Final Projects: Peter Barkey-Bircann

Vacant Spaces & Defense Systems: Cochabamba, Bolivia

Peter’s photo essay draws his reflections on conversations with his family, his walks through the city, and the work of Brazilian anthropologist Teresa Caldeira, and her analysis of urban space, fear of crime and the architecture of fortified enclaves.

From his essay:

Camera in tow, I skipped two steps on the staircase as I leapt towards the first floor from the confines of my (temporary) room. I had just been picked up by my host family, a tightly-knit retiree couple with two domestic dogs, a soon-to-be domesticated street dog, and three kids in their twenties. I was to be staying nightly in this house for three weeks. After enduring a night of flights, which consisted of squirming in between two strangers with the same goal of suspending consciousness to expedite the lengthy process of traveling, the excitement of being in a foreign house with foreign manners and foreign ideas had kept my exhaustion at bay. My saliva was formed by little shards of coca leaf, prescribed by Ligia (my host mother) in order to fend away any sign of altitude sickness or stomach pain that comes with living at an altitude of 2,558 meters above sea level. I needed to take a walk. I didn’t want to begin to think about unpacking. I wanted to explore the neighborhood surrounding the house, and it was around 5:00 pm, the light beginning to dim slightly. I began to walk towards the door.

As soon as my hand touched the door knob, I felt a firm grasp on my shoulder. It was Rodolfo (my host father). I turned around to a wrinkled face that had its lips momentarily twisted in a disgusted state of confusion. Without hesitation, Rodolfo pointed towards my black camera (an expensive looking combination of buttons, glass, an interchangeable lens, and a cracked screen) and asks me if I wanted to get robbed as soon as I arrived. He immediately instructed me not to bring my camera out, even in the day-lit neighborhood. Rodolfo tells me that people will flank me in motorcycles as I walk on the sidewalk, hit me in the head with a small stick, and before I know it, what I have harnessed on my shoulder will be kilometers away in the hands of two ladrones. I listened to his instructions precisely (the five hours of experience that I had in Cochabamba paled in comparison to his sixty-seven years).


A system of barbed wires, spikes, and chains that lay on top of a cement wall surrounding a residential area in a neighborhood in the southern province of Cochabamba, Bolivia. This wall had a combination of the defense mechanisms that I had only previously seen in penitentiaries in the United States.

As I walked back up the stairs leading towards my room, I glanced at my rubicund face reflecting in the window. I was in a brief state of confusion. My periphery vision had deceived me. I was in an upper-class neighborhood that seemed safe, with kids swinging in the playground and elderly people strolling in the park that was adjacent to my house. The only thing that had stuck out to me as odd were the walls surrounding each of the houses, lining the block. They had an intricate system of defense mechanisms, ranging from broken glass to barbed wire, as photographed above. From that moment on, almost every decision I made going out of the walls of my house was influenced by fear.

The entryway to my house, which was jointly connected to two other houses with different families. There are two locking systems in the gate, as well as spikes that extend the wall making it about 12 feet tall. After a week, my family had given me a key, which opened up one lock, while other times I had to make use of the bell system.

An unfinished building on the intersection of Av Heroinas y Av Ayacucho, a usually vibrant area of the downtown with markets, electronic stores, and banks on the street-level.

A brick wall surrounding another house in my area. Shards of glass line the top of the wall, something that I had not seen before coming to Bolivia.
…I think back to Rodolfo’s moment of salvation for my camera and I. I think of the amount of times I had been walking in a populated street, completely safe, but still having a sense of paranoia about every movement around me. I think of the times I spent on the Micro bus with one of my sweaty hands gripping my wallet in my front pocket while the other was pressed on the front zipper of my backpack, even though there was a three-year-old and her mother sitting in front of me. I think of the multitude of taxi drivers that I had waved away because they did not have a miniature radio movil sign on their door. I think about to my meeting with in a travel clinic, where I was prescribed three different vaccinations. I think of my internal fear for my gastrointestinal system, and not brushing my teeth with sink water. How does the culture of fear affect Rodolfo and Ligia’s daily existence? I begin to wonder if this is how they feel when they walk around. Towards the end of a sobremesa one night I ask Ligia if she feels safe when she walks around. She replies and says that she feels safe at some points, in danger in some parts of the city and that it depends on the time of day.
A small playground in a residential area where I had spent time doing ethnographic research observing movements in the park. It was almost always empty, barring one or two kids playing by themselves.

… I have not had enough time in the city to come to a certifiable conclusion about how people interact with these defense systems, and if they are connected to the culture of fear in part formed by the immense defense systems protecting suburban dwellers. I want to simply bring this question to a discussion. I can feel the culture of fear, but I want to know how it is explained through the urban phenomenon of vacant spaces and defense systems. This is a question that could be important to urban development. I wish I had more evidence to explore this question, but I will leave that for another anthropological study that can spend months in Cochabamba. As I leave the city of Cochabamba, I feel hopeful, because I am finally certain that anthropology as a discipline is tangible. I felt a fear that I had read about before. I step onto the bus that sets me on my trajectory back home. I don’t feel like a vacant space. This culture of fear is relevant in politics and economics, language and culture, fables and food, and most importantly, to the participant.

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