Journalism in Bolivia by Tamar Honig
I came to Bolivia to pursue my interest in journalism not knowing what to expect. Along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, I was worried about connecting with new people, about communicating in a language I was still learning, adjusting to a new city and home, and being so far removed from everyone and everything that has been familiar to me for the past 18 years of my life.
Despite my pre-arrival qualms, I found myself instantaneously enthralled by this diverse and superbly beautiful country. Every minute of every day was an adventure, I learnt quickly, and that meant plenty of fodder for my writing. Working for the Cocha-Banner magazine, I was granted a great deal of liberty to choose topics that interested me and to use the new world in which I found myself immersed as inspiration for my pieces.
Every corner I turned, every local I met, every bumpy ride in the crowded backseat of one of the taxi ‘trufis’ that rushed through the mountainous roads of Cochabamba was a story I wanted to write. Life in Bolivia fostered in me a boldness of spirit, an ability to take risks I had not previously possessed. On my first weekend, a fellow volunteer and I made plans to visit La Cancha, Cochabamba’s main market and a crowded, chaotic labyrinth of a place.
We set about exploring the winding streets and alleyways teeming with colour and energy – fruits and vegetables strewn across blankets lining the cobblestone paths, fabrics and handicrafts piled up in rickety stalls, vendors touting their goods and haggling with customers, children darting through the bustling crowds, and the elderly observing the commotion from whatever available niches remained.
More and more material for my writing at the Cocha-Banner appeared the further I immersed myself in the Cochabambino culture. Attending a festival of La Saya – a characteristic style of music and dance of the Afro-Bolivian ethnic group – turned into an opportunity to interview and write about one of the performers; an influential member of a national counsel that advocates for Afro-Bolivians.
I learnt a great deal from her about the rich traditions and distinct cultural heritage of this minority community. The pulsing beat of the drums, the multitude chorus of chanting, and the rhythmic movements of the dancers created an incredible experience on their own. But sitting down later with one of the performers and hearing her explain the significance of the art form to her people – a formerly enslaved race who used La Saya as a form of expression and of protest – ensured that the memory would remain seared in my mind for a long time to come.
A highlight of my Journalism project
I had the amazing opportunity to learn from an established journalist – the deputy press chief at a major news network in Cochabamba. Through interviewing this woman, I learnt much about the perks and pains inherent in the field of journalism.
She told stories of dealing with the risks of reporting the news, of encountering journalistic repression, of being chased at a riot by ‘cocaleros masistas’ – members of the ‘coca growers’ union and supporters of President Evo Morales’ political party, the MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo, or Movement Toward Socialism). Her ambition impressed me; her boldness inspired me. It was truly an honour to write about someone so passionate about her work and devoted to disseminating the truth.
Staying with a host family
Outside the Cocha-Banner office as well as within it, Bolivia pushed me to expand my horizons in innumerable ways. Living with a host family that spoke not a word of English was a blessing in disguise. I was compelled to constantly practise my Spanish – in communicating needs, in informing them of my comings and goings, in discussing Bolivian politics over dinner. This led to appreciable improvements, and, by the end of my stay, to a definite level of comfort – if not yet fluency – with the language.
Activities outside my project
For a more representative taste of the local culture, I enrolled in biweekly salsa classes with several newfound friends. For two hours each Tuesday and Thursday, we sweated it out on the dance floor – the only foreigners in a ring of native Bolivian salsa-dancing extraordinaire.
At first, we struggled somewhat – to the great amusement of our perpetually rotating partners – to pick up the steps as quickly as they were shouted out by the instructor. But bit by bit, the music and the motions and the contagiously lively spirit of the class got under our skin. Soon enough we were swaying and swinging around the salsa circle in harmony with the others.
Opportunities to grow also presented themselves during travels on the weekends. Wanting to explore as much of the land as possible during my time there, I used the weekends to visit some of the extraordinary sights Bolivia has to offer – learning, in the process, about arranging transport, booking hostels, and dealing with the occasional exasperations of travelling within developing countries.
One weekend took me to Torotoro, a national park of breath-taking natural beauty where fellow volunteers and I trekked around the Huayllas Mountains, clambered through subterranean labyrinths in ancient caves, and rappelled down a cascading canyon waterfall.
Another weekend I elected to visit Sucre, the birthplace of the nation and a stunning city of gleaming whitewashed buildings set in a valley surrounded by magnificent mountains. A favourite highlight of mine was Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world and an ethereal spectacle of blindingly bright salt and multi-coloured lakes surreally reflecting the sky.
Journalism in Bolivia
Bolivia was in many ways a formative experience for me. Becoming part of a new family, working for a local magazine, and exploring a fascinating pocket of the globe – all of this allowed me to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of the incredible diversity and vibrancy of our world and its inhabitants.
Heading into my Bolivian excursion, sitting anxiously watching the mountains extending endlessly below me, I feared the unknown. But with each new encounter, each new discovery that chips away at my ignorance, I have come to embrace it.