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Two Dragons welcome the sunrise with an improvised dance atop the Andes. Photo by Ryan Gasper.

It Goes Round and Round

Broadcasting live through the interweb, this is my first official Andes and Amazon Yak and I´m proud to be here with you all this evening. After hunching over many pages of reflective scrawls, abundant in nonsense and somewhat prehistoric in legibility, I´ve compiled and brushed up a complete entry that is satisfactory in coherence. It is as follows:

There have been many occasions throughout this trip that have pushed me to think about gifts and sharing. I´m not so much referring to the mini ant-training center your auntie got you for Christmas, or how much trouble you had sharing it with your obnoxious cousin Mindy. Rather, a particular instance raised a more interesting question: is it appropriate to refuse gifts that are given to you by someone who you think can´t afford to give, or because you believe you are much too undeserving? Or is it better to accept and appreciate the offering and reciprocate it with a gesture of greater or equal perceived value?

One morning it went like this: with the splendid company of four professional toilet paper distributors, all female and of approximate age of 10 years, I ran my carcass up and down the street with a roll of that soft stuff in each hand hawking “papel!” to mostly dismissive drivers, proudly making a precious few successful sales to the amusement of my much more experienced managers. My two dragon pals and I were then led to the local street market where the girls bought us three clunky gringos each a cup of jello adorned with a sweet froth on top. I considered for a moment rejecting the offer. These girls worked all day selling a wide assortment of useful goods to scrounge some extra coins to support their fam and cost of studies, and had just sacrificed some of their hard-earned salary (dude, this gang paraded in the middle of traffic to make TP sales for Christ sake! I was fearing for my life) to make their guests feel welcome in the clan. But alas, I accepted with a smile and slurped up my treat. After all, who was I to deny these girls the right to be generous? As much as one may, from a purely statistical and rational viewpoint, pity the condition of these young entrepreneurs, I saw that they derived fun and friendship from the work they were doing, and in no moment did they seem to be miserable or pitiable. It would have been easy to refuse a jello cup from a ten year old girl living well below the poverty line working 7 hour days for a dollar and a half (a “child laborer,” as a rigorously objective observer might put it), but from a ten year old girl with an irresistible smile who just taught you how to sell toilet paper to bus drivers? Naaw, no way! Isn´t refusing someone the right to practice generosity an act of denial of their very humanity? I would go as far as to say yes, just as looking at people through purely objective lenses can also have the same implications (and ironically, can be incredibly biased, right?).

There is another, perhaps more important reason to accept a favor or gift from someone kind enough to give. One of the first concepts of Andean culture we were introduced to is ayni, or the tradition of reciprocity and mutual assistance. It is a pinnacle of indigenous culture in this region, and one can think about it as a cycle giving and receiving. One of our instructors has described it as being “hopelessly indebted to others.” I have come to understand, through however limited and timid participation, what a beautiful process this really is. Once you accept an offering from someone, you have willingly placed yourself in this cycle. It´s certainly a change of thought from our habits in the West of extracting things from others or paying for them with money. This cycle implies paying for kindness with more kindness, or offering favors for more favors. We often glorify acts of selflessness, but why should some people be exempt from this cycle of reciprocity simply because they believe they are too good-intentioned to receive anything in return? Rubbish, I say! Let us all be hopeless indebted to each other, perpetually bound to both the needs and the generosity of those around us.

Unforunately, in practice I am very poor in the domain of ayni, as I believe many of us in the West are. In the society I have been raised in, “independence”–or isolation, realistically–of the individual is a high value, and we are taught that first and foremost we must be preoccupied with seeking a good life for ourselves. But what good is this doing us, and the rest of the world? Would we be as wasteful of a country if we shared a washer and a dryer, a television and lawnmower, or a microwave in junction with our next door neighbors? It’s rather crazy that we all must have our own big and wasteful things just so as to avoid dependence on others. Would we be as lonely if we gave ruthlessly and generously to our neighbors and friends, knowing that we are trapping ourselves in a cycle of reciprocity and gratitude from which we should never want to escape? Would we be as bitter if we recognized the humanity in every face we lay eyes upon, thus affirming our hopeless interdependence with every last human creature, allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed and scared and fascinated by the constant realization that every face in traffic, every back in the check out line, every passing body on the sidewalk wearing a head shrouded in shades tucked into a pair of shoulders is living the same intricate and beautiful and miserable human life that we all do? I don’t mean to say that the U.S. as a whole is lost and lonely and irreparably flawed–but something awfully close to that. One of the most inspiring things on this trip has been being able to witness Andean ideas of reciprocity, of home life and raising children, of public interaction and cultural pride, and understanding that our Western idea of a “rich” country as the U.S. and a “poor” country as Bolivia could actually quite well be the other way around.

So the point is, after a long jello-fueled adventure of meandering the massive market with three plastic bags dangling irresistably from each of my outstretched hands, calling out “bolsa negra!” a million-odd times to no one in particular, pegged to our gang of sometimes up to 10 chatty girls engaged in the same business and shamelessly critiquing our technique, attracting anything from confounded glares to amused laughter from onlooking vendors to which I would respond, with a clowny gesture and dorky smile, with a gracious offer of my specialty product, I bought 16 ice creams to be distributed among my ruthless clan–which, of course, wasn’t enough, so I went and bought 8 more. It wasn’t an act of pity or charity, it was a gesture of gratitude to our hosts for having shared their daily experience with some bulky foreigners that for some reason were curious enough to be brought along on their entrepreneurial ride. It was for sacrificing a few coins for the sake of welcoming us sweetly and urging us on with eager smiles. Giving in even small ways is more than just a way to express thanks–it’s fun and unifying, affirming of your interdependence with those you meet, and most importantly, it pushes you into a cycle that if you are smart, you will never give up.