Peter Schmidt ’20, PLAS Certificate Student
I stepped out of the taxi and pulled on a tacky sunhat to protect my eyes. The dusty street stretched in both directions, and although the sun was brutal, the air at 14,000 feet was too thin to produce the shimmering summer mirage to which I, a Missouri native, was so accustomed. I was in El Alto, the city that in the past thirty years has sprouted from nothing on the high Andean plateau above the city of La Paz, and I was bewildered. City streets in Bolivia appear rather hostile: the view from the sidewalk reveals nothing more than rusting metal doors set in high brick walls topped with razor wire and shards of glass.
I was here to speak with Osvaldo, a technician at an organic quinoa distribution company. He was the latest in a number of interviews I held to learn about how the quinoa industry had transformed in the past five years. How had quinoa gone from being an obscure altiplano staple to a celebrated ingredient in highflying New York city restaurants? How did it get to the salad bar of the Princeton dining hall where I had lunch every day of my freshman year? Were the sensational reports of foreign demand displacing domestic consumption (“How Many Bolivians Are Dying Because Foodies Love Quinoa?”) telling the whole story?
Somehow, an inquiry that began with an online article published by The Guardian had deposited me here, with the dust upset by the departing taxi forming a thin film on my shoes. I looked down the street. This was as remote a part of the world as I could conceivably arrive at without putting on a backpack and setting out into the wilderness. I had no idea how to distinguish one razor-topped wall from another, and I wasn’t about to go knocking on doors asking for some guy named Osvaldo.
Fortunately, ‘some guy named Osvaldo’ eventually emerged and invited me into an office above a factory that, behind the concealing walls, was squeaky clean and air-conditioned. He even called a taxi to carry me home. And just like that, a corner of the world that I never could have imagined became part of my personal geography. The more I travel as a student, the larger the world feels, and the smaller I feel within it.
Indeed, this project was humbling. While writing the application in the bottommost level of Firestone library during the dreary month of January, I had imagined myself touching down in El Alto airport and immediately setting out into the altiplano with my backpack and a green plastic bag of coca. Like the National Geographic reporters I so admired, I would encounter the farmers in their fields, meet their families, and hear their stories firsthand.
I found the reality to be far less romantic. Potential contacts neglected to return my calls, national festivals that seemed to occur on a weekly basis interrupted my travel plans, and, of course, I got sick. I never made it into the altiplano, into the heart of quinoa country. I was forced to make do.
If anything, the amount that I learned is a testament to how much one can learn from casual conversations. A friend in La Paz spoke with me over the course of several hours about rural development in Bolivia, the country’s geopolitical status and the socioeconomic divide between the cities of El Alto and La Paz. An organic farmer and PhD student meditated on the role of trust in informal markets. An economics professor described with distant gaze her experience teaching rural women to use Excel. My travels didn’t take me as far into Bolivia as I had hoped, but these conversations did.
So what did I learn? Within the scope of the project, I learned that the international quinoa trade has been more of a blessing than a curse for Bolivian farmers. The journalists writing from their offices in London and Boston had missed the mark. But more than that, I learned to approach foreign places with humility. It is difficult already to understand the stories that shape our own lives; to understand the stories of others, even more so.
This is not to say that one shouldn’t try. But learning in this fashion is a different process from the one to which I am so accustomed, one comprised of classrooms, libraries and twelve-point-font reading responses. Rather, this is learning that requires the sorts of activities that a Princeton student like myself so often partitions from the realm of “education”: making friends, sharing a drink with someone, just sitting around doing nothing. Striking up conversation in a taxi.
I plan to return to Bolivia. It was the place where I first perceived the incomprehensible vastness of the world, and the strange power of friendships to bring that vastness down to scale. This time it was quinoa. Next time? I’m not so sure. But I will go back, because this is the sort of learning that I hope to practice for my entire life—where, at the end of the day, the world I live in is both larger and more intimate than it was before.
Research funded by PLAS. For PLAS undergraduate funding opportunities, visit: https://plas.princeton.edu/funding/undergraduate