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Two Dragons welcome the sunrise with an improvised dance atop the Andes. Photo by Ryan Gasper.

Bolivia’s Many Stories

After the most abrupt transition possible (from the high dry and cold mountains of Bolivia to the hot wet jungle of Peru), we have now been in Peru for over a week. As much fun as it has been, I am going to leave the telling of our stories here to my friends while I reflect on our time in Bolivia. We have been having a blast here in Peru, but I think the general consensus is that we really left a big part of our hearts in Bolivia with the people, places, and food that meant so much to us during our months there.

Given how important Bolivia is to me and to the group, I wanted to reflect on what I learned from being there for two months. One of the very first lessons of the program was about the danger of the “single story”. For some more context, you can look up the Ted Talk about the single story (I highly recommend it), but I’ll explain the basics. The single story is the idea that people have of poor “third world” countries- the idea that it’s only mud huts, uneducated people, malnourished children, etc. The danger is that people don’t know enough to reach past that generalization to see what life is truly like there. At the beginning, we discussed the single stories we had in our own heads of Bolivia and discussed what we were going to do to move past those. I left the discussion in Sucre excited to break stereotypes and learn as many stories as possible.

After a little while, however, I caught myself falling back into the single story mold. I found myself making assumptions and simply adjusting the story I had originally thought of. Examples of this came in general ideas as well as specific events, but I’ll share one specific event that really caught my attention:

I was lucky enough to have a  baby between the ages of 6 months and 1 year be a part of my homestay family in both Tiquipaya and El Alto. In Tiquipaya, the baby was with my host mother almost 24/7. She sat on my host mom’s lap at meals, was strapped to her back when we went out, and slept right next to her. I found myself thinking, “wow, Bolivian children must be super connected to their moms since they spend the first years of their life so close to them”.  A few weeks later, in El Alto, that assumption was challenged when my host mother there would leave every day to work and my host dad would stay home with the baby. I hadn’t even realized the assumption I made until it was challenged, at which point I was upset by my own inability to stop generalizing. Despite the conscious effort I had made, I still fell into the trap of the single story.

During a reflective walk through the rainforest this week, I found myself thinking about all this and in my mind, I stumbled across a question we were asked during one of our first activities in Tiquipaya. The question was: do you think you could live like most Bolivians?

During my walk, I realized that that question is unanswerable. There is no “typical” Bolivian way of life. During our two months in Bolivia, we encountered solitary homes on mountains with nothing around for miles, we lived in the “rural, but  transitioning” city of Tiquipaya, and we passed government officials in suits with briefcases hurrying around the busy streets of La Paz. There are millions of stories that exist in Bolivia, and the truth is that we only got a taste of them. We have no idea what the life of coca growers in the Yungas is like, or how the communities in the Bolivian Amazon function. If they were asked the same question we were, they might even say that they couldn’t live as other Bolivians live. While by the end of our time there, we may have destroyed our single stories of Bolivia, we still don’t have a full picture.

Despite our fragmented picture of the whole of Bolivia, nobody can deny how much we learned there. The people we connected to there touched our hearts in a very short amount of time. We learned to greet everyone we see on the street, to feed people as much food as we have, and how to connect to the natural world in a deep, sacred way. We learned about the fighting history of Bolivia and of a  people who know how to organize themselves and pull together to fight like no other. We learned about a people who work hard and celebrate harder. Most importantly, we learned how to connect to a culture and to lives that are so profoundly different from our own. I will never forget my time in Bolivia and I know I will take everything I learned into the rest of my life, and it will help me be a better global citizen.