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

The Power of People

Months before this journey began, I set expectations for what it would be like. I couldn’t help it. My family and I spent hours talking about being in the wilderness, improving my Spanish, learning about cultures and histories and experiencing that knowledge through the realities of Bolivia and Peru. My expectations were high–I was about to embark on an elusive adventure, one my whole life had led up to, that would challenge and change me.

And those expectations were fulfilled, in many ways. But what I couldn’t have prepared myself for, and what wasn’t on the itinerary, were the people we would cross paths with, whose lives we would become a part of, if only for a little while.

It was through connecting with people that the stories of Bolivia and Peru became full of life. That I felt, at times, like a learner and not just a tourist. Because of these connections, I couldn’t turn away from injustice when it made me uncomfortable. I couldn’t hold on to the colonized mindset that my way of life is an inherently wanted one. I opened my eyes to unfamiliar beauty, cried tears of understanding, laughed so hard my stomach ached, heard wisdom in voices of the old and young, and realized just how much I don’t know. That is the power of people.

I’ve wondered, especially these past few days, how these people will stay close to me. How I will remember their faces, their stories, their voices, years from now. I wonder who has changed me the most, simply by accepting me and letting me in.

Was it Nadid, my homestay sister in Tiquipaya?

Nadid, who surprised me with her love for chismes, truth or dare, and swimming in our laundry basin. But she surprised me even more by her maturity, when she cut the spines off her family’s roses late into the night, only to levantarse early the next morning to sell them in the market. She showed me how to sing while working, how to prioritize others’ needs.  She shared her dreams and her humor with me, and her kitten named Anita.

Was it Mauricio, my guitar teacher?

Mauricio, who taught me to feel music in its raw rhythms, to share a song for the purpose of telling a story and not to chase after perfection. Who, whenever I messed up and laughed at myself, laughed too and said “para equivocarse es para ser jóven”. Somehow, he said things that didn’t just connect to the guitar in my hands, but to me and my life up until that moment.

Was it the people of Potosí?

Those who are living examples of resilience in a city stripped of its wealth by foreigners and plagued by the dangers of mining. Like Basilio, who began working in the mines at age 14, and despite his desire for another future, still works there today. Who sacrificed his safety and returned to the realm of el Tío (The Devil) each day to provide for his mother and siblings. Who never truly received what was promised by the film crew of “The Devil’s Miner”.

Like the group of widows of miners, who shared their stories of being both mamá and papá and encouraged us to study and pursue a career to help people in the future. Like the members of a child workers’ union, whose faces held a solemn sense of pride while they spoke of their jobs in the city, but were full of light while we played sharks and minnows.

Was it Kayla, my homestay sister in el Alto?

Kayla, who is kind and welcoming in person, but fuerte and passionate on the stage of Teatro Trono. Who shared her story of la Guerra del Gas, who has pride in her city and the rebellions of the past. Who prepares all meals for her family because her mother lives far away, who cares deeply about connecting with the people that come into her life. Who is a huge fan of el Juego de Tronos, just like me.

I feel tied to la tierra of Bolivia y Peru because of these people, and many others. While I’m scared of growing distant from everything that happened here, I believe that relationships have the power to tether people across borders, make differences beautiful, and unearth what we have in common. It’s impossible to truly forget a place, and all of the memories it holds, when that place is defined by the people who you feel connected to.

Here is one last piece of knowledge that my guitar teacher, Mauricio, gave to me in the form of a song:

Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto

Me dio el corazón que agita su marco

Cuando miro al fruto del cerebro humano

Cuando miro al bueno tan lejos del malo

Cuando miro al fondo de tus ojos claros


(Gracias a la Vida by Violeta Parra)