Tag Archives: South America

Volver a Los Andes | Return to the Andes

After so many hours of travel (and planning), our group of three arrived in Pisac, a small Andean town in Peru’s Sacred Valley, outside of Cuzco. The dusty landscape, sprinkled with sparse gray-green vegetation; the half-finished houses and their gap-toothed smiles of ubiquitous local red brick; fabrics so vibrant their colors shout for you to take notice and realize it is the short, sturdy women in bowler hats whose bright weavings carry whimpering child and pounds of produce alike.

Yes, I am back among Andean culture (or Quechuan, more specifically), which I haven’t seen much of in the four years since I was in Bolivia.

Despite being severely sleep-deprived, I’ve mostly been able to string together enough coherent Spanish to get us the essentials our first day in Peru. Most importantly, coordinating our 45 minute taxi ride from the Cuzco airport to Pisac when our hotel failed to send the promised taxi. Attitudes are very relaxed in general and you definitely have to ask several times if you really want something (bottle of water, the check, taxis apparently). But cows in the middle of the road come even when you didn’t order one, as we and our eventual taxi driver discovered, coming around a bend in the anciently terraced hillsides.

And if you so much as glance at anything in the well-known (but rather touristy) artisan’s market in Pisac’s plaza, you will get all the attention you didn’t know you needed. But I’m pretty sure some wee ones I know didn’t know they needed the llama hats they’re going to get.

Llama hats

Tomorrow we venture back to Cuzco to tour colonial churches, Incan art museums, and potentially ogle the stars of the Southern Hemisphere at a planetarium. Tonight, we’re pretending it’s not 8:00 p.m. as we snuggle in while children, dogs, flute players, and drummers sing us an uncommon lullaby. Bienvenidas a Peru.

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By the way, I did make it back to Seattle

Sorry if anyone was in doubt as to whither I ever returned from my adventuresome getaway in Bolivia, full of international mystique and cultural embrace. Which, as you can see, sometimes involved embracing international/cultural symbols, like this biodiversity tree at the Mariposaria (Butterfly/Ecological Park) in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

me hugging the Tree of Biodiversity

I even hug trees carved to represent all the biodiversity in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Try and stop me.

There are so many words I want to write and pictures I want to post here that I’ve been overwhelmed into not doing any of it. That and a combination of out-of-town weekends and the series finale of LOST. Do you realize that after Memorial Day weekend, it will have been two months since I’ve spent seven consecutive days in the same city? My carbon footprint hates me.

But at least I got to visit a place like Cotoca, the small town outside of Santa Cruz, where the Virgin Mary appeared (tiny) in the trunk of a tree and where now stands this beautiful church and plaza (full of sloths, or perezosos aka “lazies”):

The church at Cotoca at sundown

I had a wonderful time across Bolivia, but I am so happy to be back in Seattle. Things I love/missed: my neighborhood of Fremont, my garden, my bed, my favorite sustainable sandwich shop Homegrown, my boyfriend, my friends, my family, being able to breathe normally, being vegetarian, staying up on current events, the Seattle skyline, riding the bus, and understanding full conversations.

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Less than dial-up internet …

That would be no internet at my homestay house here in Santa Cruz, where at least the season is always summer.

So far I’ve been rocking ecological parks, zoos, and private botanical gardens here, chock-full of scarlet macaws, peccaries, and spider monkeys. It’s a mix of the sad and the inspirational, really. (Please don’t feed the animals plastic, kids.) I have tons of photos and videos to share when I’m not sitting at an internet cafe, like right now.

I also attended a way-to-long presentation at a water treatment facility, although it was interesting that it is putting online the first ever program to capture biogas from the water treatment and burn it to use for electricity. They were all in cahoots with the World Bank to even receive carbon credits for it, but the current left-leaning government is “anti-capitalistic” and hates carbon markets. Ergo, they’re scrambling for different financing but still moving forward with the project, which I viewed today. After glimpsing the poo-ponds, that is.

I return to the U.S. this Saturday night and will complete a massive upload of backlogged notes and photos, which I’m sure everyone is looking forward to. 😉

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Back in civilization, on to Santa Cruz

My intrepid group of four and I safely made it back from a three-day, other worldly expedition across the Salar de Uyuni, past strawberries-and-cream colored mountains, and through hot springs with flamingos. More to come on that soon.

We spent two quick days in Potosi, the highest city in the world (4,090 meters or 13,418 feet), and returned to Sucre, the capital, to catch a flight to the other big city in Bolivia, tropical Santa Cruz.

While the warm days and cool nights of the windy Altiplano (chock full of llamas) have been great, I’m really looking forward to the Amazonian nature of Santa Cruz. I have one more week in Bolivia and then I return to the U.S. next Saturday. Funny how quickly I’ve adjusted my perceptions of reality to what is here in Bolivia (Pig crossing on the way to the airport! Non-existent security at the airport! Speaking Castellano all the time!).

And now, I leave you with a view of the city I’m leaving shortly (boarding my plane to Santa Cruz in a few minutes), Sucre:

Sucre view

A view of Sucre, the white city, from my hotel. Reminds me of the Spanish city of Cordoba.

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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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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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