I came by bus which took about 36 hours from La Paz. There were no toilets on the bus so I decided not to drink any water or anything because I’m quite paranoid about how frequently I have to pee and I knew that if I hydrated at all I would wind up at the back of the bus peeing in my own Nalgene bottle or something, so instead i just drank nothing and never peed. Except one time– the bus driver stopped for me so I could pee on the side of the road but he kept moving the whole time, just sort of slowly, so once I finished peeing and turned around, the bus was about a mile away and I just about died of exhaustion trying to catch up to it. I took this photo somewhere between Rurrenabaque and Riberalta when our bus broke down for about 2 hours. I finally arrived in Riberalta at 9 pm on a sunday; September 16.
I came with tubes of acrylic paint, charcoal, graphite, pastels, india ink, paint brushes, colored pencils, palette knives, a small hammer, rulers, x-acto knives, and 2 sketchbooks.
The volunteer house was quiet. Yann, from France, and Esther, from Belgium, were the only other volunteers in Riberalta for my first two weeks. Lili, a local, also lived with us but was hardly present. We spoke french and I slipped into a strange displacement with the Bolivia I was expecting– or perhaps the experience I was expecting. In the mornings I would walk to the river and write. During the heat of the day I sat by the window, writing and sketching. I only interacted with Bolivians, only spoke spanish, when I went to the market and then, in the afternoons, when Esther and I would visit Cristo te Salva, a small orphanage on the other side of town. English fell away from my mouth; I hardly spoke it.
It was so hot so Esther
An early poem from the Rio Beni:
Poem 3, 09/21/18
There is a company of dancers plie-ing on turtle shells before a show
The day is just beginning and most of the boats stem off the riverbank
like flower buds unweighting their bows before blossom
They are all brown or they are all different depending on the time of day
Today at 9am they are all yellow
Broken-bone yellow Yellow
of the blind day and yellow headache
The stained meanness of yellow unseeable
on everything yet pure as the sun
White-yellow so the teal paint of one boat becomes fluorescent
The red letters of “El Rufo” are actually colorless
And everything else is extinguished
One boat is carrying pillars of rice in large yellow and white sacs
silhouetted against the bleating river
I am sweating profusely
In the yellow hunger of morning when the houses around me
Are saturated with the vapor of boiling yucca
The smell of chickens being cooked and embers
Snickering in the dirt I become
Suddenly so empty
I go home straightaway to eat
Bruno, a french expat/artist/local pizzeria owner helped me secure the last materials I needed and I began to paint. With him, Esther and I also developed some creative projects to do with the kids at Cristo te Salva. In Bruno I found a person I could be at ease with, discussing for hours and hours our mutual passions for art-making, poetry, and being outside of it all. After 3 weeks of mostly writing and melting, I became fixed in the “studio,” messy with paint.
The house filled up. Ludivine moved back in, Nellie arrived from the Netherlands, Leandra from Switzerland, Marcus from Germany, Solène from France… The initial solitude disappeared and I became absorbed into the social fabric of Sustainable Bolivia. On the weekends we escaped from the city– to Pisatauha, a house in the jungle, and to Lago Tumichucua. On the docks and in the waters of the amazon, I felt particularly displaced from myself and matriculated into a sublime nature. At Tumichucua, swimming felt almost like a religious act– something truly immersive, beyond corporeal limits. When the suns weighs low on the horizon here, little blades light shift across the clouds. They seem to cut open. The sky seems to bleed into your eyes.
In two months I made six paintings. Esther and I did several drawing sessions with the kids but struggled to get other projects going. Cristo te Salva lost one roof to the onset of the rainy season and have been in dire need of another roof for their kitchen. These changes likely won’t be addressed until well into the rainy season, perhaps once their rice has spoiled from the deluge, or the flies have eaten all the fruit. Bruno wanted us to start a mural but he’s busy. Time, in Riberalta, folds over on itself. Things move slow and very few things are prioritized as crucial enough to get done immediately. In fact nothing seems to happen immediately. The days expand, they bloat, and then release again. Two months seemed to come and go like a dream.
Nevertheless, we found grace in the unexpected. The things we didn’t get done were replaced by moments we didn’t plan. Esther and I spent every friday at the pool with the kids, swimming and playing soccer. Bruno’s Pizzeria became a weekend night haven. Shared dinners amongst the volunteers were impressively elaborate. The paintings I made were not the paintings I wanted and for that, they are so much more valuable. Nothing seems to last here. Even the earth is broken down and renamed after the rain. The city itself swaggers along, blundered by seasonal riches and seasonal poverty. The brazil nut is omnipotent and nothing seems to slake the off-season. For us visitors to this place, being positive and productive members of the community is a matter of adaptation and patience.
I’ll take the art with me, that’s all fine. I’ll mail the paintings to New York and continue to travel with sketchbooks, pastels, colored pencils, and my little hammer. It’s clear though that I need more time here. More time to support the orphanage, to be with the kids, more time to see projects through and develop real progress. More time to know Bolivians and know the wildlife; to know the flowers and the fruit trees. I leave now, so grateful that the projects we did manage start will continue without me. This is the most important thing. Two months, after all, is nothing… just a dream a dream a dream.