Sunday, 31 July 2022

Day Trip the the Beach - Lake Titicaca

It was still dark and we shivered as we stood in the street waiting for a cab. Well, it is La Paz, winter in the southern hemisphere, we are high in the Andes… …and it’s 6:30am. The temperature is close to freezing, but we are off to the beach. 

An hour and a half later we are at the Tahuantisuyo Community Centre in El Alto boarding a bus to Lake Titicaca, along with 16 families and staff. There are 68 of us in all on two buses… …and a dog. As we stopped along the way to pick up a family, a dog clambered on board. I tried to stop it and then realized it was Sassy, the guard dog/pet from the centre, and he’s one of the family.

Two and a half hours later we arrived at Turtle Island on the shore of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. The sun was well up by now and in the shelter of the beach, it was hot. 

We climbed down the cliff and onto the beach. The kids were already splashing in the water in fully clothed when we sat on the sand, although none could swim. I realized that most of them had never been to a beach before, or spent time in water. Despite the hot sun, we thought that it might be cold in the water, so Carol gingerly dipped her toes into the water and found it quite pleasant.

The children had no such reticence – they ran into the water and splashed each other, then climbed onto the rock. Meanwhile, back on the beach, the older kids fell victim to being buried in the sand. I was touched to see a little one sat by their heads brushing sand from their faces, as the bigger kids threw sand on them and pressed it down for all they were worth. And, it wasn’t just the children that were seized by the beach mood. We sometimes think that the Aymara mothers are quiet and conservative but one, Elizabeth, asked me to take a picture of her on the shore. We walked down to the water and she laughingly struck some poses!

It was time for lunch and the cook from the centre prepared a hot, tasty meal with chicken, potatoes and beans. As we ate, Matt sent up his drone and shot footage all along the beach. I watched it as it cruised smoothly along, then suddenly, it lurched, plunged, and then straightened out again. Turns out, one of the kids had asked for a turn at the controls; fortunately, Matt recovered it.


After lunch it was game time – groups of wet kids played volleyball, Frisbee and football/soccer, and tried to encourage us to join in.

Turns out Sassy might have regretted coming – a bunch of kids dragged him into the water and scrubbed him – although I must say he needed it, but he wasn’t happy! It’s hard to get away from dogs in Bolivia, even on the beach. As I sat there, a large dog gently walked up between my legs and put his face right in front of mine. As I looked at him, he put one paw on my leg, then the other on my chest, then both on my chest. Carol took pictures as we enjoyed our moment in the sun. Then just like that, he was gone. We all got together for Matt’s group shot (below)

But, it was time to crawl back up to the buses and head home, sleeping as we went. It was dark and cold again when we got home to La Paz.

Wednesday, 27 July 2022

The Outpost Hospital at Parcopata

The 2 million inhabitants of La Paz, high in the Andes mountains, carpet a crater with housing; it seems that all its streets are on a slope; El Alto, at more than 13,000 feet above sea level, sits high above on a plateau, the altiplano, where it’s 1 million mostly impoverished inhabitants spread across a flat plane. From the ridge where the two cities meet, houses cascade over the edge, sometimes literally, and down the mountainside. 

Traffic in both cities can be chaotic – with few rules, a game of chicken takes place in each intersection. Pedestrians dart across the street between moving vehicles. Six years ago, to deal with gridlock on the ground, the government opened a new transit system, the Teleferico; 10 interconnected lines of aerial cable cars sew the two cities together. Passengers soar above the traffic, like a condor. It’s breathtaking. As you fly over El Alto, it’s hard to miss their obsession with Transformers. Most buildings are square red brick with identical square windows, and they lend themselves to the geometry of transformers. Many, like Iron Man, have heads although most just reference the shapes.

The Teleferica is for pedestrians only and on this day, we had goods to deliver; we braved the streets with our local contact Vierca at the wheel. She drove at least 2 kilometres up the semi vertical winding maze of streets; I swear she spent more than half the time in first gear.

We drove up to the municipality of Parcopata in El Alto to visit a small hospital. Housed in a 6-room building, constructed 10 years ago as a school, the facility lacks basic equipment. Staffed part-time by a doctor, a trainee doctor, a dentist, and a natural medicine practitioner, paid by the government, with an ambulance supplied by the nearest hospital. We were greeted by the local mayor, who has pushed to get the facility to its present state because it’s such a long walk to that hospital for the 40 families that this small hospital aims to serve. 

Most of the equipment in the outpost hospital has been supplied by one of our overseas donors, and we visited there on his behalf. But, with only two rooms in use, the need is clear; the dentist was examining a local man as he sat in a wheelchair – he told us he needed a dentist’s chair and a table for his tools. Many of the windows are still broken, courtesy of last year’s anti-indigenous election riots.


Before we left, we were served hot, sweet tea, a chicken sandwich, and speeches of thanks. We all signed their guest register.

I noticed an effigy of a man hanging from a lamppost at the side of the building and I asked our interpreter, Ingrid, why it was there. This is a high crime area, she said, and this serves as a warning that there will be consequences. We saw these figures throughout El Alto it reminded me of the ‘penny for the guy’ effigies we’d made, when I was a child, using our dad’s old clothes.


As they hugged us all goodbye, the mayor said: “Please, don’t forget us…”

Tuesday, 19 July 2022

Villa Ingenio Program Launch

Today, we launched our second children’s community program in El Alto; this one in Villa Ingenio, and it was another heart-rending day. I counted 26 children and 11 mothers, inside the hall, as we entered; most households are single mother families. Hard to miss, was a sign of welcome on the back wall containing our names. Yet the children were still and quiet, a contrast from our established facility in Tahuantisuyo, with the children dancing, singing and laughing when we arrived.

Joel introduced us individually, and the children held up their hands shouting ‘Bienvenidos’ and each of our names, as we stood up and waved. Then they sang as a group, before performing individually. Three older girls and two younger girls danced; one boy played a zampona (pan flute), accompanied by a girl on a drum and another with a rattle, then, several sang solos. They performed haltingly, keeping their eyes down – we clapped and called out ‘Bravo!’, along with the parents, as they scuttled back to their seats.

Our new partner Joel, who will run the program, had picked us up at the Teleferico cable car and driven us and our suitcase of gifts to the facility. Funny thing, we had to pay for an extra person, in order to bring the suitcase onto the cable car. The program will be temporarily housed in a church hall with a secure courtyard and, after a question-and-answer session within the courtyard to clarify the program on offer, we entered the hall. We had with us our Bolivian employee and interpreter Daniel, who’ll oversee the program and our accountant, Vierca, a key liaison person for charities and Bolivians in need.


After the show, we handed out maple leaf candies to everyone, then Carol let them each choose a Hot Wheels car. Joel’s wife Sonya, who had managed the families throughout the afternoon, served tea and a sandwich to each of the adults. As we ate, the kids played, and I took pictures. I tried to photograph one little guy – he’d smile and stand still but the instant I snapped, he’d push his Hot Wheels car in my face – I’d get a part of his face in focus and a blue blob of car…


We confirmed that there will be forty children in the program, initially, aged between 7 and 12 years old, and they will attend the program on Saturdays for educational activities and a nutritional snack. Our intent is to grow the program to half days on weekdays, and to increase the number of participants.

As the afternoon drew to a close, we interviewed several mothers about their expectations for the centre, so they’d know their voices matter; they spoke about wanting a better life for their children. 

Finally, Joel and Matt signed the agreement that formalized the program, then shook hands. Matt and I had taken lots of pictures, including a group shot. 


The afternoon ended, as all our meetings had, so far, with hugs and words of thanks, from each person in turn. I couldn’t understand most of what they said, but the communication was clear and warm.

Friday, 15 July 2022

Help Bolivia Receives Welcome

It was a bit of an emotional day as we visited the centre Help Bolivia supports for the first time. 

We traveled there from our AirBNB by Teleferico, the public transit system here. It’s a series of cable car lines, a la Sulphur Mountain, that spirits passengers across the city. Spectacular views and almost no waiting.


We traveled there from our AirBNB by Teleferico, the public transit system here. It’s a series of cable car lines, a la Sulphur Mountain, that spirits passengers across the city. Spectacular views and almost no waiting.

We arrived at the centre in Tahuantisuyo and waited outside the gate to be let in. It wasn’t immediate; we realized that the children were assembling inside to welcome us. We entered to rousing cries of ‘Gracias’ and hugs from the adults, educators and parents. A group held up a banner of thanks. The children sang and danced; their dance turned to a ‘ring’ holding hands, then to our surprise they grabbed us and pulled us into the ring. It was such a joyful experience it was hard not to cry. The older children gave speeches and eventually the younger ones ran over and hugged us.


We were led into the main hall of the centre and served the morning snack. It was baked quinoa with cheese, like rice pudding and quite delicious. Matt and I walked around taking pictures of the children as they ate. It was fun – the little ones were so excited, but they wanted to see each photo as it was taken.

Then there were songs and dances, the older girls danced dressed as Bolivian women with a large hump on their back, where babies are carried. Then two young (4 years old) couples danced.


Hot lunch was served; a cream soup followed by a meal of potato, corn, beans, fried soft cheese and meat. This hot lunch was the genesis of Help Bolivia – Lydia and Matt met children here 5 years ago and realized that they were attending school hungry. Children here go to school half days, so our program has expanded to include an educational program for the other half of the day. The centre contains four classrooms and staff and after lunch we visited them, Carol was in her element as she joined the class learning through dance and song.

Despite the language barrier, Carol and I speaking no Spanish and the children speaking no English, there was no shortage of communication. The children left and it felt like the energy (and noise) had been sucked out of the building, but the joy remained!

Wednesday, 13 July 2022

Journey to Bolivia - Bogota

Lunch in La Catedral

Time to travel the world and blog. We are in Bolivia, our first trip to South America. We’re traveling with our friends Matt and Lydia who started Help Bolivia 4 years ago in support of struggling indigenous children in El Alto, just above La Paz. We’ve been with them from the start, but they’ve been here many times – this is our first.

We flew here through Toronto, a very troubled airport, but we escaped unscathed. As we walked to our gate to enroute to Bogota, ours was the only international flight that didn’t show as ‘delayed’… …it didn’t last. Boarding completed, and the captain announced: “We’re ready to go except for the baggage – we’re short of handlers and they need another 20 minutes. Once they are complete, or have done the best they can, we’ll be off.” We hoped their best included our bags!

Our journey included a 17-hour layover in Bogota, Colombia and after a few hours of sleep we headed out for a drive with Miguel, a friend of Lydia’s. He took us up the sid of a mountain for views of this city of 11 million. Then it was a lunch of traditional cuisine at La Puerta de la Catedral. Delicious rice and beans with sausage, pork belly, black pudding and plantain.


We walked through Candelaria, the historic downtown area; vendors and artisans filled the streets to the restaurant, creating and selling their wares. I bought a Panama hat. The one I picked was too large, but the guy ran around the hats holding up a small thin belt. I thought he was going to measure my head, but he put the belt around the hat and cinched it down to fit – and all for about $5.

The Chicken Singer

Simon Bolivar Plaza, a huge open paved area surrounded by government buildings is topped by an historic Cathedral. A focus point for demonstrations, in amongst the palomas (pigeons), a large group listened to a speaker. He sang his message with passion, accompanied by guitar and drums; supporters on either side held up live chickens, making for a festive atmosphere, as the police looked on.  

Wild dog in clover

Bogota is the City of Gold and famous for its esmeraldas (emeralds) so, of course, I bought Carol some earrings. It’s narrow hilly streets, and tiny squares are crammed with interesting sights; paintings, cafes and 3D art, and it was hard not to stop for an enticing snack or two! But motorists don’t stop for pedestrians so watch-out when crossing. I must mention dogs roam everywhere – not likely to attack they are often sleeping in the sun or posing for photos.

Off to La Paz on another late night/early morning flight.

Club with figures in 3D relief