It was difficult to breathe when we landed in La Paz, the highest airport in the world at 12,000 feet. It was 6AM. We hadn't slept all night. Dizzy, off balance, there was a tightness in our heads, coupled with a continual low-grade headache that hit us as soon as we landed. We staggered getting our luggage, laughing about the high altitude fog we were in, and handed our endless customs papers to some very severe agents. It was as if we'd drunk too much and were standing on a boat moving at sea...with waves! It was hard to concentrate. As a team we would struggle with altitude sickness throughout the trip.
The city of La Paz was spectacularly beautiful, with snowcapped mountains extending as far as the eye could see. The views flying in over the Royal Range, a section of the Andes that runs down the west coast of South America were magnificent. The sun was rising just as we crested over hundreds of snow packed peaks, one after the other, some of them cupping calm shimmering green lakes in their craggy nooks. It was truly awesome. The first rays of morning light lit up the snow. Soft, puffy clouds hung over the highest peaks. They call these particular mountains the "Illimani," or three peaks, because one mountain here has three tips. We had landed in Bolivia, the heart of the Andes, and the poorest country in South America.
I had come to Bolivia with a UNICEF team of four from the US and joined up with others on the ground to travel into the country. Our mission was to see programs UNICEF supports, find out what were the most immediate and pressing needs and determine how we could bring attention to those needs.
After a few days traveling through Bolivia, I realized this was a different kind of poverty from the in-your-face version I'd experienced in Africa on other UNICEF trips. There were no makeshift tents housing highly contagious cholera patients, as I'd seen in war torn Angola. Flies did not cover the sad faces of children, as I'd witnessed in camps in Darfur. It was not the plight of displaced children begging for food at an IDP camp outside Goma, in the Congo, where you couldn't offer what you had for fear of causing a riot. The needs in Bolivia were desperate but struck closer to home. It seemed more like what you might encounter in the poorest places in the US. However, as the days went on and we began to scratch beneath the surface, I understood that this was one of the more emotionally challenging trips I had ever experienced.
I was moved by little Melody, a six year old we met in the 'Little City,' one of three hundred centers for abandoned children in the city of Cochabamba, in south central Bolivia. With her thick black eyelashes, cropped dark hair and ready sweet smile, we connected right away. She didn't know where her mommy was and told us simply, "I lost my little brother." We didn't understand and asked about her back-story. Her mother had abandoned Melody in the streets when she was five, along with her two brothers, age six and two and half. She and her older brother left the little one for a few minutes to find some food. When they returned, he was gone. The little boy has never been found.
In the same center I noticed tiny Marina, a deaf-mute, who was abandoned at seven in the southern region of Bolivia. After years of wandering lost in the mountains, barely existing, she made her way to the "Little City." One day a social worker happened to style her hair, and that was a turning point. She has become obsessed with hairdressing and now does everyone's hair at the center. Given her limitations, Marina is only able to socialize with the small children, yet remarkably, she doesn't suffer from low self-esteem. She is determined. She is beginning to vocalize single syllables and dreams of becoming a professional hairdresser, and one day to be able to read and write.
The staff of the local NGOs say that the biggest challenge in Bolivia is the protection of children. Abuse, violence and abandonment are commonplace. The borders are not strictly enforced and trafficking of children through Bolivia is easy. From there, I was told, they can simply be walked across to a neighboring country. In fact, recently, a group of children who were trafficked from Haiti during the confusion of the earthquake ended up in the city of le Sucre, enroute to Paraguay. The government was working to find their families in Haiti and send them back safely.
We visited Breeze of Hope, a center for children who are victims of abuse and violence. I asked the age of the victims and was told they ranged from one month to seventeen years old. Few cases get to court. Trials take years and they are too expensive for most. I was told that the court often blames the child for what happened. There are so many cases of rape that there is a demand for the death penalty or castration for those found guilty. This makes it very difficult for a child to accuse an aggressor, especially when it is a family member. As we left the center, I noticed the children's drawings framed on the wall. One was a self-portrait in crayon of a young girl looking out at us with huge tears flowing down to the bottom edge of the picture. Another drawing said it all. It showed a bedroom with a large closed door in the foreground. On a bed, face down was a little girl crying. Above her head was the caption which said, "¿Porque yo?" -- "Why me?"
To reach Tacopaya, a rural community UNICEF supports, we drove high up into the mountains outside Cochabamba, through narrow winding dirt roads with steep drops on one side. One wrong move from our driver and we would certainly fall far down the mountainside. The views were breathtaking, mountains beyond mountains interrupted by calm sunlit valleys far below. Tacopaya is a small community made up of a group of buildings nestled on a plateau in the Andes. Sheep graze on the slopes and endless hills stretch out as far as the eye can see. UNICEF works with the government and the local community to build better health care, education and to provide clean water and sanitation.
We sat in on the classes and listened as the students recited the children's rights. The girls were dressed in traditional hand made blue velvet skirts with their long black braids down to their waists and tied with beautiful tiny colored pompoms. The boys sat in their worn bordeau sweaters and patched grey pants. Most wore cheap plastic sandals, their dusty toes peeking through. When asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, it was not the expected answer of a farmer or sheep tenders like their families, they confidently stated they wanted to be "a teacher, a manager, a construction worker and an architect."
The children proudly demonstrated their water purification system; Evian-sized bottles filled with water hanging in a wooden frame and heated by the sun. They showed us how they washed their hands, singing a song about it in unison. We visited their showers set up by UNICEF and heated by solar panels. It was actually only two stalls. Grandly, they insisted I feel the temperature of the water. I laughed that it was much warmer than the shower I had taken that morning at my hotel. This was the only place for the village to wash. None of the houses had running water and for the first time, we learned, this would be a new generation of children who would be used to taking regular baths.
They brought us a piece of tough meat on a bone, a potato and some greens in a tin bowl. It was an extravagance for this poor area, where the diet was mostly potatoes. It was difficult to eat when the indigenous women in their colorful traditional dress with their babies strapped to their backs were so obviously hungry. After politely eating some of it, we quietly offered the rest to the children and mothers. This would probably be the only meat they would have in a long while.
The school children hungrily ate their simple lunch, a bowl of soup, one of two meals that the school provides each day. It was important, as many of the children had to walk more than two and a half hours each morning through the mountains to get to school. I thought of my grandchildren in Los Angeles and how lucky they were. I hoped I could bring the importance of that privilege back to them in some way.
Tomorrow I will continue my journey I made into Bolivia with UNICEF and describe the challenges they face with children and HIV/AIDS and my experiences in a juvenile prison.
To make a difference for the children of Bolivia no matter how small, please log onto: www.unicefusa.org/bolivia.