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A Memorable Place

'Tall brother' in Bolivian highlands

By Adam Spivak


When I arrived in Bolivia to begin my volunteer internship with a local relief organization, I was an outsider in all ways. I spoke only conversational Spanish and no Aymaran.

As predicted by my parents and friends, a recently earned degree in English literature was less than helpful. The altiplano's 12,000-foot altitude proved difficult. For weeks I found myself out of breath with the slightest effort, squinting at intensely blue skies and a harsh, unforgiving sun.

Still, I found the Aymara people to be welcoming and friendly, interested in learning about me and sharing bits of themselves. I was the first Caucasian to live in the village of Layuri, on the Altiplano, and I soon found that the village was excited to have a yerno or "son-in-law."

Within days of arriving there, I had been given the nickname that remained with me for my seven-month stay: h'acha he'lata -- tall brother.

Communication was slow, fitful and occasionally frustrating as both parties spoke through their second language -- Spanish. My offer of a live Spanish translation of a village favorite movie, Rambo, was gladly accepted and prompted multiple screenings on the village's only television.

As altitude-induced headaches faded, I found myself looking forward to the soccer game that ended each workday. Even when playing soccer, most Aymaran women wear bowler hats, colorful shawls and multiple pleated skirts. This centuries-old tradition is traced back to a royal decree that indigenous women dress in the style popular in Spain at the time.

Four hundred years later, this fashion statement would be difficult to find in Spain, but it persists in its former colonies among the Aymara and Quechua.

I remember feeling, despite months of living and working with the Aymara, a persistent and distinct cultural divide. The photo at left was taken at a celebration for a two-room school we built in a local farming village. As was customary, the women and men gathered separately. While the men were often inquisitive and interested in discussion, the women moved in small groups, speaking quietly to one another, impenetrable.

I knew part of the gap related to language -- women only recently were taught Spanish. The older generations spoke exclusively in their native tongue.

The inability to understand foreign customs and traditions had initially been frustrating to me, something I attributed to my own failings at communication. Later, I came to recognize this as an intriguing part of a culture that was both older and more intricate than my own, one content to keep its secrets to itself.

Adam Spivak lives in Baltimore.

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