Imagine entering the barren landscapes of the South American Altiplano. Occasional mud huts dot the arid terrain below a cloudless horizon of endless blue. Blustering winds sweep across immovable boulders. Yellow tufts of grass and straw keep the roaming cattle content. Frigid temperatures bring morning frost, though the afternoon sun dries up fields of scattered potatoes. From a distance, there appears to be nothing of great value just below the towering peaks of the Andes Mountains. Yet, with closer observation - and personal interaction - one realizes the true treasure found here lies within the people...the humble villagers of Bolivia.
This past August, I was again privileged to travel down south with CHOICE Humanitarian and join a service expedition of 32 dedicated volunteers: doctors, nurses, dentists, teachers, and small business professionals. Hot chocolate, soccer games, and altitude sickness united us all throughout the week. Oh, and did I mention a unique sense of humor that deteriorated over time due to exhaustion and cold weather?
We first met together in La Paz and explored this crowded capital that overflows with constant contrasts of colonialism and indigenous roots. First founded in 1548 under the ambitions of Spanish conquistadores, La Paz soon became a major stop in the trade route of silver and tin. Independence from Spain was at last declared in 1825 under the new presidential leadership of Simón Bolivar. Towering snow-capped peaks embrace Nuestra Señora de La Paz at 12,000 feet - creating a "bowl" of cobblestone streets, peaceful plazas, historic chapels, handicraft markets, and flickering lights of hillside slums at dusk. There is an anti-American sentiment among local politicians, but Bolivian citizens reflect a different attitude with their warm smiles and gentle handshakes. We spent our time hunting for bargain souvenirs, feasting on llama and quinoa, and researching the origins of cocaine at El Museo de Coca. Our time here concluded with a proper orientation and a few scoops of rich gelato. Next stop? Huancuyo!
We packed into our vans with a lop-sided tower of luggage balanced on top. We drove out of La Paz and through crowded boroughs where swarms of people congregated around sidewalk vendors selling blackened chicken and black-market accessories. Our interstate soon entered the open landscape, cutting through a redundant terrain of dirt and dead grass shrub. The staggering mountain range of the Andes accompanied our journey until we arrived to our final destination: Huancuyo.
Upon arrival, we shuffled into a quaint concrete building (the village social center) to set up camp for the week ahead. As we prepared our sleeping bags, the village elders seemed a bit apprehensive with our presence there. However, the local children were ecstatic to receive us, eager to touch our hands, hold our cameras, and discover the new entertainment we brought with us: bubbles and frisbees! As the sun descended, we bundled ourselves with warm hats and gloves to protect us from the crisp air. Despite the utter chill of the evening, we were treated with a canopy of brilliant stars that stretched across the sky. It was now time to get some much needed rest as all the service projects were scheduled to begin the next morning.
While numerous workshops and clinics were conducted in several villages across the Batallas district, I was "blessed" to work on another water project (flashback to Guatemala: June 2010). As dentists extracted teeth, I worked on the trenches. As doctors diagnosed arthritis among village women, I still worked on the trenches. And as select volunteers helped families herd their cattle, I was scooping up massive piles of cow dung for household fuel. Hmmm...still not sure how I lucked out on that one.
The village water project was the focus of this CHOICE expedition. Those of us selected to work on this project were assigned to fill the extensive trench that village residents had dug on their own prior to our arrival. As the CHOICE Model of Development explains, villagers are required to contribute their own resources and efforts to a given project when possible. Native families of Huancuyo had committed months to the back-breaking labor required to dig a water trench 2 feet deep into the Andean mountainside.
We had arrived for the next phase of work. We had been invited to Huancuyo to fill that same trench with rock and dirt. Yet, we never imagined what awaited us the first morning of our expedition project. With shovels in hand, we left the village and headed up the mountain. Two hours later into the thinning air, following several false summits up the mountainside, we found the water source and origin of the infamous trench...at 13, 500 feet...overlooking Lake Titicaca (the highest navigable lake in the world). The actual trench was almost 3 miles long! We KNEW that we would NEVER finish filling this trench in just one week!
As village men placed meter upon meter of PVC pipe into the trench, we worked hard right behind them in shoveling large stones and piles of dirt into the open ground. But, we were not alone in our labors. Village men and women - and even small children - utilized handmade shovels to cover the pipe with dirt. Believe it or not, we couldn't keep up with the pace of determined village women...despite swaddled infants on their backs and newborn babies feeding from their breasts. Yes, that is the truth.
To the collective shock of our expedition group, the entire trench was filled and completed...in 3.5 days! I was speechless. And no, the completion was not due to our unique participation. The project was completed due to the collaborative efforts of both sides...laboring together in an inter-cultural exchange of work ethic and mutual support. This is the essence of a true CHOICE expedition.
Now that the trench had been filled, it was time to connect the pipe with the schoolhouse spicket which had been placed weeks in advance. This was to be the site of the official inauguration of the water project...a moment that would celebrate the arrival of potable water to the village of Huancuyo for the first time. We had underestimated the importance of such a celebration. Village women wore their finest - and most vibrant - Bolivian attire...spinning and twirling in a cultural dance that often included our own volunteers! Village leaders gave messages of gratitude, shedding tears for the simple gift of water. And village children, waiting in anticipation, partook of the feast that was placed before them: a complete spread of 15 different potatoes and sauces.
These dear people had waited such a long time for this sacred occasion - to have drinkable water near their homes. The excitement was overwhelming as toddlers splashed in the running water that poured from the spicket. Joy was evident in the weathered faces of villages elders, worn and cracked as a result of the brisk Altiplano air. I could not help but admire such wonderful people. After all, I had served a volunteer mission among the same communities 10 years before.
As a group, we found ourselves on a memorable excursion (post-expedition) to the sacred ruins of Tiahuanaco. First discovered in 1549, this UNESCO World Heritage Site continues to be uncovered through vast excavations. The stone walls and sculpted heads of the temple speak of a pre-Incan empire that dates back to 1500 BC. Once a pilgrimage center centuries before the construction of Machu Picchu, Tiahuanaco is most recognized for its revered Sun Gate - a massive stone portal distinguished for its religious and astronomical symbols sculpted into the arch overhead.
*Prior to embarking on this rewarding expedition, I sailed across Lake Titicaca from the tourist town of Copacabana to the enchanting Isla del Sol (birthplace of Inti - the Incan Sun God). This sacred piece of land hosts several ancient ruins and sacred sites that date back centuries. Quaint hostels and intimate restaurants welcome international guests with roasted llama and red wine. I was soon roaming the rugged trails with a Czech couple, discussing the highlights of Andean culture with thick accents and cameras in hand. We were treated with an enchanting sunset that extended from the Peruvian limits into western Bolivia...then an awe-inspiring sunrise the next morning that illuminated the turquoise waters of Titicaca. A 2-hour return navigation brought me back to the shores of Copacabana, where overzealous street market vendors sold dried potatoes, silver earrings, and a plethora of vibrant Catholic saints and virgins. The entire cost of this brief trip? Just U$30. Based on these pictures? Priceless.