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).


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.

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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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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 (


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!


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.

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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?