Sunday, March 19, 2006

This is the valley I hiked through today: 3 hours. On foot. Each way.

Hugh and agronomy student Edwin were going as emissaries of the University -- requested during a meeting with our founder and president Sister Damon -- and I was asked to tag along as photographer. We started after 6am but actually arrived early because Dr Moises (our friend and fellow English teacher -- though he's also an MD, psychology professor and bilingual science fiction author) picked us up on his way to a community for a free clinic. His small 4x4 was already full with the nursing students who help him out, but we managed to wedge ourselves in for a few kilometers. (I was actually hovering more than sitting -- which I found out is significantly more taxing than being wedged, but that's a physics lesson for a different time.)

When we arrived -- sweaty and not entirely expected this particular day -- in the small village of San Agustín, we were introduced to the leaders of both the community and the school. The school was the reason for our visit: it's falling apart and the village is looking to the University for help finding the money to improve or, even better, replace it. So I was asked to photograph the holes in the ceiling, the windows without screens or glass, the stairs to the now-missing second story that had fallen in on themselves, the more-or-less uninhabitable teacher house, and the bathroom facilities that could definitely stand being replaced. My instincts are usually to show the beauty in every place I go, so it was handy that our hosts were clear about pointing out what was ugly and needed to be documented. That's what would persuade the funders, they knew. And so would the faces and names of the people in the village, we told them. Ver es creer, Hugh said: seeing is believing.

But we didn't just see a run-down school, of course. Our timing was good -- today was Día del Padre, Bolivia's Father's Day.

So after a big lunch and some k'isa (an Aymara drink made from dried peaches, sugar and water we probably shouldn't have drank without a shot of iodine or bleach) -- oh, and after a game of volei where our gringo height didn't lead to any victories -- we sat down for an acto civico that featured kids in formation singing songs, reciting poems, and generally pledging love and appreciation for the Dads.

Afterward, we were offered and couldn't successfully decline a second full lunch. Our requests for solamente un pocito went equally unheeded. So, despite what can politely be called 'a rumbly tummy' I tucked into a plate full of rice, corn, chuños, and chicken. (I will not even try to explain chuños here, except to say that they are inexplicably popular potatoes that have been treated in ways God could never have intended.) All the Dads and all the teachers were honored with this meal (which is why we couldn't skip out) but Edwin, Hugh and I were the only ones offered bowls. And spoons.

We got a ride part way down the gentle mountain side, then hiked through coca fields and villages (running into one of my students home for a weekend). We had to ascend again (up to la puerta del viento) through coca fields that each cleverly eclipsed the following one -- luckily I resisted the temptation to ask Edwin each time if we were almost there. Then came the familiar descent past the trail for the toma del agua, through one of the cooperatives and the upper campus, then snaking home with shortcuts past the coffee plant and through the lower campus.

It was good to be home, great to stretch with my feet up on the wall, and even better to take a shower and sit down to a table full of good folks and a bowl full of homemade soup.

(Look for more photos later this week on my photo blog.)


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