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Sun-burnt and Smiling: Thoughts from Bolivia, Week Two

This past weekend I had my first big excursion! Torotoro is a small rural town about 75 miles southeast of Cochabamaba. This translates into a 4 hour drive on a winding cobblestone road through the mountains. Our drive started around 8:00pm on Friday and we didn’t arrive until around 1:00am Saturday due to a big accident blocking the one-lane road. I did not get much sleep on the ride up, as we went 60mph around hairpin turns where the only view was black sky and a shear drop of hundreds of meters and I couldn’t shake the image of the mangled truck blocking our route just a half hour before. Ears ringing from 4 hours of speeding up cobble, we arrived to our hostel safely. The destination is a national park which has hike-able peaks exceeding 11,000 feet and canyons sitting around 1,000 feet. The big sightseeing destinations include:

  • The Vergel – a waterfall in the depths of a canyon with lots of tropical vegetation and cool water to give sanctuary from the hot, dry Bolivian afternoons
  • Uma Jalanta Caverns – a network of underground hollows that hit a minimum point almost 400 ft below sea level
  • Remnants of creatures past – the big attractions include thousands of dinosaur footprints preserved in ancient, sunbaked mud; and the highest mountain peaks store oceanic fossils, giving the landscape a very different look when considering it millions of years ago
  • Torotoro – the town sitting in the middle of all this ancient history is so jam packed with local culture and kind-hearted people. Our tour guide, Eugenio, had also worked at Energética for several years before returning home to Torotoro to teach travelers like us the landscape and some phrases in the native language, Quechua. After telling Eugenio I used to know some guitar while at a local tavern, he handed me a Bolivian instrument called a Charango and had me play a bit with his band in the crowded restaurant. My horrible, discordant attempt to learn the instrument on the fly was greeted with cheers and pats on the back. It felt like a close family party where everyone had best intentions in mind and ego was nowhere to be seen. This sincerity and openness was Torotoro.

Legs screaming and feet clad in fresh blisters from all the hiking, I had to hit the coffee hard Monday morning. I am gaining a better understanding of the push renewable electric generation as I speak my broken Spanish around the office. The landscape of Bolivia and resources available do not lend themselves to a manufacturing economy that we typically think of when looking at international export. Currently, Bolivia’s biggest export is natural gas.

Largely, natural gas is sold to Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. Well … it is sold to Argentina and then Argentina sells to Chile. There is still some bitterness in the land locking of Bolivia, but they keep their navy active in hope of one-day controlling coastal land once again. As Brazil becomes less dependent on natural gas, the future of Bolivian export is renewable energy generation. Because Bolivia’s CO2 emissions are negligible when compared to western countries, their push for renewables is not sourced by a need to mitigate climate change, but simply changing with the times and updating their national export in order to remain in the market of international trade.

I also learned that the national focus has recently switched from rural electrification of the east, to preparing cities for the migration of indigenous populations to these urban centers. This has given me a lot to think about and keeps my focus flexible. Of course, my thesis couldn’t be as black and white as evaluating the generation of electricity for those who do not have it—that would be too simple right? Now I am considering the implications of a huge influx of people into already overcrowded city centers where water is scarce and poverty is prevalent. But if you were living out in the jungle wouldn’t you want to move to where available electricity, jobs, and infrastructure existed? In order to truly understand this, I will have to travel to these communities and talk to some people.

Those stories will come. In the meantime, I want to avoid limiting my scope just to the cities. I believe it is erroneous to put city centers on a pedestal and assume everyone wants to transplant there. I am balancing international trade, local overcrowding and poverty issues, heavy pollution at city centers, national electrification, and what the future of the country looks like, all without yet fully understanding the political landscape and local culture. I learn more and more every day and will keep you posted as my focus narrows. 

- Chris Wagner, '17

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Sun-burnt and Smiling: Thoughts from Bolivia, Week One

Graduate Student Chris Wagner gives us weekly updates on his trip to Bolivia.

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