I spent eight days working on an organic farm through WWOOF International (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) at Chácara Canto Guardian just a couple kilometers outside of the charming town of Pirenópolis in Goiás state in central Brazil. This was something I’ve wanted to do for some time.
It was a superb experience – the host Julia greeted me each morning with a smile and hug, fed me healthy and hearty organic meals, gave me a list of manageable tasks that I willingly did each day, and offered me a comfortable cottage where I could relax in private.
Canto Guardian isn’t a typical WWOOF property since it’s not really a full-fledged working organic farm. While Julia does have a couple of vegetable gardens, banana and coconut trees, and a bounty of medicinal herbs, she is a full-time professor and has only part-time help so her farming operations are limited. And since I arrived in the dry season and the irrigation system is just being built, there was little hands-on gardening during my stay.
But each WWOOF experience is unique and I found magic while walking the nature trails, observing the birds and butterflies and bugs, marveling at each sunrise and sunset, and chatting with Julia while swinging in a hammock. What follows is the diary of my WWOOFing days.
See Part Two for the second-half of my experience. Also check out my recommendations to anyone interested in giving WWOOF a try.
Monday, July 15
I wake up late to sunshine. It’s a welcome change from the cloudy skies and rain of interior Bahia state. Before heading to breakfast, I sit and admire the surrounding green hills and the bees busily working the bright yellow blossoms outside my door.
I notice the following posted near my terrace. It pretty much sums up the tone of this place:
Bem vindo! Você está no Canto Guardian. Silencie seus pensamentos e busque entrar em contacto com seu Eu interior. É importante estar presente.Você faz parte de um todo, descubra seu valor e contribua com o colectivo. Convidamos todos a desenvolvero senso de presença através da observação.
Welcome! You are at Guardian Song Silence your thoughts and seek to contact your interior You. It is important to be present. You are part of a total, discover your value and contribute to the collective. We invite everyone to develop a sense of presence through observation.
Julia, my host, is sweet and welcoming. She has a childlike laugh and broad smile and takes time to introduce me to the property. There is a main house, open and airy with a basic kitchen and a large living room fitted with a yoga mat where she does tai chi and meditation. A spacious veranda wraps around the main house where we spend most of our time – there are hammocks, comfortable chairs, a large table for meals, and some of Julia’s small art objects comprised of stones, seeds, feathers, plants and other natural effects gathered nearby.
I learn that currently there are no active gardens which changes my WWOOFing expectations. Julia is a professor at the Federal University of Goiás and only maintains an organic farm during the wetter summer months when irrigation is less toiling and she is less consumed by her teaching duties.
This morning Julia invited me to accompany the Chileans to a nearby cachoiera (waterfall). They were unable to get a taxi for the trip out so I was the chauffeur since Julia knows and trusts my driving abilities. It was a pretty spot with refreshing waters and an impressive cacsade. I chatted with the Chileans while enjoying the sunshine, I even was able to manage a short meditation beside a smaller waterfall which cooled me with its light spray.
As for WWOOF work, today I repaired another splitting table so more glue and tiny nails. I continued clearing out irrigation canals and helped Julia by dropping off the Chileans in town and running some errands for her so she could concentrate on school work.
I did some laundry today, great to use a nice deep sink. As I churned the dirty laundry in the basin I spotted a nearby serene praying mantis (or rather a phasmatodea). Critters are everywhere: ants, geckos, frogs, spiders, moths, flies, mosquitoes, butterflies, bees and a host of other small insects. I’ve become an expert at shooing them from my room since there’s almost always a new friend to greet me when entering. At first it was a bother but no longer – there’s little here that will harm and they are just trying to get through each day like the rest of us.
I’m starting to get that restless feeling – it’ll be time to move on in a few days. I was planning to spend a couple of weeks on a WWOOF farm but frankly there’s little farm work. I’ve almost completed Julia’s to-do list and she seems somewhat harried by all the guests (10 Chileans + me!) and her end-of-semester pressures at the university. So I’ll talk to her tomorrow and let her know I plan to leave after the weekend, I doubt this will be an issue.
I fell asleep early tonight to the sweet songs of the curiango, a nocturnal bird that is common in these parts.
Saturday, July 20
No rest for the weary in WWOOFing! Even though it’s the weekend it’s still a work day. Today I spent hours hoeing a bone-dry garden and adding household compost to the soil. The result: a crunchy and dehydrated bed ready for planting that is sure to nourish some succulent veggies when the rains return.
I was amazed by how easy it is to use compost: Julia simply adds all the kitchen organic waste (including eggshells) to a pile out back. She adds fallen leaves from the scrub on her property, blends the two occasionally and in a couple months has a fine stash adubo to add to her garden. We’ve been composting our vegetable waste for years in Maine by simply tossing it in a heap in the backyard woods but then we just ignore it. No more! I’ve learned it’s easy to work this into the garden soil in the springtime; I’ll be sure to do this going forward.
Landing at the La Paz International Airport in El Alto leaves one breathless; the thin air is immediately manifest. At nearly 13,000 feet (4000 m), La Paz is the highest capital city in the world. The lower-altitude Sucre remains the official capital, but La Paz is the de facto power center in the country housing both the executive and legislative branches of government.
La Paz is blessed with a magnificent setting: the austere altiplano perched far above the dense construction of central La Paz, the surrounding snow-studded Andean peaks of the Cordillera Real that tower to the east, the crowning and iconic Mount Illimani (meaning “golden eagle” in the indigenous Aymara language) which soars to over 22,000 feet (6465 m).
In La Paz, nothing is level. Everything either streams downhill or slogs uphill. There is no horizontal here and consequently nothing stands still. Everything is a whirl of motion, upwards and downwards.
So flows the relative prosperity of the La Pazians, or paceños as they are known here. Affluence increases as altitude decreases, dropping from the ever-expanding shantytowns of El Alto on the high altiplano rim and down through the dangling Aymara neighborhoods perched precariously on the steep slopes.
Below is El Centro also called la hoyada (the hole), the crowded heart of the city and home to the national government and the scant colonial remnants that survived the decades of rapid change resulting from mass migration from the countryside.
The city descends further to the upscale neighborhoods of Miraflores and Sopocachi, home of expensive apartments, a bounty of chic bars, Japanese and French restaurants, and jazz cafes.
Finally, La Paz comes to rest in the newly-minted Zona Sur neighborhood where most of the expats, diplomats and rich paceños live in gated communities. This is where the wealth of La Paz finally settles.
A Million Luminous Lives: Todos Somos Iguales (We Are All Equal)
Standing in the bowl of La Paz at the city center at sunset, lights shine from the buildings and homes of residents and sprawl in every direction. At night the city glimmers with all the energy of a modern metropolis, illuminating with equal intensity above and below.
This is a city of rich and poor, rural and urban, from many different indigenous backgrounds, and from all regions of Bolivia. Heterogeneous La Paz is home to Amerindians, Mestizos, Europeans, Asians and Africans. The Bolivian Constitution officially recognizes 37 languages. Bolivia, officially known as the Plurinational State of Bolivia, is indeed a multiethnic haven.
And to affirm this great diversity, La Paz recently issued an anti-discrimination ordinance and requires businesses to prominently display the following: Todos somos iguales ante la ley (“We are all equal before the law”).
But, economically speaking, this is not so. Some paceños must work much harder than others just to scrape by. One of the poorest countries in South America, Bolivia remains a classic case of economic disparity. The most recent poverty data for Bolivia show that:
60% live in poverty
38% live in extreme poverty
80% have no access to electricity
86% have no access to running water
50% have no sewage system connections
Recent emphasis on poverty reduction by President Evo Morales is likely to improve the situation for millions here. Yet it will take many years through a dramatic transformation of Bolivian society and greater economic equality.
La Paz is where I begin my life in the field as a Kiva Fellow. It is among these people that I will go about my daily business, put names to faces and to lives, and learn and share as much as I can in this strikingly beautiful and imbalanced world.
My Kiva Mission Número Uno: Borrower Verification
One of my main objectives as a Kiva Fellow is to complete the borrower verification process for two of Kiva’s microfinance partners in Bolivia. This process essentially validates that the information about borrowers and loans on the Kiva website is accurate.
With a random sample of 10 loans for each microfinance partner, I go on field visits to the loan offices and the Kiva borrowers’ homes and businesses, review loan documentation, discuss issues and status with loan officers, and conduct interviews with the borrowers themselves.
This is an important exercise for Kiva. These borrower verification reports are crucial in helping everyone at Kiva understand what is going on at ground level with the microfinance partners. It’s a singular opportunity to assess the partner’s understanding and execution of Kiva’s policies, helps find good faith errors in data or processes, and can determine areas of improvement to build a stronger relationship between Kiva and the partner.
El asesor es mi copiloto: Learning to Love the Loan Officers
The loan officers I’ve worked with are remarkably companionable. Part sales people, part coaches, part financial advisers, part collection officers, part advocates – they wear different hats. In La Paz and El Alto, they spend a lot of time pounding the pavement, visiting clients to see how things are going, catching up with former loan recipients, and prospecting for new loans.
They write the borrower profiles on the Kiva website that we all read as Kiva lenders. They are the eyes and ears of the partner organization, and the ones who work most closely with clients. They work to keep the Kiva loan repayment rate at well over 99% for Emprender.
And they are my trusty companions who accompany me on verification visits to Kiva borrowers.
First Stop: The Microfinance Institution Loan Office
After breakfast at my small hotel in La Paz, I begin the energetic climb upwards to the Emprender office in the Villa Nuevo Potosí neighborhood. I’m glad to escape the morning chaos of central La Paz, which is teeming with people, traffic congestion, and bustling street commerce that makes the downtown sidewalks difficult to navigate.
Up here in the neighborhoods that rise steeply above the city center I find cleaner air, quiet streets, quaint homes, and pleasant corner kiosks. Locals greet me from open windows. The views of the surrounding mountains are marvelous.
I meet with Simón, the loan officer who works with the client I will be visiting. I wait patiently as he attends to an early rush of clients and examine the loan paperwork: loan disbursement, repayment schedule, the actual payments, client waiver, etc.
Everything is in order. I take time to review the other documents Emprender collects to approve the loan: financial evaluation, past loan review, collateral, personal references, bank statements, and so on.
The client folder is exhaustively detailed and meticulously maintained. I am learning a great deal about finance in this part of the world: utility costs, housing prices, small-business accounting records, bank interest rates, even the value of household personal items such as televisions, refrigerators and furniture.
After a quick desayuno, a daily ritual in which the entire office takes tea/coffee and bread in the break room, we set out on foot to visit the client. This is often the fastest way around the neighborhood since the meandering streets are normally jammed with traffic.
I enjoy this “commute” time with the loan officers, we talk about their daily work and their families and about my life in the United States and my work here in Bolivia. We get to know each other, and I appreciate their approachability and willingness to spend time with me despite their often full schedules.
Finally, I Meet the Kiva Borrower…
Señora Celestina, the Kiva borrower, welcomes Simón and me in her home where she runs an adjacent bakery. There are racks of freshly rolled dough ready for the oven, baskets of tasty cookies and meringues ready for packaging, and piles of eggs and bags of sugar which she purchased with the help of the Kiva loan. I am happy to discuss her business and her life in such a warm and aromatic setting!
With the help of the loan officer, I explain the purpose of our visit and some more about Kiva. As we go through the verification process, Celestina readily answers all my questions and brings out the loan paperwork she has. I check that the dates and figures match and that she understands the Kiva client waiver which authorizes her information to be posted on the Kiva website. I document everything since it will be reviewed back at Kiva headquarters.
After the formal verification is complete, I chat casually with the borrower. This is usually my favorite part of the visit, the borrowers open up a bit more, we can joke about things, and I learn more about their lives and families and ambitions. On this trip, Celestina proves to be especially talkative and shares generously.
She tells me more about the success of her baking business: how she produces fairly large quantities and types of cookies for special fairs and holidays in the La Paz area. More recently she is sending these baked goods further afield and even into Peru (Cuzco and Juliaca) where festival demand is great for these delicacies.
On this particular day, Celestina is working hard for the upcoming Todos Santos (All Saints Day) celebrations in early November. Given the thousands of eggs stacked in her bakery, I know the coming weeks will keep her busy. She willingly offers me plentiful samples of her cookies, some right out of the oven, all of which are delicious and beautifully prepared.
Celestina shows me her bakery, the ovens, and the piles of flour, sugar and eggs that they purchased with the loan funds. She introduces me to her ebullient husband, welcoming son and amused granddaughter. They all help her with her baking, especially during the crunch times when large festivals are fast approaching.
She is a cheerful and warm person and I greatly enjoy my time with her, but she is busy and the loan officer has other tasks ahead of him today. As we depart, Celestina speaks highly of Emprender and especially Simón, her loan officer.
We share some final laughs when she tells me (jokingly) that they all will come to the United States to start a baking company with me, naming it “Bolivian Baked Goods Company of America.” I assure them that their splendid cookies would be a hit and they thank me for my vote of confidence with handshakes, hugs and smiles.
I feel wistful leaving Celestina and the elevated Villa Nuevo Potosí neighborhood, yet I am beaming inside and my feet barely touch the pavement as I descend towards downtown La Paz. It is a special privilege for me to be a part of all this, passing through doorways of private homes as welcoming locals so graciously let me into their lives for even a few moments.
Happily, I have many more clients to visit in my remaining weeks and months as a Kiva Fellow. I eagerly await my next encounters with Kiva faces and hear the extraordinary stories that shine all around me from on high in big Bolivia.
Peter Soley is a Kiva Fellow (Class 19) serving in Bolivia (La Paz, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz) with Emprender. Become a member of Emprender’s lending team, lend to one of their borrowers today, or apply to be a Fellow!
This is great, Peter. Sounds like you’re having a wonderful time! Submitted by Holly Sarkissian on Tue, 10/16/2012 – 08:43
Thanks, Holly… off to a fun start here in Bolivia, I am just loving this so far. Now in sweaty Santa Cruz, I’ll spend the next few days on the back of a motorcycle heading into the countryside, looking forward to some Easy Rider time… Submitted by Peter Soley on Wed, 10/17/2012 – 13:59
Great post, Peter! Makes me want to visit La Paz…and find Celestina’s bakery! Submitted by Rose on Wed, 10/17/2012 – 18:38
Hey Rose, thanks for the encouraging words, I really enjoy reading what you’re up to in Colombia, this is really such a fantastic experience, for all of us so different and it’s great we can share via the Fellows Blog! Abrazos de Bolivia mi amiga!!! Submitted by Peter Soley on Sun, 11/11/2012 – 05:27
You paint such a great (and honest) picture of La Paz Peter! All the best on your Bolivian adventure amigo. Submitted by Gareth Leonard on Thu, 10/18/2012 – 11:23
hey que onda Gareth, thanks for the comment & you certainly have a unique perspective having lived here. hope all is well in guate, sounds like you’re loving life there, hard to believe we’re already a month into this great adventure, cómo vuela el tiempo Submitted by Peter Soley on Sat, 10/20/2012 – 06:52
What a great walk through the day in the life of a Kiva Fellow. I swear I could smell the aroma of those sweet cookies baking away. What a delightful and stellar example of how your work is helping the world:) Miss you~ Submitted by Amy Richards on Sat, 11/03/2012 – 09:19
Hey Amy! Your baking would be a huge hit here in Bolivia, especially those pecan sandies! I miss you all as well, I think of you all the time & it’s a great feeling knowing I have family and friends behind me back home sending me love and support. xoxo Submitted by Peter Soley on Sun, 11/11/2012 – 05:26
Hey Peter. Is Celestina hiring? I’ll be in the Peru area and can hike over for an interview. I love your real-life story of this entrepreneurial woman and her success. Thank you. Mom Submitted by Susan on Sat, 11/03/2012 – 09:34
Hey mumsie, thanks for checking this out! I’d be happy to ask Sra. Celestina, she’s be a hoot to work with, very spirited. Tough work, though, long hours this time of the year with all the holidays… seems to me you’re enjoying the retired life far too much to go back to work! Can’t wait to see you in January, it will be awesome to celebrate your 70th birthday at Machu Picchu!!! xoxo Submitted by Peter Soley on Sat, 11/03/2012 – 15:47
Right on Peter. .Beautiful stories, heartfelt love and compassion. You are truely a hero. any room for me at the bakery? xo stace- rowdy really misses you. Submitted by stacey on Wed, 11/07/2012 – 15:36
Hey Stacey! Great to hear from you, I’m glad you can see a slice of my new world! So different from my life in Maine, but rich & rewarding in every way. I miss you too and Rowdy would love it down here, lots of friends for him to hang with in the streets! Hi to Bart! Submitted by Peter Soley on Sun, 11/11/2012 – 05:23