Foreign lessons

A writer’s perspective from Bolivia colors her view of current bombing campaign

The author learned of the Sept. 11 attack while on vacation in Bolivia.

The author learned of the Sept. 11 attack while on vacation in Bolivia.

Photo by Elizabeth Macarthy

A Davis-based freelance writer and regular contributor to SN&R

Soon after hearing the frightening news that the bombing of Afghanistan had begun, I thought back to when I first learned of the September 11 explosions and loss of innocent lives. That experience, which occurred far from home, profoundly affected my perspective.

On that fateful day, I was climbing slowly, taking in long breaths of the thin, cool air high on a mountain in Bolivia, ignorant of the terrible tragedy that occurred at home. We had traveled to Bolivia, known as the “Tibet of South America,” to trek in its stunning mountains, to explore its fabled Inca ruins and soak up the colorful, bustling city life.

It was not until the next day, after my spouse and I hiked back down through the mist to the small town below, that the ignorance that was our bliss came to a screeching halt.

We received the horrific news shortly after entering the town square of Sorata, north of La Paz. While waiting for the bus to Bolivia’s largest city, a man from Northern Ireland came up and asked how long I had been traveling.

We exchanged brief summaries of our travels and he then noted how everyone was talking about what happened in America. I paused and asked him what he was talking about.

“Haven’t you heard?” he asked.

He then told us what he had seen on CNN. A young German couple standing close by added what they knew. Slowly, I was overcome by painful emotions that other Americans had been feeling during my peaceful mountain hike.

First it was disbelief, then shock and, later, fear hit after the news of the horrendous attack started to sink in. All of a sudden, family, friends and neighbors felt so very far away. It was the first time in years of traveling that I felt cut off from home, a vulnerable stranger in a strange land.

Like countless other people across the globe, I worried about loved ones, especially family members who lived in Washington, D.C., and my father-in-law who lives in Los Angeles and was in Boston at the time. There was no way to make a long distance phone call that morning and it would be at least four long hours before we reached La Paz.

I imagine the grief and fear I felt at that time is similar to the feelings of Afghans who live far from their native land, who have no way of knowing if their loved ones survived the U.S. military attacks. My feelings of helplessness, isolation and vulnerability were stirred by the geographic and cultural gulf that existed between me, my family and compatriots.

The bus heading to La Paz was packed with people, as were all the buses and vans we took. Most of the passengers were Indians, who carried large loads of produce wrapped in beautiful, hand-woven cloth. Many of the women had babies strapped across their backs, including one who also toted a small lamb on board.

As we headed south on the bumpy, unpaved road, I stared out the window, oblivious to the dramatic landscape as cold tears streamed down my face. The first hour of the comings and goings of the colorful passengers were a blur as I tried to make sense of the grotesque acts in my homeland.

The young campesino who called out the stops and collected the tickets asked us where we were from. When he heard we came from the United States, he said how awful the previous day’s events in America were.

A very wrinkled campesina, dressed in a bowler hat and layers of bright colorful skirts, stood next to us in the aisle. When she heard we were from the U.S., she looked at us and shook her head and said over and over, “All those poor people. Pobrecitos. So terrible.”

The old woman then put her hand on my shoulder and told me not to fly because it was much too dangerous. The simple power of her compassion and concern moved me to tears, but this time they were warm ones.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how different our worlds are. This Aymara woman likely spent most of her life trying to eke out a living from the dry, rocky mountainous land. She and thousands of other Indians surely sold their modest produce on a sidewalk in La Paz. In her wildest dreams, she could not imagine traveling for leisure.

But as I looked into her warm brown eyes and took in her words, the gulf between her harsh world and my cushioned one disappeared. Much later, I wondered, if our roles had been reversed, would I have taken the time to reach out to her and express concerns about her fellow countrymen and women, who had needlessly lost their lives? Am I capable of such heartfelt empathy?

After arriving in La Paz, we contacted family members and were greatly relieved to hear that everyone was OK. Later, I received a message from my sister who lives in Europe, which cast an eerie light on the horrible event.

Shortly after the September 11 attack, she received a call from a close friend, a Chilean refugee who fled her homeland with her husband and two young children after socialist President Salvador Allende was assassinated.

When the woman first saw the footage of the World Trade Center explosions, she thought it was a replay of the U.S.-backed attack on Chile’s presidential palace in 1973, which forever changed her life. As she watched the recent scenes of carnage, memories of the terrifying time earlier in her life flooded back. Her voice is still bitter as she says, “This is what your government did to my president and country.”

Today, those words make me think of Afghanistan, as our government continues to unleash its brutal military might in that impoverished land. I also think of Iraq, bombed intermittently for years and held in a chokehold by U.S. sanctions, causing terrible suffering among innocent children, women and men.

As we launch into a long-term war impacting destitute people in faraway lands, my mind scans the many grim regions, from Gaza to Guatemala, where American dollars and weapons have been used to wreak havoc on the land and civilians.

But mostly, these days, I think about the people we met in La Paz who expressed not only heartfelt sentiments about the September 11 tragedy, but also fears that there would be world war. Now that the war has formally begun, I am struggling with the troubling issue of what I can do. Part of the answer becomes clear when I think back to my travels and compare my lifestyle to that of many Bolivians. I have so much and they have so little, a basic reality that seems to be at the heart of this and other conflicts.

I sit at my desk and clack away on my computer as they toil in the fields. I throw my clothes in the washing machine as they wash theirs in a cold stream. Instead of getting into a packed bus or public van to go the Capitol, I drive alone.

And, I realize I must do my part to lessen the disparity of wealth, which translates into consuming less, driving less and wasting less. But it means more than that. It means remembering the old Indian woman’s warm eyes and compassionate words when overcome by grief, fear, anger or despair because of loss of innocent lives near or far. It means remembering our common humanity.