My howl for help echoes into the silence. Incensed, I kick a rock, which sails over the edge of the bluff upon which I’m marooned and tumbles toward the river below.
I hear a rustling as the rock flushes out a duck like none I’ve ever seen. The thing flaps wildly up out of the gulch, its neck elongated like that of an egret, its feathers chartreuse, orange, charcoal. It nearly wings into my face, but then it banks upward, leaving behind a feral pungency.
I wish I could fly out of here, too. There’s no going forward, since the rock face is too steep and brittle. Nor backward, since the path I edged in on has crumbled away. That leaves right here. Alone in Bolivia, where the Andes meet the Amazon, far from the familiar.
Steady. Grab the torso of a tula
tree for support. Sweat. Soak up the last warmth of the sun about to sink. Shiver. A cold night is coming. Thirst. Focus on the aquamarine ribbon of river below. Breathe.
Inhaling silence, I’m on the threshold of understanding something that has long baffled me: My mind is synced to the Dream, a worldview that goes beyond the “American Dream” of capitalism and social mobility and encapsulates the broader Western Dream of progress and left-brain reductionism. The Dream computes humans as muscle and synapse in an agnostic cosmos. It says, trapped here, I’m severed from my wife, from my Bolivian neighbors, from nature.
Two and a half years earlier...
In January 2013, my newlywed, 6-months-pregnant wife, Melissa, and I visit a Bolivian town we love, where we discover a beautiful piece of land that’s for sale. Five acres of rolling hillside, a tadpole-filled creek, and a grove of wild guapurú
fruit trees, whose tangy-sweet purple fruits grow out of their velvety trunks. We spend hours walking the land. “It feels like we’re in the country,” Melissa says from the property’s main hillock as she touches her large belly. “And yet that’s the town center, a stroll away.”
I gaze out over the village’s clay roofs and white colonial façades, the green hills cupping it, framing a scene that could be Tuscany if not for the sparks of green-and-red parrots flaring over our heads. I catch the invigorating scent of eucalyptus. A breeze releases soft static from the yellow-flowering carnaval
tree overhead as my half-Bolivian daughter, Amaya, swings from its branches, yellow petals snowing down.
Amaya lives with her mom and maternal grandmother in the nearby city of Santa Cruz, two and a half hours away. Melissa and I have come here on vacation from our home in New York City to visit Amaya and to scout out properties. Though we have a combined 16-year history doing human rights and environmental work here, we’ve always come on fixed work contracts, never considering a move
here. Eight-year-old Amaya, whose name means “beloved first daughter” in Quechua and “spirit” in Aymara, announces where “our house” would be, and I notice the joy she exudes by inserting herself in that our
"Let's gamble the known."
She climbs down from the carnaval and begins plucking guapurú, popping the grape-size morsels into her mouth. We follow Amaya’s lead. The juice warm on my cheek, I imagine ditching my American life for a simpler one abroad. We could build a custom adobe house on this very hillock and grow much of our own food on these acres — mandarins, pomegranates, bananas, vegetables of all sorts. We’d reforest the agriculturally degraded flatter portions of it to create more habitat for the native guinea pigs and iguanas I hear rustling in the quiñe
shrubs, and rechannel the creek through the land to create fishponds. I imagine rising with the sun, opening abundant time to raise my family — our “belly baby” included — in community.
community. It’s the Sweet Life here. The Bolivian philosophy of La vida dulce
is not about hedonism, as the phrase might initially conjure. The Sweet Life is another way of expressing vivir bien
(living well), which means rich human community synced to nature, an idea with ancient roots that is being freshly reinvented in modern Bolivia. The country’s new constitution and also its “Law of Mother Earth,” the highest decree of the land, endow Pachamama — Mother Earth, sometimes called Gaia in the West, a feminine omnipresence or the planet as a living body — with “Earth rights” similar to human rights, like the right to not have her vital systems interrupted by big development projects.
In keeping with the Sweet Life vision, this town of 5,000, to which we are considering moving, has been designated as one of Bolivia’s 24 “eco-municipalities.” This designation anchors the lofty concept of Earth rights to specific places through government support of organic agriculture, clean energy, and community-based ecotourism. This inspires. The town, it’s dawning on me, is glocal
, a contraction of “global” and “local.” Should we move here, Melissa and I would join a small but vibrant group of expatriates (3 percent of the town’s population): Dream-skeptical, revillaging foreigners from 30 countries, along with Bolivian urban refugees from less-than-slow Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, and La Paz. We’ve already met some of these people. A detethered Parisian runs the French bistro Latina Café with his local Bolivian wife; erstwhile Istanbulites have just inaugurated the Turkish La Cocina; an Australian couple tends bar at Republika. There’s a doctor from Cochabamba and a sculptor from La Paz.
And there’s not a chain store within a two-hour drive. The town features communal work parties and pasanaqus
(or community savings mechanisms), and 90 percent of perishable food is locally produced. Many of the expats, predominantly Europeans and other South Americans, blend into the dominant Bolivian milieu by joining these cooperative social structures with enthusiasm. Further, people are talking about making it Bolivia’s first “Transition Town.” Worldwide, about 1600 transition initiatives currently exist, part of a global Transition Network, in which local communities foster “glocal” low-carbon economies through alternative energy, local consumption, organic agriculture, and more. Size doesn’t matter; “Transition Streets” encompass a single city block.
The new dream of the Sweet Life gets us so excited that Melissa and I make an offer on the land. The Bolivian owner counters. It’s still too high. We stay up late huddled over the table in our rental cabin, offering the calculator multiple scenarios, trying to figure out how we might afford the property.
At the same time, we contemplate a new life in Bolivia, well aware of our privilege — well-educated and currently employed members of a North American culture. So why do we feel discontent in the global hub where we live, when we’ve made it? We talk about how we’re umbilically attached to a kind of FrankenDream
: Work and spend. Drill, baby, drill. Buy, baby, buy. We can remain in our society’s Dream of more-is-better — find a bigger apartment, deploy our social capital toward career advancement, sync our offspring to the addictive viscous fluid of competition. Or we can wager it all for something richer... and cut the cord.
After one month in country, our real estate negotiations stall. The landowner asserts his oferta final
. Our vacation ends in a few days. My new semester of college teaching starts next week. Melissa’s boss expects her back in New York in three days. She’s so pregnant that this is the last week she can safely fly. Decision time.
During one of our last nights, Melissa and I swing in hammocks outside our rental cabin, gazing out at the silhouettes of banana trees and vines heavy with passion fruit. We sway to and fro in our indecision but lean toward taking out a loan.
“Let’s gamble the known,” Melissa affirms.
I mutter inwardly: Gamble steady jobs? Gamble abandoning our families and friends? Expose our newborn to inferior rural health care in one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere? And, enthusiasm aside, how welcome will we really be — privileged gringos buying land, driving up prices, and helping to “gentrify” the town to foreign tastes? Is it really wise to go into debt to buy this land and build a house within a political context that has recently been threatening for foreigners as the country’s popular indigenous president, Evo Morales, booted the American ambassador, the DEA, and USAID out of the country?
But despite all of this, something deep within me whispers something.
I can hear the whisper, beneath the salsa music from a nearby party, beneath the frogs peeping in the stream trickling below the nearby bamboo grove.
It says move
There must be life beyond the Dream. Perhaps we can
gamble the known, venturing into the Global South to join a community’s resurging Sweet Life, with both Clea and
Amaya at our side.
÷ ÷ ÷
is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and an adjunct faculty member at New York University. He speaks and writes widely as an expert on sustainable development. He lives in Bolivia. Dispatches From the Sweet Life
is his most recent book.