The hours had stacked up like plastic cups; countless hours had passed waiting in the airport after the ten-hour delay, and ten hours in the plane itself, during which I practiced my broken Spanish in my head. My brain would not stop having conversations with itself. I had just wished that my inner Latin American monologue would just quiet down before I exploded. I had little sense of what to expect once I touched the ground, but my supercharged nerves blasted me through much of my 301 Spanish Verbs book as I obsessively tried to get some grip on the bits and pieces of the language I was learning. The purpose of the trip was a full Spanish immersion with a family introduced to me through my Spanish teacher. The situation at customs was messy, with the Bolivian authorities asking me for a parent signature I didn’t have, despite my passport and visa, everything the consulate told me to bring. I was both terrified and exhausted. But when I finally was allowed to meet my host family, I was greeted by some of the most compassionate and generous people I have ever met, who by some wonder proceeded to settle the matter.
After unpacking my bags in Cochabamba—and only the next day—my host mother took my host brother, host sister and me on a trip to the southwestern regions of Bolivia, determined to show me the varying sides of culture in the nation self-dubbed “Plurinational.” We spent a good chunk of my trip in this region. These areas are composed of highlands, extremely cold temperatures, and houses the world’s largest salt flat. It is also the poorest region in one of the poorest countries in South America. In the southwestern “departments,” 82% of the rural population and 54% of the urban population lives under the poverty line. I saw many implications of poverty and inequality when I was there. However, I saw a force in this place far more tremendous than the power of lacking “things.” This force was hope.
I saw it everywhere. At first I couldn’t distinguish between hope and borderline hyper-nationalism. Whenever people talked about their country, it was like they were reading directly from a travel brochure. But upon traveling into the south, I came to see this sentimentality in a different light. Near Sucre, one of the two de facto capitals of the nation, we visited an old indigenous town in the hills called Tarabuco. Indeed, I saw more of what I had seen in the big cities: greasy rags for clothes; toes caked with dirt poking out of flimsy leather sandals in the piercing cold; indigenous people with strained, wrinkled faces staggering with the weight on their backs, the contents of which, for all I know, could have made up the bulk of their possessions. But in this town, famous for its markets, its status as a cultural center, and its annual festival of “Pujllay,” there were more powerful images that would stick with me. One was the image of an exuberant young female entrepreneur dancing gracefully in the restaurant she hoped would one day become a local hit. Others were the vivid colors of the handmade bags, clothes, hats, and little llama figurines blending in with the flamboyant costumes on the jovial Tarabuco locals. And then there were the locals themselves, under whose wrinkled, sometimes tense faces would emerge a genuine twinkle of the eye, or a profound look of knowing. But part of me wasn’t satisfied. The landscape was brown, but it seemed like the people knew what they had to do to develop their nation, and the nation knew what it had to be to develop itself.
Continuing our week-long trip, we traveled further southwest by bus, along with many colorful strangers. The bus was alive with the din of small talk and the smacking sounds of three-dozen mouths chewing coca leaves, some of which were our own. The coca phenomenon is a very interesting part of Bolivian culture and politics, as it makes for a huge part of agriculture in the nation, a centuries-old cultural icon, and an international issue. For me, beyond the wild appeal of doing something legally in another country that wasn’t legal in my home country, there came the startling revelation that raw coca is not a drug. The sale of coca is a very separate issue from cocaine production, a process that requires enough different hazardous chemicals to make a brain surgeon wince. Most Bolivians, as my host family informed me, swear by coca as a method of curing altitude sickness, fever, stomach viruses, and other assorted maladies. However, it continues to be a controversy overseas and across borders.
Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, wishes to utilize the funny little leaf as a major export, in hopes of boosting Bolivia’s own economy and development. He has repeatedly tried and failed to encourage other countries to legalize the plant. The issue came to a head when the DEA began a campaign to eradicate coca in the Chapare. A controversial undertaking, it has caused a messy conflict between the coca farmers, or “cocaleros,” the DEA and the Bolivian government. As I chewed on the earthy, somewhat bitter leaf, I realized the futility of our government’s ban on the plant. Rather, legalization of the leaf and cracking down on illicit drug production makes more sense from an economic and diplomatic standpoint, helping Bolivia’s development and rebuilding strained ties on the issue.
Arriving in the colonial-age city of Potosí, capital of the department of Potosí in the southwest, I was agape with what I saw. It was an assault on most of my senses. In the bus station, my nose stung with the fumes of diesel fuel, and my ears were ringing with the roaring of engines and the lonely, drawn-out calls of barkers for bus rides to some other destination in the vast highlands. The city, tucked away in this remote corner of the impossibly high plateau, was an enormous expanse of bumpy roads and brittle-looking houses of brick. The centerpiece, however, was the gargantuan mountain, the Cerro Rico (“rich mountain”), rising above the dusty carpet of buildings. The city and the mountain themselves were once characters in a tale of false generosity, deception, and treachery. When the Spanish colonized western South America, the minerals and silver discovered in the mountain were so abundant, it was said that a bridge of silver could be built across the Atlantic to Spain, and the Spanish would still have enough silver and minerals to fuel their wealth. The mountain soon made Potosí an incredibly wealthy town, and the town became an important economic outpost for the Spanish Empire. But the wealth of the town was eventually exhausted, bypassing the surrounding land for the central power across the ocean. By the time the Spanish were gone and Bolivia was autonomous, Potosí was left a poor mining town.
Every day, an estimated 26,000 miners work in the tunnels of Cerro Rico. We suited up in mining gear, and got a tour down one of the countless tunnels that pierce the inside of the mountain. Some mysticism surrounds the mines, and miners believe that a spirit called “Tío”—something akin to the traditional Devil—controls the mines. At a shrine dedicated to Tío, we met a miner named Don Pablo. He was a heavy-set man with a jolly personality, whose wide smile shone under the grime of that day’s work. He paid his respects to Tío, told us about his day-to-day work, and enthusiastically chatted about where the newest mineral veins were. We gave him a bottle of soda, and he continued on his way outside. Almost 26,000 other miners a day, like Don Pablo, who slip into flimsy mining gear and toil among the clatter of heavy tools against the remaining reserves of wealth in the Cerro Rico, face a similar fate. After continuously breathing in the natural gases and airborne particles from the mountain, most miners die after ten years at work. It was a sad thought. In this town where endless wealth was juxtaposed with crippling poverty, I came to understand how and when the nation’s growth was stunted.
Potosí is the perfect illustration of the effects of imperialism and exploitation. Long ago, the Western powers swept through, found fortune, put the people to work, and left Bolivia a tired nation. As the landlocked country looks to develop, it will seek any means of advancing the economy, but finds its legitimacy questioned by more powerful countries. In turn, it seeks various ways of proving its legitimacy. I now understand why the authorities wanted my parents’ signature to enter the country, why coca is such a pressing issue, and what this “hyper-nationalism” meant. Bolivia’s attempts to secure development may often seem desperate, but they also must be understood. It is the nation’s deepest desire to be understood, culturally and politically. While it seeks development, the people keep a tight grip on their senses of security and hope. As we stand on the summit of the mountain of development, we must try to understand those nations making their way up. And if we support the development of nations like Bolivia, we will see the dust swept off the streets and healthier, more balanced lives for people around the world.