The last time I lived in Bolivia, I followed the national elections like a stalker. Everytime I would hear loud music in the street, I rushed outside to watch the flatbed trucks filled with dancers and waving flags go past. Every candidate had a theme song and as it played, the politicians would toss t-shirts and stickers to the crowds, in the street. The time I caught a shirt filled me with pride, despite not really having any concept of the issues. Besides humming the catchy tunes under my breath, in terms of actually understanding the politics behind the parades, I knew nothing.
Another Canadian co-worker in Santa Cruz was also a stalker, of the flag collecting kind. She slowly grew her collection, even going to different offices to ask for the flags she was missed. Most places were more than willing, yet when she went to the MAS headquarters to ask for their square, multicolored flag (the most beautiful of the bunch), she was refused in no uncertain terms.
Yet it was MAS that won the 2005 election, an election that felt distant, yet terrible, from our vantage point on the back deck of the children’s home in the eastern lowlands where I was a volunteer. As we listened to the news reports of the win, the house parents shuddered and wondered aloud about the disaster about to befall their country, as Evo Morales, an Indigenous, coca growing, socialist was about to become president. I shuddered too, unaware of the possibilities and other questions the moment could hold.
It was in Bolivia that I drank my first beer, learnt another language, figured out public transportation, listened to peace theology, discussed racism in the north, decided never to have children, met a Palestinian, got mugged, purchased pirated dvds on a weekly basis, learnt how to be late, questioned authority, and wrestled with trying to understand a world (and an Anna) I had no idea even existed.
Last week, I joked that my coworkers and bosses were on Anna’s Nostalgic Tour, as we walked through the orange orchard from my old house to my old workplace. Looking back, I can draw a direct line from that path to my current work with MCC. I had left Bolivia with more doubts than answers; nothing I had seen fit the box shaped world I believed I understood. As I processed the experience back in Canada, I only knew I wanted to work for change in systems that cause children to end up in homes, rather than working directly with kids in homes.
Alex, the co-director of the home, took a moment to update me on the life of the children since I left. One young man is fulfilling his dream of being a commercial airplane pilot. Another is awaiting trial for attempted femicide. I am exhilarated and heartbroken. I feel guilty for not being a better parent figure, for not knowing how to reconcile Bolivian culture with my awkward Canadian bumbling, for parachuting into a context that I was not equipped to handle, for being too young and too naive. Yet, if I am authorized to feel shame, that means I can also feel pride at the thought of Mario soaring through the skies, a smile as big as his dreams pasted across his face.
In reality, I hope that I cannot claim credit for either event. Hearing their stories, however, is a reminder of all the lives that have touched with mine, and the tragedies and joys that encompass all the messy nuances of life, especially ones lived in an institution. I don’t quite remember everyone’s names anymore and they don’t quite remember mine, but over and over, the workers still around tell me that my laugh is exactly same.
“The first steps towards transformation is irritation,” my friend Nate joked with me in the office as we discussed moments of change in the lives of people we work with. When I look back on my time in Bolivia I still laugh the same, yet my questions are different, steered in part by the uncertainty, and yes, the irritation, over the course of a year in an unfamiliar place. Transformation is not a lightening strike, but small moments of change, over and over and over again.
Two young men take different steps and end up in different places. The wiphala continues to fly across the country.
With a new degree and work experience, advocacy and actual election watching has become my path. Instead of fear, I am seeking possibilities. What happens when social movements non-violently demand a seat at the table, and actually get it, after 500 years of colonialism? What does continuing to bridge the gap between lowland and altiplano, large scale landholders and campesinos look like in practice? How does international policy connect with daily life? When is political power held for too long? How do we create spaces for different choices, on a personal and a national level? What does it mean to carry myself into situations that still cause my life to interact with those of others?
It is disconcerting, yet slightly hopeful, to discover, that while I may be asking different questions in 2017, I still have no clear answers. There is still space to learn, to grow, to be curious, to seek transformation. Here I am.