Four taxis crammed to the brim with backpacks and tents and souvenirs and students through late night Cuzco, an 8 hour overnight bus ride, a border crossing, a traffic jam, two more eight hour bus rides, and another hour long taxi ride, and we arrived in Bolivia, 28hrs later, at 2am, bleary eyed and sweaty and ready for sleep. So when we decided to have a slow morning the next day and eat a good breakfast and arrive late to the climate conference, we didn’t know what we’d be missing, or what we’d be arriving just in time for.
A supposedly 1km walk turned into an hour, our Andean acclimatized skin reddening in the hot sun, and after passing endless barricades and a quick lunch we were ready to enter the gate, registration and passport numbers in hand. But then a line of people passed, dressed in earth toned traditional clothing, each holding a bowl of flames, smoke pouring out like a ritual blessing. After so many hours trapped behind glass on endless bus rides, it seemed a mirage, and the spectacle became even more accentuated when bulbs started flashing bright lights.
We edged in and I heard a voice say “That’s Evo!” and another reply “No way.” Sure enough we peered closer and there was Evo Morales, president of Bolivia, just inches away from us, looking us in the eye as he passed, (Conner says he greeted him personally, saying ‘bon jour’ to him in those quick moments). No security detail, no backpack searches, no fancy banquet reception tickets necessary. “What should we do!?,” I heard a student say. Without a word we all filed in tight behind him and followed him as he turned right, down a long red carpet.
At the end of the carpet we reached a building, the entrance way decorated in live plants and billowing yards of white sheer fabric. We were turned away, but only because we were steps away from joining him backstage. They pointed us to the main entrance and soon we were seated in a large hall filled with flags waving from a dozen different countries, the Incan rainbow, organizations brandishing their colors. We thought we were headed to a small conference with local working groups where we would have to translate lots of opinions in small desk filled classrooms and here we were in a huge assembly hall with the world’s first indigenous president, along with over a dozen other delegates from various countries on stage in front of us, translator headsets on, the crowd greeting the panel with roaring chants of “Mar para Bolivia!”, straight backs and a stunned looked on all of our faces. And then, as Evo declared that the damage of Mother Earth comes from the industries that are designed to end life and that we must recover the relationship between life and Mother Earth, a camera, shooting live video of audience members, displays the 10-ft tall concentrated and smiling faces of Austin and Tobey on a screen directly behind him, practically looking over his shoulder.
Thus began our first day in Bolivia. Can’t wait to see what other magic is in store.
*photo credit to Ryan!