Category Archives: Bolivia

Volunteering in a community in the Bolivian Amazonian Jungle

My first experience as a volunteer, although it was just to photograph the Real Beni community and just a bit of hands-on help, it was by far the most significant experience in terms of culture contact of my trip in South America. My idea of volunteering was different but as I’m passionate about photography I couldn’t say no to this opportunity.

The first thing we did when we arrived at Real Beni was to meet doña Cupertina, our host, the grandmother of almost all the young people from this small community and the mother of Baldemar, the guy who brought us there. We went to find a place to camp, we cleaned the area of branches and leaves, we set our tent and went up the hill, where she had an improvised place to cook, to eat lunch. We cooked food on the fire, fed corn to the chickens and after lunch Baldemar took the boat and went back to Rurrenabaque, where he is running a travel agency, BOA.

So there we were, me and Katerina, curious and a bit overwhelmed. Katerina found this opportunity for us to volunteer while she was searching for a place to paint. She’s an Argentinian art graduate traveling and painting in exchange for board and food and sometimes money. I met her at the hostel in Rurreanabaque and as I was telling her I want to do some volunteering and to have more authentic experiences, and as she saw I’m passionate about photography she thought this opportunity will suit me just fine. Baldemar had this idea of creating a different tour in the jungle, one in the community where he was born, where tourists would meet the people, with their traditions and beliefs, with their customs, their music and eat their traditional food. As this isn’t an isolated community and people go regularly to Rurrenabaque to sell fruits and vegetables this idea seems helpful for them and could be a good cultural exchange. Our part in this was to spend five days with the kids, speak with them about recycling and good practices, and photograph them so that Baldemar can make a presentation of the community back at his travel agency where he had some other volunteers working on a website for him.

From the beginning, I was amazed how kind and open doña Cupertina was, always smiling and always calm. She brought us cocoa pods and we ate the skin of the beans and put the beans to dry to be made powder for the cocoa drink. It was the first time I saw cocoa in the natural form, not in a box already processed, so I was really excited. Next days I experienced the same excitement with the sugar cane we chewed, the pineapples I saw in every stage of growth, the yucca roots which I learned to peel and clean and I wanted to eat each and every lunch.

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Later that day we met some of the kids from the community, first timidly but after we spoke a bit with each other they became very open. We watched the sunset together and they showed us their dog Colita. Those days in the jungle there were mostly about them, about the kids.

First night in the jungle we went to sleep early, mosquitos already were feasting from our blood so we searched relief in the tent. But we couldn’t sleep right away as we heard music from the other community across the river. Next day doña Cupertina told us there is a three-day celebration of a catholic saint across the river, where people pay respects and offer gifts at the feet of the saint statue and then spend the evening dancing. One of the things that amazed me in Bolivia was the strength of the catholic belief of the people combined with their old belief in Pachamama.

At evening, soaked in mosquito repellent, we went with our host to the river and sat there under the clearest sky, with faint music and jungle noises in the background. Doña Cupertina sang two songs for us while smoking a cigarette and told us she likes to sing and dance. One of the songs was about a girl from the jungle falling in love with a boy her parents disagreed with. She has to make a choice and although she loves and respects very much her parents she decides to go deep in the jungle with her lover. Years are passing by but the girl is always thinking about her parents and yearns to see them again. I recorded her and next day when I met one of her sons I asked him to listen. He was impressed, had tears in his eyes when he listened and he sang the same song using his flute. As doña Cupertina is the oldest person in the community I imagined the song might be about her, although I didn’t dare to ask.

Later that evening one of our host’s nephews came to the river to take a boat to cross it to the other side. All three of us went with him and I got a taste of a dancing evening in the community. Doña Cupertina was shining and everybody wanted to speak and dance with her. It was a very joyous evening.

First thing in the morning we woke up hearing the ducks picking at our tent and making noises. When we were getting out from the tent the kids were already somewhere around. Every morning we were trying to wake up earlier than them but with little success. We were eating breakfast together although for them was already the second one and the rest of the day was spend together, going to swim in the river, fishing with worms, playing football, playing with their monkey pet. A big part of the beach was planted with beanstalks because sand is a good place to plant them and it was always an adventure to make sure the ball won’t hit and break them. They showed us the school and brought a world globe and I pointed to where I’m coming from and where I’ve been before coming to the jungle.

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Because this isn’t an isolated community usually when the kids are of highschool age they are going to one of the cities at school, live with a relative there or at a dorm. Until then they have a teacher coming at the community Mondays and leaving Fridays. The kids are separated in two intervals of age thus forming two classes. I asked them what they want to do when they will become adults, not many saw themselves still in the community, some wanted to be teachers or doctors. These types of communities will start to disappear across the world, and with them also their traditions. It’s hard to find a balance, pursuing a good education, a more safe and comfortable life but going back to your family community where your life experience might not mean that much anymore, developing a community but keeping traditions intact.

Some afternoons, when resting after lunch and staying in the shade to hide from the sun, our host was showing us how to make artisanal fans from palm leaves to use when it’s too hot, the type she used to blow the wind on the fire when she was cooking. Each day there were 2-3 tourists coming to make sugar cane jus using a wooden tool she had there. She was bringing the sugar cane plants, then showing them how to use it and helping them. In exchange, she got a small sum of money. After tourists were leaving the jus left was ours to share with the kids.

Saturday was quiet as all of the kids were helping their family to pick food and prepare to sell it in Rurrenabaque on Sunday: rice, coconuts, bananas, cocoa, sugar canes, beans, yucca were some of the cereals, fruits and vegetables they sold at the Sunday market. Although they were excited to spend time with me and Katerina the kids had also responsibilities and were serious about them. By the time we were waking up Brenda already cooked for her brothers the fish she took from the net she had set the night before and Mireja was taking care of her younger brother. Life in the jungle is hard but nobody was complaining. Sometimes at night they were starting the electricity generator to watch a movie from the DVD player. One night they watched Titanic, for the tenth time, they said, and I could hear laughter and giggles from the room the entire family used as a dormitory. Outside, the adults were playing instruments singing songs they passed from generation to generation orally. We made a payment to Pachamama that night, Baldemar brother dug with a machete a small hole in the ground where we put coca leaves, alcohol, and cigarettes, all the good stuff. Seems like Pachamama likes all the vices.

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Saying goodbye was hard, we really had a great time there, and although mosquitos were cruel we enjoyed every moment of those days.

More photos from the Real Beni community here .

Highlights of my 2015

I started 2015 with an amazing idea to travel from Antarctica to Alaska visiting most of the countries while zigzaging my way from south to north. It took me most of the year (with some breaks) to get to Bolivia and Brazil and then I decided I want to see something totally different and I flew to South Africa for New Years Eve. It wasn’t a race to get to Alaska, it was a dream, maybe a bit of a challenge, but as money were less and less I abandoned my idea and went to meet other cultures also.

Nonetheless , my 2015 was amazing and here are the highlights of it, in chronological order and described in moments:

1.Antarctica

I woke up one morning with the screeching sound of something touching  Expedition, our ship. It wasn’t morning yet but it wasn’t totally dark either, a new day was coming. I looked on the porthole window both scared and curious and what I saw is one of the most beautiful views I ever laid my eyes on. The icebergs and pieces of icebergs around us, totally different than the day before, the light before sunrise, the shapes and sounds were making everything surreal, and for me that’s how Antarctica is : surreal. He woke up, watched the magic outside, placed a kiss on my forehead and went back to sleep. It felt warm and magic. It felt like being in another world.

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2.Torres del Paine

The third day of the W trekking is mainly uphill at the beginning. And you go up and up and sometimes you look behind and you are amazed. That’s how beautiful it is. And it makes you forget the park it’s like a boulevard with way too many tourists. It was me , and music, and the guys I ignored a bit those days because of the music and the talk I had with myself, completely absorbed by the beautiful nature.

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3.Bahia Inutil

After seeing so many penguins in Antarctica and already passing Punta Arenas I decided to go back and get the chance to see the King penguins. And that day was a bit of an adventure, but a good and memorable one. We crossed the Magellan Strait but one the way back we got a bit stuck, as the waves were too big to cross it back. The view was beautiful, it was so cold and windy, and I was happy I finally saw those penguins and although people were panicking around I felt free and capable of every single thing I decide to do. I was speaking Spanish also, my broken funny Spanish people compliment all the time (except when a linguist told me I speak a medieval Spanish :)) ).

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4.Perito Moreno

Such a famous glacier and such a rainy day. I was in waterproof but 80% wet, that’s how heavy it rained. But if you just stop trying to find the perfect spot, between all the people and all the selfies, just focusing on the immensity of the glacier, on all the sounds of cracking ice and ice falling in the lake, you realize the rain plays also a part in the magic and feeling wet of rain will always remind you of something special. And I smiled . A truly genuine smile. Because the world is amazing.

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5.Fitz Roy

Still my favorite mountain, although later the Amphitheatre in South Africa amazed me a lot. I still have on my retina the image of the mountain, the lake and how we stayed there for two hours and still didn’t want to go back. How we said we will wait just a bit more for the clouds to pass. And they passed few times but it was too beautiful to leave it behind. How cold was the water and how alive I felt.

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6.Candelario Mansilla

This was definitely a challenge and an adventure, 24 km with 24 kg. Took a bus from El Chalten, a boat, got exit visa from Argentina and walked and walked (first 6km painfully uphill), met a guy from USA on the boat, we crossed many little rivers, me full of mud and with wet shoes, he clean like a spring flower because was always behind, all day us and the maps.me app to be sure we are on the track. But when we got closer we felt the trekking and the mud and dust and tiredness are completely worth it because the landscape it’s completely beautiful. Later that evening I ate one of the best dinner ever (as I trekked all day with only 2 boiled eggs and a carrot in my stomach).

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7.Easter Island

Rapa Nui. For me it’s always Rapa Nui and people don’t know what I’m speaking about. Watching sunset during my first day there with beautiful happy people around. On a very tiny beach. Dog trying to eat my camera as I was doing a time lapse. I empathised with those young guys and I felt there are no worries in the world worthy of my attention. Rapa Nui is one of the most magical places I ever saw.

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8. 5592m altitude

I ended up spending almost two weeks in Atacama, each and every day with a beautiful story. But the one I like the most is the one when after struggling to breathe and very slowly climb Lascar Volcano I’m not tired anymore, I’m just happy to be there, the highest I ever got with my own feet,the first active volcano I climb, ignoring the sulphur smell and smiling huge smiles.

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9.Salar de Uyuni

It’s cold, so crazy cold but I want to jump in this immensity of white. So I change my ski trousers and my goose feather jacket with summer colorful clothes and I jump, for this place is surreal too.

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10.Real Beni

Real Beni is the name of a natives community in the amazonian jungle north of Bolivia and although I really love the kids from that community and I fancy the idea of seeing them again, the special moment I have in mind is the one when our host, Cupertina sang to us. She’s the grandmother of all the children I met. At night, near the river, listening the wind and watching the clear skies, with a million mosquito bites, with a million thoughts, I hear she starts to sing and she gets all my attention. She sings a song about love, and choices, about nature and life. I feel nostalgic.

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11. Flying over Rio

More exactly flying over the ocean next to Rio de Janeiro. And turning, and increasing or decreasing speed as my instructor showed me. Freebird. Too short but life it’s made up of moments.

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12.Iguazu Falls

As the legend says:

“Once upon a time, a Guarani warrior named Caroba, who was in love with a pretty Indian maiden named Naipi, took her into his canoe and fled the village, paddling for all he was worth down the Iguazu River.

But Caroba was not the only one who was enamoured of the fair Naipi. She had also attracted the romantic attention of a forest god. When the forest god saw Caroba paddling downriver with Naipi, he was angry.

To try to stop Caroba, the angry forest god made the land under the river disappear. Naipi fell out of the canoe and dropped over the edge. She landed at the bottom, and turned into a rock. Caroba turned into a tree that overlooks this rock. Where the river bottom disappeared or fell away is the site of Iguazu Falls.”

Everybody it’s going back for the train but I linger there hypnotised. It’s not a cliche, it’s one of the most powerful sites I ever saw.

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The brazilian side of Iguazu Falls

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The argentinian side of the falls – Garganta del Diablo