Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Ancient Melodies of the Future


The thing I loved the most about Bolivia was the fact that while the reach of Western culture was certainly palpable, so was the presence of indigenous Andean cultures. Conquered by the Incas in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Bolivian altiplano in which Cochabamba lies served as the breadbasket for the Inca empire. Today, most Bolivians identify as at least partially indigenous.

I tasted Andean culture in various venues. Visiting a local school [below], I saw kids perform traditional dances and act out plays organized by Foundation for Sustainable Development volunteer Liz Shriver. I didn’t need any lessons beforehand when people invited me to dance to Andean panpipes at a party. At a concert of the Cochabambino folkloric band called Los Kjarkas, I clapped to beat with the rest of the audience so hard that my hands hurt by the end of the show. The audience also sang along in Spanish and in Quechua, the language of the Incas. In a mix of European and traditional culture at the Festival de la Virgen de Urkupiña [above right], troupes from all over the country played horns and danced in costumes.

Last January, Bolivia elected their first indigenous (specifically Aymara) president, Evo Morales of the party MAS, Moviemento al Socialismo. Fulfilling a campaign promise to divert local resources towards helping the nation’s large poor population, Evo irked a few nations and impressed others when he nationalized Bolivia’s natural gas on May 1. After spending a month in the most indigenous nation in South America, I went to the least indigenous one.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Hello Cruel World

The first stop on my journey was Cochabamba, Bolivia. Cochabamba is the 3rd largest city in the poorest nation in South American. I chose Cochabamba because my friend Rebecca Kirchheimer was the second in command at the Foundation for Sustainable Development there . I lived as her roommate for the month of August and left the city for an excursion to Uyuni, where I saw enormous salt flats and to Inca ruins at Incacallacta. It certainly took my body some time to adjust to the high altitude and dry air. I got headaches and nose bleeds every day when I first arrived. As the locals do, I tried drinking Coca tea and chewed on Coca leaves to alleviate the symptoms.

Living abroad made me think about what it means to be American. After losing at a Bolivian dice game one night at Dalí, a Bolivian friend of mine beat me at poker. Losing at an American game irked me. After salsa lessons with some European friends of mine from my Spanish school, we all went bowling. At the bowling alley, I did a better job of representing my country.

At bowling, I was the only one who cheered vociferously when people got strikes and I got a higher score than anybody else. I cheered for myself too. After the game, a Swiss girl named Mirjam asked me “Why do you have so much pride for the United States?” She couldn’t piece together patriotism with the sharp criticisms of the Bush administration that I also expressed. In Europe, she associates national pride with the right-wing. “I love American superheroes, rock music,” I shared my gut response. “There are also some political traditions that I’m fond of.” I continued my list in writing the next morning on the bus to class.

On the way to Dalí after watching a documentary on the indigenous Guaraní, a Bolivian friend named Jorge once asked me “Do you think that the people who slaughtered the natives of North America went to Hell?” “I don’t believe in Hell”, I answered.