I had to write an essay for one of my classes at the university this year. It was about a personal experience, and since it is highly related to travels and new cultures, I decided to share it here, even though it happened to me two years ago in Bolivia:
It is always difficult to recall these memories, especially because looking back to them from now, they seem very different than in the situation and time when they happened. In order to be clear with all the circumstances, first of all, I would like to give context and explain how did I get to this place. I used to think that it was causality. Not any more; I am almost sure, there was a reason for me to arrive there that day.
Very precisely, on the 20th of June, 2013, a cold, winter day in Bolivia, I was on my way, hitch-hiking from one of the bigger Bolivian cities (Uyuni) towards to the boarder of Chile. I had been traveling for almost five months then, I started the trip in March in Colombia, so I had already crossed Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, with a minimum budget, always by hitch-hiking. I met amazing people, and cultures, when it was needed I worked, I also did some voluntary job, I was getting better with the language, and I was traveling together with a Latin boy, who decided to come with me after we met in Ecuador. It was an incredible experience for me, we were traveling without money, with two dogs, we survived by playing street music, and by selling handicrafts on the street. I learned a lot about local traditions, about life, about people, and mostly about myself.
Anyway, that day we were hoping to get to Chile soon. We were hungry, dirty and exhausted from the cold weather, the days of waiting and hitch hiking. We were sick because of the heights of 4000 meters in the mountains, where the pressure is high, and it's difficult to breath, and to exist for people who are not used to it. The best way to survive these conditions is to chew Coca leafs all the time. We were hitch hiking desperately on a narrow road somewhere in the mountains, which is really not a good thing to do in Bolivia, because often more lama passes through such a road than car or camion. Night was falling and we still didn't have a ride to get at least to the next village, to find something to eat, and a warm place to sleep. In my head I already started to prepare for the next horribly cold and scary night in the tent outside in the nature.
When we were at the point to set a fire, as usual in order to warm up a stone to put it inside the tent and survive the night without being frozen , a car arrived. It was an Ambulance car, driven by an old, and tired Bolivian man. He had already finished his shift, and was heading towards his village. He suggested us to go with him, even though, the village was not in the direction that we wanted to go, and it was an extremely hidden and little indigenous settlement in the mountains high as 3700 meters, with around 2000 inhabitants. Otherwise I probably would have never known about the existence of this place, but since we were happy to reach any civilization for the night, and since people meant a possibility to find some food in exchange to some handicrafts, we of course accepted the proposition and got into the car. It was my first and last time traveling in a Bolivian Ambulance car. :)
The driver told us, we could probably stay for the whole weekend in the village, and reminded us of the date: the day after was the 21st of June, which is a very special day for the indigenous population: the Winter (Summer in Europe) Solstice, and at the same time, this is the beginning of the New Aymara Year. Without knowing it, we arrived in an Aymara village, exactly in time for the biggest indigenous Aymara Celebration of the year.
Aymara people are an indigenous nation in the mountains of the Andes in South America. Most of them (around 2 million) live in Bolivia, others in Peru and Chile. They lived there centuries before the arrival of the Inca. After the Spanish-American War of Independence (1810–25), the Aymaras became subjects of the new nations of Bolivia and Peru.
I didn't know much about them before, I had more contact with another indigenous population in Peru and Ecuador, the Quechua - I even tried to learn their language. I thought it's a great opportunity to see another culture with other traditions, and I have to say, that I have unforgettable memories about Aymara people. I also have to admit that it's posterior that I can appreciate this opportunity, back then it seemed extremely hard, because of barriers of communication (lot of Aymara people, especially the elderly do not speak Spanish, only the indigenous Aymara language) because of their mistrustful attitude (I was probably the first foreigner, and the first white person they have ever seen in their village) and because of my weariness after so long time of traveling in difficult climate conditions.
Well, when we arrived, there was no special sign of any celebration, so we started to discover the little square in the middle of the community.... people were more than surprised to see foreigners in the village, especially a white girl, with a black boy, arrived with an Ambulance car, with two dogs, and backpacks. On one hand we were treated as special, exotic creatures, they immediately gave us something to eat, and those who could speak Spanish (the young generation) asked us lot of questions. On the other hand, they were trying to benefit, and based on the very widespread stereotype among Latino people -- the so-called “gringa” (white, foreigner person) is equal money – they wanted to charge us for accommodation. When they found out that we had no money at all, and we would have rather slept outside in the tent than to pay, they became more sympathizer with us, and offered us to sleep in the attic of the Community House. It wasn't luxurious at all, on the dusty floor with half isolated windows, strange noises and rats around, but they gave it with such a good heart that we couldn't wish for better. The tent and the dogs protected us anyway from snakes, rats, and bigger insects.
As the night fall down, it got darker and colder, and people started to make fires on the square. Bolivian winter, especially in the high mountains is very dangerous, because in the day it doesn't seem too cold, but in the night it gets below zero, and it is very difficult to manage in it. In South America people don't have heating systems. We were all sitting or standing around the fires to warm us up, people started to come, talk, and then play music and the celebration started.
It lasted for three entire days. I have never seen such a celebration. At first I felt like observing it, and at the end I participated with my soul and body, and that's when I felt myself as never before.
The ambiance was really special and inspiring thanks to the indigenous music, played by the men population of the community, on the indigenous instruments, continuously during the three days; women dancing, with their children on their backs, in folkloric dresses and typical Bolivian hats and ponchos, fires burning, people drinking, chewing Coca leafs, and dancing, dancing, singing, chanting...
After the first day of continuous dance, some of the youth gave up, to have a rest, some drunk too much, and the boy who was with me also went to sleep to our attic, so I stayed there with my little dog, the only white girl in the middle of the indigenous Bolivian celebration. I felt the distance they were keeping towards me, especially the elderly people, speaking Aymara, and having absolutely no idea who was I and what did I want. Despite of it, I wanted to stay, I felt extremely exhausted, but I didn't want to sleep. I was curious and even though I had no idea about the ceremony, I could feel that everyone was waiting for something to happen, this was only the beginning.
I think, I first started to be accepted by locals, when they could see that I am strong enough to keep on, dance, and celebrate with them. Then finally, putting together the segments of information, I could understand that in reality, we are celebrating not only the New Aymara Year, but mostly, the “Pachamama” the Mother Earth, a goddess revered by the indigenous people in the Andes, in order to thank her for everything she had given in the course of the year, and all she had been teaching us since the very beginning of our existence. I could also understand that the reason why before drinking, every Bolivian pours a gulp of the drink called “chicha” (fermented beverage from corn) on the earth was to share it with Pachamama and I got to know as well, that the Coca leaf is not only the best plant to help the sickness caused by height, but also the Sacred Plant of the Mother Earth.
Understanding more about the cultural background, I kept on celebrating with them, dancing, singing, pouring a bit to the floor, then drinking, dancing, dancing... They were smiling at me encouragingly, but the point when they could see that I really meant this experience, was when the second night at four o'clock in the morning, I went with them up to the mountain...
In reality, it was a little hill next to the settlement, and from the top of it, the whole village was visible, with huge pampas around it, troops of sheep and Vicuña (special animal living at such altitude) and the lake nearby, called Poopó.
It was quite a challenge to climb up, at night in the darkness, and cold, with my little dog, but I couldn't say a word: old Bolivian women, even the oldest one, with their children on their backs, after they had been dancing the whole day, were marching towards the top of the hill with determination. They couldn't even think about not being there when we officially thank Pachamama. Bolivian women are the strongest and most resisting women I have ever seen. They wash with their hands in cold rivers, they feed the whole family from what they cultivate with their own hands, they work hard, they support their husband, and they never ever complain. I respect them more than women of any nation.
When we were all together on the top that’s when I did realize that I was not considered any more as a stranger, observing their ceremony, but as a member of the community, a child of the Pachamama, a human fellow sister, a lost traveler with her little dog, seeking for herself, and for a better understanding of the world. They accepted me. They treated me equally, because I was with them in heart and body, up on that hill. I had no money, I brought no camera, I helped in whatever I could, I was not a tourist, I didn't want to be.
We were preparing together for the ceremony, connected to the rising of the sun. The fire was set, and the Shaman (the spirit-worker of the community) started to chant something in Aymara language, while everyone joined the rhythm. Unfortunately I didn't understand the words, but it was a simple rhythm, with a very simple move around the fire, so I was doing it with them, my dog following me. We were passing a bottle around with chicha in it, everyone could drink; they made no difference, men, women, children, indigenous, or me. We all chanted and drank and dance around the fire, and the sun started to rise, and it was such a beautiful an unforgettable moment, that warmed us up not only outside, but very deep inside. A sacrifice was made for Pachamama, a killed lama was burnt in the fire, with lots of Coca leafs and other objects with different meanings. The Shaman was chanting louder and louder, the music was faster and faster and the huge smoke hovered around us while the sun was rising and the Nature showed its beauty as the huge, burning, orange sun was reflected on the surface of the Poopó Lake, and our little hill seemed as an island in the endless universe.
I felt a huge happiness inside my body, I didn't mind any more who was I, where was I, what was I doing and why, I just felt a huge thankfulness, an indescribable happiness. I wanted to thank Pachamama, the Nature, people, everything and everyone, from my heart's core for everything I lived through, everything I have seen and done and I found a huge value in each little detail. It was series of enlightenment, when I could see the very positive side of everything, and all my experiences with the harsh conditions, poverty, and being lost, gained a meaning. I did (or do?) believe in the existence of a superior power, - maybe Pachamama - who is protecting me and teaching me, by showing me different life experiences.
I have no idea how long did it take, we continued to dance around the fire, I don't know if others got into trance, or some sort, but I guess I was not the only one to dance with closed eyes and to be somewhere far away in head.
Finally, the ceremony ended, and the New Aymara Year started, with the benevolence of Pachamama. We all went back to the community, music and dance of course continued. I was exhausted but I wouldn't have been able to sleep after such an intense experience. I went to one of the gardens, where a group of elderly women were preparing food for the whole community. I was trying to ask in Spanish if I could help them, but they only spoke Aymara, so I just sat down, and started to peel the potatoes with them. It was an incredibly nice experience to observe, how humans communicate without language. Only by glimpses, smiles, moves, and impressions. I could clearly feel the surprise, then the despising way they looked at me, the “gringa” instead of having fun with others sits here with the potatoes (there is a Bolivian potato called “chuño”, particularly disgusting and smelly) and thinks about spiritual experiences... Then as they observed me, and I observed them, we mutually understood that we are just from the same human origin, we are all children of Pachamama, and as they saw me, helping with the vegetables, my little dog, my handicrafts and instrument, my outworn backpack and clothes, I could feel that they accepted me, and they grew a kind of respect towards me. We exchanged a smile, and I knew then, we respected each other. I knew it without words.
I wanted to share this experience, because I consider it as a kind of realization in my life, that thought me not only to adapt to different situations, accept others and to be accepted, understand other cultures, but also gave me a spiritual enrichment, inner development. Since then, I have been thinking a lot about my beliefs, I am trying to understand myself, and others, and the more I see, the more I realize how little I’ve known about life, about our world. Though, I will not give up, I keep on seeking, learning, reading, experimenting. I try to look for the positive side of things, and I attempt to be open, in order to grow richer humanely, mentally and spiritually :).