Editor’s Note: The post below was written by Sam Klein, a volunteer from the US that worked with Mano a Mano Internacional in Bolivia for 3 months, from August-October 2016. Sam is an 18-year-old volunteer from Boston, Massachusetts on his breach year from high school, with plans to pursue a degree in journalism.
This is Sam’s eighth and final post; below are links to his previous posts:
- CLICK HERE to read about their first few weeks with Oxford students at the CEA
- CLICK HERE to read about building greenhouses in Tapacari
- CLICK HERE to read about Bolivian farmers visiting the CEA for eco-education
- CLICK HERE to read about volunteers preparing donated medical supplies for distribution in Bolivia
- CLICK HERE to read about Mano a Mano’s newest water reservoir in Wirkini, Bolivia
- CLICK HERE to read about Mano a Mano’s October 8th, 2016 distribution of thousands of pounds of medical supplies
- CLICK HERE to read about farmers and Mano a Mano celebrating the newest water project in Wirkini).
Thanks Sam for all your time and effort with Mano a Mano these past few months!
My Three Months with Mano a Mano – Sam Klein
At 6:30 a.m., one day in mid-August 2016, I stood alone on a dirt road in the second-highest mountain range in the world.
At that altitude, upwards of 14,000 feet, the sun doesn’t rise like it does at sea level. The rarely-clouded sky seems to fill with light as the sun peeks out from between two mountains, then between two others, and so on until, before anybody realizes it, it’s daytime.
That dirt road carved into a mountainside in Tapacarí Province, Cochabamba Department, Bolivia, is a little over 4,100 miles away from my Brookline, Massachusetts, United States of America.
While Tapacarí is not the furthest distance that I’ve ever been from home, it’s unquestionably the furthest that I’ve ever been from home.
I grew up in Brookline, a suburb of Boston, albeit a fairly densely populated one right next to the actual city. Its median household income was over $90,000 at the 2010 census, and was recently ranked the third snobbiest small city in the United States.
Privilege is not a bad thing, but it is a reality, and for me, it is my reality. I’m unbelievably fortunate to have grown up in the circumstances that I did, have the family that I do, and have the education that I did and continue to receive.
Somewhat ironically, that privilege is what gave me the opportunity to see the poverty rampant in Tapacarí.
I stayed in Rodéo, one of dozens of communities in Tapacarí, for a week. Along with ten other volunteers – who were from Oxford University – I was working on greenhouse construction with Mano a Mano. We slept inside a church with no lights and no insulation, but we did have mattresses and blankets.
The temperature would drop into the 30s at night, and there would often be frost in the morning. The standard housing for a family in Rodéo is a house of about 30 square feet, made of mud walls and a thatch roof that leaks during the rainy season. The standard job – the only available job – is to farm crops that require little water and can survive freezing temperatures. This is essentially limited to potato, lima bean, corn, and onion.
Mano a Mano works with countless people like the ones that live in this type of extreme poverty across Bolivia, from the freezing altiplano in places like Tapacarí to the sweaty Amazon in Bení. Projects like greenhouses, reservoirs, hospitals and roads improve lives little by little.
I spent three months with Mano a Mano as a public relations volunteer, writing articles and taking pictures about their work in places where news outlets rarely go. Working with the NGO was an astounding opportunity and I am incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity.
The first time that I was exposed to Mano a Mano’s work was in December 2007, when my grandparents took me, my two brothers, seven of my cousins, my mom, and four of my aunts and uncles to Bolivia – 17 people in all.
My grandparents learned about Mano a Mano from co-founder Segundo Velasquez, who attended the same Unitarian Universalist church as my grandmother in Ft. Myers, Florida. They took their first of four trips to Bolivia well over a decade ago, when George W. Bush was still in his first term as president.
That first time I went to Bolivia was for ten days during a school vacation. We arrived the days before Christmas and left shortly after New Year’s. I was nine years old, and most of what I now remember of the trip is being sick and spending a lot of time with my cousins.
Despite my limited recollection of that trip, I understand now that my grandparents are responsible for me knowing about Bolivia and becoming interested in visiting the country again. They provided me with the contact, the interest and the idea.
I knew that I wanted to take a year off before going to college, and I wanted to spend it doing something productive and hopefully find some more direction for what I wanted to pursue in University. Working with Mano a Mano seemed like the perfect way to do this.
So, I went to Bolivia.
For three months, I was based in Cochabamba. I took a couple extended trips to the countryside with the British volunteers, and once they were gone, took day or two-day trips to various of Mano a Mano’s projects. I also covered events, such as the medical distributions that took place in October.
The hardest part of my job was, perhaps unsurprisingly, dealing with the language barrier. There were many times when I needed to interview Mano a Mano workers, locals that projects were helping or local officials. My Spanish improved drastically while I was there, but never became good enough to ask what I wanted to in these interviews.
I remember the first interview I conducted in Spanish. It was with a farmer in Tapacarí named Cristóbal Mendoza, who had been the most important bridge between Mano a Mano and the rural communities there. He answered my questions slowly and tentatively, clearly unsure which of his words I understood and which I didn’t.
This was the hardest thing to deal with. I could convey Mano a Mano’s work with my own words, or my own pictures, but the most important part was missing: I could never pass on the words and real feelings of the people that Mano a Mano was helping.
The time when it was easiest for me to understand, though, was about two weeks before I flew back to the United States. I accompanied Mano a Mano to Aiquile, a town about four hours south of Cochabamba which had received medical supplies for their hospital at one of our donation events in October.
It was like the whole town had come out. The mayor was there, as well as other local dignitaries, and I sat through many speeches. At the end, the people doused Mano a Mano in flower petals and presented gifts. They then treated us to an incredible meal.
Emotions were visible in the speeches, the celebration and their faces. The health care that, to me, has always been an expectation, was something worthy of an enormous celebration in Aiquile. The speeches were not responses to my questions, but heartfelt outpourings that showed what Mano a Mano’s work continues to do.
A ceremony of this scale was not unusual. People would cover us in petals, give us necklaces made with potatoes, present us with gifts and break vases of chicha on our completed projects. Each of these events was a victory of sorts. After months or years of labor by Mano a Mano and by the communities, a project would finally be complete. We’d attend a ceremony, have a meal and drink a couple beers.
Then, we’d go back to Cochabamba for more 5 a.m. wake-ups and nights at the warehouse well past midnight.
Mano a Mano hasn’t stopped constantly working for 22 years. The dedication of the people that I met was the most impressive aspect of being with the NGO. It was never about us. Growing up, I was used to – and expected – praise for my accomplishments.
Mano a Mano hasn’t stopped constantly working for 22 years. The dedication of the people that I met was the most impressive aspect of being with the NGO.
When I was in Bolivia, this was different. Working late into the night was the expectation, simply because there was always more work to do. One way or another, it always needed to be finished. There will always be more work for Mano a Mano.
During my last few weeks in Cochabamba, I was going crazy with anticipation. I was terribly homesick, and I wanted to go back to Brookline.
I don’t intend anything negative toward Mano a Mano by feeling that way. I had spent a lot of my time in Bolivia feeling very isolated – I had never lived on my own before, and I didn’t have anybody my age there after the Oxford volunteers left.
When I started my long journey home, I felt relief, but bittersweet as well. I had a 10-hour bus ride to Santa Cruz and 16 hours on planes or in airports to think about my three months and to think about what I was going back to.
In the early morning of October 26, I saw my parents at Logan International Airport in Boston. In the subsequent weeks, my glee at returning changed into something different. I sometimes feel now like it’s all gone, like those three months have been put up on a shelf indefinitely.
But then, I see one of thousands of pictures I took in Bolivia. I recall the taste of a salteña, or I picture a sunset at the C.E.A. I envision a smile on one of countless Quechua children that I saw playing soccer.
I remember pausing to watch the sun rise over the Bolivian Andes on that dirt road, and I know that it was worth it.
Thank you to Mano a Mano for giving me this opportunity. I miss Bolivia every day, and I will never forget those three months.