Entering into a new culture is sort of like jumping into a deep, cold river with a strong current; it can be a bit shocking at first, but after you become fully submerged, you realize how deep it really goes, and although you may try to keep your head above the water in the familiar air, the current will pull you away from where you started.
This is how I feel looking back at the banks of the powerful river of ancient culture that flows through the Altiplano in Bolivia. Although I know that I won’t be able to touch the bottom of this profound and iridescent force during my short stay, I have begun to see my own distorted vision of the culture that lies beneath the surface.
One aspect of the culture, that sits like a mighty rock in the bed of the river, nearly unmoved for literally hundreds of years, is the tradition of Apthapi. Apthapi is similar to the North American indigenous tradition of the Potlatch, or the more culturally transformed Potluck, in which a group of people come together to share a meal, with each person bringing some form of contribution. Not only is this an enjoyable way to share a meal, but it is also an effective method of bringing a community together, particularly in a place where people are spread out across a wide, open plateau. Everyone needs to eat, and it is something that everyone can share.
In the Altiplano, the meal reflects the landscape. It is a vast, dry and dusty plain that is cradled by the jagged and snow-capped outcroppings of the Andes Mountains. In what may seem like a mostly inhospitable terrain, a great field where cows graze skinny and the grass yellows quickly, there is still a richness in the earth. People would not have lived here for thousands of years if there wasn’t, and although you may need to dig to find many of the fruits of this land, there is a plentifulness that is abundantly apparent during an Apthapi. Every person brings something to the meal, and there are always leftovers to signify that no one has been left hungry.
The heart of an Apthapi is potatoes in many shapes and forms. Women will arrive unfolding colourful blankets to reveal steaming potatoes in a variety that I did not know existed. Some are small and yellow, dotted with purple, and others are long like fingers and bumpy like hands that have worked the fields. Others have been taken from the earth, wrapped and returned to the ground so they can hide from the sunlight to blacken with age, while others are submerged in a river for a month and encouraged to transform their texture. These potatoes are a foundation to the diet in the Altiplano, but forms of salty cheese, large kernels of corn, bowls of dips or sauces, and typically sparing portions of meat also distinguish the meal.
One thing that you learn quickly during an Apthapi is that you cannot refuse when someone offers you food. Particularly as a skinny visitor, extra portions of salty cheese and meat are offered forward with a smile, a gesture that is best received with an open palm. People eat with their hands during an Apthapi, which demonstrates an intimacy with the food and with each other that appears to be residual in their daily lives. Just as everyone drinks from the same cup, there is a method of sharing here that is reflective of the community and how they hold their relationships. It is something that I am still trying to digest in many ways, but I can taste and smell that there are many important lessons embodied within the Apthapi.
When considering approaches to “development” and formulating our work plan with the community, Apthapi stands as a symbol in my understanding of the way things work here. Community projects are the result of participation with many members bringing something to the table, and the municipality, like the land that must be dug into, yields reward and structure for those who cultivate it. Similar to an Apthapi, the process can be long and it is difficult to predict who will arrive, but many do contribute, and after people have taken their full, there is usually a moment where the tone of the conversation changes and new ideas begin to manifest.
As an outsider, trying to find my seat at the table, I am looking for how I can contribute to this proverbial meal. I know through observation and reflection that there is a tradition, history, and languages that I do not fully comprehend. However, I also see that something else is creeping into the ancient culture here. Evident by the bottles of pepsi that quench the thirst of the group, the black smudged shadow of the cement factory on the horizon, and the stretched skins of plastic bags pockmarked across the fields, I see that “neoliberalism” is entangling itself within the fabric of the region.
I would not say that this is a good or a bad thing, but what is clear is that it is an evolution that cannot be resisted. Change is a constant, but it is also constructed from the past and influenced by the present, culminating in new forms as it mixes with a culture attempting to define itself to a world that surges at its mountain ramparts. Subsistence farming is giving way to economic production in order to feed all those who have left the Altiplano to join the rising cities at its borders. Climate change is slowly sucking the water from the region, and pollution taints much of what remains. The ancient forms of political organization are forced to negotiate with the hand of municipal and federal structures that play Bolivia in the global realm.
These are challenges that are not only present here, but representative of a changing world. Although it may seem daunting in many ways, if we take a lesson from Apthapi, perphaps we can find a way to come together, and make sure everyone has enough to eat.