Personal Journeys

PERSONAL JOURNEYS

February 08, 2004|By Special to the Sun

A Memorable Place

'Tall brother' in Bolivian highlands

By Adam Spivak

SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When I arrived in Bolivia to begin my volunteer internship with a local relief organization, I was an outsider in all ways. I spoke only conversational Spanish and no Aymaran.

As predicted by my parents and friends, a recently earned degree in English literature was less than helpful. The altiplano's 12,000-foot altitude proved difficult. For weeks I found myself out of breath with the slightest effort, squinting at intensely blue skies and a harsh, unforgiving sun.

Still, I found the Aymara people to be welcoming and friendly, interested in learning about me and sharing bits of themselves. I was the first Caucasian to live in the village of Layuri, on the Altiplano, and I soon found that the village was excited to have a yerno or "son-in-law."

Within days of arriving there, I had been given the nickname that remained with me for my seven-month stay: h'acha he'lata -- tall brother.

Communication was slow, fitful and occasionally frustrating as both parties spoke through their second language -- Spanish. My offer of a live Spanish translation of a village favorite movie, Rambo, was gladly accepted and prompted multiple screenings on the village's only television.

As altitude-induced headaches faded, I found myself looking forward to the soccer game that ended each workday. Even when playing soccer, most Aymaran women wear bowler hats, colorful shawls and multiple pleated skirts. This centuries-old tradition is traced back to a royal decree that indigenous women dress in the style popular in Spain at the time.

Four hundred years later, this fashion statement would be difficult to find in Spain, but it persists in its former colonies among the Aymara and Quechua.

I remember feeling, despite months of living and working with the Aymara, a persistent and distinct cultural divide. The photo at left was taken at a celebration for a two-room school we built in a local farming village. As was customary, the women and men gathered separately. While the men were often inquisitive and interested in discussion, the women moved in small groups, speaking quietly to one another, impenetrable.

I knew part of the gap related to language -- women only recently were taught Spanish. The older generations spoke exclusively in their native tongue.

The inability to understand foreign customs and traditions had initially been frustrating to me, something I attributed to my own failings at communication. Later, I came to recognize this as an intriguing part of a culture that was both older and more intricate than my own, one content to keep its secrets to itself.

Adam Spivak lives in Baltimore.

My Best Shot

Curt Dalton, Columbia

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My family enjoyed our first trip to Italy last summer, and one of the highlights was the island of Capri. We rode the funicular up to the town of Capri and set out on a walking tour. Although I had two maps of the island, I quickly got us lost. A man in a cab noticed the bewildered look on my face and offered help. Finally, we resumed our quest for Punta del Cannone, a spot known for its outstanding views. The walk up the medieval Via Madre Serafina passageway from the center of town was also spectacular.

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Our Alaska vacation included a wildlife tundra tour that took us to a viewing area about 30 miles from Mount McKinley. As we began the tour, the director told us we had less than a 25 percent chance of seeing the mountain clearly because it is usually covered by clouds. Arriving at the viewing area, there was no cloud cover to speak of, and we were able to see the 20,320-foot-high mountain with spectacular clarity.

Let Us Hear From You

We want to know about your travels, your experiences, your pictures. Here's how to participate in this page:

* My Best Shot -- Send us a terrific travel photo with a description of when and where you took it. (Cash value: $50.)

* A Memorable Place -- In 500 words or less, tell us about a travel experience that changed you, about the nostalgia a certain place evokes, about the power of a favorite beach, the mountains, a city cafe. (Cash value: $150.)

* Readers Recommend -- Briefly tell us about places you've recently visited that you'd recommend to other readers. (50 words or less; photos are welcome.)

Because of the volume of responses, photos and manuscripts cannot be individually acknowledged or returned. Submissions from all categories may be used for Readers Recommend, and upon submission become the property of The Sun.

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