Let’s start with the basics: Where are you from and where are you now living?
I am from Gainesville, Georgia, a small town an hour north of Atlanta. Now I live in San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina, a tourist town in Patagonia.
What did you do back in the US?
After finishing my Master’s degree in Hydrology and Water Resources at the University of Arizona, I worked at Glacier Bay National Park as a Fisheries Biotechnician, travelled in France and Spain, managed an organic farm in northern California, and since 2005 have worked seasonally for a nonprofit called Lifeschool GoAdventure, taking teens into the wilderness.
What prompted you to move abroad?
Genetically programmed to love travel, with three uncles and a grandfather who were or are pilots, I have always sought adventure and loved to discover new places. I was drawn particularly to Bolivia after finishing grad school, as Bolivia is the only majority indigenous country left in South America, is very poor with millions of people still without access to clean drinking water, and is home of some of the most beautiful mountains in the world: the Andes. Thus in 2006 I made my first trip, alone, to Bolivia.
Did you speak Spanish before you moved? How did you learn?
I started studying Spanish a little on my own before my trip in 2006. However, as people who live in the Altiplano near La Paz speak Aymara as their first language and Spanish as their second, I quickly learned that while improving my Spanish was important, I also would need to learn how to understand this mix of languages. I took two months of Spanish classes in Sucre, Bolivia in 2006, and then was awarded a Rotary Foundation scholarship to study Spanish for six months in Lima, Peru, in 2008.
Tell us a little about your work in Bolivia…
Before arriving to La Paz, Bolivia, in 2006, I contacted dozens of nonprofit organizations to see if I could volunteer in projects involving drinking water and related issues. One person answered me, Max Borella, who is one of the founders of TERRA Resource Development, Inc. Max was kind enough to pick me up at the airport early one morning, buy me my first coca tea (a great help for those suffering from altitude sickness, fatigue, and digestive issues), give me a tour of the craziness that is La Paz, and take me along as he went to meet communities that were asking for his help in obtaining drinking water. I saw where he and a local engineer were drilling a new well for one community and I met another community who all came together to express their desire to do whatever it took to have hand pump wells installed near their homes. Max and I journeyed a few hours south to another city on the Altiplano, Oruro, where Max had lived while serving in the Peace Corps a few years earlier. The plan was to install dry latrines (ecological toilets that do not use water) in a community of 40 people just outside the city. However, a violent conflict had just arisen between the local miners’ cooperative and the federal mining organization, and 16 people from the village we were going to work in were missing. Thus, our work was obviously postponed. This ended my first work in Bolivia with water and sanitation.
Five months later I was back on my own and talking to some new communities, and meeting other nonprofits, like Quaker Bolivia, who connected me with local activist Maria Guarachi Sirpa. This proved to be one of the most important meetings of my life, as Maria inspired me to go beyond what I thought was possible and start raising funds through family, friends, and contacts to support projects with her. We focused mainly on solar oven projects, as the solar ovens give families the ability to purify water and cook food in a healthy way. Maria is from a very poor, isolated and thus forgotten, part of the Altiplano, Pacajes. It is a place so high and arid that there is not sufficient wood for cooking fires. Animal dung is the common way people make their fires. We focused our work in Pacajes, helping a few communities of 40 to 50 families build solar ovens for each family and for the school/community center. When I remember the gratitude and tears that flowed from each person’s face, I always am reminded of how powerful and important these projects are for changing lives. Ovens cost roughly $120 each, and they truly save lives, as well as give people a fighting chance to stay in their communities and not have to go beg or work like slaves in the streets of big cities like La Paz.
In 2008, I helped find funding for a new water well for the town of Tiahuanaco. This was a very different project, as this town is relatively well-off in comparison to the small villages in Pacajes. However, it was because of their relative fame, for being the home of famous pre-Incan ruins, that no aid organizations wanted to help this community fund a new well. Unfortunately even in communities with a little more economic wealth, there is not the infrastructure, or motivated elected officials, to make needed projects happen. Thus the local La Paz Miraflores Rotary Club and myself decided to find Rotary Clubs in the US to sponsor this project. We succeeded, with clubs in San Diego and Denver giving support to the project.
Why work with water, as opposed to focusing on food, medicine, education, etc?
I think that each person is drawn to work in a certain area. Since I was a teenager, I discovered my love for water and for protecting water resources. This love soon grew to include helping people live sustainably in their environments, whether it be cities or pristine mountains. In places where basic needs are not met, I felt drawn to help these communities have a fighting chance, by helping them have clean drinking water, and thus proper sanitation facilities to protect their drinking water in the future.
Was it easy to connect with projects or communities in Bolivia?
Thanks to Max, it was easy. Then, I met Robert Vincent from Quaker Bolivia, Freddy Mercado from Rotary in La Paz, and Maria Guarachi Sirpa from Pacajes. Thus, I have the contacts needed to complete projects for small communities. The biggest challenge is from where, or how, to raise the money needed.
I know many people who want to travel and also give back to the communities that they visit, but they do not know where to start. Do you have any advice for them?
There are many ways you can help. You can bring a bag of school supplies, stickers, toys like soccer balls and then contact a local school to see if they would like to receive the donations, and if possible, if you can meet some of the kids. If so, it will be a cherished memory not only for you, but also for the kids from the school you visited. Also, there are many organizations that exist that can help you plan how to volunteer during your vacation. This option is more and more popular each year. Before committing, I suggest you do your research and look for reviews by former volunteers to assure that you, and the people you are volunteering with, have a good experience.
Are you able to continue your non-profit work in Bolivia now that you are in Argentina? Is there a way that readers can help support the Bolivia project or other water-based projects that you recommend?
I have taken a break from the projects in Bolivia for two years now in order to create a little more stability in my own life. However, I am missing the projects and Bolivia terribly and will be planning some projects for 2014. Also, I am applying to take a course in Madrid that would give me more practical knowledge about how to provide drinking water for communities, taught by leaders in this field from nonprofits like Action Against Hunger. This course is the link I need to help me provide communities with water as efficiently and cost effectively as possible. The best way to stay in touch with my projects is to contact me directly so that I can send via email news of when new projects are starting and info about how you can help.
Name some things that you cherish about your life now that probably never would have happened had you stayed in the US.
If I had stayed in the US, I wouldn’t have had these experiences in Bolivia, Peru, etc. that have had a huge impact in shaping who I am today. Also, I would not value the little things so much if I had never come and lived in these small communities. For example, death is still common among children in the Altiplano. In the US, we know it’s possible that a child could die, but we rarely have to live through the experience. The people of the Altiplano, especially the women, are so strong, mentally and physically—they live with the reality of watching their children die, or children in their extended families. And so often when with friends, these women are smiling and laughing, despite all their hardships. They have taught me that despite the fact that there is so much suffering in the world, each one of us has the choice to decide how to respond…how to feel and act as a result of that suffering. These women of course suffer greatly, but then they get back up and continue to live their lives, provide for their families, and to support each other through their laughter and good-natured jokes. They are in many ways my heroes. I cherish these women and look up to them for these amazing qualities that they possess.
I know you have traveled to some amazing places. What is your favorite travel memory /experience to date?
That is really tough to say, of course. One of my most cherished memories is visiting a community in Pacajes in August 2010, with another yoga teacher who helped enormously in raising the needed funds for the project, Elizabeth Brown. We met each person in the community, and so many were in tears they were so grateful that we had been able to raise the needed money for their solar ovens, and they were so happy to meet us and be able to thank us. Each family had also raised a portion of the money and were present to build the ovens together with us and trained technicians. We lived and worked together for a few days. Watching them leave with the ovens tied on their backs was so rewarding, so beautiful. Almost three years later, we hear that the ovens are working well. I hope to visit and see for myself someday.
Name 10 things still on your bucket list.
I’m not sure this is a traditional bucket list, but these are some of my priorities, in no particular order, as they are all important to me:
- Keep studying and practicing yoga and meditation as it helps bring me inner peace and gives me strength;
- Raise funds for new projects in Bolivia, Peru, or wherever I see I can help;
- Develop a yoga studio in a community where this is lacking;
- Make a long voyage to Asia, where I have not been yet. Nepal, Tibet, and India are priorities;
- Start making more long-term goals for my life as well as for future projects (5, 10 and 20 year plans);
- Be there for my friends and family when they need me, even when I am across the globe, being sure to be reachable, accessible, and available;
- Live by love more each day, even when it hurts to be open to what life wants me to be, do, learn;
- Develop the ability to be content with a simple life, without the urge to travel just because staying in one place is tough for me;
- Study more with my favorite teachers;
- Find quiet time to recharge my own batteries on a regular basis.
How can people connect with you?
I always love to hear from people looking for ways to help in Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, etc! You can find me via www.yogabariloche.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and in Facebook under Jennifer Hamblen, https://www.facebook.com/jennifer.hamblen.98. Photos taken by Elizabeth Brown and Jennifer Hamblen