I had no idea what the character and culture of Bolivia would hold for me as I stepped on to the tarmac of the La Paz International Airport, altitude 12, 078 feet.  Now five months later, as I prepare to return home, I am taken by the complexity, history, culture, beliefs and traditions of this country and its people.

Bolivia is the poorest country in South America.  The threads of its culture are among the oldest on the continent.  And yet these threads seem independent, unwoven.  This is a country that embodies paradox.  From the Aymara indigenous in the Andean Altiplano in the west to the Europeans, the Mennonites, and the indigenous Guarani in the tropical plains of the east; from the Quechua descendants of the Incas in the silver mines at Potosi in the south to the cocaleros, coca growers in Chapare in the north, this is a land of opposites.  The geographic, cultural, and climatic diversity of Bolivia has only been intensified by its historical experiences over the past five centuries.

The Inca Empire experienced only 80 years of total dominance, operating out of Cusco, Peru and the Lake Titicaca region of the Altiplano.  The Inca descendants of Wayna Qhapaq were fighting and killing one another in a power struggle for the Inca throne when Cortes, Pizarro, and the Spanish Conquistadors arrived. The Spaniards were no match for the Inca Empire, militarily, but the Conquistadors brought with them two elements which would decimate the Inca domination.  The first was a divide and conquer strategy. Given the internal struggles between the various Inca leaders who were fighting for total power, the Spaniards formed strategic alliances.  They facilitated the Incas killing one another. At the end of the fighting the Conquistadors executed the remaining Inca leaders with whom they had formed alliances. (more…)

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The Quechua peasants, the campesinos, come to the Jesuit parish just outside the city of Cochabamba with sacks of dried cow manure.  They use the manure to build small fires in the courtyard just outside of the parish church.  The people also bring small statues which are strategically placed next to the fires.  These images represent hopes and dreams for the coming year.  I saw statues of cows, llamas, sheep, pigs, as well as images of small infants.  In addition to the statues the campesinos put candles next to their fires, adding a mellow glow to the statues.  They burn coca leaves and incense in the fires as further offerings.  Very much like the Pachamama ritual, they pour alcohol on the flames and on the ground at the four corners of the fire.  The fires and the rituals continue throughout the night and into the next morning.  The Quechua then gather the burnt dung and the ashes and take them home to bury them in their fields and around their homes.  They believe the remnants of the fire are holy and will bring fertility to their families, animals, and crops.  As I watched the ritual I was reminded of our American practices of lighting votive candles or of burying statues of St. Joseph next to a house we want to sell.

The Jesuits have incorporated the Quechua rite into a Christian context and have bridged the ancient religious practices of the indigenous people with those of contemporary Catholicism.  The old fertility rite is now called Sancta Vera Cruz, the Holy True Cross.  In order to unite the rituals, the Jesuits erected a large temporary shrine of the crucified Jesus next to the Church. (more…)

The Quechua people of Bolivia have gathered for centuries on the first week-end of May to celebrate a fertility rite for the coming year. May is the beginning of autumn, of cool, dry weather and fallow fields here in the southern hemisphere. I went to the fertility festival a week ago last Saturday evening with Paul Newpower, a former Maryknoll missionary and friend who lives here in Cochabamba with his wife Rebecca and their two children.

The Quechua peasants, the campesinos, come to the Jesuit parish just outside the city of Cochabamba with sacks of dried cow manure. They use the manure to build small fires in the courtyard just outside of the parish church. The people also bring small statues which are strategically placed next to the fires. These images represent hopes and dreams for the coming year. I saw statues of cows, llamas, sheep, pigs, as well as images of small infants. In addition to the statues the campesinos put candles next to their fires, adding a mellow glow to the statues. They burn coca leaves and incense in the fires as further offerings. Very much like the Pachamama ritual, they pour alcohol on the flames and on the ground at the four corners of the fire. The fires and the rituals continue throughout the night and into the next morning. The Quechua then gather the burnt dung and the ashes and take them home to bury them in their fields and around their homes. They believe the remnants of the fire are holy and will bring fertility to their families, animals, and crops. As I watched the ritual I was reminded of our American practices of lighting votive candles or of burying statues of St. Joseph next to a house we want to sell. (Flickr photoby quinet) (more…)

Bolivia has a hidden secret which, when discovered, could change the economic base of the country. The hidden secret is Bolivia’s national parks and reserves. Currently 18% of the total land in Bolivia is under federal protection as a park, reserve, or protected area. Despite this rich resource, Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in Latin America. The average annual earning is around $900. In the midst of incredible natural beauty the majority of Bolivians suffer from substandard housing, nutrition, education, sanitation, and hygiene. The water is unsafe for visitors to drink. The limited hotels are simple to say the least. The restaurants vary in quality although, like the hotels, all are extremely cheap by American or European standards. The transportation system is slow and frequently unpredictable. The roads are substandard, sometimes impassible, and, in many areas, nonexistent. Not exactly a formula for a booming tourism industry. (Flickr photo by justinjfj)

The traveler who is willing to put up with the delays and absence of certain conveniences will be rewarded with stunning views, constantly changing landscapes, and a variety of flora and fauna.

Two different Andean mountain chains frame the country. In between the mountains in the western part of the country, one can travel the Altiplano, the high treeless plain that ranges in altitude from 11,500 to 13,000 feet. At the northern end of the Altiplano is Lake Titicaca, one of the world’s highest navigable lakes. (more…)

Carnaval in Bolivia Dancers60,000 musicians and dancers, all in dramatic costumes or colorful uniforms, marched the 5 mile course in Oruro, the “Carnaval” capitol of Bolivia.  The first group started at 9 am on Saturday morning and the last group finished around 1 am on Sunday.   They ranged in size from 2000 members to less than 100 and represented cities and villages throughout the country.  Many cities have sent groups to Oruro since the Carnaval officially began there in 1903.

Carnaval is a celebration of the three worlds of the indigenous people, heaven, earth, and the underworld.  It is also a celebration of the fruits of the earth since this is harvest time in the southern hemisphere.  The costumes the Carnaval participants wear represent one of the three worlds.  The world of heaven is represented by the condor, the large black bird that soars through the Bolivian skies.  The world below is represented by people wearing a mask representing the devil, or a costume of an armadillo, or a costume of Uncle Tio, a mustached older man in a business suit and hat.  The underworld and heaven are connected by the earth’s mediator, a great white bear. Male and female dancers dressed in an array of multi-colored folk costumes also represent the earth and the celebration of life.  Harmony, liberation, and fertility are the three themes that are represented not only in the costumes but in the dancing and music.

One million people lined the five mile route, but a significant portion came for more than simply listening and watching.  There are a couple of other aspects of Carnaval that come into play.  One is water and foam.  We were warned before we registered for the tour that we would get soaked.  For whatever reason, kids as well as adults throw water balloons at each other.  It doesn’t make any difference who you are or where you are from, you are subject to getting drenched.  That became imminently clear as a bucketful of water came down on our heads as we were walking from the bus to the parade route.  All of us had on rain ponchos of one sort or another but the surprise attack from a third story balcony made us aware we had arrived.  But this was just the beginning.  (more…)

Mother Earth, Pachemama,  is alive and well in the altiplano, the western highlands, of Bolivia. She is the Latin American replacement for our old practices on first Fridays.

On the first Friday of every month, anyone walking down any street in Cochabamba will notice sweet smells of incense and see trails of smoke coming from the houses and stores.  It’s there that a great number of people continue to practice a ritual which has its roots in the ancient spiritual practices of the Quechua and Aymara, the indigenous peoples of Bolivia.  The practice of giving thanks to the Pachamama, Mother Earth, comes from the belief that everything we need we get from the earth where Pachamama resides.  The first Friday ritual asks for balance with the earth, for harmony between the land and the people.  It is also a prayer for a good harvest, for health and happiness, for family, friends, and community. (flickr photo by guido612)

We celebrated our own ritual, Q’owa, pronounced koh-wah, at the Maryknoll Institute on Friday.  Faculty and students gathered in a circle under the towering pines just to the east of our three story classroom building.  One of our Quecha language instructors, a male, led the ritual assisted by Sara, one of my Spanish teachers.  Both are Quecha and have the distinctive native appearance of indigenous Bolivians. (more…)

Bolivia is the poorest country in Latin America.  It lies 4000 miles from the US yet this small country high in the Andes will soon challenge the US to establish consistency in what it says and what it does. In terms of foreign policy, will President Obama and the US government maintain the values it has defended in the civil rights of US citizens or will the US government use the economic value base that empires have employed for centuries?    The decision might be harder for President Obama because of some striking similarities between himself and the leader of this small, poor Andean country.

The President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, has a story which is very similar to Obama’s. In 2006, Morales became the first indigenous president of his country and a symbol of the potential of democracy. When the Spanish arrived in Bolivia in the 16th century, they enslaved the indigenous people to work the silver mines that kept the Spanish economy and naval fleet afloat for decades.  Those Bolivians who weren’t enslaved worked for substandard wages in unhealthy conditions that destroyed health and shortened lives.  Morales is the indigenous people’s symbol of hope.  Morales was born to a poor potato-farmer in the mountains.  He was one of seven children.  Four died in infancy.  The chances of Morales becoming President were as probable as that of an American abandoned by his immigrant African father and raised by his single white American mother.

US presidents and politicians have consistently said that they are committed to spreading democracy across the world.   One would expect them to welcome the democratic rise of Morales. But this is where the picture starts getting unclear.  Bolivia has massive reserves of natural gas, a resource that makes billions for American corporations. (more…)