After close to twenty-six hours of travel, we finally made it to Cochabamba, Bolivia on Sunday, March 4th. Upon arrival, we were welcomed by Jean Carla, Naty and Adri. The three of them work for Amizade and facilitate many of the service learning trips that Amizade offers in Bolivia. All three of them are from Cochabamba and have provided us with the insight about how to embrace our time here.
Our adventures in Cochabamba began with our first steps off of the airplane. We landed and off we went! It became clear very early on that Cochabamba is physically one of the most beautiful places I have seen. It is nicknamed, “the city of eternal spring” which is a name that certainly suits it well. That beauty was put on perfect display when we made our way up to the Cristo de la Concordia, one of our first adventures in country. The statue sits atop a massive mountain and provides its visitors with a view of the entire city of Cochabamba. It’s a view that was breathtakingly beautiful. It was rather interesting as well to go to the statue on a Sunday. It is part of the Bolivian culture to have Sundays spent completely with family, which is something we don’t necessarily experience in the United States. This endeavor gave us our first exposure to how important relationships are to Bolivian culture, especially within families.
Since arriving in Cochabamba, we have interacted with many norms that are specific to their country, which have reflected aspects of the culture and ethics that govern their country. One norm that we have interacted with several times a day is the concept of meals and how meals are conducted in their society. Before leaving for our trip, we were given some insight about what meals would look when like in country, but it has been interesting to see them actually play out and how they differ from what we experience back in the United States. In Bolivia, lunch is the main meal during the day, with breakfast and dinner being pretty light in comparison. Its emphasis can be seen in both the amount of food that is eaten and the aspect of community that is present relative to the other meals during the day. Although this aspect of culture is different than what we are used to, it has been interesting to see how the emphasis of building relationships with others shines through in this aspect of their society.
This aspect of their society was also seen in some of our first interactions with CEOLI, the nonprofit we are working with while abroad. Before any conversations of business began, it was important that we established trust with those with. We don’t see this all the time when conducting business in the United States. Forming relationships is important, but within the business sector, completing the transaction and the other practical tasks are sometimes what takes precedence. This aspect of conducting business has asked us participants to work a little bit slower and be more patient than we are used to. It has also provided a wonderful opportunity to be present with those we are with and the situations we have been in.
The other day we went to a grocery store, which was impeccably interesting. While there, we found out that transactions within that store’s produce section specifically are different than what we are familiar with back in the United States. Our guide Arielle explained to us that a buyer must first establish and build a relationship with the seller; once that trust is made the seller feels comfortable selling to buyer. As one can imagine, this way of buying and selling is slower and even less efficient than what we usually experience; this being said, it aligns with their emphasis on developing genuine relationships and trust with others. It’s interesting to see how this priority of their culture is incorporated into many aspects of their society, even in a simple act of buying groceries.
These four examples are all ways that I have seen the importance of relationships in their society. It hasn’t been difficult to adjust to or comply with this norm, but it has been rather interesting to see how many elements of their society point back to this value. This aspect of their society also puts in perspective how every culture is governed by different norms and values, which construct how that society functions. Being aware of these aspects is important in understanding the culture and what makes that culture unique.
In addition to learning about the cultural and ethical norms that govern Cochabamba, our time here has open my eyes to elements of global business as a whole. I feel as though my global business perspective has become broader since coming to Bolivia. Considering how context specific global business is, I have seen just how challenging it is. There are a multitude of factors that contribute to how a country or culture conducts business. In order to conduct business appropriately in any setting, one must become aware of the specific practices or values. These aspects are sometimes difficult to obtain. I saw the difficulties of this in a meeting while at CEOLI. While being with CEOLI, I have been a member of a team that is working with the finances and logistics of the operational side of their business. We met with Margot who is in charge of the accounts within CEOLI and has access to all of the financial information. She explained to us some details regarding the finance side of CEOLI; in addition to this, however, she also disclosed some of the government regulations that serve as a constraint on CEOLI. We learned early on in the meeting how important it is to be aware of the cultural specific context before assessing any numbers. Understanding the context of a culture is vital in order to properly embrace the culture and the aspects within it.
In addition to becoming aware of the challenges involved in global business regarding the importance of cultural context, my eyes have also been opened to the challenges that are brought with any language barrier. It has been interesting to see the presence of communication during our time in Cochabamba, especially CEOLI. In the presence of a language barrier, it has been wonderful to see the power of communication beyond language. Working with a language barrier has provided me patience in the midst of conversation, which can sometimes be a challenge.
In the midst of challenges, it has been wonderful to see how important conducting business on a global business can be. Global business provides the parties involved the opportunity to become aware of what makes a country and/or culture unique and how those qualities build that society. In becoming aware of the aspects that make Bolivia unique, I have had the opportunity to reflect on what makes the culture that I am used to unique in comparison.
Although I have participated in community service on an international level before, this experience feels rather different and the ways I have grown feel different as well. Each day seems to bring with it an opportunity to learn about myself, my participation with the project and, in a broader sense, the world. One thing that I have learned about myself is my true desire to know and understand the pieces that make up the whole. The parts of the trip where we learned about the elements of Bolivian culture really sparked my interest, as did learning about the pieces and parts of CEOLI as a whole. This trip has shown me how important it is to be aware of the context that surrounds the business situation. In my last interaction with international service, we did not take the time to understand the culture quite as much as we did in that project, which was a way I have seen a clear contrast between community service and service learning.
As for my participation with international service, this experience has shown me my genuine desire to continue to participate with business and service on an international level. Although it was sometimes difficult, I have truly enjoyed the challenge of having to study the context and having to use that understanding to shape the way I act and participate in Bolivia. Throughout the trip, we have used the term “pivot” quite a bit. This word has been used to describe how we should continue in the presence of events and situations we haven’t been able to foresee. Although initially frustrating, the opportunity to pivot has opened my eyes to the reality of participating in business and an unpredictable environment.
Perhaps the best part of it all is that there is still so much learning and growth that is ahead. One incredible aspect of this trip is that it is a piece of a bigger project and process. Upon returning to Pittsburgh, it will be wonderful to use all of the perspectives that we have gained and translate those perspectives into our final product and presentation for Amizade. In addition to this, it will be wonderful to see how these perspectives and skills will transfer to other settings, whether that be in our personal or professional lives.