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

What Does it Mean to Live Well?

From Cochabamba to Torotoro is only 148 kilometers, but it is a grueling six-hour ride.  Most of the roads are made of cobblestones, which are set down by hand— first by laying out three to six parallel lines of stone and then by filling the remaining area in a jigsaw of rock.  As we get close to the national park, the cobblestones disappear into badly-maintained dirt roads littered with huge boulders fallen from the crumbly cliffs which tower over the road.  It is rainy season and, consequently, our caravan has to ford dozens of swollen streams and rivers.

The road winds along the broad River Caine, in flood now due to the rain.  On the other side are cliffs of crumbly sandstone, clay, and mud.  It seems impossible that any road built here will last long in this unstable geologic area and sure enough, the big bulldozers and machines seemingly work each day simply to remove the boulders deposited overnight on the road.  Huge concrete drainage tubes are washed away in the flood and a bulldozer is left overturned on the steep side of the road.

A big, grinning Evo Morales, the current president of Bolivia, greets us from a billboard near the construction machines, which declares his delight with the ongoing construction to improve the road.  Evo has presided over a binge of infrastructure projects, which partly explains his popularity up until a year ago even while he works by hook or by crook to permanently stay in power.  Another explanation for his popularity is that Evo is Bolivia’s first indigenous president.  That symbolic first, along with some of his policies, have helped to uplift the indigenous majority population of this mountainous, landlocked country of some ten million people.

Since the arrival of the Spanish to the Andean region in 1532, the indigenous people have faced significant cultural, political, and economic discrimination.  In the 16th and 17th centuries Spanish hacienda owners forced their indigenous female servants to wear Andalusian skirts and petticoats, called a pollera.  Today indigenous women continue to wear the pollera— as well as the British derby and bowler hat called a borsalino, and a silky shawl known as a manta— as symbols of indigenous pride.  Just a decade or two ago it was still common in parts of the country to ban cholitas (indigenous women in traditional dress) from riding public buses.

Evo is a self-proclaimed socialist, and he has indeed created broad social welfare programs, supported indigenous rights, and nationalized oil, gas, mining and some other industries.  By one measure, rates of extreme poverty have dropped from 38 percent in 2005 to 21 percent in 2012.  But, while consistently making socialist, anti-American, and anti-globalization statements, Evo has also promoted economic growth, partly by green-lighting many resource extraction and infrastructural projects.  Since Evo Morales was elected in 2005, Bolivia has experienced sustained economic growth rates above four percent.  At times, including now, Bolivia has been South America’s fastest growing economy.  Consequently Evo’s policies are an unusual mix in Latin America, where far left and far right politics don’t often mix or moderate.

We arrive late to the small town of Torotoro to begin a four-day trek into the backcountry of the national park.  We are guided by a slight, sixty-eight year old man named Don Mario.  He powers along the rocky, muddy single-track trails while our group huffs and puffs behind him in the thin air at 3,000 meters above sea level.

On the first day, we remove our shoes and socks to ford a small, flooded river.  But by the fourth day we are trekking through pools and streams while wearing our shoes and socks.  Many of the students have never backpacked, hiked, or camped before.  At first they fumble through erecting the Black Diamond Megamid tents, packing and unpacking the equipment, backcountry cooking and cleaning, and digging cat-holes in which to poop.  But, day by day, students work to complete the necessary tasks (even the hard and dirty ones) to support one another and the group to function, slowly evolving into the ideal of a “well-oiled machine”.

On the second day, we hike up into the highlands, gaining about a thousand meters of altitude on steep trails.  The clouds blow by overhead and the weather waffles from sunny and hot to windy, dark, and rainy.  As we get higher we see small, isolated communities and houses tucked away in the green valleys amongst the rippling peaks.  The only way in and out is by walking; there aren’t any roads, so the houses are built with locally-found materials like adobe, rock, and thatch.  I don’t see many manufactured goods.

Some herders with goats, sheep, or cows pass us on the trails and we call out a buen dia or buenas tardes.  We hire a local man to carry a full-sized propane tank in an aguayo, a colorful Bolivian piece of cloth that serves as a multipurpose backpack, infant-carrier, and ground set-piece for Andean Cosmovision ceremonies to Pachamama, the earth mother.  We later hire him and his burritos (small donkeys) to haul group and kitchen gear to meet us at the bottom of a slot canyon.

On the third day, we traverse a high ridge and then descend down a slanted mesa.  We explore a pre-Incan fortress built long ago in the cliffs and see dinosaur footprints preserved in stone millions of years ago.  We swim in sliderock pools and get baked by the high-altitude equatorial sun.

Each afternoon massive thunderstorms form all around us and by dusk they roll in, darkening the sky.  It pours every night for hours while booms of thunder and flashes of lightening fall all around our tents.  The students get better at making their tents “bomber” to withstand the tormentas and volunteering for tasks and organizing their group.  We don’t see anyone else for four days other than the occasional herder or campesino (farmer).

Some days Don Mario doesn’t hike with anything except a poncho tied around his waist.  He can walk fifteen kilometers without any food, and he doesn’t carry water.  A few times a day I see him drop into pushup position to drink directly from the small pools or rain-fed streams.  Meanwhile we double SteriPen our water, just to be sure it’s completely sterilized.

On the fourth day we descend through a slot canyon.  It’s semi-technical hiking: we wade through fast-rushing canyon streams, descend by carabiners and rope down large boulders, and cut our own trail through steep, muddy ascents and descents.  I watch the students grow in confidence as they successfully navigate each new challenge.  Occasionally, I glimpse a smile as the students help support and encourage one another.  I think that they never thought they would be doing anything like this is their lives, much less doing it so well.

We break for lunch at some clear pools.  After gorging, the students lay out on the sun-warmed rocks to chat or sunbathe.  Two students slide down natural rock slides.  Others apply and re-apply sunscreen, having learned their lesson that high-altitude equatorial sun cannot be withstood by the fair-skinned even by sheer force of will.

We climb out of the canyon in the mid-afternoon into a narrow cut halfway up a cliff.  We see rock paintings created thousands of year ago.  We see a wasp paralyze a spider, inject its eggs in it, and drag it into its lair.  We eat cactus fruit and get the maddening tiny spines embedded in our fingers.  A student hits the top of her head on the low rock wall above us and cries.  As we near the end of the trek, another student takes his last wilderness poop.

It is with a feeling of great accomplishment that we rendezvous with our drivers.  We pile into the two vehicles, dirty, wet, exhausted, but triumphant.  And, immediately, I begin to dread the bumpy six-hour ride back to Cochabamba at an average speed of some twenty kilometers an hour.  At times like this I miss the straight, gleaming tarmac roads in the United States on which you can cruise, lost in thought, at seventy-five miles per hour.

But then I wonder if there should be a better-built road here and what consequences it would bring.  It’d bring more growth, more consumer goods, more money, more visitors.  But would it actually improve life for the Torotoro people, as well as for the environment, and for the spiritual wellbeing of the whole area?

Evo has indeed nationalized industries to try to distribute resources more equitably, but during the decades-long boom some Bolivians have gotten more rich than others on resource extraction and infrastructure projects.  Bolivia is thought to have more than half of the world’s known reserves of lithium, and there are plans to develop that resource in conjunction with Chinese companies.  Between 2000 and 2014, annual bilateral trade between China and Bolivia increased from $75.3 million to $2.25 billion (a three thousand percent increase) and in 2014 China overtook Brazil as Bolivia’s principal source of imports.

Between 2000 and 2015, Bolivia awarded $2 billion worth of contracts to Chinese firms.  But, all over the world, Chinese companies are encountering the difficulties of working in diverse cultural, environmental, social, and political contexts, which often allow for significantly more outspoken citizen participation and activism than back home in China.  For example, while constructing a major highway in Cochabamba, Sinohydro (a Chinese conglomerate) was caught off guard by five major work stoppages in fourteen months.  In another case, Sinopec was cited multiple times for contaminating a nearby river while constructing a road in Santa Cruz.  Outside La Paz, eighty-six communities declared a “state of emergency” to protest Chinese mining companies diverting water during an unprecedented water crisis.

In February of this year, a constitutional referendum to allow Evo to run for a fourth (five-year) presidential term was defeated, likely because of a deepening scandal involving Gabriela Zapata, Morales’s former lover, who oversaw projects for China’s CAMC Engineering Company, which won $580 million in contracts from the Bolivian government.  (After the defeat of the referendum, Evo got the Bolivia Constitutional Court to quietly annul the results and amend the constitution to allow him to run for a fourth term.  Evo will run in the next elections being held in 2019).

Growing up in the United States, I was socialized to believe that growth is good, to get rich is best, and economic development and consumerism is one of our primary purposes in life.  But the ideas of neoliberalism, free trade, globalization, and structural re-adjustment have in recent decades faced significant challenges.  Do riches really trickle down?  Do open and unrestrained markets really lead to a good life for individuals, communities, and the world in which we reside?

By almost any measure we have come to realize that ever-expanding wealth doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness or the betterment of the world in which we live.  National happiness in the United States peaked in the 1950s and has continued to decline since, even as we got richer and used up more of the world’s resources.  In the Happy Planet Index the United States ranks 108th out of 140 countries, partly because wealth inequality has continued to rise since the 1970s.  More people in the United States are on anti-depressants, as a percentage of the population, than any other country in the world.  Nearly twenty percent of all American boys will be diagnosed with ADHD and medicated by the time they reach high-school.  We are taking more and more from the world in which we live, giving less and less back in return, and becoming less satisfied and more discontented in the process.

I believe that Andean indigenous communities, along with other indigenous peoples living currently or historically, have something to teach us.  The Andean ideal of Sumak Kawsay, the Quechua word for buen vivir or “good living”, stands in contrast to the dominant development paradigms of the West: that never-ending drive for more growth and more wealth.  Sumak Kawsay is the belief in harmonious, collective and responsible development for individuals, their communities, and the natural world.  It calls for an increased focus on diverse human development: an enrichment of core values, spirituality, ethics, and a deepening of our connection with Pachamama, the earth mother.

In its best form, Sumak Kawsay is community-centric, culturally-sensitive, and ecologically-balanced.  It is based on the indigenous belief in ayni, or reciprocal relationships and mutualism between humans and their environment; the idea of giving back to sustain the web of life that sustains you.  In theory and in ideal, if not in practice thus far, the natural environment (including flora, fauna, and natural areas) have equal legal standing with the human community.  For example, the 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution recognizes the inalienable rights of ecosystems to exist and flourish and provides communities the right to petition on the behalf of ecosystems, as does the Bolivian 2010 law recognizing the Rights of the Mother Earth.

In contrast, in October 2015, China pledged $10 billion in new credit for Bolivian government projects, including nine major road segments and three mega projects, like the 600 MW Rositas hydroelectric plant (one of South America’s largest) and expansion of the Viru Viru Airport in Santa Cruz.  These new loans will make China into Bolivia’s largest creditor.  But all these projects financed by Chinese loans must be awarded to Chinese companies, which often bring along their own materials, equipment, technology, and labor, and don’t work to understand the culture, practices, or ideologies of the local communities, or the ecosystems that they butt up against.

While the eyes of the world are enraptured with China’s so-called economic miracle, there is little mainstream consideration of Sumak Kawsay as well as other burgeoning alternative development models, though they will likely outlive and benefit the world more than that which the mainstream consensus in China or America has to offer us.  Like many modern Americans, Chinese people are largely discontent living in such a cutthroat, dog-eat-dog, disconnected, lost, and destructive society.  Like in the United States, the Chinese development model has irrevocably destroyed many natural areas, ecosystems, and animals and plants which support us in order to grow GDP numbers and expand the wealth of those that already have more than enough to live and flourish.  When, exactly, will enough be enough?

Should the road from Cochabamba to Torotoro be paved and upgraded? I don’t think so, but Don Mario wants it built.  He says it would bring more people, more business, and more tourist dollars, which his business is poised to take advantage of as the visitors pour in.  But what of the consequences to the wild and sacred places in the park?

For the fifty years that Don Mario has been exploring the mountains and canyons of Torotoro, he’s watched it become more well-known and visited.  In fact, he’s taken part in its growth by guiding the first archeology missions to dig up dinosaur bones.  But I wonder if Don Mario truly understands what growth will mean for his little village and little-visited national park.

I dream of a world in which human beings can live in a sustainable and balanced way, justly, and with full consideration of the complexities of being human in a deeply interconnected world.  That we can re-discover our indigenous roots, our connectedness to all that which surrounds us.

Throughout history, indigenous groups have offered an alternative outlook on the world and our place in it.  They offer an alternative vision because indigenous groups develop their culture and ideas in tandem with a long-term connection with one specific place.  Their people’s history has arisen in that place and the people will continue to live in that place, which is sacred to them, for many, many generations to come.  Consequently, many indigenous peoples have built cultural and social institutions, practices, stories, and beliefs that work to temper the innate destructive individualistic tendencies of humans in order to sustain and give back to the world that has nurtured us.

In Mayan Cosmology, human beings are described as being an earring dangling on the face of mother nature (the gods)— a totally unnecessary, sometimes painful, but potentially beautiful decoration.  In their beliefs, we humans often solely take from the world that we live in, but one way we can give back is by performing acts of beauty and eloquence.  And we can tell stories that help us remember what the gods and the wilds have given to us and remind us of our connections to each and every living thing on this world.  Similarly, the Andean ideal of ayni motivate us to have gratitude for all that which is around us, and reminds us to reciprocate that which we take.

The modern world has lost its indigenous roots.  We have forgotten the ancient stories which reminded us of our human foibles and inspire us to overcome them for the good of our world, our community, our descendants, and us as individuals.  All over the planet we are taking and destroying more than is sustainable.  In a couple hundred years, if humanity is still around, our descendants will look back shocked at that which we did at this time in history.

Instead of continuing down this path, I suggest we work to deepen our indigenous roots and our connectivity to this multifaceted and complex world.  Can we deepen our spiritual and ethical well-being?  Can we tell stories that glorify leaving riches in place rather than exploiting them?  That encourage living a rich life of learning, reciprocity, compassion, and experience, not one that basely searches for individualistic gain and consumption?  Let us stop telling stories that exalt wealth, consumption, fame, extraction, production, industriousness, and efficiency, though they make up most of the stories and role-models that I know of in our world today.

Sumak Kawsay— vivir bien or “living well”— offers a different perspective to guide our actions. I think it deserves a long, hard look.