Friday, June 30, 2006

Time for you to get a break from me (in other words, time for me to crank out two slideshows, a two-campus quickie exposition of photos, a final-exam/scavenger-hunt, and final grades for 3 different departments in 48 hours.) But more to the point, time for some Guest Bloggers. Here's part of an e-mail from Mike, who just finished 3 days with Ginger in the Salt Flats last night. Their adventures are far from over, however . . . read on . . .

Buenos dias amigos,

Currently typing on the worse keyboard in all of Bolivia. And I love it.

First, Zac give Margaret the biggest Carmen Pampa hug from Ginger and I. You have to give it, because we won't be able to. We're currently prisoners in Uyuni. The great people of Uyuni, Potosi and Oruro are blocking the roads prior to the voting on Sunday to protest the terrible road conditions (I happen to concur with them there). Our jeep back from the desert was blocked coming into Uyuni (we hiked back into the city -- felt good actually after the 8 hour jeep ride), and our bus to La Paz was blocked from leaving last night, at this point indefintely. There are tragically wronged gringos aplenty roaming the streets of Uyuni. We paid for, but then bailed on, a secret Swedish mission to escape last night -- five (some of them very cute, including my Todo Tourismo first crush) touristas packed into a desert jeep and snuck out under the cover of darkness to make it to Oruro (not clear how far they made it, but I wish them my very best). They had flights to Costa Rica Saturday morning, so their situation was more desperate. Ginger, not feeling the 12 hr jeep ride after having traveled all day in a jeep, decided we should skip the Mission Impossible, and sleep in. Granted, we have had some superb Boston pizza, and the best cafe leche south of Carmen Pampa, but given that we've already seen the train graveyard, there's not much left for us to do in Uyuni (save joining the blockades on the roads, which given the look in the eyes of the kids willing to throw rocks through the window of our jeep, probably wouldn't be as welcome as I might hope). So much for "Si, Se Puede!" But we're in good spirits, having had an splendid road trip through the desert and volcanic southern altiplano. Cold as hell, as advertised, but breathtakingly beautiful in all its myriad forms.

We'll see if the civic comission lets a group leave for either Potosi or La Paz tonight -- looks like a quorum of pleading whiteys are making headway on the bus to Potosi, but Ginger and I are hopeful for a path through Oruro (the trek to Potosi-Sucre-La Paz could be hazardous to our pleasant psyches right now) Haven't showered in 4 days, and dogs are beginning to think of me as one of their own. Tis life in the Wild West, no?

Trapped as he is in Uyuni (a town best known for its surreal yard of abandoned rusty train parts), Mike didn't have time or bandwidth to include a photo. So I hunted down one from my time in Uyuni in May . . . I thought this piece of public art was apt.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

I have well over 6000 photos from my six short months here, so it wasn't exactly easy to choose the top . . . oh, 400 or so to show on the big screen. Folks have been asking to see them for a while. But when I posted this flyer inviting everybody to see the highlight reel, I felt very sheepish when they got more specific: "Remember that photo of me next to so-and-so? It was in February I think."

So it wasn't perfect -- lots of people missing and a few too many artsy fartsy shots I think -- but it was still fantastic to get to share the beauty that was so easy to notice in my time here. With heroic help, I'll be posting the 220 prints I have tomorrow and Friday the folks in the shots get to take 'em home. I'm leaving a set of DVDs with full-resolution copies of every single shot worth saving, too. But as you may imagine, that all feels insufficient compared to what I'm taking with me. (And no I don't mean the constellation of insect bites, nor the campo vocabulary.)

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

I am pleased to report that this morning's 5:34am flight from Miami brought us none other than señorita Margaret Post -- carrying not only dark chocolate and Trader Joe's Temptation Trail Mix but also 2 big jugs of Jif Extra Crunchy Peanut Butter. Dramamine in hand, she wisely kept her eyes shut during our descent down the "world's most dangerous road" -- meaning she saw only a little bit less than our driver, considering the rainy fog was so thick you could often only see 15 feet out and (here's the kicker) the windshield wipers didn't work. Nor the defrost, really. And certainly not the heat.

But we enjoyed the ride all the same -- bittersweetly for me because it's the last time I'll descend the 7000 vertical feet from La Paz to Carmen Pampa in my six-month stint as a docente de inglés para la UAC. There wasn't much time for reminiscing though, as we were treated to an exciting delay because a huge bus had tipped into the ditch -- on the up-mountain side, thankfully, not the down-cliff side.

The line of waiting buses, minivans, pickups and orange trucks (each overflowing with people) heightened the drama, but none of it affected the driver's white plastic bag of insouciant bread -- which skidded left and right with every hairpin turn but toppled only once when the driver flew over a cobblestone crater.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Carlos is a student finishing his thesis on orchids. He's become remarkably well-versed on the scores of different orchids in and around Carmen Pampa -- including one with flowers only 2 milimeters across and another that flowers once a year for a few timid hours (and will fall over and die if it's touched.)

He took Ginger, Mike and I on a tour the other morning. No esta el tiempo por flores he told us, but we came across a few delicate examples anyway. And most of all we chatted in Espanglish and learned about the craziest orchids he'd come across: one that resembles a lady bee's, um, lady parts so that the male bee will -- in a too-good-to-be-true twist on the birds and the bees story -- pollinate the orchid by trying to copulate with it. Oh, and another that gives off the exact pheromone of a specific male insect so that the neighborhood male insects of that species think somebody new is trying to elbow in on their territory -- the resulting kerfuffle between the miffed males and the crafty orchids results in a happy pollination.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Tomorrow is la fiesta del San Juan, so the party started tonight. It's also ostensibly the coldest night of the year -- so the party features a big bonfire, usually in folks' yards but up on the canchita for us here at the UAC. Which meant there was room for music videos on the pantalla gigante and, more importantly, some dancing.

But the real hit was the fire of course. And the firecrackers. And the sparklers. There's a little pyromaniac in all of us, I think, and had I grown up in Bolivia San Juan would definitely be my favorite festival.

After I took my artsy fartsy shots, I fulfilled the duty of anyone with a digital camera: I photographed folks and them showed them their pictures. Little Katerine (who delights everybody within a 10 mile radius with her toddling and chubby cheeks) tried to right the balance by ignoring the photographs and staring at the photographer. (Thanks to Mike for this shot.)

Monday, June 19, 2006

The computer next to me in Sucre's speediest internet cafe is playing Metallica a little too loudly for me to know what to say at the moment except that Ginger and Mike and I are having a grand time eating, drinking, laughing, crying, hiking and mining our way through La Paz, Sucre and Potosí -- the latter being the world's highest city (tied with Lhasa, I'm told.) Mike and I went up to Potosí to tour the Casa de Moneda -- which tells part of the story of the 400 years of tragically-mined silver that funded Spanish empire -- and then to tour the silver mines themselves which, as you might imagine, tell the rest of the story.

As many as 8 million (yes 8,000,000) workers died in the mines -- first the indigenous people of Bolivia and then African slaves brought in when there simply weren't enough Aymara or Quechua men left. (You can read more about it in this BBC article or this tourist's account.) The only things we saw in the working conditions there that can't be described as medieval were pneumatic drills, electric headlamps and a few electric lifts. All of the nuggets are still transported horizontally by the younger, healthier (12 to 22 year old) miners and a good number of them are moved up at least one or two levels by handcranks.

Our guide Jaime seemed lighthearted about his 8 years working in the mines, but he was also clear that if he was still there (instead of leading tours for a cooperative guide service) he'd be decades closer to his death. It was Sunday -- and a day after the annual festival where the miners slaughter llamas for another year of good luck or at least no more collapsing shafts, scarred lungs or spent mineral veins -- so the mine was tranquilo. In fact the only miner we encountered was a woman who had worked there for 46 years -- inside for 5 or 6 and now outside hauling and sorting the promising nuggets the miners sent up from deep inside the mountain.

But we did encounter sticks of dynamite (bolstered with ammonium nitrate), half-finished fuses, ladders that inspired little confidence, 30 meter holes, freshly-collapsed ceilings, noxious powders, mysterious liquids, tiny crawl spaces that led to gigantic rooms, and an altar to tio -- the reverent yet affectionate title of Uncle given to a creature some might call the devil. The traditional Christian understanding here has been that God is in the sky and the devil is underground -- meaning that the silver buried in the mountains belongs to the devil, personified by the smiling and, ahem, well-endowed tio and regularly placated with cigarettes, alcohol and coca.

Potosí has beautiful churches, inspiring views, cheerful people and an unbelievable altitude . . . but none of that affected the unshakeable sadness I felt in the air there. I asked our guide at the museum about a vial of mercury on display. "They needed it to purify the silver. Yes, it's very dangerous . . . especially for the workers." But when I asked for more about the lives of the people (the toil and the toll, some would say) who made these houses of silver stand, she said "We have very few documents about that" and walked away. There are few minerals left in Cerro Rico but whereas it was once the cause of much wealth in Spain and much suffering in Bolivia, it is now a caustic and cruel source of hope for a miner's harsh chance at wealth in Bolivia -- despite the suffering, despite the odds, despite the facts.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

¡Miguel y Jengibre han llegado! I met their 5:34am plane in La Paz yesterday and we tooled around the capital sipping coca tea (and hunting api y llaocha before boarding this 4:30pm bus for the Nor Yungas.

And yes, this is the same Mike that fell 3 stories in late January and broke 27 bones, including the C2 vertebrae. To say that we're lucky he's alive -- let alone traipsing around South America with fellow jet setter Ginger -- is an understatement. But he's not just alive, he's --como siempre-- full of life.

Igualmente nuestra amiga Jengibre. (Yeah, people who say ginger is good for travel don't know the half of it.) We head out this weekend for Sucre and Potosí in south central Bolivia, then return to Carmen Pampa for the last week of classes. I've been blessed with great friends and traveling companions during my time in Bolivia, but this double-trouble combo of Mike & Ginger might be hard to beat. (And when Margaret Post shows up from Boston a week from Tuesday, we'll form a Trekking Team like Bolivia has never seen -- at least when it comes to the caliber of trail mix and the ratio of laughter to sleep.)

PS: Good news for my friend Jess: she gets to leave the hospital and prepare for the bowel movement of the century at home. And there's a chance she may not need to have another brain shunt put in -- wahooo! (Jess' Caring Bridge website)

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

I've been waiting for months to get Hannah's approval for a photo of her on my Blog. I still haven't got it, but now that it's late and she's asleep, I'm putting this up and seeing how long it takes before she guesses my password and takes it down.

This is Coach Hannah -- she and I and a handful of other supporters rose at 3:40am to brave an 8.5 hour roundtrip bus ride Sunday with the 13 members of the women's equipo de fútbol to their big games in Caranavi. They lost one game and tied the second -- but most of all they had a good time.

My job was as el fotógrafo, a task I took seriously. At least seriously enough to shoot almost 2GBs of action shots and sideline candids. Oh, and seriously enough to get some fantastic mileage out of the phrase "¡Soy la prensa!"

(But honestly, who except a serious photographer would lie down in the soggy grass to take this photo? For the record, the rain and gymnastics weren't as bad as putting up with the incredulous commentary from the human subjects. The ball seemed to understand the artsy look I was going for, don't you think?)

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The US Ambassador to Bolivia, David Greenlee, and his esposa paceña visited our proud campus yesterday. He shook lots of hands, spoke mercifully briefly (en castellano, por supuesto), and cut ribbons at both the USAID-underwritten lab and our almost-finished coffee plant. Plus he got photographed by yours truly. Oh and the people from CNN-español. At least that was the rumor. Tons of press from La Paz was definitely here and it was a kick to see students being interviewed on camera.

This photo is among my favorites -- women from the neighboring communities that participate in the coffee projects placed flower wreaths around our guests' shoulders and 'it-ain't-a-party-without-it' mixtura upon their heads. (And yes, that's an orange hanging from the bottom of the wreath.)

Friday, June 09, 2006

Not more than 30 second after this photo was taken, I got head-butted by this goat. His head, my butt. It wasn't overly malicious, but it wasn't gentle either.

Sister Helena, the Irish nun in charge of the farm and the internado it supports, (who I was photographing for Sister Damon's presentation in Rome this July about their community) told me that's quite normal -- "He's just reminding you who's in charge."

Knowing that and looking back at this picture, can you (like me) see the plans forming in his clever little goat mind?

Thursday, June 08, 2006

This is the cyber-age version, I suppose, of putting a candle in the window to welcome somebody home. As you can read on Jess' Caring Bridge website, she's in emergency surgery tonight. She'll be fine, I'm sure, but this was not the June she or Heather had planned. In fact, their vacation to celebrate Jess' recovery was scheduled for next Wednesday.

Thanks in advance for joining me in sending good energy, thoughts and prayers, even lit candles her way.

This candle welcomed us home Monday after a weekend in La Paz -- the entire valley was without electricity, making for a quiet evening and a surprisingly cozy feel. I can't wait until Heather and Jess get to enjoy quiet cozy evenings themselves.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

It's been a while since I've put anything up on my all-photos-blog Casi Bastante but I did manage to upload 7 favorite photos last night. Here's a sample:

Surf on over to see the rest. And please join me in sending good thoughts and prayers to my dear friend Jess and her amazing girlfriend Heather. Jess is in the surgical ICU because of some serious complications (including a scary infection) with the shunt neurosurgeons placed in her brain in January to relieve the impossibly painful intercranial pressure caused by hydroencephaly. She's a trooper (either 'feisty' or 'crabby' depending on interpretation) and she'll be OK in time, no doubt, but this is clearly the opposite of fun for her and all of us lucky enough to know and love her. Read all about it -- and leave her encouraging notes -- at her Caring Bridge website.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

I think the total was 157.

Photos I had printed to give away here, that is. (And that doesn't include any highlights from the 607 I've taken in June so far. Nor the artsy-fartsy ones that were deemed slideshow-worthy, but not print-worthy.)

The prints made the rounds during our 3.5 hour bus ride back from La Paz -- half full of UAC people.

A sucker for the occasional post-modern moment (especially at 13,000 ft in the back corner of a bus crammed with people) I had to take this photo of photos.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Construction has been a constant throughout the 13 years the UAC has been educating the hard-working student who come here from across the country. The project nearest to our house (and to our hearts as well) is the new building that will house, among other good stuff, the Language Lab -- with space and computers for 30 students to be immersed in English and Aymara. I'm working on a little time-elapsed series of its construction, but for now here's one of the diligent workers silhouetted against our breath-takingly-blue late afternoon sky.

Friday, June 02, 2006

On Saturday, we volunteers were invited as guests of honor to the anniversary of the mini-cooperative (for students who didn't get into the student food cooperatives but still want to pool the money they have for meals). It was a generous privilege for them to offer us, not just because of the luscious porketarian meal shown here (con oca y camote también), nor for the fork, knife and plate we were given to use (normally we bring own bowl and spoon), but because we got to sit at a table! (The mini-cooperative is saving up their money for some tables. And then maybe chairs.) There was a little speech, plenty of good will, and happy full bellies. And yes the table was waaaay too high, as you can see, but it didn't dampen our spirits at all.