Tyler Cowen on Bolivia v. Yemen for Exoticism

The indigenous ladies of Bolivia have been wearing bowler hats since British railroad workers introduced them 90 years ago.

In Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen writes:

I’ve been to maybe ninety countries, and often I think Bolivia is the most exotic and wild of them all.

For a simple contrast, so many aspects of Yemen have fed into streams we are familiar with, and Yemeni food is instantly recognizable, even if you have never been to the Arabian peninsula.

The main strands of Bolivian indigenous life — which I estimate to represent sixty percent of the country or more — have barely touched America or Europe.

I haven’t been to Bolivia, but I did the Quechua-Machu Picchu loop in Peru’s highlands in 1978. If you are into ruins, the number and competence of massive pre-Columbian civil engineering projects in this part of the world is stunning.

That’s a very interesting comparison of Bolivia to Yemen, which always strikes me as ranking up there with Tibet for highland exoticism.

But now that I stop and think about it, the Queen of Sheba, believed by Muslims to be a Yemeni, is not an unknown figure in Western culture.

Lawrence of Arabia began his memoir The Seven Pillars of Wisdom with an anthropological theory of how the densely populated highlands of Yemen were the demographic engine of all of the Asiatic Arab world. Tribes are constantly getting squeezed out of the verdant farms of upland Yemen by Malthusian pressure. They wind up wandering with camels in the Arabian desert for generations before settling back to farming in Syria and Iraq. (I don’t know if this was actually true: T.E. Lawrence had a political interest in asserting the cultural and genealogical unity of the Levant and Iraq with the Arabian peninsula. At Lawrence’s behest, Winston Churchill eventually put Lawrence’s WWI allies/friends, the Hashemites of Mecca, on the newly created thrones of Iraq and Jordan. But it’s a bravura performance.)

Even Yemen’s cultural offshoot Ethiopia, legendarily founded by the Queen of Sheba’s son, is a distant relation of the West: its Christianity and its similarities to medieval Europe is what attracted Evelyn Waugh to visit in 1930.

Yet, the high cultures of the New World emerged out of an isolation from the Old World of, probably, more than 10,000 years. And there’s not much, besides potatoes and coca, that has emerged out of the Altiplano to influence the West.