LA PAZ, Bolivia — I consider myself to be a traveler who attempts to absorb the essence of a place through the behaviors and practices that give its people their identity. My major focus is not the politics but the currents and trends that produce the politics of the place.
In more instances than not, I remain ignorant of more than I comprehend. For me, comprehending is not necessarily the prize. The prize is going to a place and experiencing it without prejudice or limits.
On this, my first trip to Bolivia, I had the cultural experience of my life. Since early childhood, when I first saw photographs of the indigenous Aymara women, known as Cholas or Cholitas, and the rugged environment where they live, I wanted to see them and their families in the flesh. Their attire, the iconic bola hat and the colorful pollera skirt, fascinated me, symbolizing the Aymara and the Republic of Bolivia in my imagination.
After meeting many Aymara — buying their merchandise, eating their food, staying in one of their villages on Island of the Sun and witnessing their daily life — I realized that no book, photo, DVD or lecture can capture the complexities of these South Americans. I had assumed, for example, like many others who have only seen the women in photos, that all or most of them are highly overweight. Now I know that beneath those pleated pollera skirts are multiple layers of petticoats, making many of the women appear much heavier than they are. I know also that the various parts of the attire have special meanings.
Here in La Paz, the average tourist can mistakenly believe that all of those Cholas sitting and standing along the streets with their goods and foods and drinks for sale are poor women eking out a living. The reality is that they are accomplished merchants, and many play leading roles in every facet of their communities and Bolivian life in general. Their power greatly increased with the rise of Evo Morales, the nation's first indigenous president, who was elected in December 2005. Now they are members of the national legislature and representatives to the Constitutional Assembly.
I got a deeper understanding of the Aymara when I visited Island of the Sun in Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable body of water in the world, where the Incas believed the sun was created. I traveled to the island by boat from the legendary town of Copacabana, where believers come for miracles and blessings.
As you approach the island, you see terraced mountainsides and an occasional plume of smoke against the rocky terrain. Closer still, you can see that the mountain is teeming with life. The self-sufficient inhabitants are going about daily life. They are tending their sheep, pigs, burros, cattle and llamas. Others are carrying heavy loads on their backs up and down the mountain. After disembarking and beginning the arduous walk up the mountain, you meet children, some as young as 5 years old, carrying burdens much heavier than they are.
One boy, no more than 6, went past me (I was winded) with two bulging packs on his back and a load of wood on top of them. He was breathing heavily, but his tiny legs climbed the steep rocky path without stopping. Behind him, a woman and a young girl followed two burros loaded with huge plastic jugs of water.
That is when I realized that everything, including food and water, must be hauled up the mountain by animals and people. No vehicles of any kind are on the island.
I stayed in a room for tourists. If I had opened my bathroom window and reached out, I could have touched the burros outside. Animals are essential to life, and the people watch out for their welfare 24/7.
With conditions being so primitive and harsh, you would think that the children would be unhappy. Instead, children's laughter filled the air as they played with the toys they had created out of the stuff of the environment.
When I left Island of the Sun and returned to La Paz, I felt honored that I had seen this slice of Bolivian life and met these Aymara who live so simply.