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Saludos desde Durham!

Queridxs estudiantes,

My name is Leah, and I am so very excited to be supporting the group during the first two months and to join this amazing team of instructors. In case you haven’t already noticed, Pedro and Matt are extraordinary humans: they are creative and kind, insightful and competent, loving and inquisitive. I am looking forward to creating our community together.

I’m writing to you from the back porch of my house in Durham, North Carolina. The thrumming of cicadas cuts through the thick, heavy summer air, and everything feels raw and alive. We will share much more once we are together in a few weeks, so for now I’ll just tell you a bit about what I’ve learned from my own experiences of living in the Bolivian Andes.

I first landed in Bolivia as a 21 year-old college student all fired up about the grassroots political movements that led to the Cochabamba Water Wars and Evo Morales’ presidency. My mind was exploding with the newness of a political landscape that centered indigenous people’s history and Evo’s passionate rhetoric about decolonization.

But those were just the things that nourished my mind: ideas, theories, and information. It was the daily practices that nourished my body and my heart that have become part of who I am today; I learned most from Bolivian friends who were activists and farmers and mothers who loved their communities and who translated their deep care into action.

I learned to offer a cup of water to the person beside me before slaking my own thirst. I learned to only bring out a snack if I was prepared to share it with every single person in the room. Urban friends asked a rural family member to teach them the right words in Quechua to bless their vegetable seedlings on the right day, as we gave offerings and shared food and drink in the garden’s company.

I also learned that there was a lot I didn’t know: I was not very good at peeling potatoes or herding sheep, and I didn’t understand how to conceptualize non-linear time. I had no idea how to spin wool or build a fence, as members of my rural host family could easily do. When Quechua friends asked me about the history of indigenous people in New England, I was embarrassed to answer that I didn’t know much.

When these cracks appeared in the foundation of my known world, a million questions sprouted through. What kinds of knowledge and lifestyles have I been taught to value or disregard? What defines “poverty” anyway? Why aren’t the indigenous peoples of New England as visible or numerous as in Bolivia? Why are some Bolivians eating more white rice than homegrown quinoa? Am I contributing to the collective historical amnesia in the United States? Who am I, and what can my own heritage teach me?

The next year I returned to New England swimming in complex questions, so I continued searching for the imperfect answers back at home. In the subsequent years, I started working as a farm hand, and then as a liaison/translator/ally for Latino farmworkers in the process of accessing health care and other basic human rights. Throughout the years I was guided by what Bolivian friends helped teach me: to value community and solidarity above all. And I knew there would always be more to learn.

Of course there were a million unexpected spirals my on my path to this present moment. At different moments I have found myself delivering pizzas, making maple syrup, substitute teaching, and of course leading semesters and summer programs with Dragons in Bolivia since 2014. In my free time I love to read books of all kinds, make music with my voice or fiddle, and make delicious food to share with friends. I now find myself living in Durham, which is quite a distance away from my childhood home in rural Vermont, and even farther away from my ancestors’ small plots of arable land in Eastern Europe. In my new chosen home, I am learning how to live into community and solidarity—in the country I know best.

I am accompanying you on a journey that is at once foreign and deeply personal; you will be examining yourself in the reflection of the new waters you are swimming through. I am looking forward to getting to know each one of you and to being with you in these first months of settling into daily routines in Bolivia.

In the next year, each of you will find yourselves at points uncomfortable and navigating spaces of not-knowing—which can be the best gift of all. Writer Rebecca Solnit puts it well: “…to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.” Get ready to un-learn the familiar and to live into newness with your heart cracked wide open.  I can’t wait to meet you soon.