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Tag Archives: Bolivia
Difficult to believe, for me anyway, that I’m closing in on one year since my return from Bolivia. Despite the passing of twelve months, memories of the experience haven’t faded much. The first few weeks after my return were taken up with all the Christmas preparations and immediately after ward, I had to pick through a few thousand images to edit down and process the bank of photographs from my assignment, before passing them along to CUSO International.
For anyone reading about my trip to Bolivia for the first time, in the dyeing days of the summer of 2011, I had the wonderfully good fortune to be chosen by CUSO, to participate in a project to visit one of several countries where they provide Development Aid. As one of six teams of journalist and photographers sent to various points around the world, I was assigned to Bolivia, where we visited several projects to meet with CUSO beneficiaries and volunteers and to document their projects, through words and photographs.
I learned a lot from the experience, in terms of packing equipment, scheduling visits and assertiveness to maximize the days and opportunities available in a relatively short period of time. Looking back through the images, a year later, I find that I’m able to be less critical of what I produced and take pride in what was accomplished
As photographers, we are a pretty insecure and self critical lot. That probably works in our favour, when it comes to pushing ourselves to do better next time, always searching for a unique perspective and turning on the charm to befriend a subject, on their turf.
I’ve added a Gallery of images in my Photo Essays that I’ve given the Title: Bolivia – Faces. These are my favourite People Photos from that trip and maybe as soon as next week I’ll add another Gallery: Bolivia – Places. Kinda has a nice ring to it don’t you think? Some of the images maybe familiar from my Blog Posts while in the field, but regardless, they are worth gathering together for a second look. Enjoy and don’t hesitate to provide any feedback: good, bad or ugly.
You may have thought that I’d fallen off the face of the earth, and at times I wish I had of, but nope, I’m back in Toronto. Dropped in to Pearson International two weeks ago, instead, and have been trying to get up to speed: returning telephone calls, answering E-mails and opening and sorting Post Mail. I was without daily access to the internet during my last week and a half in Bolivia, so Blogging let alone uploading images would’ve been impossible. Still, I knew that there were some final observations I wanted to pass along and certainly Post Posting Blues that would need airing.
The Large Cities: OK, we only got to La Paz and Santa Cruz. The other two large cities of note are Sucre and Cochabamba. Oddly, returning to La Paz felt like I was returning home. I know, I know, I was only there for a week before heading down to Santa Cruz, but what can I say. As wonderful as it was to spend three weeks in the warm; no, hot and humid, embrace of that Amazonian City, I find La Paz far more interesting from a photographic point of view. You just can’t beat the steep and winding streets for interesting compositions. Also, there is far more colour than in Santa Cruz, as well as a variety of buildings of different heights, the surrounding mountains and the quality of light at either end of the day is just amazing. If only they would do something about the air pollution, I could live with the constant honking of car horns.
The Overhead Sun: I know this might sound “so what” to those of you that have traveled lots, but one thing I observed the very first day I arrived in La Paz in late October, was that this was the first place and time in my life where I’d been anywhere where the noon day sun was almost directly overhead, on it’s way south for the summer. Also, although there are many variables, such as altitude and geography, it takes a little getting use to the notion that it gets colder the further south one goes, rather than north, like I’ve always been use to. The night sky was amazing and I had the opportunity, while in San Antonio, to locate the Southern Cross.
Strangest Experience: There I was in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, a colonial Spanish city, and walked into an Irish Pub, with the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication playing over the in-house loud speakers, and ordered a Lasagna de Carne, but the saving grace was the cold Huari, a Bolivian Beer. No Steam Whistle, but just as welcome.
Safety and Security: I was warned about openly carrying my camera in plain view, in certain neighborhoods in La Paz and told outright that Santa Cruz was a very dangerous place. Now I wasn’t about to outright dismiss the advice and certainly it pays to be prudent, however, and this may be naive of me, but I honestly think that people over react. There is a fear of the other, which at times I think is more dangerous than the perceived threat. I’m a photographer, the whole point is to have my camera out. Keeping it in my camera bag or worse in the hotel room, is pointless. I’m always careful and aware of my surroundings, even in my home town of Toronto.
When walking around, I try to be discreet and cradle the camera in my arms to disguise it, but I watch people’s eyes as they walk by and I clearly see their eyebrows go up. I was told that it wasn’t just a matter of keeping my hands firmly on my equipment, but that I could have someone pull a knife on me. Now that would be frightening, but fortunately, I didn’t experience anything remotely threatening.
No doubt the language was a huge advantage for me, but generally I found people to be friendly, if not always the greatest ambassadors for their cities. Try and get directions and it seems that no one knows where anything is, not even the taxi drivers. On my second to last night in La Paz, I was looking for a restaurant where I could order Llama, that’s the relative to the camel not the jolly old monk in the orange Kasaya. Anyway, I stopped in front of the Plaza Hotel, on the main pedestrian strip, Paseo del Prado, to ask two policeman where I could find the Marbeilla, which I had been told should be close by. Well they didn’t have a clue. I could’ve been asking them for directions to Casa Loma. I walked a block and a half further and there it was. It was on their beat!!
Racism: I think this goes back to a point I made earlier about a fear of the other. Although I never witnessed anything overt, there is some internal resentment between different indigenous groups. Also, be it politically driven or not, I think that some people don’t quite get that the tourist is bringing in money. I add politically motivated, because there is currently a Government led my Evo Morales that likes to play the evil foreigner card. Anyone arriving from abroad and wanting to invest, must want to “steal what’s ours”. Maybe a truly democratic political system with checks and balances would go a long way to prevent, if not completely avoid the corruption that can lead to stealing of resources for personal gain, so enough with the broad brush.
Things I Did Lose: My Red Baseball Cap and grey Hoody, or what as a child, we called a Kangaroo, because of the… ya… the pouch. Actually, I didn’t lose it, so much as someone liberated it.
Challenges: No one there is follicly challenged, so I stood out when sans Red Toque, despite being vertically challenged, like most paisanos.
Well there you have it, some last thoughts, although I doubt they will be the last I think about Bolivia, the people I met and the wonderful experiences I had. OK, one last thought, it’s a long flight, the air fare can be expensive (try the off season) but once you get there, and traveling with Canadian, Australian or U.S. $$, the British £ or the Euro, it’s very inexpensive to eat, move around and visit some of nature’s awesome sites. Oh Ya! Learn to drive a Standard Transmission and get your Drivers License, you never know when you’ll be asked to take the wheel.
Some parting shots of the chaotic knots, the colourful buildings in La Paz and a self-portrait. The rest will have to be face to face.
Buenas noches Illimani.
From the very beginning of this volunteer experience with CUSO, I’ve felt like a bit of a fraud, for one simple reason. I knew that I was going to spend a relatively short period of time in Bolivia and wouldn’t have the opportunity to completely integrate myself into the local habits and rhythms. I was non-the-less, reassured that my contribution is very important, and if I am to accept that everyone’s role, how ever small, is important, then I must learn to be more generous with myself too. Difficult to do, sometimes, when one is made to feel insignificant unless earning a certain income or attaining a “respectable” job title.
Not to take away from others I’ve met here, but we recently visited a Spanish volunteer, Jesus Torrero Bustos, in San Antonio de Lomerio and his story most closely matches my pre-conceptions of the experience. Jesus recently completed his first of a two year posting in San Antonio, a small rural community that gained access to the electric grid only six short months ago. Previously, only the Municipal Buildings, Community Radio and Church, had diesel generators to provide limited hours of electricity. There are no telephone land-lines or cellular service, internet goes with out saying is a dream, and although there are a few municipally installed public-access hand-pumps scattered around the town, those who can afford to do so, have small water towers in the court yards behind their homes. A water truck periodically visits San Antonio and those who can afford it, pay to have their cisterns topped up.
Jesus arrived here with a mandate to provide training to existing Cooperatives and guidance to others wanting to organize and take advantage of financial assistance provided by the various levels of government. By offering workshops through his position with the Municipal Government, ranging from basic Administrative and Organizational skills to developing Marketing Strategies, he early on recognized an even more fundamental need; a Financial Education. Having most of their needs met, Jesus observed that there was very little long term thinking in the Chiquitanian tradition or educational experience. The issue is far more complex than I have space for here, to elaborate on, however, in a nutshell, when finding themselves with a bit of extra cash, the towns people are most likely to spend in quickly, rather than consider saving it to repair the roof next year or reinvesting it in their side businesses. See, we are more alike than different.
Drawing on his undergrad degree in Pedagogy Psychology and Masters in Human Resources, Jesus quickly came to the conclusion that guiding adults in the community through the process of registering businesses and offering workshops was all, well and good, but targeting school children is the only way to make long term, attitudinal changes. Coincidentally, this past year, the Bolivian Ministry of Education tabled legislation to implement changes to the curriculum and Jesus was approached, through his employer the village of San Antonio, to research teaching methods that could be used to introduce that new curriculum.
A year later, a series of workbooks, one for each of twelve school grades has been written, designed and published. The material deals with everything from Money Management, to developing a Social Conscience with an emphasis on empathy and the environment. Until the Ministry of Education, passes their legislation and obliges School Boards to adopt the new curriculum, whether or not to adopt the new material rests with the individual Principals and Teachers, which isn’t a given. Fortunately for Jesus, the Secondary School Principal in San Antonio is eager to use the material. The final and perhaps most difficult challenge for each school Principal, will be securing the funds to purchase one workbook for each and every student, each year.
Because of it’s isolated location, San Antonio is the one community where we spent the most time. One day to travel each way, from and to Santa Cruz, on a Micro, a small bus seating approximately 40, and standing, who ever was willing to do so for the bumpy five hour ride, and two full days in and around the town. On the agenda was to accompany Jesus to the nearby community of Palmeria and that is a story worth telling. He secured one of the vehicles owned by the Town Hall, for use by employees, and requisitioned the diesel fuel that would get us there and back. Only thing missing was a driver. There were five of us making the forty kilometre round trip and, not surprisingly, the 4 X 4 had a standard transmission. A quick show of hands left me as the only one experienced to drive the vehicle. Eeee Gats!!
It wasn’t the first time in my life that I’ve had to manoeuvre around tight corners or dodge pot holes, but it was the first time that I had to do it behind the wheel of a vehicle held together with twist ties. Worst of all, once at the other end of the trip, we discovered that we were without lights, and would have to cut short our visit. I already knew that their were no mirrors and that the shocks were toast, but a quick inventory confirmed that we had windshield wipers but no way to activate them, no door windows, I just thought they were cranked down until I discovered that… you got it, there were no cranks and no horn, important for driving along a narrow, one and half lane, dirt road. We made it back to San Antonio stirred but not shaken and with a slight glow in the sky, as well as our faces.
The next day was taken up sitting in on a Marketing Workshop and visiting small businesses. However, the highlight for us came later that evening when Anouk and I were asked to be interviewed on the Community Radio. Good or bad, we were up against a televised Football Game, so it’s difficult to say how large our listening audience was.
Unlike our arrival in San Antonio, which was under the cover of a star filled sky, the return trip to Santa Cruz, was in full daylight. There’s an interesting Canadian connection to the department of Santa Cruz. Over the past twenty-five years, there has been a very large migration of Mennonites from Saskatchewan to La Chiquitania. Go figure. It’s like the last untamed frontier, or something. However, I’m making it sound far more romantic than I should. That’s because, as farming communities, the Mennonites are largely responsible for the disappearance of much of the natural ground cover between Santa Cruz and Robore, near the border with Brazil, a distance of approximately 450 km. It works something like this. They purchase huge tracks of land, as flat as our western prairies, clear them to grow every crop imaginable, and because this area experiences very low rainfall, once they’ve exhausted these organically poor soils, they move along to the next parcel of land. There’s no doubt that they are producing great quantities of food, but because there are no controls on land use practices, the price, in the long term, will be left for others to pay. Returning to Santa Cruz, from our trip to Puerto Suarez, the previous week, one could see clouds of smoke rising in the distance, and the acrid smell, at times became quite thick, indicating that large areas of scrub land were being cut, burned and prepared for tilling or pasture land.
Casi me he puesto al día, aunque si quisiera, tampoco se trata de que cuente cada detallito, hay que dejar algo por contar en persona. Lo cual en las palabras del gran Filosofo Arnold Schwarzenegger “Hasta mañana baby.”
Enthusiasm can be contagious and within minutes of arriving in Santiago de Chiquitos and meeting a small group of woman, members of a cooperative called La Asociacion de Medicina Natural, I was drawn in. Picture a little village, thirteen kilometers up a dirt road from a paved two lane highway. The village consists of the town square with a small church taking up the length of one side, and homes that also serve as business fronts, along the other three. Four or five streets run parallel to each side of the square and because of the heat, we see more dogs lying under the shade of some precious trees or sprawled on the covered sidewalks, than town folk.
It doesn’t take any more than a few minutes to cross the village and as we reach the far end, which leads to a protected conservation area with hiking trails up to El Mirador – La Antesala Del Cielo, a wonderful lookout high above the surrounding forest, we pull over next to a new, well kept, small brick building. We step out of our van to be greeted by half a dozen, friendly woman ranging in age from the mid twenties to late sixties. Emphasis on the latter years.
We’ve arrived at a small cooperative where both the Cusi and Copaibo Oil, which we saw harvested earlier in our trip, arrives to be processed, packaged and shipped out. It is really wonderful to witness how a simple chain of products and a group of people, who don’t even know each other, can coordinate their efforts to produce something of value, with minimal means yet with a wide vision.
Until recently, these women were producing a line of products ranging from medicinal remedies to personal care products, which were not all together unique. However, what is unique is that they were willing to consider that there is a better way to do it. That their traditional remedies and ways could benefit from a new approach. Another of CUSOs initiatives was to provide small groups of people, such as these woman, with training to improve the quality of their products, to develop long term planning and administrative skills, and to consider expanding their markets to reach beyond the communities in their local traveling circles.
Even for us, it is at times difficult to consider that how we’ve always done things, is not necessarily the best way. Times change, technologies change and as Einstein once said “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. These women had been gathering in each others homes to process the raw materials and to prepare the final products, but that wasn’t going to cut it if they were to improve their production methods and increase the income they could generate. To reach new markets they would have to change, almost everything.
CUSO supplied experts on the ground who provided the practical training, while other NGOs provided some of the funding that was necessary for equipment (basic as it was), and with these two assets in hand, the woman were able to approach the municipal government for support. First on the list, to secure a new facility where they could set themselves up to produce a consistently high quality product using modern techniques for hygiene and where the quantities of raw material going into the process could be measured to more accurately, forecast their profits.
Not to in anyway minimize the “facilities”, but it was truly endearing the way they led us through the door to their LAB, and dawned their white lab coats, hair nets and masks. I should back up and say that their municipal representative negotiated on their behalf, with their small hospital, to obtain a two year, free of charge lease, on a small but new building that was not being used, in which they could establish their growing enterprise.
What they’ve accomplished in the few months since they moved into their new facilities, was quite impressive. Most of all their attitudes were in tune with the challenges they have ahead of them. Keenly aware of the importance that the distant ends of the production chain become acquainted with each other, CUSO is attempting to make arrangements for some of these women, pressing the Cusi Oil, and the men harvesting the Copaibo oil. While listening to the conversation regarding the costs involved in getting everyone together, the temptation to reach into my own pocket was incredibly strong. The cost for a two way bus ride, lodging for one night and meals would amount to roughly 120 Bolivianos each, which translates into approximately CDN $18.00. None-the-less, they would have to choose how many and who could attend, this significant meeting since the expenses would have to be drawn on the profits from everyone’s efforts.
I have described CUSOs philosophy as one of sending people not money, however, there is some funding provided, all be it minimal, for project support, and an effort is being made to find the financial assistance to send a few of these woman on the day-long bus ride to San Ignacio. If as you read this, you too find yourself wanting to reach for a $20.00 bill, remember that for every dollar donated to CUSO, CIDA kicks in another nine. That $20.00 instantly becomes $200.00. Go ahead, give in to the temptation.
Before saying goodbye to Las Santiagueñas, the name brand, we accompanied Sofia Frias to Puerto Suarez, a community next to the Bolivian Marshes. A large navigable expansive wetland on the border with Brazil. In addition to filling orders from retailers in Santa Cruz and nearby communities, Sofia will periodically travel, sometimes accompanied, to Puerto Suarez, to set up a display on a sidewalk in the market area, to sell her wares. Her enthusiasm for the products their cooperative produces, came through naturally in her ability to applaud the medicinal qualities and convince others of their benefits.
After spending the better part of the morning in the market, it was time to find something cold to drink and answer our hunger pains. Alberto, our driver, had been to Puerto Suarez often, and suggested a restaurant next to the water. After almost a week of rice, fried potatoes and tough beef, we were all looking forward to an alternative. The fish on the menu was from the waters of the marshlands and so was the… alligator. In my quest to try something different it was a toss up between two fish I’d never heard of and a third, Piranha. However, I opted for the alligator. Let me just say, I had no idea what to expect, and I would gladly have it again. The meat was white and tender and had no distinctly strong taste, rather taking on what ever it was prepared with.
Unas ultimas palabras. Desde que llevo en Bolivia, se me ha preguntado varias veces, siempre por otros voluntarios, si me choque la pobreza, como si debería de sentir remordimiento o estar avergonzado por tener tanto mas que otros. Ahora, no pretendo que en muchos aspectos, y no solo en los pueblecitos, no hay escasez de algunas cosas básicas, como agua potable, pero debo ver la pobreza de otra manera. No mido la pobreza por lo que uno tiene o deja de tener, y menos por comparación a lo que tengo yo, que ya me parece bien poco. Tiendo a mirar más a las necesidades y menos a los deseos, mas a la alegría en las vidas cotidianas y menos al aislamiento físico, mas a las formas de poder ayudar, que en los obstáculos.
Si es verdad que en Canada tengo electricidad y acceso al Internet en cualquier lugar, y también tengo acceso a servicios médicos y agua potable, pero esta gente tiene sus familias y amigos cerca. También tienen muchas menos preocupaciones económicas. Sus necesidades básicas las cubren sin dinero y no faltan por comida. Hay mucho que pudieran cambiar si quisiesen, pero o no le dan la importancia que le damos nosotros, ni se molestan en hacer nada de ello. A lo que voy es que a veces lo que nosotros vemos como pobreza es muy relativo.
Seguro que seguiré dando le vueltas a este tema por mucho tiempo, tanto durante lo que queda de mi estancia en Bolivia como en los meses y años que vienen.
I discovered that some of you may not have been receiving the automated messages informing you of my Blog Posts. I’ve discovered the problem and believe I’ve corrected the issue. Since you’re reading this now, I encourage you to scroll back and visit those older postings you may have missed. I promise it’ll be worth the effort.
While in Ottawa, during our Pre-departure training at the CUSO offices, one of the volunteers offered to set up a Facebook Group so that we could follow each other’s adventures. As has been the case for me, internet isn’t always available and when it is, it isn’t always stable. Nothing more frustrating than being in the middle of an upload of images and loosing all the work. Still, I can’t or shouldn’t complain. The fraternity of Brigadiers has been posting and uploading and it’s great to hear from disparate parts of the world. It’s been fun to read final messages from departure points, first impressions and cold realities. From reading the challenges faced elsewhere, I’ve come to realize how different our assignment in Bolivia has been from those elsewhere.
Right off the top, the projects we’ve been documenting don’t involve schools, hospitals or extreme poverty. We’ve visited with people who maybe struggling to improve their lots in life, but no one is going hungry. Hope is, none-the-less, very important and providing people with the tools necessary to make wise decisions, may prevent them from sliding into the dire situations faced somewhere else. Our projects have focused on improving management of natural resource, on a small scale, empowering small communities and helping young people to be less reliant on hand outs.
In an earlier post, I mentioned that the harvest of Almonds, Cusi & Copaibo Oil was just the beginning of the chain and that the entire process was designed to stay within the hands of the local communities. Enter stage left, San Ignacio de Velasco.
A rather large town, San Ignacio is another of the Jesuit Missions and it too could easily double as a movie set. Fact is that not far from here, in El Parque Nacional – Noel Kempff Mercado, were filmed scenes from The Mission, with Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons, specifically the dramatic water falls. Road was too rough to take a quick look see.
Located in San Ignacio is Minga, which closely translates into English as Cooperative. Minga is where the almonds collected in Palmerito end up, to be sorted, roasted, salted and packaged. A relatively unknown product for many Bolivians, marketing the almonds is still largely by word of mouth. Supply is keeping ahead of demand and to insure their availability, the raw almonds are stored in large sealed, steel hoppers and process only on an order-by-order arrangement.
Not to suggest that all Canadians are marketing wizards, however, there is a certain lack of sophistication, here, when it comes to self promotion and using existing outlets for spreading the word. This once again, is one of the areas that CUSO is very involved in. By providing volunteers with an expertise in the areas of identifying markets, developing strategies and managing workflows, CUSO, through their local counterparts, is helping to build self-confidence in the local people, so that agencies like CUSO can move on to other projects.
As for the almonds, the packaging is well designed and would look right at home in any Canadian specialty shop, the almonds taste great salted, unsalted and yes even covered in a wonderful, bitter, dark-chocolate. Did I mention that these are larger than the almonds we’re familiar with. I know, I already had you with the chocolate, didn’t I? How many boxes would you like to order at only CDN $3.00 each? Sorry, no chocolate covered Alligators.
Next stop on our tour lies 270 km. and an eight hour drive to the south, in Santiago. Enough said about the roads, however, the highlight of the trip, which we started as the sun was setting around six thirty, was a small wooden bridge, four hours into the drive, on which we stopped. Alberto, our driver, got out his flashlight and I mine and we rolled down our windows. He said to point the light along the water surface of the slow moving river and against the charcoal-black water we could see dozens of pairs of small white reflectors staring back at us. It was my first encounter with wild alligators and was both fascinating and a bit eerie all at once.
For the rest of the trip the winding road continued through very hilly terrain, which was a shame since the night sky prevented us from enjoying the landscape. By contrast, there was no way to ignore the chorus of night critters that was at times deafening, incredibly loud. We reached Robore, just short of Santiago, where we stopped for the night, around two thirty in the morning, and met up with Christian, another CUSO volunteer and our guide for this last leg of the tour.
Bueno, os tengo descuidados. Prometí escribir algo en Castellano, pero llevo unos cuantos “reportajes” sin una sola palabra. Reconozco que el llegar hasta aquí no es fácil, por cuestión de la distancia, y sinceramente el viajar por la Chiquitania es duro por la condición de las carreteras, pero no dejéis que eso os desanime de considerar lo. Los pueblecitos tienen su encanto, y la historia de los Jesuitas es muy interesante.
Algo que aprendí por ver la película La Misión, fue la importancia que pusieron los Jesuitas en utilizar la música, aunque eso si, Europea, como manera de crear una conexión con las indígenas. El legado es que hoy en día, hay se celebra un Festival de Musica Baroca cada año, que atrae músicos de por todo el mundo. El estudio de música clásica sigue siendo algo muy apreciado y hace unos años, un grupo de músicos Franceses, al descubrir ese interés, especialmente entre los jóvenes, investigaron las fuentes locales para los instrumentos de cuerda. Se les dirigió a un pueblo casi frontera con el departamento de Beni, cuyo nombre se me ha olvidado. Al llegar allá, se quedaron tan impresionados con un grupo de artesanos fabricando instrumentos que juntaron los fondos para proporcionar les equipo moderno y mandar les luteros de Francia. El propósito era mejorar la calidad de sus instrumentos, y hoy en día, el Boliviano, que anteriormente no tenia acceso mas que a instrumentos baratos, de la China, desean, aunque son más caros, los que se fabrican en el departamento de Santa Cruz, por la calidad y por que con la compra esta incluido cualquier reparación o ajuste.
Bueno, hay lo tenéis, una exclusiva en Español.