With my wife's retirement in September, we left the world of work to live near our son in Houston. A new home means a new house, and there is nothing surer to disrupt domestic tranquility than the selection of trims and colors and cabinetry. So in the name of preserving the general welfare, I left the house to my wife and flew south for one last trip to the Andes.
Although I have been back to Bolivia many times since I first saw it in 1968, it has been nearly fifty years since I visited Chuquichambi, the little town where I spent my three years in the Peace Corps. I wanted to return while my aging body could endure the rigors of high altitude, risky diet, and uncertain transportation. This seemed like the time.
Bolivia in the 1970s was a series of regions united by little more than a name. Moreover, the tiny elite and small middle class that had controlled the nation since its creation had very little interest in the countryside. When I left Chuquichambi in 1971, the town had 500 inhabitants, the same population recorded in 19th century records. It had no electricity, no system of communication and no reliable roads.
It was this last deficiency that posed the greatest obstacle to a return trip. In my experience, the onset of rains in November meant the end of predictable passage across the fifty kilometers that separate the town from the Pan American highway that runs south from La Paz. The annual rains turn the flat, dusty pampa into a sea of grasping mud. But it was now or never. I contracted a driver and four-wheel drive Land Cruiser, and this November meterology was running in my favor.
The Pan American Highway is now a four-lane expressway, and the ten kilometers between it and the jump off point on the railway is paved to two lanes. As we chatted on the drive south, I had warned the driver, Humberto, that we would have to ferry the Desaguadero River before we reached the pampa. But much to my delight, there is now a bridge over the river, and on the other side of it a sign reading: "Papel Pampa 37 KM," "Chuquichambi 51KM." More surprises followed. All of the fifty-one kilometers were on a raised, gravel roadbed, much in need of grading but all of it a foot above the annual water level. Chuquichambi now has a bridge across its small river, electricity, and a cell phone tower, located just out of town. (I called my wife and learned that carpenters had misread the blueprints to the kitchen.)
These changes, all occurring in the last five years, are directly the result of Evo Morales' presidencies. Morales, himself of a rural, peasant background, has diverted significant funds and attention to developing the countryside.
As Humberto laid out a picnic lunch, I walked around, testing my bearings. The town plaza was as I remembered it, but the church and its bell tower had been rebuilt, smaller and closer to the plaza. The two buildings of greatest interest to me, the secondary school built with funds from the United States, and the house where I lived, were still as I remember them.
After lunch Humberto and I parked in the plaza, hoping to attract attention. It didn't take long. First two tween-aged boys on bikes stopped and stared. Though they had no memories of the distant past, the boys served as a catalyst to my hopes. One summoned a middle-aged man who remembered my residence in his youth and the building of the school. He asked me to give him names that I remembered. Not surprisingly, everyone on my list is now dead. But a woman sitting in an open doorway nearby, now very old and nearly deaf, turned out to be the widow of one of my best friends. She summoned her son, now middle-aged and nearly toothless, and we talked about old times. As we shook hands and parted, he thanked me for coming back and proudly observed that "we've progressed a lot since you were here last."
His words are full of meaning. Operating under the ethos of development, the Peace Corps’ purpose was to bring progress to the countryside. But in reflection, I, and many of my cohort, have realized that progress comes only from within. What the Peace Corps intended, Evo Morales delivered fifty years later.
The drive back to La Paz featured one episode from the past. In Chuquichambi Humberto learned that there was a more direct route back to the Pan American Highway and decided to take it. The route was shorter, but it included a ferry across the Desaguadero. As our vehicle reached the east side of the river a pilot launched his craft, and took us across, using a long pole for propulsion and navigation. This modern-day Charon’s days are numbered, though. Concrete bridge spans and a crane lay near the landing.