Yesterday, our group took 45 minutes to write and reflect on both our experience so far in Bolivia and the transitions we´re about to go through from our homestays in Tiquipaya to the cities of Sucre, Potosi and La Paz. I wanted to paraphrase some of what I wrote yesterday and share it with the larger Dragons community.
I want to start by saying that I´ve changed more in the one month I´ve been in Bolivia than in any month ever before. I´d talked to the group a lot about how I´ve struggled to open up emotionally to people — I hadn´t cried in front of a group of people in at least 5 years — and how I´ve come to understand social issues in both the United States and the entire world with just a bit more clarity. But the two ways in which I´ve changed most are my realizations of first, the way in which American culture and American education affects the rest of the world and second, how damn lucky I am to be able to travel around the world.
I grew up thinking that Christopher Columbus was a hero, and that he discovered America in 1492. Instead of studying the culture of the native people that he and his crew encountered, I made cardboard cutouts of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria. The pioneers moved west into Indian territory just because they needed more land, I was told. Europeans colonized other countries in the name of democracy and economic gain, I was told. I didn´t truly believe any of these things on the plane to La Paz — especially after reading the book ¨Lies My Teacher Told Me,¨ which I´d really recommend — but still, the falsehoods of my early education were firmly lodged in the back of my head, as if one tiny part of me still considered that they were true.
I´d traveled to India three times before, but each of those visits were of the family vacation variety. I´d never traveled outside the U.S. alone, and during the first couple weeks of the trip, I constantly thought of the first impressions I made on people just by virtue of being American. How do I explain the U.S. ambassador being ousted from Bolivia in 2009 due to conspiring against Evo Morales? How do I explain the racism and insensitivity spouted out by our own president every day, not to mention his comments about how he doesn´t want immigrants from ¨shithole¨ countries? I´m still trying to figure out the answers to those questions every day, and chances are, I never will.
I was very nervous the day that I met my homestay family in Tiquipaya — in fact, I was afraid. I wore a polo shirt and a pair of jeans — the nicest clothes I brought — to try and show respect, but at the same time, I felt like my clothes made me look even more like a gringo, if that were possible. Less than fifteen minutes into my first conversation with my family, my host father asked me where in the United States I was from, and after I responded, he said in Spanish, ¨Is that a part of the country that likes Trump?¨ It occurred to me how little I knew about Bolivian politics compared to the amount that my host family knew about American politics — especially after my family exclaimed example after example of Trump´s foibles in office. In that moment, I felt responsible for everything, and couldn´t do anything to change it. For all they knew, I was the embodiment of the America that I´ve tried so desperately to separate myself from.
But the other half of our conversation might have made me feel even more emotional. After talking about the itinerary of my trip up to that point, I asked whether my family had ever thought of traveling to the United States before. The answer shouldn´t have been surprising: first, they didn´t want to travel to a place run by a xenophobic president, but most importantly, they didn´t have nearly enough resources to make the trip. After doing the math, a trip to Boston and back would cost them about as much as they made in a year.
But that didn´t stop them from being cheerful. After our conversation, my host dad gave me a big pat on the back and affectionately urged me to bring my family with me the next time I came to Bolivia. My mother made a delicious chicharron for lunch — an assortment of pig, potatoes and corn — and was very grateful when I helped her with the simple task of washing the dishes after we ate. My homestay taught me, more than anything else, to appreciate the simple things in life.
One of our guest speakers emphasized that Western cultures focus on economic gains and material possessions too much — especially when compared to Andean cultures, who are extremely spiritual and constantly willing to listen to other cultures and even incorporate elements of them into their own. I´d add to that by saying that we also obsess about what we don´t have. We complain about subpar food at a restaurant. We complain about not having the luxuries of buying indoor pools and movie theaters. We complain about our education — see ¨Another Brick In The Wall¨. My family in Tiquipaya savored everything they had — theopportunities that my host brother will have at university, the roof over their heads, and even the access to clean bread that hadn´t already been swarmed by flies. Nothing was taken for granted.
So, what can we do as the lucky ones? We can repudiate our views that our American culture is superior to other cultures — the very ¨America First¨ model that our president so strongly advocates. We can unlearn all of the myths of colonialism that we learned as kids, and begin to understand the models of colonialism that still exist today. We can embrace indigenous cultures — both inside and outside of our country — and treat their history, land and spirituality with respect. But most importantly, we can understand how lucky we are to be relatively well-off Americans, and take advantage of our opportunities to travel the world and listen to what people outside our own bubble have to say. And then we can spread the word to our friends and families and can all have a better conception of what it means to be human.
In conclusion: Let´s make the effort every day to listen to and try to understand perspectives from around the world, because we´re capable of it.