Alex Prather '14 Johnson Opportunity Grant Winner Travels to Bolivia with Engineers Without Borders

Alex Prather is an economics and global politics major from Houston, Texas. She traveled to Bolivia with Engineers Without Borders to create a reservoir that would increase the amount of arable land in the village of Pampoyo.


Nestled in my sleeping bag atop my firm, straw mat, I await Major Moore's melodious voice ringing out to greet the day: "Morning is here, sunshine is here". It's winter down in Bolivia and the cold seeps into the dusty schoolroom where we all sleep as if there is hardly anything to stop it. Quickly, everyone gets dressed and heads to the small eating area in the cement compound. We have our pleasantly simple breakfast of bread, butter and jam and fix ourselves a cup or two of mate de coca, a tea made from coca leaves. I pack my bag with water, an extra layer or two, a camera and some snacks and head out to the Toyota Land Cruiser that hauls our team of twelve, plus supplies, to the base of the mountain.

By the time we get to the mountain, the sun has risen and its warmth radiates despite the brisk air around us. We start hiking up the mountain along the steep and rocky llama path that almost always takes our breath away, though it was hard to determine whether it was because of the beauty of the area or the 13,000-foot elevation. As we carry our supplies, ranging from metal valves and Mentisan--an all-purpose (and very handy!) lip balm--to large rolls of four-inch rubber piping and 3000L water tanks, the local villagers effortlessly march ahead of us as if it were nothing. They've had a lot more practice. The final day of our project involves getting two 3000L tanks up the mountain, checking on the dam built the previous year and checking the flow from the different sediment valves. A group of us trek 6,000 feet to the starting point of our project--upstream and away from the mining contamination that has plagued the village of Pampoyo's main water source. We add more sand and large rocks to the catchment bed of the dam in order to increase the water pressure in the pipes. After achieving full flow, we take a quick break for snacks and water and begin our hike back to the top of the mountain, which holds the tanks.  The rest of the team is quickly connecting the PVC pipeline to the water tanks meant to irrigate the land below, potentially increasing the arable land in Pampoyo by 400 percent.

After a couple more hours of working on connections, a crew is sent to turn on the water to begin filling the tanks. This is the moment we have all been waiting for--this, for us, is the definition of success or failure of our project. We wait eagerly for the sound of water entering the tanks. A few minutes pass as we sit chatting, still listening for the sound of the water. Suddenly, the sound of trickling water finding its way to our water tanks, followed by full flow. A wave of relief and excitement spreads through everyone on top of the mountain. No words, Spanish or English, are needed as we start celebrating with the villagers and our fellow teammates before heading down the mountain for what we think is the last time this year.

This the day of San Juan, a celebration of the shortest day of the year. In honor of San Juan, the community starts a bonfire, which we all sit around celebrating our hard work and giving thanks. We listen to the community members tell the story of their village­­--of their days of oppression under a wealthy landowner, the sacrifices their families had to make and their hopes for a better future. We tell jokes around the fire, laughing and relaxing with the community under the impeccable starry sky, completely free from artificial light, with the exception of a few other small bonfires along the mountainside. We are all very relieved not to be hiking up those mountains again--until the mayor of the Pampoyo announces that the next morning we will hike up to the water tanks for a traditional Quechuan llama sacrificing, meant to bless the future of the project and the people.

As promised, morning comes and we are hiking to the top of the mountain, where many members of the community greet us with a freshly sacrificed llama. A small fire is lit and we listen as the mayor explains the different offerings and the significance of this ritual to their culture. We talk to the community members about what they want to work towards for future projects. We brainstorme plans for eco latrines, solar showers and a women's center. By the end of our conversation, everyone is buzzing with excitement for the future!  We slowly descend the mountain for the last time.

Later that day, the village puts together a farewell party full of traditional dancing and a feast of llama and chuño, a potato grown locally, which is really quite tasty. We dance for awhile and then say our bittersweet goodbyes to the community before heading to Potosí, where we stay for a night before our journey home.

The experiences made and the friendships formed are ones that I will never forget, and for this I could never be more grateful to Washington and Lee. It's hard to find a school where opportunities can really only be limited by how far one is willing to let their mind journey.