In June we got the opportunity to travel with Bridges to Prosperity, a Denver non-profit, to Bolivia, to help document their new Challwiri foot bridge for their 2019 year end campaign. Bridges to Prosperity works with local communities to help eliminate rural isolation by building footbridges to provide access to essential things such as education, health care and economic opportunities. Blake became involved with Bridges to Prosperity when he worked at CH2MHill, and got the opportunity to help build a bridge in Panama and Rwanda. He went back to Panama again in 2017, this time as an independent filmmaker, and helped document the impact on education, safety, family, and health from several bridge builds in Panama. This time, I was really excited that I was able to join.
We traveled to Bolivia with the marketing manager, Annie, and their photographer, Colin, who like Blake, has documented several of the builds before. The trip to Bolivia was a long one, and so was the visa process, but luckily, Annie handled all of this, and came 200% prepared. Bolivia has pretty strict visa requirements, including proof of financial solvency and proof of hotel reservation or an invitation letter from Bolivian friends or family. We had 3 layovers and 4 separate flights plus a 6 hour drive, so it took about 25 hours to reach the small town of San Pedro de Buena Vista, where the bridge was recently completed. We flew Denver to Houston to Panama City to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, to Cochabamba, Bolivia, (Bogota instead of Panama City on the way home) and were pleased to learn that when you have international connections in airports such a Panama and Columbia, you do not have to go through customs. This would have been really difficult with all of our camera gear. We only had a 45 minute layover upon arriving to Santa Cruz before making our connection to Cochabamba, and our plane was delayed. We couldn’t believe it, but the customs agents in Santa Cruz actually personally escorted us through customs, the visa process and baggage claim in order to ensure we made it on our next flight. One of the agents actually picked up all of our bags for us at baggage claim, loaded them on a cart and had them waiting for us after customs. No issues getting our camera gear and drone (Mavic 2 Zoom) into the country, either. Turned out that flight was also delayed, so we made all 4 of our flights that day which was such a relief.
We met our B2P in-country person, Mariale, who drove us 6 hours from Cochabamba to San Pedro de Buena Vista, mostly on a shelf dirt road in a high desert landscape. We had to stop ourselves from wanting to get out and film at every new viewpoint, knowing there was so much for us to capture once we got to the town. We only passed a couple small villages the entire 6 hours. The mountains were really dry, but also full of small farms and crops. The hillsides were also spotted with “qullquas” or food storage containers made of stone and rocks, mostly used for storage of corn. We passed several men and women walking along the road with their sheep or corn, even though we hadn’t seen any homes in miles, like this woman we saw on the side of the road with her sheep and sheep dogs:
We finally arrived to San Pedro de Buena Vista and were able to meet our B2P liason, Henry, a local of Cochabamba, and see our living quarters for the next 4 nights. We organized to stay in a locker room in the town’s gymnasium on cots that Annie had organized to bring in. They also hired a local from Cochabamba as a cook for the week. We were able to use fridge space from a local, but he made us three meals a day on a small two burner propane stove in our small makeshift kitchen:
After arriving, we were finally able to see the completed bridge. Many people live across the canyon from the town, and many of their farms are located across the canyon. We immediately saw lots of people crossing of all ages. This is how many kids now get to school, and farmers can even lead their livestock across the bridge. They used to have to follow a steep trail into the canyon, which was really risky during the rainy season when it flash floods.
The goal for our time in the village was to dive deep into the story of one family, and document how the bridge has impacted their lives. The dad, Miguel is the pastor of the Christian church. The mom, Guadalupe, runs a food stand. The family lives in the town, but their crops are up the hill on the other side of the bridge. Their kids use the bridge to go to school every day. We interviewed the family, and they invited us to spend the day with them at their farm across the bridge. Even after crossing the bridge and avoiding climbing down the canyon, the hike to their farm was still extremely steep and rocky, and at 11,000 feet elevation. Guadalupe does this hike in a traditional skirt with a baby on her back. She made us a traditional meal of potato, root vegetable, rice, and goat meat.
During the rest of our time in the village, we attending/filmed a church service led by Miguel, as well as watched the local kids play soccer. There was also a festival going on during the time we were in the town, which meant many people that lived much farther away had traveled into the town for the festival. Everyone was in the very traditional Bolivian clothing. There was a market going on with handmade traditional goods and foods. This also meant that a lot of the locals had been drinking for several days. The traditional drink in Bolivian villages is Chicha, which is made of corn fermented in buckets for days, and served out of a small bowl. It used to be made by chewing the corn, as the saliva would help start the fermentation process. Many of the locals were carrying around their buckets of chicha, and one of them offered it to Blake and Colin, who out of politeness did not refuse. Blake ended up sick at the end of the trip, and I’m pretty sure this is where he got it from.
We learned that San Pedro, along with many other high desert remote villages, have a history of bull-fighting. Another piece of information that we learned, is that during these festivals, some of the villagers will also fight, and they will often fight to the death, which is considered a sacrifice to the land. Our group did not know that the festival was going on until a couple days before our trip, but we were advised once we got there to stay indoors after dark to avoid any of the violence. We all put in our ear plugs and didn’t hear a thing.
After 4 nights in the town, we made the drive back to Cochabamba to begin the journey home. It was a very short trip, but we were able to capture so much great footage of the town and their traditions.
The campaign videos from our trip are now live, so you can check them out here: