As part of my studies, I had the opportunity to not only study abroad, but also do an internship abroad. Both were probably the most exciting part of my entire study programme. After such a wonderful time during my study abroad semester in New Zealand, where I made friends that became my family; and after spending three weeks with the most amazing people in Australia; after having these experiences that changed my future plans so much, it was a bit hard for me to move on. The good side of things: I was really excited to start my internship in Bolivia – the part of the studies I was most looking forward to – and I would finally get to South America, something that always seemed impossible to me.
It was 31st of December when I was standing at the airport in sunny, summer-like Sydney, still sad about saying good-bye to my previous places of feeling home and trying to imagine what Bolivia would be like. At this point, I started my 3-days journey to South America.
Stopping over in Fiji and celebrating New Year’s Eve on the plane to L.A. and then in L.A. again (!!) already turned my mind upside down. Was it Monday, or Tuesday? Is it still 2012 or already beginning of the New Year? I really had no idea and somehow I didn’t mind. I liked this feeling of floating between time and space. While jumping around between day and time difference my next stop was El Salvador, then Bogota, and finally: BOLIVIA !!
I couldn’t believe that I really made it, but there was no time to allow my mind to rest. Waiting at the immigration entrance at the airport in La Paz, I was more than nervous whether I am allowed to enter the county or not – thanks to an incident in L.A., where my visa for Bolivia apparently was not valid and I was asked to buy a return-ticket in order to at least “have a chance” to enter Bolivia. Well, what other option did I have?
No reason to be nervous though – in Bolivia I was not even asked for how long I am going to stay and nobody was interested in my return-ticket. What should I think about that? Well, I was just relieved, but the next obstacle was already waiting: How to get to Cochabamba??
My internship organization, Sustainable Bolivia, told me to take the bus, which I thought would be right there next to the exit of the airport. Yet, this airport seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, it was 3 am in a freaking cold morning, I was exhausted, my Spanish seemed to have stayed a little while longer somewhere along the route of my journey, and there was neither a service point nor a telephone around. BUT, and this is a moment in life that I will always look back to with a big, thankful smile, two angels came along (really – it felt to me like meeting angels in my situation): Samuel and William, living in the States and visiting their family back in Bolivia. These two guys took me to the right bus, bought the tickets for me and made sure I got everything I need to travel on to Cochabamba since they were heading to Oruro (4 hrs away from Cochabamba). So, after another 8 hours of traveling on the bus, YES, I was there, right there in COCHABAMBA!!
I was welcomed with a nice, warm sunshine and the smell of freshly baked empañadas. People everywhere waiting for a bus, a taxi, or selling and buying food from one of the little “stalls” along every corner of the road. It seems everyone can open a little, let me call it, “mobile shop”. All you need is something to sell and something to carry it along the road, whether it is a little wagon, a basket, or one of the typical Aguayo that usually women of the Quechua and Aymara culture wear on their backs.
My contact person from my main internship organization took me to my new home (luckily everything was arranged before I got here). At the beginning I was living with two other volunteers from the States, a guy working at the main organization in the communications department, and one Bolivian woman in a great house right next to the biggest University of Cochabamba: University of San Simón. Every morning on my way to work or the city center, I’d pass crowds of students meeting up for their class, buying food and drinks at the shops surrounding the university’s region, or heading to one of the many copy or book shops that are placed around here. Around 10, 11 am most of people can be found at one of the food stalls eating a salteña or drinking a freshly made banana juice. Apropos fresh: I never had such delicious fruits and vegetables in my life before. Mangoes, big as a hand balls, sweet berries and pineapples everywhere, followed by mountains of vegetables shining in the brightest colours.
The first time that I have been to the market, I didn’t know where to look. I was overwhelmed by the great variety of such amazing food and the size of the market itself. Any market here seems to satisfy anything you could ask for. Try a bit of queso fresco here, get a few grams of exotic nuts there, or take some of the delicious bread home with you. In case you are not looking for food, you might want some clothes, bags, shoes, or maybe a new DVD? During the week the city center seems to be flooded with its diversity of supplies. With a few bolivianos in your pocket there will always be something you would like to have (10 bvs. ≈ 1.4 USD for which you could buy 5 mangoes, 2 or 3 loafs of bread, or get a proper haircut!!).
Getting your way around is quite simple. If you don’t want to walk – which is one of the main options to get around – you might take a Trufi (kind of a van for a group of people going in the same direction) or one of the crazy printed Micra’s (same as the Trufi, just in form of a bus). One of the first things I was told about transportation and traffic: WATCH OUT! The only rule that Bolivians really follow seems to be a traffic light shining in red. Other than that, the motto “it’s my turn” seems to apply everywhere and since every driver follows the same motto and the desire to cross the road is simply indicated by pressing the hooter, it can become quite chaotic and noisy. But once you get used to it, it works; as anything else. Even though, structures and rules are something of the future, everything works out in the end.
This is something I soon understood starting to work in my organization. Plans do not really exist. There might be a meeting coming up that is more important than any other work waiting. There are objectives to be achieved, but when and how is open to change since plans depend on daily circumstances.
I have to say, Cochabamba is a place different from anything I have experienced so far. It is full of contrasts, which makes it even more exciting to live here. On the one side you will face the poverty, seeing homeless people in the streets or old, destroyed buildings all around the city. You will see plenty of rubbish on the pathways, and bunches of dogs that don’t belong to anyone.
On the other side you will be overwhelmed by the stunning nature and cultural sphere (e.g. thinking of the massive statue Cristo de la Concordia facing the city of Cochabamba); welcomed by the happiness of the city’s aura, flashed by the many colours of clothes and food, and the Latin-American music in your ears. Towards the end of my stay, everyone was getting ready for the big Carnival celebration. Every night people would be on the streets practicing their performances mainly for the biggest Carnival fiesta in Oruro, or in other places of Bolivia like Cochabamba itself.
Yes, life is different here, which I often was reminded of in the morning doing my laundry. Doing laundry means: use your hands and wash, rub, and wring your clothes yourself. Something so simple, but also so different from the lifestyle that I was used to. However, even though it is kind of an exercise (just think of wringing your big, heavy bedding stuff) and takes quite a while, I have to say these small things that are so simple and yet so different, are those that I was excited about since they make me feel being part of the culture.
In the weekends, together with other volunteers there is always something to explore or do together and my main organization usually organized social events, such as shared dinners, hiking trips, or Salsa nights. There is no chance but meeting the Bolivian culture no matter what you do, and the little Spanish I arrived with and most of the times being recognized as a foreigner (just to mention the fact that I usually was one-head taller than anyone else), I have to say I loved this adventure, which often made me forget that one of the reasons I came here was to do an internship for my studies…