People love building skateparks these days, especially in places that don’t need them. For instance, Los Angeles just got another park in July despite already having perfect weather and perfect ground while the rest of us continue to skate cracked curbs and stuff stolen from local construction sites.
So instead of just building another skatepark in the an area where legions of park kids could perfect their yo-flips, a group of 100 volunteers, Make Life Skate and Levi’s came together to build a skatepark and community center for the kids of Bolivia.
With crowded dirty streets, severe lack of education and few outlets for the youth, a community center and park could drastically improve lives. While skating is still relatively new there and gear is tough to come by, it’s a big asset for the developing country, as they plan to also implement a skate school and free workshops too. Because the area is located 3600 meters above sea level, it also happens to be the highest skatepark in the world. I hit up Jonathan Mehring, master photographer who was on the trip to talk about the 3 weeks camping out, building the park and documenting the journey.
Pura Pura skatepark is the highest skatepark in the world in altitude, located about 3600 meters above sea level.
Did this affect building and skating the skatepark at all?
Absolutely. The park was completed about a week later than expected. It was really hard to get used to as most of us live near sea level. It takes a few days to even move around normally when you are there. Dudes who try to skate in the first couple days get really frustrated because it’s much harder to land tricks. Even pushing down the block will get you winded.
”It takes a few days to even move around normally when you are there”
To put it in perspective, the first time I went there I walked to a deli and bought a case of 2 liter water bottles. It took me almost half an hour to make it three blocks back to the house with them. That being said, after four or five days of acclimation most people can function pretty normally.
If you get comfortable to that elevation, do you think it could have potential to be good “skate training” in a way?
There was a lot of talk about that but I’m not sure it works that way. If you are born there I think you will operate best there. If not then you won’t. At least that’s my opinion. I felt a bit of reverse altitude sickness coming home but nothing terrible. A good question is if that were case then how come the Bolivian soccer team has never won the world cup?
For those who have never been to South America or Bolivia, what’s it like?
Bolivia is located in the middle of South America. It’s landlocked. It’s also one of the most diverse counties in South America as far as landscape and climate. It has everything from the Amazonian Rainforest to snow capped Andes Mountains. It’s the highest capital city in the world – It’s in a valley and goes from 11,000 to 13,000 ft.
As far as first world to third world culture shock it’s a bit to get used to for someone coming from the USA. It’s like a lot of South American cities – dirty and lots of trucks spewing exhaust into the air, bad traffic and kind of a general free for all in the streets. Food can be sketchy. But it’s a really beautiful place overall and the locals seem excited to tell you about their country. They have a lot of pride.
I spoke with Dan Plunkett and he said he had awful food poisoning after the trip. Is there any preparation you can recommend to avoid this?
I think that kind of thing is almost a given when visiting a 3rd world country. You can either deal with it or wait it out. Most pharmacies will sell you Cipro which is a gnarly antibiotic that will kill pretty much everything.
I ended up using it both times I was there. I guess it’s best to avoid unless absolutely necessary though because the more you use it the more your body will become resistant to it. This last time was really hard to avoid food poisoning in some form because we had around 100 people camping for over a month with a tiny overcrowded kitchen and bathrooms that just couldn’t handle the volume of users. Soap was running out on a daily basis and that meant neither the campers nor the cooks could always wash their hands after using an extremely dirty toilet.
To avoid it the best way is to wash your hands frequently and avoid anything that’s not cooked unless it’s peelable. Bananas, for example, are pretty much always safe. Salads, tomatoes, onions, these are what usually take people down. Meat, surprisingly, is usually fine, even from street stalls.
You’ve traveled quite a bit – are there any “travel essentials” you bring to more dangerous countries?
Knives and guns. No, seriously I’d say hand sanitizer, Cipro if I can get it, a towel, a backup camera, I don’t know. I guess not too much really. Certain places require certian things. Like in Vietnam we needed rain gear to ride the bikes in the wet northern half of the country. In India – Tums! Keeping clean is kinda major. Also a smile goes a long way. I guess I’m not really going places where there is no internet or no hotels or no food or anything so it’s not that necessary to have some kind of Eagle Scout mentality.
How do people in Bolivia react to skateboarding? How do the police react to skating compared to the USA?
Well this goes for pretty much anywhere outside the US. If you get hurt it’s your own fault, so there is no problem with liability. That is huge in regard to skating. Sometimes people still trip out a bit, especially if you are on their personal property or something. Sometimes security will try to hassle you but many times they’ll take a bribe or give you another 20 minutes or something. Bribing without offending is a delicate task.
What’s the best method to continue skating a spot or bribing someone, especially without a mutual language?
Well it can be pretty tough without any mutual language. Usually most people speak a little english or someone we are with speaks the local language. In the past it’s gone back and forth between “No skating” and “Just 10 more minutes please” to “Now you have to pay a fine, come with me” to “Oh excuse me sir is it possible to pay the fine to you?” Then they say yes (hopefully) and you pass them your passport or some paper with the money inside they take it, give your passport back and leave.
Once in Mexico Rob Gonzalez I think it was, was drinking a 40oz on the street and cops came up with machine guns and watched us skate for a few. Then they came over to Rob and motioned at the beer in a way that was clear that they were not cool with it. He looked surprised and apologetic and handed it to them as if to give it up. Then the guards backed up like “we don’t want it!” and motioned for him to finish it while they watched – guns in their hands. He slammed the remaining 3/4ths of it in about 30 seconds. It was amazing.
How much does a local know of skateboarding or the skateboard industry? Do they know of any skaters or brands? Where do they get boards from?
Most of the kids have some idea for sure. They have internet there. They know about brands for sure but I’m not sure they have the super opinionated ideas about who’s cool and who’s not that a lot of people here do. I think it’s simpler down there. They are just psyched on skating.
As far as getting product it’s super hard. Shipping is super expensive to Bolivia so they get a lot of used product from visitors or other South American countries. Or Milton brings stuff back from the States when he visits. Milton Arellano is the head of the Skate Association of La Paz. He organized the whole Pura Pura build situation from the Bolivian side. He’s from here but moved back recently to take car of his families home. I met him skating in NYC a few years back and he’s kind of a mentor to the kids there. He knows all the tricks and a lot about the skateboard industry.
Bolivia is the 3rd largest producer of the coca leaf after Peru and Columbia. How is the cocaine out there?
[Laughs] well just to clear things up a little coca leaf and cocaine are not the same thing nor do they have the same effects. Upon arrival, you pretty much have to drink coca tea and chew the leaves to give yourself the energy to be able to move. It’s a necessity. That being said, the leaves do give your mouth a numb feeling and give you a spurt of energy that might be slightly thrilling at sea level. But when fighting the altitude it pretty much just makes you feel almost normal.
As far as cocaine, a lot of it is made in the central prison in La Paz. It’s kind of a black hole where people get thrown in a never come out. It has it’s own economy and growing population. Families raising children born inside. Things like that. It’s called San Pedro prison. And to address your last question, you might have to ask Fred Gall.
How does one get coca leaf there – how common is it? Does everyone chew on it?
It’s super cheap and you can buy it anywhere. Any little deli or corner store. Any bar. Any restaurant. You can buy huge bags of it for a few Boliviano’s. Approx. 7 Bolivianos = $1. Many people chew it. Pretty much all foreigners need it for the first few days. Then you can switch to the tea, which is also everywhere. It’s a bit more enjoyable in my opinion.
How did you feel upon coming back home to the states? Any realizations or perspective changes?
I felt glad to be back at sea level. And glad to not worry about what I’m eating. I think each time anyone travels to a place less developed than the States it makes you feel super appreciative of how good we have it here. At least many of us have it here. There are definitely harsh parts of the States to be from but usually you have basic amenities.
I find there’s definitely a bit of culture shock or reverse culture shock that I feel when coming home from a long trip. And just our sense – or lack there of – of convenience here. We have it so easy it’s insane. It can be a bit annoying when you see people on the street complaining about little things or some situation like that. It could be a total stranger, but it makes you realize the naivety of most of the population.
I find myself doing things the hard way just to not take them for granted. Even little menial tasks around the house like only buying produce that needs cleaning and cutting. Never the ready to eat stuff. I don’t know… that’s just one silly example but you get the idea.
”It makes you realize the naivety of most of the population”
What are some other things you do “the hard way” to appreciate not taking things for granted?
I don’t do too many things to make my life any harder but I definitely think about how nice it is to have a hot shower everyday or to be able to live a private life.
In New Delhi, India I saw people squatting by the dirtiest gutter on the side of the street with a bucket of cold water washing themselves in the morning. Many people’s lives are just lived so much more publicly. It nice to have the space to get away from that here. Or the fact that we can just use tap water, or that we can walk to the grocery store and have a plethora of choices of beautiful produce and food filling the shelves. So many people around the world don’t have those luxuries.