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

Cultural Richness

Recently we had a charla with Julianna, our program director here in Bolivia. We learned all about development, connecting to our theme of the semester “Developing Development”. Hearing about the history of development and the political agendas of the major world powers was incredibly impactful. We learned that Bolivia was the poorest country in South America and that it ticked the three boxes that cause a country to be poor: being landlocked, having a high indigenous population, and being high in natural resources. We learned about Sumak Kausay which is the idea of development as human well being rather than economic success which is something I have been thinking a lot about. At the end of the Charla Julianna talked about the cultural richness of Bolivia.

To me, Bolivia is one of the richest countries I have ever visited in my life. There is richness all around us, its palpable in the air. Julianna asked us to think about all the ways Bolivia is a rich country and let me tell you, its one of the easiest things I have had to think about. There is richness in strangers saying buen dia, or buenas tardes when passing by each other on the street. There is richness in spending all day with your family whether it be plucking chickens or working in the market. There is richness in the caring of Pachamama and the importance of nature around us. There is richness in fighting for what you believe in, never giving up until the voices of the people are heard. There is richness all around us, its palpable in the air.

One particular example I want to share in depth is going to the a fiesta de Compadres with my host family. Compadres is a day two weeks before Carnival where you celebrate your fellow godfathers. My host family told me we were going to a fiesta and originally I just thought that we were going to someone´s house for a small party but we ended up at a street full of vendors, and dancers, and carnival games. My host sister Daniela immediately tugged my sleeve and asked me if I wanted to go light candles in church with her. Being Jewish, I had never done anything like that and was very excited to be able to participate in something important to her. After lighting the candles, we all squished onto the sidewalk to get ready to watch the parade. Women in all sorts of vibrant colors danced down the street, streaking the sky with wonderful blues, yellows, and oranges. Men in extravagant costumes stomped their feet in a traditional dance. Sara, my younger host sister ran up to me holding what looked like a donut covered in powdered sugar and asked me to try some. Throughout the whole night she would come back to where we were sitting with a new dessert, each one more delicious. As I sat and watched the dancers, Mercedes (my host mother) explained to me that each dance came from a different part of Bolivia. It was through these dances that I was able to see a small sliver of what makes up Bolivian culture. Each dance shed a light on the culture from the area it came from. In the background played a high school band. There were boys banging on large drums and blowing on horns. Additionally, in many of the dances I saw a lot of young adults some probably my age. It was so amazing to me that they were still connected to their history and could passionately dance alongside their elders. I find that often the youth I am surrounded by in the US are disconnected from their history and their historical culture however, these Bolivian youth had not forgotten. Their dance moves were rich with history. By the end of the night I had played Fusbol, tried and failed at some carnival games, ate more food than I thought possible, and witnessed amazing dances. I felt so full of culture, so comfortable and welcome in this community that I couldn´t help but get emotional. I was so grateful to my host family for taking me to this festival. To top off the most incredible night, older men from the community ran into the street and set off a large display of fireworks. Everyone was cheering and laughing watching the sparks light up the night sky.

Bolivia might be the poorest country in South America but I would like to argue that it might also be the richest. The people I have met have inspired me endlessly and the culture that I have been able to witness is overflowing. I would ask you to think about your life, wherever you are, and see how easy it is to find that other type of richness around you.