Simon Bolivar UWC is very different from the rest of the United World Colleges. First of all, located in Barinas, the farming state of Venezuela, this school has a focus on agriculture and rural development. Rather than studying the International Baccalaureate, students here study a three-year technical program, perhaps equivalent to an associate´s degree in farm administration. The program was developed in the 1980´s by Dr. Luis Marcano, the Armand Hammer of SBUWC, modeled after the methods of the great Venezuelan hero Simón Rodriguez (second in line after Simón Bolívar). Simón Rodriguez was an innovative educator, notably for his experimentation with experiential learning, and became a model for Dr. Marcano in the area of experiential learning.
SBUWC is certainly a fine example of “aprendiendo haciendo”, learning by doing. The students have a very different class schedule than any other UWC. In the mornings, they head out to the different sections of the schools 750 hectare farm – Hortalizas, Cultivos, Bovinos, Porcinos, Topografia, Mecanización, Especias Menores, etc – where they spend a month working in the field alongside the professor´s expertise, fine-tuning their familiarity with the land. The idea is that the students maintain the different sections of the farm, and as they milk the cows, weed the gardens, and harvest the plantains, they gain a strong understanding and practical knowledge of the subject. And, as true with any UWC, the students most certainly develop their ability to work well with others by sharing the “field” experiences with their classmates. This week I have been attending the Hortalizas classes, and I´ve seen that despite the hot sun and humidity, the semilleras were prepared, filled with soil, weeded, planted, and cared for by the seven students working together.
Every Wednesday morning, classes are suspended as the students go into the community to work on the service and rural development projects. First years participate in the CADS program (the SBUWC version of CAS) where they go to schools in Mijaguas (a nearby town) to offer classes in English, sexual education, journalism, sports, and huertos (school vegetable gardens). Second years have a class with Profesor Corona on community development. Third years various towns nearby and work on their service project which was developed during their second year. For example, one group of third years goes to the school in Las Monjas just beyond Pedraza where they help them with the cultivation of a small patch of land behind the school that is going to be used to sell plátanos, maíz, ají, calabaza, cebollín, and other easy to grow vegetables to raise funds for classroom materials. (Here in Venezuela, the government provides money for school meals, but nothing else, not even pencils. That is why they do not use textbooks here.) Profesor Corona is the guy who runs this whole program, and he knows a lot a lot a lot. He is certainly a very important colleague to me, and besides, he is one of the nicest guys here in Barinas. So I am excited to work more with him.
Oooh, I can´t believe I nearly forgot, el comedor!! Here at SBUWC, the dining hall receives almost all of the food from the farm here, and they serve a LOT of food. The school currently has 400 cattle which supply the main nutrients for the Venezuelan academic. Pretty much every day there is some form of beef. (I really miss my carrots and apples…) And here in Latin America, the whole animal is used. I like that idea, but as hard as I try, I still have not been able to swallow the hairy looking pieces of stomach that are sometimes in the soup. Every lunch – and usually dinner, too – is accompanied by rice and, at least a few times a week, pasta. This, I am pretty sure, is purchased or donated from outside. (Izamar mentioned once that Monsanto donates rice…uh oh.) There is also always a piece of plátano, or sometimes yuca. These come from the cultivos section of the farm. Other various vegetables, mostly ají, come from the hortalizas. Specialties like carrots and potatoes and lettuce are purchased from other Venezuelan states where the climate is cooler. The milk comes from the cows here. I believe I remember Antonio, el vaquero, saying that the cows here produce 300 liters per day, most of which is sold. (something to check on…) And I am not sure about the chicken. El comedor serves a lot of chicken, so I do not believe it comes from this farm. But they do utilize all parts of the chicken as well. I am always curious, though, why they do not serve more eggs. Those are somewhat “renewable”…
The other cool thing about SBUWC that I nearly forgot is that they use composting toilets!!! Well, sort of. The bathrooms here are not quite as fancy as those in COA. There is running water, and we do not add woodchips. But all of the sewage goes down a long tunnel to a deposit somewhere in the middle of the forest in the farm. I believe the shower water goes there as well. I am a little worried, I didn´t realize when I first arrived, and I dumped my mop water (which was mixed with cleaner) down the drain. That could be an interesting assessment: effects of chlorine bleach, laundry detergent, and other powerful chemicals on compost formation.
Okay, now this is hopefully the last thing I nearly forgot – physical description. The school is situated on 750 hectares of farmland. Some of it is cultivated, some of it is pasture, and some of it is forest. At the entrance are the main buildings – a set of classrooms, offices, a computer lab, a library, and bathrooms. There is a main administration building where Francisco Amos, the director, works. There is the dining hall and kitchen. And there are six módulos, or dorms, each named after the continents. Oh, and there is a small gym where the guys like to lift weights, a football field, and a basketball court. The thing I like the most about the buildings here is the lack of air conditioning. (except for the offices, which use window boxes) Although it can be pretty hot and humid sometimes, the fresh air is really nice, and I believe the fans here use much less energy than a home cooling system. My sister would die here in the heat and humidity, but I really like it. I think I was born to live in the tropics.
Aside from the formidable climate, there is always an abundance of nature, a characteristic of the tropics – birds outside my room, birds in the trees, birds in the fields, soooo many birds!! (My favorite is the miniature egret that I always see playing in the grass.) I remember learning that birds are a strong indicator of a healthy ecosystem, so SBUWC’s land must be in superb condition! There are soooo many cool bugs, too! The other day while walking to the cow pastures, I passed a humongous ant pile. It was incredible! I have never seen such a thing. It really makes you realized the power of teamwork to see those little tiny ants building such immense structures. (Hmm, and it kind of reminds me of the Egyptians building their pyramids.) And here just beside the classrooms, I nearly squashed some ants once. They have a highway going from one part of the grassy field to their house that is underground (I suppose). There is a little tiny window – that looks kind of like a mini-bird’s nest – that they climb in through. Sooooo coooool!!! Anyways, I decided to make a field journal for all of these fascinating subjects, so I won’t tell all the surprises yet.
Ahh, and one last thing, I swear. I was saving the best for last: compost!! In the cafeteria here, everything, EVERYTHING, goes to the pigs as their food. If you don’t eat it, drink it, use it, it goes in the big blue bucket for porcinos, even the napkins. It is hard to tell just by eyeballing it, but I believe there is much less waste than at UWC-USA. The thing is, though, the bandejas (trays with different compartments that function as plates) are all returned to the dishwashing window, some of them impeccably clean, others full of a nearly entire meal. Everyone knows that the food will go to the pigs if you don’t eat it, but when you don’t scoop it yourself, you don’t get that same consciousness of waste. Anyways, the food waste in the cafeteria here doesn’t go towards compost. Instead, the cultivos class makes compost holes where they deposit farm waste, things like the fallen plátano leaves, grass, and other yard waste. It is really massive, like an over-sized Jacuzzi. The teacher was explaining all of the chemistry to me, but I got a little lost in all of the Spanish. I´m pretty sure it´s the same chemistry as in an English-speaking compost pile…I wonder if their compost hot tub is going to smell as bad as the holes we dug up last year. Yeeeeks, just thinking about that experience slightly makes me want to vomit. (The excess of wet, nitrogen-rich food waste that had no aeration nor chemical balance had gone into lactic acid fermentation and turned into a slimey gooey slop that smelled really ugly.)
I realize this is quite scattered, and I am sure there are still more details that I meant to include, but I have reached my writing limits. (And, besides, it is lunchtime, and I am really hungry!!) So, forgive my disorganization. Some of these posts will be very … free… just like this one, others will hopefully be more formal, or at least better written. Until then, Cheers!