When we arrived in La Paz, Bolivia, the highest commercial airport in the world at 12,000 feet, our main concern was the altitude. We had been told to gather our belongings, drink some coca tea in the airport (legal drink here), and head to lower altitude with all due haste. In fact, it didn’t take long for me to feel light-headed and a bit queasy, even sitting in the airport. I think we somehow lost some organizing powers, because it actually took us three hours to fill out the paperwork, change money and buy a phone, drink our tea and then get on the road downhill. I don’t remember much about the trip since I lay down and slept, only seeing a few vistas of the enormous snow-covered mountains when I was able to open my eyes. In the towns, there seemed to be a large number of high (3-story) cinder block buildings under construction or newly built, supplementing the older two-story stucco buildings.
We arrived in Sorata, and spent the better part of 24 hours fast asleep. It may have been only partly the altitude, partly the overnight flight from Miami. We finally awoke to a pretty little town set in the midst of huge green mountains on all sides. Sorata is at the end of the road, in the foothills of the Cordillera Real (royal range) and there is no through traffic on the dirt road that passes for the main highway. You don’t think about motors much until you don’t hear them. It is so quiet here that we can hear the river a mile away, roaring down through the rocky valley.
We are living in the Internado, a student residence founded by Quakers to house indigenous students from the Aymara culture who live far outside town. Because of the Internado, the students are able to attend high schools in town, often the first generation to do so. On Friday afternoon, they take off on foot, some walking five or six hours to get home for the weekend. When I asked the students where they live, one said to me: “See that farthest peak? I live there.” And off she went, with her long velour skirt, her many petticoats, and her long braids, to hike the distance.
The students are busy with school until noon, and in the afternoon they have many programmed activities. Soccer takes highest billing for the boys. They play every day at the school field, and this is the major town entertainment. On some afternoons they work in a field outside town where they are being taught organic farming; on other days they learn to use computers. They have quite a bit of homework as well. They stretch out their projects on the long tables and spend endless hours coloring world maps and recopying charts until they are perfect.
Coming directly from Guatemala, I am constantly struck by the similarities – and the differences – from that country. Both are countries with an indigenous majority, with a ladino or Spanish origin upper class. Racism is rife, but in Bolivia unlike in Guatemala there is indigenous leadership – Evo Morales is the first indigenous president.
We traveled from a warm climate with lots of local fruit to a higher, cooler climate in the Cordillera Real, the royal mountain range, in Bolivia. So of course the vegetables and fruits available here are different. Here we are eating lots of potatoes, quite a bit of beef, wonderful vegetable soups, and few fruits. Many families rely on farming in both places, both countries with a rural population base. In both countries I have been asked: “What does your family farm?”
We have started teaching school here, and the education is quite traditional as it is in Guatemala, with a focus on copying and memorizing texts. Students in the Internado benefit from enrichment programs including computer learning and a wonderful organic farming program.
One difference that affects our daily lives is the relative safety and isolation of life here in Sorata. When a merchant leaves her store for a few minutes, she leaves the door open, placing a broom across the entrance to indicate that she’ll be back. That would have been unheard of in Guatemala. Life is different in the big city, La Paz, but here in Sorata there is very little concern for theft. We can walk everywhere up in the mountains without worrying.