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).


Now for more fun fruits:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

photo edited

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”!



I eat a lot of water

First, please remember that donations given Tuesday can be doubled! Regular donations, through the usual website, will be matched dollar-for-dollar, and will go straight to my personal support. There are limited matching funds available, and it’s first come, first serve. Matching starts at 12:00am EST on Tuesday, which is actually 11pm on Monday for those in the Central Time Zone. So try to donate Monday night starting at 11pm or early Tuesday morning. For issues or questions, I’ll be available at an online chat room.

In a previous post, I explained how I was going to limit my household water use to 75 L, an amount per person similar to what’s used to design small rural water systems. Here’s what I learned:

Day 0: I attempted to measure my normal daily use, but I kept forgetting to jot down each time I used water. It’s an effort just to be aware of my use! Let’s try again…

Day 1: Succeeded in measuring my water use. Total: 100 gal, or 380 L. That’s exactly U.S. average, but it’s abnormally high for me in Bolivia; I did laundry, cleaning, lots of cooking, and took a long shower.

 Day 2: Attempted to limit my use to 75 L (20 gal). Didn’t quite make it; my use was 23 gal. I didn’t flush every time, the shower was only running 2 minutes, and I didn’t do laundry or cleaning.

So here’s what I take away. First: I can limit my water use dramatically, but wouldn’t be able to sustain it for more than a couple days.

Second, I learned that household water use alone is not the big problem- it’s our Water Footprint. My Water Footprint is not just the water I use from the tap, but also the water that was used to produce the things I consume. E.g. if I drink a cup of water from a stream, the Water Footprint is a cup. If I drink a cup of fresh-squeezed orange juice, my Water Footprint is more than a cup; it includes a portion of the water that irrigated the orange tree. For a cup of bottled water, my Water Footprint includes water used in the bottling plant and used to extract oil from the earth and turn it into diesel fuel for transportation. For a better explanation, I like the WSJ’s article about this issue.


So how does this relate to my experiment? I cut my household water use by 77% percent,  but it turns out that household use is only a sliver of my overall Water Footprint.

Screen shot 2013-12-01 at 23.39.49

My hard work limiting my water use could have been replaced by just eating two fewer bites of beef, a food with one of the highest Water Footprints. So, though it’s still worth it to use less water in the house, by changing my diet or transportation I more effectively do my part to avoid future water shortages, especially in Bolivia.

National Geographic has a fun Water Footprint Calculator– how do you compare to the average? The concept of a Water Footprint is new to me- had you heard about this before?

13000 Words’ Worth of Pictures

It has been quite some time since my last post, so I have a lot to share.  From a road trip across salt deserts with my family, visiting a community that walks marathons to get water, and celebrating the Soltice with 2,000 Aymarans… it would take a lot of words to explain, so it’s probably better said through pictures.


A professional surveyer from the U.S. came all the way to Bolivia to do a week-long training for the Engineers In Action staff.


I visited a community on the border with Peru, called Carani, that requested help from the church in improving their water infrastructure. This is a contaminated spring that currently serves as a drinking water source for these 30 families.

I ran some tests on the spring water, and found high levels of contamination. In the 1 mL sample above, each red dot represents the presence of bacteria that is harmful to humans.


A science writer from the Rotary International newsletter, visiting my project Konani to do a story on the history of bringing water to this community.


Following a request from the engineers desiging the project in Konani, I built simple Electrical Depth Sounder from local materials, to facilitate the testing of deep water wells.


When the Missouri-based Engineers Without Borders team came to work on their project in the south of Bolivia, I travelled with them to help with translation. The team and the community are like extended family to each other. Everyone had a great time working together to put in the water lines; even the kids in the community pitched in!


My whole family got to visit, and we got to visit the Salt Flats (above), Lake Titicaca, and see a tradional parade in La Paz. It was so sweet to have all of us together, and for them to see where I live!


My brother had such a good time that he decided to stay four more weeks in Bolivia! We were on a walk and saw a family working in their field. We asked what they were doing, and they invited us to join! These are sun-dried and freeze-dried potates called Chuños, and we stepped on them to remove the skins.


The Aymaran New Year is the winter solstice (June 21, summer solstice in the N hemisphere). To say goodbye to the old, dying sun of the past year, my brother, Mariel (my roommate and co-worker), and I had a lovely evening overlooking the lake.


Along with thousands of Aymarans, we woke up before dawn to welcome the sun of the new year. We all hiked up to the sacred Horca del Inca, or Incan Gallows, which is actually a pre-Incan astronomical observatory and ritual site.


As the first rays crest the horizon, we welcome the new sun’s energy by greeting it with the “personal horizons” created by our hands.


On the horizontal rock beam towards the left of the picture, there is a dot of light. The suns’ rays shine through a natural key-hole in one rock and onto this beam, only on the morning of the winter solstice. The belief is that if the sun is unblocked by clouds at this moment, there will be a good harvest that year. Guess I can look forward to more great quinoa, chuños, and choclo (a large-grain corn) in the market this year!


There had been rumors that CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden was on the Bolivian president’s airplane, so many countries wouldn’t let the plane land. In response, 4th of July celebrations were canceled in Bolivia. But I still got to share the holiday with the young adult group at my church, with fireworks, sparklers, and red white and blue deserts.

Festivals! Alasitas and Carnaval


On the morning of January 24th, vendors set up stands all over the city with miniature versions of everything. At 11:45am, the plazas get more and more crowded as business people, families, friends buy small versions of what they would like to be blessed with that year, and tradition is that at the stroke of noon, you get your purchases blessed by someone like a shaman.

With the hopes of traveling, one buys a mini passport. To have abundant money, one buys small paper bills that say they’re from the “Bank of the Future”, and keeps some in the wallet all year long.

To give a friend good luck in the the romance department, buy a small hen statue for a guy or a rooster for a girl. This festival goes on for three weeks, and the main area seems like its own city!


Here are some other fun Alasitas: mini food boxes, Image

(like a good engineer, giving a sense of scale by placing the purple pen) 🙂

Miniature tools and materials for people building/fixing a house, or in the construction business. Ruben, our office director, got some for the Engineers In Action office:


You can get a diploma:Image

Or get “married” here:


And to top it off, there are full-size versions 🙂 of food and games. Here is Ruben and Mariel, my new roommate, co-worker, and friend:



Then to Carnaval! The Carnaval in Oruro, Bolivia has been named a UNESCO “Masterpiece” of culture.

Secondary celebrations include throwing water balloons, squirting water guns, and shooting foam. This all starts well before Carnaval: here I am a few weeks ago, victim of a drive-by foam shooting: Image

Saturday I went to Oruro with my two roommates and some family/friends of Mariel. The day before, Friday, the city had an extra energy too it. We were preparing for our big journey, a “day trip” of a 24 hours. We bought and prepared lots of food. We got ponchos. We packed our bags. I even tested my various jackets to see which is more waterproof! It felt like we were preparing for battle! I had trouble falling asleep, anticipating the next day, and then we all woke in the silence of the night at 3am to go to the plaza.

Well, I realized I wasn’t Katniss, filming the next Hunger Games movie, when the bus didn’t show until an hour later and we waited in the rain. When something typically Bolivian happens, some of my friends sing a majestic-sounding song… “Bol-i-via!”

By and by we reached Oruro, and as we had gone with the bare-bones travel package, we had to go under the bleachers and climb between people’s feet to get to our seats. Then… it was mesmerizing! A whole day of parade sounds like a lot, but consider that there are many different types of dancing, there’s acting, huge bands, and costumes like I’ve never seen before. Take a look:


(quality versions and more photos available in this album)


There are storys to go along, like the history of slavery in Bolivia:Image

and the fight of good against evil. Image

And then there’s the constant entertainment of actual foam-fights:


And taking pictures with the performers! Image


As the day grew dim, night brought the promise of fire and fireworks in the parade. I started to worry as rainy season lived up to it’s name and a storm drenched the city. But lesson learned: Bolivians don’t let even rain, thunder and lightning “rain on their parade”.

The dancing continued with fire coming out of the top of dancers’s heads, bears dancing in colored fog: Image

And the parade passing through a shower of fireworks:


Finally, we returned to a sleeply La Paz that woke to celebrate again the next day- the next three days, in fact! The dancing continued, the foam fight continued, and I wasn’t even safe right around the corner from my apartment:


The celebrations close with “challa”, or rituals of blessing, on the day before Ash Wednesday. Most store fronts, houses, and cars have been decorated and blessed.


Life returns to normal, but now the new year can really start. Businesses have been blessed, dances and smiles have affected us all, and big desires are carried by tiny reminders.

We Fast So They Can Drink

Every year, supporters of Engineers In Action fast for 36 hours and raise money for EIA’s projects. I’ll be fasting this Friday night through Sunday morning, and I invite any to fast along with me, support this work financially, and/or pray for me and for EIA’s work during that time. 

This week I heard that in Konani, the location of my first project, there are a few people who have to limit their water use to only 10 liters/day. In some initial calculations, the goal of our project will be to supply 70 liters/day per person. “How much do I use?” I wondered. A single toilet flush can be 10 L. In the U.S., the average indoor daily use is 350 L/person (source: USGS), and I may be close to that even while living in Bolivia.

So I was inspired, in addition to fasting from food, to LIMIT my water use to 70 L/day, to raise money that will PROVIDE the people in Konani with 70 L/day. I expect this to be eye-opening in many ways, and will share about the experience afterwards.

Thanks for your support. Please consider (1) sponsoring me in this fast, at $5, $10, or even $1 per hour, (2) fasting along with me in solidarity with people living with extreme hunger and with limited access to basic resources like water, and (3) marking in your calendar to pray for me and with me during these days. For spiritual reasons why I’m fasting and some specific prayer points, please visit the prayer  page.