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Journalism in Bolivia by Perry King

At the Cocha-Banner office

A Canadian journalist in Bolivia: Documenting the life of Cochabamba

In my many years of documenting life and culture in words and pictures, my time in the Bolivian Altiplano was the most intimidating and frustrating.

I couldn’t have preferred it any other way.

It was an interesting trip. Before starting journalism school in August 2008, I decided to get a jump start on my journalism experience in June and July. I had spent a year removed from my undergraduate studies, with as little idea about what I wanted to do as you can imagine.

One thing I decided to do in my gap year was travel. And do it with a purpose. After going over other options, I wanted to connect with Bolivia, but for reasons that you would not notice at first.

I took a count. There were zero Canadian journalists based in Latin America, for reasons that I may never know. As crass as it may sound, I wanted to build a unique professional profile - you know, travelling with a purpose.

With an academic interest in Latin America and Guyanese born parents, I wanted to increase my own self-awareness, given my own cultural traits.

I needed perspective, as well. I do not assume, to this day, that I am a journalist that seeks truth with a capital “T.” I care about the subject matter and got into journalism to help others. In reality, I wanted to be knocked down a few pegs.

Boy, did Cochabamba ever knock me down a few.

Magazine meeting

I had questioned my proficiency in Spanish, both written and spoken, when I first applied to the placement, but dared to go into Bolivia with a clean slate. When I got to my host family, I quickly realized that the family knew little English! Luckily, I was a roommate with a fellow volunteer for the first part of the trip and my transition to speaking multiple languages was a smooth one.

Luckily for me, I had a language teacher from La Universidad Mayor de San Simón to give me daily help. By the time I left Cochabamba, I was so much better at building a conversation. In reality, I felt incredibly guilty that I was not proficient. I wanted to get to know my host family more and learn about subtleties in the culture that I could not notice from afar. While I was successful to an extent, I learned to at least be more prepared, especially when going into a placement of this nature.

Nonetheless, I was still able to explore many parts of Cochabamba, which became stories, some of which I documented in photos and words.

The Cocha-Banner newspaper is a unique gem in a field of diamonds.

Working with Ximena Noya at the office, at the old Projects Abroad office on Calle Sucre, the challenge of finding good stories to tell relied on my own independent journeying through the city. While it ultimately came down to the resources that Ximena was able to help me find, partly because of the language barriers, I had to inquire about story ideas constantly. As a matter of fact, I was jumping into my first story on the first day of my placement. It was a challenge I loved to embrace. This is exactly what I was looking for; it was like eating a sandwich that bit back.

Bolivian traffic

I saw culture. Fresh fruit juice squeezed on the street corner, bustling and busy streets, filled with cars that you would not see in Canada. I loved the fact that every Bolivian you saw had a strong opinion about politics, whether or not they supported President Evo Morales. What I began to understand is despite the urban and rural poor and the pain that you could see and feel with a strong certainty, there was an incredible optimism and spirit that would rise above that. As a journalism volunteer, it was not my job to save these people, nor did I feel obligated to do so. I had a front row seat to observe solidarity and a liberating spirit.

The greatest upside of being a journalism volunteer was being able to follow my peers who undertook projects in medicine, education and other projects in the country. I would arrange trips to their placements, help out and observe much of the reality that all of us volunteers had to meet with. I remember joining a volunteer as we went to her placement at a girls orphanage in Quillacollo, a suburb of Cochabamba. The girls were an amazing, refreshing set of people. They engaged in play and, those who spoke a little English, conversation with me. I spoke to a Bolivian girl who had African roots, and had parents who were in the US. The detail she shared with me, including her experience being discriminated and treated differently because she was Afro-Bolivian, really shook my core. When I look back on that day, I still wonder how and where she is. I think I forget sometimes how lucky I am to have earned multiple degrees and have travelled extensively. In reality, I hope she is persevering, proving people wrong with every decision she makes.

Typical street

I spent six weeks in Bolivia. Every memory is as fresh as it has ever been. Writing this short story was merely a tip of the iceberg of days of haggling at La Cancha and observing the hazy city from San Pedro hill.

Looking back, even though I had a small language barrier to ease among other culture shock scenarios, the learning experience got me back into good journalistic habits. Those habits include being aware of my environment and learning from all circumstances. That little girl was 13 when I met her; I hope she is healthy and happy where she is.

As for me, I hope I can return to the Garden City, sooner than later.

Perry King

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