Week # 29:

Art & Culture

We invest a lot in the idea of community, and generally in the UK we lament what feels like its absence from our daily lives. Of course, we are all members of various communities at the least those that we enter into at work and those that we create amongst our friends. But these seem disparate and personal and somehow not organic or shared, or perhaps simply not neighbourly enough, to fulfil what we imagine as a community.

Ironically enough, a lot of people leave family and friends and familiarity behind them (usually in the developed world) with an idea explicit or not of seeking a greater sense of community elsewhere. And as a traveller you do find that communities form rapidly around you. Even for those on the move, backpacking, somehow the constant flow of transient foreign bodies manages to create its own social centre, so that you fall into conversation much easier with strangers in a hostel abroad than you would in a pub at home, or agree to go hike in the wilderness for a week with someone youve only known for a day. And then youll meet someone else in a town 500 miles away who was with that same person on a boat just last month

For the more static traveller perhaps someone like me who stops for a few months or more somewhere, finds work and a flat and has bills to pay I guess we call them expats, though that sounds rather permanent there is a similar speeding-up of the community-building process. Of course foreigners in a city draw together: a result of language and work contacts and shared outsiderness and the fact you have to start somewhere with making friends. But if theres something closed about this its also a process in which an openness abounds that you rarely find at home. Numbers are swapped and invitations extended instantly upon meeting; friendships form much faster.

All this comes from human need. You reach adulthood at home and theres a network in place. We love to continue making new friends but its not a matter of survival. But arrive somewhere new completely alone and the real basic needs for company, support, comfort, conversation and diversion impel you to seek out and build this social safety net. Often the speed and intensity of the search is matched by the quick and close nature of the relationships that you strike up.

I have gone through this process of arriving alone twice in Bolivia in La Paz and now in Cochabamba. Back in December when my university friend returned to Peru and left me on my own after two days in La Paz, it was something akin to standing on the edge of a cliff and wondering if your elephant ears are still working. When I left La Paz just over a month ago it was something like leaving home again.

Having now been in Cochabamba for several weeks I am experiencing the thrill of being drawn in to a new life once again. Unlike La Paz there is no real backpacker element in this city (its too far from the attractions of the gringo trail) something which probably helps those foreigners who are here, 99% of them working for NGOs or doing academic research, to be more accepted by the Bolivians who live locally. Us extranjeros stick out like a pair of patchwork trousers here, so you get to know peoples faces pretty quickly. Your American (North) boss recommends a British massage therapist and then she takes you camping in the jungle with another Brit volunteering on a water project and two of her Bolivian friends. You all spend the night together in a wet and sandy tent. And by the time youre saying goodbye to one of the PhD students a week later everyone youve met so far is drinking cheap red wine in the same room and discussing the social movements.

But beyond this semi-transient, mainly close-to-30 community there is a settled, closer-to-60 community of genuine expats, mostly from the US, who have made their lives here, married Bolivians, and are bringing their kids up out in Tiquipaya, the picturesque village where Evo held the Peoples Climate Summit last eyar. This community also mainly works in NGOs and volunteer organisations. But as a result of this work, and their long time putting down roots, perhaps building houses, and sending their kids who grow up speaking Spanish as a first language to the local school, this group of settled ex-travellers is both its own community and part of something larger. Something which Cochabamba seems to have a particular magic for. The same political energy which fires the social movement organisers and activists who those foreigners become colleagues of in the NGOs translates into a social spirit of eagerness to learn and share from one another.

And so on Sunday, after the Mayday workers march, many of the foreign and local faces Ive met were celebrating in the garden of one of the water activists Id heard a lot about, expressing solidarity through song and friendship through the sharing of chicha. A fermented maize drink with a long history and especially beloved of Cochabambinos of all backgrounds, the drinking of chicha is an expression of community values. Drunk with one scoop from one jar (or perhaps plastic bucket), the vessel is passed around and before drinking you will catch someones eye and offer them health, pour a little on the ground for Pachamama, drain your cup and then refill it for the next person. This is a completely shared, constant, and naturally somewhat intoxicating way to pass time with your neighbours. It says a lot about Bolivia but it expresses something much more universal as well. It certainly makes you feel at home.

I spent much of this weekend hanging out with Kumana, a local band whose diverse members thrive on the Cochabambina spirit of community and shared struggle to produce an amazing musical fusion. Watch this space for an interview coming shortly

Mads Ryle

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