BiblioWorks has a municipal library in the town of Presto and a school library in the village of Tomoroco which is not far from Presto. Some of the local authorities have changed recently (there must have been elections) so Roxana and Silvia, our library technicians, have been visiting the libraries to form new library committees and help the committees and librarians with their planning.
Silvia invited me to accompany on her trip to visit two of the libraries that she is responsible for.
We left Sucre at 4 pm on Tuesday and took a big bus to Presto. We took along 4 boxes of books that were purchased on behalf of the mayor’s office for the library. About an hour and half into the trip, the road became much bumpier. At first I thought we were on a dirt road (I couldn’t see very well from my seat) but when we stopped for a short break in a town, I realized the road was paved with stones.We arrived in Presto around 7 pm, checked into our “alojamiento” (literally accommodation but seems to usually refer to a place where you can rent a room with a shared bathroom). Then we went back and made arrangements with Don Jaime, a member of the town council Silvia, knows to stash the boxes in a shop near the bus stop. This took a bit of time and then we returned to our room, had hot showers and called it a night. (I was thankful I had had a proper Bolivian multi-course lunch and wasn’t hungry for dinner anyway.)
Wednesday morning breakfast was tojorí (a drink made from corn that I don’t recommend) and bread. I avoided looking at the water the glasses were being rinsed in as well as the cloth with which they were being dried and hoped my stomach would too. I was hoping for tea or coffee but neither seemed to be on offer.
We headed to the library and set up for the meeting. Silvia had a powerpoint presentation for the people present (the librarian, representatives from the town council and from the schools). She had also prepared documents to be filled out (by hand) with the roles for the library committee, a change to the library hours and a plan for the library.
Then we spent some time chasing down officials who hadn’t been at the meeting but who had been appointed roles on the committee (such as the secondary school principal).
For lunch we stopped a very local, very basic place. Silvia suggested I have the soup saying it was a rice soup and asked the woman to prepare me a tomato salad. She knows I am vegetarian and has a better grasp of it than many Bolivians but it is still a bit of a stretch. I gave her the chunk of meat that was in my soup (I think it was chicken) and ate the potato and the glob of rice. Then I attempted to pick out the garbanzo beans and a few green leaves that were in the oily broth while avoiding the specks of meat. I was only semi-successful. My tomato salad was fine. By this time I was feeling the effects of no caffeine so I bought a bottle of (warm) coca cola. I managed to drink about ½ of it and stashed the rest for later.
We visited a cousin of Silvia’s briefly. We had to tiptoe past her husband who was passed out on a bed in the front room (alcoholism seems to be rampant among Bolivian men). The house was very basic but the cousin was kind and gave us some bread she had made. Her youngest child has cerebral palsy and is blind. He was sitting on a bed in the kitchen and I spoke to him and sang songs while Silvia and her cousin caught up. I was happy I remember some of the Spanish songs from when I taught preschoolers from Latin America in Calgary many moons ago.
At 2 pm, we headed back to the town hall because we were supposed to be getting a ride to the school library in Tomoroco for another meeting like the one in the morning. The person who was going to take us was nowhere to be found. Various other people offered to take us in 30 minutes, in a hour etc but nothing panned out and finally after 4 pm we gave up. I think the official starting time for the meeting was 3 pm and it is about a 20 minute trip. We were told that someone could give us a ride in the morning at 8 am but nothing sounded very certain and it turned out the principal of the school in Tomoroco was going to be in Presto the next day so we couldn’t have the meeting then.
We went back the the Presto library and Silvia caught up on paperwork while I looked around the library and leafed through a Spanish textbook.
Someone Silvia spoke to mentioned that there was a soccer match that night and invited us to watch. At first I thought we were going somewhere to watch a match on TV but it turned out to be a match between players from the mayor’s office (who all had matching jerseys) and other men from the town (who wore an assortment of jerseys). The match was being held in quite a nice, new looking sports hall.
Before we headed to the match, we passed a woman cooking chips (french fries) and frying eggs on a special cart. Silvia decided she wanted a “hamburguesa” so we stopped. I (mistakenly) assumed a hamburguesa would have meat so I decided I would just have some chips. However it turned out these chips are meant to be part of a dish called “salchipapas” which means they are topped with “salchicha” (slices of neon orange sausage), a fried egg, mayo and ketchup (Bolivian poutine?). The woman was willing to give me them without the egg and sauces but not without the sausage. Silvia said to get them anyway and she would eat the salchicha. Her hamburguesa turned out to be a fried egg and chips in a bun with mayo and ketchup. We added the salchicha to it and I ate my plain chips.
Back at our lodging we discovered there was no water (it was cut off to the whole town). Thank goodness for wet wipes! I had water in my water bottle so we were able to brush our teeth.
In the morning, there still wasn’t any water but the woman at the alojamiento brought by a bucket of water. Apparently it was from the river but it looked ok… I tried to zap a litre of it using my Steripen but the batteries were low and it wouldn’t work. I took my chances and brushed my teeth using as little as possible.
We returned to the same woman for breakfast but today it was api (purple corn juice) and a buñuelo (fried dough). I preferred the api to the tojorí but the buñuelo was pretty greasy. I also had the rest of my coke (still warm and now a bit flat so it was truly medicinal).
Don Jaime went by on his motorcycle with his toothbrush in his mouth as we were eating. Apparently he was heading to the river.
Optimistically we returned to the alcaldía (town hall) to meet with the alcalde (mayor) and see about our ride to Tomoroco. We had decided we should still go in spite of the principal (who holds the key to the library) being in Presto because we needed to check on the state of the playground BiblioWorks built at the school. Part of the agreement when it was built was that the community would be in charge of its upkeep and we had reports that it was a mess.
Several sources informed us that the mayor had had a big night and wouldn’t be in for awhile. We decided to do some library promotion at the primary and secondary schools instead. The primary principal was very supportive and we visited each class to invite the students to the library. My job was to show off a big book with tales and puzzles that hadn’t fit in the boxes we brought on the bus so we had been carting it around. There was one class of 4 year olds, one class of 5 year olds and two classes each of grade 1 to 6. The primary school building looks fairly new and modern. It is built in a circle with the classrooms facing into a central plaza.
In spite of the newness, there were signs of a lack of care being taken with it – broken door handles, a broken window, dirty walls. The classes were not huge, about 20 students max, and many of the teachers had obviously taken care to put up posters and learning aids they and the students had created. Classes were just starting as we went around and in most rooms the students were eating bread (except in a music class where they had bowls of a rice mixture – which I found odd as several students were playing wooden flutes…) Many of the students were enthusiastic about the library and most knew where it was. Teachers were invited to bring their classes to the library but most were non committal. They were more keen on the idea that they could borrow books from the library to use in class if they left they ID card with the librarian.
We then headed to the secondary school. It was just before recess but we managed to talk to the five classes. There are only one class at each level and the classes were again fairly reasonably sized. The secondary students were most excited to hear that the library hours would be changing as of Monday (opening two hours later which means it can stay open until 8 pm) which would mean they could go to the library to do homework and study. The current hours meant the library closed soon after the end of their school day. (The librarian had been far less impressed by the change which had come about due to a request of the secondary school staff.)
The mayor still hadn’t appeared when we got back to the alcaldía. We hung around for a bit and eventually the man in charge of works said he could could give us a lift to and from Tomoroco if all we needed to do was take some photos. We set off down the dirt road in a truck. At one point we stopped and picked up a woman who needed a lift. She hopped over the tailgate and then called out when we were passing where she needed to be.
At the school, the playground was a bit of a mess. Silvia will be informing the village officials that if they do not clean it up, the structures will be moved to Presto. (She had mentioned this to the primary principal who eagerly offered to supply a crew to do the moving if it happened.)
Back in Presto, the mayor had showed up so we had a quick meeting. He wasn’t very perky but we covered most of what was needed. He seemed a bit put out that the cost of the books we had brought were to be covered by his office as per a previous agreement with BiblioWorks but Silvia can be quite firm.
We then went to have lunch. We went back to the same place as the day before but this time I choose to have rice, boiled potato and sliced up tomato with some slight hot green pepper.
Silvia was going to be leading that afternoon’s book club for children at the library so we headed back to our room to relax a bit and pick up the things she needed for the activity she had planned. The water was back on so we freshened up as well.
Many, many children showed up at the library. A few asked about the book I had shown them in their classes but unfortunately it wasn’t ready. Silvia told a story about a rabbit who didn’t take care of her golden teeth that had a strong message a dental hygiene (very important in this country where children eat sweets from morning to night!) and then passed out a worksheet that covered the guidelines for tooth brushing. Not many children were inspired by the sheet (nor was I) but many stayed in the library to do puzzles and look at books. I offered to read a book to a young girl. She chose a Spanish translation of The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (El Gato Con Sombrero Viene de Nuevo) which gave my Spanish a good workout. As soon as I started to read, we were joined by more and more children. When we came to the part where the small cats join the Cat in the Hat and he calls them my letters, I had the children join in (which is a good reading strategy and helped me as I wasn’t sure of the names of all of the letters!). Silvia took a group outside for a game as well.
We finished up, made a quick trip back to the alcadía to get another signature on a document and then picked up our things at the alojamiento and headed for our bus. The bus back was a van (it reminded me very much of the dala dalas in Tanzania) and the trip was about 30 shorter than on the way there.
All in all it was an interesting opportunity to see a small town in Bolivia, to see Silvia in action, to visit one of our libraries and local schools, to marvel at the number of dogs, pigs and donkeys wandering through town and to sample local cuisine (which so far my digestive system seems to have been able to handle). It was great to travel with Silvia who was very patient with my questions and happy to share her country with me.