suffered abuse? How can I, an outsider, suggest that it’s not normal? How could I, just the translator and not a doctor, suggest that perhaps there’s a better way of preparing for and handling these cases?

The #YesAllWomen reaction has encouraged me to find where I can connect. Though “not all men” are like the Isla Vista murderer or like the men who beat their wives, “Yes, all women” have dealt with misogyny, and many have now shared their daily stories using that hashtag. For example, the touch and condescending smile of a man as he walks by shows me he thinks he has the right to touch whatever woman he wants. People ask me if they can speak with the ingeniero (male engineer) in charge of the project, and answer my in-depth questions with an “Engineering 101” answer, making me feel disvalued. I’m constantly on guard to be “safe” in the city– take only reputable taxis, not walk alone at night, etc.– bluntly, avoid putting myself at higher risk of rape. Three women I know were fired because they didn’t properly revere the men in charge… and we are left having opinions regarding the decisions but not a voice, similar to some women in the communities where we have water projectsWomen more often manage the household water and know the family water needs, yet it’s mostly men who make decisions about community water systems (source). #YesAllWomen: in Bolivian communities and cities, in the U.S., and all over the world.

So in some ways, I find I do have a connection to these women’s stories. I see that the problem is not “out there”- its also around me and within me. So maybe my role starts with overcoming my own challenges, like not letting the demeaning behavior of others make me feel less worthy. Or getting the courage to speak up even when others try to discount my voice because I’m young/female/not an expert/have an accent, etc.

In response to inaction towards violence against women, part of finding my voice has been taking specific actions of preparation for the next time I translate for a medical team. I’m finding out about resources available to women in Bolivia, recommendations for domestic abuse cases, and local places for general medical referral and follow-up.

Having experiences of bringing forth my own quieted voice, and also learning to not let others’ sexist actions diminish my own sense of worth, puts me in a better place to encourage others to do the same. Where I do water projects, I can more aptly seek female voices and other suppressed opinions. I can personally connect to ideas I’m presenting on stage. I can look a woman in the eye and tell her she is valuable, and there are ways to learn about the options available to her.

#Yes all of us. All are part of ugly systems. All have had situations that seem utterly hopeless, impossible to change. But I, and all of us, can find our Hope, and then share a tiny glimmer of it with people around us.

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P1100713 In another town, women hold their project proposals for improving their own communities and their agricultural production.

Christmas in Bolivian Wine Country

The holiday season is full of traditions, which vary greatly between countries. Here’s the low-down on Christmas activites, food, and wine in the city of Tarija in southern Bolivia.

December 24th is the more important day, rather than the 25th. My day started with going to a friend’s pool and getting incredibly sunburnt. After a lunch of fresh fish and a quinoa salad, the house shut down for a long siesta. Last minute decorations were added to the tree. Having a Christmas tree is common, but is an imported tradition.

IMG_0284Left to right: my roommate and coworker Mariel, me, her sister Anahi who studies in Argentina, her mom Patricia, and her dad Javier.

In the evening, we had the traditional Bolivian Christmas dinner: picana. This is a spiced stew that has beef, chicken, lamb, carrots, potatoes, choclo (a starchy variety of corn), and sometimes raisins, peas, wine… each city and family has their own version, and everyone’s is “the very best”.  But I can attest that this one truly is the best.

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By the way, Christmas cookies are not a Bolivian tradition. That was my contribution, for which I had to bring cranberries all the way from the U.S.! The traditional Bolivian holiday dessert is hot chocolate and paneton- a sweet, lightweight fruitcake/bread.

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After the late dinner, midnight was fast approaching. We went up to the terrace, where we could see most of the city. When it officially became Christmas, we could see fireworks in at least 20 different places. We toasted, gave lots of kisses and hugs, and lighted sparklers.

IMG_1303 Photo credit: Mariel Cabero

We headed back inside to open presents, and stayed chatting till 3am. I was given a mug showing a traditional dance of Tarija, the Rueda Chapaca.

IMG_0423Rueda means “wheel” and Chapaca means “of Tarija”. Another dance of Tarija uses what is basically a maypole, and is performed in the plazas around Christmas time. Kids have coordinated steps to intricately weave the ribbons, and this is done as worship to “el niño”, baby Jesus.

Christmas day itself consisted of sleeping in, calling my family, and hanging with friends out on the terrace, late into the summer night.

Even though I missed the pristine, magical silence of a Christmas snowfall, I found that Christmas and summer is an enjoyable combination- the excitement of the holidays with a bonfire-hangout mentality. Everyone is home just for a week or two, so there’s a forced intentionality to make the summer get-togethers happen.

A common activity is to go to the river with family or friends. You might bring fresh choclo, shown below, or humintas- sweet tamales with cheese, wrapped in corn leaves and ready to carry on a river hike.

IMG_2509After going to the river, or also after not going to the river, in the afternoon you could head to “El Puente”- The Bridge. There, vendors sell fried yuca (cassava) on a stick, fried pastry pockets with cheese inside, and more humintas. It’s common to run into people you know at El Puente. Of course, that’s not surprising because everyone seems to know everyone in Tarija.

IMG_1323Another summer get-together was with the families of three of my friends, whose parents are also friends. It was a “lunch” that lasted until 9pm, consisting of a pool party, barbecuing chorizo de llama (spiced sausage from llama meat), and sharing quality wine. After all, the Bolivian vineyards were just down the road.

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On one of our last days in Tarija we took a vineyard tour. Did you know that high-altitude wine has additional benefits? Supposedly, it “gives the grapes more cancer-fighting anti-oxidants and helps juices age faster into a sweeter, less-acidic wine,” so that a two-year Bolivian wine might be more like a standard six-year wine (www.worldwineconsultants.com/news.asp).

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We also learned about the process to create Singani, a Bolivian liquor made from grapes. The equipment has an antique, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-esque look.

IMG_0376One vineyard had a restaurant where they were serving up “chancho a la cruz”- a pig roast where the pig is split and slow-roasted over embers for up to 8 hours. This a Tarija tradition, especially for New Years. On New Year’s Eve, the grapes of these vineyards play another role, when you can eat 12 grapes at 12:00 and make 12 wishes for the new year.

And that’s only a snapshot. There were more holiday traditions and adventures in southern Bolivia- such as checking on a water project in a community I really enjoy spending time with. But I’ll save work updates for a subsequent blog post. With that, I wish you all the best for 2014.  May God greatly bless you and yours!

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