How Things Work: Bolivian Style

I’m amazed by how exhausted I get from spending an entire day on a bus. The fact that they are hot, smelly buses filled with crying babies, snoring men and begging children doesn’t help. However, despite the exhaustion and wasted time from riding these twisted mountain roads, we have now traveled this 12-hour route to and from Copacabana four times. Why? To save the cuddly, little Lake Titicaca Water Frog from extinction, that’s why.

Our first, and slightly unsuccessful, attempt at diving for these rare and unusual ranas was three weeks ago. The trip left us with a longer to-do list than we’d ever imagined, but after a few weeks of prepping, we were ready to return and pick up where we left off. Or so we thought…

Here’s the thing about working with Bolivians in Bolivia (and I admit in advance that this is an over-generalization): they don’t like to work too hard or too quickly. The word “deadline” must not translate directly into Spanish, because the concept of a deadline or a scheduled meeting has proven to be completely arbitrary here. (Exception: This judgement only holds true when pertaining to work related matters. Bolivians will never be late to a fiesta or skip a holiday – of which there are countless). I can’t count the number of times now that Jeremy and I have been stood up, left waiting for hours (who knew being on-time was way too early?), or been told, “maybe tomorrow.”20120923-214756.jpg
On our previous trip to Lake Titicaca and the small, rural town of Suaina, we had scheduled dates with the school and women’s community group for workshops around the conservation of the frog. We had also been instructed by the Navy to submit a letter requesting assistance with scuba equipment and divers. We planned a full week of work: the first half we would give educational workshops in three different localities, and the second half we would spend diving with the Bolivian Navy to sample populations in three distinct sites.

But things don’t work like you expect them to here. Upon arrival, we immediately learned that one of the workshops was cancelled. After waiting 30 minutes for our (not so) trusty taxi driver to bring us to our first meeting, the woman, Ana, who had asked us to come, told us we need to come back tomorrow. “Por favor, senorita, por favor,” she whined in a soft, pleading tone that could melt butter. So as requested, we returned the next day. But it was only to sit outside her door for an hour before being told that Ana had gone out of town. Something about preparing for a two-day festival…?

What luck it was that we ended up with all that extra time and reminded the school (yes, they had also forgotten) that we were there!  On Tuesday, our workshop at the school was moderately successful.

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The children were overly enthused and each had their own story about being fed frog juice by their mothers. In the end, we left the school feeling positive that at least a level of trust was forming between the teachers of this rural community and the light skinned, city folk of Cochabamba.

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Remember what I said about Bolivians and deadlines? Well, apparently the Navy never got the letter either. I can’t explain why three weeks wasn’t  sufficient time for BAI to write and mail a letter, but it never happened, so we couldn’t dive. As it would turn out, the nice man by the name of Don Simon who ran the small frog museum in Saunia, offered us a half day on his row boat to test the water quality and swab frogs for chytrid fungus.

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Saunia has been trying to leverage the water frog as a tourist attraction for several years now. Their failed attempts, however, have left local community members wary of tourists. Regardless, the floating museum still rests off the bay of Saunia. Don Simon and his nephew, David, lead a few tourists per week  out to this wobbly island to see the frogs (which are trapped in a large net) and birdwatch around the bay.

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Twenty-four hours on a bus for our 6 day work week to be reduced to a day and a half.

I know I sound like I’m complaining, but I told you I was exhausted. In truth, the trip wasn’t all a disappointment. We were able to take DNA samples from five frogs, collect about ten new data points on  water quality, and gain valuable insight for helping Saunia  develop an ecotourism operation around the frog. An official letter is now in the hands of the Navy, and BAI can begin establishing a valuable new partnership.

It’s taken 8 weeks, but this trip finally taught us how things work around here. You need time, perseverance, patience and faith that everything will work out in the end. It usually does, even if it’s not the ending you had planned.

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