The warmth of being somewhere familiar swept over me for the first time in two months. With time, the warmth slipped away as I realized just how creepy the familiarity was.
I experienced that feeling twice as we continued our excursion following Santa Rita. The first time was in Santa Cruz – the Miami of Bolivia, still hot and humid, but filled with industry and home to Ventura Mall, the first and only indoor mall in Bolivia. As the theme of our program is “Multiculturalism, Globalization, and Social Change”, it was inevitable that we’d visit this Mecca of globalization. The first brand we saw as we drove up to the mall? Starbucks. The first I’d seen since Chicago-O’Hare in August. I’ll admit that I got a little too excited to see it, but I blame the instant coffee that is staple here. We had a brief lecture with a Bolivian marketer who told us of his daily internal conflict bringing in globalization to the country. But then we began our task: walk around the mall for 20 minutes in silence, just taking it all in. As soon as I stepped into the entrance, our lectures of cultural deterioration and corporate harm were pushed into the back of my mind: I was home. A smile rose onto my face with the familiarity of shiny displays, a Cinnabon in the corner, and escalators. It should be obvious by now that I enjoy walking around malls in the United States, even if I don’t buy anything. It’s a guilty pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless that returned to me in this mall.
As I walked around, though, uneasiness rose. I giggled at the “American Freshman: Authentic Campus Apparel” sign placed over an outline of the United States and marveled over how perfectly the mall had matched an American configuration: enough of a maze to make it feel endless without getting completely lost in it all; plain and clean walkways to make the colorful stores seem that much more enticing. Why was this so comforting? Why should it feel comfortable to Bolivians? On one hand, it’s reasonable: just like the invention of indoor malls in Minnesota to avoid the chill of winter, an indoor mall in Santa Cruz provides a cool refuge from the humidity. The owners of the mall also made a point to include Bolivian brands alongside American and European stores. On the other hand, it still felt like a strange imposition. Compared to outdoor markets selling fresh food and mostly-Bolivian brands, the mall felt like it forced a disconnection from consumers and products. Besides, does Starbucks really need to be in every country of the world? My internal conflict can be described no other way: a creepy comfort. Of course, I still stopped by the food court and bought a falafel-hummus wrap and went to Starbucks on my way out to buy a Nonfat Vanilla Latte. But I left ever-so-slightly unsettled, ready for our bus ride to Samaipata, our third stop of the excursion.
Four hours later, I was swept again by comfort: high ceilings, incense filling the room, a large tapestry like any I’d see in almost any dorm room in Denver. Our dinner that evening even tasted like something I’d eat at True Food Kitchen, an upper-class sustainable restaurant in Denver. It was a hippie paradise hidden in the Bolivian Amazon. My comfort was amplified the next day when we visited a local bar, speaking English with local Europeans, drinking cocktails, and gorging on burritos. Again, the warmth of familiarity filled me. Samaipata is home to one of the latest “transition town” initiatives. The purpose is to bring together a community in attempts to transition industry into more sustainable work and lifestyles. In Samaipata, that means community farms, exchange markets, and many individuals in the movement making their own efforts to live almost completely sustainably. This town, that made me feel at home, helped me to think of strategies to bring my Bolivian experiences home as well: sustainable, communitarian efforts to implement the ideas of communal values and ecological protection.
Like at the mall, though, the familiarity slowly began to feel creepy. It started as I realized nearly everybody I met that is involved in the movement was European or American. There seemed to be a clear divide between the transition movement and Bolivians living in the town. Next to a typical convenience store with re-fillable Coke bottles and fresh bread would be an artisan store, with overpriced honey and natural beauty products. A couple people in the movement would unintentionally comment about the division, “Don’t worry. We speak plenty of English here,” or “We’re different from the rest of Bolivia and that’s why I like it.” While I admired their efforts to live sustainably and even helped to build new roads that benefited the entire community, there was still a feeling that their movement was nothing more than an isolated community of, well, hippies. There is still an entire country surrounding them working out what sustainability means to them (with some remarkable results, I should say), while their efforts seemed to barely touch the rest of their own town. Again, I left feeling refreshed by a few days “home”, but touched by uneasiness.
My uncomfortable familiarity in both of these places made me question, as I have before, the role of the United States and other Western countries in “developing” other countries. Do we have the right to place our own measures of development on other countries, offering our monetary support in an oftentimes unsustainable manner? At the same time, it may be inevitable that globalization reaches these countries and communities, making it our responsibility to help maintain lifestyles in this newly-imposed system. Either way, I think development efforts should be at the very least evaluated for their goals – what are we really trying to do when we dump our leftover food onto another country? We’re trying to reduce poverty, but what happens afterward to local food producers when their own products are more expensive than corn from the United States? I clearly have more questions than answers, but it’s important that we ask ourselves these questions before continuing in our efforts to “save” others.