Bolivia is Poor
My family owns a humble, little restaurant. You should come for lunch some time. You’ll sit down on your red, plastic chair and will promptly be served a piece of bread and a bowl of noodle, quinoa, or peanut soup. The soup will be warm, but not steaming hot. When you finish up, the main course will come out. You’ll eat whatever they are serving that day, likely some form of chicken or beef with rice and a white potato. As you chow down, a few houseflies will come and go, landing on your food. They won’t really bother you; they’re much more interested in your lunch. It’s quite a hearty meal for just ten bolivianos (a dollar fifty). Just make sure you get there by 1:15ish to avoid running the risk that the restaurant has already closed up for the day.
My family owns a humble, little restaurant. You should come for lunch some time. You’ll be greeted by the piping pan-flutes of folklore music emanating from the stereo and then by my 16-month-old niece Lupe and she waddles around with eyes wide open and throws her hands on your legs with a welcoming “AHHM!” The regulars will be in their places, chatting in Spanish, Quechua, or a confusing fusion of the two. A stocky, dark-skinned, gregarious neighbor comes in to eat with his dark jeans, brown cap, bright smile, and gorgeous labrador retriever. As always, he leaves with a plastic bag full of the day’s leftover meat scraps and bones. Sometime during your meal, a customer will pay with a hundred boliviano bill, and Mamita María will gasp, then laugh, then ask her family for change, then turn to her patrons, until finally the culprit manages to extract from his pockets enough coins to total ten B’s. At 1:20 sharp, a man will arrive at the door of the already emptying restaurant and ask if there is still food. Mamita María will start to say no, but then she’ll notice that he had come by bike. “¿Unito?” (Just one?) And then she’ll find a way to muster up one last full meal. All the while, as you live in this moment enjoying your simple lunch, in the back corner of the room with her alpaca-wool hat and majestic black braids sits an old cholita woman peeling, peeling, peeling potatoes, gracing you with her presence without uttering a single word.
Every day I eat lunch in both of these restaurants. However, my head and and my heart only experience one of them. The other is rooted in “reality,” but on an emotional level it simply does not exist. I lied to you while only telling the truth; I sparked within you emotions that I have never experienced myself in the family restaurant. Years from now, I will look back fondly on both the pan-flutes and the houseflies. I will look back fondly on a humble, little restaurant that exemplified the splendor of the human spirit, and more specifically, of the Bolivian spirit.
Every day I live in two Bolivias at the same time. There is the one-dimensional Bolivia that you can find on the Internet and in the news, a “poor,” “Third World” country in need of development. This narrative is incomplete at best, incorrect at worst, and most importantly an egregious emotional misrepresentation. Then there is the Bolivia that has been my home since September; the Bolivia of brilliant, green, three-headed masks in festival parades; the Bolivia of packed trufi conversations en route to Cochabamba; the Bolivia of small, homey restaurants that unite communities for lunch each day.
The lukewarm soup and white potato may be the easiest concepts to understand from afar, where your five senses are not constantly exposed to the richness and beauty of Bolivian life. However, just because certain ideas are easily grasped by outsiders (soup, potato, GDP, poverty rate) does not mean that they are valid representations of an entire country or culture. Bolivia is not “poor” unless you adopt the narrowest possible definition of the word. I just hope you have the fortune to be able to visit one day, revel in its wealth, and maybe even stop by for lunch.