I often feel like a detective trying to uncover what has led things to be the way they are in Maragua. We live in a mysterious crater, which itself has enigmatic origins. It seems obvious it was a lake at one time as there are huge dinosaur footprints around the area, the size of which could only have been by big lake dwelling creatures. However, this cretaceous evidence seems to be the only we have.
The owner of my favorite bar in town has been out there a number of times and swears that a meteor crashed into the mountains. Local friends in Sucre say there are often UFO sightings above the crater, and think that it has some super natural origins (taken surprisingly seriously).
Most Maraguans say they have no idea, but an anthropologist told me they had a legend that an Inca warrior stumbled upon the crater when it was a lake, and shot his slingshot at the opposite rim, crushing the wall where the waterfalls now pour out. A geologist I convinced to travel out there with me told me it was a syncline. A volcano had erupted underground, melting the earth, which then caused it to sink into the crater formation as it cooled.
On this issue, it was easy for me to side with the scientist, however, most issues here are not scientific and it is a delicate procedure to figure out which pieces of the puzzle should be put together to offer a logical explanation for anything that is happening. Especially given such a wide diversity of opinions on some topics.
Mysteries are a daily reality for me. In this foreign environment there is very little I just intuitively understand. Is there supposed to ever be a nurse in the health post? Is the community two-way emergency radio ever supposed to work, and what is wrong with it? Why do we not grow fruit in the crater? Is the altitude too high, do the herds of animals just eat it, is it not a valued food?
The mysteries that I spend most of my time pondering are with regards to my work. It is still unclear to me who has done what when, and what worked and what went wrong. There is no official record of anything, so it is just boiled down to conflicting opinions on everything.
The non-profit I am supposed to be working with is called ASUR. It was founded by anthropologists to support the cultures of the regions through reviving their traditional weaving practices and then selling the weavings commercially to generate income. They have their offices in Sucre and my first two weeks as a volunteer I spent working with them to get to know the people and the organization.
They wove an intricate story of revival for me. Explaining how weaving had almost completely stopped when they began their work, and everything they had done to form women’s weaving cooperatives in the villages, which they would bring wool to and buy weavings from. The cooperatives trained the younger women, and ASUR even brought in men from Ecuador to teach weaving techniques so they could generate income too.
They had further built a hydro powered dye workshop out in the village, where women could use heated water and endemic plants to make natural dyes for weaving (firewood for boiling water is now very scarce). Now they are working on building tourism infrastructure out in the villages so people could go out and see how they lived traditionally, better appreciate the culture, and hopefully buy more weavings.
It just seemed like such great work. They were helping generate income for the future by valuing the culture of the past. However, some details did not seem to add-up, like when I tried to arrange to take some furniture out there for my house, no one in the office had any trips planned to Maragua for the foreseeable future. Nobody could tell me much about the weaving cooperatives in Maragua, including how many women were members. I could not wrap my head around some of the dying techniques, and pricing schemes seemed especially complicated.
Living in Maragua has shown me a different side to this positive story of community empowerment. Failed development projects litter the landscape. There is a large community greenhouse without a roof, little outhouses built around the crater are boarded up and used to store grain (done by another NGO called PLAN), the handful of weaver’s workshops remain empty and locked-up, and finally the giant hydroelectric dam which was supposed to pump heated water to the weaver’s dying station was rusted and had not been used in years. ASUR was seen as an organization that used to work in the village, and now just came to visit every once in a while. This was quite a different perspective, quite a different reality.
All this failure seemed quite concerning given the time and money spent, and the success stories I had been told in the head office. Further, given all this failure, we had a big new project we were executing, building three stone houses for tourists to come stay in in the middle of the crater.
Nobody in the village or the offices of ASUR had good reasons for why any of the former projects were not working. Common answers from ASUR were that the community had stopped caring, or was lazy, while community members simply said things had broken and they had no one to fix them, or weaving was not profitable anymore because ASUR never came to buy the weavings, and their prices were too low. Two separate histories of a single place, leading to divergent understandings of the present reality.
My first month or so in the village I worked with the men building the stone houses for the tourists. Many had no idea what they were for. Some told me they were going to be a museum, others confusedly thought they were for me to live in, a couple understood they were for tourists to stay in, as ASUR had planned. However regardless of the realities anyone imagined for them, it seemed to me that without a good understanding of why none of the other development projects were working, the most likely reality is this one would shortly crumble back into the mountains as the others had done before it.
I was now developing a unique and valuable perspective. I was the only one able to bridge the knowledge of what ASUR intended to do, with the way things were done in the village. I was excited by the value I might be able to add, acting as something of a Rosetta stone between the lofty intentions of the light skinned, educated, middle class staff at ASUR, and the village life in Maragua. I wanted to help figure out the “whys” of what went wrong and how they might be rectified.
In the end, reality is only what we agree it to be, and in this situation with such limited understanding between staff at ASUR and villagers in Maragua, parallel versions of the truth are kept. I see my role as a bridge of communication that can better relate theories to facts, weaving a closer understanding of what is important, possible, and realistic.
The next blog in the Bolivian Blaze Series is, Trekking Uncharted Territory.