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 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.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Back to Bolivia (albeit, a much colder one than we remember..)

Hey all,

After a long journey and continued bouts of altitude sickness, we´ve finally had the chance to write a quick note. We are back in Bolivia! It´s strange in some ways to write "back in" when we currently find ourselves in the part of the country we´ve never been to. Arriving in the mountainous and chilly La Paz was nothing like coming to the lush and humid Santa Cruz de la Sierra nearly two years ago. This really speaks to the spectacular diversity of the country.

While seeing new parts of the country is definitely part of the reason for returning here, our primary motive is to check on the progress of our team in Ascension (where we´ll be heading in about a week), as well as help our young organization through its early stages by collaborating with other oganizations working on water and sanitation issues in the country.

On our second day here we were lucky enough to meet with representatives from CIDA/the Canadian Embassy in La Paz and Oxfam-Quebec. Reps from both organizations were able to share advice and contacts that will definitely prove useful as we continue to develop as an organization.

We´re currently taking a few days to relax in Copacabana, right by the gorgeous Lake Titicaca - more to follow on how it all goes.


Monday, May 26, 2008

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Back to work

The rains have been somewhat less intense since the middle of February, allowing the Bolivian team to get back to its job of building filters. The municipal government still hasn't come through with supplies to fix the worksite, but the team built a small make-shift site nearby so that they can have a sheltered spot to continue their work if the rains get bad again. The rains left many of the dirt roads around Ascension impassable, preventing the team from accessing appropriate sand for much of February. Finally in late February they were able to purchase a few cycles worth of good sand, and 20 new BioSand filters have been installed so far in March.

In other news, the flood-water around Trinidad has lowered, thankfully, and is no longer filling people's homes in the city. It will likely be several months until farmers will be able to return to their land, since it seems to take a long time for the area to really dry out after a flood. The flooding has drastically cut Bolivia's food production since it affected most of the country's productive agricultural land. This is driving up food prices, and is a major cause of the period of high inflation that the country is currently experiencing. Driven by food shortages, fuel shortages, and general political instability, some analysts have predicted that inflation will surpass 24% by the end of the year. One can only hope that the flood waters stay down and that the federal government is able to reach a reasonable compromise with the opposition so that the country can begin getting back on its feet.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

When it rains it pours

When Janaki and I were living in Ascensión around this time last year, the weather became kind of depressing. We had been prepared for it to be rainy, given that we were living in the Amazon Basin, but it seemed like every day it would just pour and pour. Even the people who lived there began complaining about how wet and dark and dreary it was, and commenting that it was worse than usual... probably due to El Niño. The effects of the rain on human health and food production were disastrous, as can be seen in the photos Janaki and I took of people paddling boats across their fields near Trinidad more than 2 months after the worst of the flooding was over. It turns out, unfortunately, that this year's La Niña climate phenomenon is significantly worse. The rains have caused the Amazon's tributaries to flood vast areas of the eastern lowlands, especially the department of Beni, and have displaced approximately 60 000 people and killed over 50. In Guarayos, where our project is based, the flooding has cost this years rice and yucca crops as well as pretty much anything else that people normally grow for food or clothing, devastating the local economy. Flooding has also repeatedly wiped out bridges on Bolivia's only major lowland highway, repeatedly isolating Ascensión, and leading to fuel shortages.

The devastation has reached extreme proportions in Beni, especially around Trinidad. Whereas last year, it was mostly farmland and rural communities that were destroyed, this year the waters have also breached dyke that surrounds Trinidad, a city of about 90 000 people. It's unbelievable to see pictures on the news of people paddling canoes down the streets of a city that Janaki and I were visiting less than 10 months ago. Our good friend Fanny, who invited us into her home and showed us the amazing sites of the area around Trinidad, is currently trying to cope with the fact that her home is filled with 80cm of water and that she can't leave because the roads are cut off and she's scared that people will loot whatever possessions she leaves behind. The floods have been called a National Emergency, and the international community, lead by Brazil, Venezuela and the US, has been pitching in to try to airlift stranded people to safety, and get food and safe water to the tens of thousands of people in Trinidad who are in Fanny's situation. We can only hope that international and national aid keeps pouring in to help all those whose lives have been destroyed by this catastrophe.

As if the worst national disaster to hit Bolivia in many, many years, if ever, weren't enough of a problem for the country, the eastern leaders and the central government are back at their normal game of blaming each other for the suffering of those caught in the flooding, and trying to force through their conflicting agendas to shape Bolivia's future. Needless to say, the political atmosphere is not ideal for trying to mobilize a unified effort to help those who need it most urgently.

The rains and political fenangling have halted our project for 2008 so far. When we left Ascension, we knew that the patchy, dilapidated roof on the worksite that the municipal government had donated to us was not going to serve our employees too well in the rainy season so we requested that the government help us fix the roof. They assured us that they would be working on it by the last week of may, and then repeated that it would be done soon over and over and over again until December, when they told our employees to try again in 2008. By this time, strong winds had further damaged the roof, making it completely useless, and the above mentioned downpours had rendered it impossible for our employees to mix concrete in an unsheltered area. Our employees have stepped up pressure on the government in 2008 to help us out, and they've agreed to, but since they are trying make sure they can put whatever money they can to mitigating the effects of the flooding, and are reliant on a departmental government that is in the same position, it is unclear when exactly we'll get the help we need to get the roof of the worksite re-built. In the mean time, the employees have been busy with preparing new workshops for water, filter use, and hygiene education, performing follow-up visits to check on the status of already-installed filters, helping to plan our approach to the project in 2008, and building a previsionary worksite out of a tarp and some posts that they'll use until the mayor's office finally comes through with the supplies we've been promised to allow us to fix our roof. So we're almost ready to restart in 2008, and we'll keep you posted.

Photo from BBC News online. For more flood images see:

A rare post-us-in-Bolivia photo of the project

We've always recognized the importance of images in communicating with people outside of Guarayos about our project. It can be extremely hard to visualize what our employees are working on if one has never seen Ascensión, or, for example, a Biosand filter. For that reason we tried to take as many pictures as possible during our time in Guarayos, and left a digital camera with our employees so that they could continue to send us photos with their updates. Unfortunately, the camera we left broke about a week after we left bolivia, and then repeatedly broke after it was repaired in various local shops... leaving us without any pictures since we left. In september, one of our employees was able to purchase a camera phone, giving us hope that we'd be seeing pictures sooner, rather than later. Unfortunately, his chord to upload pictures onto the computer didn't work very well... so we had to keep waiting. Suddenly in mid-December, without any explanation, we received 2 photos in our inboxes, sent to us by Roberto. Both kind of grainy... probably taken with a camera phone, presumably his. One appears to show the head of the first household in which we installed a filter wayyyy back in April 2007, smiling as she fills a glass from her still-functioning BSF. This one shows part of a family with one of the filters that were installed since we left. The young children will surely reap the, most benefit of the families' newly earned appliance... as it will protect them from the water-borne diseases that would have likely overwhelmed their immune systems and surely forced them to miss school and possibly worse.
Receiving this photo was especially welcome, as Janaki and I can sometimes forget, now that we are in Canada, that the effort we continue to put into raising the money for the project helping administer it is making a tangible difference in real people's lives.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The beauty of dialogue

As you'll remember from our entries when we were down in Bolivia, Political tensions were often a major factor in our daily lives. Whether it was project delays because people had decided to blockade the roads, not being able to buy food or supplies due to a region-wide strike, or needing to hide out in our house because angry mobs were attacking political opponents in the streets of our little Ascension, there were several instances where were made very aware of the political and social tensions that can sometimes dominate life in Bolivia. Since we left, things seem to have only gotten worse. It all came to a head in late November when MAS (the party that currently has control of the federal government) and their allies retreated to an army barracks to avoid protesters that were blocking access to the normal site of the constitutional assembly and drafted the long-awaited new political constitution in the absence of the main oposition parties. In response to this move, protests in the streets of Sucre (where the constitutional assembly had been based) exploded into full-out riots, leaving 3 dead and hundreds injured from clashes with security forces in what has become known as 'La batalla de Sucre' - the battle of Sucre. Shortly thereafter, President Evo Morales' party, and their allies finalized the constitution in Oruro (having been driven from Sucre), once again, without the main oposition party. The leaders of the four departments in the Autonomist east (where our project is based) denounced the constitution as illegal and illegitimate and drafted their own rival constitutions. This provocative move drew swift condemnation from the central government, who plans to use the East's petroleum and agricultural wealth (which is currently concentrated in the hands of relatively few people) to help alleviate poverty throughout the country. With Evo threatening to use the army to defend national unity, and the opposition east, purported by some to have a well-armed militant wing, refusing to back down, civil war was not seeming too far-fetched in December. Janaki and I were left feeling extremely worried for the safety our co-workers in Ascension, our friends throughout the country, and the future of the country that we've come to consider our home away from home.

Things have, however, begun changing for the better. Evo Morales called a meeting with the leaders of the East earlier this week and they have actually managed to reach a couple of compromises. There is still a long way to go since their respective constitutions are almost mutually exclusive, but at least they are all sitting down at a table and discussing the issues in a civilized manner, rather than hurling insults and threats across the country and inciting riots. Our colleauges in Ascension are breathing a sigh of relief, and so is much of the country. We can only hope that this new, positive, direction sets the tone for Bolivian politics in 2008.
Photo: Evo and government Officials meeting with governors of the 9 regions of Bolivia (including 6 outspoken political rivals) source:¬iciaid=17106