Isla de la Luna

Every morning at 8:30am, boats full of tourists leave Copacabana heading to Isla del Sol, with an option of stopping for an hour at Isla de la Luna. Planning just to go to Isla del Sol and stay the night, I boarded a boat and met up with the two traveler friends from London and Italy that I had met in my hostel.

It was a beautiful 2 hour boat ride and I even saw some little fish swimming along side of the boat. Instead of getting off at the first stop at the Isla del Sol, I stayed on with my new friends to go to the Isla de la Luna.

The boat only stops for an hour at Isla de la Luna and the guide on the boat says there’s not much to see there and you can do it in an hour…and they only give you an hour before the boat leaves to go to the Isla del Sol. And if the boat leaves without you, you’re stuck in the island until the next day because the boats only come once a day for an hour.*

Entering the island the smell of muña caught me by surprise and reminded me of my stay in Amantaní, the island in the north part of the lake. As I was walking up the stairs to enter the island with the other tourists, I passed a little 4-year-old boy who, without prompting, greeted me saying “Hi, my name is Miguel Ángel”! It was so adorable!

I started exploring late because I chatted for about 10 minutes with the guy who was charging for bathroom use, geeking out about the water and electricity access on the island. (Islands have always fascinated me because they present unique infrastructure challenges ripe for alternative energies and exploring the idea of sustainability.)

Geek out about the island’s infrastructure:

They used to not have power but now they use solar panels (“because the kids want their cell phones. And also tv.”) He said the panels are great but the batteries only last a couple of years and they have to be careful not to let them drain to zero or they stop working well. They use what look like basic car batteries that charge during the day.

They also have solar hot water heaters in most of the houses.

They use water from the lake but have to buy gas to power the pumps that pump the water up from the lake. (They charge for the bathroom in part to cover costs of the gas).

End Geek-out.

Finally, I headed up the hill to the ruins of the “temple of the virgins”, which was supposedly a type of boarding school for young women to learn to do womenly things in the Incan times.

There, I met an older woman from the island who explained that life living on Isla de la Luna is really calm and peaceful, and she liked it much better than the city (La Paz) where she lived for a few years. Here they grow their food, have a few animals- (llamas, pigs, chickens, sheep), they have fish farms within the lake, they and buy what they don’t have on the island from Copacabana. There’s a primary school and a church and a football field – everything they need, she said.

As I started to hike the hill from the temple to see what was on the other side of the island, I passed a woman knitting in the shade who asked if I was going to stay the night in the island.

“That’s an option?” I asked her.

Part of my travel purpose is to go off the beaten path and get to know some places and the people that live there… so when she said that her mother owned a hospedaje, I negotiated a price to include my meals, and I decided to stay the night instead of going back with the boat to Isla del Sol.

The boat companies from copacabana don’t promote the fact that there are hospedajes on the island, (maybe because it’s a tiny island and most tourists want more entertainment and conveniences? I don’t know.)

But if you are looking for a quiet and incredibly beautiful place to pass 24 hours (or more), where you can chat with one (or a few) of the 27 families that live on the island, learn about their daily lives, and walk along the perimeter of the 1-square-km island in the afternoon sun…then it’s worth the stay.

The tourists only come one hour per day, at the same time every day, and the community rotates selling things, collecting the entrance fee, collecting bathroom fees, and helping/keeping an eye on the tourists.

On the other side of the hill, and down the length of the island are the houses where the community (called Coati) lives…So the tourists only see the ruins and a view of both sides of the island from the top of the hill, but don’t see or go into the community, unless they stay the night.

The community of Coati, Isla de la Luna

The hospedaje where I stayed overlooks the lake, with a little pier extending into the lake. In the patio between the rooms are beautiful plants with flowers and the constant buzz of bees that I even hear from inside he room.

The quiet lapping of the waves on the shore can also be heard from inside if you listen closely.

This half of the island, the opposite side from where the tourists land, smells of muña for parts and eucalyptus for other parts.

I loved chatting with the woman who owned the hospedaje. It challenged my conversation skills a little because she wasn’t super talkative, but every time I asked her a question I saw her face light up a little and I felt her open up a little more, like she viewed me with a little less skepticism each time.

She commented that the president/government built part of the hospedaje last year (or at least convinced them that he did so they’ll vote for him at the end of this year), and the alcalde bought the water pump. The entrance fee to the island goes towards paying the locals to do restoration of the ruins or other community-based things.

The woman has 5 kids, one still living here on the island, a few in Copacabana and a few in other cities, but she’s content because they talk on the phone. When she first moved here with her husband (who is from here), there wasn’t running water or electricity so it was a rough adjustment for her, but she adapted, and now it is much easier with the solar power and pumped water. She feels at home now and likes that it’s quieter with less people than where she grew up, (in a community on the peninsula).

We chatted as the sun set over the pier, and she told me that tomorrow would be her turn to sell her artesanías in the temple so I would see her there when I leave.

In the morning, heading back over the hill to the other side of the island, I saw the little boy from the previous day, Miguel Ángel, walking with his mother, taking their sheep out to graze. She had a few of them on a leash, and the similarity to people walking their dogs in the morning made me smile. A few loose sheep stopped to eat and wouldn’t follow her so she sent Miguel Ángel to collect them, and I went to help herd sheep, while the talkative, friendly boy told me stories of his sheep.

This visit had a different feel than my stays on Ccotos and Amantaní, mostly because the business arrangement is different. Here, they are following a more traditional hotel-type tourism model, where the host is simply providing a space to stay, and doesn’t even live in the same area where the guest rooms are. Whereas in Amantaní and Ccotos they are following a homestay model where the tourist is a little more integrated into the daily life with the host – through sharing meals and sometimes community events, in addition to the guest rooms being more physically close to where the family lives and considered part of the family’s house.

While I personally preferred the homestay model and the culture-sharing atmosphere it fosters, I still greatly enjoyed my stay here. There aren’t many words to describe the peacefulness and beauty of this place, but hopefully you can catch a glimpse of it through the photos!

As I left the island in the morning for Isla del Sol, I saw the snow-covered peaks of the Cordillera Real in the distance, a reminder that I was on a lake in the middle of the Andes, not the ocean, and a foreshadowing of my future travels through Bolivia.

Famous Footnotes

*If you really needed to leave the island, you could pay a local a very high price to take you in a private boat to Isla del Sol or the mainland.

A Right to Safe Drinking Water

About 10 years ago, I was sitting in a plastic chair, sweating under the shade of the water office roof, during a water board meeting in the rural community of Santa Clara, El Salvador. Our Engineers Without Borders team had installed a new water system about a year prior and we  returned every year to provide “post construction support”, helping train and guide in the administration, operation, and maintenance of the system.

The water board was drafting new regulations and we had heard that some people in the community weren’t so sure about them. As I listened (through our translator) as they read the new regulations, I quickly got uncomfortable and even offended by what I was hearing. These new members of this supposedly volunteer board were proposing that they should get paid for every meeting they attended.

Leaders wanting to take a portion of community funds…this fit perfectly into the definition of corruption we all had in our minds, especially from what we had been told about political leaders in the country. Frustrated, we voiced our opinion that the water board was a volunteer committee and should not receive payment and that all the funds received should go to the community fund to ensure a sustainable water system.

Fast forward 10 years.

I had been a Peace Corps WASH volunteer for about 2 years, and I was sitting in a meeting in the municipal auditorium in Peru, speaking with stakeholders from the province, the region, and the national government about rural water systems. Based on my experience working with rural water committees, I was advocating for the state to contribute a type of subsidy to help pay rural water system operators.

I present a plan to hire operators from the local communities to each be in charge of three nearby water systems, with the water committees paying a portion of the operator salary and the state paying the rest. I explain that rural water boards simply can’t raise enough funds to pay an operator enough so that he or she is able to prioritize maintaining the water system over working on his/her farm or other work that puts food on the table. My proposed plan would ensure a trained operator was maintaining the systems, and it would bring jobs with stable salaries to trained and capable people in the rural communities.

A certain member of a government water authority (whose salary comes from the national government) responded that the government should not give any more financial help to the rural water systems because the rural populations have already received a lot from the state (in many cases the government builds the rural water systems), and he goes on to say that it is a bad habit that the people get used to receiving “handouts” from the government. (He even added that the some of these rural populations even have smart phones so they should be able to pay the required water fee.*)

He was voicing a common sentiment in Peru that comes from a distaste for government help and even social programs because so many political parties give nominal gifts to populous areas to win votes.

His statement also aligns with the international development strategy and philosophy that has been used for decades to construct rural water systems – the international aid community builds water systems and gifts them to the community, leaving the responsibility to maintain the system in the hands of the community.

Before entering Peace Corps, I might have agreed with this point of view, but having lived the reality of working with small, rural farming communities, my perspective has changed. And I’m not the only one. The academic literature shows that nearly 50% of constructed water systems stop working before their useful life and are not repaired, and a growing consensus points to the flaws in relying on “community based management” where the community is “gifted” a water system and then bears the full burden of maintenance and operation.

The water boards I work with in Peru are volunteers, a perfect example of this community-based management strategy. In their free time, these moms and dads with full time jobs are expected to manage a technical business – running a water system. In their free time, they have to attend meetings to learn how to run the water system and then also do all the tasks associated with managing that system.

Most of these water systems serve less than 100 households, so it is rare to find a community that has 5 people with enough free time, enough passion, and enough knowledge to be able to do this job well. I have yet to see it. (The best ones I have seen are rare cases, where a community has two really strong and passionate leaders whose kids are already grown, and they are able to do a decent job of managing the water system, with a lot of support from the local government.)

In addition to the water board that manages the legal and financial aspects of the water system, a community needs an operator to maintain the system. In a city of thousands of users, each user can pay $1 per month and the community can raise $1,000 each month (still not enough to maintain a system well), and in rural areas with only 10 or 30 users, each person would have to pay an exorbitant water use fee to raise enough funds just to pay a full time operator. Additionally, these are populations of mostly farmers, with a very low income in the first place.

 

So, as I sat in this meeting in Peru, having worked closely with farmers and rural populations trying to manage their own water systems, I recognized how easy it was for a government employee who worked in an office and received a fixed salary to not understand the reality of the people living in rural areas. And it made me remember that day in El Salvador, talking to the water board.

I am now embarrassed to remember that we chastised the water board for wanting to pay themselves for the time they put into managing their community water system. “What ignorant arrogance,” I think. While it is truly a slippery slope for a water board to pay its members because it does allow for corruption, it is also necessary for people to receive incentives and to be compensated for the time they give to a job as important as ensuring that the community has safe drinking water.

Would you want to live somewhere where the people managing your water supply were volunteers or were not paid well and had another full time job on the side?

While I am proud of the work we have done in improving the capacity of the volunteer water committees here, and they are doing excellent work, they are less than 10% of all the rural water systems in the district, (and they don’t all have potable water 100% of the time because they don’t have full time operators).

Based on my experiences, I would want my water system to be managed by a professional business with quality government oversight, and I would be willing to pay a fraction of a dollar more in my taxes or in my water fees to ensure that people living in rural areas – the farmers providing the food that feeds us – have potable water to drink.

 

Footnotes

*Regarding the comment about rural populations having smart phones, there are a couple of important things to point out here, the first one being that many of the rural populations where I work live in areas where there isn’t even cell phone service. One of the communities where I work has cell phone service, but when I need to talk to the operator, I can’t call him directly because he doesn’t have a cell phone – I have to call the wife of the treasurer to be able to get a message to the water board. Not only does not every person have a phone, not even every household has a phone (and the person who does have the phone has a simple phone, not a smart phone). And while some poor people here do have smart phones it’s because it is actually cheaper to have a smart phone to be able to communicate by whatsapp (which is practically free to use here), whereas having a plan with calling and texting usually costs more.

**That El Salvador project I mentioned is doing a decent job with community-based  management, but it is one of few (and it receives a government subsidy that helps with the financial situation.)

Protecting Water Sources

Where does your water come from? A lake? A river? An aquifer? Do you know? In our busy lives, it is someone else’s job to think about that, to make sure we have clean water that is safe to drink. (Though in recent history the catastrophe in Flint, MI has made a few people think twice about the theme – even to the point of paranoia for some.)

I work with institutions whose responsibility is making sure people have clean water to drink, but they often only focus on building and repairing water systems. Unfortunately, a lot of times they forget that protecting the source of water, is just as important. So, as water systems get built by an outside entity, capturing water from rivers, streams, or springs, the people in the community start developing the land nearby and above these sources, within the watershed, cutting down trees, building houses (and therefore bathrooms), cultivating crops, using agrochemicals, and raising cattle or pigs that contaminate the water, not realizing the impact it will have on the water source.

We have the good fortune to have an NGO in our community (IBC) that has expertise in watershed protection (among other cool topic areas like native communities, stream health and others), and is a member of our group GTIFAS. Thanks to IBC, a very exciting part of our project is to work closely with five communities to identify risks to their water source and recommend ways they can eliminate risks and protect their watershed in the future – while respecting land rights and the need to have income generation from their land.

This involves strategies like reforestation with native plants, creating zones of protection, and creating zones for low-impact activities like raising bees or crops that use minimal agrochemicals.

Another important approach is a type of economic valuation of ecosystem services where, in this case, they the recommendation is to raise the water fee on the water bill to have some extra funds to help pay land owners for the environmental services the forests on their land provide in keeping the water clean – giving incentives to either not cut down forest, or to reforest areas near water sources.

While there are a lot of general recommendations we can give to each community, we wanted to make sure that we knew the situation on the ground and could give very concrete recommendations to each community, like which tree species could they plant and where, and what current activities are a risk to their water system. So, we planned to go visit the source of water for each community and to inspect the surrounding areas for risks.

It’s good to have friends that are experts in watersheds!

Just when I was heading to the office to do some planning for our first site visit, I saw two of my good friends, who work for the non-profit, taking a snack break. Since I have (finally) learned to slow down and take advantage of these breaks to converse with friends and co-workers, I followed them instead of diving right into my computer work. During the conversation, my friend pointed out that we should look at satellite images of the areas to help guide our inspection and give us an idea of what areas might have risks. What a brilliant idea, and I can’t believe I hadn’t talked to her sooner!

She helped me print out satellite images of each area, and showed me how to read them to have an idea of where land had been developed, where rivers might be, and how to show topography. It turned out to be a key tool in our analysis, in conjunction with using google maps on the phone to help track where we were during the inspections.

The next day, we headed out to climb to the water sources for three different water systems. Each time was a steep ascent through the high jungle hills, each taking between 30 minutes to an hour to reach the top. From there, we explored the surrounding areas, looking to identify the possible risks we saw from the satellite images, as well as any other risks we could identify on-the-ground.

Our tree expert from IBC

The day started out with good luck as we saw two wild monkeys – tiny rabbit-sized animals with a long tail – playing in the trees. My first experience ever seeing wild monkeys!

I know you can’t see them, but I swear there are two small monkeys in the tree across the highway.

Later we passed a tree that produces a cotton-like substance – my first time seeing cotton fall from a tree. Finally, it was the first time that plants stung me through my pants – who knew that plants could sting, and even through cloth?! I thought that only happened in Australia.

You can imagine that I was pretty hungry by lunch time, so I blame the low blood sugar for my slip of the tongue when I asked if anyone was “dying from the man” instead of dying of hunger (“alguien esta muriendo de hombre?”)!

Actually, I could write a whole blog entry on all my slips of the tongue in castellano… and maybe one day I will. Stay tuned…

Field Days

My favorite part of my job is definitely when I get to be out in the field (“campo”), inspecting or repairing water systems with the operators or the volunteer water committees… and yet I haven’t written much about that, so today I am taking some time to share some of the work we did last week.

An important part of maintaining a rural water system is cleaning and disinfecting it regularly so that sediments, microorganisms, and mold don’t build up inside. This can be a little complicated because it requires high concentrations of bleach in a confined space, that later have to be disposed of in a safe site (not a river or stream). So, you can see why training water system operators to properly clean the water system is an important job.

You may recall that we had a hands-on workshop with the system operators back in April, where we went to a water system and actually practiced the disinfection process. But since every system is a little different, and it takes a few times to change old habits, we are now doing one-on-one trainings with five different communities. Since we are working with a group of university students studying environmental engineering, we invited them to come learn and help with one of the systems.

It is quite a coordination process working with volunteer water committees because we have work within their schedules. That means we wait for the water committee to schedule their next meeting, we attend the meeting, we find out when they plan to do their next cleaning, and we ask if we can come oversee the process and help out. For me, that means a 30-minute bike ride (each way) through the beautiful green hills of Oxapampa to arrive at the community each time we need to coordinate, attend meetings, or and participate in activities. (Poor me!)

All the coordination paid off this week, and we had a great hands-on training, resulting in an improved process for cleaning and disinfection that will make it quicker for the operator and will protect the nearby river.

Another day during the week, 30 minutes on bicycle in the opposite direction, we did a water system inspection with the group of university students. After hiking up through one of the beautiful verdant hills for more than an hour, we arrived at the spring box where the water system collects water from a spring. We took measurements and discussed what was working well and what could be improved, and then descended, doing the same for each component of the water system.

Later in the week, we returned to the same system to train the university students in monitoring chlorine levels. We explained the key monitoring points in the distribution system, and we then went to each point to take measurements, (me in bicycle and them on their motorcycle.) Their homework was then to monitor the chlorine for a week, create a registry for the results, and to then train the operator to use the registry.

 

That same day, the operator had identified a leak in the system, so we took the opportunity to help him fix the leak, learn his procedure, and point out a few additional best practices for the future. The operators tend to be elected by the community, and often don’t have any water-system-specific training, but because they have often built their houses or worked on similar projects, they have a general idea and incredible ingenuity and can complete the basic functions, even if they aren’t aware of the best practices.

   

 

The field work is really my favorite part of the job, so I’m really happy to be in the field-work phase of our project – that means more time working side-by-side with water committees and operators, so they can be more effective at ensuring their communities have clean water.