Putting Faith in Action: Quaker Bolivia Link tour to South America

In 2006 Alan and Sue Pim travelled to Bolivia and Peru as part of the Quaker Bolivia Link Project team that visits Bolivia once every two or three years, to discuss the merits of projects that are proposed to the UK and USA Boards of QBL; and other responsibilities might include summarizing projects for the Boards, writing reports after visiting projects, working with the project database and discussing strategy and implementation.

This is their report:

Barbara Flynn, our leader was there to meet us as we flew into La Paz, the capital of Bolivia at 07.00 on a beautiful clear sunny morning. Seventeen of us had met in Miami to fly the last leg of our journey together, we had come from different parts of the US, England, Scotland, Germany, Spain and of course Ireland. La Paz (the airport) is well outside the city on a high, flat plateau at about 13,000ft. Surrounding us were the beautiful snow covered peaks of the Andes over 21,500ft. We sat quietly in a café at the airport to rest a while to begin to get used to the thin atmosphere (only 80% of normal oxygen levels here). To help with fighting the thin air we all had our first cup of “matte de coca”. The American government wants to stop the Bolivian people growing coca but it is part of the Bolivian culture and certainly a cup of coca tea is far less addictive than ordinary tea or coffee and is actually good for you.

Our luggage along with that of two of the Americans failed to turn up and we were travelling at the time when hand luggage was VERY restricted! I had believed the BA captain when he said there was no need to collect our luggage at Miami and check it in again, a process that has been insisted on by the Americans since 9/11. In some ways it was liberating not having luggage but it was rather miserable to have to wear the same clothes we had travelled in when we got up the next day! The luggage that had arrived was tied on top of the two minibuses that took us to Sorata, a picturesque town in a valley surrounded by the Andes.

Sorata is lower than La Paz and we stayed there a few days to get used to the altitude. While there we visited many Quaker Bolivian Link projects high up in the mountains. Mostly water projects bringing water from the melting snow along pipes to the villages. Some villages would just have taps; others would have showers and toilets as well as taps. There is a huge increase in the number of girls attending primary school when a village gets water, as it was the girls’ job to collect water. We also saw irrigation projects and agricultural projects.

Quaker Bolivian Link funds projects that the local communities have asked for. The community will have to do a feasibility study into their project and also be willing to help to do the work in carrying it out. QBL have a lot of requests for funding but they only fund those projects that will help to better the community. They employ four agricultural advisers who come from the local Indian Aymarian community and have been to university and are able to converse in Aymarian and Spanish. We were very impressed with them and their knowledge of agriculture and horticulture and the way they carried on their jobs. There was also a part time accountant who looked after the money end in Bolivia. It is very important to have these people with local knowledge overseeing the projects and visiting regularly to see that everything is working as it should.

To get to these projects we all piled into the back of an open truck, one or maybe two could fit in the cab beside the driver, but it was far more exciting standing up in the back, getting scared by the sheer drops on the sides of the road, as we wound our way upwards on tiny dirt roads as far as we could go. We then had to climb further up the mountain on tiny steep paths until we reached our destination, these walks would often be over an hour.

We would bring bread and fruit towards a shared lunch, luxury items as far as the villagers were concerned. These people were some of the poorest in Bolivia, which is the poorest country in South America. They produce over 600 different types of potatoes; even someone coming from Ireland was amazed at the different varieties! They also had cooked dishes with corn and quinoa with vegetables that were lovely.

While in Sorata we attended the dedication of the Internado (the hostel for children from these high up villages who are attending secondary school in Sorata, which we are so keen to raise money for). Alan and I arrived early and I helped with the food preparations cutting up lettuce and tomatoes. That was alright but then I had to cut onions very thinly and I wasn’t doing it thinly enough, I don’t understand Spanish but I knew that one of the boys from the internado was telling the house mother that I was doing a bad job! Finally the celebrations started; there were lots of speeches, all in Spanish, from local dignitaries and Quakers. Afterwards we had the usual shared lunch. That afternoon when we had free time some of us went with the manager of the hotel on a walk to some caves. The walk was meant to be downhill all the way but we found that a lot was definitely uphill! It was a lovely walk but when we got to the caves we found them pretty boring, not as good as the ones we have here.

On our last day in Sorata, a Sunday, we went to the Quaker church where we got our travelling minute signed and attended the programmed service for about an hour. We then had to leave for La Paz. While in Sorata we had a short Meeting for Worship each evening, which was very special, but it was harder to have it in the hotel in La Paz. When we were staying in a hotel beside Lake Titicaca we had arranged a circle of chairs for our Meeting and a family had sat down in our circle to play cards but we started our meeting despite the card playing. It was amazing how quickly they sensed something was going on and they quietly left us. It was a pity they couldn’t have stayed and worshiped with us.

On our way to La Paz we stopped at the home of one of our minibus drivers and we were all given food and matte de coca or soft drinks. Our minibus drivers were so good to us and looked after us very well, and drove so well over the awful roads. In La Paz we visited more projects. The best had to be the Gregorias project where we visited a group of wonderful ladies and bought some of their beautiful fine quality alpaca products which they had knitted or woven. They gave us an excellent lunch too! We went to a school for children who are mentally and physically challenged – the deaf and mute were there in the afternoon. We were impressed by the staff and the children who were so friendly and gave us big hugs when we left. The school was a catholic school but QBL had funded a booklet for parents of these children with helpful information about their various needs.

One day we set out in the two minibuses for the altiplano (La Paz was first built up there by the Spanish but was quickly abandoned and rebuilt in the valley). A huge flat area, thousands of square miles, very dry, bare, windswept place with few trees. The altitude here is about 13,000 feet, higher than The Alps; although it is in the Tropics it is cold, especially at night where there is a frost 200 nights a year. We went to visit water pumps and various plastic greenhouses which help the villagers to grow all sorts of vegetables which improves their diet especially the children’s, again we had a wonderful meal at a place where the women of the community had got together to organise the viability of their project, unfortunately we had just eaten and weren’t able to do the meal justice! We had spent the morning looking at some pre Inca ruins at Tiwanaka, which was fascinating. The place is a World Heritage Site.

One day the whole of La Paz was blockaded by a transport strike so we couldn’t go to any projects instead we went shopping and sightseeing and got our shoes cleaned; the shoes looked great, almost new again! We had a wonderful meal in a vegetarian café, you could eat as much as you liked for next to nothing in our money. Even though there were heavily armed police around the main streets we never felt threatened by anyone.

We then said good-bye to La Paz and headed to Lake Titicaca, which we had seen in the distance on our way to and from Sorata. It was lovely to finally see this lake that we had first heard about so many years ago in Geography class! It was so beautiful and the colour always seemed to change from day to day. We met one of the boat builders who had been flown to Chad in Africa by Thor Heyerdahl to help build the Ra II. We had a posh lunch in a posh restaurant, very nice. We then left for the Amacari Medical Centre which Irish Friends helped fund. We felt proud when we saw the plaque with “amegos de irlanda” on it. We had to board a boat to cross the straits of Tiquina to the other side of the lake while our minibuses were hauled across on barges. We were very impressed by the centre which has made such a difference to the health of the local people who live in a very isolated part of Bolivia.

As Copacabana was blockaded we couldn’t stay there and had to spend two nights on the shores of Lake Titicaca. We tried to visit a project nearby which had funded the growing of alfalfa and better quality cattle but everybody was at a local rally where the president Evo was speaking. When we got back to the hotel we decided we’d go too! We must have been the only gringos in amongst thousands of locals. The speeches were over and there were various dances going on with wonderfully colourful costumes. Evo is a president of the people and we hope he survives but Bush doesn’t like him! We were glad to be there and see him, in the distance and wave to him when he left by helicopter.

The next day was an early start, as we had to go all the way around the southern coast of the lake to get to Peru, because of the blockade. We said a sad farewell to Barbara and met Malku our guide for Peru who is very knowledgeable about Inca ruins and has written many books on the subject. We visited many Inca and pre Inca sites culminating in Machu Picchu. We visited the floating islands on Lake Titicaca as well as going in a reed boat. We found Peru very touristy compared to Bolivia and we felt we were hustled by the locals to buy goods. On the other hand the roads, accommodation and food were better, but more expensive!

We have started Spanish lessons since coming home in the hope that we can go back to Bolivia and/or to other parts of South America.