Hi everyone! My name is Samantha Carter; I’ve been interning full-time at Mano a Mano in St. Paul all summer and just got back from a two-week trip to Bolivia. I really had no idea what to expect; in the office all summer, I’d been compiling information about grant proposals and projects, creating spreadsheets to manage Mano a Mano’s complex and detailed funding history, keeping track of donations, and helping out with the interior design plans for the new office space. The trip was pretty impromptu – there was a group from Oxford going down to work at the training and demonstration center in August, I mentioned that I would love to travel to Bolivia, and before I knew it, I was applying for a visa so that I could travel with the British students for part of their journey!
Having never been to South America (the closest I’ve gotten is going to Mexico on Spring Break – not exactly the same experience), I was pretty nervous before I left. The only concrete plans we had really set up were the first few days of the visit; there weren’t many set in stone after about the fourth day. It was a little daunting to go on this trip without a schedule for every day; “There will be something for me to do” became my mantra whenever I was worried in the weeks leading up to my departure.
Well, that was definitely the truth. From the moment we landed in Cochabamba, I was going full-speed. I blogged throughout the trip, but there’s a lot to read there (and a lot of unnecessary, though adorable, pictures of stray dogs), so I’ll give you a brief overview of what I did:
Joyce and Alexa (the two other Minnesota volunteers) and I landed in Cochabamba on a Saturday morning after a full day and night of travel. I immediately went with the Oxford group (who had arrived the day before) to visit the demonstration center and get a tour. We saw all the parts of the completely sustainable cycle: plots of fruits and vegetables, a biodigestor to allow efficient use of the waste produced by the livestock, the biological pool to purify liquid waste to water the plants, and the house that could be constructed using only mud and straw. It was really cool, to say the least!
Throughout the week, we visited the Cancha (Cochabamba’s huge open-air market), did some work at the demonstration center, went to the huge statue of Jesus (it’s the largest in the world!), went to a museum, and visited Hospital Viedma, the state-run hospital that serves Cochabamba and Potosi, a neighboring province.
Visiting the hospital was the first time I really felt sad on the trip; there was a clear and pressing need for help, and it was really tough to see. The doctors and nurses there are incredible – they are clearly brilliant people and have had great educations, but they simply don’t have the resources they need to treat all the patients that come in. They use hallways as nursing stations, can only monitor one patient at a time in the maternity ward due to lack of equipment, and the person who makes the chemotherapy medications is on staff to do something completely different (they don’t have another person who can do it). Throughout the whole experience, though, I was struck by the determination of everyone there to do everything they could with what they have. As much as they needed help, nobody was without hope – it was truly amazing.
The first week there, we also got to visit two of the water reservoirs and one of the clinics constructed by Mano a Mano! It was amazing to see them and how they have been sustained over the years; in the 15 minutes we spent in the clinic, at least four people walked in to see the doctor, and the reservoirs were beautiful and full of water, even in the middle of Bolivia’s dry season! Clearly, Mano a Mano has an extremely effective model, one that provides lasting help to its communities (and no, I am not being paid to write this – its just impossible not to be extremely passionate about the organization after seeing it in action).
The second week I was there, my American buddies (Nate, Joyce, and Alexa) had all left, so I spent a bit more time on my own, exploring the city and translating some of the children’s books from Minnesota into Spanish. I also got to visit Toro Toro National Park with the Oxford group for the weekend, go to a festival in Quillacollo (a nearby town), and visit a home for girls run by the Salvation Army. Basically, it was just an amazing trip.
I think that traveling to Bolivia is the only way to really understand how great Mano a Mano is. No matter how eloquently we talk about our projects, no matter how many statistics we have, and no matter how many times we tell our friends how excited we are to be involved with this organization, it’s impossible to convey the dedication, passion, and talent of the staff who are building clinics, planning roads, conducting medical education conferences, and doing so much more in Bolivia. There is no way to understand how truly remote some of these communities are without driving for hours on seemingly endless mountain roads to reach them, or to grasp the need for healthcare without seeing the line stretching throughout multiple hallways just to check in at the hospital. That being said, it’s also impossible for everyone to visit, so we must do whatever we can from wherever we are. I can’t wait to tell people about my trip and about all the ways I saw Mano a Mano helping out in this beautiful country. I can’t wait to pester my friends to donate instead of buying an extra pair of shoes; I’ll have plenty of stories ready to share if they need convincing. And, most of all, I can’t wait to go back to Bolivia in the (hopefully near) future!
The night before I left, I talked to one of the Bolivian volunteers about what Mano a Mano does. I was feeling overwhelmed by how much there still is to be done, and how little it feels like I can do as an individual living in the United States. He reminded me that there is always something you can do. You may never get the chance to see the smile on someone’s face when they receive the wheelchair you donated here in Minnesota; you may never see a dedication ceremony for a clinic after donating a portion of your weekly food budget to its construction; and you may never get to hug a child who is excited about learning because she has a new notebook donated by your child’s elementary school.
But, you can be confident that these miracles are happening every day. No matter whether you donate enough to build a clinic or you simply share the Mano a Mano story with a few of your friends, you can know that you are contributing to the enormous difference being made in this amazing country.
And that is beautiful.