When I started my field work a few months ago, a good friend of mine told me that during her year of field work she had read more novels than in any other point in her life. Hardly what they tell you in Ethnographic Methods 101, but several other veteran ethnographers I know agreed: when you do field work you have a lot of time on your hands. Unlike the rest of their graduate school experience, where most of them don’t do anything other than study for 10 years straight, the one or two years in the field stand out in the stories I was told as extravaganzas of fiction consumption and loafing about.

Well they all did it a few years ago without the joys of laptop computers and a thriving black market in DVDs. I’ve read a hell of a lot of novels in the last few months, but I’ve also watched an almost astonishing amount of DVDs. (And perhaps only people who know how many movies I watch back home in Chicago already can appreciate what that means.) Although I usually pride myself on keeping up with my movie and novel consumption back in the US, the last few months I have indeed found myself on several occasions with more time on my hands than I know what to do with. A few days ago I even starting doing some sketching again – something I used to do regularly and haven’t had time/energy to do even once in the last three years.

As lovely as it is to catch up on all these lost past times, I quiet like being as busy as I usually am. Reading a hundred novels because you have nothing else to do is fine if you never usually do, but not if you’re lying there thinking of all the other things you’d like to be doing instead. The problem is, that reading novels about the exciting lives of other people is all there is to do, because there really isn’t that much else to occupy you at the end of the day when you’ve already pestered your ‘informants’ as much as you can, and you’re living in a little town in the middle of the nowhere. When I go home to the US in a few weeks and reflect on my time in the field, one of the things I will take with me is a profound reassurance of my long held suspicion that living in the countryside sucks. Its hell!

While holding a good relativist position that my opinion is only that, my opinion, and not something that I would expect other people to share – I still think that I would rather like in a mental intuition than have to live in the country side longer than a few months. That great expanse of nothingness… What else is there to do of a night, other than curl up in bed with a novel/movie and be fast asleep by 9? (Well, those are the healthy options… The high rates of teenage pregnancy, alcoholism and drug taking in rural places only supports my argument here I would guess.)

In recent weeks I’ve found myself reduced to a state of paralysing ennui. I know there are things I could be doing with my time and work I should be getting on with, but something about the quiet and the dullness of a small town just takes all the life out of me. I end up counting the hours till I can go to bed, weighing up the time I can kill be walking to the plaza and buying something – even just a bag of bread – from one of the tiny shops there. At home when I feel restless of an evening I go for long walks through the city, not really caring what direction I’m going but just walking up and down endless streets trying to become lost. I watch the people hurrying past, look in brightly lit windows and imagine the lives inside, hunt out odd architecture or compare how two once identical houses have changed, discover new corners of the neighbourhood I never knew existed – hidden graffiti, gradual changes, strange buildings. I find I can sometimes just walk for hours as it soothes my mood – I always feel reluctant to return home no matter how exhausted I’ve made myself. Feeling all that life around me makes me feel better somehow.

In the small town I can walk as far as the plaza, or maybe down one of the country roads, and all I see are fields. Its so hideously depressing to me that I have begun to invent elaborate timetables and excuses in order to take the 2 hour bus journey back to the city at night. And I don’t think there is anything different between this small town in Bolivia and any other small town or village anywhere else in any part of the world. I’ve got the same chilly feeling of fear on road trips in the US, or during my childhood summers in rural France. My long held aversion to “market towns” in the UK springs from the same sense of doom and foreboding of being trapped in one of these places. I particularly think of a road trip I took with two good friends from Chicago to Virginia last summer, where we drove through an endless landscape where only a single house would stand out against the great expanse of fields. At one point we got utterly lost in a tiny suburban hole, going endlessly round and round the same narrow streets, past the same isolated houses, giggling uncontrollably in our fear of never being able to find the highway that would take us out of that dump again.

I’m sure there are people who love the countryside, and I’m glad they exist because it means I don’t have to. But I wonder how all the romantic glorification of the countryside may make it harder for people born there who like me can’t wait to leave. I remember reading back in school a piece about the industrial revolution that, while acknowledging all the evils it brought, pointed out that it allowed a lot of young people (and particularly young women) from rural backgrounds to leave their families and the rural towns they would otherwise have had no choice but to live in all their lives. While agreeing that conditions were usually very hard, it suggested that some people may have been drawn to urban life and the possibility of not only having a small disposable income of their own (rather than their families) but things other than the local Sunday market and the occasional visiting circus to spend it on. Now I realise there are a whole gamut of problems with this argument, but whenever I hear people lamenting the flight from traditional rural villages to cities – no matter how grim and slum-like they are – a little bit of me can understand the attraction that pulls young people away.

I’m prepared to be slaughtered for suggesting this – as I have in arguments with others before hand on the same topic. But why is it that the countryside is always presented as this idyllic paradise?

And in case you didn’t get the reference in the title: one of my favourite novels that I should really have brought with me this summer is, of course, Cold Comfort Farm.