It’s Different, but Not Bad

About a week ago, we had Eysel (our landlady and friend, pronounced “Hazel” without the “H”) and her daughter over for dinner. I made mashed potatoes, salmon with thyme, and a tomato salad. A rather uninspired meal, even if the fish came from Lake Titicaca. Eysel’s comment when Keith asked her what she thought of the meal, was, “It’s different, but not bad.” I was surprised with her honesty since people here tend to say what would make you feel the best about yourself (aka, “It was great, I love it” even if they hated every bite).

That phrase, I realized afterwards, is exactly how I feel about Bolivia at the moment.

Homes are simple and meager, but that’s not bad, just different. People only shop in the open-air market: not bad, different. There are no stop signs and very few stoplights and car seats do not exist; it might seem bad, but there are rarely traffic accidents. The entire country seems to be single-minded in how to care for a baby; it feels judgmental some days, but is it a bad thing that they are passionate about caring for their families? Everything here is different from home, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad, it just takes some getting used to.

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Keith was working with a medical school graduate this week who is volunteering at the clinic since there is a shortage of doctor jobs and he hasn’t gotten into residency yet (you don’t have to have a specialty to practice here). They were reading about a certain condition from a medical journal written in English and Keith translated. At one point, the author noted that this specific condition is prominent in “underdeveloped” countries. His colleague asked him what that even meant.

To Bolivians, our American life must seem so overdeveloped.

Everything related to standard of living is subjective. It seems pandemic in America (and in other first world countries) to think that our way of life is the best way and every one needs to live that way to live well.

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And yet, everything around me screams that this is the wrong attitude.

People here live through winter with no inside heating and many without indoor plumbing. It’s rare to see a car newer than 10 years old and that works just fine. Some showers are hot and some are cold: that’s just a fact of life. People here tend to have larger hearts (literally) to cope with the altitude. To them, it is nothing. Life here in Potosi is so incredibly different from our life back home, but it’s not bad.

It may seem absurd to believe that a “primitive” culture…has anything to teach our industrialized society. But our search for a future that works keeps spiraling back to an ancient connection…an interconnectedness that ancient cultures have never abandoned. (Helena Norberg-Hodge, excerpt from Three Cups of Tea)

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In reading Three Cups of Tea, the biography of climber-turned-humanitarian, I have really forced myself to realize that people in “underdeveloped” countries are far more developed in some ways than my industrialized country.

[He] taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects. He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them. (Greg Mortenson)

Bolivians care more about relationships than being on time or completing a task. While this may not be beneficial in all circumstances, I certainly have a lot to learn from them. They live a life of tradition; they know where they come from and why their customs are so important. That is not something many people from consumer-based societies can say.

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What is it that you see as “underdeveloped” in your world and what can you learn from it? People here do more with less and are content. People here are happy to live in a two-bedroom apartment with multiple children and are content. People here are happy to just stop and talk without worrying about what “needs” to get done and are still content. Will I choose contentment when I return home?

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