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Monthly Archives: October 2011
Wow, just under an hour flight, east from La Paz and we’re in another world. Stepped out of the airport and walked smack into a wall of humidity and temperatures around 38’ C. We arrived yesterday afternoon in Santa Cruz and this seems as good a time to share some basic geographical and political details concerning Bolivia as any.
I mentioned earlier that Bolivia is landlocked and have made a point of describing that I would be, in both the High Andes and the head waters of the Amazonian Basin. It is an amazing contrast between the jagged snow-capped Andes in the west and the endless flat expanses of the eastern bread basket. Bolivia covers 1,098,580 sq/km and just to give you a point of reference, the province of Ontario, in Canada, weights in at 1,076,395 and France covers 674,843 sq/km.
Unlike most countries, and describing the nitty-gritty would get too involved for this space, Bolivia has two Capitals. La Paz is the Administrative Capital and that is where you’ll find the seat of Government as well as all the Embassies from around the world. However, the Supreme Court is located in Sucre and is referred to as the Constitutional Capital of the Country.
The country is divided into three distinct regions: Los Andes, Los Sub-Andes and Los Llanos (the Flats) which divide up in a west to east arrangement. Rather than provinces or states, they refer to the internal political divisions as Departments.
Like many developing countries, there is a marked dichotomy between urban and rural life and in the case of Bolivia, furthermore, between the Andes, where the harsh living conditions present unique economic challenges, and the tropical Amazonian region that produces every crop imaginable.
Bolivia is statistically the poorest nation in South America, with over 60% of the population falling below the poverty line. Like Canada, Bolivia has long been an exporter of natural resources from it’s mines and from forest products. In many ways Bolivia is similar to Canada in it’s struggle to convert it’s natural resources into finished products for export, thereby, adding value to the economy and providing employment opportunities for it’s citizens. Most recently, Bolivia’s Natural Gas reserves have added another valuable commodity to it’s bag of tricks. However, along with the benefits have come political unrest with regard to an equitable distribution of that new found wealth.
Protecting the natural environment is also a huge concern in Bolivia, especially when one takes into account that a significant percentage of the population continues to live a traditional life, in the jungle, which depends on the bounty produced by the land. Bolivia boasts the largest percentage of indigenous people in it’s population, in the Americas. Bolivianos actively participate in the political process and exercise their democratic rights to be listened too and respected. Because of their activism, it is my assertion that Bolivianos are building a unique form of Democracy, that although in the short term produces instability that may be damaging the national economy, will in the future serve as an example to many other democracies, such as Canada, where striking a balance between native land claims, issues surrounding land use and exploitation of natural resources, and protecting the natural environment represent a significant a concern for it’s citizenry.
For over nine weeks, this fall, over 1000 Bolivians took to the road and marched over 600 km. from their homes in the Amazonian basin all the way to La Paz to protest the construction of a road that would cut through valuable jungle and displace indigenous populations that continue to depend on a traditional life style of hunting, fishing and gathering. Furthermore, the road would have cut through the Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure (TIPNIS), a National Park. In the end, President Evo Moralis, cancelled the road construction project along it’s original route, however, their continues to be uncertainty and concern with regard to a new route.
The Marchistas arrived in La Paz just days before our arrival, however, on several occasions we had the unique opportunity to speak with some of the organizers and gained access to the camp they set up in the square in front of the Parliament, while negotiations took place between all of the effected groups. This was a historic event in Bolivia’s democratic life and we were privileged to be witness to it.
Variety isn’t the spice of life, it is life. When it comes to traveling, whether it’s in my own backyard or half way around the world, I look forward to discovering new… everything. It’s in my nature to be curious. Gee, I wonder if there’s any connection to being a photographer? Anyway, I’m pretty easy when it comes to food and sleeping arrangements, driving down an unfamiliar road or starting a conversation with a stranger, you get the picture.
However, I am also aware that as open minded as I like to think I am, I bring along my own preconceptions. Whether it’s from the Coffee-Table books full of wonderful photographs, Documentaries we’ve watched on TV or Travel Guides we’ve leafed through, we arrive at our destinations, often expecting one thing and perhaps finding another.
I like to believe that I’m going to arrive in a place distinctly different from where I just left, otherwise why bother. I think it makes for a far more adventurous experience when one is wiling to try the indigenous cuisine in the establishments popular with the local people, hangout in the public squares and visit the local markets. Heck, even try to use the lingo when ever possible. Sure, there may be challenges with the language and the way people organize themselves, but it’s well worth abandoning most if not all of the hang-ups about the clothing, the music and certainly the food.
Food is a big one for me. I know that Toronto has a great selection of cuisine from around the world, but when I travel I hope to leave that all behind and discover the true flavour of the place I’m visiting. But alas, globalization makes that increasingly difficult. Fortunately, although I haven’t walked every street in La Paz, this is a large city with approximately a million people, I’ve only seen one Burger King and I’ve been told that there aren’t any McDonalds. Although they do have some of their own chains, they appear to be very small and family owned. Now that all sounds promising, until you realize that they’re all selling burgers and fries, and fried chicken. I know, I know, that’s where my own baggage starts to get in the way. Just as we’ve adopted a variety of cultures, so have the Bolivians and they’re very proud of that, as they should be.
Anyway, I made this observation to our CUSO contact and she told me that that’s because I’d been walking up and down the same strip, where all the university students frequent. She suggested I head out of our hotel, in the opposite direction, and I’d find a much better selection. Absolutely true. No question that there is a strong influence from Argentina in terms of the excellent beef and from Peru for the seafood. Bolivia lost it’s access to the sea after the War of The Pacific and is now only one of two land locked countries in South America, along with Paraguay.
Remember how I descried that one could have a three course meal for around $10.00 including the beer, tax in? Well I stopped into a little restaurant where I ordered a delicious trout dish, with soup as the appetizer and a flan custard for dessert for which I would have easily paid $40.00, before taxes, in Toronto. The wonderful twist was that it was fresh trout from Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world.
Gratefully, Bolivians didn’t stop at burgers and fries and they’re very proud of their skills in mastering other cuisines. Case in point, there’s a really good Chinese restaurant, for example, right next to the hotel, where last night I had a bowl of Egg-Drop soup and a couple of Spring Rolls, as good as I’ve had in Toronto. I was having dinner by myself and next to me were two older couples, (anyone apparently older than me is always older) from Germany. A quick aside, I stopped into a book store to peruse the shelves, and discovered there has long been an interest in South America by Germans, that extends beyond the post Second World War.
Anyway, although I couldn’t understand any more than a few loose words of their conversation, I thoroughly enjoyed watching them, imaging their stories and how different their experience of Bolivia will be, from mine, if for no other reason than the language barrier. I couldn’t help but smile when the waiter brought them their dishes and amongst the rice, vegetable and noodle dishes, were two big plates of french-fries. As I was saying about pre-conceptions. One last note worthy observation about the experience, I didn’t see anyone using chopsticks. Sure, neither was I but it’s kinda’ difficult to eat soup with chopsticks. I asked the waiter about that, and he said it wasn’t uncommon for patrons to ask for them.
Otherwise, there’s a great variety of food in La Paz, and the markets have pretty well anything you want. Imagine a papaya as large as a cantaloupe without that huge pit. One doesn’t so much find cooked-food on the streets, other than empanadas, but every corner has someone selling fresh fruit along with the cell phone chips, magazines and pop. That’s soda for any American readers. With regard to buying fresh fruit on the street, Anouk and I have been warned not to eat any street food, including the fruit, because of the uncertainty as to how or if it’s been washed. We’re only here for five weeks and loosing any time to introducing our bodies to the local microbes would seriously cut into our itinerary. On the other hand, I’ve been washing my teeth with tap water, without a problem and we’ve been told that La Paz is the only urban centre in Bolivia with tap water meeting International Standards.
Breakfasts at the hotel consist of fresh Mangos, Pineapples, Bananas, as well as freshly squeezed juices, along with the typical fair of crusty breads with all the fixings, cold cereals and pastries. This is certain to change in the next few days.
After two days of repose to acclimatize to the altitude and two days of In Country training to reinforce local issues surrounding health, safety and an excellent overview of the political structure and situation, we were finally off to visit our first CUSO project yesterday. However, we’re off to Santa Cruz tomorrow, the largest city in the country, and after a few days there, head out for almost , two weeks to visit small rural communities, some may not have electricity and others certainly without internet. We will be flying to Santa Cruz which is just shy of 1000 km way down the slope (great just as we were finally reaching our 2.5 hour marathon) and from there we’re into trains, busses and mule carts. A real live Planes, Trains, and Automobiles adventure. Some communities as close to Santa Cruz as a 100km will take us upwards of seven hours along dirt roads, if the rain holds.
I know that you’ve probably been waiting to see those photos the most, so I’ll try when ever possible to post something, even if it means keeping the writing to very basic descriptions and context, in lieu of uploading the images. It’ll be tough, but I’ll do my best for all you loyal fans.
Bien o mal, tengo los dedos cruzados de que los de habla Español que estéis leyendo esto, podáis entender mucho si no casi todo. De todos modos, quiero añadir que aparte de la oportunidad de poder viajar, sea donde sea, unos de los lujos mas satisfactorios de este viaje es el poder estar hablando en castellano a diario. El tener que escuchar con cuidado los accentos de los otros participantes en varios otros proyectos, que han llegado de Chile y Méjico. El tener que hacer conversaciones que van mas haya que lo domestico, el poder hablar de temas mas importantes, que si el precio de lechugas esta muy alto. Anoche cene en el Sancho Panza, un restaurante cuyo dueño es un Madrileño que se vino en el 2005 y no volvio a España. Cenamos a base de raciones y estuvieron buenísimas.
Hasta la próxima.
I suspect that something everyone is curious about, is the question of money. As volunteers we’re not being paid to be here, however, all of our expenses are covered: beginning with all the shots and vaccinations prior to leaving, to our air and ground transportation, and of course meals and accommodations. Given our specific assignment , we were even supplied with cell phone so that we can communicate with each other, as well as call any one else in the country that we may have to contact or schedule interviews with.
We were picked up at the airport by a taxi that had been pre-arranged by the hotel we’re staying at, while in La Paz, and CUSO had left a package for each of us, at the front-desk containing some reading material and an envelope with 360 Bolivianos. Presuming that the Canadian and U.S. $$ are at par, and the exchange rate at approximately 7:1 that works out to about $50.00 to cover our meals for the next five days. The hotel rooms were being billed directly to CUSO.
Fifty dollars for five days of meals may not sound like much, but it’s more than enough. Breakfast is included with the room and lunches were also covered on each of the three days of In Country Training, so $50.00 goes a long way. More on the food later, but for the purpose of some examples, one can grab a burger and fries for under $3.00 and a great three course meal for $10.00, which includes a bottled beer for $1.00.
The hotel is by no means the Royal York, but neither is it a Have A Nap that rents out by the hour. The room is very comfortable, with a small bar fridge, TV, desk with both free WiFi and an RJ45 hard wired internet connection, chest of drawers and, oh ya, a bed. We also have something that many, if not most of the homes in La Paz don’t have, and that is heat in the form of a small radiator. It’s one of those situations, such as I’m familiar with in Spain, whereby because it doesn’t get TOO cold, homes didn’t always have heat. However, when it’s hovering around 0 in the middle of winter for a few months, cold is cold. That’s changed in Spain, but here it appears to still be quite common.
I mentioned TAXIs earlier and that deserves a description all its own. There are various modes of public transport and although somewhat regulated, it still seems a bit chaotic to the uninitiated. First there’s the Radio Taxi which is the safest, because one telephones a dispatcher, who logs the pickup and client. They charge based on distance or around $7.00 for an hour. You heard me, you can go anywhere you want and make as many stops as you want for an hour.
Then there’s the Taxi, which will stop to pick you up on the street… and anyone else along the route going the same way. Less safe since no one knows you were picked up and someone else could get it, be in cahoots with the driver and, well snatch your Louis Vuitton bag. They too offer the hourly rate option and come in around $6.00 for an hour.
Then there’s the Trufi, still a car, which follows a specific route just like a bus, and will stop to pick you up and anyone else along the route. Less safe for the same reasons as the Taxi, but they charge as little as 50 cents.
The three Taxi examples are regulated, however, there doesn’t appear too much enforcement of rules, so it’s difficult to know for sure, when you’re out on the street, as to what kind of cab you’re hailing.
Finally we come to the buses. Well, sort of. First there’s the Mini Bus, which is a van that follows a route, apparently of their choosing. The way it works is that they have hand-made signs that they display on their windshields indicating the various major points of interest on their route. This appears to be a family affair, because one person sits in the passenger seat, shouting out the different destinations along the route and another slides the door open and shut along the way. They pull up to a traffic light, slide the door open and try to out-shout all the other Mini Bus “tour guides”. It’s a real spectacle to watch for a mere 25 cents.
Last but not least is the Micro Bus, what we would recognize as School Bus. They follow a route, move much slower, because of the inability to dodge around other traffic, and spew an outrageous amount of exhaust fumes: hack, cough, gag, squint blahhh… and you can ride that magic bus for around 20 cents.
Oh ya these Mini and Micro buses are unionized and that means a lot here. They’re very powerful.
So, there you have it, a brief run down (oh stop complaining) of some of the basic expenses I’ve had to deal with. But of course I wouldn’t make you read down this far without treating you to some visual reinforcement.
Before I go any further, you’ve read me describe that I’m hear as part of a two person team, and yet, I’ve failed to introduce my partner. Anouk Desorilliers is a freelance journalist for CBC-Radio Canada. I take pride in knowing that there were approximately 70 photographers that applied for one of the seven volunteer positions, which in itself is noteworthy and might be something I expand on over the next five weeks.
However, there were approximately 120 applicants for the journalist positions. Our team includes freelance photographers, writers, journalists and short-documentary film-makers as well as current and past staff from The Globe & Mail, Vancouver Province, the CBC & BBC. My point is simply to express how honoured I am to be in such amazing company.
Anouk brings a great deal of experience to the story telling half of our mission and I know that I have my work cut out for me in matching her.
How CUSO-VSO made their final decisions, only they know. However, although it wasn’t necessary for every posting, I strongly suspect that language skills played a significant roll in paring up Anouk and me. I am a native Spanish speaker and her’s is very, very good. While Anouk, is a native French speaker and mine is pretty good. We won’t be needing our French language skills, but none-the-less, I suspect that it played a roll in our paring.
I want to draw something to your attention with regard to navigating the photo galleries. You may have selected an image and seen that a larger version opens. However, you may not have noticed that it isn’t necessary to close each photograph before opening the next one. After selecting anyone of the images and viewing the larger version, hover your mouse over either side of the photo (except the first and last photos, which don’t have an arrow because the images don’t wrap) and an arrow will appear. Simply navigate using those arrows and soon you’ll stop cursing me.
Next time you hear from me I’ll bring you up to date with my first impressions of La Paz, my living accommodations, food, stuff like that. For now I’ll leave you with a vantage point view of a small part of the city with snow-capped Mount Illimani at 6,462 m in the distance.
As we were told, and expected, our early morning arrival in La Paz, the highest national capital in the world, was very cool, and by that I’m referring to the temperature not the approach. Unfortunately, and despite that fact that sunrise at 4000 metres is unobstructed, our 5:30 am arrival prevented us from enjoying the full impact of the sun creeping over the jagged mountain ridges.
We were also warned that the effect of, for all intents and purposes, instantly taking our bodies from sea level to 4000 metres, would cause unpleasant symptoms. They weren’t kidding, the walk from the airplane to the baggage carousel felt like a 5k run. After a hand full of steps, my heart rate was racing and my breathing was quick and shallow. Otherwise, I’ve been spared the more unpleasant side affects such as headaches, diarrhea and nausea. On the upside, all our baggage arrived intact and none the worse for wear.
The drive from the airport to the city proper took us from 4000 to 3600m, past a field full of abandoned DC 2s and 3s, down a narrow winding road with a spectacular view of the city. Through my light headedness, my first thoughts were that everything was strangely quiet, until I realized that… it was only six o’clock in the morning and on a Sunday to boot. The only creatures shuffling along the streets was a mangy collection of dogs.
There was no confusing that I was a long way from Toronto, and around every corner and to either side I kept picking out wonderful photographs. The light, the angles, the patterns, the lone woman walking along the side of the road, in traditional laired dress, the archetypal black bollard hat, with a child in one hand and a bag of belongs in the other. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stop to photograph any of this, the road was far to steep and narrow, but I’m hoping to hire a taxi, in the next few days, to retrace my steps.
Not only because of the early hours, but because our itinerary took into account the affects of the altitude, we’ve spent the day thus far, taking it easy in our hotel rooms, a light breakfast, writing this entry and a very short walk around the block to share some of the streetscapes in the immediate neighbourhood.
I don’t want to push my luck, so I’m going to sign off here and share some of my first impressions, regarding La Paz and our initial contact with our CUSO hosts, tomorrow.
Bueno, aunque no sean mas que unas pocas palabras, y esto cualquiera que viva o haya visitado España sabrá a lo que me refiero, una de mis primeras observaciones fue la semejanza en modos de construcción con España. También se construye con ladrillos, algo que en Canada no se ve. Los ladrillos allí se usan mas bien como una capa exterior y no como forma estructural. El otro detalle es que los ladrillos también son huecos y no macizos como en Canada. Me trai recuerdos que tiran del corazon. Hasta pronto.