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Farewell to the big village

Letters From
Bolivia

Amy Booth writes from Cochabamba

Deciding to leave a place has never been easy for me, but the decision to leave Cochabamba has been hardest of all. In less than a month, I will travel out to a new life – studying politics in the vast metropolis that is Buenos Aires. The prospect fills me with excitement and sadness in equal measure.

People say that Cochabamba is a village. Over a million people live in the metropolitan area, but somehow – probably because of the marked inequality and class divides – you bump into the same people over and over again, at their regular tables in the same bars, ruminating on life. I have always had a frenetic energy that makes it difficult to be still, rushing instead from place to place in search of fresh ideas, new people, different horizons. That is why, after two years, I’m moving on.

I can’t place a finger on when Cochabamba started to feel like home. Perhaps the moment when I sank into bed in my room in the familiar hillside house after my first trip away, a stressful visa run to Peru a few months after arriving. Or perhaps it was after visiting the UK, a year into my time here, only to find the values I shared with my friends progressively diminishing.

A country is like a fractal: the closer you look, the more there is to see. The centres of many Bolivian cities appear well-heeled and even affluent, but when you open your eyes and ears, there are constant reminders that you’ve barely scratched the surface.

Every person I meet is a closed book. Take the quiet, eloquent friend, so impassioned by international politics. I had him pegged as a sheltered middle-class intellectual, until he started to tell me of his childhood as an orphan living on the streets. Or the calm, sociable software engineer who arrived in Cochabamba as a child after changes in the mining industry left his entire community out of work and forced them to leave their remote village in the Potosí department, which is now abandoned, ruined from the mines caving in beneath its foundations.

Experiences like theirs have taught me never to assume. Almost every friend has a story reminding me of the gulf between Bolivia and my motherland, but the distance seems to vanish when I think of the people I have come to love and care for here.

Leaving now is somehow quitting. I should be staying and going deeper, striving to understand everything from home habits – why do people use so few vegetables in their cooking? why do they think going barefoot at home will make you ill? – to thorny issues like community justice and child labour. I could go so far down the rabbit hole that I would never emerge.

I care deeply about the future of this country. In late November last year, a court ruled that president Evo Morales, vice-president Álvaro García Linera and other authorities could run for election again in 2019, disregarding a 2016 referendum in which a majority voted against it. Many of my friends are sceptical of the opposition, but outraged at what they see as increasing disregard for democracy.

Many of the working class and rural poor are deeply conscious of the progress that has happened under Evo’s government, from economic growth to revindication of indigenous rights. In the 2014 election, he was re-elected in a landslide with over 60 per cent of the vote. But among these groups, too, there is a growing sense that enough is enough. Now, people are asking anxiously what will happen come election time in 2019. Whatever happens, it is important that there be witnesses, so the world knows what is happening in Bolivia. I will be watching from Argentina with bated breath.

Cochabamba is known as the city of eternal spring for its year-round blue skies and mild temperatures. Deep red bougainvillea and large, creamy-white hibiscus adorn the gardens, and in the spring, the park outside my house turns lilac with jacaranda blossom, the scent drawing little iridescent green sunbirds. On days like these, I can understand why so many Cochabambans live here their entire lives. My Cochabamban flatmate once told me that she loves to travel, but in the end she always returns home. I don’t know when or for how long, but I suspect that I, too, will be back.

Amy Booth is a freelance journalist and circus instructor living in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

 

New Internationalist issue 510 magazine cover This article is from the February 2018 issue of New Internationalist.
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