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.

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