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Photo by Benjamin Swift, Andes & Amazon Semester.

Todos Santos and the Art of Reciprocity

We meander through the crowded streets, men and women calling out what precious goods they are selling this morning. At almost 13,000 feet above sea level, it is no easy task to walk up the final big hill to the cemetery. But this is our mission – as it is Día de Todos los Santos, and we want to see what is like to invite the dead back for just this one day of the year. In Bolivia this holiday is celebrated with years of tradition. Todos Santos welcome the returning dead and honor the departed. A beautiful celebration of those who have passed, a way to come together as a family and celebrate the art of reciprocity. A shrine of some sort, called the mesa, is created by the family – filled with an array of indulgences, photos, flowers, coca leaves, and tantawawas (baked bread effigies).

We enter the cemetery and hundreds of families are gathered together to celebrate the dead, and right away our ears are filled with live music playing from every alley way. I can’t help but notice acoustic versions of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” is a very popular choice. But in reality – the atmosphere is far from silent, or somber. I am instantly taken back to my saba and safta’s grave in northern Israel. Six years ago was the last time I was able to say hello to them, in their subterraneous state. Oh how I wish I was able to invite them back – even just for our usual afternoon ritual of tea and biscuits. Today in the far away land of La Paz, I do. I remember their sweet nature, and their uncanny mannerisms that can only be tied to their British roots. All of my grandparents died when I was quite young, and I have missed them dearly. I never know that I could miss someone that I never really knew.

I snap back to the present moment, as a fleet of mariachi bands walk beside me as they play music for a family praying in front of a decedents grave. Todos Santos also marks Spring time in the Andean regions. And so additionally, just as the families are inviting their dead relatives back to earth – they are also praying for the return of rain and reflowering of the land. Reciprocity is all forms comes alive. I think about my own life, and about the last 2 years working as an instructor with Dragons. I think more than any other job I’ve had; this work challenges me to think about my ancestry. About the importance of history and how it is shaped. A lot of my truth comes from the stories I have been told by my parents, and the stories of their parents and grandparents lives before them. This history is obviously biased – and how could it not be. But in my work now across 3 different continents learning and teaching students, I am faced with the hard reality that my history, and therefore my truth is deeply stained with lines of power and blindness.

As I celebrate Todos Santos for the first time, I fall heavily on the philosophy of reciprocity – and the quest to respond to positive action with positive action. And really this is all I try to achieve in my work as a Dragons instructor, as a human really. This is a never ending process, and I am grateful for the hundreds of moments with students and with host communities in the places we travel that remind me to think, to act in the form of reciprocity.