This year, my family of four is living in a small village in rural Bolivia. We are originally from suburban California, and let me just say that village life here is different – in some ways that are good and some ways that are not. A lot of the differences have to do with the village social structure, the rumor mill, and the social pressures that come along with it. Like it or not, you don’t want anyone thinking bad about you in a village!
There are only about 1,500 residents in our village. It’s a beautiful little oasis in the middle of the desert and mountains. So you can imagine one down side is that there is no anonymity in a place like this. You can’t just hop into your car and drive down to some restaurant, bar, park, or mall and be surrounded by strangers. Everything you do and say here is always part of the public forum.
Here’s a view of our little town:
In California, most people couldn’t care less about what their neighbors do. In fact, lots of people don’t even know their neighbors. Not so much here. Here everyone knows who you are and what you do. And in the village, there is pressure to conform. While I find it a bit invasive, these same village social pressures bring some tremendous benefits for the town.
This Village Has Eyes And Ears
Look how close all these houses are together. Do you think those walls have ears?
There are no trees or bushes separating the houses, no neighborly fences, not even those lovely invisible ones that give unsuspecting wanderers a shocking jolt of electricity. Here, neighbors practically live on top of each other. This village has eyes and ears!
What’s more, nearly everyone here is related! My wife grew up in this town, and I often joke that everyone here is either an uncle, a cousin, a best friend from childhood, or strangely enough, all three at once! As they say, blood is thicker than water. That means this entire town is really, really THICK.
As you can imagine, there are no secrets in this town.
You might think that having no secrets feels like some kind of privacy violation. And, I suppose, you’d be right. Who wants a bunch of nosy neighbors (who also happen to be family) peering into every detail of your life?
There is a saying in Spanish for towns like this: “Pueblo chico, infierno grande.” It means, literally translated, “Small town, big fire”. The “fire” is rumors and gossip. And they spread like…. well, like wildfire.
There is no stopping the rumor mill. In a town like this, it is a juggernaut, and the best thing to do is to simply embrace it. Let all out! Be socially naked! Because, your secrets will come out either way, and everyone is going to know them.
The Village Rumor Mill
In fact, folks in this village often know your secrets before you do! The rumor mill is vigorous indeed. And creative! After all, what else are you going to do in a small town like this, besides make shit up?
You never know when the rumor mill is churning. One time, I was sitting on a bench, and this guy walked up and introduced himself. He asked if he could sit down, because he had some very important questions to ask me. Ok. All right. Shoot. What do you want to know?
Q: “What’s your name?”
Q: “Your full name?”
A: Jojo Bobo
Q: “Yes, but in Spanish?”
A: Jojo Bobo
Q” But, amigo, how do you pronounce it in Spanish?”
A: Jojo Bobo
Pause to think
Q: “Where are you from?”
A: California, USA
By this time I knew he was just trying to break the ice, because everyone in town knows my name and where I’m from. Then it came:
Q: “Are you a spy?”
How do I answer this? I tried to laugh it off.
“What is there that I could possibly spy on?” I asked.
“The rocks, the river, the layout of the town,” he told me.
“Do you really believe I’m a spy?”
“Yes. So do others.”
Some people apparently believe every minute of every movie they’ve seen. Part of me wanted to play it up. Recruit a few friends to stand on the corners wearing sunglasses and trench coats, taking notes. Give them code names. And I was just about to, but unfortunately I thought better of it. That would only spread the rumors more.
Perhaps you can just laugh off the spy rumor as silly, but rumors can be serious business in a village. You have to defend yourself.
Why Does This Matter?
You don’t want anyone thinking bad about you in a village because relationships matter here more than anywhere else.
Do you need a plumber? An electrician? Do you need to talk privately to your daughter’s teacher? Or to confide in a friend? Do you need anything at all from anyone?
All of these people, everyone in town, is living the same village life, under the same village social pressures, and the same village rumor mill. They all know everything there is to know about you. Your reputation goes a very very long way in a town like this. It opens doors, and it closes them too.
Have you ever heard of shunning? It’s real. So you have to be careful how you act.
Conforming to Village Life
Perhaps the biggest downside to this type of village life is that there is big pressure to conform. I’m talking middle school level! There are no “alternative” lifestyles here. Even alternative opinions generally need to be kept quiet. And social change is a totally foreign concept. To get along in town, you need to have a certain amount of conformity. For the folks living here, that doesn’t seem to be a problem. But, obviously, it’s not for everyone.
I’ve personally always struggled a bit with conformity. But most my time in this village I’m in my house, and I have only limited interactions with the locals in this village. I might as well be anywhere on the planet. Occasionally, at a party or public event, I struggle with some of our differences in thought and behavior. I’ve found it’s better just to smile and keep my mouth shut, rather than lighting a fire in the village rumor mill.
But that’s OK. I’m just here for a year, and I’ve got nothing to prove. Live and let live.
Despite this, there are some tremendous benefits to village life.
A Sleepy Blue Line
Village social pressures bring some big benefits. For one, it’s near impossible to get away with anything bad around here, because everyone will know about it.
As evidence, we have only one policeman in town, and he seems super bored. He usually stands around outside his little police office saying “good morning” to folks as they walk by. In the afternoon, he usually takes a nap.
Here’s a photo of the police station. It’s really more like a house where the policeman lives. He’s got some nice grape vines in the patio for shade:
There is one police officer in our town, and he takes naps in the afternoon
It’s not to say there is zero crime in our town – there is a bit of petty theft, and there is plenty of public drunkenness. But, violent crime is non existent. I certainly can’t say the same for our upper middle-class suburb in California, where a lot of neighbors don’t even know each other.
Free Range Children
Thanks to the same village social pressures, our town is a really safe place for kids too. Teenagers might get bored in a village like this, but our middle school kids love it. In fact, our kids enjoy a degree of freedom that they couldn’t hope for back in California. We let them roam the village on their own, playing for hours and hours nearly every day.
But they’re not unsupervised – the whole town is watching! If our kids get into any sort of trouble, or do anything that someone disapproves of, we’ll sure as heck find out about it before you can say “Hey, neighbor”!
All In The Family
And since nearly everyone is related here, the village is like one big giant family. People here grow up together, come of age together, grow old together, and experience life together. In small village life, the bonds that tie are deep.
So deep that they always support each other through thick and thin. There is no state welfare or social security in Bolivia – at least nothing robust that people can count on. When you fall on rough times, you can’t simply take a check from the government. But towns like this take care of their own. People here rely on each other when they need help, and they pay it back when their fortunes have turned.
The village is your family, your social network, your professional network, and even your support system all rolled into one. So you can see why you really don’t want people thinking bad about you in a village.
If you want to read more about life in our village, check out my Village Life archives.