Kinder Signups

On Tuesday, Kindergarten sign-ups began and it has been CRA-zy!   Last year I was really proud to be able to help as my language skills were weak, but I could only do simple things.  However this year, despite hoping to take a backseat role, I ended up in the forefront when Madre Clara asked me to help her hand out numbers to people Tuesday morning.  That turned into me being the only one who knew what was going on Tuesday afternoon and so I became all of sudden in charge of who got accepted and who got rejected.  People got desperate and pushy very quickly as we filled all 250 places in ONE DAY.  Meaning I talked to 250 different people, and looked at that much paperwork in one day also.  Unfortunately that was just step one as now we have to have each parent come back and do all the government paperwork with us.  I thought, well I’ve done my hard day, I’ll take a backseat on Wednesday but instead I ended up doing the hardest part which is filling out this from called a RUDE.  It’s basically a census of the child, asking about where they live, do they work, how many times they went to the doctor last year, does their house have water, electricity, what level of school their parents completed, etc, etc.  I went from last year, only having to say “Sign here please” to now having to use all the vocabulary I know, and some I don’t know.   Some of the questions ask what kind of water the family has and options include:  household tap, village tap, personal well, village well, lake, river.   It then asks what type of sewage system they have, options being: sewer system, septic tank, cesspit, in the street, in a ditch, in a river.

There’s a whole form also about illiteracy, where you have to point blank ask people: are you illiterate, were your parents illiterate?  Also there’s a big focus this year on what language they grew up speaking because Bolivia made it mandatory for everyone to be fluent in an ‘indigenous’ language besides Spanish and there’s fighting over what languages should be required for which regions.   Imagine I have to ask with a straight face, “How do you get rid of your sewage?  Do you have pipes or do you dump it in a ditch?”  “Are you illiterate?”   “Did you complete grade school?”

But as scary as the questions are, the answers are scarier.  Though I haven’t encountered someone this year yet, last year I had a grandmother come in to sign up her granddaughter and she was illiterate to the point she could not even sign her name.  (In talking to the other Professors at the Institute, the sewing professor said she’s had students arrive, ages 30-40, not being able to recognize numbers.)   This afternoon I had a mother come in with her baby-in-arm who was born in 1990.  She was signing up her 6 year old for Kindergarten.  Do the math.  She dropped out after 7th grade, her husband finished school up through 9th grade.  Another mother who seemed especially overwhelmed by the whole process, had finished up through fourth grade.

I often get frustrated at the Kinder because the children come in knowing so little, as if there had been no instruction at home.  I mean, how hard is it to teach numbers and letters to a child?  And I tell you, when I get a book out to read to these children, they are so excited you’d think I was giving away barbies and hot wheels.  They are so hungry for learning.  But when I get a chance like a today to learn a little about their home lives, their parents, it does give me pause.  So many of the parents are young, under-educated, working long hours.  How could they understand the importance of early-childhood education?  To understand the importance of reading to child?  To have the money for books?   To take the time to do it?  These people don’t just need parenting classes, they need education period.  Think of what you learned after fifth grade, critical thinking skills comes to mind as a biggie, not to mention biology, chemistry, algebra, now imagine living without ever having learned any of those things.  So many things I count as basic knowledge in US culture: germs cause disease, education is valuable, the ability to read is essential in life, things in nature are made up of atoms and molecules, the five food groups, how a vaccine works, I could go on.  I interact with people, almost daily, that do not know these things, because they were just never taught them.  And the resulting reality a culture that I define as “illogical” and “ridiculously ineffective” or sometimes just plain “wrong.”  But what I have to wrap my head around is that you can’t ask of someone what they can’t give.  People are a product of their own lives and situations and you have to work with them from where they are, not from where they should be.  I have no right to judge these people’s life choices or dismiss them when they can’t function at the same level that I can.  I was afforded the privilege of education, they were not.  What is my responsibility then to the uneducated masses, as a member of the 5% of the world’s population with an advanced degree?  I’m finally starting to understand what Reading Rainbow was on about, “Knowledge is Power.”  Scientia potentia est.

SW Bolivia- Uyuni

After Potosi, we took a 6-hour bus drive to the city of Uyuni which is on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni, the biggest salt flat in the world, over 10,000 km2. We lined up a tour as soon as we got into town, spent the night as a hostel with great hot water (Piedra Blanca) and then started our tour the next morning.  The first day of the tour we visited the train cemetery where all the trains from Bolivia’s past have been left to die.  They were fun to climb on.

Then we headed to the salt flats (salar).  However in Colchani, the city just before the salt flats (whose major economy is extracting and selling salt), the left back wheel fell off our Toyota Land Cruiser and we came to a screeching halt.  A few other drivers stopped to help, or possibly jeer, it was hard to tell.  Anyway, finally we got the wheel back on, moved some lug nuts around and were on our way.  Here we are on the edge of the salar with the truck that we all grew to hate.

Since it’s the rainy season, the salt flats are slightly flooded and so it gives the whole place a ‘mirror’ effect.  Also it’s easy to take pictures which trick your depth perception.  So we had some fun.

These were our travelling companions:  me, Tom, Gal (Israel), Chris (UK), Aneta (Norway/UK), Katie.  And below, you can see the mirror effect well.

Anyway, the salt flats were really neat but we had to leave eventually (and most people were pretty sunburnt by then) so we headed back to Uyuni.  We were supposed to go on to a another small village 2 hours down to the road to sleep but the truck had to get fixed that night so we slept in Uyuni.  The next morning we got on the road and though we didn’t see any more salt flats, we saw volcanoes, lakes, rock formations and beautiful high-altitude deserts, very reminiscent of Mars.

And in all the fresh-water lakes, there were flamingos!!!  Hundreds of them.  Three different species:  Chilean Flamingo, Andean Flamingo and James/Puna Flamingo all of which only exist is this area of the world!  As you can imagine I was on biologist-overdrive with all this excitement.

Above: a James/Puna Flamingo, and below, me studiously annotating the species we’d seen.

We even saw an Andean fox that seemed to be hanging around the road looking for generous tour-goers with food to share. 

We ended the second day at Laguna Colorada which is a beautiful red lake (due to its algal inhabitants) filled with all three species of flamingos.  It was breath-taking.  We spent the night at a rustic ‘campamento’ that had dorm-type beds in a basic building and despite warnings of extreme cold, it didn’t get much below freezing so we were fine.   The next morning we woke up at 4am in order to get to the geysers and hot water springs by sunrise, which is supposedly the best time for them.  Well we were all up and ready to go, our driver was up, but guess what wasn’t up, the truck.  For 2.5 hours the truck would not start.  Finally they soldered some wires together which made the fuel-pump work and it started.  Tired and frustrated but happy to be on the road, we piled in and made it to the geysers.

We took a quick dip in the hot springs and then ended up at Laguna Verde near the Chilean border.   Although I was assured only 5 hours, from here it was a 7.5 hour death march back to Uyuni.  Our driver kept the coca leaves coming and we all bounced along in the back seat.  The only ray of light on the drive was that we finally reached 5000m.  We had had a celebration the day before at 15,000 ft and were holding out for the elusive 5000m (~16,400ft).  Well we made it, and even jogged a few more meters up for good measure.

For the rest of the trip my theme song was “We gotta get out of this place” by The Animals.  We were supposed to get out of the truck and right onto a 9 hour bus to Sucre but (thankfully?) the bus was cancelled and so we had to beg our way onto a bus the next morning, agreeing to sit on the floor for 6 hours in order to get all the way to Sucre that day.  We spent the night in Sucre at the nicest place we’d been the whole trip, which we really needed since we hadn’t bathed in some days, only to find out that our flight was delayed multiple times, giving us another day in Sucre.  I took advantage of the nice bed and cable, Tom used the internet and Katie did some souvenir shopping.  Then finally(!) Monday night we got home.  We showed Katie around the compound and Hogar, arriving to lots of big hugs from the girls that missed us.  And then Tuesday at noon we saw her off at the airport as she ended her world travels.  Really we couldn’t have asked for a better travel companion than Katie because she was so easy-going and unperturbed about all the crazy things that happened.  Thanks for visiting Katie!  The trip was amazing, but it’s good to be home.

SW Bolivia- Potosi

On Jan. 8th, our friend Katie Zoller from Iowa State flew into Bolivia as part of her round-the-world travels and so we took a week off and explored southwestern Bolivia with her.   First we all flew to Sucre, spent a night there and then got a bus to Potosi.  Despite all the time Tom and I had spent in Sucre (language school, with Tom’s parents), we had never ventured to the other cities to the south so we devoted this trip to the region called Potosi, the capital of which is the city of Potosi.  From Sucre, Potosi is a three-hour up-down, up-down bus drive which eventually took us from 10,000 ft to 13,300 feet.  The city of Potosi is one of the highest in the world and is home to an enormous silver mine, which the Spanish colonists greatly exploited, using the locals as slaves, and the Spanish colonial mint where coins for the whole Spanish empire (and after independence, Bolivia) were made.  (Ironically, since 1951 the mint has been closed and now Bolivia imports their currency from Canada, France and Chile).  Potosi was cold and rainy and our hostel only turned their heat on for a few hours at night, but even still we enjoyed the two days we spent there.

At our hostel, suited up and ready to go on the mine tour.  Our hostel “La Casona Hostel” was an old colonial house built in 1792.

We learned how to detonate dynamite and that it won’t explode if you just light it on fire (as the guy explaining this takes his lighter and lights the stick of dynamite on fire right in front of us).

Once the dynamite blows, they use these carts to get the rocks out of the mine.  Three men push/pull one cart that weighs over a ton!  They currently pull out silver, tin, lead and zinc from the mountain but arsenic is literally oozing out of all the walls.

Katie and I inside the mine with a group of miners, we had gone ‘down’ several levels so it was quite warm here.  All the miners wanted kisses from us on the way out (they work 12-24 hour shifts…all men…you can imagine).  I should note that despite the fact that they let tourists in, the mines are still working mines complete with daily dynamiting.  Luckily the day we were there was a no-dynamite day because they were doing safety-checks on the supports in all the tunnels.  The mine used to be nationalized but the state decided it wasn’t profitable anymore and so now independent co-ops each own a different mine-entrance.  There are two problems with this: 1. when a miner is injured or dies there is no organization or insurance that pays out, the family’s just SOL; and  2.  The groups are fiercely competitive and so don’t talk to each other about their movements inside the mountain.  Meaning, you could have someone dynamiting the wall right next to you, and you’d have no idea.  UNESCO wants to shut down the mines and turn the mountain into an historical site.  However that would turn 20,000 people out of work and so they are vehemently opposed to this and HATE UNESCO for suggesting it.  Mining has been in families for generations and it seems like if there wasn’t mining in Potosi, people would feel like they’d lost their identity.


Blacked Out for SOPA

So I was hoping to follow along with many other sites on the Internet today and black-out the blog in protest of the SOPA and PIPA bills that are in congress, but it was too complicated to setup for just one day, plus this post will last longer.

For those who don’t know there are two bills currently in congress SOPA (in the House) and PIPA (in the senate). These bills were put forward by Music, Movie and Television conglomerates to try to combat the online copying of their works. Unfortunately these bills are far too sweeping. Basically, they would give these companies the power to take any site they don’t like off the Internet, without giving the site a chance to defend themselves in court. If that’s not bad enough, the method they want to use to do this would break important security systems for *ALL* websites. Without these systems in place, bad guys on the Internet can re-direct your web browser to rogue sites that look like Paypal, Gmail, Wells Fargo, USBank, Hotmail, E-bay, etc. and get you to login to their malicious site (because you think its the real one) then once they have your user-name and password, they can use it on the real site to do bad things.

The fact that a bill would have this amazingly awful side-effect simply proves that the congressmen who wrote it (and the Music+Movie+TV people who actually wrote it) simply don’t understand the technology that they are dealing with, and don’t really care what side-effects the bill has.

Obviously this is a bad situation, and we clearly need to do something about the technical problems with this bill.  However, we also need to look deeper at what is going on here. Over the last several decades the content industries (Movies, Music, TV) have pushed many bills through congress, making copyright law much tougher than the founding fathers ever intended.  Originally copyright was only good for 12 years, which was plenty of time for the creator to make their money off it.  After this period, the creation was available to anyone, with the idea that it would make all of society richer.

However, the content industries weren’t happy with this, even though they make the vast majority of their sales in the first 12 years, there were a few percentage points more profit they could eek out.  So they decided to change it to 70(!) years after it is published. That means that things important to society like Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, are locked up and you have to pay the copyright holder if you want to use them.

Besides the long term extensions, the content industries have also fought to limit how people use the content they have paid money for.  For example, when I was in high school and college I made mix CDs to share some of my favorite songs with my friends, but now the content industries have started suing people who want to share with their friends.  Another example is DVDs, if you buy a DVD of your favorite movie you’d think you should be able to watch it on your iPad on your airline flight, right? Sadly, no, the content industry (in 1998) made it illegal to copy DVDs, even for your own personal use.

There are lots more examples I could go into, but they all revolve around the content industries (which were immensely profitable even during the recession) fighting to make even *more* money than they already do, without having to actually make more or better content.  As citizens of the USA, we need to start moving copyright back to something that benefits our society instead of the shareholders in a few companies.  The first step is to call our congressmen and women and tell them to oppose SOPA and PIPA.  But we can’t stop there, we need to keep rolling back the changes they’ve made over the last few decades, so that copyright is a benefit for all of us.

Learn more:
EFF: One-page guide to SOPA (pdf)
reddit: A technical overview of the SOPA and PIPA bills
DYN: How these bills would break DNS
EFF: Free speech on the web

Contact information for US elected officials

Its a New Year(s eve)!

For New Year’s this year, we spent the first part of our evening having a nice bolivian dinner with the other volunteers, including three from other towns near us. We made a dish called salchipapa which sounds fancy  but is really just fried hot dogs on top of french fries…mighty tasty.

After that, we all went to mass at our nearby church, where we met up with all the girls from the Hogar (the girls home) and sat with them.  After mass all the volunteers went back to the Hogar for their big New Years party.

We got lots of time to hang out with the girls.

(above) Tom, Ophelia, Goelle.   (below) There was also quite a bit of dancing. Laura and Deisy.

For the occasion, the girls even got a fancy dinner. They all really enjoyed their big pieces of steak (decent meat is not very common for them).  Eat up Ophelia!

Just before midnight most of the volunteers left the Hogar for our own party, which we had on the roof of the institute where I teach. From up there we got a great view of the fireworks that were shot off all around town. There weren’t any particularly large displays, but every block in the city had their own, still quite substantial, display. However, from our vantage point on the roof, we could see all of these at once and it was amazing. I have never seen so many fireworks at once before. I shot a short video of it so you can see for yourself. The video starts facing downtown, then after everyone says “Happy New Years” it pans 360 degrees around.

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Because not all the volunteers could leave the Hogar for midnight, they joined us later, and we were able to celebrate new years for central time too :-)

But it wasn’t over yet. The next day we had a party at the parish center put on by the young adult groups. Again, there was lots of dancing.

Currently, we’re looking forward to our second (almost) full year in Bolivia. We’re very busy getting set to begin the school year, which starts in just a couple weeks.

We hope that the new year, 2012, brings love and joy into your life. Please keep us and the people of Bolivia in your thoughts!