Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Summer 2008: Back in Ascension

Janaki and I arrived in Ascension with high expectations for the last 3 weeks of our trip. We were going to provide detailed feedback to COBAGUAL on their work, plan how the team was to shift it's focus to rural areas, perfom water testing on several of our already-installed filters, try to convince local authorities to give COBAGUAL more funding and support, figure out how to get COBAGUAL more autonomy as a Bolivian organization so that they could actively seek their own funding, and pass on CAWST training we had received in rainwater harvesting and latrine construction. Needless to say we had a lot on our plates.

As one might predict, we didn't manage to get it all done. On the other hand we had a very productive 3 weeks, which laid the groundwork for the next stages in COBAGUAL's evolution. We mainly split our time between shadowing COBAGUAL during filter construction, follow-up visits, installations, workshops etc., meeting with them to plan how and when we would start to work in rural communities and better capacitate COBAGUAL to one day be able to seek its own funding. We were able to provide some feedback to improve the quality of COBAGUAL's community education based on lessons we had learned from CASWT in our year in Canada, but were were generally extremely impressed by their diligence, patience and attention to detail in this area. Were were glad to see that filter building continued to go well, all of the mold problems of our first 5 months in Bolivia were safely in the past.

After much discussion we decided to move COBAGUAL's work to rural areas as soon as possible, because they had received many requests for projects in nearby communities, and because the dry season made conditions ideal for navigating the dirt roads outside of Ascension (many of which are impassible in the rainy season). Additionally we found out that the municipal government was on the verge of procuring funding for a massive expansion of their municipal water network and felt it would be best to wait to see how that project works out rather than duplicate their efforts. The main issues we needed to tackle were how to minimize transportation costs given that the municipal government was unable to support us and none of the employees had reliable vehicles. We decided that the best course of action was for the team to bring all of the materials out to the communities at the beginning of the project, and then to camp in the communities while carrying out their work (coming back home for days off, but only taking a maximum of one trip per person per week). We accompanied COBAGUAL to the community of San Andres, near Ascension, to lay the groundwork for the project there, and by the time we left Bolivia, they were ready to begin their first project outside of Ascension.

Our quest to convince the local authorities to give more support to COBAGUAL led to the conclusion that they wouldn't take COBAGUAL seriously until the organization was locally run. After much discussion with Pastor Ernesto, and the COBAGUAL team we decided that the best course of action would be to sign an agreement with Pastor Ernesto's church so that COBAGUAL could work under their legal structure, allowing them to operate as a charity within Bolivia. We hope that this change will lead to COBAGUAL becoming more independant in the long-term.

On July 30th we were excited to receive a visit from CAWST international technical advisor Andrea Roach, who spent a couple of days verifying COBAGUAL's work. We enjoyed playing host to a fellow Canadian in 'our' Ascension and had several interesting chats about the project, Bolivia and how it compares to other Latin American countries that she's travelled to, and life in general. She was able to provide some very useful comments on COBAGUAL's work and accompany us on several visits to homes where families had been using their filters for several months. Overall we felt that COBAGUAL received her 'stamp of approval' with her comment that they paid much more attention to detail than most BioSand Filter organizations she had dealt with.

Once Andrea left on July 31st, we literally only had a few days left before we had to head back to Canada. Unfortunately this meant that our water testing, and personell training ambitions had to be left by the wayside. We did feel, however, that we achieved a great deal in getting COBAGUAL well and truly prepared to work in rural areas, having their work verified by CAWST, and taking important steps towards giving them the power to fundraise more independently.

Summer 2008: Leaving Cochabamba and good bye to the immigration office

After Janaki had recovered in Cochabamba we met once again with CEDESPAR to try to coordinate possible collaboration between our organizations. We had spoken to our friends Duane and Marlene and the younger members of the group quite extensively, but this meeting was a bit more awkward because most of their board of directors were present, including several older members who we didn't know very well. We were left to explain our ideas to them regarding how CEDESPAR could possibly incorporate the BioSand filter into their work, and in all honesty, were greeted by a cool and skeptical reception. It seems that, at least for the time being, they do not feel that they really want to get involved with water issues in the communities in which they are involved. We found this quite understandable since they are also a new organization and, like us, can't do everything at once. Somewhat disapointed, Janaki and I left Cochabamba to spend a few weeks back with COBAGUAL in Ascension.

On the to Ascension we had to stop in Santa Cruz to pick up our extended tourist visas at the immigration office. Needless to say, given our experiences from our first trip to Bolivia, we were prepared for the worst... long delays, rude officials, etc. Luckily, perhaps because this time we were just tourists, we breezed through the process and picked up our passports without any problems. The only downer was that they confiscated our expired Bolivia citizenship cards which we had kept from the first trip as a reminder of all that the good people at the immigration office had put us through. From their it was a same-day ride on the good old Trans-Guarayos bus back to Ascension de Guarayos.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Summer 2008: Jaraña´s work

OK, so apparently a rushed conclusion to the trip to Bolivia last summer followed by the craziness of moving to Vancouver and starting our master´s degrees has not been conducive to keeping this blog updated... apologies to all those who have continued checking for updates...

Now that I´m back in South America (Currently in Lima, Peru waiting to get onsite at a mine in the Peruvian highlands where I´ll be working on a study of the effects of mine waste rock on water quality in the region) I´m feeling inspired to recount the tales of the last few weeks of our trip.

Our week with Jaraña left quite an impression on Felipe, Janaki and I. We were all deeply impressed by their commitment to help their less fortunate neighbours in rural areas, as well as with their ability to really get community members involved with every stage of their projects. It was also refreshing to be able to openly discuss the shortcomings of Jaraña´s work as easily as their successes. There was no hint of trying to hide the fact that sometimes (as is ALWAYS the case in development work) things don´t work out. They understand that the key is learning from their mistakes to improve future projects.

The week continued with a visits to a few other small communities where Jaraña had helped set up shallow wells with simple, easily maintained pumps, more greenhouses, and rainwater harvesting units (see the Jaraña section at www.bccwater.weebly.com). We finished our stay in Oruro by meeting with Jaraña to discuss ways that we could collaborate in the future.

Overall, it was not just the fact that Jaraña had some innovative projects that made us want to incorporate them into the Bolivian-Canadian Clean Water Network, it was their vision. Their projects are a demonstration of how the appropriate use of simple technologies can provide for a sustainable and lifestyle in a very harsh environment. Their dream is that this demonstration will be applied at a larger scale to help stem the massive tide of internal immigration in Bolivia from the highlands to the lowlands, and in so doing, help the Áymara retain their ancient culture, on top of releaving pressure on Bolivia´s amazon basin, the eventual destination of many of Oruro´s migrants.

Although things are moving slightly slower than we had hoped, the lines of communication remain open and we are working towards effective collaboration.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Back in Canada

Hello all,

Just to let you know, Janaki and I have made it safely back to Canada. As was the case with our first trip to Bolivia, the last few weeks left us very little time to add to the blog, so we'll attempt to fill in the details of the rest of the trip over the next little while.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Adventures in the Altiplano

On the evening of the 6th of July Janaki, Felipe and I hopped on a bus to Oruro with some members of Jaraña. The objective of the trip to the high plains of Bolivia was to learn from Jaraña´s work in providing clean and abundant water for indigenous people in poor rural areas of the highlands and discuss ways in which our initiatives could be combined to increase their effectiveness. Given that many of Jaraña´s members were born and raised in the region they gave us a great deal of insight into life in a barren and harsh part of Bolivia.

On the morning of July 7th, we saw the city of Oruro for in daylight for the first time. Set beside a reddish dusty hill and with virtually no vegetation it seemed a bit like it was from another planet (specifically Mars). It was quite obvious that the only reason it has existed for hundreds of years in its current location is that the reddish hill was jam-packed with lucrative ore deposits, some of which are still being exploited today.

We left the city late in the morning and kicked up dust as we cruised through the plains in Jaraña´s Toyota pickup. The landscape was about as different as you can get from the area around Ascension de Guarayos. Instead of cattle grazing in fields cut into the vast jungle of the Amazon basin we were surrounded by bone-dry, wide-open plains with scarce grass and low bushes that were being grazed by the occasional herd of wild Vicuñas (a golden-wooled relative of the llama and alpaca). The area was extremely sparcely populated, and the few towns that we passed through seemed to be mostly abandoned. After a couple of hours on dirt roads we finally arrived Romero Huma, a small Aymará community set in relatively fertile hilly terrain, where Jaraña has been working for about half a decade. We were immediately greeted by excited community members who served us some tasty quinoa soup and a curious concoction of pineapple soda and raw egg (neither Janaki or I knew what we were drinking at first, but found out in due time). After the meal we were checked out some greenhouses that the community had built with Jaraña´s training (basically adobe huts with steel doors and a plastic tarp to let light in and trap heat). Impressively, the majority of these greenhouses were producing delicious, juicy tomatos even though the night time temperature was easily -10 to -15oC. We also got to see some irrigation canals that community members of nearby Huarajka Huma had helped build to improve the productivity of their fields. In the evening, after checking out the projects, we were invited to participate in a community meeting to discuss the successes and failures of Jaraña's work in the town. Beginning with a ceremonially sharing of Coca leaves, the meeting gave us fascinating insight into the way in which Jaraña coordinates with the community to plan the next projects by building on past successes and learning from previous mistakes.

The next morning, after spending a chilly night sleeping on the floor of the town hall, we were served breakfast (including more pop mixed with raw egg) and had the opportunity to hike up into the surrounding hillsides and visit some of the biosand filters that Jaraña had installed in more remote parts of the community. The hike afforded us some spectacular views of the Altiplano in the early morning light, and gave us (especially Felipe) the opportunity to share lessons learned in BioSand Filter implementation with Jaraña and some of the filter users. After the hike, we were served a huge filling lunch (the hospitality of the community members really cannot be overstated... in fact for much of the time we were there we could barely walk because we were so stuffed) shared our good-bye speeches, and headed back to the city of Oruro.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


So, after our week in Oruro with Felipe learning about the work of an local NGO called Jaraña (topic of another 1 or 2 upcoming blog entries), Janaki and I are back in the city Cochabamba for a couple of days. This city has acted as somewhat of a basecamp for us on this trip as it sits midway between the eastern lowlands (where our project is based) and the western highland departments that we´ve visited on the trip (Oruro and La Paz). Situated right in the middle of the country it really seems to offer an average of Bolivia´s characteristics, most notably a pleasant mild climate (in between the sometimes frigid altiplano and the occasionally stiffling lowlands), and a seemingly heterogeneous political climate (some areas of the metropolitan area are strongly autonomist, like the eastern lowlands, while others support the central government, as is the prevailing attitude in the western highlands).

Though we´ve since developed a deep apprecation for the city, our very first impression of Cochabamba was not very welcoming. We arrived by plane from Santa Cruz just over a week before leaving the country in May 2007. Unfortunately we had arrived just in time for a general strike, which had crippled transit in the area. Not knowing the severity of the strike we hired a cab from the airport. The cabbie took us to the first intersection (which was blocked by masked protestors), dropped us off, and charged us for the full fare to downtown. We were left to walk about 6km from the airport to our hotel, which was a bit of a challenge since we were at an elevation of 2500 m above sea level rather than the 250 m that we had become accostumed to in Ascensión.

Once we were settled, our impression of the city rapidly improved. We were warmly welcomed by Duane and Marlene, friends of my parents who arrived in Bolivia in the 1960s as Peace Corps volunteers, and have worked on various development initiatives in the country ever since. They showed us some of the touristy sites of the city, and shared many stories of their diverse experiences in the country. They also introduced a group of indigenous youth with whom they coordinate to implement community development work in the tropical Chapare region as well as the city itself. We were amazed by the warmth and friendliness of this group (known as CEDESPAR) and their families, as they immediately welcomed us and made us feel a part of their community. We felt a noticeable contrast to our reception in the lowlands, where it seemed like months had passed before we had really gained peoples´ trust. We presented our work with the BioSand filters to CEDESPAR and they showed a great deal of interest in learning about the technology in order to implement water projects in needy parts of the department. Having recently overcome a large variety of challenges with the filters in Ascension, Janaki and I felt very capable of coordinating with other groups to help them get trained and started. Unfortunately, coordination from Canada proved harder than we had hoped, and for a variety of other reasons nothing resulted from CEDESPAR´s interest in the technology in the year that we were away.

Our second trip to Cochabamba in late June offered a chance for us to reconnect with our old friends. Duane, Marlene and the other members of CEDESPAR replicated their hospitality, and we felt right at home. We also planned a way to coordinate with Jaraña (a group that has also done some work with the filters) to give the youth a detailed orientation in the Biosand Filter on July 6th. Missing the bus to Cochabamba on the morning of the fifth forced us to take a night bus (a far more luxiurious experience than Felipe, Janaki or I had expected), which led to us arriving in the city about 10 minutes before we were supposed to meet with Jaraña and CEDESPAR. Luckily, once the meeting got going it was highly successful. Four members of CEDESPAR attended, and they seemed to almost immediately connect with Jaraña, and get along well Felipe. The success of the day-long meeting left the possibility open for further coordination between CEDESPAR, Jaraña, and our team in Ascensión to establish a demonstration project for the biosand filters in the department of Cochabamba. We´re now in the city for a fourth time on our way from Oruro to Santa Cruz. We´ve already stayed for a couple of days to recover from another bout of illness picked up in the higher elevations, and are also hoping to further develop a plan for collaboration between the 3 groups before heading back down to the lowlands to work with our team in Ascension.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Filters by candlelight, Poetry in the bus terminal

It seems that the universe has forced us to stop for a moment and catch our breath. Thursday night we caught a bus from Ascension to Santa Cruz after spending about a week with our COBAGUAL team members and much was discussed. Some highlights of the week were:

- Accompanying Roberto, our senior community assistent on follow-up visits where filters had been installed. This particular neghbourhood in Ascension seemed particularly poor with noticebly contaminated water sources. The surprise house visits showed that people were really embracing the filters and new safe storage containers that the team has implemented, and also gave us insight it the great work that Roberto is doing connecting with the community

- Attending a night time COBAGUAL workshop put-on by the team in a neighbourhood without electricity. Roberto, Trevor and I each had a motorbike taxi driver take us from the light of the town´s core to total obscurity. Community members congregated in the nighbourhood president´s home using candlesticks, flashlights and the occasional cellphone to light the way. Roberto and Angel lead the presentation wearing their new COBAGUAL t-shirts (a big thank you to Trevor´s uncle and aunt, Roy Topley and Joanne Porter for their great designs of the logo...pictures to follow soon!). It was really cool to hear the way the team presented the filter project to the community.

- Meeting the Sub-Prefecto, the head honcho of the Province of Guarayos within the department of Santa Cruz. To be perfectly honest, I think we both had an image in our minds of what a head of government in Santa Cruz might be like (akward cough..) but this man was so incredibly genuine and welcoming. More importantly, he is willing to actually support our work in the surrounding communities of Ascension. Hooray for more community counterpart!

- Hearing about the cool work being done by Daniel and Vanessa Beams with their well drilling techniques in communities throughout the department of Santa Cruz. The technology they´re using is not only a lot more affordable than conventional well drilling, it can also be done manually, thereby involving the community to a greater extent.

So we´re currently in the bus terminal in Santa Cruz, along with our chief filter technician, Felipe. We were all hoping to catch an early morning bus to Cochabamba to meet with two cool groups doing great work in the Cochabamba area: Jaraña, and CEDESPAR. Unfortunately today was a popular day to travel to the Coch, and our attempts at strategiacally lining up at various bus companies at 6:30am proved unsuccesful, leaving us with some time to kill before boarding on a night bus. Randomly, some of the time was passed with a fellow by the name of Israel , who seemed to be a young poet in love hanging out in the terminal who was hoping to get our help in translating his lines of Spanish poetry into English to send to his girlfriend who lives very far away and only speaks English. We were very impressed at his knowledge of love-related words in English...quite specialized, the way I felt my Spanish was mid-way on the last trip, where I knew all these random terms related to the BioSand filter in Spanish, but still had trouble with day-to-day conversations.

Bueno, that´s all for now...chau!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Island in the Sun

Since Janaki and I were so busy with the project during our last trip to Bolivia, we had very little opportunity to check out the many beautiful and fascinating sites that this country has to offer. In some ways we were slightly disappointed having spent 8 months down here and seen less of the country than many tourists see in 3 weeks, but at the same time we accepted that it was part of the reality of being focused on working on a water and sanitation project rather than sightseeing. We were especially disappointed, however, that we had not seen Lake Titicaca (originally Titi Kha´rka, which apparently roughly means rock of the puma in the Aymará language), an enourmous lake near La Paz set at nearly 4000 m above sea level, which was sacred to the Incas, and their predecessors in the region (and continues to be a very special place to the indigenous Aymará of the Altiplano). When we left Bolivia last year without having seen it, we decided that we would need to make it a priority to spend some time there the next time we were in the country.

So... last wednesday, after our first two days of adjusting to the altitude of La Paz and meeting with representatives from CIDA and Oxfam Quebec, we hopped on an afternoon bus and headed to the town of Copacabana on the lake´s shore. Our first day by the lake was spent relaxing, enjoying the view from our hotel room, and checking out the sites of the town (including a beautiful cathedral with distinctive middle-eastern influence in its archictecture).

On our second day we decided to venture out the La Isla Del Sol, a roughly 11 by 8 km island about 5 km from the lake shore. According to Incan legend this island was the source of the Inca, and according to Incan and pre-Incan beliefs it was the birthplace of the sun itself. As such, it was an extremely important ceremonial site for hundreds of years before the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the area in the 1500s. The island today remains very significant for highland indigenous people, and is inhabited by 2500 Aymará who make their living through a combination of tourism, fishing, and subsistence agriculture.

Upon our arrival on the island we were greeted by a young Aymará man who offered to be our guide. Over the next 2 hours, showed us through the ceremonial sites and ruins on the north end of the island, while explaining the culture and way of life of the people who currently inhabit it. After the tour we were feeling reasonably energetic, so we decided to trek the 10 or so km from the Chincana ruins to the south end of the island where more ruins and hotels awaited. Unfortunately, we thought that we were better acclimatized to the altitude than we actually were, and the hilly terrain posed us quite a challenge. We finally arrived at a hotel just as the sun was going down. The hotel, like the ruins themselves, and most tourist facilities was run and maintained by the Aymará themselves(at least as far as I could tell). Visiting the historic sites on the Isla del Sol was even more impressive because the descendants of the people who constructed them are still there to talk about their history.

We took the boat back to Copacabana the next morning, and caught a bus back to La Paz, where we rested for a day because Janaki had picked up a nasty cold on the island.

After La Paz, we headed off to Cochabamba, the first part of Bolivia that we´ve actually revisited on this trip. In Cochabamba we´ve met with some of our friends who work with a community development organization called CEDESPAR. The visit has been very enjoyable and allowed Janaki some time to recover from her cold in a more agreeable climate, but we´ll be heading to Santa Cruz soon to check on the project.