One Small Part

I came to Bolivia nearly nine months ago, and now I have less than nine weeks remaining here before I return to the United States. I write this in the room where I’ve nested for most of this year, a room painted a bright sky blue that reflects the sky outside, the sky that I can see through the windows that make up the better part of two walls. Through those windows I can see the green mountainsides, the cloud forest of the Yungas interspersed with plots of farmed land and the homes of neighboring communities – Chovacollo, San Juan de la Miel, Coroico Viejo. The hillsides, the forests, and the sky have been here for millennia, some of the communities nearly as long; their names reflect the layering and syncretism of history, the indigenous, colonial, and contemporary inhabitants of this landscape. My room has housed Spanish patrones, missionary monks, and international visitors and volunteers. I’m only one of many, as temporary as any of the others who have passed through.

I’ve been thinking about time, place and history a lot in the last few weeks. This weekend was the celebration of Carnaval, a multiple-day celebration before the beginning of Lent tomorrow. The celebration is a microcosm of Bolivia’s complex, rich, syncretic history. The roots of the festival lie in the Andean celebration of the Anata, a time to complete the ch’alla (blessing) and to express gratitude for the first harvest of potatoes or corn. The harvest is celebrated with dances, costumes, and musical instruments particular to the agricultural season. Those dances, music, and traditional blessings continue to be an integral part of Carnaval, onto which have been layered colonial Spanish and Catholic traditions associated with the season of Lent, along with all the trappings of any good party: beer, lots of food, and water balloon fights in the street.


A La Paz business after the ch’alla, a traditional blessing


Diablada dancers in Oruro

I observed all of this in practice when I traveled to Oruro, a central mining town in Bolivia, to partake in one of the largest Carnaval celebrations in Bolivia. The celebration features performances by music and dance groups from throughout Bolivia, most of whose members participate as part of a religious pilgrimage. The pilgrims are traveling to the sanctuary of La Virgen del Socavón (the Virgin of the Mineshaft) and the Tío Supay, the Inca god of the underworld, now also honored as the guardian of the mines. The pilgrims process through the main streets of the city all weekend, arriving at the church that houses the image of the Virgen and the sculpture of the Tío. At the church, they dance, play music, and pay homage to the religious figures. Most dancers and musicians commit to completing the pilgrimage for three years in a row as an offering of faith and devotion.


Pilgrims arriving at the church

All of the elements of the celebration are dense with history, from the music and dances to the location where the pilgrimage ends. Each dance is particular to a geographical location, whether an individual community or the vast sweep of the Amazon or Altiplano. Each dance tells stories, ranging from the mythical to the mundane. The Diablada tells of the struggle between good and evil, while the Morenada and Negritos tell the histories of colonization, slavery, indigeneity and mestizaje. The Waka Waka depicts the economy of cattle-raising communities, while the Llamerada celebrates llama herders. Some of the dances are very old; some are very new. All reflect the diverse influences of physical and cultural geography, from the music to the costumes to the dance steps. All are a proclamation of identity, in its varied and complex forms. Watching the procession was amazing and breathtaking. I felt as if I was standing at the edge of a precipice, peering into a canyon of history and geography, observing just the surface of a deep well of complex interrelationships between people and place.


Waka Waka dancers

This year’s celebration was marred by tragedy: midway through the procession, a pedestrian bridge over the parade route collapsed, killing three musicians and a spectator, and injuring more than seventy people. It was the second time that I’ve been present at a tragic event of that type; I was also at the Boston Marathon when the bomb attacks happened in April. Just as in that instance, I was close to where it happened, sitting a couple hundred feet from the bridge that fell. The aftermath was eerily familiar to me, strikingly similar to the immediate events after the bombs in Boston, and, I suppose, to any large-scale urban emergency: the mass confusion, the crowds running both to and from the site, the screaming of sirens, the shock and impotence as we realized what had happened, that we were okay but others weren’t, and that there was nothing we could do to help besides leave the scene. My friends and I did the same thing that my family and I did in Boston: we returned to our hotel room to turn on the news, trying to piece together some semblance of an explanation of an inexplicable experience.

After the bridge collapse, there was public debate about whether or not to continue with the Carnaval procession. In the end, it was decided that the procession would continue, although some groups chose simply to march, not dance. All of the groups walked without dancing when they passed the site of the accident, some silently and some playing traditional funeral music. When they arrived at the church, some groups also played funeral pieces instead of their traditional dance music.


Dancers climbing the church steps

It was extraordinary to witness the communal response to the tragedy, and the way that dance, music, and faith were for many a way to respond to grief and shock. Listening to interviews with musicians and dancers on the news, and watching as dancers fell to their knees to pray at the chapel of the Virgen, I was struck again by the feeling that I was just at the edge of something very deep, very complicated, and very rich.

Before I left the U.S. to come here last spring, I had a long conversation with a friend about some of my feelings of ambivalence and anxiety about leaving Minneapolis. It was difficult and painful to leave friends, family, colleagues, students; my home, my garden, my neighborhood; the Mississippi, Minnehaha Creek, the bluffs and forests along the St. Croix. This leaving didn’t feel like leaving had when I was in high school and college, when I wanted to be anywhere but where I was, to explore and discover and see something, anything new. This time was hard, and it hurt my heart. I don’t want to go, I told my friend.

Perhaps this time isn’t really about leaving to go somewhere new, she told me. Perhaps this time is actually about learning to come home. Her words have stayed with me throughout my time here. Part of the reason I wanted to travel but stay in one place for an extended period of time was to have the experience of truly living somewhere else – not just visiting, or briefly studying, but having the experience of living and working in a community other than my own. I imagined that spending a year in another place would give me time to really understand it, to know it deeply and to feel at home there.

I have certainly learned a great deal this year, and I’ve built relationships and friendships that I treasure. The deepest learning I’ve experienced, though, has been in a way the opposite of what I anticipated. Paradoxically, the longer I’ve spent here in Carmen Pampa and Bolivia, the more foreign I have come to feel, and in some ways the less I feel I understand. The longer I spend here, the more glimpses I catch of the depth and complexity that lie below the surface. Watching the Carnaval dances, seeing how much story and intricate meaning can be contained in just one set of musical notes and patterned footsteps, I thought of how it would take years just to learn the histories and systems of meaning in one small area. To know how to live there, how to relate to others, how to celebrate and grieve and raise children and solve problems, would take a lifetime.


Suri sicuri dancer

In “The Body and the Earth,” Wendell Berry writes, “No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in one small part of it.” My friend was right. Spending a year as a visitor has taught me most about coming home. I have nine more weeks here; it will be too short, it will go too fast, and there will never be enough time to see or learn or understand everything that I want to about this place. I will be deeply sad to leave, and it will be a difficult transition. But it will be time to return to my own small part of the world, with its own histories of colonization and indigeneity, its own celebrations and tragedies, its own richness and complexity. It will be time to live responsibly and fully there.


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