Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Sorry for the lack of updates for the past week. A busier schedule and head colds have kept us away from internet cafes. Here´s a bit of a recap of last week:

You´re not in Santa Cruz de la Sierra anymore, Dorothy
Last Thursday we took our first official trip out of the city to some neigbouring villages (about 10 km from the city limits)

Germán, Alejandro and the two of us we hoping to find a site for the pilot water filtering project. The first village we checked out had been recommended by the Rotary Club in Santa Cruz as a potential fit. After chatting (i guess we played more of a listening role..) with the Mayor of the Village it sounded like the people there were already treating their water, so the prospects didn´t seem too good. He did recommend some other places to check out, so that was cool and we were able to provide some material on the filters to a couple of different village representatives.

It was just so interesting to feel a second phase of culture shock coming on...in a lot of ways we´d become really accustomed to our downtown Santa Cruz lifestyle, and seeing life in a village packed with roaming animals, dirt roads and all these uncertainties that we hadn´t been exposed to really shook things up a little.

Evo Sighting...close, but not quite
Later on Thursday we had heard that President Evo Morales was in town signing a big natural gas deal with the Argentinean President meaning that Bolivia will provide Argentina with natural gas for the next 20 years. Evo had been around before, so we didn´t get too excited, except that this time there was a rumour that he was having lunch at a restaurant a block away from our hotel!!

There was tons of media waiting outside the restaurant, and we were right there beside them...especially when we saw them flock around a car. Unfortunately we couldn´t get a close look inside, but it looked like some random woman and not the President at all which was highly disappointing. Oh well, I guess there will be other opportunities...

Getting cultured
Friday we had decided to check out the art scene in Santa Cruz...We were really excited at the prospect of seeing the etnofolklórico museum by Park Arenal, maybe catching a Spanish movie and then taking in a live Bolivian band at a local bar. Our plans ended up a little different when the museum was closed due to need of major (and we are talking major) renovations and our inept palnning skills (okay, this one was my fault) meant we had to head to the massive Calgary-style ¨Cine Centre¨ movie theatre rather than the quaint one down the street from us. We were also slightly disappointed when the movie ended up being in English with Spanish subtitles eventhough it was about the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic so everyone has Spanish accents...

The movie itself (called The Feast of the Goat) was both very sad and disturbing, yet showed an interesting perspective on dictatorship overall.

Yvaga Guazu Park
Saturday we ventured to an ecological park in Santa Cruz. There was certainly a healthy dose of skepticism over how a "natural park" within a major city could really be any good, but we were pleasantly surpirised.

The park´s 26 years old and much to Trevor´s excitement had about four hectares of untouched jungle. It also housed a considerable amount of native and non native (but well established) plant species and our tour guide was very thorough in his explanations and we learned a lot eventhough he spoke to us entirely in Spanish.

We witnessed some bats resting in a plant just above our heads (yikes!) and saw a coca plant (i.e. the source of cocaine) up close...not sure it would have been a representative bolivian eco park without one.

Bolivian Road Trip
Sunday would have been an ideal day for a trip to the county except that sitting cramped in the back of a Mitsubishi jeep with a headcold for the 10 hour drive out and back was less than ideal.

Despite this, I could certianly appreciate the lush scenery and the even harsher reality that we were no longer in Santa Cruz de la Sierra any more (please see Trevor´s next blog entry for more details).

When we were actually in Asensión de Guarayos, we were warmly welcomed by a Pastor of the community and his family. The Pastor and his wife seemed genuinely excited about getting involved with the project and even helped us check out sand sources for the filters in the area. So it looks like doing a pilot project here might actually be a fit (fingers crossed).

Immigration...zim boom bah!
This week we´re going to attack the immigration requirements to get our one year visas and we´re going to do it hard. I´m feeling optimistic (which is probably more than a little jaded of me given our recent luck with our dear immigration friends) since Alejandro has offered to help us get the necessary police checks, blood work, notorized legal letters and other doo dads to get the job done. As always, keep you posted.

Agro-business on the Edge of the Amazon

Sunday´s trip to Asensión de Guarayos was our first lengthy excursion out of the fine city of Santa Cruz, and thus offered a second, and more thorough, chance to see the countryside. I was quite excited for this opportunity because Santa Cruz is just south-west of the Amazon basin, which has captured my imagination for as long as I can remember. We left our hotel at 6:30 in the morning and after overloading Germán´s truck with Alejandro, Hernan and our supplies, headed north-east on a surprisingly well-paved 2 lane highway.
Once clear of the city, we were greeted by the lush green countryside - dense tropical forest interspersed with large clearings. Some of the clearings were being grazed by cattle - their clearly visible ribs attesting to the fact that tropical grasses are not incredibly nutritious. The remainder were mostlplanted with soy. At bend in the road I hoped that we would leave the agricultural area, and get to see some relatively undamaged forest. However, after more than an hour it became apparent that I wasn´t seeing dense tropical forest interespersed with large clearings, but rather enormous fields bordered by remaining patches of sparse tropical forest.

The generally nutrient-poor soil of the amazon basin is not great for agriculture. Usually small patches that have been burnt away can support crops for a few rainy seasons before the soil becomes exhausted. It isn´t the ideal location for enormous soy plantations or cattle ranches. Which, I presume, is why Dow Chemicals has such a strong presence in the area. Billboards advertising their wonder pesticides and fertilizers to soy growers were a very common site on both sides of the highway for most of our drive, giving the impression that this type of agriculture is very chemical-dependant.

I expected the owners of huge soy plantations and cattle ranches like these to be very well off. To my surprise, however, the only dwellings visible near the farms were very basic thatched-roof, mud brick huts. They were sturdy looking and well-maintained, but certainly not extravegant. Whether the people who live in them own the large farms (which I find doubtful), work on the large farms, or try to carve out a meager existance by farming small patches of land next to the large farms remains a mystery to me.

To my relief, after about 2 or 2.5 hours driving (including passing through a town with the amusing name of 4 Cañadas) we finally entered hilly landscape of Guarayos. The transition from Saskatchewan-like flatness to rolling hills with impressive granitic rock outrcrops coincided with a disappearance of the large soy farms, and a significant decrease in the number of cattle ranches. At last, we were able to witness some substantial patches of relatively undisturbed jungle. Located in the midst of this beautiful landscape is our pilot project site, Asensión de Guarayos.

Though I expected that the landscape around Santa Cruz would not exactly be prestine, and realized that rainforests are cleared for agriculture all over the world, seeing it in person brought it home a lot harder than reading about it in a textbook or a Lonely Planet guide. I understand that people have to eat, and that Bolivians need jobs, but I can´t help but believe that there must be a better way to provide these essentials than destroying one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world to grow chemical-soaked soybeans. Not to mention the fact that a large portion of the profits go to a US-based megacorporation and that the vast majority of the beans are used to fatten up farm animals in overseas feedlots rather than feed people directly.

ON a more positive note, there are alternative agricultural practises being used in the Amazon basin. For example, yesterday Janaki and I found some chocolate coated Brazil nuts that were made in La Paz from nuts and cocoa beans that had been harvested from wild plants in the Bolivian Amazon basin. No rainforest clearing necessary and another example of delicious locally produced food.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Hecho en Bolivia - Made in Bolivia

Something truly impressive about Bolivia is how much of the food sold here is made here. And we´re not just talking in South America (although a lot of products do come from neighbouring Peru, Brazil, Chile and Argentina) but so much of what we´ve been buying is actually made in the city itself.

Here are some examples: breads, cookies, dried soy protein, Fanta (yup, Coke has a bottling plant in the city), peanut butter, chips and a plethura of fresh fruit that are apparently soon to be abundant...and more!

This is definitely not something we´re used to in Calgary where buying from Sunnyside or farmer´s markets is as close to locally grown commercial goods as it gets and even then the products made in Calgary are not usually readily available in mainstream grocery stores.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Project update again

If all goes well, then in 2 days we will go to a different part of Guarayos to give some information on filters and evaluate the need and level of interest in the area. This could be the location of the pilot project for the Coordillera Water Supply Center. Other options are a town to the south of Santa Cruz de la Sierra called Gutierrez and a village in the neighbouring departmento, Beni. So, we´ll see what happens. We poured 2 more filters today... we´ll see how they worked.

On an unrelatd n0te, he´s a picture of a capybara from the Santa Cruz zoo...

Friday, October 13, 2006

Project Update.... delays

So... we are not going out to a small village in the province of Guarayos any time soon. They decided that they didn´t want our filters at the moment because they are experiencing water shortages and the initial filter building process requires a significant amount of water.

We are currently searching for a new community that would be interested in our help, and continuing to build filters (weather permitting, since you apparently can´t mix concrete when it is too humid).

Random Observations Around Santa Cruz - Part 2

- Although we were told that being vegetarian in Bolivia would be a nightmare, in the last 2 days we´ve discovered 4 seperate vegetarian restaurants in the city. This is quite impressive considering that meat appears to be the norm in most (if not all) meals in Santa Cruz. We´ve also been lucky enough to use the kitchen in our hotel, so there´s been some interesting cooking adventures...

- Public transportation are so impressive here! We were a little wary of taking the infamous Micro buses when we first arrived, but our first ride in one proved to be quite the adventure. Each bus has a basic path that it follows, but it stops whenever a request is made, which makes for a bit of a jerky ride. Also, buses run quite regularly...waits are generally around 5 minutes.

- There are very frequent public displays of armed personnel around the city. You don´t have to look far to see guards with pump-action shot guns watching over the neighbourhood family restaurant down the street.

Military police are also a common sight... and today, for some unknown reason, we saw fifteen police with bullet-proof vests and in full riot gear surrounding a peaceful looking school in the middle of the afternoon

Today our hotel is housing about twenty-five uniformed paratroopers for the night. Earlier today, Trevor worried that he might be interrupting some sort of top secret meeting when he attempted to cross the hotel dinning area where many of them were gathered.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

No nos gusta la oficina de migración aquí

So... our trip to Guarayos has been delayed a bit due to the water level in the wells being too low. I am not sure why that delayed our trip, but the fact remains that we are still in Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Thinking that it would be our second last day in the city, we decided to take Monday to extend our visas before we left because they would expire while we were out in the countryside. Monday also happened to be little Janaki´s 22nd birthday.

We arrived at immigration on a hot, sunny (like usual) day and were welcomed at the immigration office by a line-up that literally went around the block. Luckily we met up with Alejandro, who guided us to a much shorter line that was meant for foreigners (The long line was for people who are waiting to obtain passports to leave the country).

Long story short, with Alejandro´s help we were able to talk to an immigration official after about a 5 hour wait. After I went to great lengths to explain our situation (she was not very patient with my attempts to understand and speak Spanish) she gave us a list of requirements to obtain a special 30 day visa, which we would need to obtain the yearlong visa that we actually require... I pause here to note that we talked several times to the Bolivian embassy and consulate in Canada and determined that the best course of action would be to purchase a $100 Visa Radicatoria before we left, and then go to immigration in Bolivia to extend it to a 1 year Special Purpose Visa with a letter from our organization stating what we would be doing. Simple enough, right?
Not when the immigration officer ignores the visa that we already had in our passports (even when I said ´look we already have a 30 day visa´) and instead gives a regular 30 day tourist visa.

Needless to say, this was not a good way for us to spend Janaki´s birthday... although we made up for it somewhat by going out for dinner and ridiculously cheap (and good) ice cream in the evening.

Anyway, they kept our passports overnight so that the immigration directors could sign them... we had to wait 4 hours on Tuesday for me to get my passport back, and try to give a letter from Germán to the immigration officer to get our special 30 day visa... she redirected us to a guy named Pablo who spoke some english (who we later found out was some kind of immigration lawyer) who informed us that to get our desired visa we will need to get a notarized letter from a lawyer, a better letter from Germán, a full phyisical from an accredited doctor, blood work, and police checks from two different police agencies. Meanwhile, he found out that the immigration officer had made a mistake in giving us a tourist visa, because it was actually a step back in the process since we already had a Visa Radicatoria. To make matters worse, they kept Janaki´s passport for another night.

so we returned today... got the passport, found out through another guy who spoke some broken english that our new tourist visas had nullified our more useful visa radicatorias, so we will probably have to pay another $100 dollars each to get an equivalent visa, and then move on to try to extend to one year. We will have to try to use Alejandro´s connection to the vice-mayor of the city to try to sort this mess out once we return from the village.

The take home message form all of this is that trying to navigate through government beaurocracy when you are still learning the language and don´t understand the whole process is a pain in the ass!! We have much more respect for what people must have to go through trying to get into Canada after going through this process so far.

Please note: we have some pics up now! Please go to old blog entries to view them.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Filter building Succes!!!!!

So....... today Hernan (Germán´s son), Alejandro, Janaki and I finally successfully demolded a functioning filter box. It isn´t perfect... a few chips missing on the outside surface, but I think it was good enough that even the folks at CAWST would have kept it. We have yet to fill it with sediment to really complete it (it is just a funky looking concrete box right now), but we did the hardest part, so we are pumped.

In other news... I was walking across a street today when a large truck drove past, dislodging a power line, which fell only a couple of feet behind me. It freaked me out a bit, cuz I don´t know how well insulated the wire was and it just didn´t quite seem safe to have power lines coming down around me.... ah the everyday adventures of Santa Cruz...

In other news, Trevor has a chin

Yesterday Trevor shaved off his beard.

In the time that I´ve known him he´s always had some sort of goatee (spelling?) or beard which prevented me from seeing his chin in the flesh, so to speak.

So, yup, just wanted to keep you updated....

Frolics in Filter Construction

So, I´m not going to lie to you, we´re feeling a bit of stress at the moment...Germán, Alejandro, Trevor and I are planning to leave for the village on Wednesday and as of yet all of our practice filters have had some serious issues (leaks, broken filter noses, weak walls...etc.)

On the positive side of things, every faulty filter helps us improve future attempts. Also, seeing Alejandro getting excited about filter construction and the future of the project as a whole is just amazing....this means that progress made in the next months could actually be sustainable where he could be hired on more permanantly and help train others as the organization expands.....exciting.

Later this afternoon we´ll be demolding another filter, so we´ll see how it goes. We´ve come to terms with the fact that we may still need to pratice a bit when we get to Guarayos next week so we´ll take the challenges ahead as they come.
An update of our impression of poverty in Santa Cruz de la Sierra....

So... on our second day here I was very disturbed by the site of women with children that appeared to be living on the streets. It was especially overwhelming to me that this occurred 3 times within about 2 blocks.... since then, however, we haven´t really seen that level of obviously visible poverty. I haven´t been approached for spare change any more often than is normal in Calgary and haven´t seen an alarming number of people living in the streets overall. Part of the reason that we haven´t seen as many people on the streets since that day is that we haven´t been wandering around the central plaza much since then. So, the initial experience described earlier in this blog was shocking, but has not been repeated to the same extent.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

It has begun....

Yesterday we poured the mould for our first biosand filter in Bolivia.... at long last. It feels really, really good to be building biosand filters rather than just talking about building biosand filters. On the downside, we have had some very frustrating moments caused by language barriers and differening ideas on how a biosand filter should be built. Luckily, we have the help of a man by the name of Alejandro who was born in Honduras but grew up in Canada and spent 10 years working in cement construction in the United States. His proficiency in both Spanish and English, his wealth of knowledge about concrete construction and enthusiasm for the project all make him a very important part of Cordillera Water Supply Center.

Next week we should be heading out to a small village in NW Santa Cruz department to build filters and enducate people on how to use them.

We also need to sort out our visas next week, which we were supposed to do on monday, but couldn´t, apparently because El Presidente, Evo Morales, was having a party there, and there has been a massive backlog ever since.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Gringos in Bolivia

One of the things that I have enjoyed most about Bolivia so far is how uncommon it is to have people speak english to us. In fact, it generally seems that very few people come around this part of Santa Cruz who don´t speak Spanish as a first language. As a result of this, Janaki and I seem to be a constant source of entertainment as we stumble our way through the spanish necessary to get through day to day life here. People here also don´t seem to acknowledge us as tourists and few have even asked where we are visiting from...
There also seems to be a bit of a tendancy to clump everyone who doesn´t speak spanish as a first language into the category of Gringo (which I had previously thought mostly referred to Americans). For example, one of our taxi drivers told us that he had a brother-in-law from Belgium and then commented on how this relative was ´a gringo like you guys´.
Due to this experience so far, we had a bit of a shock today when we scouted out a ´backpackers hostel´ a few km from the City center. The place was newly renovated, air conditioned, had a swimming pool, a DVD collection, a pool table and was playing Coldplay in the communal areas. Most shocking to us, everyone in the hostel was speaking to eachother in English, and all of the signs in the hostel were in English. I think we actually had mild culture shock and decided we felt more at home in our quaint little room in El Hotel Aeronaútico (which has no english-speaking staff, and one english speaking guest that we have encountered so far) where we may not have an airconditioned room or a kitchen, but we feel as though we are having a more ´typical´ Santa Cruz de la Sierra experience.

El Zoologico...Petrobras style

A couple of days back we had the pleasure of checking out the Santa Cruz Zoo. It has a reputation of being one of the best zoos in South America, so we were intrigued to say the least.

The highlight for me was watching a sloth lazily making its way around the zoo, free as a bird, inhibited only by its own speed. They´re such interesting animals which has got me thinking what the world must be like through their eyes...

Obviously the conditions for some of the animals were below what you´d expect in most North American zoos with respect to cage size, which was certainly hard to see...however what was even more surprising was the sheer disrespect people had for signs indicating not to feed the animals. We saw children dumping entire bags of colourful cookies into an ostrich pen...yikes!

On top of this we were left with a sour taste in our mouths by the fact that Petrobras (the national oil company of Brazil) sponsors the zoo and is not shy about advertising all the good they´re doing for the people, animals and environment of Bolivia. We think that having more zoo staff on hand to encourage better behaviour towards the animals might be a good place to funnel some extra cash.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Back it up a little...

It might be best to provide everyone with a little background info as to why exactly we´re in Bolivia...

At the end of April we both took the Biosand Filter (BSF) course through CAWST (Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology...check out www.cawst.org for more details) based in Calgary.

Through our friend Erin Swerdfeger, we met her aunt, Patricia Slind. Patricia is a Bolivian woman now living in Calgary who has also taken the BSF course and volunteered a lot at CAWST. She created the Coordillera Water Supply Centre as an NGO based in Bolivia and focusing on water and sanitation issues in some rural areas of the province of Santa Cruz.

Throughout the summer, Trevor and I have helped with working through some of the logistical aspects of the organization, but finally decided that we could fulfill this need while doing a lot more if we were actually here...so, aqui estamos.