Home in Barlioche

I certainly hadn’t planned on being in Bariloche for more than a month, but then, some of the best experiences of my travels have been unplanned. While most people can’t say that they’ve had some of their best experiences during these last few months, I have been so fortunate to be in great company in one of the most beautiful places on earth – a place that truly feels like home.

During my extended stay here, I have gotten the opportunity to explore one little nook of this beautiful corner of the world on a more personal level.

Thanks to my brilliant and fun roommate, host, and friend (Tomás), I found “home” in a safe, comfortable, eco-friendly, and gorgeous place, surrounded by good people.

Tomás has been my trail guide, my belay (while rock climbing and in life in general), slack line guru, the guitar and trombone in our 2-person house band (not sure what my role is…I guess back-up vocals), and really great company during 30+ days of lock-down.

Tomás has succeeded in (and shared with me) living a comfortable life connected to nature – close to great hikes, buying vegetables from the local vegetable vendors, eating greens from the garden, composting organic waste, and generating such a small amount of trash that we first took out the trash (a small bag) after I had been there nearly a month.

Taking turns cooking we shared vegetarian recipes and I learned a few secrets like how to cook dry beans and the magic of beer yeast as a condiment. I shared a couple of tricks I had learned in Peru (the amazing “ensalada rusa” and the power of adding ginger to a stir fry), and I almost …almost… got to a point where I enjoyed cooking.

Here, the backyard is a natural playground. There is the stream that you have to cross, hopping from rock to rock, carefully choosing your path so you don’t get stranded in the middle or foolishly land on a loose or slippery rock that pitches you into the water.

Crossing the stream opens up a whole new world. You can wander through trails parallel to the rising hills and rock faces in the south and ultimately find yourself on the lakeshore. Meandering along the lakeshore, you see where the stream you crossed earlier empties into the lake.

The beauty and serenity of the lake is like no other. Some times there is a strong wind that nearly blows you over and creates ocean-like waves on the lake. Other times, there is no wind and the lake is as still as glass.

Heading towards the mountain-like hills to the south is a network of trails that meander through the forest and hills. There are hidden waterfalls, rock faces for climbing, and trails taking you up to the peaks of the hills.

As you climb, every now and then you are rewarded with indescribable views of the lakes below.

View of the neighborhood from above. Tomas lives near the red tree along the visible road.

Walking through the forest there is a constant background sound of buzzing. At first I thought I was crazy but later I realized that it was the sound of yellow jackets. I saw a few buzzing around when we stopped in a clearing to rest on a log and do acro-yoga, looking out over the lake. But mostly they stay hidden and are heard but not seen, swarming in the trees. Except for that time that one stung me in the foot.* And that other time that one stung Tomás. A small price to pay for a beautiful day outdoors.

One spiny and annoying bush grabbed my attention (and my pants leg) ever since my first hike in the area.  It has a strange pear-apple-shaped red fruit that has nothing but seeds inside. I learned that this is the Rosa Mosqueta. An invasive weed that is really hard to get rid of.

One day my roommate and I had the bright idea to harvest the fruit and make tea. It turned out to be the best tea I’ve ever had in my life – and I’m not exaggerating! As it boiled, it put off an intense sugary sweet smell and the tea had a delicious apple-cinnamon flavor.

Speaking of harvesting fruits…you can find apple trees to provide an afternoon snack on the hike (or a week’s worth of delicious apple treats if you get serious about harvesting them).

Sometimes, walking through the forest, I smell Christmas trees. Though the pines are an invasive species here, the smell is lovely. Riding a borrowed bicycle through neighborhoods towards the main road, there are two spots where I smell that delightful smell of eucalyptus – one of my favorite smells in the world (but also an invasive). (Makes me wonder: Do all invasive trees have good smells?)

Speaking of the trees, the old Coihues are the best (and native, not invasive!) When we stumbled across a great Coihue towering above us, it felt like a guardian tree that could protect us from anything. It took three and a half people to hug that tree all the way around.

Then there are the cypress. Huge cypress trees tower above, painting the sky with a deep green on a deep blue sky backdrop. The hilltops are full of cypress, giving their rocky faces a green coat.

I’m not sure which trees change their colors in the autumn, but I was lucky enough to watch the hilltops change colors from pure green to a burnt-orange and red tint as autumn creeped in.

 

The trails in this area have provided a unique life lesson. My first time going for a trail run, I was filled with a mixture of nervousness about getting lost, but at the same time a sense of adventure, ready to explore my new “backyard”.

Within the first hundred meters, the trail divided into three forks and I had to choose which way to go. Shortly thereafter, it divided again. I took note of my choices so I could trace my way back and try the other options if I got lost or stuck. But the trail continued to divide, two and three and sometimes four forks every few hundred meters, like a maze, presenting me with countless choose-your-own-adventure-like decisions. With so many forks along the way, I quickly lost track.

Some trails were narrower and I did a lot of ducking under low-hanging trees and bushes while others were wide open rocky trails, and I even encountered a road-like trail that seemed accessible for vehicles. A few times I passed through clearings that had been used as campsites, evidenced by the fire rings. And sometimes the trail spit me out along the stream bank. With the stream as a reference point, I knew I couldn’t get completely lost because I could always follow the stream back to the point behind my house.

As I continued to somewhat randomly choose my path forward at every fork, I realized that there seemed to be a great web of trails, most of them probably all connected eventually in some way. As long as I kept the stream on my right and headed away from the setting sun, I would be able to find my way. Sometimes I had to cut through some heavy brush, and sometimes I decided to retrace my steps and find a cleaner trail or to take a more scenic trail, but I was no longer worried about going in the “wrong direction”.

Famous Footnotes:

*That was my first time being stung by any type of wasp or bee. I couldn’t believe how much it felt like stepping on a nail. I’ve never stepped on a nail either, but I imagine that’s what it feels like. But it was a small price to pay for a beautiful day outdoors.

The Heart of “La Ruta 40” – Part I: Salta

My journey on “La Ruta 40” has been a unique adventure that I will never forget and that is impossible to describe in detail unless I write a book (which I might.) What really marked my journey, even more than the amazing landscapes, were the people I met along the way.

It was an unforgettable experience of connecting and sharing with so many different people, and just being overwhelmed by the generosity of people. In some ways, this has been the heart of my journey – where I’ve really had the opportunity to do what I came to do – connect with people and share experiences, getting a glimpse into the lives and hearts of people here.

In the next few posts, I’ll try to share some of those encounters (as well as the landscapes behind the conversations).

Part I – Salta
Salta is a city in northern Argentina, just south of Jujuy. In Spanish, “salta” means jump. So I did.

And in so doing, I met a French traveler, Thierry, and we became travel buddies for the day.

We explored the city parks together, tasted some ham and cheese empanadas, and people-watched, as the parks were full of people enjoying the beautiful weekend day.

In Salta, I stayed with Facundo, or “Facu” (a common name here). From the moment we met, we had some incredible conversations, so much so that we chatted into the night even though we were both running on very little sleep. But this is why I couchsurf – it’s a chance to meet someone from a different city, a different country, a different reality, and share experiences.

Facu is a super sharp guy around my age, studying biology because, he explained, that any job he got would require him to work a lot of hours and probably still not pay great, so he’d rather study something he really loves so that he can at least be doing something he’s passionate about. He’s a realist. He said I left him feeling more inspired and empowered that he could have a positive impact on the world. Which was incredibly flattering and in turn made me feel inspired!

In the grocery store line, I met the nicest woman. You know how the grocery lines can be pretty savagely competitive – everyone wants to be first in line and find the shortest line, especially when the wait is long. Well, this woman went out of her way to try to find the shortest line for me since I only had 2 items. (And I wasn’t even in a hurry, she was just being incredibly thoughtful.) We started chatting and it turns out that she’s an accountant that works in a government agency looking at the economic side of the “triple bottom line” (economics-environment-social impacts) for projects – coincidentally, my line of work and my passion!

On my way out of Salta, I met Valentina who is my age, and a lawyer from Buenos Aires. She had quit her job and before moving to the next one, was taking a vacation with her partner (who was from Paraguay and was traveling through South America). They had been to Patagonia together and invited me to join them exploring a beautiful part of “La Ruta 40” as they headed to Califate, a tiny town in the wine region.

They also spoke English so we ended up speaking a mix of English and Spanish, conversing the whole way and stopping to see a few of the most interesting spots – Garganta del Diablo and El Anfiteatro (which happened to be filled with tourists at this time of year*).

When I told Valentina about my Peace Corps work in Peru with water systems, she told me that she has been doing a volunteer project for eight years, working with a small community called Arbol Blanco in the province of Santiago de Estero. With an NGO from Buenos Aires, they work to empower the youth and help them take advantage of educational opportunities that could give them more professional options as they become adults.

We completely geeked out about sustainable community development work, really connecting with some of the similar experiences we’ve had. Similar to my experience working with Engineers Without Borders, she has witnessed the importance of being a long-term community partner and facilitator – focusing on cultural exchange and helping the community achieve its own stated goals, (rather than trying to do short-term projects based on funder priorities, which have a high failure rate). As we parted ways, I was excited to have met another kind and kindred spirit, (and also excited about the possibility of lending a hand if they needed any WASH (Water And Sanitation & Hygiene) expertise).

As if I hadn’t met enough wonderful people, I finally met Gabriela who went out of her way to drive me to meet up with my friends. A fellow lover of the night sky, she pointed out the observatory nearby and we made plans to go if we ever crossed paths again in the future. As we went our separate ways, I didn’t hear from her again, until one day, a month later when Argentina enforced the mandatory isolation measures, she messaged me to check in and offered me a place to stay if I should need it.

The beginnings of my journey along “La Ruta 40” were renewing my faith in the good of humanity and showing me the power of human connection and cultural exchange.** I was excited to see what lie ahead and only hoped that I hadn’t used up all my good luck.

 

Famous Footnotes

*This was during Carnaval season, which happens while school is out and is when the majority of people take vacations in Argentina.

**”Se que hay mucha mas gente buena que mala. Pasa que los malos hacen mas ruido.” – Dany Reimer
(“I’m certain there are more good people in this world than bad. The thing is that the bad ones make more noise.”) – Dany Reimer (Police officer in one of the toughest areas of Buenos Aires)

National Park Talampaya

The scenery on the way to the National Park Talampaya was enough to assure me that the detour to visit these parks was going to be worthwhile.

My plan was to enjoy the park all day today, and then find some nice people to give me a ride to the small town, “Baldecitos”, near the provincial park of Ischigualasto about an hour away.*

I arrived early to the park to figure out options for excursions through the park, and I opted for a group hike through a part of the canyon only accessible by foot. (If we returned early enough, I might be able to also do one of the more popular jeep rides that takes you all the way through the canyon to the other side).** Unfortunately, our hike kept getting delayed because a few of the group members that had reserved were apparently on their way but stuck in traffic.

While I was sitting at a table, trying really hard not to be impatient (I guess I had used all my patience the day before waiting in the shade of the fig tree), I overheard a group speaking in American English. My ears perked up because I haven’t met many American tourists during my travels. And while American tourists in Patagonia are fairly common, here in the middle of northern Argentina, it is not nearly as common to encounter other Americans.

I hesitated to introduce myself because they were all deeply engaged in their conversation, (and while in Latin America it would be rude NOT TO interrupt and greet someone, these were US Americans so it could be considered rude to interrupt.) I finally decided to introduce myself and I’m glad I did!

They were two couples (older than me but young at heart!) that love traveling and seeing new places around the world. They found themselves there all because American Airlines was going to stop running their route to Cordoba, Argentina, and one of the guys decided he wanted to take advantage of it before it was discontinued. And from there, things just started coming together for the two couples – who hadn’t seen each other in a long time (hence their deeply engaged conversation) – to be able to meet up there in Parque Talampaya.

It was so great to share travel stories and hear about some of their unique experiences (like Nude Zealand!), especially since they have been traveling for decades – (they gave me a few pro tips)! I was surprised to hear that their grown children were somewhat indignant about their decision to travel around the world instead of staying close by, near the grandchildren. (I don’t have children so maybe I don’t understand, but, Mom and Dad, you did your time – thank you! Now, get out and go see the world!)

When it was finally time to head out for my hike, I admit I was a little skeptical. We left at noon under the hot desert sun, and I was pretty sure we were going to shrivel up and dehydrate. But it turns out the wind picks up mid-day, and we took it slow, took advantage of shade spots, and stopped frequently, so it was actually didn’t feel like I was walking in the desert at the hottest part of the day.

The hike was all I had hoped for and more. Amazing landscapes.

Rock formations from the Triassic period (250 million years ago) – that’s before the formation of the Andes.

More recent dune formations where vegetation can grow.

 

Even ancient rock paintings from thousands of years ago.

The coolest part was when we came upon a herd of guanaco. Not only was it the first guanaco that I see in the wild, we were right there close to them, in their natural habitat! They let us get about 20 feet away before they finally ran off.

I think the thing that impressed me the most was that we could see where a fault line passed because there was a huge diagonal crack in the walls of the canyon on both sides.

Our guide drew a 24-hour clock in the sand and explained that if the history of the Earth were compared to one day, where the Earth formed at midnight, life appeared at about 3-4am, and the rock formations in the park (that formed 250 million years ago) formed at just one minute and 30 seconds until midnight at the end of the day! (We humans appeared at about 6-10 seconds until the end of the day!)

 

 

I stood in awe, with the beautiful, 250 milion-year-old canyon walls towering above me. I felt so tiny and at the same time I felt that I was traveling time, and through that time travel I was connecting to the extensive history of this planet, and somehow that made me both tiny and as big and as old as the planet, all at the same time.

 

When I got back from the hike that afternoon, it was time for that character-building activity of asking for a lift to Baldecitos, the little town near the entrance to the provincial park Ischicualasto. It shouldn’t seem like a big deal, but for a person raised in the US and raised to be self-sufficient and independent, it is a bit of a psychological challenge. One has to overcome embarrassment, shyness, and fear of rejection, all at once. So I set myself up near the parking lot and asked all the people who drove up where they were headed, and if they were going my direction if they would have room for one more person. About 5 different cars arrived and everyone was very friendly in their rejection, but they were not going my direction.

As one of the excursions returned, I found an older couple that was headed that direction and they were happy to give me a ride. The woman, Ana, was in her 60’s and she is a psychologist in Buenos Aires. They were at the end of their vacation and she had to get back to work after the holidays. She had a private practice and then also worked with the government to do psychological evaluations for people applying for commercial drivers’ licenses. She talked about how she had backpacked through Europe when she was younger and continued to travel as much as possible. They were then kind enough to go a few minutes out of their way to drop me off in Baldecitos, waiting to make sure I found a place to stay.

The woman who owned the hospedaje en Baldecitos was about my age and she lived next door with her little boy of about 12-13 years old. After I got settled in, I saw she was outside spraying the ground with a water hose to control the dust, and I came out and asked her about life in Baldecitos. She was a farmer, with milk and beef cows and also received some extra income from tourists passing through for the park. She was born and raised there in Baldecitos, which has just about 10-15 families living there permanently, with maybe up to 25-20 houses total! (Definitely the smallest town I’ve been in so far.)

A few months prior, they had constructed a cell tower in the town that was also supposed to also bring wi-fi for the community, but it was really spotty, with some of my whatsapp messages delaying a few hours to send.

I feel at home anywhere if I can do yoga with the sunset.

There was a “comedor” (small, simple, family-style restaurant) near my hospedaje where I went to see if I could get something to eat. While there, an older French couple came in also asking about dinner and about logistics for going to the park the next day. The man and older woman in the comedor told us they would serve dinner at 9pm, and that the park opened at 8am and was about 12km down the road.***

This park – Ischigualasto – is the park that you visit by driving through, caravan style, with a guide, stopping along the way to see certain parts. (I had read on blogs that many people without their own transportation look for other people to give them a lift through the park.) The couple seemed really nice and friendly, so I took that opportunity to ask if they had room for one more person, and they assented and said we could chat over dinner.

Over dinner I learned that they had rented a car and were driving down La Ruta 40, with destination Bariloche, but looking for cute little towns and beautiful, hidden gems along the way, just like me (except with a car). They already have grown kids, but they also have this beautiful child-like energy, getting really excited about the places they’ve seen and what there is to see ahead. My kind of people. We hit it off immediately and agreed to meet at 8am the next morning to go explore the Parque Ischigualasto together.

 

Footnotes:

* Dario (the park guide whose house I had stayed at in Pagancillo the night before) had assured me that many people go between the two parks and that I wouldn’t have a problem finding a ride from Talampaya to Ischigualasto. Since that was consistent with the blogs I’d read on the internet, I felt good about the plan.

**I like to know all the options before I make a choice, and here it took me about an hour to understand how it all works (and that’s after having done research online!) It turns out that this is only one of two different park entrances for the National Park Talampaya. At this entrance, there are two companies – one that offers excursions in jeep that leave on a set schedule every few hours, and another that offers hiking or biking excursions. It is all very confusing because the company that offers jeep excursions is also in charge of selling the Park Entrance fee, which makes it seem like their excursions are the only options. But if you ask around, you find that there’s a small office around the corner that offers hikes and bike rides if enough people are interested in forming a group. As a third option for exploring the park, there is another park entrance about 10km down the road, where a different company offers an excursion in jeep to see another part of the park called “Cañon Arco Iris” (Rainbow Canyon) and “La Ciudad Perdida” (Lost City). I also heard that there is another company forming that will do excursions to another part of the park next year.

***I chatted for a while with the couple in the comedor in Baldecitos asking them about life in Baledcitos. They presented another point of view about the park. They said that while they weren’t completely opposed to the park and tourism from the park did bring some income, they were kind of frustrated that it put restrictions on their ability to raise animals because it was a protected area (and to prevent accidents with the passing cars). They mentioned that would have liked to maintain the practices of their ancestors in the raising of guanaco and cattle in the wide open spaces. They also said that this provincially-managed park doesn’t provide the same job opportunities for people in the community of Baldecitos, like the nearby national park Talampaya which provides jobs for many people of the nearby town Pagancillo. They did mention that a consultation process was used to create the park, but they felt that their opinion was not considered. (The complexity of the situation was not lost on me, since I am reading about Latin American history during my travels. For example, I confirmed that they were specifically referring to their European ancestors who have inhabited those lands for hundreds of years. If you keep going back in time, you come to a point in time where their ancestors usurped the lands of the indigenous people living there. And maybe those indigenous people usurped the lands from someone before them.)

 

Tatacoa Desert – Huila, Colombia

The diversity of landscapes in Colombia is amazing, and one of those unique gems is the Tatacoa Desert, not too far from Bogotá, in Huila.

All within 32,000 hectares, the desert-like landscapes are filled with more than 100 varieties of cactus, petrified wood, and other-worldly rock formations.

While the majority of the area is dominated by grey-ish colored rock formations, the Tatacoa makes a sudden drastic change to red rock formations, and so is referred to by its two parts – the red desert and the grey desert.

Desierto Gris (Grey Desert)

Desierto Rojo (Red Desert)

The intense sun and extreme heat is something that the locals try to avoid by relaxing in the shade at mid day, and with long sleeves and brimmed hats the rest of the day.

Fun fact: Despite it’s heat, sand, and cactus, the Tatacoa Desert isn’t actually categorized as a desert; it’s technically a “dry forest” climate zone. (Though it’s what a lay person would call a “desert”.)

It was here in the Tatacoa desert that I discovered my favorite berry in the world – the Chichatop. I have never tasted a more delicious fruit (and I LOVE strawberries and blueberries… but this one topped them all!)
Sorry, I didn’t get a photo of my favorite berry, but I did get a photo of this edible fruit that grows in a cactus.

The desert is just a few minutes drive from the nice little town of Villavieja.* You can stay in the town and do a day trip to the desert, or you can spend the night at one of the hospedajes in the desert.

Many of them have pools (and even if you don’t stay in the desert, you an always pay to enter one of the pools for a much-needed cool-off).

On clear days you can see the faraway snow-capped mountains near Manizales, but these days you can’t see the white peaks. Due to global warming, the size of the snow caps has been diminishing over the years and they are too small to see now.

While a guide isn’t necessary to appreciate the desert, it is quite helpful to not get lost in the heat and to maximize your time seeing some of the highlights. I would recommend it especially in support of eco-tourism…it supports the local economy in a positive way, giving value to the preservation of the land and creating green jobs for the locals. Our guide specifically mentioned that he really loved the training he received to be a guide, learning about the landscapes and the history, and he hoped that he could continue to learn more to continue getting better at his job.

The Tatacoa is home to two observatories and they give viewing sessions every night where you can learn a few night sky fun facts and see a few highlights through a telescope and binoculars. I was super impressed to learn that the half moon is a C or a D shape in the US, but it’s more like a smile or frown shape here. (In other words, the we see the lit-up side from different angles so it seems to be rotated between the two hemispheres). Similarly, Casiopia is a “W” in the US but an “M” here (something I had noticed but just thought it was related to the time of the year I was looking at it!)

We looked at stars being born (in the Orion Nebula). And looking at the cloud of the andromeda galaxy, we saw more stars at one time than one sees in the entire sky. With a basic high powered telescope, binoculars, and a really knowledgeable star guide, it was interesting and entertaining, and I loved it! It was a perfect way to appreciate the desert night.

Famous Footnotes/Bonus Content:

*On the way back to Neiva, the largest city near Villavieja, I took a colectivo, which is like a taxi van that waits until all the seats are filled to leave. (I got lucky and was the last one so didn’t have to wait.) In the colectivo there was a couple from Bogotá, another backpacker from Europe, and two women from Villavieja. The women were quiet at first, but as we started chatting, they each had a fun sense of humor, and were very chill and friendly. They confirmed that the town is a pretty quiet and relaxed town, that lives off tourism and some farming and raising animals. That weekend was going to be less quiet than usual – the town was going to have a big celebration all weekend with a concert sponsored by the mayor.

La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz. Don’t be fooled by its name. As two Paceños told me, contrary to its name, La Paz is not so peaceful and serene. It has the hustle and bustle of any capital city.  And , they noted, there is always a protest somewhere about something, so there are always police in the street. Sure enough, the day I arrived, when I turned onto the street with my hostel, two blocks of the road were blocked off, full of tents blocking the street. Miners had camped out in the street to hold a demonstration, (and they were still there when I left a few days later). But at the same time, besides it being full of people like any big city, it wasn’t NOT a peaceful place, that’s to say it didn’t feel dangerous or violent; on the contrary it felt fairly welcoming and relatively safe, for a large city.

La Paz. The capital of Boliva. Nope. Another misconception. Sucre is the capital of Bolivia and home to the judicial power of Bolivia, while La Paz is the government seat, home to the executive and legislative power, but is NOT the capital, as the (biased?) tour guide from Sucre emphasized to us. Meanwhile, many will say that La Paz is highest capital city in the world, at 3,600 meters (11,800 ft) above sea level, saying that La Paz is the “second capital” or “the de facto capital” of Bolivia since it is home to the executive and legislative powers. You decide.

La Paz. Where you go to get a good butt. Every street is either a steep climb or a steep descent. Most sidewalks are actually stairs, or they have steps every few meters. You really have to pay attention to where you’re walking just walking down the sidewalk.

In just 5 minutes walking down the street I saw two blind men passing with their guide sticks and I thought, wow, what an extra challenge to be blind AND live in La Paz.

La Paz. Good people. Like any big city, no one pays you any attention while you’re just walking along (unless they are vendors trying to sell you something), but every time I did have the opportunity to talk to someone everyone was incredibly helpful and friendly. (Don’t get me wrong, there is crime and there are parts of the city that are more dangerous than others, so like any big city I had to be aware of my surroundings, but also like any big city, I got the vibe that most people are just busy trying to do life and happy to help someone out if they can.)

La Paz. The streets of La Paz (some cobblestone streets but mostly paved) are filled with traffic – cars, taxis, and mostly mass transit minivans, and a ton of foot traffic too. But the traffic would be a lot worse if it weren’t for the teleferico… why dig a tunnel to have a subway when you can do mass transit by air?

La Paz. Space is at a premium, and every little bit space is used. From the ground I noticed this, but from the air, it was truly obvious. “From the air?” you ask.

If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it. The “teleferico” is a recently-installed form of public mass transit using ski-lift style cable car pods. It was like a scene out of a futuristic movie, as the pods smoothly sailed across the air, crossing the city like floating pods. It was so cool to watch them from the ground advancing towards the station and then docking smoothly like a space ship into the platform.

And then to ride in the pods above the city! I did a kind of loop around the city, taking the white, orange, red, silver, and then purple line.

I haven’t been this awestruck in a while. (And I have taken the teleferico across the green hills in Chachapoyas to see the Kuelap ruins!) I was overwhelmed by the sheer density and expansiveness of the city. I was amazed that I was looking down at the city from above. I was envious that some people ride in this every day to commute to work! I was trying to take it all in…and then the setting sun casting it glow on the snow-capped and colorful mountains in the distance.

I was so awestruck, I admit I was giddy. The enginerd in me was fascinated with the brilliant transportation solution, the curious explorer in me was enthralled at being able to explore the city from above, the geek in me felt like I was a star in a futuristic sci fi movie.

In that hour in the teleferico, I fell in love with La Paz. (I have never met a city without trees (or with so few trees) that I loved, but La Paz might be opening my mind.) I felt like I was part of the future. In La Paz, the sort-of capital of Bolivia.

Bonus Content: Food in Bolivia

Chatting with a Paceña friend I made in the hostel, I learned about a few of the typical foods unique to La Paz and Bolivia. Gracias Valeria!

-“Api” is a blue corn drink (like chicha morada for you Peruvians), but it’s often served warm and thick and with a pastry (pastel o buñuelo which is like a sopapillo – fried dough with honey)

-“Plato paceño” is usually comprised of fried cheese, potatoes, corn, habas, and often a slice of beef, and it’s often served with “chairo” soup.

-“Chairo” is a soup that usually has “chuño” (a black native potato), turnip, habas, carrot, peeled corn, barley, finely chopped potatoes, and the secret ingredient yerba buena

Chairo

-“Fricasé” in Bolivia is a yellow stew of aji (chile), native potato (chuño), Andean corn (mote), with chicken or pork

-“Sopa de maní” is peanut soup, which is a soup with a peanut-based broth and potatoes and vegetables

Sopa de maní

-“P’esque” is a thick quinoa with milk, sometimes topped cheese or with tomato and onion on top.

In addition to the traditional foods, I had the honor of eating at an exquisite vegan restaurant, Ali Pacha, with an incredibly sweet and amazing friend of a friend. (Thank you, Gabriela!)

There they used local foods and did vegan twists on typical foods too. It was great!

And they had the fanciest bathroom I’ve ever seen.

Famous Footnotes

*”Paceños” are people from La Paz

**There are a lot of really cool things to do in La Paz besides the teleferico and eating, I just didn’t get a chance to check them all out. Stay tuned for a list of cool things to do in La Paz that I hope to do if I ever (when I) return!

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.

Island Life (Amantaní)

Sometimes we travel long and hard to arrive at our destination. And then sometimes the journey itself is so beautiful and interesting that it is part of the destination.

Getting to Amantaní is one of the latter. The hour-long motorboat ride through the lake was was both fascinating and relaxing at the same time. A vast expanse like the ocean, but calm, with only minuscule waves, passing islands along the way that I had seen from the shore just a day before…and passing the shore that I had been on just the day before, staring out to where I now was in a boat!

When I arrived at the dock, I was greeted by a smiley and warm, short and round woman who introduced herself as Silveria, the wife of Romulo, with whom I had organized the stay. She led me up a steep sidewalk with many stairs along the way, and after just 5 minutes I was huffing and puffing with my 15 kilos of backpacks and just my second day in the altitude. But luckily, we had already arrived!

Their house is located close to the dock, and my room had big windows with an incredible view of the lake!

Just like in Ccotos, in the shade it’s cold and I need my 2-3 layers, but sitting in the sun for a few minutes I could wear just a long-sleeve or sometimes short sleeve t-shirt, so I sat in the sun while Silveria prepared lunch.

Chatting over a delicious lunch of local varieties of potatoes, an assortment of vegetables, and local bread, I learned that Silveria had run from one side of the island to the other in the morning, first helping her step-mom on her farm, then working on her own farm on the other side of the island, and then running to the dock to meet me. She said it took her about 30-45 minutes to run from each side of the island to the other.

Over lunch, we shared stories, getting along so well that we even began sharing about our childhoods and a summary version of our life stories! After a rough childhood, she was very happy to have a peaceful life with a nice house and a nice husband, living a good life without want. She reminded me of a sweet and hospitable southern woman, someone who had grown up in a machista culture and had a rough childhood but had made a better adult life for herself and lived constantly thankful for what she has now, moving and speaking in a manner that was both self conscious and humble, yet confident in its own way.

In Amantaní, similar to Ccotos and the surrounding areas, people’s first language is Quechua because that is what is spoken in the home. I asked if Quechua was taught in school, and the response I got was, “No, everyone knows Quechua so they don’t need to study it in school.” I was told that typically children speak only Quechua until age 5 when they begin going to school, where they start learning Spanish and school is pure Spanish.

It was interesting to me that, while speaking to Silveria, she was quite self conscious of her Spanish, even commenting that my Spanish was better than hers (though as we talked more and became more comfortable talking, her Spanish flowed more and more fluidly.)

In the late afternoon, Silveria walked me up to the path that led to the highest points on the island-two hills close together, each with a sanctuary to Pachamama* and Pachatata, respectively.

She left me and I continued to climb, slowly, step by step…up to 4,200 meters, my lungs wondering where all the oxygen went, and the temperature dropping rapidly. I was surprised as the land and hills began to give way to water on either side (apparently I had forgotten I was on an island).

My plan was to watch the sunset from there, but the clouds rolled in cutting it short. What I did find as I got closer to the sanctuaries was a ton of tourists! (And a ton of local women selling chullos* and sweaters and crafts and souvenirs all along the paths)! The tourists had all come out from hiding wherever they were staying on the island, and everyone had come to watch the sunset up here.

I got a little confused getting back to the house, and as I asked an older man who was walking with a child, he sent the little girl to walk me to the corner where I needed to turn. I found this simple reaction to be so strange and so kind – but very different from most places where everyone is in a hurry and busy with their own things and also worried about sending kids off alone, even for a few blocks.

That night over dinner, speaking with Romulo, I learned that the island is actually quite organized around the home-stay tourism and they usually partner with tour companies who bring in large groups of tourists at a time. The community is divided into 10 communities, and each community rotates being the host of a group of tourists, with each family in the community offering space in their house and meals to the visitors. Each community also has a community center where they perform traditional dances and have a party with the group of tourists. (I had bypassed this system, contacting Romulo directly, and he said this was a much better deal because he directly receives the payment, and they even have a problem with one tour company that never paid the island for hosting a group.)

I was really impressed by how organized the island of 500 families was. They meet every Sunday, first the whole island, and then they break into meetings just for each community. Romulo explained that it was their only way to get news since there wasn’t a radio station on the island just for news about the island (though they do get regional radio stations from Puno and Juliaca).

They also coordinate which communities plant which crops when, and they rotate, making sure the land has time to rest. Because of the population and limited amount of land, the island is not self-sustainable and the crops produced are not enough to feed everyone so they do have to buy food from the mainland in addition to what they produce. Because of this, the money brought by tourism is crucial for the residents.

The night was so quiet and peaceful and the stars so incredible!! And it was cold. I didn’t dare shower and I slept under about 6 heavy blankets. Before going to bed, they told me if I had to use the restroom to use the “pee bucket” under my bed instead of trying to brave the cold and go to the bathroom. I had heard of these “pee buckets” from other Peace Corps volunteers that lived in the mountains, but I had never seen them for myself. (Turns out it was just a plastic tub.)

The next morning I took a stroll along the shore…

And then we all had a crepe-like “pancake” breakfast, learning about each other’s families.

Later, Silveria walked me to another spot on the island that the tourists often like to visit, the Inca’s chair. To walk there, I noticed that she took time to put on a nice shawl, and she also brought along her knitting…and continued to knit as we walked there! (I was highly impressed.)

Everything on the island is somewhat of a climb…at this point I realized that as an island, it’s really just a big hill or mountain jutting out of the middle of the lake, with the middle of the island being the high points and the shore the low points, so you really have to climb to get anywhere unless you are literally just walking along the water.

I really fell in love with the island, with its stone paths connecting the 10 different communities. I saw the island to be filled with with trees, houses and farm plots. There are no vehicles – everyone walks. (Though I did see one motorcycle in the two days I was there.)

The Inca’s chair was a beautiful spot on the beach and I camped out there until lunch, writing, and then returned after lunch to watch the sunset.

placeholder://

Dinner was delicious and a really great conversation, including Romulo showing me a photo of Silveria and complimenting her to me (with her sitting there in the kitchen) saying what a beautiful wife he had and what a great cook she was. I practiced a few of the Quechua words they had taught me, commenting that the food was delicious and thanking them for it:

“Sumaq micqvi” – delicious food!
“Yoshparasonki” – Thank you!

(My Quechua spelling is surely not correct, but that’s how I remembered to pronounce it.)

Muña- the minty-smelling herb that helps with the altitude and stomach problems. We had fresh muña tea every meal!

Before daylight broke the next morning, I left the warmth of the 6 heavy blankets and headed out to run/walk up to the highest point of the island, the sanctuaries to Pachamama and Pachatata, to watch the sun rise and start the day with some yoga and meditation at 4,000 meters (13,000 feet).

Starting at 3,800m, and climbing to 4,200m (13,000 feet) was not a walk in the park and I had to stop to breathe a few times and also take off some layers, but in about 45 minutes I reached the sanctuary and did a few sun salutations because, well, for obvious reasons.

While I was meditating I heard what sounded like a fan motor off to my left. Then I suddenly heard it in my my right ear, I opened my eyes and was amazed to see a hummingbird (“luli”) floating just one foot from my face, checking me out and whispering (quite loudly) in my ear, with its thousands-of-beats-per-minute wing-flapping motor. After 3 seconds it flew away, but left me feeling like I had just received a message from Pachamama delivered by a Chaski* in the form of a hummingbird.

After breakfast, I had to say goodbye, and I mentioned that I was sad to be leaving because I really felt at home with them and was so thankful for their hospitality, and as I saw their faces light up with genuine happiness, I was really touched to have met such kind people that opened their homes and lives to me for a couple of days!

When I had arrived, I had greeted them with the handshake, hug and air kiss that I was used to in Peru, but awkwardly found that they were expecting only the handshake. Out of habit I accidentally made that mistake twice! But upon leaving, they each reached out for a hug, and I felt a special connection to this family and this beautiful island in the middle of the highest navigable lake in the world.

Famous Footnotes:

*Pachamama – the Incan word for mother earth, which is revered with a god-like respect and reverence

*Chaskis were the Incan messengers that traveled the Incan roads delivering messages throughout the Incan Empire

*Luli – what Silveria called the hummingbird – maybe the Quechua or a local word for the hummingbird. She said it was a sign of good luck for my journey

*Chullo – the warm hat with ear flaps commonly used in the mountains of Peru and Bolivia. I learned from Romulo that if your ear flaps have dangly balls like mine, you can tie the earflaps back when you are eating so they don’t get in the way!

Between Two Worlds

For many, part of being a Peace Corps Volunteer is feeling like you are living between two worlds – where you grew up in the US and where are living while you serve. Two-thirds of our role as Peace Corps Volunteers is to try to bridge that gap through fostering intercultural understanding and exchanges.

Last year I found myself living between two worlds, but two different worlds within Peru – and I was surprised to find it more challenging than expected.

While I have always lived in cities of more than 1 million my entire life, I adapted pretty seamlessly (not without challenges, but generally pretty seamlessly) to my new, rural lifestyle in Peru, thanks to great friends and a great host family. Then, after two years, I started dating someone from Lima – that fast-moving mega city of around 8 million people, and specifically, someone from a higher socio-economic status in Lima.

gestion.pe

A few months in I started to feel the stark contrast between the culture in which I was living in my Peace Corps site, and the culture of upper class Lima. While I had known that Peru was a diverse country with a great diversity of cultures within the country, I now started to see more clearly a lot of differences between the upper class lifestyle in Lima and an average lifestyle in “provincia”. (Anywhere in Peru that is not Lima is considered “Provincia”).

Many people think of the world in terms of rich countries and poor countries… people speak of “the developing world” and “the developed world”, or “the third world” and “first world countries”. You have probably heard and even used these terms, and it’s common to think that each country fits into one of those categories.

Image Creator:Rosamond Hutt, from “Is the term ‘developing world’ outdated?”, World Economic Forum

Unfortunately, this distinction in wealth is much more common than the reality that WITHIN every country, there is an economic divide between the wealthy and the poor.

In Brazil, a country considered “developing”, there are more than a quarter million millionaires. Meanwhile, about 12% of the US population lives in poverty (US Census Bureau, 2017), and about 1.5 million experience homelessness in a year, in a country considered “developed”.

In some countries, this divide in wealth is not as pronounced; the countries considered “wealthy” that have the lowest poverty rates are:

  1. Finland – 6.3%
  2. Czech Republic – 6.4%
  3. Netherlands – 7.9%
  4. France – 8.1%
  5. Norway – 8.1%
  6. Slovak Republic – 8.4%
  7. Austria – 8.7%
  8. Slovenia – 9.2%
  9. Sweden – 9.2%
  10. Belgium – 9.9%
  11. UK – 10.9%

But I digress.

Over the last few years in a rural but somewhat progressive town in Peru, I have grown accustomed to my lifestyle and that of those around me. My family lives paycheck to paycheck. I work with people in the more rural farming communities, where most are farmers and others sometimes have work and sometimes don’t. The people around me always have food, but they don’t always have the healthiest variety of food. Sometimes we don’t plug in the refrigerator because of concern about being able to pay the electric bill.

My host nephew here is a dinosaur fanatic, like many kids his age. He plays dinosaurs every day at school and always talks about them. When I saw that my nephews in the states had gone to a museum and saw dinosaur bones and all kinds of things about dinosaurs, I realized that it is unlikely that my host nephew here would get the opportunity to do that before his dinosaur phase passes.

I have definitely been living more with the concept of “scarcity mentality” – making decisions in the moment based on the idea that there are limited resources, (not enough time or money for example). When we operate in this “scarcity mentality”, sometimes we sacrifice long-term benefits because we are operating to stretch what little we have in the moment (minimizing the grocery bill by buying fewer fruits and vegetables, we will have more money for other bills in the short term, even though we might be paying higher medical bills in the long term). We also do this with time – we don’t feel like we have enough time, so we don’t do that 30 minutes of exercise or self-care that we know we should do.

With fewer resources coming into my bank account over the last few years, I certainly started to adopt more and more of a penny-pinching scarcity mentality, without even realizing it.

Then, as I began spending time in social circles with people who grew up in wealthy families in Lima, I suddenly found myself in a different world for a few days at a time. On one hand, the culture of natural products, expensive health food, gym memberships, and that urban upper and upper-middle class lifestyle was a comfortable reminder of my life in DC before Peace Corps.

But at the same time, I was not receiving a salary that could support that type of lifestyle, and I found that I had a hard time bridging the gap in our current experiences and connecting with people in that circle because of the difference in our economic experiences. Maybe because I didn’t have the language (in Spanish), or maybe I just couldn’t wrap my head around the differences (and also didn’t have the language in English!)

The paradox is that I had left a very comfortable economic situation – on purpose. I was trying to experience and embrace what it was like to live with a lower economic status, or less economic power, to appreciate that reality and understand it better. And now, I was simultaneously trying to relate to people who had grown up in wealth their whole lives, were used to a culture of comparing wealth and trying to always have the best and latest things. They had never experienced poverty, and would never risk being poor, wanted to ensure that no one ever saw them as poor, or even as less wealthy.

Peace Corps teaches us to adapt to different cultures and situations, and I tried to navigate these different worlds as best as possible. Focusing on things we had in common, I was able to fit in fairly well, especially because of my previous lifestyle. It was exciting to be able to walk between the two worlds, and I realized it was quite a privilege to be able to do that. But there was always an underlying disconnect that I couldn’t put my finger on.

It was really nice to eat big, healthy salads in nice restaurants (but I worried about spending that much). It was nice to see new beaches in the south, but I cringed knowing that only people with money could afford to have property there and enter and enjoy them. I found it interesting to get from place to place in Lima in a personal car instead of bus, public van, or taxi (though I worried about the carbon footprint). I saw the world of people with nannies and gym memberships and who spent the summer in their beach houses outside the city, and it contrasted sharply with the lifestyle I was living in my site.

At the time I didn’t realize it, but my host family had trouble understanding the world of my partner and often felt intimidated or looked-down-upon. My partner couldn’t fully understand the economic pressures that led to the scarcity mentality that my family had for certain things, or why I was so stingy with my money for certain things, (and honestly, I didn’t even realize that my relationship with money had changed!) I could not find the words and the appropriate communication to bridge that gap, partly because I was still trying to wrap my head around what I was experiencing.

It is hard for anyone to understand how to navigate the disparity in wealth we experience, especially as we are each just trying to make sure that we maximize our own wealth to live comfortable lives. While my experience navigating two economic worlds has been a challenging one, I am really thankful that it has made me more aware of the world in which we live. A few highlights:

-Our economic situation actually impacts our paradigms, habits, hobbies, experiences, and even our friends a lot more than we often realize. It can be really eye-opening to reflect on how our economic situation impacts all those areas of our life…take a minute to think about it.

And then I would recommend that we consciously try to branch out of our bubble of comfort to connect with people in a variety of different economic situations. It is so important to stop thinking of “poor” people – people with less opportunities and in a tougher economic situation – as inherently different from us, lazy, unintelligent, or less valuable people. You are not less valuable or lazier or less intelligent than everyone who has more wealth than you.

-A team is only as strong as its weakest player. And a community is only as wealthy as its poorest. If we don’t “mind the gap” – the wealth gap, that is – if we just let it get wider and wider, it can eventually lead to a breaking point in our society.

-It’s so important to recognize our own “scarcity mentalities” and make sure they are accurate. Do we really not have enough time to take care of our own health? Do we really not have enough money or time to choose the healthy food option over the crappy one? (On a side note, we really are depleting the world’s natural resources and they are becoming scarcer every year, so I would also ask, do we really not have enough time or money to choose the environmentally friendly option?)

-And finally, reconsider “Ambition”

Most people just generally want to make more money, no matter how much they are currently making. Sometimes we carry around a fear that if we aren’t maximizing our wealth, we will end up poor in the streets one day. Interestingly, in my circles in Peru, describing a person as “ambitious” doesn’t always have a positive connotation like it does in English. Here, people are also described negatively as “ambitious” when they try to make more money just for the sake of making more money, and then neglect relationships or other human priorities.

While we should always want to improve, if we can change the “ambitious” mindset from only focusing on having more wealth for ourselves and our family, and ambitiously aim for a balanced life where we also look out for the most vulnerable people in our communities, within our own country, and within the human community, we will all live more peacefully and happily.

 

Footnotes: References and further reading:

Poverty data from www.lovemoney.com

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/08/which-countries-have-the-most-wealth-per-capita/

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/11/is-the-term-developing-world-outdated/

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.)

Guilty Privilege (Solidarity, Part II)

One day, early on in my service at the dinner table I listened to my host dad talk about how during work that day he had seen poverty like he’d never seen before. He was born in a pretty poor family with 14 brothers and sisters, and he was kicked out of the house to make it on his own when he was about 12…. so when he said that, I didn’t take it lightly.

He is a driver for the municipality and he had gone with the mayor to deliver Panetones (the Italian Christmas fruit cake, which is the symbol of Chrismas here) to some communities a few hours away. (It is a common Christmas-time political activity that the mayor goes out to certain communities to give away Panetones).

At the dinner table, my host dad described the families he saw as moms, dads, and lines of kids, expressionless, or with dejected looks on their faces. Since my host dad is also one to cynically complain about social programs, usually insinuating that they shouldn’t even exist because too many people take advantage of them, to hear him be touched by seeing people in need receiving a Christmas cake was really moving.

Earlier in the day that same day, I had been extremely upset because I had found out that I wasn’t going to be able to go with my friends to hike the Inca Trail and that I was losing $300 in the process. Suddenly, my anger and frustration was replaced by sadness… and then…guilt.

What a privilege to be able to lose $300 and still feed myself, and basically live a normal life. What a privilege to even be able to plan to go to Cusco and hike the Inca Trail…something that the vast majority of Peruvians haven’t been able to do, even though it is one of the 7 wonders of the world, in their own country!

Then I started to wonder: Am I doing enough? I am working in the provincial capital, with the government and non-profit institutions, with people who have had the opportunity to have a higher education and who live relatively comfortable lives in the urban center. I am working with the community that is closest to the city center, that has much more access to resources than the families my host dad saw today. Am I doing the right thing? Am I doing enough? Is it fair that I have all that I really need, a pretty comfortable life, working in comfortable conditions, while people are out there struggling so much? Should I be working harder, more hours, longer days, sleeping less?

I often have had these similar thoughts and feelings of doubt when I think about how much my host mom and dad work. I feel like such a princess, eating well every day, sleeping in a comfortable bed, waking up and working on my own schedule, even sometimes taking naps after lunch! And even though I don’t receive a real salary, every month Peace Corps sends me enough money to pay rent, buy food, and cover my basic expenses, (and since I’m frugal, I can even put a little away to take vacation within the country a few times a year).

I’m not saying I have it easy or live like a queen. My job isn’t the easiest job in the world. I have to coordinate between many different institutions, learn about the laws and regulations that drive their work, help them meet their goals and coordinate their work, and help them not only check the boxes but actually find ways they can help the 50-70 different communities in the district improve their access to clean water…

And I am working in my second language, so I am constantly trying extra hard to understand people, and extra hard to communicate like a professional. On top of my daily work, I have to constantly study and try to improve my language skills, as well as learning to navigate a culture that I didn’t grow up in.

So I know that I’m working hard and doing meaningful work. I know that I deserve to be paid for what I am doing. But that doesn’t keep me from having those moments where I feel guilty and I ask:

But should I be doing more? Should I be doing something different? Should I feel guilty?

 

Fast-forward a year in my service, and all the hard work I put into coordinating among institutions and doing that office work led to our team receiving a grant. With these funds, we were now able to have a more constant presence in the communities we serve, do hands-on trainings and basic maintenance to some systems, and work with local students, giving them a chance to learn so they could serve their communities in the future.

It started to become more and more clear the important role that wealth and privilege pay in development. If I had just sat around feeling guilty for having a little bit more wealth and privilege than some, or depriving myself of sleep or opportunities to work with local institutions, I would have continued to be limited and unable to help my community. But instead, I leveraged the privileges I had to try to improve the situation for my community. Also, if I had not committed to working with the hard-working, educated, more well-off people in the local institutions, we would not have been able to win the grant which provided resources for working more hands-on with people from different communities, providing on-site support that improved the quality of water service in those communities. (On the flip side, if I had ONLY worked within the institutions and not gone out to the rural communities, I would not have had a good understanding of what the real needs were, so both working at the institutional level and out in the field, talking to people in the communities has been important in identifying appropriate interventions.)

In my last post, I asked:

Do I deserve the privileges I have any more than the next person? How do I manage my feelings around some people having more privileges than others? What can I do to help people without these privileges enjoy them too?

I don’t believe the question I should ask is whether I deserve to have the privileges that I have; instead the question should be: “How can I use the privileges I have to help improve the quality of life for others?”

By answering that question and actually making strides in improving the quality of life of others, I will then deserve the privileges I have.