Category Archives: Bolivia

How the arts heal at Burns, in Bolivia, and beyond

Before I moved to Bolivia, I was pretty active in the European Burner scene. (Burners are people who attend Burning Man – a vast arts-focused festival in the Nevada desert built entirely by the participants, for the participants, with no paid entertainers. The movement has taken on a life of its own, and many Burners all over the world – including myself – espouse the values without ever having been to Burning Man.)

Each July, I used to head to the arid badlands of nothern Spain to take part in European burn event Nowhere, always volunteering in anything going to help run the event.

With working days of up to 17 hours, temperatures reaching nearly 50°C, storms, stomach bugs, trench toilets, and all kinds of other character-building “fun”, I don’t blame myself for occasionally finding my motivation flagging.

I admit that, at times when I found myself struggling to keep going, one thought kept passing through my head: “The people here aren’t exactly starving children, are they? Do they really need my “help”?”

In November 2015, I started working at Performing Life Bolivia (linking to Facebook because we update it more than our website), a foundation that genuinely did focus on children who had known homelessness, extreme poverty, child labour, and hunger – and I say focus on, because I know there are burners who have experienced these things. I expected that, once I met the children and started to perceive their reality, all my illusions about the wonders of burner events would melt away like a dream on waking.

Actually, the opposite happened: I came to appreciate the value of Burns more than ever before. I’m writing this to tell you why.

  • Performing Life is currently running a crowdfunding campaign. To see more about our work and donate, please click here  – Thank you!

At Performing Life (Fundación EnseñARTE in Spanish), we teach circus arts and music to children living in some of the most deprived areas of Cochabamba. In the music programme, some of the children live in prison with their parents.

Until I discovered the existence of Performing Life, I thought I was the only one who dreamed of uniting performing arts and social development this way. I thought everyone else in the world, with a few exceptions as rare as they are famous, must surely view the arts as a luxury. We should be giving these children anti-malarials! Medicine! Water! How can we justify giving them art when they have no running water? Priorities, people!

I think many people do view things this way – otherwise we would have more donors!  And I’m not arguing that those causes aren’t important. But after two years at Performing Life, I have come to conclude that excluding the arts from development is an error of tragic short-sightedness.

What is this “social circus” stuff?

Performing Life is part of a global network of social circuses. If you don’t believe me, there is a map right here. Social circus can be explained as teaching or performing circus as a social intervention. Be it the Flying Seagull Project running circus projects to bring joy to refugees, Circability working with disabled people in New Zealand, or Mobile Mini Circus for Children operating from retrofitted shipping containers in Afghanistan, social circus is all over the world.

Social circus is excellent for teaching communication, teamwork, self-confidence, discipline, commitment, compromise, patience, expression, and many other skills and values. When a child first tries to get on a trapeze, it’s difficult and scary. They’re out of their comfort zone, exposed and visible up in the air. But their peers can help and support them, communicating carefully to explain tricks and making sure they don’t fall. After plenty of practice, they can perform a routine in public: something that previously seemed daunting, scary, and impossible has suddenly become possible, and they have earned respect in front of their peers, family, and community for doing it!

How does that relate to burn events?

Seeing the impact that access to the arts had on the young people we work with really brought home to me the immense value of communities which use the arts as a means to self-expression, exploration, building relationships with others, and above all, knowing oneself.

In two years, I have seen a lot of children arrive at the foundation as energetic, distracted, naughty little people, often with very sad stories to tell despite their young ages. As time goes by, they start to communicate, learn the value of co-operation and collaboration, and end up putting their all into blinding shows with legitimately impressive results. We have even helped a number of participants into university.

And this through a community that focuses on self-expression, exploration, building relationships with others, and knowing oneself – does that description sound familiar?

The 10 principles of Nowhere are:

  • Self-expression
  • Self-reliance
  • No commerce
  • Leave no trace
  • Participation
  • Inclusion
  • Gifting
  • Co-operation
  • Community
  • Immediacy

Many people, inside and outside the community, deride these as hippy idealism. But seeing many of these principles translated into a context of poverty and deprivation has shown me that they have real value far beyond the world of Nowhere.

As a Brit, I have grown up in a Stiff Upper Lip culture, and it is only very recently that we as a society are gaining a wider awareness and comprehension of the damaging effects this has on our mental health. We tend to think of being bad at self-expression as a peculiarly British problem, but it is as bad or worse in Bolivia.

Most Bolivians live in poverty. They have known real, chronic, gnawing hunger, worked from the age of six, lost loved ones young in the sort of preventable accidents and treatable medical conditions that are far rarer in the global north.

I don’t think I have ever heard anybody talk about their own pain, trauma, or depression in a social context here. Last week, I asked a boy who had just broken his wrist how he was, and he just said: “Fine”. It is as though, if one person gave an honest answer to the question “Cómo estás?”, it would open the floodgates to river of sorrows that each person carries inside, a flow of unbearable honesty that would never end. I know, because that’s how I feel when people ask me: “How are things in Bolivia?”

Burn events are laboratories where we can build an alternative society that enable us to explore values such as self-expression and good communication viscerally, with all our senses. They provide an invaluable space to explore self-expression, community-building, co-operating, and so many other things lacking in the London of rented housing, not knowing one’s neighbours, suspecting the unknown.

At Performing Life, like at Burner events, we encourage people to don costumes, paint their faces, and choose from lots of different circus disciplines to create acts that express what’s inside: some choose to put together elegant silks acts, while others create joy in themselves and others by doing clowning.

Maybe there are no official burns in Bolivia. But in many ways, at Performing Life our project is the same. We, too, work to create a space of exploration, where self-expression, co-operation, communication, inclusion, and untold other values that Burners consider their own come into the spotlight.

Interventions in medicine or infrastructure can certainly raise the level of development in a barrio, but to what extent do they help tackle root causes of problems such as delinquency, domestic violence, and social exclusion? Charity effectiveness assessment institution GiveWell’s list of recommended programmes (and it is an incredibly interesting website if you’re interested in donor efficacy, NGO myths, which programmes are worth supporting, etc) includes mosquito net distribution, iodizing salt, cataract surgery, and vitamin A supplementation.

These all sound awesome, but in my personal opinion, they will not tackle issues such as:

  • Inability to communicate a perceived problem at home or in the workplace
  • Difficulty relating to others
  • Dealing with chaotic family situations
  • Social exclusion
  • Lack of intellectual stimulation (leading to boredom, leading to drug abuse, gangs, or whatever it takes to relieve that boredom)
  • Lack of positive role models

That is why it’s so important to teach people about values. As this comic awesomely points out, the first thing dictators purge is philosophy, because learning human values such as critical thinking is vitally important to the robustness of any society.

Unfortunately, it is precisely these values that are often hard to measure empirically. GiveWell puts a strong focus on charities whose effectiveness can be easily demonstrated, but in social circus, given the intangible nature of the values we teach, researchers have often found it difficult to prove that improvements observed were solely down to circus.

What isn’t hard to see is the joy on the faces of the children as they learn new things: the first time they do a new trick; the glow after they perform; when a brilliant idea for a new act comes into their heads.

Parents and teachers say that Performing Life has made a huge difference to their children. One mum said during a meeting: “My daughter used to be shy, timid. But she’s changed since she came here. She doesn’t want to put the poi down now!”

A headteacher told us: “It’s incredible what some children whose behaviour isn’t the best… who am I kidding, who behave terribly in classes, can do when they get on stage.”

Another mum even said: “The Foundation makes me wish I was a girl again so I could go!”

While so radically different, we are the same. And to anyone who comes away from the Burn feeling that these values are a pile of hippy clap-trap, you’re most welcome to visit us in Bolivia.

  • Performing Life is currently running a crowdfunding campaign. To see more about our work and donate, please click here  – Thank you!

Washing clothes in a drought

Last night, I washed my clothes in my new flat for the first time. In the UK, that would be a complete non-story. But nothing is ever simple in Bolivia.

In this flat, the washing machine’s drainage hose isn’t permanently in a drain. We have to put the hose into the shower – but first, we fill a storage bin. The waste water, we use to flush the toilet. This is to save water.

Bolivia, and Cochabamba in particular, has been struggling from such a severe drought that a state of emergency has been declared. People in hard-hit rural areas have been receiving food aid. Bolivia’s second-largest lake, Lake Poopó, dried up in December 2015.

This has devastated the lives of the Uru communities living on what used to be the shores: as people who lived by fishing the lake, hunting water birds, and working with reeds, they are not used to skilled labour or keeping livestock. The community leaders I spoke to said this had reduced families to migrating for the least skilled manual labour and harvesting other people’s fields in return for some of the produce.

Although we have plenty of water in my part of the city, we recycle it anyway, because we know its value.

I stood by the bin, watching the dirty water pouring in, astonished at how fast such a big drum was filling up even though the washing machine was set to”eco”. It kept pouring out into the shower long after the bin was full. What we collected was less than half of the water.

Watching this so soon after visiting communities devastated by drought gave me a feeling something akin to a small child realise that for them to eat meat, somebody had to kill an animal. All this time, I had been wasting so much water, and it barely even crossed my mind. It was the first time I had visually appreciated how much water a laundry load uses. I never dreamed it would be so much. I felt the urge to get another bin, to save and re-use all of the water.

UK mains water is drinkable, while in many communities in Bolivia, people have to drink water delivered by dirty water tanks because they have no other option. That means we Brits, and residents of many other rich countries, take the most pristine water and pour it straight into the washing machine, from where it goes straight down the drain. Before I came here, I had never heard of anyone recycling dirty laundry water to flush the toilet. I wouldn’t even have known how to take the hose out of the drain in London. I can’t even begin to imagine how many litres of water that is over my lifetime. Swimming pools of the stuff.

In the UK, there are a lot of people who think it’s unacceptable not to shower every day, who flush the toilet every time, even after the tiniest wee. Having lived here, this attitude seems profligate, positively licentious. Every week I see imploring e-mails and workplace announcements not to use water, to take brief showers. Even in nice bars and clubs, you learn to carry hand sanitiser, because you turn on the taps and nothing comes out. There isn’t enough water for the utility company to provide it to everyone every day.

When Bolivians wash up, they moisten the sponge, scrub the plates, and then turn the tap on to very quickly rinse them. There are stickers all over the place, produced by the local water company, telling us to brush our teeth using a glass, rather than under the running tap.

I am not an ecologist. I’m not saying that Bolivia’s endemic water issues, which are incredibly complex, would be solved if Europeans started chucking their laundry effluents down the toilet. But living here has transformed how I see water.

Even as one of the least affected, to me this drought is a sinister reminder that water really is a valuable natural resource. Much as we only really feel the value of money when we’re running out, only value time with a person when we can’t see them, this has made me feel viscerally that our access to freely flowing, crystalline drinking water is not a constant. It is something that the vast, omnipotent system that is our unhappy climate can and does take away. All too often, that doesn’t even cross our minds until it’s too late.


Back in Bolivia (diary: 25 January 2017)

I have been a very lazy girl blog-wise. However, a New Year’s resolution to write every day and a friend actively asking where she could read my travel updates has prompted me to start posting things again. These will probably be mostly in the form of edited diary entries, because my personal paper diary is a great place to be a horrible person and nobody needs to see that.

As of yesterday, I have a home. All indicators suggest that it is a pretty awesome home. I can walk to my favourite part of the market, the town centre, and several friends’ houses. So far, there appear to be 100% fewer Manchildren, which is a definite plus.

For anyone reading this who didn’t follow my Facebook rants, the manchild was one of the sons in the family I lived with last year. Highlights included the following conversations:

MC: Your boyfriend is making some kind of soup. Aren’t you going to help him?

Me: Why would I help him?

MC: Because… you’re a woman, and women can cook?


I am sitting at the table, crocheting and obviously not even slightly cooking

Me: Andy’s making brownies.

MC: Are you sure you don’t mean, you’re making brownies?

MC, later: These brownies are really good. And made by a man!


We are watching a music video by a fourteen-year-old girl with an incredible voice

MC: It needs more ass.

Me: She’s 14!

MC: Yeah, but it needs more ass. Sex sells. Look at this video by Singani Bolivia. It’s got more ass and has had loads more hits.

You know, just to name a few off the top of my head.

Returning to Cochabamba was a 31-hour mission that involved flying Gatwick-Madrid, Madrid-Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz-Cochabamba. That didn’t sound stressful enough, so I decided to travel while the train company that runs the Gatwick line was striking, on a flight that would be delayed by two and a half hours because it was so foggy outside it might as well have been a cloud.

Fortunately, I had booked a very long layover in Madrid.

Boliviana de Aviación thought that was all sounding too easy, so the night before, they sent me an e-mail telling me I had been shunted onto a later flight from Santa Cruz. In a slightly surreal touch, this e-mail came from an actual human, putting a line highlighted in green at the bottom begging me to let them know I had received the message.

Viru Viru sounds like a cocktail or a party dance, or perhaps a drug that cures typhoid. Typhoid is all the rage in Cochabamba. Viru Viru is a large airport in Santa Cruz where black coffee is more expensive than in Madrid airport (priorities, people) despite Bolivia growing coffee. It was there that I bumped into the first Bolivian I knew: serendipitously, it was one of the owners of the hostel where Andy and I stayed when we first arrived in Bolivia in 2015.

This was particularly amusing because it was in the exact same spot where we had to wait in Santa Cruz that first journey. That time, we were meant to be going straight to Cochabamba, but the aircraft ran out of fuel in strong headwinds and deposited us in Santa Cruz, instructing us to simply take the next Boliviana flight to Cochabamba.

The people on our flight formed an impromptu mob, shouted a lot about how there were women and children waiting, and then stormed off to try to strongarm Boliviana into running an earlier flight. It didn’t work.

Bumping into a friend and the absence of any angry mobs made Viru Viru seem far more homely this time.

Arriving at the flat of a friend, who had been looking after our stuff, he said that for breakfast there was water or whisky. I had breakfast whisky (the most important whisky of the day) to celebrate having got to Cochabamba without having my residence visa invalidated on spurious grounds (something I had heard of), or getting dropped off in Caracas or Suriname or somewhere because of fuel shortages.

I am now installed in a  beautiful flat with some Bolivian friends. My rule of thumb for moving is that you will have to compromise on space, location, or price, but here we got a better deal on all three.

The shower here is heated by a boiler, which you have to light with a match. This means the water is actually hot. In the old place, the shower head was electronic and could either deliver a voluble stream of cold water, or a dribble of hot water. It was as if the shower knew this and tried to deliver a happy medium, because the water pressure would fluctuate constantly without you ever having to touch the dial. At least it made us have short showers.

Andy is joining me on Bolivia in mid-February, subject to angry mobs, wrong airports, visa wrangles and assorted other Fun Things.

Ciao for now!