Bolivia can be a daunting prospect: one of the poorest countries in Latin America and a formidable producer of cocaine, subject to perpetual political protest and the ensuing roadblocks. The jagged peaks of the high Andean capital, La Paz, might seem as inhospitable as the scant supply of oxygen. Arrival in La Paz does little to quell this impression: mini-buses barge their way through sprawling markets of contraband and stolen goods, and little children in black masks materialise from t he pavements. On festival day, leering devils dance through the streets. Only the women in bowler hats know what’s going on.
It sounds like a mafia movie. But Bolivia’s disorder is not nearly this sinister, and, as I learnt this year, it can be transformed into the fuel for your aspirations, particularly if they are entrepreneurial. A year ago I was wandering around Bolivia on my modern languages year abroad. In England I had vainly snuffled around employer’s doorsteps, grubby CVs in hand, dreaming of exciting internships and quick success, all of which seemed now like unattainable pies in the sky. But in Bolivia, I found some talented friends and we soon started scheming. It all started out as a game. One of those ‘wouldn’t it be amazing if…(insert vision)…’. We were just a bunch of friends with an idea, but before I knew it I had become one of the four founders of Bolivia’s leading English language magazine: Bolivian Express. Our sole financial investment was 20 dollars. One year on, we now have a fully-fledged website and have brought out our sixth monthly issue, distributed in print in Bolivia and online internationally. How did this happen? Aside from my obvious fortune in meeting some wonderful, dedicated co-directors, the speed with which we could achieve this was largely down to an explosive fusion of meticulous planning with free-ridden chaos.
Our idea was simple, but in England would have been faced with great obstacles. Costs, administration and compliance with regulation are all necessary to our ordered civilisation, but when you’re a start-up all they do is slow you down, and, probably, eat you for breakfast. In Bolivia there may be some regulation, but no one cares. There is a lot of administration, but you can get away with ignoring it, and coming in with European money, cost need not be an issue.
But where did the money come from? I have neglected the model of our organisation. Beginning with our market: Anglophones want to experience Bolivian culture and Bolivians want to meet Anglophones. The obstacle here is that Bolivian bedlam makes it is a risky business for Anglophones to arrive alone and uninformed. So, we would step in by organising journalism internships for our magazine, where we provide accommodation, Spanish lessons and country inductions, charging a fee. From this fee we print the magazine, produced from a collaboration of culture-vulture Bolivians and visiting English speakers. As easy as that. Well, of course it wasn’t quite that easy. In the setting-up months all of our eyes turned distinctly squarer, as we charged all our energy into the virtual world, the springboard for our operation.
The team had different talents to offer: our budding internet expert designed our webpage and got us online publicity, and since we were operating from across the globe (Ireland, England, Bolivia), our business had to be entirely cloud-based. Our Bolivian journalist taught us the tricks of the trade and our Anglo-Bolivian mastermind co-ordinated the efforts and was key in providing the cultural awareness and Bolivian contacts we needed. He could also channel and translate our journalist’s trade-wise advice. Where did I fit in? Amongst skilled individuals it can be difficult to see where students like us can make a difference, but exercises like setting up this organisation show our intellectual capital to be context sensitive. In England, my capacity credibly to email and recruit student journalists from an English university would not have been a special skill – so could the next student. In Bolivia it was the asset I could bring to our organisation.
And as we bombarded our project with hours of structured labour, so the chaos of Bolivia welcomed us in, and once the journalists arrived it only got spicier. Through online application and phone interviews we had recruited ten participants for July and August each, and smaller numbers for the rest of the year. The teams were great, the coordination a handful. It may have been an easy task to contract a teacher, but would he turn up to give the lesson? We may have rented a house with meals included, but would the owner suddenly decide she no longer wanted to provide? Oh they would. Then we would nearly lose the first issue of the magazine, saved precariously on a sole USB stick and a journalist would break his wrist in a bike-fall.
Yes, there were certainly times when Bolivia’s chaos threatened to submerge and swallow us up. Then there were the crazy times: our launch party, where we were interviewed for Bolivian Television by a famous transvestite, press passes into clubs, football stadiums and free cinema tickets. Our publication, which in England, indeed Oxford, might have been one among many, in Bolivia could be outstanding. Chaos was king, and our order was its knight; we established a relationship with a shoe-shine-boy initiative (the masked children), interviewed traditional Cholitas (the women in bowler hats), plunged into the teeming labyrinthine markets and revelled in the extravagant festivals.
So, where has this left us? Unfortunately, not any richer. However, going abroad and setting something up yourself has been infinitely more rewarding than facing cutthroat internship competition in Britain, although the work involved is not to be underestimated. Worst moment: spending nine hours copying and pasting. Best moment: being able to call myself a co-director. The most powerful impression that the experience has left with me is that you can start from nothing more than a spark of audacity. And all that pandemonium which to me had seemed the most daunting thing has become our finest subject, our greatest ally, and our dearest passion.
Bolivian Express is a cultural organisation that seeks to encourage ties between Bolivia and the English-speaking world. It is currently seeking charity status. To find out more visit www.bolivianexpress.org. The managers are Amaru Villanueva Rance, Ivan Rodriguez-Petcovic, Jack Kinsella, Sharoll Moore and Xenia Elsaesser, and can be contacted by emailing [email protected]