The Price of Sugar

So you may have read in a couple of Laura’s previous posts that the price of sugar is at an all-time high here in Bolivia.  In fact it isn’t just sugar (which is the worst), but the price of food in general is skyrocketing.  This is causing rather wide-spread unrest here.  Last week there were reports of citizens of various communities setting up roadblocks around the country (not terribly out of the normal here), and there were several very large protests, most significantly in La Paz and Oruro. (Before I go any further, I want to make clear that we don’t feel in any danger whatsoever, so don’t worry mom&dad….funny side note though, the protests in Oruro involved some miners throwing sticks of dynamite.)  Montero hasn’t had any protests or other disruptions, but that doesn’t mean that the drastic rise of food prices hasn’t affected people here.

In Bolivia, like many 3rd world or developing nations, for most people a huge percentage of their earnings goes towards food.  This can be up in the 30-50% range, just for comparison when we were living in St. Louis, we spent somewhere below 5% of our earnings on food…which included all sorts of great things like pizza (frozen, dominos and Pi/Deweys…did I mention I miss pizza?) and going out to eat every now and then at nice restaurants.  Here those people who are spending up to half their income on food are buying the basics…bread, rice, potatoes, beans, and maybe a small number of vegetables to spice things up.

Just to give an idea…a roll (they don’t really have loaves) of bread here costs 1 Boliviano (7Bs = 1US$)…for breakfast I eat three or four of these, usually with margarine (15Bs for a tub good for a week) and jelly (20Bs for a jar good for 2 weeks) then I have a glass of juice to wash it down (10Bs for a bottle good for a week).  So doing the math…that’s about 9Bs for breakfast each day…or 279Bs for a month…just for breakfast.  Now, granted living with the sisters, I’m quite a bit better off than most of the people we work with, so for a more typical person lets divide that in half and say 140Bs per month.  The typical Guarderia (Daycare) worker here only makes about 700Bs a month, so that breakfast (defiantly less than a third of what they eat in a day) is costing them 2o% of their pay!  Luckily for them, they get a pretty generous lunch provided by the government through their work at the school.  They don’t eat huge dinners here, so I imagine that is probably similar to the breakfast expense for them (or they just go hungry for the night).  And this is just for one person, some of these people are single mothers with a couple of kids to feed.  On the bright side, most of the people at this level don’t have to get their own housing, they either live with a man (married or un-married) or with extended family, which is good because renting a room here would also account for a large percentage of their monthly pay.

That’s just one example, there are many more like that, some even more on the edge.  I haven’t had a lot of direct experience with it, but I’m sure there are many people around who go hungry from time to time.

So hopefully that gives you a bit of background.  Once I figured all that out, it made sense why people were protesting a hike in the price of food staples by 15%.

It isn’t only Bolivia that is strongly affected by this either.  You may have heard that there were governments being overthrown and such in the middle east.  There’s a lot of reasons for these protests, but usually buried half way through one of the articles describing why people are angry comes a few sentences about rising food prices.  However I can imagine that in these countries (mostly desert countries that have to import a lot of food and are especially susceptible to price fluctuations) it was a major factor to why people were unhappy to start with right now (like the straw that broke the back of the 30-year old regime).

There’s a great story on food prices and unrest from NPR that I’d really recommend, it explains some of the linkages between food and some of the events around the world.  If you’re interested in more on this, this google news search for food prices has new articles every day about how people all over the world are being impacted by this rise.

Facts about Bolivia

So we probably should have done this before, but we finally got around to looking up some facts about Bolivia.

Population: 9,862,860 (2009)

Growth rate: 1.7% (2009)

GDP per capita – current prices :   US$ 1,840 (2010 estimate)
GNI per capita:  $1630 (2009- different source)

Urban population as % of total population:  66%  (2009)- still growing rapidly

% of urban population with access to improved sanitation: 34%

Population median age:  21 years (2006)

Life expectancy:  65 years (2007)

Adult literacy:  90% (2007)

% of population living on less than $2 a day:  30% (2008)

% of population below national poverty line:  37.7% (down from 65.2% in 2002)

From personal experience, I have met many people living on less than $1500 a year, basically all of my coworkers at the Guarderia and Kinder, although some have spouses that have a good income.  Yes the food is cheaper here and some clothing items are cheaper but any luxury items such as microwaves, televisions, computers are MORE expensive than in the US or Europe.  This makes the move from middle class to upper class extremely difficult.   One mother I work with has two children but her unmarried significant-other walked out when the second child was 6 months old.  Since then she’s been on her own and has little family to help out.  She makes $1100 a year, which works out to just about $1 a day per person.  The only way she makes it work is because they eat all their meals at the Guarderia Monday through Friday.   This February however, the government said they couldn’t pay for food at the Guarderia (related to the rise in sugar prices I believe) and so also aren’t paying staff until March.  In order to keep running the Sisters offered to pay three staff members for the month of February, however they are only getting paid half their normal salary, so $50 for the month.  Due to this cut back, this mother couldn’t afford to pay for school supplies for her daughter (10 years old).  I covered for her at work one day as she went to talk to their father, who is still somewhat in the kids lives although doesn’t pay child support regularly, and demanded that he buy the daughter school supplies.  It was now the third week of school and she was told she couldn’t come back to school without the supplies.

Bolivia is in a large agricultural boom right now, particularly around Santa Cruz.  Supposedly, some of the recent problems with sugar, as seen in the news, stem from export agreements.  The companies say that production is slowed down currently but they still must keep their export quotas and so that leaves less sugar available for Bolivians.  This has caused the price to increase significantly and the government put rations in place.  While we were in Sucre in January, at 8pm at night there were a whole line of people sitting on the sidewalk in folding chairs (as if waiting for concert tickets or something).  I now believe they may have been lined up to buy sugar; because of the limited quantities it’s first-come, first-served.

As far as adult literacy, 90% seems high.  I guess it depends on the definition of literacy.  In January, while I was helping get students signed up for the Kinder, a grandmother came through with her granddaughter.  When I asked her to sign, she looked embarrassed and said she couldn’t.  I thought she was just being sheepish so I urged her on but then realized quickly that she literally meant she didn’t know how to sign her name.  (oops!)  I leaned over to the other teacher and asked what to do and she told me to go get the ink pad.  Instead of signing they’re allowed to put a thumb print and it counts legally.  She was the only one we had this year but as I paged through previous years there were 3-5 a year that put thumb prints down.  Those are the truly illiterate, but I question the quality of reading and writing skills some kids leave school with here.  In cities such as Montero, though the schools are over-crowded, all kids get to go to school.  In the countryside however, particularly those towns that still don’t have electricity and indoor plumbing, I can see how it would be possible for kids to not be able to go to school due to money or access issues.  Some of the girls at the Hogar actually have mothers, fathers and whole families but live at the Hogar because their parents can’t afford to send them to school.  They get to go home and visit their families over Christmas.

In Santa Cruz there’s a house started by a Salesian missionary, named Kathleen, who first came to Bolivia 10 years ago.  She provides free room and board and school supplies to girls who come from poor families but have good grades and otherwise would not be able to attend college.  We went there for lunch one day and one of the girls I met had come from Okinawa (where other missionaries work).  She’s from a family of 6 and the parents couldn’t afford to send them all to school.  She got through high school with the help of the Salesian Sisters in Okinawa and got through college in Kathleen’s house in Santa Cruz.  She’ll be graduating this November with a degree in microbiology and should be able to get a well-paid job as a lab technician.   Finally, the light of hope.

Things to be Thankful for

After living in Bolivia for 6 months, we’ve begun to appreciate a few things more than we used to.

Things here we appreciate:

- cool, RAINY days!

- Having a mother and father

- Having all our teeth

Things back home we miss and now appreciate more:

- looking at a restaurant menu without having to weigh in your mind which option is  least-likely to give you food poisoning

- watching Youtube videos without waiting 10 minutes to download

- boneless, skinless chicken breasts!

- bug-free oatmeal, rice, flour, sugar

- frozen pizza

- microwaves

- air conditioning in the summer

- heat in the winter

- hot showers

- the street you live on not smelling like feces

- free toilet paper in public bathrooms


- clothing dryer

to be continued…

My clinic experience

After taking cipro for two days and not feeling better, I realized my irrational fear of doctors here was probably doing more harm than good so I sucked it up and went to the local clinic- Clinica San Antonio.  I keep trying to find some kind of ‘personal’ doctor here where you could make an appointment and they would keep a file on you but I haven’t found anything like that yet.  Although there are some fancier clinics here (mostly foreign- Japanese or Italian), I thought I’d go the Joe-schmoe (or Josef-schmosef) route and see what kind of service you could get for 30 bs (about $4.50).  (I’m not that sick.)

When I arrived they wrote my name down and took my blood pressure, temperature and weight and then said “ahorita” and asked me to sit down.  I could write a whole post about ahorita but basically it means we’ll get to it as soon as we can, which in this case meant an hour.  So I sat and read some and watched the waiting room fill up with adults and babies all waiting but few actually being taken into offices.  The waiting room was an assortment of non-matching chairs in a tiled room with open doors on every side and people constantly walking though.  There was a small television in one corner showing a ridiculously bad TV show from the 70′s? 80′s?  I considered the plastic versus cloth seats in terms of sanitary-ness and comfort.  I went with cloth but tried not to touch it.  Through one of the doors off of the waiting room I could see patients in a row in beds.  Behind a half-glass wall three nurses were scurrying about doing intake and possibly lab work.

There appeared to only be one doctor doing “consultas” and finally he came out and called my name.  (They have a LOT of difficulty with Kent because the K sound isn’t really used in Bolivia, the only thing that makes sense to them is Quent or Kenis.  Also they look at you funny when you say you only have one last name.  In this culture that means you don’t have a father)  Anyway so I go in, show him my test results, he asks my symptoms and I tell him about the cipro.  He barely spends two seconds looking at the test results starts scribbling some stuff and asks me lay on the table.  I lay down and he feels my stomach for pain and talks in very fast spanish to me about dietary restrictions and asks if my stomach has gotten bigger.  I wasn’t sure it he was referring to bloating, because I have been very bloated lately.  While I was considering my answer he squirts some gel on my stomach and before I know it I’m having an ultrasound!  Apparently that was his way to ask if I was pregnant and since I didn’t answer convincingly he gave me a preg-test.   And possibly looked at my stomach too?  At that point I was so shocked and still trying to understand him rattling on in spanish I couldn’t put together a “what are you doing?” question in my head.  I got about 50% of it- eat light meals and no soda.  And I’m not pregnant.

So then he writes three prescriptions for me, never actually tells me what’s wrong with me (or actually the results of the ultrasound which I inferred), or what the drugs were for.  He ends with, you should feel better soon while he gets up from his desk and we walk out.

It was all a whirlwind but as I walked out I considered he never once questioned my medical background, family medical history, other medicine I was currently taking, or ALLERGIES.  And since he didn’t explain to me what the drugs were or what they were used for, how could he know that I wasn’t allergic to them?  I, obviously, after buying the drugs as prescribed (~$20) went home and googled and wikipedia-d it all to make sure it looked reasonable.   It appears from the lab results and the meds he gave me that I have an intestional yeast infection and a bacterial infection but since no culture was done I’m being treated with a broad spectrum antibiotic.

So I have antibiotic, anti-inflammatory and an anti-fungal to take for 5 days and then we’ll see.  Reflecting back on it, for under $5 I got examined (albeit briefly), a prescription and an ultrasound- good luck getting that in the US- remember that’s BEFORE health insurance.   I can’t say the healthcare is bad here from my experience but maybe a bit hurried and non-thorough?  Maybe they have the same issue we have at the Guarderia, too many people too little time.

Friday Update:  I’m starting to feel better but now the other person I work with at the Guarderia has an infection in her toe that’s making her feverish.  Seriously we’re like the walking dead over there.  30 kids is too many for one person, in any culture.

Around Montero

A few people have asked me about the town, and what its like.  I’m hoping to get a day to go out and take some pictures and videos, but for now, I’ve got a really great map view of it, with satellite imagery that has just been released by microsoft.

Check it out here.  (You can also click the “In Montero” link above any time.)


Ok, you were warned.

After a week of the spurts I broke down and got a poop test and started some cipro, I wrote a song-spoof to commemorate my second use of cipro in 30 days time.

Cipro my permanent accessory

Cipro a Bolivian necessity

Cipro an alternative to diar reh-ea

Oh cipro, how you do improve my health

I love you more than I did the month before

I ate all that poison food

Forget the tomatoes, screw the lettuce and the fruit

A nidazol and flagyl for you, a cipro n sprite for me

Cipro you conquer the bugs like my body never will, when someone else is cooking all my food

I love you more than I did the month before

I changed diarrhea diapers

Oh cipro, would you please forgive me?   Because I cannot stop myself; I work with children

I thought that cipro was just for those who had no hygiene

I thought that eating just to get sick was a waste of precious food

but now I know that there’s a cost to every tasty looking meal

Salad is a fine line between self control and self abuse

(guitar solo)

I love you more that I did the month before

I ate all that poison food

Would you please ignore, the smell coming from the toilet

and that we’re out of paper again

Oh cipro, would you please forgive me? Because I cannot stop myself; I like vegetables.

Stomach, would you please forgive me?  would you please forgive me…..

“Alcohol” – Barenaked Ladies, for those of you not familiar with the tune.  (Note the original lyrics should be taken tongue-in-cheek)

Why education in poor countries is poor

This has been a frustrating week for me as I felt like I was watching an out-of-control runaway train, constantly braced for disaster.  There are more children here than we can handle.  There aren’t enough schools and so the schools that are here are jam-packed.  Our class sizes at the Kinder are 32-37 students per one professor (and we turned another 50 some away).  At the grade school next door first grade starts with 45 students per classroom and that continues up to 12th grade.  And even with that, students only go to school for half a day (about 4 hours), there’s a morning, afternoon and evening shift.   I heard at another Kinder in town they have 5 classrooms with 40 students each.  I have read multiple stories of places like Egypt, Afghanistan where class sizes top 100 per classroom.  Even with very strict discipline this makes for an incredibly difficult (and draining) teaching environment.  You go from no child left behind, to practically every child left behind as it’s impossible to give any personalized attention to anyone.  And if they have a learning disability, well then just forget it.  They’ll get ridiculed and punched by the other students for being stupid but the teacher doesn’t even have time to police that.

And then there are the Guarderias/Preschools.  After opening on Monday, the city government sent out a statement Tuesday that they weren’t paying the workers or paying for food until March.  However all the other schools started on Tuesday so there are no older siblings around to watch younger ones for the month of February.  So the Sisters said they would pay 3 workers and pay for food in February and I guess because they have no other option, 39 parents still brought their kids on Wednesday.  This left one worker cooking, one worker with 12 babies 6 months- 24 months and one worker with 27 kids aged 2-7, and me bouncing around helping out wherever I could.

Here are the results of this type of situation (all of this just happened yesterday):

- We lost two kids from the Guarderia- they ran out the door into the market.  One was found at his mom’s stall, the other was still missing at 5pm.

- At the Kinder a motorcycle fell over on a 6 year old.  (he was okay, maybe broken finger)

- I had to literally grab a girl from the Hogar and yank her back from in front of a moving car.  There are 12 kids from the Hogar at the Kinder and they keep forgetting to come pick them up.

I’m not looking to place the blame specifically on any one group for this.  But I’m frustrated because if education is the root out of poverty, as I have always believed it is, we’re not making any progress here.

Class In Action

So here we are, teaching our first week of class in the new school year.  Its exciting, and more than a bit scary.  I am teaching a class for the first time in my life, and though it is on a topic I know very well (Introduction to Multimedia), its in Spanish, which I don’t know as well as I would like.  Also, I’m teaching from a text that I’ve spent the last three months writing myself (again in Spanish…with more than a little help from family/friends and google translate).  Finally, I’m teaching in a brand-new computer lab that one of the more computer savvy people at the institute and I had to put together from the ground up (and I’m still working the kinks out of)…financed by generous donations from so many awesome people!  So needless to say, there’s a lot going into this.

Sadly, it is starting off a little more slowly than I would have liked.  The vocational schools in Bolivia all start on Feb. 1, however, for the first two weeks of class, there are still students signing up!  My first day, I only had two students, but it has been growing steadily.  The problem is, however, that each time a new group of students starts the class, I have to go back and go over all the material I already covered…while trying to keep the students who were there on the first day engaged with other work.  Not the best scenario for a rookie teacher.

All in all, it has been a good experience.  The students seem interested in the material, and hungry to learn more about it, so that’s a good sign.

I’ve taken a few pictures with students using the lab, and have a short movie below.

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And while I’m teaching this class, I also still need to finish up the last couple sections of the text…that we’ll be using in a few short months.

So that’s what’s been happening with me…now let’s hear from Laura:

After spending January preparing my materials to teach English at the Kinder, Madre Clara approached me and asked if I’d be willing to teach Computer class instead as their computer teach had not yet shown up.   Embracing the flexibility that Bolivia has taught me, I said no problem with a smile, put aside all my prepared materials and started over from scratch.  I spent that first week doing diagnostics of my computer lab- full of the best equipment 1995-1999 had to offer, which would be fine if they worked.  Tom taught me some basic computer disassembly and what wires to wiggle.  Who would have thought I’d come to Bolivia to learn how to repair computers? Of the 31 computers in there, so far 24 are functioning, which should be interesting when I have a class of 36 come in.   Basically my lesson plans involve teaching the parts of the computer, how to properly turn the computers on and off, and how to use the mouse.  They have a bunch of educational games they can play also and I’m going to show some movies and teach a little English too.  In a few weeks, I’ll start having two classes a day in there.

For now, I’m helping out in the classroom with 37 pre-Kinder kids, ages 4-5, as they have the hardest time adjusting to school.  Most of the time I’m chasing down kids trying to escape or calming kids having a melt-down.   One funny tidbit from the week:  Tom came over on Friday to help me film some students in the computer lab.  During the beginning of the day when all the students line up and sing songs, there was one boy having a particularly bad melt-down.  He had gotten himself so worked up he was throwing up his lunch all over the place and when a female teacher approached him, he looked spooked and ran.  He ran right to Tom, and clung.  Tom tried to take him to his professor and leave him there but he kept running back to him.  So after taking the kid to bathroom to clean him up, Tom had a shadow for about an hour.   Everybody was cracking up about it.  I guess the kid was a daddy’s-boy.

P.S. This is our 50th blog post! We hope you’ve enjoyed reading them :-)

And so it begins…

We had an explosive start to the school year today!  The day started with Tom working on  class prep and me washing laundry.  Then I headed over to the Guarderia at 8:30am to help for the second day in the baby room (6 months to walking basically).  Today we had 8!  We only have 5 cribs, a bed and one full-time worker so that’s pretty overwhelming for us.  There was never a time when a baby wasn’t screaming.  We just rotated through giving bottles, rocking babies to sleep and changing diapers -many of which contained explosive diarrhea, which meant a bath and clothes change too.  And, 24 hrs after changing my first diarrhea diaper yesterday I too have that pleasure.  At 12:00 Tom showed up ready to eat lunch but I stayed with the babies until 12:30 as I was trying to get the diarrhea-baths under control (what can I say, I feel their pain).  Tom had a frustrating morning and so he took our food back and ate lunch.  Turns out, he found out the day classes start that he’s teaching 2 sections of his class!  Which means 2 more hours a day he can’t be writing course material so he was understandably perturbed.  Depending upon enrollment sections may be merged however, the bigger point is just that that is so Bolivia to not bother to tell him that there were two sections scheduled…TIB.

After lunch Tom got ready to teach his first section and I headed over to the chaos that is the first day at a 250-student Kindergarten!  Oh buddy.  I started by rushing around helping the teachers with last minute preparations when the group of girls from the Hogar flagged me down.  Three older girls had brought over the 10 children attending Kinder from the Hogar this year and asked me to stay with the girls because they needed to run an errand.  I agreed, not really thinking it through but they seemed in a hurry to leave.   Now I was in charge of 9 girls, 1 boy and I didn’t even know all of their names.  I herded them around with all the other parents with their scanty 1 or 2 children- humph!  But when the teachers started calling names to sort the children into classrooms things went south.  They were calling names last-name first and I didn’t know any of the girl’s last names and they were not forth-coming with providing them, particularly the 4 year olds.   So as I was attempting to listen to the names and remember in my head 10 different new names to listen for, 2 girls wander off (and then there were 8).  A lady comes and tells me that one of the girls went to the bathroom.  I find Saray (4) hiding behind a flowerpot and she’s had an explosive diarrhea event all over her dress!   Well I have no choice but to leave the flock to care for the one, so I tell the other 7 to stay together and take Saray and Sandra D. with me to the Guarderia next door.  There I shower-off Saray and Madre Inez rummages around and finds some new clothes  for her to wear.   With clean clothes we go back over (names still being called) hoping to find the group of 7 still intact.  They are, plus the other wanderer so I have 10 again when two go to the bathroom, and I have 8.   I recognize a few names and so I take one girl at a time up to try to match her with her teacher, leaving the others.  It was a losing battle though.  We ended up calling in the Prof. from the Hogar who has a list of the girls’ last names (and is furious about the other girls not staying, as is Madre Clara and I’m kind of caught in the middle).   We finally did get them all sorted out, the girls who left got yelled at and everything ended okay.

I got home in time to eat grilled cheese with Tom before he headed off to teach his second section.  We have cheddar cheese right now which is very exciting and we managed to find some sliced bread also!  It’s the little things….   We’re both home now and happy to have lived this day but also happy to put it behind us.