Yangon: Through the lens

There is undoubtedly an air of electricity in Yangon. Myanmar’s largest city is in the midst of an incredible growth spurt, brought about by foreign investment from countries like China, Japan and Korea. Ever since Myanmar opened its doors to tourism in 2011 the country has experienced a huge upsurge in the number of people visiting, giving the former capital of Myanmar, a breath of new life.
I ventured to Yangon in January of 2016 to see for myself what the city looked like beneath the surface of so much change. What I found were good people, great food and a city that was ready to embrace its bright new future.

The Highest Inhabited Place on Earth (Pictures)

They warned us about going to La Rinconada, “it’s so dangerous, you will get robbed in broad daylight,” said one man at the bus station near Lake Titicaca. Another man chimed in, “so many people are taking gold out of La Rinconada, that young men are beginning to rob people on the road from here to there.” I asked if any of them had visited the city, they said no.

La Rinconada, Peru represents the most extreme lengths people are willing to go in pursuit of money and a better life. At 18,000 ft above sea level, it is the highest inhabited place on earth. Living at these altitudes seems nearly impossible, yet 60,000 people call it home. Most work long hours in hazardous conditions deep within the gold mines. It’s entrepreneurial in the most brutal sense of the word—it’s unregulated and unsafe. Many peoples lives are cut short from contamination, tough working conditions and alcoholism. Mercury, cyanide and human waste flow openly down its unpaved streets and alleys.

The process of gold mining in La Rinconada is conducted by small companies and individuals—rather than large multinational corporations. Miners hike every day over 30 minutes at 18,000 feet to the entrance of the mines, which are carved into a think glacier. They walk 1,500 ft into the dark tunnels of the mountain where oxygen is even more scarce and toxic fumes are overwhelming.

Once the ore has been extracted from the mountain, individuals break it down using stones and a crusher driven by donkeys in their homes and back alleys. Water from the glacier mixed with mercury helps extract the gold. The gold is sold to middle men working in pawn shops, who bring it down the mountain to be sold again into the global market. Most of it ends up in India and Asia. Many times, armed men with ski masks rob merchants traveling along the one road leading out of town.

Instability in global markets has caused the price of gold to triple in the last 15 years, pushing many lower-class Peruvians to seek their fortunes in the mines of La Rinconada. Most miners come from the surrounding Puno region, a poverty stricken provence of the Peruvian Andes.

The story of La Rinconada is similar to that of Williston, North Dakota, where oil workers have been drawn to the harsh plains by the allure of high wages. Williston’s boom has affected the local environment and created a demographic shift and a strain on public services.

Similar to Williston, La Rinconada’s population has exploded—an increase of 230% over the last 10 years. Like a lawless frontier, the residents of La Rinconada have pushed back against the efforts made by the Peruvian government to bring regulation and some sense of law and order to the region. Many fear taxation and regulation that come with government oversight, thus the degradation of the environment, pollution, crime and corruption still reign.


Land of the Incas, Peru (Pictures)

We spent over a month in Southern Peru, starting in Cusco, the ancient heart of the Incan Empire. From Cusco we visited Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world where indigenous tribes live on floating islands and ancient communal living structures are still in use today.

After Lake Titicaca we endured the grueling trip up to the gold mining town of La Rinconada. Everyone had warmed us that road was the most dangerous in all of Peru because of frequent roadside robberies, in fact two people were shot for their gold on the night that we left, but this did not deter us. At 18,000 ft. above sea level La Rinconada is the highest inhabited place on earth. We spent two days recording a short documentary about life there, talking with locals, exploring the glacier and getting far off the beaten path.

Next stop was Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, and the perfect place to begin an adventure to Colca Canyon, which is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and home to the Andean Condor, the largest bird in the world, as well as many distinct ethnic groups.

We ended our journey through the South of Peru at the magnificent Machu Picchu.

El Alto and La Paz, Bolivia (Pictures)

It is begining to sound like a cliche in South America, but La Paz really is a city of contrasts. Imagine local folks drinking espresso while checking their iPhones on a sidewalk cafe, then imagine dried llama fetuses being sold next to indigenous healers and soothsayers who can whisk away your problems with a prayer and a dime.

The socialist Evo Morales government of Bolivia has attempted to tackle many of the cities problems by building a series of gondolas connecting the many disjointed parts of this city. The popular gondola system whisks locals from deep in the valley to El Alto on the valley’s rim. It connects the have and have nots and most importantly eases the horrendous traffic.

High above La Paz, sits an even larger city called El Alto. El Alto is the largest indigenous city in the Western Hemisphere, with well over 85% of the population claiming indigenous roots. El Alto is as close to the intensity and chaos of India as one can get in South America. Mini vans turned into public buses fight for a space to pick up riders and young men and women shout out their destination at the top of their lungs.

Some visitors may never leave La Paz, and locals may tell you not to visit El Alto, but if you are ready for an adventure and willing to take a few steps off the beaten path, take that teleferico up the hill and give El Alto a chance, you won’t regret it.

Ice and Fire, Wind and Salt in Bolivia (Pictures)

We spent two weeks traveling across southern Bolivia through some of the most spectacular landscapes on planet earth. After nearly being denied entry into Bolivia and getting told to “get your backpacks and get the fuck out of here” by the Bolivian border guard, we eventually made it in.

We ascended into the Andes to the capital city of Sucre. Sucre is a pleasant city with lots of Spanish colonial architecture, and one of the largest middle classes in Bolivia.

From Sucre we climbed even higher to the silver mining city of Potosí, located at 13,342 feet above sea level. Potosí has a more gritty feel than Sucre, with silver miners flooding the street after work, and brutal temperatures with frequent snowfall. The surprisingly bustling Potosí was founded by the Spanish in 1545 who bankrolled their empire by mining the Cerro Rico. Centuries later the same silver mines are still active, and adventurous travelers can tour them. Although Potosí is not an easy city to visit, it is certainly one of the most authentic cities in Bolivia.

Next we started our three day Salar de Uyuni jeep expedition. We drove across salt flats, passed smoldering volcanoes, bright green, red and pink lakes, and climbed over 16,000 ft passes, and took a sunrise dip in a steaming hot spring. Most people come to this part of Bolivia for the salt flats, but the most impressive part of the journey was the day after. Geographically speaking, this is one of the most spectacular places on earth.