Posted on 10 March 2014 | 2 responses
Just two weeks after I arrived in Bolivia I began daily Spanish classes with Sandra. She didn’t want to be interviewed or have photos taken, which is also why I haven’t included her surname. This Bolivian Story is to tell you about why she has been such a big part of my life here.
My first year in La Paz was difficult for me. Jean was frequently travelling for work, I didn’t know anyone and most days the only other person I spoke to was Sandra, for 1 or maybe 2 hours… in Spanish. It was exhausting. Some days I couldn’t help the warm tears from tumbling down my face as I sat in front of her, my struggles with health, loneliness and another language overwhelming me. Other days I rode her energy and my confidence grew. Every single day Sandra was patient. Her high emotional intelligence meant she adapted lessons to my mood. Her encouragement made me feel less of a loser. Her passion for teaching made me want to learn.
Throughout those lessons I also got to learn a little about her. Sandra grew up in a very large family of 7 children in the satellite city of El Alto. When she met her husband she was at university studying languages. She speaks English and French fluently despite having never left Bolivia. Soon after her marriage her husband suggested they have children but Sandra was adamant that she should finish her studies and begin her career first – she had seen too many women give up their own chances at financial security and become trapped in violent relationships with lots of children to support and no escape. So, this is what she did. By the time she was ready to consider having children her husband wasn’t ready and then years later they both decided that they were happy together without children. This is an incredible decision for a Bolivian couple. Here, having children is such an important part of the culture. I remember asking Sandra if she was worried about the future, getting old and not having children and she replied that you don’t know what the future holds so it’s best to live in the present. She continued, telling me her ideas about life that I felt I could have read from an Eckhart Tolle book. She has an inner peace and beauty that shines. I am so grateful she came into my life.
Sandra has impressed me. How does a woman who grew up in El Alto and has never left Bolivia become interested in foreign languages and become so light… and dare I say, enlightened?
I haven’t had regular Spanish classes this past year as I’ve wanted to put my time towards other projects, but I have missed my teacher and friend dearly. She helped me through that first tough year more than she could ever know and she’ll always hold a very dear place in my heart.
My time living in Bolivia, trying to learn another language, has deepened my compassion for immigrants everywhere. Of course, I chose to move here but that didn’t make it any less difficult for me. I can barely comprehend what it is like for someone fleeing their country, afraid and unsure of their future. I have traveled to many countries where I couldn’t speak the language, enjoying dabbling with new words and phrases as I tried to buy things and move around. However, longer term immersion in another culture and language has a whole different set of challenges. All the small ways I show who I am in English were completely lost in Spanish as speaking became a purely functional thing for me. I could no longer rely on my particular little niceties and subtle ways of imparting my message – no more sweet comments and playful jokes. Often I would walk away from an interaction, playing the conversation over in my head only to realise the myriad mistakes made. How ridiculous I’d feel if I said that in English, yet in Spanish I had to shrug it off and learn to move on. I had to stop worrying what people thought of me. Now, that’s making sense of things!
I remember feeling tension creep through my body whenever I’d walk out of our flat. What do I need to say? How will I say it? I would catch myself practicing sentences in my head as I walked down the street, preparing myself for each interaction as if I was about to give a presentation. This was tiring and sometimes I just wouldn’t leave home because I didn’t have the energy for it.
Something else that struck me was just how polite and patient people are here in Bolivia with a foreigner trying to speak Spanish. Too often whilst living in Australia and the UK I have heard people say things like ‘you live here, so speak our language!’ or become quickly frustrated when they don’t understand what someone wants. Here I have been met with nothing but kindness and patience. I tear up thinking about it actually – people in buses helping me find my way, shop assistants keeping calm, their kind faces trying to understand what I am saying, the occasional stranger who knows a bit of English wanting to help me. I never received a frown, a huff or a dismissal.
I am not good with languages but I am so grateful for this experience. It has been truly humbling. Some days all I wanted was to be with people, to garden or create together without the expectation of communication through language. Life can be so lonely when you can’t work or speak in the country you are in and then it’s so stressful when you have to speak. I have a dream that one day, when we are back in Australia, I will have such a space for immigrants who need to connect with people without the pressure of perfect English. I wish that the Australians and British I have heard being rude could go through this experience – losing their ability to communicate, in a sense losing their personality, relying on the kindness of others to get things done and understanding how language shapes thought.
This last point, about how language shapes thought has been incredibly insightful for me. Not just between English and Spanish speakers here but between Aymara and Spanish speakers too. Of course, this is something we can recognise between all languages. For example, in English we say you regardless of whether there’s one of you or multiple of you or if you are older than me or younger than me. But in Spanish, we immediately understand the relationship if I use the formal you or informal you… we immediately understand if there is one person or more… simply by the type of you we use. It’s impossible to ignore if you want to speak correctly.
If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend this post on the TED website, called 5 examples of how languages we speak can affect the way we think. An example they use is great for this post:
Blame and English Speakers: In the same article, Boroditsky notes that in English, we’ll often say that someone broke a vase even if it was an accident, but Spanish and Japanese speakers tend to say that the vase broke itself. Boroditsky describes a study by her student Caitlin Fausey in which English speakers were much more likely to remember who accidentally popped balloons, broke eggs, or spilled drinks in a video than Spanish or Japanese speakers. (Guilt alert!) Not only that, but there’s a correlation between a focus on agents in English and our criminal-justice bent toward punishing transgressors rather than restituting victims, Boroditsky argues.
When you begin to understand these things more deeply, through personal experience, you can open up your heart to be more patient, compassionate and tolerant of other people’s language, thoughts and ways of understanding the world.
As Sandra shared with me on many occasion, it’s important to learn grammar and correct pronunciation, but the most important thing is simply to try communicating – never ever make fun of someone trying.
Finally, to all those people who say ‘Spanish is easy!’, I’d like to share this funny clip about speaking Spanish….
Posted on 8 March 2014 | No responses
One day we visited the Christmas fair at the American school and discovered some unique, beautiful mirrors, paintings and coat hooks being sold by Daniela Lorini. She was there with her partner, Arnaud, selling her art works which stood out among the collection of crafts there. We started talking and before we left Dani asked for our contact details. At the time I thought she was just being polite but they were different. They remembered us and invited us over for dinner in the new year. We instantly connected.
I started hanging out at Dani’s place one day a week – sometimes helping with her art and other times simply chatting but always sharing about various topics together. Dani’s art is done with a pyrograph. She burns her organic designs onto wood, as she writes on her website ”designs drawn by the fire” and then paints in bright oils. When I leave Bolivia I will hold this woman and those days together so dearly in my heart. I want to remember her big woolly jumpers, her dark hair swept across her face often being held back by her big red glasses, the long conversations about life, the shared lunches and of course, the creativity! She has been my closest friend here and I have treasured her authenticity and natural way of interacting. I’m going to miss her so much… I hope you enjoy this post about my gorgeous friend.
What got you interested in art and how did your career start?
Since I was a kid I loved to paint – I was painting all the time, always different things. When I was in kindergarten I won a prize for one of my paintings and since then I never stopped painting. After school I studied architecture and when I was at university I really loved it because you can do whatever you want – your imagination flows! But when you get a job things are different, especially here in La Paz because construction people don’t care so much about design. They just care about being able to rent it out and that’s why we have all these ugly buildings here, because they are cheaper to build. Young architects can’t be creative. Jobs are hard to get here so people do what the big construction companies want.
So, after university I worked as an architect for 2 years, but I’ve never stopped painting. My last job in this period was in the municipality of La Paz and this was the worst job I have had in my life because I couldn’t be creative at all. I was working in the section of the municipality that evicted illegal residents from land that the council wanted back to use as a green area… which is ok because we don’t have many green areas in the city, but the hard part of the job was taking away people’s houses, even though they were illegal. It was really hard and sad. I couldn’t stay in that job… I stayed just 6 months.
After that I went to Argentina to do a maestría en desarrollo sustentable, Masters in Sustainable Development. I really liked this because I didn’t have to just think like an architect or an artist but I could also think about the environment. It wasn’t just construction or design – you think about lifestyle, your neighbours and how you impact their lives. You have to care about water, energy, recycling, animals… so it’s not so narrow thinking and ignoring the others. Normally everyone has a specialisation and they just focus on their own area and forget all the other things that they impact on. It’s like when you see a doctor and they just look at one issue in your body instead of treating you holistically – it’s the same with architecture. People will build a huge building, for example, but will not care if the neighbours now don’t have access to sun or a view. This is happening right here, in La Paz… even from my apartment, I have this huge building blocking my view and sun now.
While I was in Buenos Aires I started to design little objects because I really love designing and painting. I wanted to mix design and art so that’s why I started to design functional art objects for myself like furniture and homewares. For me, each object I design is also a piece of art because it is unique and I’m against replicating things – people are unique so each object should be unique for the person who buys it. That’s why I’ll never reproduce things like a factory. I also started and incorporated pyrography after I saw a small box with a pattern burnt into it and I thought ‘I can do that!’. It was a really different technique for me so I started to wood-burn the objects I designed. I didn’t have a wood-burner so I decided to start with a soldering iron – it was so difficult to burn the wood, but I loved it from the beginning.
After 4 years making just objects and some furniture I realised that I wanted to make bigger things so I started making paintings, combining different techniques like pyrography, oils and engraving. Paintings are really my passion because I have a bigger surface to expand my imagination and you can combine more techniques and materials.
What influences your work?
The thing that influences me most is nature – animals and plants. I feel very connected with nature. I think it is in perfect balance. That’s my highest inspiration. I use the patterns found in nature, its organic shapes, in all my work. Also, the connection between human beings and the environment is important to me. My strongest connection is with a wild animal who came into my life 14 years ago because human beings killed his mum. He’s still part of my life and is constantly teaching me, connecting with me and reminding me of what’s important because his situation is due to humans and their selfish, thoughtless actions. I love “Cubai” with all my heart and I’m very grateful to have the pleasure to have met such an extraordinary animal in my life!
My recent collective exhibition was called Yo Natura, Me Nature. My influence for that collection was the life in the ocean. I painted sea animals and plants from both the deep oceans and the shallow waters. I love to use bright colours because you have more contrast with the pyrography which is mostly brown and black. Also, I use engraving to create various levels in the surface of the wood, creating texture and movement in each piece of art. For example, laminaria is a painting you have at home that reminds us of the big algae of the ocean. I used bright yellow, orange, pyrography and also engraving. You really get a feeling of movement in this work. I wanted to paint this algae because I love their organic shapes, the way they move in harmony and how they hide and protect lots of small animals. I decided to paint these aquatic shapes because, well, in Bolivia we don’t have access to the ocean and this is a bizarre, unknown world for me that fills me with fascination. On one of my trips to France I spent time in Brittany with my partner’s family, who lives really close to the ocean. We spent a lot of time there – watching, snorkeling and observing aquatic life that for me was completely different and unknown. I felt like I was floating in the sky. The water was so clear you could see everything – crabs, small fish, starfish and the textures of the shells which are really amazing and full of shapes. These were also my inspiration because I try to focus carefully, paying a lot of attention to the small textures and details that are easy to miss.
Since you feel so connected to the environment as your inspiration, how do you feel about all the environmental issues in the world?
I’m feeling really sad because many people don’t seem to care about nature, animals or plants. They seem to just care about themselves. They are selfish and just care about money, career, their comforts and having more material things. I think that we came after most of the animals and plants so we have to understand that nature is not our property even though human beings think it is and we can dispose of it. It’s not like that – we are part of nature, we are part of this world and we have to live in harmony with everything. I want my art to remind people of this. That’s why I paint mostly of nature and its patterns. Today, people are forgetting to live in harmony, being connected and close to nature. That’s why I really focus on these small textures and patterns in nature that most people ignore or don’t care about. Now society is more materialistic, even here in Bolivia in the big cities. People in the countryside are more connected than city people but even they are losing connection… I think most people in this society treat money as the meaning of life and that’s wrong.
How does the situation and attitudes in Bolivia affect your career? Who buys your work?
To be an artist in Bolivia is really hard because people think that art is not a proper job, it’s like a hobby to them. Also, they are more preoccupied getting other things, rather than a piece of art. They prefer to have a big car or house for example. So for me, it’s really hard because 90% of the people who buy my work are foreigners. I think they appreciate the work that goes into a piece of art. They understand that being an artist is a real job and a way of expressing yourself and communicating ideas. Also, it’s true that most people in Bolivia don’t earn a lot of money so buying art is not a priority for them – they need to pay for food, rent, bills, etc. and any money left over isn’t for buying art. Generally, people here don’t know much about art because it’s not really part of schooling and university. There is are no History of Art degrees in Bolivia, for example. It’s difficult for all of the arts here, including music, dance, theatre and others. This makes it hard for people to understand and appreciate – they don’t understand that my technique is completely unique and different and that this should make my work more valuable. Most of the art work sold here is in the tourist area and represents stereotypical images of cholitas [the indigenous Aymara women who wear large skirts and bowler hats] and mountain scenes with llamas and so it’s hard for them to understand my art which is more abstract.
I know you are also working hard on getting your grandfather’s chocolate factory up and running again… can you tell me a bit about it and why this project is important to you?
Yes, I have been working really hard in this factory. It was the chocolate factory of my grandfather and has been closed for more than 20 years. It was called Valach… maybe some people of the 70′s remember it because it was a very big factory indeed, but my grandfather didn’t like to work too much so the factory had to close.
My dad kept most of the chocolate machines for us because he knew that finding a good job in this moment could be hard and he was right, especially if you decide to be an artist. So, Arnaud and I started to work there one year ago, to improve our salaries. Arnaud was demolishing some of the walls and I was carrying the rubble. It helps us save a little bit of money because our budget was and is reduced.
It has now been over a year, we are still working there, now my siblings are in too and also some bricklayers and one of my best friends who knows more about construction. We would love to start producing good chocolate as soon as we can. We are thinking to use wild cacao because it’s more tasty, fragrant, strong and comes directly from the forest – it’s a very nice gift from nature that we want people to know more about. Our desire is to stay small. We don’t want a huge chocolate factory, like Nestle, which produces bad quality chocolate – we want to produce small quantities of good quality chocolate, incorporating art and creativity in each of them to have a different product.
What are your dreams for the future?
I want to do artist residencies in other countries because this gives an opportunity to share my work with other artists, develop my portfolio, have more experiences and improve my technique and knowledge.
Another of my dreams is to show my work in different parts of Bolivia as well as in other countries. Bolivia is a really small country and the artist community is so small and closed that it is hard for me to break into that community. I want to travel to places where people appreciate my work more. Including Bolivia in the international art community is another way to discuss issues in the world. Of course issues are addressed through politics, academia and more but art is also a way to communicate, discuss, evoke emotions and make statements about the world we live in. For example, here in Bolivia we still have many areas of wilderness but in places like France they don’t have so much wilderness so why not use art to also communicate this?
I have lots of dreams! I also want to live on a farm because there is not so much inspiration in a big city for me. Living on a farm in the countryside will connect me even more with nature, giving me more peace and inspiration for my art.
I want to travel a lot because you can meet beautiful, different people and have more experiences of life. But for a Bolivian, it’s really hard to travel because we are not accepted in most countries – we need visas and everything is more complicated and expensive for us. There’s not so much exchange between Bolivians and the rest of the world.
At the moment I have a problem because I was accepted for a residency in France but I don’t have the funds to go there. It’s really hard to find funds. So, I need to find a way to get the money to get to France. I’m thinking about crowd funding and other ways that you and Jean have suggested to me. I might also approach the embassies here and the art foundation of the Central Bank of Bolivia. The reason this residency is so exciting to me is because I can work on one of my projects which is about empathy. I want to explore the empathy between human beings, nature, animals and plants to talk about how we are losing these important connections. All my art projects are related to nature so I want to show this loss of empathy that is resulting in killing our planet. I want people to open their eyes and realise that if we don’t change our attitude we will kill our planet and have nothing left. Animals are becoming extinct, we are contaminating our water, climate change is worse every day… if we don’t change our way of life we we are going to kill everything. This is always the relationship I want to show in my work. Society is losing connection, even with other human beings… everything is ME, ME, ME… and so the question can be… when was the last time you felt empathy for someone or something? Can you feel the same thing that our environment, our plants and our animals are feeling?
I am happy because I believe that if you are a good person in your life, doing good things, I think good things can come to you… like Carly and Jean came to me! hehehe…
Posted on 6 March 2014 | No responses
Soon after we arrived in Bolivia we met Diane Bellomy. Diane’s work was very interesting to me since she owns a Fair Trade business called Artesania Sorata, producing and selling hand dyed and handmade alpaca clothing, accessories and home wares that are generally made by women. Here in La Paz there are very few places that sell genuinely handmade, genuinely Bolivian or genuinely Fair Trade alpaca wear, despite the numerous shops in the tourist street Calle Sagarnaga claiming some of these. So, before long I started volunteering unofficially around 3-4 days a week, for around a year. During this [...] Continue Reading…
Posted on 4 March 2014 | No responses
We are packing. We are moving to Australia, starting all again. I find myself a little teary occasionally as I say goodbye to all our babies – our plants, bacterias and yeasts I’ve nurtured carefully over the years here in Bolivia. Kombucha SCOBYs, kefir grains, sourdough starter, worms and apple cider vinegar mothers all to be distributed to caring souls wanting to improve their health. I think about the future, starting them all again. I’ve had so much pleasure with my weekly routines – feeding the worms, watering the plants, kneading the sourdough, bottling the kombucha…
Anyway, I’m a sentimental [...] Continue Reading…
Posted on 28 February 2014 | No responses
Our first trip out of La Paz after we arrived in Bolivia was to Lake Titicaca for a long weekend away. We spent a couple of nights on Isla del Sol in an eco-lodge, which is where we met Enrique and Paola. They became our very first friends here. During that weekend on Isla del Sol we enjoyed dinner together each evening, laughing and talking about everything from heavy metal to politics. Back in La Paz our friendship grew, including pot lucks at our home and sometimes Enrique and Jean would ‘jam’ together – Enrique on guitar and Jean [...] Continue Reading…
Posted on 27 February 2014 | No responses
We decided to visit Bolivia’s largest glass factory that uses only recycled glass to produce some of their wonderfully organically shaped round glasses like the ones shown in the below photos.
We were in for a very warm welcome and tour thanks to Marcelo who, along with his father and brother, run the factory in Cochabamba. Actually, it was his father who founded the Fair Trade business in 1993. After having a small workshop transforming plastic, someone suggested he could easily do glass instead and at the time the Dutch government was offering funding… and so it was born! Now [...] Continue Reading…
Posted on 26 February 2014 | No responses
Do you make water kefir? Our grains are multiplying beautifully lately!
Sorry… I’ve got ahead of myself… do you know what water kefir is? Well, like our milk kefir, water kefir is a beneficial probiotic beverage that tastes delicious. It’s so simple to make. The flavour is like a ‘dry, slightly fizzy lemonade’. Like kombucha it is first cultured by introducing a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts) into sugar water – the SCOBY in this case are called grains. The beneficial bacteria and yeasts present in the water kefir grains metabolize the sugar, turning it into an array of beneficial [...] Continue Reading…
Posted on 24 February 2014 | No responses
One day we visited the Museum of Contemporary Art here in La Paz, Bolivia, and became captivated by the works of Luis Alberto Quispe Ochoa (check out his website here). After much deliberation we finally purchased two works that spoke to us. Both were meticulously created with coca leaves and aguayo, which is the traditionally woven textile here. One depicts an indigenous woman’s face while the other is the face of an indigenous man who is wearing a chullo, the traditional knitted woollen hat with flaps to cover the ears. We regularly admire these pieces that now grace our lounge [...] Continue Reading…
Posted on 21 February 2014 | 1 response
I met Vanessa when she was heavily pregnant with her baby, Rafaela. She was working at her partner’s restaurant, Red Monkey, as well as producing natural products for her business, Moi. Moi makes handmade cosmetics and personal care products based on natural and organic ingredients, without the use of preservatives, artificial colours or synthetic fragrances, being careful not to degrade our bodies or the environment. Vanessa never stops. I was surprised to see how busy she was whilst heavily pregnant and even since having her little girl it is not uncommon to find her in her workshop making products with her baby [...] Continue Reading…
Posted on 19 February 2014 | 2 responses
During many days volunteering at Red Monkey I have admired the vibrant colours, shapes, organic patterns and uniqueness of their plates and bowls. I wondered if there might be a chance we could meet the artist behind these functional works of art and last Friday we were blessed with such a meeting in Cochabamba.
Entering Marcelo’s workshop we could feel the creativity, experience and passion that has created this small craft business, MTM Ceramics. For more than 30 years Marcelo has been collecting the clay for his pieces from local rivers to then shape it into plates, bowls, decorative pieces, mugs, bonsai pots and [...] Continue Reading…