“You are going where?” Jan asked in disbelief. She probably wasn’t as surprised as she let on. In all the years we have been together she has gotten used to me telling her about some far-away place I wanted to visit or was actually going. But this time I had outdone myself. It wasn’t Alaska or some island in the Caribbean. It was the poorest country in South America. “What are you going to do in Bolivia?” she asked. “I’m going to the Amazon and the Andes to shoot a video with Engineers Without Borders,” I replied.
The flight to La Paz was a long one. I remember flying over Cuba and being surprised at how big a country it is. Upon arriving at the airport it was obvious that I wasn’t in Missouri any longer. The people at customs and immigration were soldiers in uniform, with guns.
That was my first trip to the country I have come to love. It may be a poor and primitive country but it is rich in history and culture. Its mountains are some of our planet’s most spectacular, and its lowlands in the Amazon basin are draped in clouds and home to everything from monkeys to pink dolphins.
The capital city of La Paz is also one of my favorite cities in the world. I’ve been to London and several others but La Paz is in a league all its own. Lying in the shadow of Mt. Illimani, and at 13,500 ft. in elevation, it is the highest capital city in the world. In the city itself, there are 3,000 ft of elevation. The streets can be a nightmare. Loud and crowded, with people and vehicles everywhere.
Like so many cities in the emerging world, my favorite places are the markets. That is where you can see what people eat, wear, and purchase for their everyday lives. And of those, the Witches Market is far and away my favorite.
Bolivia is home to superstition and the metaphysical. The Witches Market offers the things required to pursue them. An example is the llama fetus which is planted below the foundation for good luck when building a home. They are on display everywhere in the market.
Probably the most striking images La Paz and the rest of the highlands has to offer are that of the Cholitas. With their bowler hats and brightly colored shawls and skirts, Cholitas are indigenous women who carry on the traditional way and present an unmistakable vision of Bolivia.
While in La Paz my favorite pastime was simply walking the streets. There were so many things to see. I was warned not to do a lot of things before I left. “Be careful of the food, watch out for kidnappers,” and such. Advice I ignored when I found myself looking for something to eat at 2:00 in the morning. I found a street food stand, and after I awoke the proprietor, had no problem eating whatever he was selling. I wasn’t sure what it was but it was great, and it didn’t kill me.
After our initial stay in the capital, we were off to the Amazon to do what we had come for. The flight to Rurrenabaque on Amazonia Airlines was brief. The hop over the twenty-thousand-plus peaks of the Andes landed us in that muggy backwater town which would be our jumping-off point for our work at the boarding school in Rio Colorado. The mosquito netting over our bunk beds and the incredible humidity assured us we were in the Amazon.
It didn’t take long for the heat and humidity to get to me. Our shower was a rope attached to a water bucket above our heads. I found myself standing under that bucket several times a day, fully clothed, to get some relief. I was so ladened with sweat that adding more water to the mix was refreshing. The wife of the headmaster was from Guatemala and had a special way with meals. Chicken or pork was always the main course accompanied by beans and rice, garnished with a variety of colorful goodies from the environment and incredible sauces she had brought with her from Guatemala.
After we finished our work at the school, it was time to head back to Rurrenabaque. We did have one final thing to do before we left for the trip back to La Paz. It was a trip up the Beni river in a funky boat to a place where some of the natives had set up a zip line. “What more could a guy from Missouri ask for?” I wondered as I boarded the craft for the trip up the river.
So, it was back to La Paz for an overnighter before heading across the high desert to Inca Katurapi. There the students would examine the work that had previously been done by Engineers Without Borders. I was now headed into llama land where new sights would be laid before me. Inka Katurapi is a large village of Aymara people in the hills near Lake Titicaca. To say it was primitive would be an understatement. The hills were covered with stone and mud houses. My job was to record the conversation between our guide and one of the leaders of the community. He was telling us how important the Engineers without Borders project was to his community.
In Inca Katurapi, I realized how much I enjoyed being with the children of Bolivia. I was there doing something they had never seen and wanted to be part of it. When one of the boys saw his friends in my camera’s viewfinder, the laughter was contagious. At one point I thought I would never get it away from him.
When the time came to leave Inca Katurapi, I was saddened by the thought of never coming back to this curious place. A place so far off of the beaten path that it would be hard to find again without our guide. I was back in La Paz with enough time to buy some trinkets for the homefront. My stay in Bolivia had been life-changing, and I promised myself I would be back. After a few years, I did find myself back in La Paz, boarding a Land Rover to take me to Tacachia. Another trip into this mysterious land they call Bolivia. A story about that adventure will appear in a future post.
Below is a link to the video I produced while on this trip to Bolivia.