6 de Agosto

The city of La Paz with Mt. Illimani in background. Credit: YOUnique Photography — Karla Melgarejo,

On this day in 1825, Bolivia broke the shackles of Spanish rule and became an independent nation. 171 years and 70 days later, I moved to La Paz, Bolivia’s largest city and governmental capital with my family.

Some experiences affect you so totally that their essence intermingles with your cells, and the memories weave through the double helices of your DNA, changing not just an outlook, or an attitude, but your entire chemical make up. Some things grab hold of us so profoundly that when we try to imagine our lives without them, it feels as though we had never lived at all. My childhood in La Paz, Bolivia is like this for me. It’s as if I would not exist had it not been for a plane flight in October of 1996 that transported my family from the United States to the heart of South America.

Two weeks earlier I’d been running through Pennsylvania woods, thanking God I didn’t need training wheels anymore and swinging a child’s 3-wood that Mr. Trinkle, a man from just beyond our cul de sac — whose name I remember but whose face I don’t — had given me that summer. We’d make snow forts in the winter and carve up branches with pocket-knives in the summer. There was a creek near our house in Allentown, Pennsylvania — Jordan Creek — and I figured at the time that it surely flowed somewhere into the famed Jordan River, where I’d heard Jesus was baptized.

I don’t recall when or how I was first told we’d be moving to La Paz, Bolivia, but it is the only cry in Allentown I really remember. I was a child and probably cried all the time, but the tears that came when I tried to wrap my head around the idea of moving to a different country came from such a real place of terror that I suppose it could be considered my first adult cry. There was no internet or social media, and the separation from the only friends and life I’d ever known would be total.

The elevation of the El Alto Airport (in ’96 it was still called the John F. Kennedy Airport) is 15,000 feet above sea level. The air is so thin that just walking through the terminal will leave you gasping, and the atmosphere isn’t thick enough to support a plane in the normal way. Pilots need special training to be able to fly in and out of El Alto, and bigger aircraft like the 747 are out of the question entirely. As a 7 year old, the effects weren’t much more than feeling uncomfortable, totally out of breath, and headached — but the effects are far worse for adults, and are the most severe in teenagers. At 14 years old my brother fell squarely in the worst possible spectrum, and after vomiting throughout the descent, left the plane needing urgent medical attention.

El Alto, a city in the highlands that surround La Paz, was alive with people and buildings, but the landscape itself was arid and barren. There were hardly any trees or plant-life, and the cars on the dirt roads kicked up dust that caught in the brilliant early morning sunlight like so many bits of glitter dulled by man and machine. We navigated streets walled with adobe, and past long two-storey brick buildings covered in hand-painted signs in a language I couldn’t yet read. I was too worn out and overwhelmed to observe much, but I made eye contact with a cholita, a native Bolivian women dressed in the traditional uniform of skirt, petticoat, and a bowler hat. She was squatting on a corner, looking out over an intersection, and she spun string from wool with her hands.

This isn’t the story of how I wound up in Bolivia, however. It’s the 6th of August, Bolivia’s Independence Day, so this story is about what happened after I got there — an ode to the nation of my boyhood.

In La Paz, there’s not much cushion between you and the heavens, and this gives the sun a particular kind of brilliance. Colors seem more vibrant underneath this sun, the clay of the mountains and adobe, the pink, mint-green, and blue dresses of the cholitas, and the t-shirts of the boys leaning out of bus windows to scream out the bus’s destinations, all seem to take in that extra sunlight and saturate themselves with it before blasting the color back to you. This distillation of light, those rays of sun refracted through what feels at the time to be an entirely unique prism, can make it hard not to look away. The women selling candy from stalls outside my school would laugh with (or at, probably at) me, and cast friendly glances on the gringo gordo from blood-shot eyes that seemed to have recessed a little after years of this sunlight. And outside the city, on the Altiplano, the night sky is so overwhelming that if stars truly were pinholes in the blanket night, through which the gods peer down on us, then this part of Bolivia must be their favorite place to observe.

My brother and I would attend the American school in the Calacoto neighborhood of the city. The school was American in name because it was partially subsidized by the U.S. government, and operated with an American curriculum — it was known in the city as Colegio Calvert. Despite the name, the student body was predominantly Bolivian, and the remainder was made up of children from all 6 inhabited continents. Kids from the United States were a minority.

I’ve discovered a bit of conflict in the preceding paragraph. One of the earliest lessons I remember learning at the school took place in a Spanish class, when I said to the teacher, “Soy Americano.” (I’m American)

“Pues, yo tambien soy Americana,” (Well, I too am American) she said.

The teacher’s point was that Bolivia was an American country, as was every other country in the Americas. I felt extremely foolish, but this developed into my first lesson in the United State’s brand of cultural hubris. Americans took land from sea to shining sea, sure, but the United States still only represents one country among many in the Americas. Never again would I call myself Americano, from then on I would be Estado Unidense (from the United States). The conflict of the paragraph I referenced, and indeed what will continue to be a conflict throughout this entire post, is that there is no real equivalent term in English. We have no, ‘United Statesian’ for example. I love the English language, I obsess over it and I spend more time thinking about it than anything else on Earth, but it is tragically fitting, in a way, that the native tongue of perhaps the most powerful cultural imperialists of all time is not effectively equipped to refer to people, or anything else from the United States as anything but American, as if the US is the only nation of import in this hemisphere.

I never encountered any true anti-American sentiment in Bolivia, at least nothing beyond playground jabs — and we all know playgrounds are ruthless no matter the country. Anything goes in the shadow of the monkey bars. But it was common to confront this initial assumption — a kind of immediate standoffishness from folks who assumed that I felt myself superior, an American from the one and only true America, toying around in a less fortunate backyard country for no particular reason. This notion was always easy to joke away.

My entire life is story. Story is how I view the world and how I understand things, and I understand that context is as important as any character. It is fascinating to reflect on this moment in my life and truly start to grasp how much the context had changed for me. I had been a white American boy in a suburban community, and in moments that seem almost laughably cliche, I rode a red Schwinn around a cul de sac and caught pop flys and fielded grounders that my dad tossed me on a lush front lawn. From October of 1996 I was in a place where most people looked nothing like me, no one played baseball, and I was a complete outsider. I could never thank Bolivia enough for giving me that experience.

Like anything truly beautiful, La Paz had its share of ugliness, of hard to swallow truths that confronted me at the time in the forms of children my own age and younger living on the streets, begging for money or food or offering to wash cars on the street for the equivalent of a penny. These children wore tire-rubber shoes if they had any at all, and seemed to me the true lost boys — miniscule blips in the universe, lost and forgotten amid the great turning of the Earth. My mother was very active in charitable organizations in Bolivia, and I went with her often to orphanages around the city. The school organized similar trips as well, and I have many memories of interacting with children both within the city and without — of handing out school supplies and food, or just playing soccer on pitches of dirt or poured concrete. I don’t remember how I felt about all that at the time. The reality of have vs. have-not, the gaping, almost unfathomable distance between the comforts and opportunities afforded me and the outlook for the poor children in Bolivia was just that, I suppose: a reality. The sky was blue, mountains were tall, they needed pencils, paper, and food, and I had never missed a meal. In later life these grim realities come back to me often. When I find myself lusting after some particular possession, or bemoaning the fact that I have missed out on this experience or that, I remember that there are thousands of children spending their childhoods in the same country I spent mine, who would see the whole world in a fresh notebook, and a lifetime of happiness in an old bicycle.

Bolivia is a breathtaking, beautiful and astounding place, where the people are quick to smile and ancient cultural traditions mesh with the modern era and become something entirely unique. I mention the harsh conditions of a lot of Bolivia’s citizens because it speaks to this day, the 6th of August, when in Bolivia, like they do in almost every American country on one day or another, they celebrate their freedom, and the ideals of liberty. There is no use cataloguing the myriad luxuries afforded those in the United States, but one of the most potent is our distance from true political struggle, from oppression, and from the kind of poverty where neither a child’s education nor his nourishment are guaranteed, and often depend largely on the goodwill of others.

Both the United States and Bolivia won their respective revolutions, both American countries ousted European imperialists and wrote their own constitutions, but in Bolivia it can seem like the struggles of their revolution are still ongoing, and there’s still fighting left to be done.

This difference is particularly potent as the US gears up for an election cycle. Indeed, this article will be published on the day of the first Republican primary debates, and we fuss over these things, we obsess over these things as I suppose we should, but the reality is that the stakes aren’t really that high. The election of a Democrat or Republican will sway things a few degrees one way or another, but at the end of the day things won’t change all that much for most people. It’s not my intention to get political, only to say that things felt important growing up in Bolivia, and that the average citizen still had so much left to gain from revolutionary ideals.

Spending the years in Bolivia that I did was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I believe it shaped me and affected the person I am in more ways than almost anything else in my life. Bolivia taught me that my country wasn’t the center of the universe, that human beings will always be human beings regardless of how they look or where they came from, and that they all like to laugh. It taught me a second language, and it gave me memories to last a lifetime. But the most important lesson, the one I hope to never forget, is just how stupidly, inexplicably, incomprehensibly fortunate I am, and that the only difference between me and the millions of people all around the world struggling for basic necessities is nothing more than luck of the draw.

There is a refrain in the National Anthem of Bolivia — a part of the chorus — that goes, ‘¡Morir antes de esclavos vivir!’ It means, ‘To die before we’d live as slaves!’ I’ve always loved that.

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Originally published at themarshallvariety.com.

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