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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.

2 Americans and a Bolivian Meet in a Hostel

Preface: I’m running low on sleep so there’s a BIG chance this makes no sense, but I’ve got a lot of thoughts running through my mind and questions that are making me rethink everything, so I had to write it down. It all began, though, with a conversation in a hostel between an American, a Bolivian, and me.

I had a funny experience last night in a hostel in La Paz. After an exhaustingly long day, I stumbled into the hostel, thinking only about my bed and my pillow. I walked by the reception desk and hardly even noticed the blatantly American couple arguing with the receptionist until the woman stepped in front of me, blocking the direct route to my bed, and asked for my help. Pretty aggressively, she said, “We don’t know how the hell to tell this man that we’re not here as tourists – we’re here for work. Can you help?” The first thing that crossed my mind was frustration for more reasons than one. First, I wanted to know why this woman was preventing me from accessing my bed. It seemed so wrong after the day I had had. Second, for some reason it frustrated me so much that she knew from one glance that I was American and immediately assumed that we were on the same side… we were, but it still bugged me for some reason. I felt like at the moment, I blended in pretty well with the local population considering my skin tone, clothing, and the fact that I was intentionally walking with a purpose. And third, her level of urgency, aggression, and entitlement caught me off guard. She talked as if the man behind the desk was at fault for not understanding English. This was my first encounter since starting this trip in which there was a lack of respect for the locals and I honestly didn’t know how to react properly.

Too tired to come up with an excuse, and overcome with a weird sense of confidence from my exhausted state, I stepped up to the desk and without even hesitating, I said the following: “Hola, buena noche. Como está?” (formal greeting) “”Lo siento por la urgencia de mis amigos.” (apology on behalf of the couple and in turn, on behalf of all rude Americans in the past) “Están aquí por trabajo. No son turistas. Cuándo estén aquí, trabaján por su compañía.” (explanation) “Necesita algo de ellos antes de irse a cenar?” (active prevention for further conflicts). (sorry for the lack of grammar and punctuation… this keyboard is whack). I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been living in Bolivia for four weeks and my Spanish has improved or if I was just too tired to care about grammar, but regardless, the conversation rolled off my tongue with ease. I didn’t stutter, I didn’t hesitate, I didn’t talk absurdly slow, and I didn’t start off by apologizing for my bad Spanish. I just went for it, and it worked!

The woman who seemed to be about thirty or thirty-five looked at me, kind of shocked, as I explained to her that he needed their passport numbers and that they had to sign an agreement to follow the hostel rules before they left. I explained that it’s normal for hostels to require your passport number when you’re not in the states because it acts the same way as a driver’s license and that no, he isn’t in fact trying to steal their identity and that yes, he is in fact being reasonable. After explaining all of this in a somewhat cursory manor, I glanced at the receptionist and was about to say goodnight, when he asked me about what my group would be doing the next day. Again, without hesitation and with more ease than anticipated, I explained that in the morning we would grab breakfast and lunch “to go” and then walk to migration to extend our visas. And I told him about our 10:30 bus to Copacabana and then the boat to La Isla del Sol. And I did it all in Spanish. Before he could respond, though, said, “lo siento señor, pero estoy muy consada. Pasé más de nueve horas en la oficina de la doctura hoy y necesito dormir. Podimos charlar mañana?” He responded with a smile, “Ah, claro que sí, señora!” and leaned over to give me a kiss on the cheek (a common greeting), “buena noche!”

I started to walk to my room, when the woman stopped me once again. “How old are you?” she asked. After I told her I was eighteen, she informed me that her husband was confident I was at least twenty-five years old. I let a questioning look slide, which gave away my utter surprise and she clarified, “You seem older – confident. You’re worldly, I guess. I don’t know” she said casually, rushing her thoughts along. “You just seem like you know a lot. Well, I’ll let you go to bed. Thanks for your help” and she walked out. “Buena noch- I mean, good night!” I said, more to myself than to her as the door slammed shut. I stayed, my feet stuck to the floor. The only thought I could form in my head was, what in the world just happened?

Later, as I lay in my bed, I couldn’t help but feel conflicted. I, the “confident, worldly and knowledgeable eighteen year old” judged this woman so hard from the second she stopped me to ask for help to the second she walked out the door. For some reason or another, I felt justified to judge this woman because we’re both American and because in that moment, only one of us was aware of our privilege. When I speak to people in Bolivia to ask for help or just to start a conversation, I do so with the utmost respect because I’m a foreigner and because I was taught to do so and have been doing so for the last four weeks. In no way, though, does that make me better than her nor does it give me the right to judge her. In fact, it should’ve done the complete opposite, I think. Actually, I don’t really know what I think. I was so tired and so shocked by the interaction and how I handled myself and how the woman handled herself that I couldn’t help but compare the two of us. After all, she’s the first American I’ve interacted with since the trip started, so it’s only natural to compare, right? Wrong.

On this course, we have spent so much time learning about the world’s view of America and Americans, becoming self-aware, challenging our concepts of privilege, and learning how to deal with feeling embarrassed by our appearance and what connotations that has. I have spent so much time learning how to be a “good American” while in Bolivia that somewhere along the lines, the term American became synonymous with bad or wrong. I constantly criticized aspects of America and the way the typical American acts in ways that were completely and utterly unfair. Interjection:sorry for my use of the word “American” to describe US citizens, well people who live in the US, rather. It’s very Western of me to assume that “American” means “from the US” because people from Bolivia and Guatemala and Chile and Brazil are American too, so that is my subjectivity coming into play. Apologies. Nevertheless, though, I have become so aware of what it means to be from the US and how that is seen from a Bolivian standpoint that somewhere along the lines, I began viewing people from the US the same way they’re viewed by foreigners: rude, hasty, loud, aggressive, etc. But in retrospect, looking back on how I reacted to that interaction in the hostel, I was acting in the exact way that I had criticized others for (sorry… grammar… you get my point). I was rude by judging this woman for no reason at all, I was aggressive about not staying to talk to her or the receptionist, I was hasty in my explanations, and I was loud – not in my volume, but rather in my facial expressions that revealed how I felt.

I don’t know when or where I got the impression that I am somehow superior as a result of my self awareness, but I do know that it is a problem that I needed to address, because in actuality, I am exactly the same.  I am just as “American” as the woman in the hostel, just with a little more experience with speaking in Spanish and with general life in Bolivia, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with being from the United States, it’s what you do with it that makes the difference. I like to think that I’ve been asking the right questions and challenging myself in the right way, so in theory, I’m doing great, but when put to the test and forced to interact with someone with my same background, I didn’t do so hot. But it takes practice and it takes time.

I recently thought back to my high school experience and how sheltered I was, coming from a wealthy town, going to a good school, living in a big house with tv’s and computers and a full fridge all the time and hot water and AC, and not thinking too hard about how the rest of the world lives. Now that I’m here, in La Paz, Bolivia, I’ve learned a lot about the world, but I still feel sheltered in a way, because now, I’m only exposed to the polar opposite of what I knew/know. What comes next, I think, is being able to think of the world in both regards. The US, for example, is a place of privilege and access but that isn’t a bad thing (as in the US is superior and that’s bad because it’s unfair), but rather it is an outlet for growth and development. Likewise, Bolivia is a place with economic, social, and political aspects that aren’t bad or wrong, but different, and can be used to learn from.

At this point, there are just a bunch of thoughts, that are probably somewhat repetitive, running through my head and I’m not sure where they connect or if they connect at all, but they’re important and I know I can grow from them, so bear with me for a bit. From the moment I got of the plane in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, I wore my privilege on my sleeve and was embarrassed by the color of my skin, the name of the bank on my debit card, the brand of my tshirt, etc. It was the first time I had ever felt that way before and the way I dealt with it was by criticizing the US. When we sat as a group in a restaurant and didn’t realize how loud we were speaking, the justification was that “we’re American,” as if it’s expected of us so it’s okay. And when we paid for a chocolate bar on the street with a 100 boliviano bill, we laughed it off and said, “ugh, that’s so American,” as if it was okay. But that’s so not okay. I let the mentality that the obnoxious things we do are because we’re American get the best of me. I shouldn’t be criticizing the US and people from the US because, frankly, that’s just how the US is. We’re loud, we’re impatient, and we move too fast. But that’s okay. Bolivians have qualifiers as well. They can be loud, rude, and obnoxious as well. If a Bolivian came to the US, for example, and got behind the wheel, people would be enraged by how reckless and rude they are. Similarly, if a Bolivian woman who works in the market selling juice packed up her stand and moved to the states, people would be shocked by how aggressive and loud she is. But that’s what happens when different cultures mix. Neither is right and neither is wrong. Likewise, neither is superior nor inferior. Just as people from the states stand out in Bolivia, people from Bolivia stand out in the states. They’re different and that’s what makes the world go round. Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t me saying that it’s okay to be rude and obnoxious in another country because it’s the “American way.” It’s quite the opposite. It’s me saying that it’s okay to stand out when you’re in a different country because of your nationality, but it’s how you use that to help you learn and grow and act appropriately in situations that’s important.

I have so much learning to do about the different parts of the world and how it all fits together. By doing that, I think it’ll help teach me why certain things don’t fit together our how they maybe could if things were different. I’m anxious to keep traveling, seeing the world, and asking big questions. And I’m excited to keep challenging my identity to the point where I don’t know what I stand for, what I’m proud of, what I want, or who I am. It’s the best way to learn and grow, I think.