Saturday, July 9, 2011

El Campo=Space

Me in the campo--it was cold!

Last Saturday, one of the lay missioners took me and my housemates and to the campo. In Bolivia, “campo” can mean “space” as well as “countryside” and, when you venture out of the city, it’s easy to see why these words are related. In the campo—in the countryside—there is a lot of space, along with a lot of fresh air, mountains, animals, sweeping plains--so many things I hardly realized I was missing or missing out on until we actually left Cochabamba and started climbing higher into the hills.

The weather that day was quite unusual for this time of year: overcast, rainy, and cold (even colder at higher altitudes). Technically speaking, Bolivia, like any other country, experiences the four seasons. In general, however, sorting the seasons into two categories, wet and dry, tends to be more relevant since the climate is pretty temperate year round. Last Saturday, then, we found ourselves venturing out on a wet day in the dry season with a view of snow-covered mountains in the distance. It may have been rare for this time of year and it may have been slightly annoying to head out in the rain, but it was beautiful.

Our first stop was the town of Tiraque where we ended up at the mayor’s office to use the bathroom (essential, unless we wanted to use bushes for bathrooms the rest of the day) and pick up a woman, Maria, that Jason, our guide (and an engineer), has worked with on projects that give people in rural areas access to clean water and sanitation facilities. Maria needed to check on a couple projects in surrounding areas which gave us a great opportunity to see the projects for ourselves.

Both villages were accessed by dirt roads, and I’m really glad Maria knew where she was going, because there were no signs, and no sign of civilization off the main road. The first village we stopped at surely had a name, but I’m not sure what it was. Upon getting out the car, the colder air let us know we were not in Cochabamba anymore. Thankfully, Maria led us into the local meeting house (a concrete building that used to be a one-room schoolhouse) which provided some relief from the biting cold. Inside, the people from the village had gathered to discuss the pros and cons of building a composting toilet in their area as well as what kinds of bricks they would use if people voted in favor of the project.

You might be wondering, as I wondered myself, why wouldn’t someone want a composting toilet in a brick building if they don’t have access to other, good-quality sanitation facilities? Well, to begin with, people might be satisfied with what they have already. In addition, while the government and an organization called Water for People subsidizes the water/sanitation projects, local people who will benefit from a project also have to make a financial contribution and provide all manual labor. This changes the situation a bit, and requires that the community come together, discuss, and vote.

At this meeting, Maria led the discussion in Quechua, an indigenous language that, over the years, has pulled in some Spanish words. Maria asked the villagers to sort themselves into groups based on whether or not they wanted the toilet, and then asked that they move into groups based on what kind of brick they would like (if they wanted the toilet at all): adobe, “ladrillo ecológico” (a brick made with clay and formed with a machine), or some other kind of brick whose features I can’t remember.

As the villagers voiced their opinions, Maria wrote pros and cons on some paper that she had mounted on an old chalkboard and I looked around the room, taking in all the details made me feel, more strongly than at any other moment since arriving in Bolivia, that I was in the presence of people whose culture was very different from my own. More importantly, perhaps, I realized that I was their guest.

Some might say that poverty defined the differences between us. I have, after all, never lived without a toilet or running water and that fact probably has less to do with my culture and more to do with my parents’ socioeconomic status. Still, seeing everything through the lens of poverty inhibits one’s ability to recognize and appreciate the cultural gems that exist in a society and persist despite poverty.

Take the shoes of the women at the meeting, for example. They were, essentially, ballet flats made of plastic, kind of like those “jelly” shoes (anyone remember those?) that were made in the 90s—certainly not what I would consider appropriate footwear on a cold day in the campo. The women even wore those shoes without socks! Looking at their feet made my feet cold, and I felt bad for the women, thinking they didn’t have enough money to buy real shoes. I then realized, however, that many of the men were wearing rain boots. Hmmm…very curious. They had money to buy “proper” shoes. So what was up with the women? Poverty? Perhaps not. A kind of sexism that dictates what kind of footwear is appropriate for women or who gets the better shoes? Maybe. I don’t doubt that an outdated understanding of gender roles keeps many women from realizing their full potential in the campo, but I think the women’s choice of shoes was based more on what is fashionable and what goes well with the just-below-the-knee length skirt that is the dress of choice among indigenous women in this part of the country. Sitting in on the meeting, I was seeing a new culture--uncomfortable-looking shoes and all—and I had to respect that.

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