Bienvenido a Carmen Pampa

Tuesday, 19 October 2010 18:52 by csd002


The next morning I was up at seven in the luxurious but frigid penthouse apartment where we were staying.  We went to a hostel in the city center to eat with some of our other gringo colleagues before heading off to Carmen Pampa.  The center of La Paz, I discovered, is a disorganized maze of cars, taxis, minibuses, diesel smoke, and cholita street vendors that makes Manhattan look like Annville.  I still don’t know how I managed to get around without having my suitcase run over.

We made our way to Villa Fátima, the neighborhood where all buses bound for the Yungas start their journey.  Aft er buying our bus tickets, my colleague and I went to the market next to the bus company’s office to buy vegetables and other necessities.  This was my first visit to a Bolivian street market, and it certainly was a sight.  One can buy all sorts of things in one of these markets; a vegetable seller will be next to a stand selling toothpaste and deodorant, which will be across the street from a DVD seller.  The movie peddlers in particular make no secret of the fact that their merchandise is bootlegged; the covers are merely photocopied and placed in plastic sleeves, and the discs are almost all white DVD-RWs with the name of the movie written in sharpie.  These DVDs usually sell for 5 Bolivianos, or roughly 70 US cents—try renting a movie in the United States for that price.

After buying vegetables, toothpaste and pirated DVD titles we had never heard of, we boarded our quintessentially Bolivian bus.  It hardly looked different from the run-down buses that operate within the city—a fairly small, basic and cramped affair with a decal of Che Guevara in one window and a sticker of a Georgia Bulldog in another.  Maybe I should have been as uncomfortable with my ride as I was the day before with the buses in the Zona Sur, but since I was with several colleagues I felt considerably more at ease.

The ride from La Paz to Coroico was considerably less stressful than I had imagined given the great height from which we descended and the variety of climate zones covered.  First we climbed out of La Paz to a frigid high point known as La Cumbre, and from there we went down a long, winding road that snaked its way along the sides of mountains in a slow and somewhat dizzying descent from the cold, dry mountains into the humid Yungas below.  (In case anyone is wondering, we did not take the world-famous “Death Road;” since 2006, most buses take a new and much safer route that actually has pavement and guardrails throughout most of its trajectory.)  The trip took about three hours and offered some incredible landscapes: first the rugged expanse of the Altiplano, then the rocky, ice-covered slopes of the Cordillera Real, then deep valleys that became ever greener until we arrived in the lush Yungas cloudforest.

Yet what struck me the most about the scenery was not the natural beauty but rather the political graffiti along the road.  Particularly in the cordillera, where the rocky cliffs offer a perfect canvas, political advertisements are absolutely ubiquitous.  Every single one that I saw was from the 2009 election and manifested enthusiastic support for the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), the ruling socialist, pro-indigenous, and anti-imperialist party of President Evo Morales.  Far from being messy, hastily drawn American-style graffiti, some of them were quite elaborate.  “EVO se QUEDA” (Evo is staying!), they all exclaimed, or “EVO CUMPLE” (Evo keeps his promises.)  I was particularly impressed with one house which was completely painted with pro-Evo slogans and a stylized Wiphala, the Aymara flag that under the new Bolivian constitution has become an official state symbol.  Some day before I die, I have to visit that house.


In the early afternoon we arrived in Coroico, a small town clinging to the side of the Cerro Uchumachi which bills itself as the “first tourist municipality in Bolivia” although apparently many of the locals would like to have nothing to do with tourism.  After hauling my suitcase up a seemingly never-ending set of stairs from the bus terminal to the central plaza and grabbing lunch at a pizza restaurant, my two gringo colleagues and I took a taxi from Coroico to Carmen Pampa.  The road to Carmen Pampa was nothing more than a rocky dirt path, hardly wide enough for two cars to pass each other, with a wall of forested mountain on one side and a steep drop on the other for much of its course.  When going around particularly sharp curves in the road, drivers honk to announce their presence; the rule seems to be that he who honks first has the right of way.  It sounds scary, but it’s really not; the drop from the side of the road isn’t too awfully frightening, and drivers generally take it fairly slowly.  After about a half hour we turned off the main road onto another dirt lane that snaked its way down the hill to the university.

Arriving in Carmen Pampa, I didn’t feel extremely welcome at first.  The surroundings here, like in La Paz, seemed bleak.  All of the university’s buildings looked the same—hollow brick walls, concrete floors, tin roofs, and bars on many of the windows.  Even the Volunteer House, the former hacienda mansion which was to be my home for the next five months, seemed Spartan, dated and not in the best state of repair.  The residents of the town, for the most part, lived in adobe brick houses with tin roofs and doors that in the US would be suitable only for garages.  Stray dogs roamed the campus and the dirt roads, eating out of trash cans.  At first, many of the people in the community struck me as a bit cold.  When I first arrived, the internet was down, so I could not get in contact with my fiancée or my family to let them know I had arrived safely in Carmen Pampa.  In short, during my first day or two in the community, I felt somewhat apprehensive and alone.

I knew to expect this, however, and I didn’t have to wait long for it to begin to change.  Several days after I arrived, a large group of leaders arrived from Caritas, the Bolivian equivalent of Catholic Charities in the US, to hold their yearly meeting.  At the end of their three-day conference, they held a culture night in which every local Caritas chapter presented a dance or a song.  I can’t say precisely why it helped me feel more accepted, but it did.  Perhaps it was the fascination of finally seeing in person the Bolivian dances I had read so much about for years. Maybe it was just how fascinating some of them were, specifically the Saya Afroboliviana, an infectiously rhythmic dance put on by a group of Afrobolivian students from the local high school and the UAC.  (In spite of the excruciatingly slow internet connection I’ve managed to upload a clip I took of this dance to YouTube:

Yet I think it also had something to do with a small detail I saw in one of the dances.  The Caritas group from the small mining town of Coro Coro put on a very simple dance accompanied by lovely music from the zampoña, the ubiquitous Andean pan pipe.  I couldn’t help noticing one particular young woman in the group who looked very…well, white.  From my perch on the hill above the basketball court, she could easily have been of full-blooded Spanish descent or even a Pennsylvania Dutch woman from Annville.  Since my arrival I had been acutely aware of my own whiteness in a place with a majority indigenous population, a society deeply divided along racial and class lines, and a recent history of resentment at gringo intrusion.  Yet this woman seemed entirely accepted and at ease, wearing a pollera and going through the steps of an indigenous dance alongside her darker-skinned friends.  It may have been a somewhat superficial observation on my part, but it still moved me to see a light-skinned woman, possibly of foreign birth or the descendent of the Spanish conquerors, accepted and participating in an explicitly indigenous tradition.  That this coexistence had occurred in the context of a Catholic organization almost made me think about becoming Catholic.

Not quite, though.

Several days later, Hugh, the gringo vice-director of the university, took me on a hike through some of the hills surrounding Carmen Pampa.  I think he does this with every new volunteer just to break him or her in, since for most of the hike, the only sound I could hear was of me gasping for air.  We stopped in Chovacollo, a tiny community across the valley from Carmen Pampa, to visit the parents of one of Hugh’s godsons.  (Yes, he has more than one godson here.  He’s been in the Yungas for over ten years.)  This family could hardly be described as having vast economic resources at their disposal; their house had only two rooms, one upstairs and one downstairs, connected by a wooden ladder.  Yet they quickly invited us in, without giving me any “who is this strange gringo” stares, and offered us a bag of deliciously fresh mandarins.  They didn’t seem too awfully shy about talking with me, although I’ll overlook the fact that they occasionally spoke Aymara to each other as an inspiring preservation of a rich linguistic tradition and assume that they weren’t saying snarky things about me to each other in a language I don’t understand.  Given that I was there with their compadre, perhaps their hospitality shouldn’t have surprised me, but it still made me feel more at ease about being here.

Thus, by the end of my first week in Bolivia, being here no longer felt like living in the developing or “third” world.  It just felt like life.  I could not think of my new neighbors, students and colleagues as “poor,” but merely as “humble;” their lives seemed to lack the oppression and hopelessness that go along with true and complete poverty.  I could feel a very real and palpable sense of dignity, the spirit of a people who, in spite of their limited means, are proud of their culture, their traditions, and their way of life.


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La Paz

Tuesday, 5 October 2010 11:30 by csd002

I have actually been in Bolivia for almost three months, but I’ve been so busy settling in and getting started with the semester that I haven’t had time to write a substantial blog post. I’ve also been without internet at times, thanks to an expensive U.S.-based server which provides the UAC-CP with a stellar example of American efficiency. So much has happened in since I’ve arrived that I couldn’t possibly fit it into one blog post, so I’m going to have to gradually add several. Some of them will reflect how I was feeling during the time they refer to and not necessarily how I feel now.

So I’m finally here. For years I have dreamt of coming to Bolivia. On July 19, 2010, after four years of college, a $1200 plane ticket, a tearful farewell to my family and my longsuffering finacée, and a seemingly endless overnight flight to La Paz, that dream came true at last. So how did it feel to arrive in the country that has occupied so much of my scholarly and personal attention for the past five years? I must admit that at first, it felt rather jarring and intimidating. I’m not one to experience severe culture shock, and I certainly can’t consider the difficulties of my first day exceptionally brutal, but Bolivia is quite unlike anywhere I have ever visited before. It didn’t help that I had hardly slept on the flight and was suffering from a fairly moderate form of soroche, the dizziness, fatigue and shortness of breath that most travelers experience when arriving in a city 12,000 feet above sea level. Nor did it help that the airport authorities tended to be rather cold and curt, as immigration officials are wont to be, and would probably rather have been asleep at 6 in the morning instead of stamping gringo passports. Had I not had a colleague waiting to meet me, I would probably have been terrified.

Interestingly enough, many of the things that might have bothered a first-world tourist did not scare me a great deal. Yes, the air was positively frigid, but I knew to expect this and considered it a welcome change from the sultry mid-Atlantic summer. Yes, the taxi we took from the airport had seatbelts with nowhere to clip them, but I found this detail more amusing than dangerous. And indeed El Alto, the squatter slum-turned independent subaltern city which surrounds the airport, was a stark and not entirely welcoming sight, but in the darkness of early dawn it didn’t seem as run down as I had expected. I actually considered the sight of cholita women in their traditional pollera skirts and bowler hats walking through El Alto with bundles on their back to be rather encouraging, a sign that I had indeed arrived in a country not yet prepared to abandon its culture and traditions.

What daunted me more was what I saw upon descending into the giant cereal bowl that is La Paz city. I had anticipated a sharp contrast between humble El Alto and the more affluent parts of La Paz, between the haves and the have-nots of a socially polarized society. But to these eyes, accustomed as they were to the sights of the United States and Western Europe, the human landscape seemed to change fairly little as we traveled farther into the city. When my colleague told me that had arrived in the snootiest and most upper-crust part of town, I could scarcely believe it. The houses of the wealthiest Bolivians were gaudy, dated and gated li ke fortresses, and from the outside, the luxury high-rises could have passed for low-income apartment buildings in the U.S. Dilapidated shops and restaurants lined the main avenue, selling rusty, used auto parts and unsophisticated budget lunches. Graffiti, mostly of a political nature, was ubiquitous. Even this most prosperous of districts, known as the Zona Sur, seemed to lack the edge of sophistication and tidiness one expects from the most modest middle-class neighborhood in the United States.

This is what the "ritzy" section of La Paz looks like.

Yet I think the detail that most intimidated me was public transportation. In Bolivia, you see, public transit isn’t really “public” in the strictest sense of the word. Any government-run buses or trains that may have existed seem to have been casualties of the massive debt crisis that ravaged Bolivia and most of Latin America during the 1980s. Instead, a dizzying array of privately-owned buses, vans and trufis, or collective taxis, ply the streets of La Paz, running fixed routes for fixed prices and spewing noxious clouds of diesel smoke into the air. This impromptu system certainly has its advantages; transportation is cheap and plentiful, and someone familiar with the city can easily get to where he or she wants to go by reading the colorful route signs unmistakably displayed in the front window of every vehicle. Nonetheless, it was overwhelming to me at first to consider using these ramshackle vans as a regular mode of transit. Perhaps it was the rickety state of most of the vehicles which bothered me, or maybe it was the way they crammed people inside and wove in and out of traffic. However, I’d say that I was most unnerved simply by the apparent insecurity of it all, the lack of a big, reassuring state-funded entity managing an orderly transit system and printing route maps and schedules. After all, I thought, how could I know that one of these vans wasn’t simply a ploy to kidnap and rob seemingly rich westerners? It all just seemed so informal and so, well, “third world.”

(Note that I put that term in quotation marks because I want it to die a slow and painful death.)

Imagine, then, my consternation when I was charged with the task of riding one of these machines alone on my first day in a developing country. After my colleague and I went to lunch, she had to run other errands while I wanted nothing more than to return to the apartment where we were staying and try to recuperate some of the sleep I had missed on the plane. Her directions on how to get back were very, well, Bolivian: walk up the street to the big church, then take one of the vans or trufis and get off at the big yellow building. Aside from bumping my head when I first got on the van, it all worked out okay until I saw a yellow apartment tower and panicked. It didn’t look exactly like how I remembered my apartment building, but in the haze of sleepless soroche I figured I had better get off here and not risk being whisked away to a strange part of town. I scurried off the van, paying the driver 50 cents too much, and walked all the way around the block, only to discover that this was absolutely not the right building. Then I looked up the street and saw the yellow tower I sought—a good ten blocks away and up a rather steep hill. I could and probably should have caught another van or bus, but I was already unnerved and didn’t want to get on another one by myself. So, kicking himself for his short-sightedness and lack of observance, this disoriented gringo began the long and breathless quest for the other yellow apartment building. By the time I arrived, I had completely exhausted my 32-ounce water bottle and the back of my throat was frigid from ten blocks of grappling for air. I popped some more Ibuprofen, drank some more coca tea, and went straight back to bed.

The rest of the day was considerably less eventful, and I’m quite glad it was. After the events of the morning, I don’t know how much more adventure I could have tolerated. We had a meeting with the other professors of the UAC and then ate pizza in a restaurant showing a poorly subtitled ten-year-old episode of Friends on its TV. I went to bed early and slept like a rock.

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The Adventure Begins...Well, Not Quite Yet

Wednesday, 26 May 2010 10:04 by csd002

Being new to the blogosphere, I've noticed that many bloggers don't seem to really introduce themselves until the second or third paragraphs of their first posts, if at all.  Being old-fashioned, however, I'm going to give a proper introduction (sans, of course, my name, which you probably already know from the top of this page.)  After the four best years of my life thus far, I have just graduated from Lebanon Valley College earlier this month with a  B.A. in History and Spanish. From July to December of this year, I will live and volunteer at the Unidad Académica Campesina-Carmen Pampa, a small rural college in the foothills of the Bolivian Andes.  At the UAC-CP, I will teach English, manage the College´s language lab, and serve as the advisor for a nascent English club on campus.  Between now and my departure for Bolivia, I will live with my family in Newark, Delaware, where I will make the plethora of arrangements for my trip and begin the process of applying for graduate schools.  Hopefully, I will also take a brief research trip to the National Archives in Washington with Dr. Michael Schroeder, LVC´s Latin Americanist historian, with whom I have worked over the past year on his online archive of the Sandino rebellion in Nicaragua.

Perhaps the most obvious question for many readers of this blog is, Why Bolivia?  Why would I leave my home, my family and my fiancée behind for five months to live in a poor, landlocked country which many have never even heard of?  The answer, in brief, is that I find it absolutely fascinating.  My semi-obsession with Bolivia and the Andes dates back to my junior year in high school, when, as a third-year Spanish student, I began to very casually research places I might someday visit with my developing language skills.  Bolivia seemed to have many of the elements that I loved--mountains, vast rural spaces, and a large indigenous population.  As fate would have it, I became interested in the country just at the start of a earth-shaking political crisis.  In March of 2005, after President Carlos Mesa signed a hotly-debated law on the export of natural gas, protest erupted throughout the country.  During the ensuing months, in round two of an ongoing conflict often known as the Bolivian "Gas War," the roadblocks of highland indigenous demonstrators frequently cut off the capital city of La Paz from the outside world.  Finally, in June, Mesa resigned, and the caretaker government which replaced his administration scheduled elections for October of that year.  Evo Morales, the main leader of the protests which unseated Mesa, won these elections in a landslide, becoming the first indigenous president of this majority indigenous nation.  From 3,895 miles away, I had witnessed what I knew to be a sweeping, almost revolutionary change, a groundbreaking drama of democracy on the streets.  I was hooked.

Fast-forward to my senior year in college.  Having spent three years whetting my appetite for academic study, and after nurturing a strong sense of wanderlust during a semester abroad in Spain, I had decided I wanted to be a professor of Latin American and specifically Andean history.  Before I committed myself to several years of Ph.D. study, however, I wanted to go abroad again.  At first I had my sights set on Spain; I missed, and still miss, the country and my host family terribly, and I have dreams of living there someday.  But one particular day, the aforementioned Dr. Schroeder pulled me aside before class and asked me if I would be interested in teaching English in Bolivia.  As fate would once again have it, during his travels through South America the previous summer, he met a young man from his hometown who had just finished a year teaching English at the UAC-CP.  After deciding that perhaps I should spend some time living in this country before devoting my life to studying its history, I contacted the school, which happened to be looking for someone to help start their English club and thought I fit the bill.  This opportunity is in many ways a dream come true: I have wanted for years to live and teach in a small indigenous community in Bolivia, and the town of Carmen Pampa is precisely that kind of place.

So here I am, a recent college graduate, waiting to embark on what will probably be the most formative trip of my lifetime so far.  In case any current college students are wondering what it's like to graduate, I can say that it has been terrifying, at least for me, to be cast from the ivory tower into the stormy seas of the real world below.  In two month's time, however, I will be leaving my worries in the U.S. behind and diving headfirst into the weighty issues of the developing world.

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