When my husband, Larry, discovered a huge silver deposit in the Altiplano of Bolivia, I was appalled that an indigenous Quechua village would have to be moved in order to build a mine. I insisted that we live among the villagers to document the changes that would result from the destruction of their town and their move to a “modern”one. Thus began The Gift of El Tio.
However, I had no idea what it would be like to live at 14,000 feet above sea level in a desert so dry that the skin peeled off my lips and fingers, and the chilling winds filled my lungs with dust. Nightmares or sleeplessness invaded our nights’ “rest.” Fortunately, we were able to escape home when the going got too rough and take a breather - literally. Otherwise, I fear we might not be alive today to write this blog. Those Bolivians living in the Altiplano are resourceful and tough!
Three of our four children were already living independently when we began our travels. Our trips home allowed us to catch up with them. Our fourth was a junior in high school, and was able to live with his father the months we were in Bolivia. (Larry and I are a second marriage.) This son accompanied us on two trips; one in which he completed his senior project of teaching English in the village school. Our greater family challenge was two aging mothers whom we visited as often as possible.
|Quechuas de Tuichi |
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Each re-entry to the U.S. filled us with gratitude for all we have. Opening the front door to our modest suburban home in a yuppie town took me by surprise every time. I would stand in the living room, glance at the shelves of books, the cozy furniture, and the varied electronics; feel the warmth of heat or the coolness of air-conditioning; realize how quickly I could wash dishes and clothes, and I would think of our friends shivering in their barren adobe homes or walking all day to gather enough thola brush to keep a fire going; washing dishes and clothes in ice-cold water till their hands turned stiff and red; living on their quinoa, potatoes and occasional llama meat; and many children suffering malnutrition.
I was the one who had argued with my husband, “Leave these people alone. Don’t build a mine. You’ll destroy their culture.” I quickly learned that living in poverty, focused on daily survival, was a constant hardship, and although their culture provided a sense of identity, it didn’t warm your body or feed your stomach nor save your babies from unnecessary death. Years later when I witnessed the children whom I’d met in the old village having opportunities as young adults to receive training and advanced education, I was even more convinced that we didn’t have a moral right to keep developing countries from the jobs the mines might provide.
|Quechua Woman |
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
On the other hand, Larry held this perspective from the beginning, denying the value of protecting cultures. Once immersed in the Quechua beliefs and rituals, he was moved by the role culture plays in the people’s daily lives.
The lesson learned? What we do in developing countries is not black and white. There are advantages and disadvantages, and each situation is complicated and unique. Larry and I did our best to depict these advantages and disadvantages, leaving the reader to come to his own conclusion.
As Larry sums up in the epilogue of The Gift of El Tio: “Karen and I started out at opposite poles, two points of view looking at the world from different angles, acute against obtuse. Karen saw injustice where I saw opportunity. She imagined a healthy, vibrant culture, and I, only dysfunction and despair. Our images of the world were focused by prisms cut concave and convex: hers, I thought, rose-colored; mine, she thought, as opaque as coal. It’s funny how a shared experience can prove that neither of us was right.”
The Gift of El Tio
Larry, a world-renowned geologist, discovers an enormous deposit of silver beneath a remote Quechua village in Bolivia and unwittingly fulfills a 400-year-old prophecy that promised a life of wealth for the villagers. Karen, a specialist in child development, is deeply disturbed by the prospect of displacing the people in order to open a mine. She challenges Larry to leave the comforts of home and move to the village in order to bear witness to the massive change his discovery will spark. Thus begins the couple's life-changing, ten-year journey into the Quechua community, their evolution from outsiders to trusted friends. Then part two of the ancient prophecy is disclosed to them, and they are shocked by the truth of its predictions: alienation, despair, even cannibalism.
Karen Gans earned her Master s degree in Early Childhood Development and has thirty-five years of experience as an educator, counselor, and consultant. She taught English in the Quechua village while the couple lived in Bolivia. Ms. Gans and her husband have four children and two grandchildren and reside in Ashland, Oregon.
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