Tag Archives: South America

Bolivia – Faces

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.

Woman entrepreneurs.

Hasta La Vista Bolivia

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 Didn’t Lose: My Notebook in the small restaurant in Copacabana, my Camera on the Island of the Sun on Lake Titicaca and my Monopod on the bus returning from Copacabana.

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.

A Bolivian Primer


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 headwaters 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 its mines and from forest products. In many ways Bolivia is similar to Canada in its struggle to convert it’s natural resources into finished products for export, thereby, adding value to the economy and providing employment opportunities for its citizens. Most recently, Bolivia’s Natural Gas reserves have added another valuable commodity to its 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 its population, in the Americas. Bolivianos actively participate in the political process and exercise their democratic rights to be listened to 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 its 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 lifestyle of hunting, fishing and gathering. Furthermore, the road would have cut through the Territorio Indigena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Secure (TIPNIS), a National Park. In the end, President Evo Moralis, cancelled the road construction project along it’s original route, however, there continues to be uncertainty and concern with regard to a new route.The

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 affected groups. This was a historic event in Bolivia’s democratic life and we were privileged to be witness to it.

Bolivia, Minus One Week And Counting

On October 22nd of this year, I will be travelling to Bolivia as a volunteer for CUSO-VSO, a Development Aid NGO (Non Governmental Organization), for five weeks.

As one of seven, two-person teams of experienced Photographers & Journalists that have been posted around the world, our objectives are to photograph and write frontline stories related to various projects in which CUSO-VSO volunteers are currently involved.

The material we gather will be used to help recruit future Volunteers, and for fundraising efforts to collect much needed Donations. But I’m not fooling anybody; this is going to be an amazing trip, in more ways than one.

CUSO (Canadian University Service Overseas) celebrated it’s 50th anniversary this year, and much has changed around the world, since 1961. Whereas CUSO initially sent volunteer students to developing countries, whereby they could gain valuable work experience, while contributing to local aid projects, the average age of today’s volunteer is around 43.

CUSO-VSO distinguishes itself from other NGOs by sending volunteers with valuable experience, not money. By placing teachers, nurses, engineers, agronomists, IT Specialists etc. the local communities gain the knowledge and experience that might be more difficult if not impossible to acquire locally.

Although, volunteers working overseas, donate their time and experience, there are, none-the-less, costs associated with sending each volunteer, ranging from a week of Pre-Departure training in Ottawa, to vaccines, to air and land transportation, food and lodging and insurance, as well as other project related expenses.

As volunteers, we are asked to help defer the cost of future postings by undertaking Fund Raising, and that is where you come in. By sending people rather than money, to areas of the world in need of assistance, you always know how your donation is being spent and where its going. Furthermore, no one can hijack, warehouse and resell your goodwill.

If you believe in magic, then any donation you can make, however small it may seem, will grow nine fold. For every dollar donated to CUSO-VSO, the Government of Canada, through CIDA, will match your generosity to the tune of 9:1. That means that every dollar you donate will magically turn into Ten Dollars. With your well-meaning help, I am confident that we, you and I, can quickly raise the funds necessary to send the next volunteer overseas on our behalf.

Since you’re reading this message, donating couldn’t be any easier. In the sidebar that runs down the right of this Blog Posting, you’ll find a Donate button. That is linked directly to my Fund Raising Page on the CUSO-VSO website. See, I told you it couldn’t be any easier.

Regardless of whether or not you can donate to CUSO-VSO, I hope you will Subscribe to receive an E-mail notice, each time I publish a Post, or sign up for the RSS feed, and you’ll have a front row seat to some of the photographs I’ll be producing as well as personal musings.

In preparing for this assignment, I’ve subjected myself to a cocktail of vaccines, gathered together all the necessary paperwork and whittled my baggage down, to the bear minimum. Our itinerary is going to keep us busy, moving over rough terrain, and we’re heading into the rainy season, so traveling light will be challenging. Experiences like these are all the more enjoyable when shared, so allow me the honour of doing so, with you.

Hasta Pronto,
Miguel Hortiguela