On “Reflective” Writing

Our program is primarily a research methods program, but one specifically geared towards “field work.” Although our program teaches both quantitative and qualitative research methodologies, field work is the common thread. By learning to “do” research in Bolivia, you will learn about Bolivia (and the Andes more generally) in ways that would be difficult in a classroom back home.

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Final Thoughts On My Way Home

As I sit in the Bogota airport writing this final blogpost, I can’t help but notice how I have changed since arriving in Bolivia. For starters, my Spanish has improved tremendously (as I had so hoped it would), and I now have no problem understanding what is said to me, although it still sometimes takes me a while to formulate a response. Before being in Bolivia, it would take three or four times of me asking, “¿Que?”, and, “¿Repite?” before I had any idea what was being said to me, and now I rarely have to utter those two embarrassing phrases. In addition to my Spanish retention, I notice that I feel more comfortable in my surroundings, whatever they may be. This trip was my first time traveling without my family, and although I didn’t know that I was feeling nervous or scared when I left for the trip, I can see a difference in how at home I feel when I am outside my comfort zone now. Retrospectively, I can tell that I was, in fact, nervous and apprehensive before starting this trip, especially in comparison to the general ease that I am experiencing on the other side of my travels.

This trip has also helped to reassure me of my own capabilities. Traveling to Bolivia, living with a host family, being immersed in a foreign language, having to navigate in a new place, and even going to remote locales like the Amazon, gave me the opportunity to stretch myself, and showed me that not only can I do things that are outside my realm of normal, but that those things can be incredibly fulfilling and rewarding, and that it is well worth experiencing some mild discomfort so that you can reap the benefits of having new and exciting experiences. Although this does not mark a change, my time in Bolivia reaffirmed my belief in the value of travel and cultural understanding. I feel that anyone who wants to be a truly effective citizen of our planet should jump at any and every opportunity to explore the world around them, no matter how difficult or scary it may seem to them at the time, because in the end they will be rewarded many times over with knowledge and experience. I am honestly very sad to be going back to the US, but this experience, and how it has shaped me has made me all the more excited to get home, so I can turn right back around and start traveling again.¡Nos vemos otra vez!

Signing Off,

– Gabbi Schust-

Final Moments in Bolivia

Leaving a city where I have been for a while is always one of my least favorite parts of traveling. On one hand, it means I am going home. I will be able to see family and friends and eat my favorite American foods again. On the other, it means knowing I am going to have to say goodbye a city that has captured my heart. As I walk down the streets, I try extra hard to observe my surrounds. I seem to think that if I stare at the street graffiti for an extra second, I will somehow be able to remember it better once I return home. I see all the shops I promised myself in the beginning I would go to, but somehow, I always convinced myself “next time”.

Walking around La Paz for my close to last time has made some things stick out to me. I noticed the confidence I have gained walking around the city. The first week I was afraid to walk out my door by myself, and now I have no qualms about traveling alone to meet with friends or grab dinner. This is not the only thing that has changed since I first arrived. Initially, I thought four-weeks would be more than enough time for me in this city. It was incredibly different than anywhere else I have traveled previously, and I did not know if I would be able to handle the Bolivian way of life. After a month of testing myself and pushing personal boundaries, I feel like the city has grown to be a part of me. Even though I have to leave now, it is like the old, cliché saying goes, “You can take the girl out of La Paz, but you can’t take La Paz out of the girl.”

It’s a Dog’s Life in La Paz

On my first day in La Paz, I noticed on the way home from the airport an overwhelming number of dogs roaming the streets. I could not believe it; it seemed as if they were taking over the city. I noticed that every dog I saw was also quite large as well. Dr. Miguel told me that it was very common to see large dogs roaming the streets. Small dogs are prized in La Paz, in fact, I am not sure if I ever saw a small dog running around loose. After some time had passed, I had become accustomed to seeing the stray dogs everywhere. However, one of my friends told me something that really got me thinking. She told me that her family had a dog that they let out everyday and the dog would come back every night to be fed.

It seemed like such a foreign concept to me that owning an “outside” dog in La Paz meant feeding it at night and giving it a place to sleep. It really made me think about what it means to own an animal. In the US, we do the same, but we usually leave our dogs in our home most of the day or perhaps give them a fenced in yard to run around it. At first, it seemed almost cruel to send your dog out to run in the street all day. The more I thought about it, however, perhaps we are the ones who are cruel for not letting our animals have the opportunity to run about. I try my best to keep an open mind and objective when observing other cultures, but this was an opportunity when my bias crept through without noticing. It made me question how many other times I have let my bias affect me, but I had not noticed. I now know that in the future I will need to do a better job of actively trying to keep my biases in check when working in the field.

Water is Life for Everyone

Before coming to Bolivia, I had never been to a country where it was suggested one did not drink the tap water. As an avid water drinker in the US, I could not fathom having to avoid using the tap every day. Eventually, I had become accustomed to not drinking it, and it did not even register in my mind anymore. I did become more aware of what a sacred resource water is however. In December, I traveled to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe of North Dakota. Being in Bolivia and seeing the effects of water scarcity and lack of water sanitation reminded me of the slogan I saw across many signs, posters, and t-shirts concerning the Standing Rock Sioux: “Water is Life.”

I had never previously been in a situation where I saw water as such a precious commodity. Complaints would often circle through our groups about feeling thirsty or suffering from chapped lips, yet we only had to deal with this problem for one month. Bolivians have woken up in the recent past to no water whatsoever, and the worry is far from over. Although we are going to leave and go home to a place where water security is not a worry, those in Bolivia cannot simply leave and escape the problems they are facing. It is a situation that makes you think about those daily things you can take for granted so easily.

Public Transportation

La Paz’s system of public transportation is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  All day, every day, the streets are flooded with minibuses, sedans, and sometimes SUVs that have signs with the names of different neighborhoods of the city in the front windows.  They almost look like airport-to-hotel shuttles.  Above the streets, teleféricos, or gondolas, fly overhead.  Even more strange and foreign to an American, whenever the cars are stopped at red lights, people get in and out of them as they please.  After a month of living here, I am still amazed how it’s safe.  These cars are called minibuses for the vans and trufis for the normal-sized cars, and they are the primary means of transportation around the city.  La Paz, like many other big cities, has a problem when it comes to finding parking, making it very hard to get around within the city when driving your own vehicle.  The minibuses and trufis solve that problem.  They’re like uber pools, but with scheduled routes and extremely cheap fares.  A ride within your zone of the city in a minibus costs 2 Bolivianos, and a trufi ride costs 2.50 or 3B.  That’s less than 50 cents per ride. In America, even a short taxi ride would cost a minimum of $10.  As I’m preparing to go home to America, I’m actually going to miss the ease of transportation that is here.  I think Americans should take note from Bolivians; they seem to have perfected the art of easy, affordable, efficient public transportation.

Santa Cruz vs La Paz

Before I came to Bolivia, the only images I could picture of the country were dusty mountains and llamas.  That was literally it.  While my visual expectation of the country may have more or less matched La Paz, I was completely surprised by the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra.  When we first arrived in Santa Cruz, I kept having to remind myself that I wasn’t on a tropical island in the Caribbean; it seemed like the ocean was always just out of sight.  The air was warm and balmy, and such a welcome change from the cold, dry air of La Paz.  While the infrastructure of the city was in worse condition than La Paz, and we were told that it was not as safe, I felt very at home there.

Again, in contrast to La Paz, the traditional fare in the lowlands consisted of lots of rice; Amazonian fish, not the trucha of Lake Titicaca; and, shockingly, vegetables other than corn or potatoes.  The tropical climate there allows for farmers to grow vegetables even in the winter, due to the fact that despite the season, it was about 85 degrees the whole weekend we were there.  Despite my slight distaste for the seasonal food of La Paz, I can really appreciate how people so obviously try and eat locally here in Bolivia.  At home, we have a vegetable garden and some fruit trees, and we try to utilize those resources when we cook so we can eat healthier.  Natural, local food is such an important thing to me, and I’m glad people seem to value that here as well.

I did think the people were more friendly in La Paz than in Santa Cruz, but that may have also been because I didn’t have to take public transportation or interact with strangers as much as I normally have to here in La Paz.  I think that is my favorite thing about Bolivia’s unofficial capital city: the people.  Even when I felt completely lost, or uncomfortable, or homesick, I never had one person act maliciously towards me, which I definitely did not expect from a major city.  I thought Southern hospitality was a rarity, but it pales in comparison to the warmth of the Bolivian people.

Looking Back

Though I haven’t had all the time in the world to sit and reflect on this trip yet, it’s hard to believe how far I’ve come as a traveler, researcher and person in this incredibly short time. Dr. Kate said they other day that they pick Bolivia for this program precisely because it can present a challenge to bright-eyed college students. I’ve certainly seen that to be the case. The altitude creates the most formidable opponents out of staircases, Bolivian belly plagues both the finicky and voracious eaters alike, traffic is horrendous and figuring out to circumnavigate the entire metropolitan city of La Paz by minibuses can be enigmatic, with many more culture shocks for young Americans looming at every corner. That being said, overcoming these experiences, and situations even more difficult, has given me unforgettable memories and tools I will have for the rest of my life.

After overcoming the two most rustic and venturesome weekends of my life in the Salar de Uyuni and Amboró National Park in the Amazon basin, I certainly feel like I can go anywhere in the world now. Having to rely mostly on Spanish to ask questions concerning my research project was a subject that I was particularly nervous about but after doing so and getting in a rhythm it has equipped me with a new kind of confidence as a researcher, one that I hope will push me to unabashedly take my analyses further. Even more so, asking these questions about a particularly sensitive topic in the rate of infant mortality in Bolivia has given me empathy for groups of people I would have never talked to and a resolve to help.

My trip in Bolivia certainly has been one for the books. Along the way, I’ve made Bolivian friends and family, immersed myself in a shocking yet enthralling culture, seen strides in my Spanish, gotten a stomach infection, witnessed the most dramatic contrasts of natural beauty in my life, and even learned more about myself and where I come from. These experiences are among some I will never forget. Hopefully, I will be able to return to Bolivia someday soon, reuniting with old friends in the familiar yet mystifying city of La Paz.

The Bolivian NCF

My last weekend in Bolivia certainly did not disappoint.  On Saturday, I went to Copacabana with my family which was awesome because one of the only things I wanted to do on this trip was go to Lake Titicaca.  I spent all of Sunday working on my paper, and then Monday we left again…this time for Quime.  My host sister was super excited about going and me tagging along, but honestly I had my reservations.  I’ve gotten comfortable around her immediate family in La Paz, but her entire extended family was in Quime for this festival.  I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this little excursion.

If you’ve ever been to the Neshoba County Fair, imagine that, but with Bolivians and fancy costumes, and alpacas instead of farm animals.  Many families, like the one I am staying with, own houses in Quime specifically for the festivals that occur and rarely stay there any other time.  Like The Fair, there were carnival games and trampolines for the children, food vendors everywhere, and stages set up in the two main plazas.  I learned the caporales dance, tried api for the first time, and I took a (very touristy) picture with some alpacas.  My favorite part was the costumes.  Almost every major town in Bolivia was represented in these parades, and they all seemed to compete with each other on who could have the most over-the-top, sparkly costumes.  I was with people from La Paz, Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, Quime, Oruro, etc., and they all cheered endlessly for their hometowns.  I feel like this (and I’m sure other) festivals are a way to bring people together, but also to try to prove who has the best dancers/costumes/band.  Additionally, I was surprised by how many of the people I met spoke English.  My name in Quime was simply “Mississippi,” and everyone who could immediately began speaking to me in English until my host sister told them I wanted to make my Spanish better.  This festival really made me feel like I participated in something truly Bolivian and I loved it.  I will be running on fumes by the time I get to the States tomorrow, but it was definitely worth it.

The Souths Revisited

When I first compared Mississippi to Bolivia, though I made a few valid points, I honestly thought that might be perceived as reaching a little bit. However, with the directing comments and historical explanation from Dr. Miguel along with being here for a longer time, I see now that there are truly more similarities than I initially suspected. Really honing in on topics of healthcare in Bolivia the last two weeks, this is a domain in which I certainly see many resemblances. With regards to healthcare, I’ve observed some social concepts here that, although back home as well, I’ve never actually reflected on.

In my few blog posts, I’ve been writing a little bit about how with across the nation of Bolivia there definitely exists a sort of “hazing” in many ways from the developed to the undeveloped. I’ve mentioned briefly how this kind of dynamic plays out in Mississippi too, but what I have found especially interesting is the perceptions of this phenomenon. Both places like to magically discount the regions that, in their minds, make the whole look worse. When I told Paceños (citizens of La Paz) I was going to Oruro to look into the medical care provided there and infant mortality, they were shocked I would go to such a dirty place that could in no way have the kind of medical attention that one could enjoy in other parts of Bolivia. Back home, I’ve heard the hollow excuse “Well if you take out the Delta, Mississippi isn’t so bad in the {whatever MS is ranked last in},” far too many times. As many societal problems that have emerged from colonization in both places, the people have certainly gotten good at avoiding or ignoring these issues.

This can certainly become problematic as this sort of mindset perpetuates the dilemmas of inequality and poverty that these regions have. When people talk about other regions as the “undeveloped,” this sometimes acts a way of invalidating their place with the other parts of the whole. People look at the absurdly daunting problems of these regions of need, throw up their hands and sentence these areas to an eternity of backwardness.

One may think I’m being exaggeratory in my comparison to Mississippi’s areas of need to those of Bolivia. However, in actuality, the overwhelmingly non-white cities of Bolivia struggle similarly with systematic inequalities of healthcare, education, and standard of living as those rural counties of Mississippi. Seeing this familiar dynamic play out in Bolivia, a place so different but with so many similarities, adds a new level of my understanding of society’s role in issues like healthcare. Keeping this in my during my research and even just back home in Mississippi, I will be looking for the next time that people try to discount a whole region of need from an entity.

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