A tale of two countries

Alex Bare
Catching some views from the Cristo de la Concordia.

Bolivia is not even close to being a popular study abroad location for American students. You will seldom see it advertised at study abroad fairs (although the number of programs for American students recently increased from one to two). Rarer yet will you hear from actual alumni of such a program.

That being said, the hours since I touched down at the small airport in Cochabamba have fulfilled my every expectation and more. Perhaps the best way to start this all off is by telling a short tale about Bolivia, or rather, a pair of stories. A pair that will give a little insight into Bolivia’s obscure world. To understand Bolivia and my experiences here, one must first try understanding the people and story of this country. I can think of no better way to tell the story of this country than through the way two of the first Bolivians I met told me it.

The first was named René.

Perhaps 60 years old, I met her on a six-hour sleepless flight from Miami to La Paz. René lives in New York City nowadays but was once upon a time a paceña––a resident of the capitol city La Paz. We talked for two hours about everything from our childhoods to religion (yes, politics and religion are definitely not “off-limits” discussion topics). She talked about how she used to be a downhill skier in her youth at the Chacaltaya Resort––Bolivia’s only ski resort––although she lamented climate change’s impact on the snow. She repainted her manicured nails mid-flight and quickly shifted subjects. Her family had once owned a grand farm, until the government reapportioned land to indigenous campesinos in the 50s (she was quick to add that they didn’t even know how to farm). She talked at length about how much her Catholic faith meant to her. How she was travelling to La Paz for her mother’s funeral. She also talked about her resentment for people who enter the United States illegally, how Catholicism is the only true religion, and how the indigenous people worship illegitimate nature gods. And again, how she wished she could still ski the snowcapped mountains at Chacaltaya. When we parted ways at customs, she said, “God bless you. I’ll be praying for you.”

Plaza Quintanilla at rush hour. The colorful bus is called a “micro” and 2 Bolivianos (30 cents) will get you anywhere in the city.
Plaza Quintanilla at rush hour. The colorful bus is called a “micro” and 2 Bolivianos (30 cents) will get you anywhere in the city.

My second encounter came on my first night in Bolivia at a program-sponsored event.

His name was Calixto Quispe and he introduced himself as an indigenous Aymara priest, who was also ordained by the Catholic Church. The Aymara are one of the 30+ indigenous groups and languages, all of which are recognized under the Bolivian constitution as official languages. The president too is Aymara and practices traditional religion. The ceremony began with a prayer to Pachamama, who the Aymara regard as the creator of Earth and of all that is in the Earth and sky. Quispe donned western style clothing alongside a woven hat typical of Aymaras and a ceremonial bag and spoke about the syncretism of Catholicism and traditional religion. How he believes both function together as one. How humans destroy and hurt Pachamama in today’s world. We then burned coca leaves as an offering to Pachamama and reached our hands to the flames to take in their energy.

I can never forget passing through Bolivian customs to the sight of people in indigenous dress and the haunting Andina flute harmony playing over airport loudspeakers. Nor can I forget the ride from the airport to the orientation hotel in a 1970s Soviet-style car during morning rush hour. This is a country of extremes, of what capitalist society refers to as the “haves” and “have-nots.” It is also a nation richer in culture and biodiversity than almost anywhere in Latin America and indeed, the world. Bolivians, within their own country, reside worlds apart. The contrast I see every day here has been surreal. Walking down the street in Cochabamba, there is a vibrant mix of men in business suits and Quechua women donning bright pollera dresses common among Andean indigenous groups. Perhaps most tragically, I all too often see Quechua and Aymara children as young as three begging outside supermarkets and inside bars for a few Bolivianos while BMWs and Hummer limos roll by. Almost nowhere in the world is the gap between material wealth and poverty so stark.

Art reflecting indigenous culture on a wall in the Villa Coronilla neighborhood.
Art reflecting indigenous culture on a wall in the Villa Coronilla neighborhood.

So as I sit here in the hotel courtyard, I know I will not be able to sleep for a while longer wondering what tomorrow holds. Tomorrow, I’ll have moved in with my host family, a single mother with five children. It’s sure to be una aventura. In conclusion, Bolivia is an absolute marvel, everyone should come, and when you do, don’t buy ANYTHING made with unfiltered water. I learned the hard way.

P.S. – Since I know Mrs. McGee’s Spanish classes are going to be following my blog from back home in Eldridge, Iowa (love you all), here’s my vocab word of the week. I’ll try to add one of these every week with an accompanying story. : )

WoW: Word of the Week

Factura: noun

  1. Generally, this word refers to an invoice or utility bill, but…
  2. In Bolivia and many other countries, it means “receipt”

Why this is important…

SO the first time I went to a supermarket in Bolivia was a total mess. Hipermaxi, or Bolivia’s answer to Walmart, doesn’t use barcodes so cashiers have to type the number of EVERY product. Once the cashier finished typing, she asked “y su nombre y numero de NIT?,” which in the moment sounded a lot more like “y su nombre, Dani?” As it turns out, Bolivia and several other Latin American countries require you to give your name and NIT (tax identification number) so taxes can be calculated by the government. I’ve found saying “Alex, sin NIT” (pronounced “neat”) suffices in most cases.

After my purchase, I promptly dropped a giant bottle of conditioner on the floor (nice), which splattered all over the market floor. Definitely made a splash on my second night in the country. In the meantime, enjoy this awesome view from the mountains outside Cocha. ¡chau chau!


My ride from the airport to the orientation week was a wild one. Stop lights serve a more decorative purpose in Bolivia.

 

*Alex Bare is studying International Relations and minoring in Spanish at the University of Iowa. The Walcott, Iowa, native is spending his semester in Bolivia, with a focus on Multiculturalism, Globalization and Social Change

Student blog entries posted to this International Accents page may not reflect the opinions and recommendations of UI Study Abroad and International Programs.  The blog is intended to give students a forum for free expression of thoughts and experiences abroad in a respectful space.

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