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Crossing the river before summiting 17,500 Pico Austria. Photo by Ella Williams (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest, 2nd Place), South America Semester.

Some things to know about rural Bolivia

Initially I wanted to call this piece “Some things to know about rural Bolivia from a white American who has lived in one rural Bolivian village for about a week and a half but feels like she’s lived here for ages,” but I thought that might be a few too many words and a bit too in your face for a yak this early in the trip… But nevertheless, there’s the title (sorry if it’s too many words or too in your face). I ask you one thing while reading this post: please keep in mind that I’m using Sorata, a typical Andean town in the valley of Illampu as common ground for all villages in rural Bolivia. Please know that when I say “rural Bolivia,” I’m making an assumption that all other rural Bolivian towns are the same – whether that assumption is true or not, I don’t know yet. I’ll keep you updated though! Also, this post is long – I’ve learned a lot! Sorry! And lastly, I don’t know why, but I wrote in “you” form because it sounded nice, but this is all about what I have learned and what I have taken away from each experience, but what gives!! The “you” form is nice every now and then! 🙂 Alright, here are some things you should know about rural Bolivia:

On walking down the streets:

Greet everyone. Don’t just nod, but make eye contact and say “¡Hola! ¿Buenos días?” Or “¿qué tal?” If you start up a conversation, ask them their name and where they’re from. Remember this information for the next time you bump into them in the market, which will be every time you walk through the market. At least remember their name and walk up to their blanket covered in vibrant fruits the next day with a smile on your face and say, “¡Hola, Levana! ¿Cómo está? ¿Cuáles frutas tiene hoy?” Even if you don’t plan on buying fruit that day.

On the drinking water:

No water here is clean enough for your precious stomach. You grew up in the US, or Germany, or Canada, where the water is filtered, then filtered again, then purified, and the filtered one more time before it reaches the pipes in your home, where it will go through a final filtration system (just in case) before entering your glass. It’s not your fault, in fact, it’s a good thing. We come from places where we don’t have to worry about ameobas crawling through our stomachs after drinking a glass of tap water. Some are not so lucky. The one thing to do when in Bolivia is take your Steripen everywhere. Treat that thing with the utmost respect and care. That tiny little UV light machine is your weapon against all things (well, some things) bad in the world. It is. Your protector, so treat it well. Don’t be afraid to use it in a restaurant or at your homestay, but do be prepared to answer questions in a non-superior manner and explain yourself in response to questioning looks. It’s not your fault that your stomach was treated well, while at home, and is now too weak to handle the types of bacteria floating around in the water here, so you have to take extra precautions to make sure you don’t get sick. They might not totally understand, but at least you no longer look like a fool who’s stirring around a UV light in their water bottle for 90 seconds before drinking out of it!!

On trekking:

Backpacking is backpacking, unless you’re in rural Bolivia, in which case you’re climbing 4,000 feet a day and your stuff is being carried by a pack mule (or eleven). First, know that altitude sickness is real and it’s rough, so when you feel like your skull is being crushed and your ears are attached to your shoulders via a tube that keeps turning and tightening and the clouds that you’re hiking through start to seep through your skin and collect in your brain, making it hard to think, say something. Stop going up because it’ll only get worse. Drink water, eat bread, take naps, and take diamox. The earlier you advocate for yourself, the better you will feel and sooner. Second, remember while you are trekking that the arrieros (guides) are your guests. You are their hosts. Learn their names, speak to them in Spanish, invite them to play games, offer them food, ask about their families, etc. These people are helping you have an amazing experience. Help them have an amazing experience as well.

On agreeing to a “walk to town”:

This one’s more specific to Sorata, I think. When you agree to “walk to town,” know that it is not in fact a “walk to town” and is nothing anything like a “walk to town,” but rather a strenuous hike up the side of a mountain that many would consider an adequate hike for the day, which will leave you gasping for air, sweating, chugging your freshly purified water, and questioning why you ever agreed to “walk to town” in the first place. After you calm down and cool off for a bit, you’ll realize that it was in fact a good idea to “walk to town” because now you get to interact with people in the town, buy a mango or chitimoya, play soccer with a group of little kids, maybe use the Internet for a few minutes, or experience a traditional Bolivian meal, in which case you walk out of the restaurant stuffed (often with your pants unbuttoned) and wondering again, why you decided to “walk to town” in the first place.”

On being an American in rural Bolivia:

We are classified as loud, rude, spilled, bad mannered, greedy, and conceited. Before you start to fight that and say how it’s not fair, it’s true, and the best thing we can do is break that stereotype while we’re abroad. Don’t give into it. Fight that stereotype as hard as you can for your younger American friends and family who will one day walk the same streets that you have. Lower your voice. Your voice is always too loud. Look around and see how the people near you are acting and speaking. Copy them. Don’t talk over the person next to you, but rather wait until they have finished so as to minimize the volume of your table. Never ask for something without saying “por favor” before the deed has been done and then “Muchas gracias” afterwards. Everything is prompted with please and closed with thank you here. If you are in the market and you are buying a mango for tres bolivianos, don’t pull one hundred bolivianos out of your pocket and hand it to la vendadura blindly. No one will appreciate that. Showing off your wealth in a place where there is so little wealth and such disparities is a bad idea. Take what is given to you and eat it. People here please through the stomach so do your best to finish what is on your plate and be sure to compliment the person who made it, asking questions about how it’s prepared. If you have dietary restrictions, explain them as best as you can, but be prepared to pick chunks of meat out of your “sopa vegeterania” and do it with a smile on your face because you know they tried their best. Upon walking into a room where people are eating, say “buen provecho” and do the same as you leave. Never enter or leave a building without greeting the people inside it. Lastly, you are a visitor. You are not superior, but you are also not inferior. You can negotiate prices in the market, but know you will still get ripped off. People will stare and call you a “gringo,” and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s what you are. Accept your status and learn. Ask questions. You have as many questions as they do, so be prepared to ask, but also be prepared to answer. 

On existing (for lack of a better word):

In the US, everything is fast, loud, and clean. In Sorata, which again, I am unfairly accepting as the norm as far as rural villages in Bolivia go (for lack of superior knowledge), everything is slow, quiet, and a very different kind of clean.  I have learned in the last ten days to slow down and appreciate what’s around me. I called my parents the other day to check in and they were struck by how slowly and quietly I spoke. They asked what was wrong, if I was sick or was missing home, and I said, “no, I’m just calm,” and after some though I added, “I think the right word is tranquil.” I have journaled more in the last week or so than ever, I think, and not just about my itinerary, what I have done and what I have seen, but how it makes me feel and what those experiences make me think about. I have shared deep thoughts about myself and my views on the world and our surroundings with people whom I have only recently met because, why keep that to yourself? I think you’re supposed to keep too many things to yourself nowadays instead of being open about how you’re feeling. That’s changed since I got here. I’ve found myself sitting on the steps or looking out at breakfast and getting lost in the beauty of our surroundings – the red berries on the trees, the bright green grass, the sounds of the birds and the river, it’s all so nice to absorb. That covers, on the surface, the calmness, quietness, and slowness of rural Bolivian life. Now for the “very different kind of clean” aspect of Bolivia. First, let’s talk wildlife. This morning, I was writing in my journal and looked down to find a spider about half the size of my palm climbing up my shirt. If this were to happen three weeks ago at home, I would’ve shrieked, probably posted a picture on snapchat or something, and then killed it (or gotten someone else to kill it for me.) But since I’ve been here, I’ve really started to understand the importance of the ecosystem and how bugs play a major roll. There’s a piece of paper in my room at Altai Oasis that reads, “don’t kill bugs on the wall. They’re more important than you think. A simple cup and paper removal should do the trick. Thank you!” So I flicked it off of my shirt, took a picture for reference (because that’s the type of person that I am), marveled at the size of its eyes, and then went back to writing. Similar to the overwhelming presence of bugs, it seems that everywhere you look, there are dogs, cats, chickens, pigs, and cows. These kinds of animals carry diseases, though, when not cared for properly. And animals like these are almost never cared for in the way they’re cared for in the states. These animals lounge in the streets, fight with each other, mark their territory, etc. Many have red eyes from the sun, I think, and fur that looks like it’s never been washed before, but maybe that’s the American in me talking. Regardless, we learned to look but not touch to minimize risk. Rabies is real and even a little scratch that breaks the surface of our skin warrants an evacuation to an advanced medical facility, probably in Argentina, where we can get the necessary and proper medical attention. Even still, though, I’ve noticed that Bolivians rarely interact with these animals. They take care of them, they yell at them when they’re somewhere they shouldn’t be, sometimes they feed them, they honk their horns when they’re about to run over one of them, but they rarely touch them. I guess they take care of themselves first. Now, for the streets: There is hardly any pavement in Sorata; all of the roads are cobblestone, grass, or dirt. Every time a car drives by, a cloud of dirt follows, sticking to your clothes and skin. The street food is everywhere. Hot oil reeking of fried pollo y papas or who knows what clings to you as well. And when you stop at a fruit vendor and purchase a mango, you don’t wait until you get home to your cutting board and knife. You stop on the side of the street, rinse it with some purified water, peel it with your teeth and fingers, and eat it, the sweet sticky juice running down your hands, arms, lips, and cheeks. It sounds messy, but then you hop in the river or a quick shower and you’re back to being somewhat clean again. Cleanliness is incredibly important in this part of the world. It’s a sign of respect. You are expected to shower every day and not smell bad. I like to call it a messy kind of clean. Your pants may have mud all over them and your shirt may have not been washed for weeks, but so long as your face and hair are clean and you smell fresh, you’re doing just fine.

It’s a lot to think about, being in a new place with new people and trying to do everything right. But it’s important to understand that everyone knows you’re a foreigner and they’re expecting you to mess up and that’s okay. You’re going to make mistakes – plenty of them. Rather than getting down on yourself, though, you ask what you should’ve done or should’ve said and learn so you don’t make the same mistake twice. Every interaction we have here is transactional. You learn something from the people you talk to and they learn something from you. It’s never one sided, and that’s the most important thing to grasp. If you knew exactly what to do and what to say in every situation, you wouldn’t need to be on this trip. If you were fluent in Spanish, maybe you would’ve chosen to go to Nepal or the Congo instead. You’re here to learn, to fail, learn how to fail, to succeed, and to grow. It’s your time.