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!