The experience of diversity is at the heart of why I travel and live abroad. That ongoing, dynamic dance with the unknown. The promise of learning, the warmth of connection, and even the occasional cold, harsh slap of all that which can so easily separate us – access to resources, education, health care, safe spaces, and free time. As you get off the plane, hop on the bus, the taxi, a bicycle, or a tuk tuk, there’s a thrill in seeing this difference: to touch how far you are away from home, to feel the new textures and shapes of life lived differently, to smell burning trash, sweat, grilled meat, tropical flowers in bloom, and perhaps, most of all, to experience this bombardment of the senses as you meld (or not) with the foreign.
How do you relate to diversity? To me, the gift of travel is the opportunity to learn from it and connect to it. Learning new places, unfamiliar systems and laws, new smells, novel forms of communication, strange histories, and witnessing how people in this new place interact with each other and with their environment. Connecting, in spite of these differences, in spite of gaps in privilege and opportunity, speaking with someone and sharing thoughts and experiences. Sometimes just sharing space and time. A smile can do it. This type of connection always tends to have two parts – a bridge where two elements, previously so far apart, have now miraculously touched. Then, there’s the awareness (at some other point, or, perhaps even at the same time) of separateness – a rush, all too human, of all that distances you from this other person. You can feel alone, vulnerable and helpless; a dancer without a partner. The art of travel is practicing what you do with these opportunities and how you respond to the experience.
My family and I moved to La Paz, Bolivia two years ago to pursue career goals and to follow that impulse to get back into the field - to scratch that constant itch that my wife and I find hard to ignore: the need to move, to explore, and to be challenged. The ‘field’ is the dancehall where you learn about the unknown, explore boundaries of all types, and of course, get your toes stepped on occasionally. It’s a place where languages get polished and communication is tested, notes are taken, and interviews and measurements recorded - a laboratory of baseline data and logical frameworks. Not too long ago, it was also the point where the boundaries of “Us” and “Them” were clearly demarcated. Where food, tools, and advice were handed-out to passive recipients - a one-way relationship where viewpoints and perspectives of “the other” were often left unexplored. More recently, an encouraging trend in ‘the field’ has emerged, where there is focus on dialogue and exchange. The concepts of “participation in development” and “working together” is starting to replace the older notions of “coming to help” and “giving them the answers.” Within International Development programs, the problem solving process is evolving towards dynamism - an awareness of interdependence. Diversity within a project is now, for the most part, viewed as a powerful resource for its success through honoring multiple perspectives, the voices of women, children, the ill and handicapped, the history of where the project takes place, and the cultural and religious beliefs that weave themselves through all facets of the program.
I write these words in Sucre, Bolivia. Sucre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, founded by the Spaniard, Pedro Anzúrez (sent by Francisco Pizarro), in 1538. It has a well-preserved historic core: whitewashed and endowed with 16th century churches; old wooden, Moorish influenced doors; and museums on almost every corner. The historic center stands out from the sprawling, un-zoned adobe brick communities surrounding it – a burst of organized white on a sprawling red canvas. New homes inch up the hills around Sucre like invasive grass.
Remains from an old world stand out next to these newer homes, businesses, and schools of a new generation. Clashes ring out in clothing as young women wear skirts, tank tops, and mascara. Young men listen to music through bright, bulky headphones, expensive cell phones sticking out of blue jeans. The older generation, many of whom flood in from sparsely populated rural villages to sell goods, wear layers of multicolored handwoven textiles. Many of these fabrics are still handmade and tell stories with shapes and colors in an almost forgotten language of animism and pre-Colombian logic. In a museum, where this language is protected, I saw a piece of textile that portrayed evil spirits filling the bodies of birds, cats, and dogs spreading nocturnal havoc. I have lived in Bolivia for two years and the foreignness still jolts me, particularly when I try to interact with these older ladies from the countryside. In La Paz as well as in Sucre, these women often wear traditional, colorful garb and carry a heavy load, whether it be a baby, sticks, clothes, or coca. The men, for some reason, are less ensconced in traditional fabric (but still can be seen with hand-woven Andean style hats with lobes of wool to warm the ears) and tend to be free of burdensome bundles. The women’s faces, usually under a hat, are darkened by the sun and are dry as leather. Grooves in the forehead and cheek are ridged and pronounced like the surrounding mountains. They speak in a tongue, Aymara or Quechua, centuries and oceans away from Latin. A smell emanates - smoke, coca juice, and sweat.
When I see these women, walk by them, or observe them from a distance, the weight and distance of foreignness strikes me like stone. Recently, in Sucre’s main market, I saw a fairly common site: an indigenous woman, maybe sixty years old, maybe eighty, on her own selling coca from an enormous striped plastic bag. She sat stooped over on a plastic crate, wrapped in layers of black textiles, and staring at some uncertain point. Her worn hat was light brown with a darker strip at the base. Two or three front teeth were missing and she seemed to be alone. I wanted to say hello, but found no kindle to spark a conversation – to smile felt hollow and insincere. Her story remains full of mystery, perceived hardship, and a million details so far from my grasp. And here we are, sharing the same market space, breathing the same Andean air. Underneath, at the DNA level, we’re almost exactly the same (the largest DNA difference between two humans is roughly .4%*). But, those powerfully diverse human elements of experience, history, and culture have separated us to extremes. Just another instance where diversity leaves me feeling alone and humbled.
A couple times this year, I have gone to an Aymara village called Calamarca in the Altiplano, about one hundred kilometers southwest of La Paz and 4,000 meters (13,450 feet) above sea-level. The Altiplano, the land where South American camelids graze - llamas, alpacas, and their wild ancestor, the vicuña. Land high up, stark, barren, and undulating with dizzying temperature changes. Nightfall or cloud cover, especially with a little wind, can drop the temperature by twenty or thirty degrees Fahrenheit in a matter of minutes. A place so cold and dry that the Aymara learned they can store potatoes for the lean times by simply leaving them outside. They step on potatoes with bare feet to peel and drain the tubers, then they lay them out overnight. The next day, the potatoes are as freeze-dried as astronaut ice cream.
When I go to this community, we gather in the main meeting room of the small village. I take photos and notes. It’s a square building, the interior colored in light green and on the outside whitewashed like Sucre. There’s a small desk at one end of the room where my colleagues and I sit – where a guest is king. Along every inch of the wall sit Aymara women on hard wooden benches with their children, their bundles, and their coca; supporting husbands speckle the scene. These women are weavers. We’ve come to visit and see how their work and community are doing years after a project funded by Save the Children and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) concluded.
The leaders of the group stand up first and welcome us, giving proud speeches. They tell us about their business, where they get their wool, how much a kilo costs, and what designs are popular these days. Husbands nod their heads ever so slightly. A group of husbands have accepted that weaving can be lucrative. Their own cultural compass shifts as they let their wives make their own decisions, spend their own profit, and control their own time.
Then something unexpected happens. I see these stoic women, dressed in handmade clothing, balancing childcare and work, the traditional and the modern, smile. In this small room is the only time I’ve ever seen an Aymara women do this. It’s a bright thing and I almost feel the temperature in the meeting hall increase. The light sure seems to shift. The smile erupts when they talk about the extra money they now have, when they detail the new designs they are learning, when they describe their accomplishments that now equate to filled bellies, warm bodies, and more educated minds. They give us each a handcrafted wool hat. One of the leaders proudly introduces her granddaughter, dressed in traditional garb, who is going to university to study nursing, while making time to weave with her community.
Unlike with the woman in Sucre, who was right in front of me, but miles away; a connection with these Aymara women emerges. Diversity goes from cold and distant to touchable and relatable. These women, have chosen to share some of their struggles and victories with us. Just a little bit, but enough to keep me going - to keep photographing their smiles and to keep asking questions.
Soon after, a table is a spread. The cloth is a brightly colored aguayo or a traditional weaving with straight, narrow lines of green, pink, and purple used to carry everything from babies to piles of wood. Women wait in line and bring handfuls of potato or corn to a collective pile. There must have been more varieties of potato on that table than in most states in the US (the Andes is home to more than 4,000 native potato species**). I witness the ancient act of a gift. People making offerings for all to share and benefit. Then, my eyes skirt to the hands releasing these potatoes: soiled and cracked, finger nails embedded with layers of dirt and dust. My recent stomach problems come to mind and I am catapulted back to a perspective where this same scene is now foreign and threatening. I fear getting sick again. The ephemeral electricity of connection goes black. I do my best to eat while not eating, to not offend, to keep busy and keep away from my plate of offerings. The meeting is over and we go around the room shaking hands - the Spanish cheek kiss feels a bit too mushy for this group. The group walks us to our bus and more goodbyes are given. We climb into our bus and drive away. Calamarca grows faint in the distance and we see llamas grazing.
Traveling can hold the seed of transformation. People from different worlds collide with chances to learn and connect. Somewhere in this dance, there’s discord and separateness. Differences can stand out and divide. And, of course, by nature, travelers must eventually go - moving back closer to that realm of Us and Them. But what remains and why do it? Our view of the different can change. Humanity becomes more visible and we can move toward curiosity and away from fear. In this world of walls, our experiences of connection, even with tinges of separation, can mobilize links of commonality. The details of difference no longer divide but provide departing points for discovery and understanding.
Thanks to the Aymaran weavers of Calamarca, my world is a bit bigger now. My eyes notice new details when it comes to women and weaving. My feet are dirty with the remains of potato skin and I know more about what it’s like to be human here in this high corner of the world.
*Mukherjee, Siddhartha. The Gene. Scribner, 2016.
**CIP International Potato Center - A CGIAR Research Center, http://cipotato.org/potato/native-varieties. Accessed 1 Mar 2016.
Photos by Author
Mansir Petrie lives in La Paz, Bolivia with his wife and daughter. He works as an international development and global education consultant. His recent projects include writing and researching about clean energy in Nepal, documenting the financial behavior of rural farmers in Uganda and Ghana, and leading a group of university students to Bolivia for January-Term. Prior to living in Bolivia, Mansir led the Office of Global Education and Service Learning at Hartwick College. Mansir has lived and worked in Bhutan, Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Kenya, Mozambique, Russia, and the United States.