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Photo by Ryan Kost, Andes & Amazon Semester.

Reflection: 9 Day El Alto Homestay

Today is the last day I will spend with my wonderful family in El Alto. They are incredibly kind; all four of them have crowded into one room, so that Peter and I can each have our own. Though there has been a considerable language barrier, the efforts made on both sides to grow closer and learn about each other have not been for naught. In nine short days, I’ve come to love my homestay mother and aunt, who study history and anthropology, respectively. We’ve discussed things as deep as my Spanish allows for (and, perhaps ambitiously, a little deeper), such as the root of conflict between Aymara/Catholic religions, or the importance of multilingualism in fostering empathy and humanity. I’ve come to love my homestay grandmother, who loves to cook, and who is ardent about the tackling the blatant wealth disparity in the La Paz/El Alto/La Zona Sur areas; this includes the symptoms of it as well, as she inspires her children to talk with victims of drug addiction, crime, etc. Finally, I’ve come to love my nine year-old homestay sister, who matches my passion for music (and pizza with pineapple on it); the sound of her practicing recorder fills the house every night. I’ve loved taking Spanish lessons from her, playing games with her, and watching her obsess over the bright orange fidget spinner I gave her as a gift.

Beyond my family, I’ve come to love El Alto. There are many negative stigmas surrounding the city, particularly within those who live in La Paz; like any city, El Alto is not without its problems (most notably, its chilling temperatures), but they are far outweighed by the passion and beauty which thrive here. All our homestay families are a part of the Teatro Trono (run by Fundacion COMPA), a collective arts-based theatre which strives to change the lives of youth around it through art. No formal training is required, and all forms of art are welcome, though theatre in particular is emphasized. I’ve taken daily Spanish classes in this theatre, and am almost always treated to the sound of a local orchestra rehearsal or a dance class while I learn. The members of the theatre I’ve had the chance to speak with are genuine, empathetic, and strive to make their culture and history heard. This is the organization with which we’ve interacted most, but is just one example of El Alto’s beauty; we’ve visited art museums and heard jazz concerts; we’ve toured a non-profit home which has documented over 100 years of Bolivian and world history, and treats the public to free, weekly nights of classical music listening, with the largest vinyl collection in Bolivia; we’ve witnessed a traditional Aymara ritual, based in gratitude for the earth and performed by a learned shaman/priest who believes in honoring all cultures as ways of life; and, more literally, we’ve been lucky enough to witness the staggering view of the Cordillera Real mountains each time we ride the teleferico, the city’s ingenious, gondola-based public transportation system. So much beauty exists in every nook and cranny of this planet; one of the biggest shames of our human experience is our collective tendency to look with an eye too distant, too unfocused, or too unwilling to see it.

I feel lucky to have been able to scratch the surface of a culture so rooted in kindness. I have yet to meet so much as a grumpy store-owner. The most intolerance I’ve experienced has come from the local dogs, and even that has been minimal. As my Spanish skills have improved, I’ve been able to see more of the city’s true colors, and the values of those who live in it, and I envy the lack of compulsive individualism omnipresent in US culture; people here live with empathy and purpose. When I arrived, I was terrified that I would be brushed off as a non-Spanish speaking gringo; I could not have been more wrong. Everyone is happy to help, teaching me words I don’t know and trying their best to comprehend the gibberish I constantly spew. Of course I haven’t lived here nearly long enough to claim to understand the intricacies of this city; yet, I truly feel that if the whole world had half as much character as the people I’ve interacted with in El Alto, it’d be a much better place.

I am sad to say goodbye to this place I’ve learned to call home these past nine days, but excited to further immerse myself into more of the complex, progressive cultures integral to Bolivian life. Whether on this program or not, I will be back.