Along for the ride
Join us for the journey of a lifetime across Bolivia to visit some of MCC’s most rural partners.
We’re quite the sight to take in. Thirteen men riding convoy style on motorcycles with support vehicles cushioning each end. When they all accelerate at the same speed, and the sun beams down on pavement, it almost looks like they’re swans gliding across a lake. On rough terrain, the journey is more difficult, navigating narrow pathways through mountains one by one.
I’m tagging along for the trip to take photos of the week from a support vehicle. Capturing memories means participants can focus on the road and be present to the moment–riding across Bolivia on a motorcycle to visit some of MCC’s partners in Bolivia.
I imagine you, like me, aren't prepared to ride your own motorbike through the Bolivian Andes. But I invite you to join me for a quieter version of the learning tour; to see the faces, take in the landscapes and learn about the complexities of life here. All from the comfort of your couch.
Welcome to Casa de la Amistad (in English, House of Friendship). After a day of riding in the rain and cold, being indoors is a welcome break. The building is bursting with energy; kids moving past us quickly to their classrooms, teachers shushing kids up the stairs and Carla Bottani, the director, greeting us all with a big smile.
Casa de la Amistad is right next to a men and women’s prison in Cochabamba. If a prisoner there has children under the age of 6, they live in the cell together with their parents. Prisoners are expected to pay rent for their cell, earning income by selling things like handmade furniture. Many of these kids grow up with education taking a backseat to other family priorities like helping their family earn income.
Casa de la Amistad is a safe haven for these kids, a place to learn from supportive teachers. MCC is supporting Casa de la Amistad through a young adult SEED participant Andrea Castro, who is working with children and mothers.
Despite the circumstances they face, their joy is undeniable. Room by room, they welcome us with songs, dance and homemade crafts. The high school students share openly about their dreams for the future, like becoming a doctor, engineer and teacher.
Greg McClintock, one participant of the learning tour reflects after the experience, “Listening to the kids today, the songs and that last group sharing their hopes and dreams … that’s powerful, that hope they still have. They’re thinking about the future and that’s exciting for me."
When we arrive to Condor Huacha, it’s mid-morning and the sun is already piercing. There are no trees to provide shade for relief, so we sit on a nearby thick stone fence as the community gathers.
We learn that MCC partner Baptist Organization of Social Development (OBADES) is helping this community by providing potato seeds which can grow in this dry climate. They’re training farmers on sustainable agriculture techniques to learn to adapt to climate change. It’s nearing the end of the dry season, so they haven’t seen rain for nearly six months. But knowing how to make the most of their crop production, by storing potatoes underground, means they can have a steady source of food even in turbulent times.
Lunch in Puytucani
For lunch we stop in Puytucani. They’ve been waiting for us to arrive so we can participate in a traditional method of cooking underground called wathia. As men hop off their bikes, the community gathers to the pit they’ve dug, placing a pot of llama meat on the bed of coals. Working quickly, it’s covered by potatoes and then with dirt. The energy and anticipation is palpable, and the community is quick to share stories with us as we wait for our meal to cook below us.
After a day of learning about climate realities from rural farmers and seeing first-hand the dry landscape in which they live and work, the pile of potatoes on my plate, cooked slowly underground hits different. To delight in this potato alongside them is a celebration of resilience and the team at OBADES, dedicated to finding solutions to food security.
The ride to Lujo is long and treacherous. Men ride slowly and stop often to brainstorm how they’re going to pass up the ragged incline that feels too close to the mountain’s edge for comfort. We all wait behind with bated breath, nothing to do but snap a photo or two of the breath-taking view.
We’re greeted by the traditional sounds of a pan flute, a thumping bass of a portable drum and men and women in traditional clothing and bright hats. A celebration is happening, they’re waiting for our arrival.
Today is the inaugural celebration of a new watershed management system that MCC partner Programa de Desarrollo Integral Interdisciplinario (PRODII) has been helping with. We continue to navigate the rocky mountain scape but this time on foot, scaling downhill until we see a small pool of fresh water that’s been extracted from the mountain above. This community farms in harsh weather conditions; dry and at a high altitude of over 3,600m. To have an easily accessible water source is life-changing. (Read more about how watershed systems work here.) It’s a reason to celebrate, and worth the breathless trek back up to the mountain later that afternoon.
Anna Muñoz ushers us into her green house. It’s a narrow adobe structure that’s built to retain moisture and heat. The contrast of the dry areas we’ve seen in Bolivia to the lush and thriving plants inside is a shock to our senses. Herbs fill the space with strong aroma, and we see the delicate peas climb up toward the roof on strings. Anna points to them, calling out their Spanish name. She’s proud of what she’s grown, as she should be.
Anna’s been working on her greenhouse for 12 years with the support of Fundación Communidad y Axión (FCA). MCC is supporting FCA through a SEED participant Erin Moyer, who assists people like Anna in urban sustainability projects like greenhouses. With this community of support, Anna is working towards self-sufficiency, no longer needing to buy all her vegetables at the market. She can supply her own food for her family. Vicky Mamani Sirpa, who was once a project participant and now works with FCA believes in the cyclical nature of greenhouse training. It starts with one family, and soon neighbours can see the fruits of their labour and want to join. Participants teach others how to construct a greenhouse and the technical requirements of caring for each plant. The cycle of giving continues.
"I no longer have to go to the market to buy vegetables," another participant Melissa Luna says. "I can get them all here. When we buy in the market, we don’t know what chemicals there are, if it's good, and the taste is different. It's very healthy this way."
To end our trip with an abundance of things that are green, fresh and alive is something special. These families are making the most of the resources they have and the strong sun above them to produce more than enough to share.
Reflecting on the experience
On one of our last nights together, we take a moment to gather and rest our tired legs. It’s true that these long days and rustic conditions are not everyone’s idea of a vacation. While we could have planned a trip of simply the top tourist destinations in Bolivia, what MCC offers is a chance to follow less travelled pathways in exchange for a rich and meaningful experience. Learning tour participant Len Block comments, “When I say I’ve been to Lujo, how many people can say, ‘Oh yea, I’ve been there too.” Because of the relationships MCC has been forming for years through our partners, doors are open wide to receive and to share freely with strangers like us their stories, food and at times the harsh realities that they face.
Jeff Buckley reflects on one experience early in the trip: “I don’t know if it’s because we’re with MCC as a guide but the hospitality here, for those two families to open their homes up and cook for us, without any reservation - you don’t get that as a tourist."
Rachel Watson of Kitchener, Ontario, is an MCC communications and program support worker in Bolivia.