Leaving Bolivia was one of the saddest moments I’ve had to experience so far in my life. The friendships that I formed seemed as if I have had them my whole life, and it was so difficult to say goodbye.
One of the reasons that I think I was able to form these very close friendships with Nati, Adri and Jean Carla, our amazing partners from Amizade, was because of the different cultural norms in Bolivia. Bolivians place a strong focus on family and getting to know one another before any business or “transactional” conversations take place. While abroad in Bolivia, I noticed this right away during my interactions with Nati and Adri. Our conversations when we first met were mainly centered around learning more about Bolivia in general, driven by me asking any questions I could think of as I soaked in all Bolivia had to offer. However, as the day progressed our conversations quickly switched over to more personal topics, such as, our families, relationships and friendships back home. This switch to more personal topics in the very first day we met, may have caught me off guard if I had not collected information about Bolivian culture prior to my departure. Although the questions didn’t catch me off guard they did feel a little intrusive and I found they felt more unnatural to answer for me. As the week progressed I did notice a change in the way that I went about meeting new individuals and I found myself opening up more easily and asking more personal questions to my new acquaintances.
After the first day of traveling to the Christ Statue and meeting everyone from Amizade it was time to go to CEOLI and begin our service. When we arrived at CEOLI it was nothing like I had envisioned it to be. It was much larger than I had pictured, and you had to go outside and walk through open air hallways and up and down ramps to move throughout the school. The school was also covered in beautiful morals which consisted of children playing and religious scenes such as Noah and the Ark. I experienced a very similar first day when meeting the professionals working at CEOLI as I did with Adri, Nati and Jean Carla. My conversations started off with more broad questions getting to know a little bit about CEOLI, then moved into more personal questions about one another, and then we reached the point where we were comfortable speaking more about the details of CEOLI. Once we built these relationships it was much easier to effectively gather the essential information we needed for the project.
Although forming connections with the professionals at CEOLI is something we actively prepared for throughout the semester it wasn’t as easy as I had planned it would be. It took some time becoming more comfortable to open up about my personal life sooner in conversation and also building the confidence to ask questions about the other party’s personal life. The language barrier that existed between our team and the professionals at CEOLI also added to the difficulty of forming new relationships. As I saw my ability to open up and build relationships with new individuals increase as the week progressed I also noticed my Spanish improve. I took four years of Spanish during my education prior to college but I hadn’t practiced speaking it in about two years. When we first landed in Cochabamba I realized it was going to be a difficult week for me because I would have to the majority of my conversations, even the more brief and simple ones, translated. Fortunately, this was not the case and a lot of the basic Spanish that I learned in my past schooling started coming back to me and I was able to have simple conversations on my own. I also noticed that as the week progressed my confidence to try to speak Spanish increased greatly. My confidence increased so much that on our last day during our final presentation I shared and thanked the staff of CEOLI on behalf of our team in a short paragraph of Spanish I prepared the day before.
As well as learning a lot about their cultural norms I learned a lot about how the Bolivian economy works and the similarities and differences it has to our own economy. The first major difference of their economy is that around half of it is from “illegal” activity, or under the table purchases. Ronald, the director of CEOLI, told us that stipends from the government aren’t as helpful as one may think because they have to spend the money in a store where they receive a receipt. At first, I thought this was very strange because I was wondering where else he would spend the money, then Ronald further explained they would prefer to spend it at a local market where the prices are lower, and they aren’t required to pay taxes. Although this is considered an illegal purchase many Bolivians see these purchases as a necessary way of life to save money and keep their businesses profitable. Ronald explained that they would be able to get much more food or supplies for their students at a local market and support the local economy in the process rather than purchasing these items from stores.
Another thing which our group quickly learned about Bolivian business and culture was that timeliness isn’t as important for them as it is for us. We discussed this in class prior to leaving for Bolivia, however I didn’t expect business to be conducted in a fashion as a relaxed as it was. An example of the more relaxed business conducted in Bolivia is; one of the groups among our team was kept waiting for a meeting at CEOLI for a very lengthy period of time and sadly the meeting never happened that day. This was a great learning experience for our whole team and moving forward we were more flexible to changes in our plans and were always prepared with something else to do if we had extra free time.
During my time in Cochabamba I learned a lot more about myself that I thought I would have prior to my trip. I also further developed skills such as my resourcefulness when I was forced to communicate with the minimal Spanish I knew. To highlight a specific experience where I felt I had grown during my time at CEOLI interacting with the students in the classrooms. In the middle of our week at CEOLI I spent a few minutes talking to a girl who was in a wheelchair in the middle age group classroom. This was something I am very proud of for a few reasons, the first being that I made her smile and hopefully made her day a little better than it would have been, by becoming a new friend. The second, was that it would have been easier for me to sit next to the student who I had the two days prior and keep having small conversations with them. Instead I chose to leave my comfort zone and make a new friend and we both smiled because of it. I was very grateful that this experience happened on Wednesday because I made it a point to try to speak with as many students as I could the next two days even if it was just a brief conversation.
While in country I also became more aware of the strong curiosity that I have as a student. As I discussed earlier I asked Nati and Adri lots of questions about Bolivia. One of the more important questions I asked during my stay in Cochabamba was what the meaning behind “Nulo” was. I had seen Nulo in graffiti all over the city as we drove through Cochabamba, and I wanted to know if it had a meaning behind it. Adri and Nati informed me that Nulo translated to null vote and that it was a campaign that was against Evo Morales’s reelection as president of Bolivia. I also saw graffiti tags throughout the city that said “Nulo = Goni”, and Nati and Adri explained that it was a comparison between Evo and Gonzalo Sanchez. Gonzalo was a prior president who was highly involved in the Bolivian Gas Conflict and fled to the United States after his term. Adri told me that this was an attempt at convincing citizens to vote against Evo because it brought up the memories of the pain and conflict that Gonzalo had caused.
As well as noticing a large amount of curiosity in my personality I also realized a tendency to naturally compare new things to things I am more familiar with and draw conclusions from those comparisons. I asked about Nulo because I had noticed that it was graffitied in many places throughout the city, however there was a very large amount of graffiti in general. This made me think of more prominent sayings or political phrases almost as hashtags which we see on Twitter, because Twitter has yet to develop a strong user base in Bolivia. The most prominent social media is Facebook and Facebook is rarely used to post short powerful messages that persuade or inform someone of a topic. These types of posts are more commonly found on Twitter and commonly include hashtags which reminded me of graffiti such as NULO. All of the more unique graffiti could be compared to individual’s tweets that supplement the more common hashtags that social campaigns are centered around. It wouldn’t surprise me if in the near future many of these graffiti tags are written on the digital wall of Twitter rather than the walls of local buildings in Cochabamba.
My trip to Cochabamba was a life changing experience and after seeing CEOLI and the potential positive impact we are able to make on the school I am very motivated to finish out this semester strong. I think everyone experienced a great impact from visiting Bolivia and we all have a very strong intrinsic motivational drive which will help promote stewardship among the group leading to a very beneficial outcome for not only us, but Amizade and CEOLI as well.