As I am sitting in my apartment in Pittsburgh writing this blog on Sunday, it is hard to believe that one week in Bolivia is already over. Our time spent there flew by but was packed with such memorable experiences that will forever stay with me. There were good times and also sad times but everything was worth it due to CEOLI and its purpose. I know that our group has become much closer friends after going through these experiences together, and our new friends from Bolivia will always have a place in my heart.
While I was abroad, I noticed how genuinely kind everyone was. All the Bolivian people we met and interacted with were very accepting and open to us. One cultural difference would be the gesture of kissing one on the cheek as a form of saying hello and goodbye. Even though I read about this beforehand, I did not know what to expect and how often it would happen. It did take some getting used to for me since we stick to handshakes or a wave of the hand in the United States. Sometimes I did not know if I should go for the hug or not as I did not want to be offensive. I was open to this interaction however, even though it was a bit of a surprise at first. I just accustomed myself to it and kept in mind to not be offensive. Another cultural difference I faced was their interest in my family. Generally we are accustomed to only speaking about ourselves so it was interesting to be asked about my siblings. I do not generally talk about myself a lot and I had to do it numerous times in this trip with Bolivian people as well as in our group, so this was a challenge for me. I knew they had a genuine interest in me as a person so talking about myself and my family was something that I just had to do. I also enjoyed learning about them and their families as well. While abroad, many people asked us where we were from and the first thing that came to mind was America. I had to remind myself to say United States because South Americans are also Americans. This tripped me up many times during our outings and it forced me to think twice about what I wanted to say. This also made me more aware of the fact that Bolivians are Americans too. I like the fact that I was able to correct myself in many instances. A common stereotype of people from United States is that we are wasteful with our food, which I would agree with. I was never allowed to not finish what was on my plate as a child, but as I got older I got more accustomed with not feeling guilty about throwing food out because everyone around me did it. When we were in Tiquipaya, a separate town of Cochabamba, we were treated to a wonderful tasty meal. There was peanut soup as an appetizer and then chicken, corn, salad, potatoes, and plantain. It was a very heavy meal that none of us were able to finish. When the man came to take our plates away, my plate was still full of food and I felt upset that someone’s hard work had gone to waste. In the U.S. I stopped thinking about wasting food, but when we were given a tour of the house we were shown where the chili sauce was made and all the fresh fruit on trees so it made me feel more wasteful since we saw where our food was coming from and the work they put in to manage these crops. Since that was our last day, I could not waste anymore Bolivian food, however I will keep that in mind while I am in the U.S. and wherever else I go. Punctuality with business meetings in Bolivia was another thing we touched upon during our service learning class, and there was one instance where I saw that play in. At CEOLI we had set a time to meet with Ronald to ask him more questions about the pool. However he showed up about 25 minutes late. Of course, he is busy with all the work that needs to be done, but it was different regardless. Other than that, punctuality was not really a big issue besides our lunches being longer than what we were used to. I really could have used a nap after all the big lunches! All these differences were new to me and although it was uncomfortable at first I understood to just accept it and be more flexible with how I live life.
Conducting research at CEOLI and also seeing other businesses in Bolivia made me realize that there are many similar struggles when doing business globally. When we had our presentation with the fashion designer Carla Quiroga, she explained how competition was a similar challenge that many fashion designers have, especially independent ones. It was hard for her to keep things at a low cost and compete with name brands like Forever 21 and H&M. She also explained how the fashion scene was not that prevalent in Cochabamba and the internal struggles she faced with becoming a fashion designer. Also all the new government laws about worker benefits took a toll on many businesses. With the required worker benefits many businesses could not afford a large amount of staff and also had to list staff members as “volunteers” so they did not have to pay them the extra benefits. While extra benefits sound good, it creates a cycle of businesses laying off staff and going out of business. I thought this was very interesting and counterproductive. The fashion designer also spoke about ecommerce, and how because of government regulations it was hard for her to set that up so that people outside of Bolivia could pay. She said that most of them would pay through Facebook. Speaking of Facebook, it is the most popular platform for social media marketing for many businesses in Bolivia. CEOLI, C.Q, and Agroflora all said they mostly use Facebook for their consumer outreach but they also have other social media such as Instagram as well. My perspective of global business did change because I never paid too much attention to the minute details of the challenges businesses have to face when trying to reach a global base. It was interesting to see how all the government regulations and cultural norms affect each business.
I would like to say I learned a lot about myself during this trip. I never thought I would ever be in Cochabamba in my life with knowing so little about it beforehand. I really did not know what to expect going in but I know I grew personally from this trip. I learned that I can communicate better than I thought I could, especially with all the language barriers. Using body language and eye contact can surely go a long way. I also realized that in moments of discomfort I can still adapt and have a good time. All the hugging and kissing at CEOLI was something I was not used to but seeing how happy the kids were made it all okay for me to do. I also realized that being tired and pushing myself to do everything I need to do is something that is very doable. Starting from the point we landed in Cochabamba we started sightseeing and even though we were all exhausted from traveling we made it through the day with positive attitudes. International service may seem daunting at first especially because we do not know what to expect with the people we are doing service with. I personally did not know how I would maneuver around the language barrier and how to act. But I quickly realized that people are not so different from me. I learned that if you go in with a positive attitude and not make assumptions beforehand you can easily have a great experience and learn a lot. International service is something that impacted me greatly and seeing our work have a meaningful effect on the people of CEOLI is extremely rewarding.
This semester really flew by and it feels like just yesterday I was filling out my application for this service learning trip. Bolivia was beautiful and the people I made connections with will never be forgotten. Cochabamba welcomed us with opened arms and for that I am grateful to be a part of this trip. We still have more work to do with CEOLI now that we are back at Pitt and I am looking forward to it. I definitely will return to Bolivia!