Debbie Rissing's blog

Miniature Newsletter

AlasitasJan. 24 marked the beginning of “Alasitas,” a three-week long Andean festival celebrated by Bolivia’s indigenous Aymara tribe.

The festival centers on the Aymaran god Ekkekko, the god of abundance. Honoring a centuries-old tradition, Aymarans create shrines in their homes to Ekkekko (which means “dwarf” or “midget” inAymara), and surround him with miniatures of things they wish to acquire in the coming year. In La Paz, where the festival is grandly celebrated, one can buy miniature food and chocolates, tools and kitchen utensils, cars and houses, suitcases, newspapers, visas and passports, lottery tickets and first-class plane tickets, diplomas, and wads of micro-money in all sorts of currencies, especially US dollars

Many of the ceramic Ekkekko statues are made to accommodate a cigarette. While Ekkekko smokes, petitioners pour themselves an alcoholic drink, always observing the tradition of first spilling a few drops for Pachamama, Mother Earth, before they take a sip for themselves.

Alasitas originally took place in September, springtime in Bolivia, when farmers plant and pray for a good crop and a bountiful harvest. People in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s largest city, still celebrate Alasitas in September. But in the Andes, where La Paz is located, the timing of the festival was changed to begin on Jan. 24 to commemorate an indigenous uprising that occurred in 1781.

Drought and a Flood of Gratitude

Happy Thanksgiving from Copacabana!

Water ShortageIt’s been a weird week, and I suppose that’s heightened our sense of gratitude.

While the rains are increasing and threatening to flood our house, the entire village has been out of water since Tuesday, and the municipality isn’t likely to pump water out to homes again until Monday, possibly later. There’s a long-standing water shortage here, but this particular crisis is because Copa installed a colossal new water tank, and the concrete that will support it needs time to cure.

I’m quite a few days past due for a shower. Happily, friends who own a hostel in Copa still have water and are happy to “rent” me a shower later today. I’m grateful -- so is Jeff! We can still buy bottled drinking water in town, so we’ll be OK. We’re grateful for that, too. Alas, we won’t be able to wash laundry or dishes for a few days. That’s a little troubling ... but we can find a way to feel grateful for that, too! And we can haul buckets of water from the spring next to the Incan ruins behind our house, so, thankfully, we can flush our toilet every so often. They’re hard to see in the photo, but along with little micro-lily pads there are tiny little fish swimming in those "flush buckets."

Dancing with the Dead – Todos Santos (All Saints Day)

All Saints DayOn Nov. 1, All Saints Day, Bolivianos party with the souls of their lost loved ones. Days prior to the fiesta street markets teem with 50-kilo bags of flour and sugar, buckets full of lard, and tables and blankets spread with myriad, hand- painted, miniature plaster-of-Paris faces. Families use these to make “Tantawawas,” Aymara for Bread Babies. The term refers generally to the many, many, shaped bread loaves -- those decorated with human faces symbolize the dead; others formed like horses, ladders or stairs are meant to help transport the spirits from heaven. Since most families don’t have an oven, they either buy bread or make dough and rent oven time from those who do.

Every family prepares carefully to receive their returning spirits, who descend at noon and visit for 24 hours. Tables are decorated with flowers, veils, fruits, sweets, biscuits, cookies, sugar cane, drinks, and the late beloveds’ favorite foods -- and many tantawawas. The celebrations go on through the night.

For those 24 hours and beyond cemeteries swarm with bands and families, who picnic, sing, dance and drink to welcome and rejoice with the returning spirits, lofted back from heaven on hundreds of kites. “We don’t know that the spirits come back to us,” says our friend Elisa Barrigola Machaca, "but it’s our belief that they do.”

Sprouts, Touts and Louts

Greenhouses in Chani, Sicuani, and Santa Ana, Bolivia, are complete, have new water lines, and are all growing vegetables and flowers! A fourth one, in Cusijata, should be done and planted within the next two weeks.

The mission hired an agricultural engineer, David Kantuta Mayta, to teach people from churches, schools and the local municipality who will be working in mission-sponsored greenhouses the best way to start seeds, transplant sprouts, make compost, and grow, harvest and market vegetables and flowers. David is also doing hands-on training sessions at the 3 operating greenhouses.

The following is a 26-second, one shot-a-minute, time-lapse video of the Chani greenhouse being worked. Thanks to Ryan Kolegas, who shot the video. We can’t wait to see the first produce get packed up, sent to market and sold!

Salt, Sweat & Seeds

Girl in CopacabanaA lot of good work got packed into the past six weeks!

Our son, Sam, 20, helped build adobe greenhouses in nearby Sicuani and Cusijata. The Sicuani greenhouse and another one in Santa Ana have new water lines, and all three have new roofs and newly planted seed starter boxes.

In June and July Allyson Zeedrich, 23, a graduate student in the University of Illinois’ School of Public Health, fulfilled her six-week practicum here. She interviewed Promotores de Buena Salud (volunteer community public health workers) trained by the mission to see how they are using their skills and whether they need more training to maximize their effectiveness. The interviews confirmed that virtually all of the Bolivian Promotores want more regular training; they want to feel more confident; and they need to know more about promoting themselves. Allyson suggested monthly meetings in which they can choose and study specific topics of interest. She facilitated a lively dialogue on how the promotores could advertise their skills. Using Allyson’s computer and advice, every member of the group gleefully designed his or her own professional business card, complete with a logo and a four-color head shot.

Short Days - Big Projects

Team OnalaskaOur hearts are still soaring and our pantry, our stock of public health teaching supplies and first aid materials, as well as my previously meager store of footwear, have grown substantially, thanks to last week’s visit from Team Onalaska (Wisconsin).

Construction workers on the team helped local Aymaran folks build a new greenhouse in Sicuani, and helped reroof an existing greenhouse in Santa Ana, Bolivia. Nurses and public health workers on the team taught basic nutrition and dental hygiene, and gave much-coveted sunglasses, to two groups of school students and adults – more than 100 people.

On our first day of work with the Onalaska folks, we were welcomed with an early, outdoor lunch -- bowls heaped with rice, potatoes, oka (a nutty-tasting local tuber), and fresh, fried trucha (trout from Lake Titicaca). The builders, including my son Sam, stayed at that site, where they laid adobe for the new greenhouse. The health care folks, Jeff and I moved on to a small school in Sampaya -- one teacher, one room, and 11 students, including several orphans or abandoned children; all from very poor families. We taught dental hygiene and distributed much coveted sunglasses, and school and dental-care supplies.

Greenhouse at the Top of the World

Santa Ana, BoliviaIn June, with help from a mission team from Onalaska, WI, and my son Sam, we’ll be building a new adobe greenhouse near Santa Ana, Bolivia. In the photos at right and below, left, note that the lake (12,500 feet elevation), is quite a bit lower than the site. Cerro (peak) Wara Wara, right next to the site, is 4492 meters – about 14,950 feet. Click on the photos to enlarge them and see more in our photo albums.

The new greenhouse will overlook an old stone road that’s still well trafficked by shepherds driving llamas, alpaca, and sheep. The road, made in pre-Columbian days, winds its way from one side of the Copacabana Peninsula to the other, linking Copa to Sampaya, where small boats depart every morning for Isla de la Luna, Island of the Moon.

One Year Later

Exactly a year ago we each dragged two thoughtfully packed bags into O'Hare, waved misty-eyed goodbyes to Jeff's parents, and climbed onto a Lima-bound flight.

It's hard to believe a year has zipped by!

Our first few weeks were given to mapping out general plans for our work in Peru and Bolivia. It was late April when we finally returned to Copacabana to hunt for an apartment or house to rent. We were lucky to find a very comfortable, sunny house with three small garden areas. Local folks always ask what we pay for rent, and are horrified to hear $143 per month (last year -- this year it's $150!). Then again, when they visit they're incredulous to learn there are not whole families living in each of our three bedrooms. Most apartment buildings here have several rooms about 10 x 12 feet. A whole family sleeps in each of these rooms, and everyone shares a small courtyard adjoined by a single toilet, maybe a small shower stall, and an outdoor sink for washing cloths and preparing food. Usually there's a room designated for cooking, which is done over a one- or two-burner stove, also shared by all the families.

Easter Greetings from Copacabana!

Dear Friends and Family,

Easter Greetings from Copacabana! We hope this time of resurrection and renewal fills and refreshes your hearts. It's a season of new beginnings.

A year ago we arrived in Copacabana on the Wednesday before Easter with some clothes, cookware and a few books packed into four bags. We were lucky to have made hostel reservations in advance because thousands of people travel to Copa for the last days of Holy Week. It seems even more crowded this year.

Copacabana Cornucopia

Our lovely bathroom after the waters recededThe house flooded again, so Jeff stayed home to clean, and I kept our date with Froilan Mamani Quispe, Director of the Cusijati School, for a one- day trip to La Paz.

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