Why we’re here

In the gospel reading today, Jesus tells a parable in which a rich person leaves and gives three of his servants some of his money to take care of while he’s gone.  Two of them put this money to use and make more money for him, but the other one buries it for safe keeping.  When the master gets back, he’s happy that the first two servants have done something productive with what they were given.  He’s quite unhappy (wailing and grinding of teeth unhappy) with the third one who didn’t make anything of what he was given.

As Laura and I were talking about it at dinner, we were saying how this sums up a lot of our reasons for coming down here, and we wanted to share that with you, our loyal blog reader.

We’ve been given a lot.  We both came from families that were well off.  We were able to get a good education (again, thanks families!).  I had a nice, well paying job for several years, and Laura was able to get her masters and teach a bit.  At this point in our life (about two years ago) we stopped and looked at where we were.  We could have decided that we wanted to focus on our careers or start our own family. Instead, we decided to take what we’d been given and put some of that time, talent, and treasure towards loving others, people we’d never even met.

There are lots of ways we could have done this without heading to Bolivia.  Learning the language was important to us, as was serving some who had the kind of hard life that only a developing country can give.  However, that’s just the extra stuff.  We’re glad we’ve been given (and taken) the opportunity to take what we’ve been given and use it for loving others instead of just keeping it for ourselves.  And what we have received in return, the grace of getting to know all these wonderful children and people that otherwise we never would have known, has already been overwhelming.

Class Update

I just wanted to send out a short update on how my classes are going this semester.  The bad news is that I’ve lost several of my students over the course of the semester.  I started with one class nearly full with 12 students and another with 8 students.  Sadly those classes have dwindled to 7 and 5.
Its not all bad news though, the students that remain are doing great!  Over the last few months we’ve made it through the Photo Editing and Graphic Design units, and the students have been doing great.

Here’s one student’s final project for the Graphic Design unit. He had created an imaginary bottled water company and had this advertisement for it:

After those we had the unit on Audio editing. Here’s some pictures of the students recording and editing their podcast episodes.

We just wrapped up the audio section a few days ago, and now we’re getting into the unit on video editing.  Graduation is coming up in month, so hopefully I’ll have more updates (and videos!) by then.

Table Ride

Here’s a quick, fun story for you.

Today we celebrated the anniversary of our neighborhood (Villa Cochabamba, in the city of Montero), so the teachers from the Institute and Kinder went and paraded by the main square (more on this in another post…?).  Anyway, afterwards the sister who runs both the Institute and Kinder (Sister Clara) took all the teachers out to lunch.  When we got to the restaurant, there weren’t any empty tables.  Luckily there was a stack of chairs and a spot under a tree in the courtyard.  So we all grabbed a chair and set up a circle and waited for our food.  I was assuming that we’d just take our plates and eat in our laps when out of the front door of the restaurant, I see a station wagon driving up and stopping with a large wooden table strapped to its roof.  I just assumed that someone had bought a table in the market and was taking it home (strapping large objects to the roof of a car isn’t uncommon here).  I jokingly said to Laura “wouldn’t it be funny if they were bringing us a table, if they were I’d definitely have to write about this on the blog.”  Then much to my amazement, a couple boys came in to the restaurant carrying the table, walked it over to our group, and set it down right in the middle of our circle! This wasn’t a small little folding table either, this was a big table, enough for 16 to eat around, and built out of solid wood too.

The only thing that I can think of is that when our group entered, the proprietor of the restaurant called up someone nearby with a table and said “Send it over, we’ve got a big group with nowhere to sit”…and low and behold it arrived.

Just another day in Bolivia.

P.S. Sorry there are no pictures…Laura went to take one but didn’t get it in time.

Super Smoky

With the end of the sugar cane season upon us, it seems like there are an especially large number of farmers burning their fields.  The air quality over the last few days here in Montero has been abysmal.  It isn’t a cloudy day, but this morning when I was out doing the laundry at 9:30, I could only see the sun as a somewhat diffuse glowing ball…kinda like it is moments before sunset.

Its also been very hot this week, which may have something to do with why the burning has gotten so bad.  Highs have been between 95-100F, which is about as hot as it gets in Bolivia, but thankfully it hasn’t been very humid.  Its still pretty rough dealing with that without air conditioning though!

Between the heat and the smoke, I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in over a week…here’s to hoping for rain to clear things off!

A tribute to fallen mangos

So over the last two weeks our high temperatures have gone from 95 down to 56 and back up to 95 again!  (Keep in mind we don’t have heating or A/C) These rapid swings in temperature have come with the biggest wind storms we’ve seen since being in Bolivia.  Last week, after the first blast of cold air came blowing up from Argentina, Laura and I were walking through the courtyard of the convent when we noticed something awful.

All the baby mangos that had been growing on the mango trees (due to ripen in October) had blown off! Oh the humanity!!!

(click the images for high-res)

I think that means there aren’t going to be many mangos around this year :-(

We also had lots of trash that blew in to our field and piled up behind the Institute building and piles of sand that blew in from places too.

So next time you’re walking through your grocery store and looking at all the fruit, stop for a moment to pay your respects to all their fallen comrades that were lost along the way.

First Semester Down!

I just turned in my grades for my first semester as a teacher! Over-all it went well, the fact that I was teaching in Spanish was definitely the most challenging aspect. It was a great experience to be able to put together a course that many can benefit from (you can too) and to work with the students, getting them to understand it all.

I especially want to thank all those who donated towards building the computer lab that I worked in, I couldn’t have done any of this without you!

In case you didn’t see it before, here’s a picture of my first graduating class!

Nine Months

So now that we’ve been in Boliva for nine months. A lot has happened, we’ve learned a ton about life here in Bolivia, the positives and the negatives.

I’m coming up to the end of my first semester. I have eight students left in my class (started with 10, one moved away another started a conflicting class), and they’re all doing well. They seem to do the best with the graphic design part (my weakest area), but they’re good with the photos, audio, and video too. At the end of the graphics section, they all created one page advertisements for their imaginary business. They did a great job on that project, several of them are high enough quality that they could go into the pages of a magazine…if it weren’t a fake company. Here are a few of my favorites.

So now we’ve finished the Photos, Graphics, and Audio sections and we’re working on the video editing. They’re currently each editing together some footage I took of the town square, so soon I’ll have those videos up here for you to see, in the meantime, here’s a picture of them hard at work:

I’ve also just about finished writing the text for the course (which is good because the semester is ending and I’d be in trouble if I didn’t have it!).  This has actually taken a lot more of my time than actually teaching the class.  I’m hoping that with this done I’ll have a little more time to myself next semester, even though I’m teaching two sections instead of one.  The text is available online (I’m still working on the formatting, but all the content is there). If you want to read it, you can get to it from http://mediaintro.teeks99.com/MultimediaClass.html, I’d love any comments or critiques you have, its in English here!

Laura has been keeping busy working the mornings (4 days a week) at the Day Care (Guarderia) and the Kindergarten in the afternoons.  Every Saturday she works with two different youth groups at the parish center.  Starting in July, she’s going to be teaching an English class at the Institute two nights a week also.

At the Kindergarten she has 45 minutes with every class each week. In her computer lab they work on the basics of computer usage: moving the mouse, clicking on things, etc.  She also spends time teaching them English. The biggest accomplishment with English is that she has them all singing a song called “What’s Your Name?” where they learn how to introduce themselves and say ‘nice to meet you.’ Not bad for 45min/wk with a class of kindergarteners! Some of them have also learned her name, “Miss Laura” although it comes out more like “izdora.”

Laura has put a lot of work into getting the (very old) computers in her lab up and running, and more recently when my family was here, my dad and brothers helped out there for a couple days.  Unfortunately there isn’t a lot that can be done for the computers still running Windows 98, which can’t run most of the programs she’s using in her class.  With some of the leftover money from building my computer lab, we were able to get six new (very cheap) computers, which are more than enough for the programs she runs.  These six are great, and have a whole range of (free) simple learning programs that we downloaded off the internet. Currently she has 26 computers functioning for classes of 30-36 students. Fairly often fights have to be broken up over who got to a computer first and kids walk around saying “Teacher, there’s no spot for me.” The long range plan is to replace all eight of the Windows 98 computers with new ones and buy four more to eventually have 30 computers.


I’ve been remarkably healthy since I’ve been here. I had one bout with an extremely nasty bug around the start of the year, and then a minor urinary infection a couple months back, along with a couple of very minor bouts of diarrhea. Laura on the other hand has had a lot of illness to struggle with.  We think this is mostly because she works with the little (often sick) kids a the Guarderia each morning.  There’s a lot of germs floating around there, and unlike the other teachers who work there, Laura hasn’t had a lifetime to build up defenses against Bolivian illnesses. In addition, her digestive system has always been more sensitive to insults, even in the U.S., so little things that don’t bother others end up as a week of diarrhea for her. But, please don’t worry, she takes her vitamins and probiotics faithfully and so far has bounced back from everything just fine.

As far as what we’ve learned about the health conditions here…there’s some pros and cons. Malaria is virtually non-existent in this region of Bolivia. We haven’t encountered anyone with it. Most people will say they know of someone once-upon-a-time who had it, but nothing recent or concrete. I’m not sure if this is because of eradication efforts or that its more prevalent in other areas and that’s where the people talked about were when they got ill.

Dengue fever, tuberculosis, and Chagas are some of the major diseases here. There was a wave of dengue in April, but it seems to have subsided now, however 20 people died and, for a few months the hospitals were overflowing.  Tuberculosis is a more constant issue. We’ve heard of several people who have had it.  The mother of our god-daughter was in the hospital with it for several months.  When she got out, she had to go to Buenos Aires to get a job to pay back her medical bills, that’s why our god-daughter and her two sisters are still living at the orphanage (Hogar). Also, a 21-year old woman who worked with Laura at the Guarderia had apparently started working there after she finished her 6-month treatment. In addition, when Laura went to the Japanese Hospital in Santa Cruz for her sinus infection, we found it’s general practice to require every person that comes in for a consultation to get a chest x-ray.

Chagas is considered endemic in the older population. It is caused by a parasite transmitted by bites from “vinchuca” bugs and largely asymptomatic until later in life when heart, back, or digestive problems may develop. For most people that die of heart attacks in their 50′s or 60′s here, there’s some Chagas influence involved. The vinchuca bug lives in the walls and roofs of the more traditional adobe/clay and thatch houses so as urbanization grows, the disease is less a threat.

Aside from those three major diseases, there are just a lot of colds, food poisoning, worms, and skin infections.  There is little done to fight it here. People don’t frequently wash their hands, put meat in a refrigerator, or wash vegetables. Its really sad to see all the kids with awful skin rashes and diarrhea, when it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to prevent a whole lot of that.

The good news on the health front is that the drinking water here in town seems to be clean. We’ve been washing our fruits and vegetables in it, brushing our teeth with it, and washing dishes with it. We still don’t drink it, but that’s not because we’re worried about getting diseases from it, but because it has a fair amount of silt in it.

The People

We’ve had a great time getting to know all sorts of people. A special shout-out to the two other volunteers who have been working here with us, Andrea and Melia (at the Hogar). Its been great to share our community with them, and we’re sad to see them go as they wrap up their year of service.  It has been a great support to have other Americans around to relax and puzzle over the mysteries of Bolivia with.

The sisters that we live with have been great to us, and we’re enjoying getting to know them better. Our boss Sister Clara is also the one who takes care of the five dogs and two cats that live on either side of our house. Many nights we’ll spend out on our porch with her playing with the dogs and cats and having her tell us about all the activities going on around the center.  Each week on Thursday we go to eat lunch with all the sisters at the convent, and they seem to have a great time joking around with us. Especially picking on me, who is usually the only male in the room.

Then there are all the teachers that we work with at the Guarderia, Institute, and Kinder.  We’ve gotten to know some better than others, but the important part is that we feel that we’ve been accepted amongst them. Last week we got to share our first Bolivian barbecue with them to celebrate Teacher’s Day. That was a fun event that consisted mostly of dancing and eating :-)

With our students, although communication is sometimes not 100%, we’ve really enjoyed getting to know them as well. One of my students brings me fruit and cookies, and for Teacher’s Day a mini-Bible. Laura is often hailed walking down the street with shouts of “Hola Profesora!” Most of the kids that go to the Kinder and Guarderia live in the surrounding neighborhood and their parents work in the market. This makes us feel more connected to the community.

At the Hogar, we have slowly been building relationships with the girls also. We walk with them to church every Sunday and spend some time afterwards talking with them. Though we do focus a lot of our attention on our god-daughter, Carmen, we also try to get to know the other girls. We have a few new facebook friends now and most of the girls, especially the younger ones, know our names. Laura also has the opportunity to teach 12 of the younger girls at the Kinder. She enjoys getting to see them out of the Hogar and their interactions with other kids. School and mass are basically the only times the girls come out of the Hogar.


For E-Mail Blog Subscribers

A note to all those who are receiving e-mail for this. We have put together fewer big, substantive posts that we think are worthy of sending out to everyone than we had originally imagined. Our original plan was to do one every few weeks, but this is only our third or fourth of them :-( So, based on popular demand, we’ve decided to change it so that if you’re on the e-mail list, you’ll get a message for all of our posts. We are averaging a bit more than one per week. If that’s too much for you, let me know and I can get you off the list. If you want to get on the list, follow this link or any time through the subscription link at the top of the screen. We hope you enjoy hearing about our adventures!

Fire to the West

Sugar cane harvesting is just starting to ramp up to high-gear. This weekend we drove by the refinery that is to the north of town and saw 50+ semi trucks filled with sugar cane. The down side to this is that a lot of farmers burn the fields as part of the harvesting process, which makes the air quality awful here.

I walked out of the house on a nice sunny day last week, and noticed little bits of black floating to the ground nearby, when I went to look at one closer, it was clearly a bit of charred husk.  Then after that the soot got really bad.  I was burning some DVDs for the sisters, and after leaving one of them on the coffee table for an hour, it had a whole bunch of black flecks on it.  I’m expecting that we’ll have to do a lot of cleaning over the next few weeks.

Then the other night right before sunset, we saw our first big plume from a fire somewhere west of town.  We went up to the top of the Institute to take some pictures of it…here’s the best one (click for full resolution):

I also took a short video of it:

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Get it in 720p.
Also on Youtube


Vatican speaks out on climate change

This week, the Vatican Pontifical Academy of Sciences (basically the Pope’s science advisors) released a (strongly worded) report (pdf) calling on all Christans (and indeed all people) to immediately begin a “rapid transition to renewable energy sources” among other things.

I learned about this report through the excellent news publication ArsTechnica (article), and Forbes (article) has also reported on it.  The gist of it is the same refrain we’ve been hearing from all kinds of important bodies…we need to stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The difference is that the Vatican has framed it in terms of our moral obligation. When we use electricity that came from coal, or drive a car that gulps down gasoline, we are hurting and killing others. The effect may not be as immediate as when some of the other problems with the world: violence, abortion, stealing, etc., but it is the same end result. This document is our wake up call that our moral actions aren’t only the ones we can see with our eyes, but some of the effects of our moral actions need to be measured by scientists.

So, how does this affect our life in Bolivia you ask? Well, a big part of this document is looking at the diminishing glaciers, and their affect on water supplies. Here in Bolivia, much of the water outside the brief wet season (Jan-Feb) comes as the glaciers high in the Andes melt throughout the year. For thousands of years the people of Bolivia (Incans, then Spanish, then the modern Bolivians) have depended on these glaciers for plentiful water throughout the year (more importantly in the mountains, but somewhat on the plains as well). However, now as the glaciers have all shrunk, they don’t have enough water to release (water released throughout the year is directly affected by the size of the glacier), especially in the last few months of the cycle. Just this past December when the rainy season was making a timid start, ranchers surrounding Montero were in fear of their cattle dying from dehydration since water stores had run out.  Some people have coped with this by getting water from further away, some have just left their livelihoods and moved into cities. Our region, Santa Cruz, has experienced a HUGE amount of urban growth in the last 40 years. Montero practically didn’t exist 40 years ago.  And as the glaciers continue to shrink, every year the water situation gets worse. I think it’s fair to say most of the farmers around here are one bad rainy season away from complete ruin.

Impressively, the Bolivian Catholic church as well as the people themselves are taking climate change VERY seriously. With the help from a German organization a series of movies were made interviewing people from all over Bolivia and each had their story of how the rains have become inconsistent or there has been violent flooding or warmer temperatures, basically indicating natural conditions were more unpredictable than previously. These people felt strongly that their government should intervene to mitigate effects on people personally and take an active role in policy creation. In addition, and to me very interesting, at no point did they point the finger at the developed world for ‘creating’ such a problem. The Bolivians in the movie, as well as the speaker doing the presentation (this was at our equivalent of World Youth Day here- so imagine me and a room full of high schoolers as the audience) presented the situation as something that each person in the room was actively causing through their own actions and something that each person could do something about. It was really great. He also talked about trash accumulation since litter is a HUGE problem here and pointed a specific finger at the sugar processing plant in Guabira (10km to the north of us) and the amount of carbon dioxide is spews out daily. These were strong words since all of us in the room either ate the sugar from Guabira or knew people who worked at the plant.


Important quotes from the Vatican’s document:
“We call on all people and nations to recognise the serious and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming”

“We are committed to ensuring that all inhabitants of this planet receive their daily bread, fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink as we are aware that, if we want justice and peace, we must protect the habitat that sustains us. The believers among us ask God to grant us this wish.”

“Human-caused changes in the composition of the air and air quality result in more than 2 million premature deaths worldwide every year and threaten water and food security”

Report: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_academies/acdscien/2011/PAS_Glacier_050511_final.pdf

ArsTechnica Article: http://arstechnica.com/science/news/2011/05/anthropocene-vatican-climate-change-group-coins-name-for-our-era.ars

Forbes Article: http://blogs.forbes.com/williampentland/2011/05/06/climate-change-vatican-enters-the-fray/

Cold Snap!

So being the southern hemisphere, winter is starting. We finally (after having been melting for the last seven months) got our first big cold front that came up from Argentina over the weekend.

The results were pretty crazy; everyone had their wool stocking caps, big winter jackets, and I even saw some people with gloves on. Basically doing everything they could to keep warm.  When we left for church this morning the temperature was….wait for it….58 F!  Honestly I was comfortable in my long sleeve shirt and long pants (which I haven’t worn since christmas), but I just thought that after months of them laughing at me for how much I sweat here that it was funny to see them a bit out of their element.

Sadly, the temperatures are supposed to go back up into the 70s tomorrow and 80s by the middle of the week, so the great (cool) weather won’t be holding on for too long.