Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Down and out in Bolivia's hills

The grinding poverty, begging mothers, and street children we encounter on our travels constantly remind us that we are incredibly lucky. While traveling through Peru we found a successful organization that educates street children and helps their mothers to become more prosperous. Bruce Foundation has opened 57 schools in 6 countries in South America, and continues to ambitiously expand its operations to help the most desperate children. Teams of social workers are sent into the poorest communities to look for children who are not in school. The children are either working to provide for their families or have been abandoned altogether. With community and parental cooperation, the children are educated in Bruce Foundation schools to bring them to the educational level of their peers so they can enter the government-sponsored schools. Bruce Foundation then pays for their registration, buys their uniforms and school supplies, and continues to support them to ensure they stay in school. Of the children who enter a Bruce Foundation school, 93% stay in the government-sponsored school for the first year. We contacted Bruce Foundation to see if we could volunteer by working in one of their schools and redesigning their website (their old website needed some work). They responded enthusiastically to our offer, so we met Bruce and his wife Ana Tere in the high-altitude capital of Bolivia.

Children in the Ciudad de Dios School, Trujillo Peru
(photo courtesy George Houk, DesanaGiving.org)

La Paz feels like many other Latin American cities we have visited, except there are women selling dried llama fetuses on the street outside our hotel. These fetuses are burned and mixed with cement for good luck when Bolivians are building a new house. Apparently if you're really wealthy, you sacrifice a full grown llama. Not that we considered buying one, but we heard that any tourist offering even double or triple the price for one of the dried llamas will be denied. The indigenous saleswomen only sell to serious buyers. The streets of La Paz swarm with aggressive cabs and combis (small vans that serve as public transportation), shoe-shine children follow tourists down the sidewalks, and women selling wool sweaters and finger puppets sit next to their wares spinning thread.

View from our hostel in La Paz, Bolivia

Socioeconomic status in La Paz reflects elevation - the lower the altitude, the more money you have. The wealthy enjoy the warmer climate in the bottom of the valley while the poor live in earth dwellings on the cold windswept plains high above the valley. This area above La Paz was incorporated in 1987 as a separate city named El Alto (The Heights). Currently El Alto has one million residents (as does La Paz), and is the fastest growing city Bolivia due to people moving from rural areas of Bolivia looking for work. The living conditions for most people living in El Alto are depressing:
  • Only thirtyfour percent of the city’s residents have access to all services, including paved streets, garbage collection, and public telephones.
  • Twenty percent lack potable water and electricity
  • Eighty percent live in earthen dwellings
Bruce Foundation has recently expanded into Bolivia, and its first school has been successfully operating in El Alto for several months.

Children in the Ciudad de Dios School, Trujillo Peru
(photo courtesy George Houk, DesanaGiving.org)

We visited the school with Bruce and Ana Tere twice over two days. The school was much further away that I thought - after a long winding accent out of the La Paz valley, you arrive one one of the few paved roads in El Alto. After turning off onto a dirt road it is a slow drive navigating around potholes and debris along the dirt road. When we arrived, we were excitedly greeted by the 20 children in the new school. Despite their harsh lives, they smiled and happily shouted out their names and crowded around us to sing songs and show off their multiplication skills. Unfortunately Chris and I were both battling a nasty stomach bug so couldn't spend as much time as we wanted talking with the children. While I was sitting outside the school clutching my stomach in agony, a small group of 8-10 year old girls sat quietly around me. One patted my back while another offered me a chocolate bar that Bruce had recently given her. These are children who rarely get candy and have probably been hungry most of their lives. Here I was in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Bolivia, the poorest country of South America, and these children were comforting me and offering me their food.

View from our hostel in La Paz, Bolivia

Between bouts of food poisoning and (possibly) giardia, we have made ourselves comfortable at the homey Hostal Estrella Andina in La Paz Bolivia. We have been working here for 2 weeks redesigning Bruce Foundation's website and will be setting of to explore more of Bolivia in September. It is a truly deserving organization, so if you are inspired, please donate to support their work. Every bit helps.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Some good mojo for our faithful caballo

Chris toasting our freshly blessed car

Our friends Tom and Kelsey, who are speeding ahead of us on their drive through South America, recommended that we get our car blessed when we reached Copacabana. Located on Lake Titicaca just across the Peruvian border, Copacabana was our first destination in Bolivia. As the drivers get more reckless the further south we head, we figured some divine intervention might protect us and our faithful car, caballo. We first wandered into Copacabana's main square in front of the cathedral to admire the lines of cars festooned with flowers being sprinkled with holy water by brown- and white-robed priests. Some people opened the hoods of their cars for a special engine-blessing, while other people set up entire shrines complete with miniature houses, stores, and vehicles in front of their car. Some of the cars looked like they could use all of the help they could get, mechanical and spiritual. Following the lead of the crowds around us, we purchased two Virgin figurines and joined the jostling crowd around the priest for a blessing with holy water. We also saw decorated cars streaming down to the beachfront for blessings. Hoping to avoid the hours-long line of cars waiting for a blessing in front of the church, we took caballo down to the lake. After buying decorations, confetti, beer, and fireworks, we kicked back and watched the chaos around us while waiting for a priest to arrive.

Sharing beers with a Peruvian family

While waiting, a shaman swinging a censer of incense approached us and offered her services. As it didn't seem like a priest was going to show up any time soon, we figured it couldn't hurt to hedge our bets and ask for blessings from as many gods as possible. She prayed in Spanish and the pre-Inca language Aymara to the Virgin Mary and Mother Earth, accompanied by much bell-ringing and heady incense smoke. Blessing complete, we sprayed our car with beer, covered it with confetti, and lit off finger-threatening fireworks. We were then invited to share some beers with a Peruvian family. They were also getting their cars blessed, and were spending a couple of hours drinking before heading back to Peru. They were from the area around Puno, Peru, so they mixed their rapid-fire Spanish with Aymara. As the sun dropped behind Lake Titicaca, the wind picked up and it got frigidly cold. The family wished us safe travels as they piled in to their two vans and headed back across the border. With the protection of the Virgin and Mother Earth, we now feel safe to do battle with the aggressive Bolivian drivers.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Inca tunnels under Lampa, Peru

Coca leaves, money, smokes, and skulls. What better memorial?

Luckily we made a quick detour on our way to Bolivia otherwise we would have missed one of the most bizarre sites we have visited on this trip (and that's saying a lot). Ten miles down a dirt road past herds of alpacas and tumble-down buildings brought us to the rose-colored adobe town of Lampa, Peru. Dominating its central square is the 400 year old Church of the Immaculate Conception. At first glance it resembles one of the finer cathedrals in Cusco: gold plated altar, ornate wooden pulpit, bloody Jesus statues in glass boxes, and Virgin figurines in glittering robes. Things get weird when you descend down a claustrophobic stairway to the Inca tunnels below the church. Skulls and bones decorate the entrances to tunnels that supposedly lead all of the way to Cusco, Arequipa, and Puno (over 100 miles away). The story goes that years ago people tried to follow the tunnels to find out where they led...and they never were seen again!!! The tunnels have now been sealed off, so we'll never know. Climbing back out of the catacombs we next visited the newer chapel that was built when the church was restored in the 1970s. The architect thought it appropriate to dig up the bodies that were buried under the church so their bones could be used to decorate the temple. He then reserved the space at the bottom of the temple for his eventual final resting place. Interesting choice. Tomorrow we head for Bolivia.

Peering in to the depths of the tomb