What am I doing here, anyway?

The roller coaster has officially begun!

I´m writing from La Paz, Bolivia. I´ll update a bit more about Nicaragua in another post. But I´m realizing I have to keep revisiting why I signed up to do this in the first place – and what it all means in practice.

Here´s the theory – excerpted from my application essay, written in March 2011:

Through my travels, I hope to truly appreciate the depth of my own ignorance, and in the process, open my mind to different conceptions of ¨development.¨ With the fellowship, I would immerse myself in areas of the world that have been historically characterized as ignorant of “modernity,” and in need of “development.” In so doing, I hope to appreciate one of the greatest modern ironies: our ignorance in the global North of alternative definitions of development that transcend economics. My daily travels will be a microcosm of this global paradox, as I reconcile my inability to comprehend local languages, customs, and ideas that lie outside of my knowledge and imagination. Through this experience, I want to challenge myself to begin to see the world in the multitude of ways people in the “developing” world do – and understand the world as they imagine it could be.

That sounds wonderful, right? Now what´s the practice?

I´m struggling with the internal tension between seeking out activists, social movements, and organizations working for ¨another development¨and simply being in these places and being comfortable with being a (very curious) tourist. It´s tempting to make this all into one big research project – rehashing what I did in Nicaragua in a way. But that´s not the point. People keep asking me what I have to produce – nothing, I reply. I just have to learn about the world. I just have to learn from (and with) you.

It´s deeply unnerving for someone who has spent 5 years on the academic hamster wheel.

I´m hoping to strike a balance – I´ve got a few potential contacts already in NGOs and universities here in La Paz. But what was the highlight of my time in La Paz so far?

Sitting on a park bench in the Plaza Murillo, surrounded by pigeons, talking to a friendly indigenous Aymara man, Juan Carlos, about his kids rejecting their culture, the construction business,  and local politics. He was the first person  I´ve met here who identifies as indigenous, and also (thus unsuprisingly) the first person I´ve met who likes President Evo Morales.

Feeling lonely, I had walked over to the Plaza from my hostel (an empty and rather lonely place) and decided to sit down on an open bench in the plaza and read the local political analysis magazine. Juan Carlos sat down a little later. We exchanged Buenos tardes and struck up conversation.

Was it a deep conversation about the meaning of ¨development¨? No – though perhaps trying to understand how people like Juan Carlos live is the most valuable thing I can hope to do in the next eight months.


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