If you look up the definition of progress in the dictionary, Merriam-Webster will tell you it means “forward or onward movement toward a destination”. Most people in the West would use an even stronger definition when talking about individual or national progress. They might define progress as change for the better, or striving for continued improvement in the hopes of eventually reaching some glorified ideal. This definition, though, is inherently problematic: it devalues cultures that aren’t our own; it devalues our differences; it tells us that we all have to have one understanding of greatness, and that if we don’t match up with that ideal we are weird, or even worse that we are failing in our pursuit of meaning in life. Development has similar problems in its connotations and implications of some perfect western ideal. Development includes the idea that western countries have an obligation to help other countries, but not just to help them, to help them become more like us – the perfect people (or at least the places that see themselves as being much closer to perfect).
Perhaps, then, we must find ourselves a new definition of progress and development, a new measure, a new goal that might actually have in mind the people who are theoretically being helped. Luckily for me, I don’t even have to find a new definition – George Santayana has already defined progress in a much less demeaning way. Just a couple of sentences above his famous line “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” he utters a profound definition. “Progress” he states, “far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness”. What a mind bending idea! What if we measured progress in retention? In languages learned, cultures celebrated, potato varieties available. I am not suggesting that we completely leave behind nitty gritty ideals of reducing malaria or making sanitation facilities available or improving roads, simply that these practical means of assistance must also be met with the impractical but ever important appreciation of cultures completely different than traditionally western imposed culture.
As my three months in Bolivia and Peru come to a close, how could I possibly describe these places I have lived as “undeveloped” or “not progressing”? Maybe my homestay family in Paru Paru didn’t have a tile floor in their kitchen, but they had hard packed earth that did the job (and soaked up spills without staining…), and they filled the room with love and laughter every day. What’s more, their walls were covered in photos of homestay students and their families, who they remembered fondly and prayed for every Sunday. Instead of cold tile, their kitchen was filled with the warmth of earth made ovens and love. Siwarkenti, our guide through Ausangate, did not attend a western university, but he knew more about the world around him and above him than anyone I think I have ever met.
As I remember moving through these places and prepare to come home, I realize I am the one who really has developing to do. I have only scratched the surface of understanding myself. I am not as loving as my Paru Paru family, or anywhere near as aware as Siwarkenti, but I can hope to learn from them and embody the qualities they inspire within me. The best way I can think to progress is not just to continue to learn, to question, to explore the world around me, but also to make sure that I retain all the lessons I have been taught in my time in South America.