The next morning I was up at seven in the luxurious but frigid penthouse apartment where we were staying. We went to a hostel in the city center to eat with some of our other gringo colleagues before heading off to Carmen Pampa. The center of La Paz, I discovered, is a disorganized maze of cars, taxis, minibuses, diesel smoke, and cholita street vendors that makes Manhattan look like Annville. I still don’t know how I managed to get around without having my suitcase run over.
We made our way to Villa Fátima, the neighborhood where all buses bound for the Yungas start their journey. Aft
er buying our bus tickets, my colleague and I went to the market next to the bus company’s office to buy vegetables and other necessities. This was my first visit to a Bolivian street market, and it certainly was a sight. One can buy all sorts of things in one of these markets; a vegetable seller will be next to a stand selling toothpaste and deodorant, which will be across the street from a DVD seller. The movie peddlers in particular make no secret of the fact that their merchandise is bootlegged; the covers are merely photocopied and placed in plastic sleeves, and the discs are almost all white DVD-RWs with the name of the movie written in sharpie. These DVDs usually sell for 5 Bolivianos, or roughly 70 US cents—try renting a movie in the United States for that price.
After buying vegetables, toothpaste and pirated DVD titles we had never heard of, we boarded our quintessentially Bolivian bus. It hardly looked different from the run-down buses that operate within the city—a fairly small, basic and cramped affair with a decal of Che Guevara in one window and a sticker of a Georgia Bulldog in another. Maybe I should have been as uncomfortable with my ride as I was the day before with the buses in the Zona Sur, but since I was with several colleagues I felt considerably more at ease.
The ride from La Paz to Coroico was considerably less stressful than I had imagined given the great height from which we descended and the variety of climate zones covered. First we climbed out of La Paz to a frigid high point known as La Cumbre, and from there we went down a long, winding road that snaked its way along the sides of mountains in a slow and somewhat dizzying descent from the cold, dry mountains into the humid Yungas below. (In case anyone is wondering, we did not take the world-famous “Death Road;” since 2006, most buses take a new and much safer route that actually has pavement and guardrails throughout most of its trajectory.) The trip took about three hours and offered some incredible landscapes: first the rugged expanse of the Altiplano, then the rocky, ice-covered slopes of the Cordillera Real, then deep valleys that became ever greener until we arrived in the lush Yungas cloudforest.
Yet what struck me the most about the scenery was not the natural beauty but rather the political graffiti along the road. Particularly in the cordillera, where the rocky cliffs offer a perfect canvas, political advertisements are absolutely ubiquitous. Every single one that I saw was from the 2009 election and manifested enthusiastic support for the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), the ruling socialist, pro-indigenous, and anti-imperialist party of President Evo Morales. Far from being messy, hastily drawn American-style graffiti, some of them were quite elaborate. “EVO se QUEDA” (Evo is staying!), they all exclaimed, or “EVO CUMPLE” (Evo keeps his promises.) I was particularly impressed with one house which was completely painted with pro-Evo slogans and a stylized Wiphala, the Aymara flag that under the new Bolivian constitution has become an official state symbol. Some day before I die, I have to visit that house.
In the early afternoon we arrived in Coroico, a small town clinging to the side of the Cerro Uchumachi which bills itself as the “first tourist municipality in Bolivia” although apparently many of the locals would like to have nothing to do with tourism. After hauling my suitcase up a seemingly never-ending set of stairs from the bus terminal to the central plaza and grabbing lunch at a pizza restaurant, my two gringo colleagues and I took a taxi from Coroico to Carmen Pampa. The road to Carmen Pampa was nothing more than a rocky dirt path, hardly wide enough for two cars to pass each other, with a wall of forested mountain on one side and a steep drop on the other for much of its course. When going around particularly sharp curves in the road, drivers honk to announce their presence; the rule seems to be that he who honks first has the right of way. It sounds scary, but it’s really not; the drop from the side of the road isn’t too awfully frightening, and drivers generally take it fairly slowly. After about a half hour we turned off the main road onto another dirt lane that snaked its way down the hill to the university.
Arriving in Carmen Pampa, I didn’t feel extremely welcome at first. The surroundings here, like in La Paz, seemed bleak. All of the university’s buildings looked the same—hollow brick walls, concrete floors, tin roofs, and bars on many of the windows. Even the Volunteer House, the former hacienda mansion which was to be my home for the next five months, seemed Spartan, dated and not in the best state of repair. The residents of the town, for the most part, lived in adobe brick houses with tin roofs and doors that in the US would be suitable only for garages. Stray dogs roamed the campus and the dirt roads, eating out of trash cans. At first, many of the people in the community struck me as a bit cold. When I first arrived, the internet was down, so I could not get in contact with my fiancée or my family to let them know I had arrived safely in Carmen Pampa. In short, during my first day or two in the community, I felt somewhat apprehensive and alone.
I knew to expect this, however, and I didn’t have to wait long for it to begin to change. Several days after I arrived, a large group of leaders arrived from Caritas, the Bolivian equivalent of Catholic Charities in the US, to hold their yearly meeting. At the end of their three-day conference, they held a culture night in which every local Caritas chapter presented a dance or a song. I can’t say precisely why it helped me feel more accepted, but it did. Perhaps it was the fascination of finally seeing in person the Bolivian dances I had read so much about for years. Maybe it was just how fascinating some of them were, specifically the Saya Afroboliviana, an infectiously rhythmic dance put on by a group of Afrobolivian students from the local high school and the UAC. (In spite of the excruciatingly slow internet connection I’ve managed to upload a clip I took of this dance to YouTube:
Yet I think it also had something to do with a small detail I saw in one of the dances. The Caritas group from the small mining town of Coro Coro put on a very simple dance accompanied by lovely music from the zampoña, the ubiquitous Andean pan pipe. I couldn’t help noticing one particular young woman in the group who looked very…well, white. From my perch on the hill above the basketball court, she could easily have been of full-blooded Spanish descent or even a Pennsylvania Dutch woman from Annville. Since my arrival I had been acutely aware of my own whiteness in a place with a majority indigenous population, a society deeply divided along racial and class lines, and a recent history of resentment at gringo intrusion. Yet this woman seemed entirely accepted and at ease, wearing a pollera and going through the steps of an indigenous dance alongside her darker-skinned friends. It may have been a somewhat superficial observation on my part, but it still moved me to see a light-skinned woman, possibly of foreign birth or the descendent of the Spanish conquerors, accepted and participating in an explicitly indigenous tradition. That this coexistence had occurred in the context of a Catholic organization almost made me think about becoming Catholic.
Not quite, though.
Several days later, Hugh, the gringo vice-director of the university, took me on a hike through some of the hills surrounding Carmen Pampa. I think he does this with every new volunteer just to break him or her in, since for most of the hike, the only sound I could hear was of me gasping for air. We stopped in Chovacollo, a tiny community across the valley from Carmen Pampa, to visit the parents of one of Hugh’s godsons. (Yes, he has more than one godson here. He’s been in the Yungas for over ten years.) This family could hardly be described as having vast economic resources at their disposal; their house had only two rooms, one upstairs and one downstairs, connected by a wooden ladder. Yet they quickly invited us in, without giving me any “who is this strange gringo” stares, and offered us a bag of deliciously fresh mandarins. They didn’t seem too awfully shy about talking with me, although I’ll overlook the fact that they occasionally spoke Aymara to each other as an inspiring preservation of a rich linguistic tradition and assume that they weren’t saying snarky things about me to each other in a language I don’t understand. Given that I was there with their compadre, perhaps their hospitality shouldn’t have surprised me, but it still made me feel more at ease about being here.
Thus, by the end of my first week in Bolivia, being here no longer felt like living in the developing or “third” world. It just felt like life. I could not think of my new neighbors, students and colleagues as “poor,” but merely as “humble;” their lives seemed to lack the oppression and hopelessness that go along with true and complete poverty. I could feel a very real and palpable sense of dignity, the spirit of a people who, in spite of their limited means, are proud of their culture, their traditions, and their way of life.