Category Archives: Travel

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.  

Welcome to Capayque, Bolivia!

When I signed up to join (and photograph) an Oklahoma group that was providing healthcare in a tiny village high in the Bolivian Andes, I was not expecting the elaborate welcome we got in Capayque.


A local Capayque girl arrives at our welcome ceremony with a handmade flower wreath.

Last week I joined a group traveling to Capayque, Bolivia – a very primitive, isolated community in the mountains of northwestern Bolivia, about 15 miles (as the condor flies) from Lake Titicaca and a rough five-hour trip from La Paz.  The group’s mission was to provide much-needed medical care to Capayque’s residents and to set up a medical clinic in the community.

This will be the first of several posts about my trip to Capayque.  Much more later about the town, its people, the Stillwater Oklahoma Methodist church group, and the activities of the week.


Ray Kinnunen of Stillwater gets a ceremonial welcome in Capayque

Things got interesting immediately when we arrived in Capayque.  We were met by the entire school and much of the town – as well as the local bishop and several other local officials – for a welcoming ceremony.


As the pictures reflect, we got handmade wreaths of flowers (which grow, mostly wild, in the area), and were presented with traditional Bolivian panchos, scarves and hats.  We were told that the red panchos we received were symbols of community leaders (the “head panchos,” you might say).  The ceremonies concluded with a dance down the hillside to the new medical clinic this Methodist mission group has been building for the past two years.

After the bishop inaugurated the new clinic with a few sprinkles of water, we were treated to a ceremonial community meal – with local foods spread out on blankets for everyone to share (Corn, potatoes, and a potato-like plant called “oka” were the primary menu items).



Click here for more images from our Capayque welcome, even including one of me in my nifty red pancho.

It was a fun kickoff to a interesting and productive week.  Much more to come.


My aunt, Carolyn Williams — an R.N. and a 16-year veteran of the Bolivian medical mission team — was welcomed back to Capayque with a prestigious red pancho.

New Orleans Mardis Gras 2014: Bon Temps*


Shane Merz tosses highly-coveted hot pink beads to the Mardis Gras crowd along St. Charles Street.

Riding a float in one of the big New Orleans Mardis Gras parades isn’t like you probably think.  Everybody seems to ask me the same question:  I’m sure I threw at least 2,000 strings of beads, cups, toys, or footballs (roughly one every five seconds for over three hours), and never saw a bared female breast.  That happens over on Bourbon Street – but not much on the parade route.

I did see lots of kids having great fun, usually with their friends, parents, grandmas or grandpas close behind.  People on ladders so they could see above the crowd.  Lots of college kids acting silly.  Groups on balconies in sportcoats and party dresses.  Lots of pretty young girls, and lots of not-especially-young-or-pretty girls.  Grown men and women jumping up and down, genuinely delighted to get even a fifty-cent trinket thrown at them from a masked man on a tacky float.  I’m sure a large percent had had a bit too much to drink, but happily it was hard to tell from my perch up on the top deck of Float #20.


One of my float neighbors, Houstonian Tommy Miles, ready for the Bacchus parade with beads organized atop our float

You don’t just sling beads at the blur of the crowd.  The vast majority of those 2,000 strings of beads I threw were aimed at a specific person with whom I’d made eye contact before making a targeted toss.  They break eye contact to catch the beads, then usually look back up with appreciation so we could jointly celebrate our successful connection with a mutual fist pump.  You’d have also been impressed with my bead-flinging accuracy – even underhanded, leaning over the rail atop a moving float, throwing gangly strings of varying weights, a majority went to the intended receiver.

Here’s a side note to you 20ish-year-old males out there:  If you stand near a little kid, a grandma or a pretty girl and jump to intercept beads being thrown to them, you’re an idiot (and something that starts like “dude” but rhymes with “swoosh-tag”) – and the gods of Mardis Gras karma will ensure that none of those pretty girls out there will ever even speak to you. 

 Another of the riders on my float – a guy from somewhere in central Louisiana who (initially) stood right next to me — had a different experience.  I didn’t learn much about him – he passed out about a quarter of the way into the parade.  This is not especially uncommon, so we just left him on the floor.  I didn’t drink anything but Diet Coke and a bottle of water (and fueled myself with a couple of mid-route Powerbars), and I’m very sure I had a lot more fun than he did.  Maybe I should have explained to him the hilariously ignored New Orleans Ordinance prohibiting drinking on the floats?

Most of the pictures here are from my day riding a float in the Bacchus parade.  You spend an hour or two organizing your “throws” (mostly bags of beads), then get your costume mid-day.  The masks are mandatory; you can literally be fined for not wearing one.  You also have to wear a harness underneath to clip yourself onto the float (for reasons perhaps made obvious by the prior paragraph).  Our float was assigned alligator costumes.  It takes a pretty strong sense of tradition to get a big group of straight Southern men into matching costumes with sequin sleeves and a crazy pink collar.


Bacchus parade riders, in costume, inside the Rock Bottom Lounge on Tchoupitoulas St.


The floats roll mid-afternoon to the staging area — a neighborhood right next to the Mississippi River with several tiny local bars that probably don’t see a lot of middle-class white guys any other week of the year.  Imagine 1500 or so grown rednecks dressed in those satiny, sequin pajama-like costumes converging on an urban neighborhood.  It takes another three hours or so to navigate the parade route through the Garden District , downtown along the edge of the French Quarter, and through the middle of the already-booming party in the Convention Center.  We arrived at the party after 11pm.  It’s a formal “gala”-type event where ladies must wear floor length gowns, but only half the men are in tuxedos and the other half are in those goofy costumes.  Styx played at midnight, and everybody headed to the casino around 3:30 a.m.  I saw more than one New Orleans sunrise on this trip, and I surely never got up early.



In 2012, I told the stories of how the Mardis Gras “krewes” put on the parades here, of how – even amidst the chaos – New Orleans can be as civilized as you choose it to be, and how you calculate the day and time of these Mardis Gras parades. This year I had higher hopes for my Mardis Gras photography, but much of that proved incompatible with the preference to spend most of my time hanging out with the couple of dozen friends that were in town for the festivities.  These won’t win any prizes, but hopefully they’ll at least give a good feel for what it’s like to see and to ride in a big Mardis Gras parade.  Laissez les Bons Temps Rouler*


*Of course “Mardis Gras” is a French term (“Fat Tuesday”) and its events are centered in the French Quarter; “Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler” is a popular Mardis Gras slogan, French for “Let the Good Times Roll.”  “Bon Temps”: good times.

Guatemalan Graveyards

  Guatemalan graveyards seem a lot more festive than ours.


The graveyards in Guatemala were distinctive.  Colorful and conspicuous, they were full of above-ground mausoleums decorated with pastel and bright-colored plastic, crepe paper, and plastic flowers.  Obviously it’s part of their culture to decorate graves in a festive way.

The prevailing religion in Guatemala is Catholic — imported to the region 500 years ago by the Spanish — but in the Northern “Peten” region there were a lot of Assembly of God (“… de Dios”) churches.  And one local (my guide, Henry) insisted that lots of people of Mayan ancestry practice some form of Mayan religion — usually mixed in with Catholic practices.



Guatemala: Sleeping in the Jungle?

Technically, I did sleep in the jungle.  Admittedly, I was in a couple of pretty nice ‘bungalow’ hotels.


Tikal Inn, Tikal National Park

The Tikal Inn (above) was a fun, convenient place to stay  and to start other excursions – it’s literally inside Tikal National Park.  It looks good in just the right light.  But the electricity, hot water, and internet typically only worked intermittently – maybe 8 hours a day in total. 


Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel – Flores, Guatemala

The place with the cabins sticking out onto the star-lit lake was (unexpectedly) super-swanky.  My nephew was with me – he was thrilled that he had a full-size Jacuzzi on his screened porch overhanging (and overlooking) the lake.  I was thrilled that it was so dark and remote you could see roughly a zillion stars.  When I woke UP in the jungle, it was usually pretty foggy.


At both places, you could hear howler monkeys all night long.  I got pictures of a couple in the daylight (including this ‘baby’).


Oh!  Camera friends:  The starry-night pictures of the cabin on the lake were at f4, 30 seconds, and ISO 3200 (or at least they should have been).  The D800E on a tripod (with both ISO noise reduction and Long-exposure noise reduction working – somehow), 16-35mm lens.  I just got lucky that the dim lights around the cabins were a decent balance for the stars (I didn’t light them at all, as I had to with the Tikal temples a few nights later).  The poolside shot was just ISO 400, about 2 seconds, f5, 16mm — there was enough light there to use the meter, so it was easy.