Monthly Archives: April 2010

A Sal(ar)ty side trip

Because you can’t go to Bolivia, and certainly not to Potosi, without visiting the famous salt flats of Uyuni, our group has hijacked our agenda and are taking off from the lovely historical/judicial capital, Sucre (which reminds me of the beautiful white Spanish city Cordoba), for a little side trip.

We’re heading for a two three and a half day adventure, via Potosi, to the unique world marvel that is the Salar de Uyuni. It is a 4,000 square mile salt flat in the southwest corner of the Bolivian Altiplano, and across that huge expanse, there is a maximum elevation change of three feet. It also happens to be sitting on top of nearly half of the world’s supply of lithium (used in lithium-ion batteries for objects from cameras to electric cars), among other salts.

I can’t wait to get a taste (har) of such an amazing natural wonder. Look forward to photos!

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Llamas love me

This Bolivian climate conference that I’ve been attending the past few days here in Cochabamba seems to have one-upped Copenhagen in at least one aspect: the llama-to-person ratio.

Me with llamas

I spoke with the delegates from New Llamaland. They are very concerned about the effects of climate change.

 

Just sayin’.

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Eating Bolivia

I’ve hinted at this heavily in other blog posts, but it bears exploring: For the duration of this trip (four weeks), I’ve returned to my Midwestern meat-and-potato roots. Being a vegetarian in Bolivia, one of the original meat-and-potato regions, seemed like a not-very-fun, not-very-feasible, and not-very-nutritious idea. Having been here for a week, I can see that the host families I’m staying with would need ample notice of my dietary preference, and I would miss out on trying charque de llama (kind of like llama jerky), cordero (lamb), and sheep’s feet (the tiny bit I tasted didn’t go over well with my taste buds).

I became a vegetarian for environmental reasons in the first place. Not because I hate eating meat, but because of the hugely wasteful, polluting, and unsafe industrial meat production in the United States. I didn’t want to add to extra hormones in cattle, extra greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, extra manure/pesticides/synthetic fertilizers in watersheds, or extra cholesterol in my heart. A healthier me and a healthier planet are two side-effects I’ll accept if it means giving up a burger. I don’t have a problem with eating sustainably raised meat now and again (which means outside of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs), which brings us back to Bolivia. CAFOs haven’t exactly hit Bolivia yet (and I hope they never do), so I don’t have reservations about a brief return to my previously carnivorous ways.

Because I’m at the mercy of other people for every meal on this trip, my vegetarian diet in this country would mainly consist of bread, rice, and a variety of potatoes. (Oh and some cheese.) Now, Bolivia is chock-full of quinoa, a delightful grain and a complete protein, but I haven’t even had the chance to sample it here yet. The veggies I’ve encountered thus far, when cooked, have mainly been of the frozen variety and served chilled. I eat them all, but they get a nose wrinkle from me.

However, I’m going to take this opportunity to love on salteñas, small pockets of a special dough filled with yummy meats and veggies and juices and spices. Not unlike empanadas, though they have those here as well. Other tasty foods: maraqueta, the traditional Bolivian bread often (for me, always) served at breakfast and at plenty of other meals or tea as well; the pacay (cotton candy fruit); and fresh regional cheeses. The beer here is mostly pilsners, which make me long for the microbrews of the Pacific Northwest. But the mate de coca, an herbal tea derived from the unrefined leaves of the coca plant, has been a nice way to warm up (and ward off altitude sickness) on the Altiplano. Don’t worry, mate de coca isn’t the gateway drug to snorting crack off of a llama’s nose. I haven’t found that one yet.

What I have found, however, is singani, the national drink of Bolivia, which is a strong liquor derived from maize. The Rotarians in Oruro took our group out to Karaoke  last night and poured us several glasses of singani and Sprite. Pretty good, in my opinion. My Karaoke skills? Not so good, in my (and probably others’) opinion. I did manage to belt out some Notre Dame/Backer favorites, such as “Africa” (Toto), “The Final Countdown” (Europe), and “Livin’ on a Prayer” (Bon Jovi). It turns out that when you have to sing Karaoke by yourself, it’s much trickier than doing it with a group in a bar that’s too loud to hear the words anyway. But still fun … after all, how often do I get to sing 80s songs in English at a Bolivian bar?

Not as often as Coke or Pepsi are served at meals here, which is quite a lot. I’ve been sticking to fruit juices, tea, beer, and bottled or boiled water. Water is a big deal down here, both access to any water and access to water that is safe to drink. Which is why it is such a big deal that, for example, Illimani, the triple-peaked, be-glaciered mountain overlooking La Paz, recently lost two of its glaciers. The water that used to be stored there like a reservoir would now be like money in a bank that failed.  Ouch.

(Again, photos to come when I get faster internet, which I hope I will have in Cochabamba, the next city on our tour, and the site of a world conference on climate change this week. I’ll be hitting it up either two or three days — wheee!)

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A dried llama for Pachamama

The first presentation of our GSE group to the Rotary Club in La Paz went pretty well last week, despite my sudden inability to breathe enough to say more than one or two words at a time. I blame that on the pressures of public speaking at extreme altitudes. Probably the next sport to be added to the X-Games.

During dinner, Sylvana (one of the Bolivians visiting Seattle in the other half of this international exchange) and fellow GSE-er Mark told me about the indigenous rituals that have to take place before any type of construction (roads, buildings, houses, ditches) can go on. The rituals involve prayers, offerings, and often the burial of a dried llama fetus. For good luck, obviously.

If none of the proper cultural initiatives take place, either the construction workers (who are usually indigenous) will strike, or if it’s built anyway, no indigenous persons will enter that building. You gotta pay your respects to Pachamama, the Bolivian version of Gaia or Mother Earth.

In case you’re wondering where one buys such things as dried llama fetuses, look no further than the Mercado de las Brujas, or Witch’s Market, in La Paz.

(Photos to come when I find non-dial-up internet!)

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The road to Lake Titicaca is paved with … well, sometimes it’s not paved at all

After a jam-packed first fully awake day in La Paz, we took off to the hills on April 13 to spend the day at the infamous Lake Titicaca (5th graders, please keep your snickers of laughter to the comments). To get there, we had to climb out of the bowl that La Paz is set down in and pass through the rapidly growing pueblo of El Alto. An observation I’ll make over and over again is that it’s sometimes difficult to know whether many of the buildings in the poorer parts of Bolivian cities and towns are in a constant state of construction or degradation. Half-finished houses of adobe or the ubiquitous red brick often melt into their crumbling neighbors.

My La Paz host mom, Marta Eugenia, says that each extended family of campesinos (country folk, if you will) will help build one family’s house at a time. Along with this kind help comes the saying, “Today is for me, tomorrow is for you.” Quid pro quo, and all that.

Once we found our way around some detours in El Alto (and off-roaded a bit, not uncommon in a nation with only about 6% of its roads paved, I read somewhere?), the landscape quickly became agricultural, with bunches of red and green quinoa drying in the fields, along with rows of habas (like lima beans but tastier). Campesinos were tending everything by hand, alongside their sheep, cattle, pigs, dogs, and the occasional burro.

Lake Titicaca itself is huge, with ambiguous marshy edges and hills the color of adobe bordering it. The voluminous white clouds dropped their shadows on the surrounding hills the way they do in Big Sky Country like Montana. Traditionally, the indigenous people of the area wove canoes of reeds from the lake, and we passed one such boat on dry land, as well as the mini-boats and mini-llamas of reeds which you saw in my last post.

No road trip is complete, of course, without snacks: galletas (cookies) de vanilla, pasankalla (sweet popcorn made from huge kernals), and pacay, a crazy fruit with thick green skin which you cut open to reveal six or seven large, shiny black seeds surrounded by a sweet, feathery fruit — the original cotton candy. Except not electric blue.

And few people who know me well will believe this, but I actually ate the trucha (trout) from Lake Titicaca. Vegetarian or not, I’ve never been much for fish. Still, I took my co-worker Stephanie’s advice and tried the trout. Not that I had much choice, because that was pretty much the only thing on the menu that day, but you could try it in at least a dozen different ways: grilled, fried, with lemon or butter or garlic or sauteed onions, etc … Half-way through the meal I happened to notice the scales and fins peaking out the bottom of the trout on my plate — so I knew that it was the real deal.

While not exactly a llama, a young vicuña (raised for their super-fine “wool”) was stationed outside the restaurant and, as a camelid, was a fine stand-in for a llama. Everyone in my group each tried alternating between feeding it clover and hugging it for photo opps, with much hilarity ensuing.

One of the best parts of the day, however, was when a local man took a few of us out on the lake for a spin on the front of his boat, which was not exactly set up for people to sit there, but he drove slowly so we had a grand time with the sunshine, the water, and the breeze. It was absolutely gorgeous out on the lake.

A sad part of the trip, and about Bolivia in general, is seeing the pure volume of garbage lining the roads, especially in rural areas. It speaks to the intensity of the poverty in parts of the country, the lack of resources for collecting the trash, the insidious infiltration of Western consumerism, and the cultural acceptance of throwing s*** on the ground in many places.

(My apologies for the total lack of photos here, but since I have been staying in the smaller town of Oruro the past few days, I have only had access to dial-up internet, channeling AOL circa 1995. I promise to add gorgeous pictures later if you promise to look at them.)

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Meet my friend the llama (I’m on a boat reprised)

 

Llamas of reeds from Lake Titicaca

Say hello to my little friends.

 

We met at Lake Titicaca, and I just had to bring one of the little guys home with me. They’re made of reeds from the lake and the little one cost less than $1 US, but that’s all the money I’ve spent since arriving in Bolivia.

More pictures to come later (because it’s late and I have to pack to leave for the next city of Oruro tomorrow), but for now, I hope you get a little taste of what life has been like for me here in Bolivia:

 Me on a boat on Lake Titicaca

I'm on a boat (on Lake Titicaca) don't you ever forget!

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Bolivians love microfinancing — and so can you!

Monday kicked off the official start to our group’s whirlwind trip around Bolivia, as we visited five different projects working toward positive social action in the country and attended our first Rotary Club meeting/lunch with the members of Rotary La Paz-Sur (Sur = South). To fit in so much in one day, we were supposed to start promptly at 9 AM, but, like all good Spanish-speaking countries, Bolivian time is “flexible,” more “conceptual” than tangible. Which means no one was there on time, suiting me just fine. (Another reason I love countries like this so much.)

Once we did get started, we were knocked off our feet by all the amazing projects going on. First, we met with the microfinance and training organization, ProMujer. It focuses on advancing and empowering low-income women to learn how to start and manage their own business, as well as providing job training, help starting a savings account, and health (especially preventative health) classes for the women. ProMujer gave microcredit loans (average loan $240) to 80,000 women in 2009 alone (Bolivia’s population is 9 million), and helped 90,000 in total use savings accounts. I was just extremely impressed by their reach, their holistic approach, and their success. (Eg., Only 10% of Bolivian women get Pap smears annually but 30% of ProMujer’s clientele are doing it. A big deal when the cultural norm is curative, rather than preventative medicine.)

We then were whisked off to celebrate El Dia de los Niños (Children’s Day) festivities at Instituto de Rehabilitación Infantil, which is a center/home for physically disabled children. One of the Rotary Clubs was donating brand new wheelchairs to several of the smiling kids and adorable little babies in matching red and blue outfits.

While there, we met Sylvana, who’s one of the Bolivian GSE members visiting Seattle in May, and she tagged along with our group. She seems really cool, and has owned her own adventure tourism agency, Radical Rights, for two years. So if you want to risk a bike ride down “Death Road” with a 2,000+ meter change in elevation, she can hook you up.

We were also introduced to Matt, a former software engineer from the U.S. who got burned out, traveled the world, and ended up volunteering in the center’s prosthesis workshop trying to build a better, cheaper prosthetic leg/foot for the kids there. He’s using very, very basic materials and outdated/semi-functional machinery, but has some promising funding opportunities with the University of Texas.

Matt the volunteer

Matt emphasizes the pathetic fake limbs many Bolivian kids have to put up with right now. Am holding back inappropriate jokes about the competing workshops not having a leg to stand on. Whoops.

Take a look at the workshop, the fake legs, and his great work here: Bolivia prosthetics. And if you or someone you know wants to help, watch the below video for contact information and for a multimedia tour of the workshop and one of the lives this project is helping:

Next up: More celebrations of Children’s Day, this time at Colegio Boliviano Japones. Yes, a private Bolivian-Japanese School. (Just Bolivian kids, I was never quite clear on the exact connection to Japan … original funding? Founders?) Anyway, we crashed a clown’s magic show, saw someone in a Barney the dinosaur suit (for some of us, it was the second time in two days, but there’d be another sighting of a different Barney later on the streets of La Paz.), and got a lesson in making little Japanese origami boxes, in Spanish, naturally. We got a kick out of this and the super-enthused and bright kids there.

Of course we would see Barney in Bolivia

George and an origami expert

George learning from a young origami expert at Colegio Boliviano Japones

Lunch with Rotary La Paz-Sur (which was notably an all-male club) was very nice, especially when I joined the gentlemen at my table in a little lunchtime whiskey toast. But more interesting than that (what’s better than whiskey?) were two things. One: The mining professional and the road sign/civil engineer I was sitting with were both fascinated and perplexed by my attempted explanation (in Spanish) of Grist’s focus on climate politics, food, and bright, green city living. It’s hard enough explaining this in English, so I don’t blame them for being confused.

Two: Their companies were both sending people from their environmental departments to Evo Morales’ world climate conference in Cochabamba next week. Moreover, neither of them thought anything which would actually protect the planet and/or climate would come out of the conference. Watching the Copenhagen climate conference self-implode, it’s not surprising. Still, they both seemed to think this one would be a political platform for the socialist Bolivian government to make lofty and idealistic proclamations, mostly in opposition to Western capitalism and in favor of indigenous people’s rights. Those crazy lefties apparently want to revert to the good ol’ times known during the Inca Empire. Hey, if they want to worship their sovereign as the “child of the sun” and invest in solar power, I sure don’t have a problem with it.

But I digress in sarcasm. Post-whiskey, er, lunch, the group checked out Hospital Arco Iris (Rainbow Hospital, doesn’t it sound like a pleasant place to be ill?). Another fantastic organization, the hospital is of exceptional quality for Bolivia, and was founded by a crackerjack German priest who wanted to provide great medical care for anyone in Bolivia (whether you can pay all, some, or none of the bills), but especially the kids living in the streets. They reach these kids primarily though mobile medical units that also double as schools. They also focus on health, education, and nutrition for pregnant women, kids under five, and the elderly. Good people.

Hospital Arco Iris
Hospital Arco Iris ambulance

You could do worse than end up in an ambulance that looks like this one.

And, at this point in my unapologetically long and wordy post, you may be wondering why I called it “Bolivians love microfinancing …” Well, we rounded out the day at Swiss Contact, a cool organization run through a — yes — Swiss foundation that seeks to promote jobs and income in developing nations, such as, but not limited to, Bolivia. Anyway, they have a lot of microfinancing projects. Sidenote: If you don’t know what the heck microfinancing is, see Kiva’s excellent and quick primer. So we made a tangent delving into lots of cool things about what microfinance can do for disadvantaged but eager entrepreneurs the world over. It was pretty much the catchphrase of the day.

The focus of our meeting with Swiss Contact was on their expanding environmental projects in Bolivia, mainly in waste (education and outreach about the single wastestream coming out of Bolivia and gleaning the recyclables and compostables out of it) and in clean air projects. The clean air projects take an interesting stab at the issue, by specifically training Bolivian mechanics to better maintain, retrofit, and improve the efficiency of the public transit fleet there, which mainly consists of “mini-buses” and taxis. Both of which are comprised of converted secondhand Japanese cars that have had the steering wheel switched from the right to the left side. Not the safest. Also, not the most efficient vehicles.

There were several other exciting projects coming out of Swiss Contact, such as a climate change initiative in Cochabamba to retrofit the brick kilns to burn more efficiently (and maybe not use tires or “who knows” what else at night when no one’s watching, yuck). Also, unlike Seattle (cough, cough), part of La Paz has successfully banned single-use plastic bags in stores, which is excellent news for llamas and alpacas all over the Altiplano, who sometimes mistakenly eat the plastic bags and, well, it’s not a pleasant way to go. Ooh, ooh, and they’re preparing a proposal for a holistic “eco-building” initiative to notch up building energy efficiency and ramp up solar energy in a place thousands of feet closer to the sun than most of us. W00t!

A final note about Bolivian homestay family life: it’s been great! The conversations I get to have with my gracious host family are great for my Spanish skills and give me a slice of Bolivian life and culture I couldn’t get in a hotel. This includes helping 17 year-old Ernesto brainstorm Earth Day games for 11 year-olds. Environmental action Bingo, anyone? I was wondering if anyone outside of the U.S. actually did anything for Earth Day besides throw world climate conferences.

Also, look forward to a highly visual account of Tuesday’s fantastic trip to Lake Titicaca, which will be mostly an orgy of photos with captions coming soonish. There will be llamas and llama-likes!

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You are here

Rather, I am here.

Bolivia on a map of South America

Wikimedia Commons

 

After 24 or so hours of travel — Seattle to Dallas to Miami to La Paz, Bolivia — I’ve arrived safely. My first impressions of Bolivia and La Paz were breathtaking, both literally at 13,000-some feet and figuratively at the gorgeous view of a darkened city set in a bowl with the early lights twinkling and the sunrise catching the edge of the triple-peaked mountain overlooking La Paz. Illimani is the snow-capped mountain that commands attention and awe from the city at all times, much in the same way that Mt. Rainier does over Seattle, except Illimani is 21,000 ft. tall. I couldn’t stop staring at it.

View of La Paz and Illimani at dawn

A view of La Paz and Illimani at dawn

 

We were met at the airport by several Rotary hosts and my GSE teammate Mark’s Bolivian friend Ernesto. My host parents here in Bolivia, Pedro y Marta, chauffeured half of our group on a winding but interesting route through downtown, dropping people off until it was just us left. La Paz is vaguely reminiscent of some Spanish cities I’ve been to, which is likely due to its hundreds of years of Spanish rule, before becoming independent thanks to Simón Bolívar (hence, Bolivia) in 1825.

Downtown La Paz

Downtown La Paz is already starting to wake up.

 

Then, they brought me back to their lovely home in Sopocachi. I met two of their sons, Javi (21) and Ernesto (17), at an 8 AM breakfast of mate de coca (coca tea, which helps alleviate altitude sickness) and some simple pastries with jam and dulce de leche. I proceeded to pass out for 6 hours until I woke up feeling like I was in the nose-bleed seats. Quite literally, unfortunately.

The view from my room in La Paz

I have what you'd call "a room with a view."

 

However, lucky for me (and you), my host family has internet so I can keep in touch while I’m here in La Paz for the next four days.

Once again, I can’t stress enough the intense contrast of light and shadow in this city, whether on the dry, craggy mountains surrounding the city and changing color throughout the day or the way certain parts of the city are left in a cool darkness and then suddenly catch a flash of light as you pass. 

Mark, a statue, and a mountain view of La Paz

You can't pass by a panoramic vista even when totally jetlagged.

 

View of La Paz at sunrise

Light and peaks and Evo signs in La Paz

See the way the light plays off the hills? And the "Vote for Evo Morales" (the president) murals?

 

Another note of interest: Mark noticed as we were passing through the city that the “river” was a mere trickle, and Marta reinforced that La Paz’s usual rainy season, summer (which they’re just coming out of), left the city much hotter (by 10 degrees Celsius) and drier than usual. Meaning La Paz is usually around 64 degrees F but has jumped up to 80 degrees in recent years. Her son Ernesto mentioned it again at breakfast when we were discussing the climate here, and they’ve seen stark changes in the weather here for the past three or four years. Now climate is not weather, but this doesn’t look like a very good trend for the city based on expected changes in climate. 

OK, enough of that. Now for a cute picture of some of the four kittens living in my host family’s kitchen:

kittens

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Wherein I leave for Bolivia

Last fall, nearly on a whim and certainly at the last minute possible, I applied for a program called Group Study Exchange (GSE) through the Rotary Club. It’s an international exchange program for young professionals, and the Seattle GSE this year is sending four of us (plus a Rotary group leader) from the Seattle area to travel around Bolivia for a month to “study the host country’s institutions and ways of life, observe their own vocations as practiced abroad, develop personal and professional relationships, and exchange ideas.”

In laymen’s terms: For me, it’s a trip to South America to learn about environmental journalism, practice my Spanish, and have a blast traveling around a continent I’ve never been to.

Originally, I was chosen by Rotary to be an “alternate” team member. Yeah right, as if I wouldn’t luck into going. And in January, someone dropped out of the program, and I was called up out of the reserves to travel to Bolivia from April 10 through May 8!

Which means I leave technically … today. Oy. I’ll be traveling to seven different cities across Bolivia, staying with Bolivian Rotary host families, and meeting with media and environmental organizations (among others) while there. This includes attending the World People’s Conference on Climate Change, aka President Evo Morales’ response to the United Nations climate process. What a way to spend Earth Day, eh?

On top of all that, this little vegetarian will be eating non-industrial farmed meat while there. (More on that to come.) I mean, how could I pass up a little wild guinea pig while I’m there? Also, I don’t want to reject the foods of Bolivia which are offered to me by my hosts. It’s poor etiquette no matter what country you’re in.

Relatedly, you should learn about Bolivia: It’s the most impoverished and one of the only landlocked nations in South America, with large indigenous populations and more llamas than you can shake a stick at. It has a mix of geography that ranges from the Amazon to the Andes mountains to the cool, dry highlands. Also, it’s gorgeous. See the Salar de Uyuni (salt flat):

Salar de Uyuni

Photo: Tomas Rawski via Creative Commons http://www.flickr.com/photos/tomasrawski/387528475/

And this is La Paz, the administrative capital of Bolivia (not the historical one, but this is where most stuff gets done), where I’ll be flying into:

La Paz Bolivia

Photo: guillermoduran via Creative Commons http://www.flickr.com/photos/guillermoduran/705284155/

Look for more updates (I hope) from Bolivia on food, culture, the environment, and let’s be honest, probably llamas (it’s all for you, Skray!). As we used to say on el Camino de Santiago de Compostela: Buen camino!

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