Otis Fellowship put Christopher Urban ’04 into an ancient culture

In fall 2002, Christopher Urban ’04 studied in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third-largest city. An environmental studies major from rural Vermont, Urban ended the experience curious about the interactions between the city and the subsistence-farming communities of indigenous Bolivians, the Quechua.

In summer 2003, thanks to a Philip J. Otis Fellowship—a Bates grant supporting exceptional research into relationships between humanity and nature—Urban returned to Bolivia. He spent six weeks high in the Andes, living with Quechuan farming families.

Urban knows farmers in Vermont. Bolivia was very different. The Quechuan life “is based around potatoes, and has been for thousands of years. We just harvested and planted potatoes,” he explains.

“It was pretty much hand-to-mouth. Stone houses with thatched roofs, animals running everywhere, large families, no electricity, no running water,” he says. “We got up before dawn, and it was cold. It was a struggle every day.”

What did he learn? “The Quechuan culture is really strong,” Urban says, but city interests are pressing ancient Quechuan ways from many directions—such as taxes, evangelical proselytizing, generational rifts, the allure of nightlife.

The deeper lesson was “just really about what it means to be human. It revolves around food, sharing work and connecting to people on levels other than just connecting with language.”

He says, “I confronted a lot of my own assumptions and learned that I shouldn’t be romanticizing this culture when in fact there is such struggle just for survival.”