Yesterday, my host mom asked me a question that stuck with me. “What did you know about Bolivia before coming here?” I gave her an honest answer of not very much. I mean, I knew a few things from prior research, such as the complicated relationship between Bolivia and the United States, how they are one of the poorer countries in South America, how to deal with the altitude of La Paz, but not much beyond that. She followed up by asking if anything surprised me about Bolivia. She asked if before I came I thought Bolivians all dressed traditionally and had pet llamas. I laughed and said no. Maybe it was just a joke, but later it struck me; what is Bolivian self-perception? I mean the simple things almost everyone knows is that it is a relatively poor country, especially when compared to its neighbors, such as Chile and Argentina, and that there are llamas and alpacas here. But I don’t think that’s the perception of Bolivia in the United States. The reality is that people in the States probably don’t have a perception of Bolivia, unless they’ve been here. I don’t know which is worse, negative perceptions or no perceptions at all.
Also, as I thought about it more, Bolivia is not all that different from the United States. Yes, it’s a small landlocked Andean country with a large self-identifying indigenous population, however, when riding through the Altiplano, I was struck by how similar the landscapes there and the landscapes of the western United States are. The people I have met all seem very proud to be from certain parts of Bolivia, whether they be from Santa Cruz or La Paz or Cochabamba. Many people in the United States are proud to be from their state, too. Some even have similar rivalries between states as the cities do here in Bolivia. Comparisons between war memory of the War of the Pacific here and the US Civil War in the South are not hard to make either.