*What follows is a portion of my personal notes during my first week of field research in Bolivia. It is unedited and raw, full of introspection and emotion, yet it accurately describes my first weeks alone in the field.
I now know how Bin Laden must have felt. Alone. Isolated. Locked in a plain room with nothing more than a straw filled matt for company. The excitement from yesterday must be wearing off, as I am no longer in the great little cabana that I was in last night. No bed. No toilet nearby (unless you count the hole in the ground with two feet directing you where to squat). Hey, at least I have electricity and the place to myself. My own little bachelor pad. In the middle of nowhere Bolivia. To be truthful, I am still overwhelmed by the kindness of the people here. Although as I sit here typing this, there are probably about twenty people planning a way to rob me blind. I suppose that doesn’t really matter. What has become very apparent to me is that the people here have very little. It has come as quite a shock as to the way that these people live. Not like savages like some people would think of campesinos. I suppose it’s just that they live simply (although cell phones are ubiquitous around these parts. They don’t live to work, but very truthfully work to live. There are no offices to go to, lines of traffic to wait in. Work is about survival. Cultivate your own food. Operate a small alojimiento so that you can have just enough money to pay for the food that you too will eat. Sell apples out of a wheelbarrow at a soccergame. Whatever the task, they don’t do it for the sake of having a job. They do it so that they can continue their way of life.
Thinking back on it, today has not been a total bust. It really is my first day here and I shouldn’t expect too much out of it. I awoke early to a biting cold in my room. No joke, the altiplano gets mighty cold at night. I ended up finding out that my lovely hosts also run the only alojimiento in town, and was able to eat breakfast there (3 bolivianos) which consisted of two pieces of bread, butter, and coffee. While it certainly wasn’t bacon and eggs, it was just fine. I suppose that if you really want to understand life and the people here, you must really try to lower your standards (as bad as that sounds) and live as though you were them. That means eating the same thing. Sleeping with the same standards (in this case straw mat on the ground). I am beginning to see far more to the story than when I initially set out. I suppose that is the hardest part about critiquing development: the pitfalls of it seem so obvious to the theorist, but in reality, things are far more complicated than they seem. Yes, development can be a terrible thing, but when you have nothing, you really do, in the words of Bob Dylan, have nothing to lose. Scratch that thought. They have nothing material to lose. They still have their way of life to lose, which they have struggled to maintain for about five hundred years. There is something that nobody in the United States can really relate to. We are so young. We have lost nearly any indigenous tradition that we may have once had. The melting pot that people claim our country to be is certainly true. We have no traditions that we have fought for generations (some would claim the virtues of the south here, but I refrain).
Those that live in the Altiplano have very rich cultural tradition that has been adjusted to stand the test of time. Those in the Altiplano, especially around Quillacas and Pampa Aullagas, have long history of adapting to adversity. As power structures change, so do the people, but they have yet to let those changes fracture them into a million different pieces—or worse—into the exact same piece. This can be seen in their economic shift to herding llamas to the Salar. Rather than allow themselves to be completely under the economic control of the Spanish, they would herd llamas to the Salar to gather salt, which would be traded to other communities in the valleys for corn and other foods that would not grow at such altitudes. Really, one could look at quinoa and say the exact same thing. They are adapting to the new economic conditions brought forth by globalization.
At breakfast I met three really nice fellows from Oruro who were constructing a building at the entrance to town. As they put it “Evo is constructing it”. You would think that this would be a great way to stimulate the economy here, but the three that I met were not even from here. I did see at least three wage laborers at the site later in the day, to Evo’s credit. These three gents were quite surprised to see a scraggly (haven’t shaved in ages!) gringo sitting in their local breakfast joint. I am not going to lie, the Spanish is still a bit rusty, and when you throw a bunch of quechua and Aymara into the mix I tend to get really confused. I explained to them my interest in quinoa and how I was going to spend a month here seeing how the exportation of quinoa has impacted people’s ability to buy it. Once again, enter armchair theorist. One of them explained to me that it wasn’t at all the case. Yes, the price of quinoa has increased hugely in the last five years, but what that means is that farmers are for once getting a decent price for the grain. Think about it, if you have nothing, then selling something gives you more than you had. Dig into that plate of noodles, is what they say. He did however go into telling me that US and Bolivian minds work very differently, so he couldn’t blame me. Luis said that the people here do need to diversify their holdings. He actually seemed concerned about this boom—that once again they were going to put all of their chips in one basket and eventually something would give and they would be, essentially, screwed. Diversification into processing and packaging and exportation would serve the people far better. Agreed. If you just sell the primary product, you let all of the other players in the game take all of the winnings. If you could build in all of the processing and packaging and marketing here, then the entire premium for quinoa would stay in the country—in the community. This is the way that development should be.