Wow! So although our group just finished our x-phase trek through the Cordillera Blanca, I would like to share about our groups true last experience in Bolivia. Before evacuating the country, we spent 8 days (from November 5th to the 12th) in the small town of Tocaña. Short to say, my experience there was something entirely new and unbelievably awesome.
Firstly, I need to explain the place, climate, and community of the city. Tocaña is a small primarily coca producing town of around 200-300 residents, almost all of afro descent. It is around 2 hours outside of La Paz in a region known as the Yungas, which is sort of the middle region between the amazon basin and Andean mountains. This means that it is a completely unique climate. It is the most green place I have ever visited, and is hilly so you can see all the surrounding areas. Also, just… the clouds. They are incredible. They can block the entire sky and most of the town one minute, and the next they are high above and seem to be painted on the atmosphere. We also experienced more rainy days and humidity, which in my opinion was an appreciated change from the dry climate of Tiquipaya.
Next is the community. There is so much to try and say here, but foremost the culture and people of Tocaña are something incredibly special. In our first minutes we were welcomed with open arms from everyone and experienced many comical comments from one of the most interesting (in the most positive way possible) characters I have met in my life, Pulga, with his always coca filled mouth—he is sort of the town inn owner. Warmth radiates from every person you pass on the street or interact with during the day. Whenever you see someone either for a meeting or just passing by, you ¨saludar¨ (greet) with either a buenos días, buenas tardes, or buenas noches. Beyond the greetings, we were encouraged to engage with the community at every time of the day.
And participate we did. Our itinerary was stacked with charlas and activities. We heard charlas on the history of Tocaña, the importance and misconceptions associated with the coca leaf, and traditional medicinal plants within the amazon flora. Our activities were going out to our host families coca fields to help them pick and later dry the coca leafs, a day long hike that included visits to neighboring communities, a Yungas world history museum, and swimming in the local river, a visit to Chijchipa (the Spanish slave controlling house) and discussion about the atrocities of the Spanish conquistadors against the Afro and Indigenous populations, and finally a workshop on the significance of the “Saya” and how to properly perform it.
The whole time while we were in the community, we were also in homestays. We were all in groups of two, and Piper and I were graciously welcomed to stay in the house of Tia Juana. Tia Juana’s family consists of her, her husband, and their 8 children. While we didn’t get to meet all of her children (many of them live and work in cities such as Coroico, La Paz, and Santa Cruz) One of her daughters, Daniela, lives at home and helps her parents with picking Coca at their field. We also were able to meet and talk to one of her sons who plays professional soccer in La Paz. Also a major part of the family is Daniela’s three year old son, Nayton, who Piper and I spent a lot of time racing cars and playing hide under the blankets and pillows with. The last few members of our home stay family were their two tiny puppies, the puppies mother, and their cat. Besides helping in Tia Juana’s coca field and helping to dry their coca on their elevated coca drying platform called a cachi, Piper and I spent a lot of time listening to the news with the family and discussing the increasingly chaotic political climate that eventually led us to evacuate Bolivia from Tocaña on the 12th.
While our time in Bolivia was cut short, I am extremely glad that we got to experience this community. Tocaña was incredibly different from our Tiquipaya homestay, which further showed me how diverse and rich the people and history of Bolivia are. In my opinion these 8 days were the essence of experiential learning, and was one of the most profound and insightful times of the entire course.