9 Days in Bolivia with Engineers Without Borders

Bolivia with Engineers without Borders

In August of this year I traveled to Bolivia with my university’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders. We have a clean water project there, and our mission was to go down and install a chlorinator. The project is at the University Academica Campesina (UAC) in Carmen Pampa, which is near Coroico, Bolivia. The UAC educates the local people in subjects like agronomy, nursing, tourism, and veterinary science at an affordable cost. There is an upper campus and a lower campus of the UAC and also the community of Carmen Pampa. The group had already installed a chlorinator for the upper campus, and we went down to install a chlorinator for the lower campus as well. I was the Education Chair of our chapter, so I was in charge of the presentations about the chlorinators that we did on both campuses, and, as one of the few Spanish-speakers on the trip, I also did a lot of translating.

Day One: Yungas Road & UAC Tour

Our journey started with several flights–Sioux Falls to Dallas, Dallas to Miami, and then Miami to La Paz. We arrived at the La Paz airport very early in the morning, and the first thing most of us noticed was the altitude–the air was noticeably thinner than it was on the plane. We made it through customs and met Sarah, a UAC volunteer from the US who guided us throughout our stay. We then all piled into a bus and went into La Paz to pick up some supplies, stopping at a lookout point along the way. The view of the city was beautiful, and it was huge, a valley covered in small copper-colored brick houses. Breakfast on the bus was yogurts and a delicious fruit called granadilla (it tasted somewhere between a kiwi and an orange). Once we’d picked up the supplies, we drove along the Yungas Road to Coroico. The views of the mountains were spectacular, and we saw some llamas, a lake, frozen waterfalls, and the entrance to the famous Death Road. The trip from La Paz to Coroico was only supposed to take a few hours, but it took more like 5-6 because the bus overheated a few times and we had to stop and pour water in the radiator to cool it down. I didn’t really mind though, because the scenery was so pretty where we stopped. After a while we descended in altitude and the scenery changed from the altiplano/mountains to cloud forest.

We finally arrived on campus, dropped off our luggage and ate lunch. Lunch and dinner generally consisted of rice, fried chicken, French fries, fried bananas, and Coke. Lunch is the largest meal of the day, so sometimes it usually had a soup course before the rest of the food. I wasn’t a huge fan of the food, since I don’t eat a lot of fried food in general, and it was fairly monotonous eating basically the same thing for two meals a day. After eating, we took a tour of the campus. The UAC is really neat, they have organic gardens, a recycling area, a library, plenty of classrooms, one room that gets satellite internet, a church, and an area where they keep pigs and other animals for the veterinary students. There is an upper and lower campus, and there is about a 1500 ft difference in elevation between the two, so taking the steep trail between the two could leave you pretty breathless. We were pretty tired and jetlagged after the first day, and because the electricity there is pretty unreliable, most of the people basically go to bed at dark anyway, so we did too. We were pretty excited to celebrate Bolivia’s independence day in Coroico the next day!

Day Two: Bolivian Independence Day in Coroico

We took a bus into Coroico early in the morning and got off a little ways from the city, which we could see through the morning fog. The square was all decked out with balloons and streamers in the colors of the Bolivian flag–yellow, green and red. We had some mate de coca (don’t worry–as many tourist shirts in La Paz say, “la coca no es la cocaina”) at a cafe and then explored the fruit and vegetable market and people-watched in the square. Not too many stores were actually open, since so many people would be in the parade, but there was a really great store run by a British woman that had chocolates, coffee, and Bolivian handicrafts. I picked up a pottery frog, some chocolate, and some scarves there. The parade was supposed to start around 10am or so, but things definitely ran on “Bolivian time” and they waited for everyone to arrive. The parade didn’t really get started until about noon. There weren’t floats or anything like that, just people marching in different groups, but it was cool to see everyone decked out in their best dress (many of the women wore bowler hats and traditional polleras, originally a peasant skirt they were forced to wear by Spanish colonial authorities that is now worn as a symbol of indigenous pride) and all the banners, pins, and ribbons in the colors of the Bolivian flag.

We ate at Carla’s Garden Pub for lunch, which is run by Germans. It was a wonderful little haven with a cute tiled bathroom which had toilet paper, a sink, and even a toilet seat! (Not too many places actually had those in Bolivia). We had some great food, amazing views, and there was even free (actually working) wifi, so it’s definitely recommended if you’re in Coroico!

When we got back to campus, we hiked up to the waterfall along a trail above the upper campus of the UAC. This waterfall is actually the source of the water that we chlorinate for the community. It was a bit slippery and steep along the trail, and I’d twisted my ankle in La Paz the day before (which meant I was hobbling around with a stick most of the time I was in Bolivia), so I didn’t go all the way down to the waterfall. The last part was a pretty steep downhill stretch with a dropoff along the side, so I decided to stay at the top there. I could hear the waterfall and just barely see it through the trees. Meghan was nice enough to wait up there with me and we hoped we’d have time to hike up there again before we left (we did, on the last day, which was nice). We got back a little before dark, ate dinner, played some card games, and then headed to bed, ready to start work on the chlorinator the next day.

Day Three: Work on the Chlorinator

We headed down to the lower campus in the morning and I was part of the team that stayed and worked on making the PVC pipe into a chlorinator. Most of that team was actually from Connecticut (Dr. B, who had been the advisor for SDSU’s EWB chapter moved to a different university, brought four students from that school, while Dr. Min, our new advisor, brought the seven of us). The team members from Connecticut had practiced assembling the chlorinator back home before, so I was mainly there to help translate.

We all met up again for lunch, and afterwards Lura and I went back to the upper campus. I was the education chair for the group, and Lura also speaks Spanish well, having spent the summer before working an internship in Chile, so we were in charge of the educational presentations about the chlorinator and water conservation. That night we would be presenting on the upper campus, and the next night on the lower. We went and had one of the students who is quite fluent in English on the upper campus help us with the presentation to make sure our Spanish grammar was correct and made sense, and we also practiced it a few times.

After dinner we set up for and then gave the presentation. I think the presentation went pretty well, though I was pretty nervous about it. We had lots of students attend and seem interested, and quite a few ask questions about the chlorination and water afterwards. One of the goals was to find some students who would like to be in charge of testing the chlorination levels and putting new tablets in every so often, and we had a few who were interested, so that was really good news!

Day Four: Rainy Day

The fourth day there was a huge, dark cloud over the valley and it rained into the afternoon. This was really strange, because it was the dry season in Bolivia, and in past years they had never had this much rain that time of year. We couldn’t really do anything on the chlorinator, so we spent most of the day sitting around–playing cards or chess, reading, etc.–and hoping we would still be able to get everything done on the chlorinator with the bad weather, since the mason couldn’t work in the rain. We had the PVC part of the chlorinator done, but we needed the mason to make the sealed box that the chlorinator goes in before we could install it. I also explored the campus a little more and took some pictures in the few times when the rain let up a little, and then I tried to get the internet to work for a while, but it never really did. Our mood was considerably dampened with the weather and the possibility that we may not complete our project.

We still did our second presentation on the lower campus that night, and it went pretty well too. We had a good turnout despite the rain, and we were glad that we could at least complete our education projects while we were in Bolivia, even if we may not get the chlorinator done.

Day Five: Surveying & The Committee for Clean Water

The next day dawned without any thunderclouds, and we were all relieved until we found out that the mason was unwilling to work on a Saturday. That meant that we would be unable to finish our chlorinator project while we were there, and we were all disappointed. However, we set off to survey for the next phase of our water purification–sand filters. First we surveyed the site for the lower campus sand filters, then the spot for the upper campus sand filters. We had a hard time finding the trail from the road to the first site, and we overshot it by quite a bit, going too far down the road which was very muddy from the rain yesterday. We had to stop and ask a local for directions, but we ended up seeing a wild monkey in the trees while we were talking to him, which was really cool! We then headed back down the trail and machete’d our way through the jungle along the road for a while before we finally found the site. We had to machete down some of the undergrowth around the site, and then we started surveying. I wrote down the surveying measurements and made a rough sketch of the place. It was fun to learn to use the surveying equipment, and the machetes were quite fun too! We repeated the process for the upper campus site after lunch, and then headed back to the campus. Sarah asked if Lura, Meghan, Dr. Min and I would like to attend a meeting of the committee for clean water, a group of men from the community of Carmen Pampa, so we headed down to the lower campus.

We’d been feeling really down about not getting the chlorinator done, but we felt a lot better after the committee meeting. It turns out the mason had been unwilling to work that day, not really because it was Saturday, but because he wanted to put the chlorinator in a different spot so that it could serve both the lower campus and the community. Carmen Pampa had had chlorinated water about 20 or 30 years ago, but the dosage was way too high or something–basically, they’d had a bad experience with it–so for the past few years when we had talked to the community members about chlorinating their water, they hadn’t wanted it, and so we were only going to chlorinate the water for the UAC. However, at the meeting we learned that the community is now onboard with the chlorinated water too, so we would be able to move the chlorinator to a different water tank to serve both the lower campus and the community of Carmen Pampa. They also let us know that a lot of their pipes are old and they’ve been having issues with having a lot higher flow rate than usual, so basically, we should be able to help them with those issues too, and serve even more people.

One thing that was a little strange for me at the meeting was that all the men sat at the front of the room, and the women sat at the back. Dr. Min, Meghan, Lura, Sarah and I all sat on a bench at the front of the room. I suppose it was good that the women could go to the meeting at all, but only one of them spoke during it, and it didn’t exactly seem encouraged. It was a bit strange, the five of us sitting at the front, all being far more educated than anyone in the room, but I felt that we still weren’t quite seen as ‘equals’ because we are women. I felt an odd mix of sadness at the whole seating situation, and gratitude that I’ve never grown up with the feeling that my place is at the back of the room because of my gender.

At the end of the meeting, the committee members all thanked us and one of them gave a really nice speech about how la luz (electricity) and agua puro (clean water) are two basic needs that everyone should have, but that they have a really hard time accomplishing for themselves, and they were really grateful for all of our help.

After we went back to the upper campus and told all the other group members, everyone felt quite a bit better about not being able to complete the project. We had more work to do with fixing the old pipes and the flow problems, plus putting the chlorinator in a different location. We had told them that it may take some time to raise the funds, but that we will do our best to help them with everything. We had still completed our educational presentations on both campuses, collected surveying data for both the sand filter sites, and now had more to work on, more people to serve with our chlorinator, and more work to do on the rest of their water system, so we felt the trip was still successful after all.

Day Six: La Senda Verde Wildlife Refuge & Waterfall Hike

This was our last day in Carmen Pampa, and since it was Sunday it was our free/fun day. I spent some time photographing and exploring the campus in the morning, then we all took a taxi down to La Senda Verde Nature Refuge in the valley below Coroico.

The drive down was beautiful, with great views along the twisting road of the forested mountains and river at the bottom of the valley. A Scottish volunteer at La Senda Verde gave us a tour, and we saw plenty of monkeys, macaws and parrots, a toucan, turtles and tortoises, and a caiman. The wildlife refuge mostly rescues animals that would have been trafficked as exotic pets or that weren’t cared for properly–for example, the caiman was in a tiny tank in an Asian restaurant in La Paz. It’s been permanently stunted by being in the tank and it had a skin infection when they rescued it, but now it can live in better conditions at the refuge. They also have two Andean bears, but we weren’t there at feeding time, so we weren’t able to see them. The monkey area is the big attraction, because they roam free and will climb on you and such. You have to take everything out of your pockets before you go into that section, and follow certain rules to make sure the monkeys stay calm (for example, no crouching because they see that as submissive). Unfortunately when we were there most of the monkeys were distracted, stealing food from the tortoises (volunteers have to place the tortoises at their food because they are so slow the spider monkeys will literally steal the food from their mouths). Anyway, when we went to the monkey section we saw quite a few capuchins up close, and a few further away, including one that they think has autism, but the spider monkeys that usually climb on people weren’t over there, so we had a calmer experience than most. Afterward we shopped in the little gift shop and ate lunch there. The food was amazing after all the rice and chicken–we were even able to eat some fruit and vegetables, which was a welcome relief. The eating area is screened in all around, so you can still see the monkeys and birds while you dine, and we even glimpsed a coati through the screen! La Senda Verde was really cool, and I think it would be really fun to be a volunteer there in the future–they ask a minimum of two weeks, and your room and board is very inexpensive while you’re there. If you can spend 60 days, you can even be an adopted parent for a baby monkey!

We took the bus back up to Carmen Pampa and did the waterfall climb again. This time I made it down to the bottom, though I went down the last part on all fours because it was quite steep and still a little slippery. It was definitely worth it to see the waterfall! It was quite tall and beautiful. It was also really nice to see a waterfall and not have any other tourists around. It was really cool to see and hear it up in the jungle there, and we took a lot of pictures before heading back down the mountain to the upper campus. Between La Senda Verde and the waterfall hike, we had a really great last day in Carmen Pampa.

Day Seven: La Paz

We drove back to La Paz on the seventh day. Again, it was only supposed to take a few hours, but it took about seven with all the stops to cool down the radiator. The bus seemed to be even worse off than on the way there, and we kept having to pull over near little streams up in the mountains so we could fill plastic pop bottles with cool water to pour in the radiator. The views along that road are so beautiful though–it’s probably one of the most scenic drives I’ve ever been on–that I didn’t really mind. I was able to get a whole bunch of pictures. One of the strange things about both our bus rides between Coroico and La Paz (there and back) was that the bus driver was playing very loud 80s pop music, such as Material Girl by Madonna or Touch Me by Samantha Fox, during the drive. It seemed so discordant with the landscape, and it made us all laugh, but now every time I hear one of those eight or so songs that were playing on repeat, I’m immediately transported back to that bus and that drive in Bolivia.

We finally arrived in La Paz midafternoon. We checked into our hostel and then decided to eat–I was starving because I didn’t eat breakfast, not knowing it would be so late before we got into La Paz. We ate at a cafe across the street from our hostel that had some pictures of people and places all over the world. After all the fried chicken and rice, I treated myself to some chocolate pancakes with strawberries and a glass of white wine. It was amazing. I was really surprised though, when I was kind of flushed after one fairly large glass of white wine. Later I found out that at higher altitudes, a serving of wine/beer/etc. is equal to about 2 or 2.5 at about a regular altitude!

We were supposed to tour El Ceibo chocolate factory in La Paz, but we didn’t have time with getting there so late, so instead we just shopped around the neighborhood where we were staying in La Paz. There were actually some great souvenirs, like really pretty fabrics, alpaca wool sweaters and scarves, silver and Bolivianite (ametrine) jewelry, and other trinkets. There were also some strange things like llama fetuses–we tried not to look at those! For dinner we all walked down the hill to a nice restaurant, passing San Francisco Cathedral and San Francisco Square on the way down. The restaurant had great food. I tried llama with vegetables and a really nice cheese sauce, and it was all riquisimo! Some gentlemen from a La Paz chapter of the Rotary Club met with us there too, wanting to help support our project. It was a great last dinner all together. The walk back up the hill to the hostel was much more tiring than expected; La Paz is at a higher altitude than Carmen Pampa, so we didn’t have enough time to get used to the altitude. And we went to bed pretty early, happy to be sleeping on a comfortable bed once again, and trying to make sure we got some sleep before our early flight the next morning.

Day Eight & Nine: The Journey Home

Getting home took a very long time. With the altitude in La Paz, the pressure is too low to fill the plane’s tank with enough fuel to get to Miami, so after an hour of flying we had to land in a different city, get off the plane for an hour while they refueled, then had to go back through security and get on the plane again. Then we flew on to Miami, and from there to Dallas. We stayed overnight in a hotel there, before taking an afternoon flight that finally got us back to Sioux Falls, where Ryan picked me up and took me back to Brookings.

Our group back in South Dakota
Our group back in South Dakota

The whole trip was a great experience and I really loved helping with the clean water project in Carmen Pampa. I loved Bolivia–the people were so friendly, the country was beautiful, the Spanish was easy to understand (people speak slowly and, for the most part, without slang), and everything was so cheap! (Think 75 cents for a full meal with a Coke). We all felt perfectly safe the whole time we were there, especially in Carmen Pampa, since it was a rural area. I loved visiting the UAC and learning how they are working for the good of the campesinos and the environment, with their focus on affordable and useful education, recycling, organic foods, etc. It was so great to experience the culture there, even the parts that I didn’t like as much, such as the food and things running on “Bolivian time”. I’m so used to to-do lists, schedules, and being punctual in the US, that at first it was really uncomfortable not having that sort of mentality in Bolivia, but after I got used to it, it was really freeing. I’m so grateful that I was able to be a part of this experience, and I’m excited to keep helping out with Engineers Without Borders back at school, because I really want to continue to help this community to have better health through clean water, or, as they call it, agua puro.

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