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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Endangered Art of Conversation


Everytime I return to Bolivia, or elsewhere in Latin America, I am reminded of the central importance of conversation in the world and in the lives of my friends and acquantances here. It is an art – and an important ingredient of life – that is being lost in the USA and other parts of the world.

After arriving at the airport in Tarija late yesterday afternoon, Antonio, his sister and her co-worker from La Paz -- who had just arrived on a separate flight together from the capital -- and I drove to the family’s home in a middle class neighborhood near the center of town. It is the same house where I stayed when Antonio lived there alone, before marrying Katia, and he hosted me as the leader of a Rotary group study exchange, some  eight years ago. Antonio and Katia have since moved to another home across the Rio Guadalquivir, and the family now uses the house nearer the center as their base. Father and mother live in Villamontes, daughter Magda and her son live here in Tarija, while other family members are scattered about. The Calvimontes clan is an extended family.

When we arrived la Señora de la casa served us a large and wonderful lunch. I had been scheduled to arrive hours earlier, so they had already eaten. But there was plenty of food left and we newly arrived were hungry. We sat around the table and talked for an hour while eating, joking, visiting, catching one another up on events in the world and in our lives. It's what people do when they are happy to see one another. It had been three years since I’d visited Tarija, and I had only met Antonio’s parents once, when he took me to Villamontes to meet the family and see his birthplace. Antonio is a man of the Chaco (email: antoniodelchaco@....), and Villamontes is in the heart of the Bolivian Chaco, that great steamy plain that blankets large swaths of interior Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina and Brasil.

After finishing the meal, of course, mate and the gourd were brought out and we began to matear, handing the gourd from one to another with appropriate amounts of hot water and lots of sugar. It is a communal tradition similar to what I imagine the Indians of the North American plains did, passing a pipe from hand to hand in a ritualistic way that united everyone in a circle. Many cultures have something similar, it seems.

And at the heart of the gathering was conversation. Interspersed with jokes and teasing taunts and questions about this person or that event, the talk ebbed and flowed like all good conversations do. It is the most traditional and most pleasing of traditions, conversations around the dining room or living room table, people who are members of the same family or visitors invited to join, made to feel at home, embraced by the larger knowledge that what matters is not how much food is on the table, how many fancy cars are in the garage, or who is the more successful at work. 

What matters is the sharing -- of ideas, of experiences, of concern, and of affection for one another -- that is at the root of basic social interactions. What matters is family, and friendships – the people one holds dear. 

It strikes me as worrisome that many young people today have never had this simple art of conversation as a part of their lives. And it appears to me that our ubiquitous electronic devices, which separate us more than unite us, appear to be discouraging it even more. 

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