The culture here is something I have always thought was beautiful. I think that was more because of the differences between these Bolivian cultures and my own than for the cultures themselves. The truth is that I don’t know much about the actual cultures. There were many things I didn’t know about Bolivia before I first came here in 2007. In fact, the only things I remember knowing were the geographical location of Bolivia and that they speak Spanish. I didn’t know about the incredible diversity in land and climate here. I didn’t know that there are nine departimentos, which are similar to, but larger than, most states in the United States. I didn’t know that the city of La Paz is also within a region called La Paz, and within that region there are the Andes mountains, the high plains called the Altiplano, a tropical region called Las Yungas, and more. I didn’t know about the Aymara people or the Quechua people, the two largest people groups found in Bolivia, nor where they could be found. When I left in May of 2007, I still wasn’t aware of the other people groups in Bolivia. Now, I must say I still don’t know much, but often learning something clues you in to the fact that there is still so much more to learn. I met and loved one family from the Guaraní culture near Argentina. I am familiar with a couple other names of cultures and languages spoken here. I have heard there are over thirty people groups here, and I believe they each speak a unique language. No, Spanish is not the only language spoken here. Most people here seem to understand if not also speak at least two languages. I didn’t know who the president was when I came in 2007, and I still must say I don’t understand all of the things happening in, around, and because of the government. However, I know where my friends stand, I know most of what President Evo Morales stands for, and I know now where I stand in relation to his politics.
I am getting a better idea of many general things about Bolivia. However, the culture itself here in Caranavi still baffles me. It is so easy to look at my friends here and say that I love them, but at the same time, I must admit that I don’t know much yet about where they come from, why they do what they do, how they might think, and what kind of things go on in their homes and towns that are different from the experiences I had growing up.
This week I was witness to more culture here in Bolivia as we celebrated Bolivia’s Independence Day, celebrating the time when Bolivia won its independence from Spain. August 6 is the actual holiday, though the celebrations lasted a week or more. We live 3 km (by switchback roads, not as the crow flies) above the town, and most of the noise of the town doesn’t get to our house, though it definitely rises up to the house at CEC that faces the town directly. These last two weeks were full of marching bands practicing and the unmistakable pounding bass of party after party. I grew up in a town where parades were organized so that the streets only closed down once, the people only came out to watch once, and the marchers only dressed up once. However, here the parades seem a bit different. One group at a time might go out into the streets, or it could be more. People can all see because almost everyone seems to live in the midst of things. Cars don’t get mad at the hold up. They either wait, creep around the marchers, or find an alternate route. Another thing that I didn’t know was that many parades are held for a cause. Some parades are held simply to celebrate a holiday, a life, etc. However, many parades are held in honor of a virgin of the Catholic church or the Pacha Mama, which is the Aymara (I think) word for Mother Earth. The people of Bolivia have many folkloric dances. It seems most come with their own story, their purpose, their costumes, their music, and their rhythm. I have so much to learn. It makes me hesitate writing on the subject. What does it all mean? Why are they dancing? What do the costumes mean? Do the dances and costumes still mean these things, or are they just celebrating things of the past? I don’t have any answers, but I can say that I saw a dancing competition in a full soccer stadium this week. Thousands of folkloric dancers, traditional costumes, talented musicians, and interested spectators. The large groups entered one at a time, the band did a number, the dancers came across the field and went around the track until they danced in front of the judges and continued off the field. Then a new type of music began with a new band, new dancers, different costumes, and a completely different style of dance. It was very interesting and very beautiful.
I am reading Jeremiah right now, which is a book in the Bible that never made much sense to me until now. As I read in the mornings on a bench that allows me to see the gorgeous mountains, feel the morning clouds, and hear the rush of the river below, the boom of the parties continuing into the morning, the trumpets of the Bolivian National Anthem, and the beat of the bands tirelessly practicing, I just stop and pray for these people. Is this place like the places in the Old Testament? In many ways, yes. The idolatry here is obvious. It is less conspicuous in the United States, until I consider that wealth, possessions, and status are also idols. I am learning that the Bible truly is timeless. I don’t know what to make of any of it. I know that I love many things about my life here. I thank God every day for the amazing view and a safe, gorgeous place to live. The cultures here, like the dances, are many, and they are each unique. I have a glimpse into the Aymara culture in Caranavi, which is probably very different than the Aymara cultures in other parts of the La Paz region and Bolivia. I can’t say much about it because I still don’t know much about it. I can only look at my friends here and acknowledge that they are dearly loved by God. I can commit to asking more questions and spending as much time as possible with the people here. I can also decide not to judge and condemn them in my ignorance, pray for their salvation through my Savior Jesus Christ, and look at my own idolatry, sin, and meaningless tradition.
As someone said, we are celebrating independence in a place that isn’t truly free. In order to gain freedom, we must recognize that true freedom doesn’t come from politics. Freedom comes from making ourselves slaves for Christ and receiving a mysterious and all-encompassing forgiveness from God through Jesus Christ.