Author Archives: Jeff C

Festival in Chissi, Bolivia

I sometimes make a hobby out of choosing a random side road somewhere in the world and just seeing what I find.    ——       I should make clear that these images are from Chissi, a town far away and very different from Capayque, the village that has been the subject of several recent posts.




I turned down the dirt road toward the Bolivian pueblo of Chissi just hoping to find a better view of the Lake Titicaca shoreline near the Strait of Tiquina.  But as I drove down the hill into town, I could see some sort of event going on in a big field — with dozens of people all in bright pink costumes.  Of course I drove right toward it.

As the pictures show, the men’s costumes were the gaudiest rhinestone-cowboy looking things you’ve ever seen – even putting aside the fact that they were hot pink.  The women’s costumes were slightly less outrageous – Bolivian women wear those tall “bowler” hats and those broad skirts all the time as everyday wear, so the costume just spruced up their usual wardrobe profile and turned it pink.

It was the day after Easter, and apparently Sunday’s religious celebrations give way to a carnival-like Easter Monday celebration with lots of costumes, dancing, a town feast, and quite a lot of beer.  I parked at the edge of the field and walked toward the action.

Besides my being out of costume, I was the tallest person in town, the only one with light-colored eyes, the only one with clipper-cut hair, and the only one who spoke English.*  It took about 10 seconds before I was invited into their circle, about 20 seconds before I was presented with a cup of beer and about 2 minutes for the crowd to form around me for a group photo, then about another 2 minutes ‘til I was put into one of those pink vests and hats and instructed to pose for more ridiculous pictures.


The band (trumpets, baritones, drums and a cymbal) would play for 20 minutes or so (and the costumed folk would dance), then rest for 20 minutes or so (and the costumed folks would drink more beer).  At about 1 o’clock, the whole group danced down a path through town; several of my new friends grabbed me and pantomimed “comidas” (food).  We all ate the same thing:  A bowl (no silverware) with a chunk of “carne” (maybe beef, maybe not), a couple of different potato-like things, a roasted-in-the-peel plantain, and some lettuce and tomatoes.  It was a lot of food, but they’d made a big deal out of presenting it to the conspicuous gringo so I stuffed myself as best I could.

The photographic challenges were many.  The Bolivians seemed to be either painfully bashful about being photographed or uncontrollable hams, with no real middle ground.   I was almost constantly being tugged at and urged to take a different picture or try to answer a question.  As is often the case, it was hard to both participate in the event and photograph it.

I showed these pictures to another Bolivian man from the opposite end of the country.  He thought these were Peruvian traditions and costumes – and indeed Chissi is just 20 miles or so from the Peru border.   For those readers who have seen my recent posts from Capayque (in the mountains on the opposite side of Lake Titicaca), I should emphasize that this is a very different area.  Chissi is just a couple of miles from the main highway and — as the cervezas and elaborate costumes reflect — these folks clearly had a lot more disposable income than the people of remote Capayque.


I stayed about four hours in Chissi – scrapping my plans to visit the ruins at Tiwanaku that day and putting my pitiful Spanish to the test with the simplest communications.   What country am I from?  Yes, I think your pueblo is bien (or was it bueno?).   Smile for a foto?  Comidas?  (Si!)  Mas cerveza?  (No, gracias,  I’m driving back to La Paz this evening.)  I wound up racing back to La Paz mostly in the dark, through a two-hour Bolivian traffic jam coming back into town.

There was a simultaneous celebration going on a few dozen yards away, which seemed to be some kind of harvest festival.

There was a simultaneous celebration going on a few dozen yards away, which seemed to be some kind of harvest festival.


All this happened on my first full day in Bolivia – driving around by myself before I met the group in La Paz that went to Capayque.   My habit of turning down random side roads in search of something interesting was surely rewarded once again.

I’d like to think that if a Spanish-speaking Bolivian stranger wandered into the middle of a small town festival somewhere in America, he’d be welcomed and embraced to a similar extent, but I don’t know if that’s true.  Let’s hope so.


Notice the Gringo in the back row.

Notice the Gringo in the back row.


–  –  –

* I suspect I was also about the only adult who was wholly sober, and the only person with any substantial amount of hair on his face or arms.  It seemed like I may also have been in a minority who had no visible gold on the their teeth.




Faces of Capayque, Bolivia

Another in a series from the First United Methodist Church of Stillwater Oklahoma’s mission group, providing healthcare (and more)  in Capayque, Bolivia.


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My primary role as part of the team in Capayque was as a photographer.  Beside pictures for my own use, I’m hoping some of the images can be used by the Bolivian and Oklahoma churches to raise money or awareness for the work they’re doing down there.

Also, I took along a small portable printer and enough paper to crank out hundreds of prints to give away to the people in Capayque — most of whom seemed to have few if any pictures of themselves or their families.  This was a big hit with the townspeople — almost toooo big a hit.  Everybody wanted a print.  And then another; then another….  They yelled “Foto!  Foto!”  at me (making a rectangle shape with their fingers) every time I showed my face.  There were borderline mobs chasing me a couple of times.  Hopefully, some of these folks who would never have had a picture of their mom or dad or kids or grandparents will have one to keep and remember.

I was amused and interested that the folks there were terrible “posers.”  They’re not accustomed to having their picture taken, so too often they were ridiculously stiff and stoic, or embarrassed and giggly and hiding their faces.  I used a lot of my pitiful Spanish to try to coax a smile (though several times I realized my subject spoke only the Aymara language).

I’ve already shown a few of the “portraits” I took for this purpose; here are some more.  It’s also a good chance to see close-up what the mostly-indigenous people of this region look like.

(The big photo gallery just below may take a minute to load.)



At the school, I was recruited to take a group picture of the entire school.  The principal wanted to hang it in his office.  Even though my printer would print no bigger than a 4×6, this was all they’d have.  I got some shots of the school assembly they did on Monday morning.  We were treated as visiting dignitaries mostly because Team Member “Professora”  Becky Szlichta was a teacher.   It was unclear if they did the program just for us or if they did this all the time).  I made sure I had “senior pictures” prints for all the graduating sixteen-year-old class (in the green sweaters).



The entire student body of Capayque schools.





Help and Health in Capayque, Bolivia

This is post #4 in an ongoing series that started here.  This is what the trip was really all about.


Carolyn Williams — my aunt — screening a patient outside the new Capayque medical clinic


The First United Methodist Church of Stillwater, Oklahoma has – for many years – sent mission teams to South America to provide healthcare in remote, rural areas of Bolivia.  My aunt, Carolyn Williams – an R.N. (blond hair, visor and scrubs in these pictures) — has been a hero and mainstay of those teams for sixteen years.  This year, she invited me to come along to take pictures.  There were 14 of us from the U.S., assisted by a handful of Bolivians from La Paz and from Capayque itself.


Dr. Don Crawley of Stillwater examines a patient in Capayque


Over the course of five days, Carolyn and the two American doctors (Don Crawley and Doug Wilsey, both of Stillwater) saw about 300 patients from Capayque and surrounding communities.  It was surely the first time many had seen a doctor in their lives.  The doctors dealt with an array of conditions ranging from pregnancy to worms to earwax to virtual blindness, all the while trying to share preventive health tips like handwashing, tooth brushing, nutrition and water safety.


Linda Allen (center) was the group’s acting lead pharmacist


Dr. Don Wilsey


The challenges of interacting and helping the Capayque people were heightened by the fact that many of the locals speak only the indigenous people’s language of Aymara – not Spanish like they speak in La Paz.  So often a single doctor and a single patient required two translations – Aymara to Spanish, then Spanish to English.


Meanwhile, team members put some of the finishing touches on the medical clinic the Methodist group started 3 years ago.  They did lots of shoveling and wheel barrow-ing, and they recruited help from dozens of townspeople.  Though my primary role was as the group’s photographer, I spent some time with a pick or shovel in my hands, too.  Even some of the little local ladies with the wacky hats joined in.  The new clinic will look pretty basic by U.S. standards, but it is far and away the nicest building in the town.  It will be staffed (funds permitting) year-round by a local Bolivian nurse (a great guy named Basilio), which will make it the finest healthcare facility for miles around.


Doug Valley has overseen the construction of the new clinic since its inception in 2012.



Ray Kinnunen recruited a small army of Capayque townspeople to help with a big construction project at the new clinic.


There were activities for local kids, too.  Some were just for fun and some — like the hand washing lessons — aimed to teach some basic, helpful lessons we Gringos tend to take for granted.  These pictures were taken with a smaller group, but attendance hit about 75 by the last day.


The team and its mission were one of several such mission teams coordinated by the Methodist Church in Bolivia.  I’m no Methodist — and my views on religion surely varied from the rest of the group — but that made little difference.  Perhaps the most basic belief underlying these efforts was simply that the folks of Capayque needed help  — and that good and decent Americans ought to try to do something for people whose typical standard of living is essentially unheard of in the U.S. (except perhaps among the homeless).  You don’t need any particular religious faith to have profound respect for what these teams are doing for fellow humans who need it badly.  It should restore your faith in humanity.


The Team met daily to eat, coordinate activities, and for some religious songs and talks. Above, Ken Morris of Stillwater sings a hymn in the dimly-lit dining and meeting room.



I need to give a big thanks to a Houston-based charity that was a huge help.  Medical Bridges accumulates surplus and donated medical equipment and supplies, warehouses them, and distributes them to worthy international healthcare relief missions just like the Methodist teams in Bolivia.  Capayque got a generous load of supplies far better than anything it had had before.  Thanks to George and Dorothy and all the folks at Medical Bridges, and to my friend and Medical Bridges board member, Jeff Thomas, for making the connection.

And thanks again to my Aunt Carolyn, for suggesting that I come along.  The U.S. team consisted of Rev. Mike and Leanne Chaffin, Linda Allen, Carolyn Williams, me, Doug Valley, Dr. Don Crawley, Dr. Doug Wilsey, Ken Morris, Ray Kinnenun, and four Oklahoma sisters whose family played a big role in sponsoring the clinic:  Allyn Bigelow, Karen McKinney, Ora Morgan and Becky Szlichta.  Our heroic La Paz based translators/coordinators — Wilson Saucedo and Lauren — were untiring, unflappable and invaluable.




The Stillwater mission team poses with the crowd who showed up for church on Sunday.

The View from Capayque, Bolivia

#3 of several posts (starting here, with more to come) about the tiny Bolivian village of Capayque.  I traveled there with a Methodist mission team from Stillwater Oklahoma that was providing much-needed healthcare and setting up a medical clinic in the town.  


Early morning view to the east from Capayque

Capayque, Bolivia is a small village in the Andes, sitting at about 11,500 feet above sea level, about two-thirds of the way up from the valley way below and the mountaintops looming above.  On the rare day when the place isn’t mostly in or above the clouds, you’ll be staring at a snow-peaked 22,000 foot mountain just to the east.  From Capayque, you can see a half-dozen other (even-smaller) communities on other ridges and across the valley.



The air is very thin at 11,500, so it can be tough to get around — especially for lowlander Gringos unaccustomed to high altitudes.  The temperatures generally stay between 30 and 60 year-round, though it feels much warmer if the high-mountain sun breaks through.  More often than not, you can look down into the valley and see clouds below you.


As described in a related post, day to day life here isn’t radically different than it probably was 1000 years ago on these same mountains.

Like most of the hillsides anywhere near Lake Titicaca, the surrounding mountains are striped with horizontal terraces – creating flatter step-like areas better for farming.  Many are in current use, but many (perhaps most) look like they were built long ago and haven’t been used in centuries.

The region around Lake Titicaca was part of the ancient empire of Tiwanaku.  The area has been populated and farmed for 3,000 years.  The Tiwanku empire reached its peak around the 8th Century A.D., when the city of Tiwanaku (on the flatter “altiplano” 50 miles south from Capayque) had an as many as 100,000 residents.*  Estimates of the population in the surrounding countryside are varied and controversial, but the startling scope and span of those ancient terraces hints at the existence huge populations – to build and cultivate the terraces themselves, and to create such great demand for food as to make it necessary to farm so much of the hill country.

The Tiwanaku society mostly disappeared around the 12th century — long before Europeans arrived.  It’s likely that whatever was left of it became part of the Inca civilization.

The shots below are from the road to/from Capayque.



Life in Capayque, Bolivia

#2 in a series of posts about Capayque, Bolivia, and about theStillwater, Oklahoma Methodist mission group that provides healthcare to Capayque’s residents.


 A dirt road passes through Capayque, Bolivia.  It’s passable most of the year – except in the rainy season when parts of it are often washed out.  A truck comes through town once a week to buy or deliver goods, and a bus comes through a few times a week.  Every Monday, the school teachers arrive from La Paz in a car; they sleep at the school, and on Friday they take the car back to the City.   Nobody in town owns a car, though I spotted two motorcycles (which may or may not have been operable).  Capayque’s only traffic jams are when small herds of sheep (or a handful of cows, or a llama, or a group of small pigs) clog the walking trails through town.


There aren’t any stores in town.  There’s a surprisingly big school, an abandoned Catholic church building, a tiny Methodist church and the health clinics (the old one and new one).  Other than that, all the buildings are homes.  I asked a couple of local people if the animals had any sort of barn or stable to get in out of the weather, and they just laughed at that idea.


Most of the houses are made of mud and stone, and consist of just one or two rooms.  Most floors are of dirt.  They don’t have bathrooms or running water.  In a climate where nighttime temperatures usually dip into the 30s year-round, homes are heated (if at all) with small fires burning in chimney-less rooms that seep smoke out doorways or gaps in the thatched roofs.  They’ve had electricity in the village for a decade or so, but few people seem to have any sort of electric fixtures or appliances other than just light bulbs.  There don’t seem to be any refrigerators.  Chickens wander in and out, and pigs and sheep roam yards and courtyards and usually sleep just a few feet away from their owners.


There seems to be trash all over town — they don’t seem to have much of a grip on disposing of things that are not biodegradable.   There are tiny canals running through town with water from spring-fed streams.  Some run under the town outhouse (baño) and some are used for clothes washing and drinking, so I can only assume the locals keep track of which is which.


The people survive largely on subsistence farming, so every bit of open space is a small farm/garden, usually growing corn or some form of potato-like vegetables.  People spend a surprising amount of time throwing rocks at stray pigs to get them out of the corn patches.



That tiny guy (“Estaban”) is a town’s mayor (or something like that). These digs are probably the nicest house in town.

It’s easy to think of this as “poverty,” but that doesn’t really capture the reality of the situation.  More than “poor”, their life is primitive.  Except for the kids’ and men’s clothing that have somehow found their way to the villages front the rest of the world, their way of life isn’t much changed or advanced from what it must have been a few hundred years ago.  They’re probably as content as people were in the same hillside settlements in the 1400s.  The distinction may not matter much, but it’s not so much just a matter of bringing them out of poverty as it is bringing them into the 21st century.