My perception of the word travel has changed over the last three months. Travel used to be a time to get away, to experience something new that was a breath of fresh air from daily routine. No matter whether camping within a wild landscape, or staying in fancy hotels travel was always a break from real life. These past three months in Bolivia have pushed me to think about how this “break from life” perhaps is more real and a more comprehensive learning period than most of my last nineteen years. Being in Bolivia for such an extensive period of time has required me to not think of this experience as a getting away, but setting a new normal.
The first day in my homestay was shocking. I was picked up by a woman, and through all the chaos of the first meeting, I forgot her name. My Spanish wasn’t yet strong enough for me to keep up a conversation with her on the five minute walk back to her house. I tried to keep a large smile on my face to make up for my lack of Spanish communication skills. She helped me carry my stuff to my room and then walked out into the kitchen. I remember standing there in my room not knowing if I should follow her or if I should unpack. In all the disorientation, I couldn’t comprehend that the next seven months of my life would be spent there. I was still in the travel state. I unpacked my whole backpack and put it all away. They hadn’t mentioned a meal that night, and so I wasn’t sure if there was going to be one or not. I was hungry, but was not about to ask for food in this strange place where dogs roam the streets and I understood five percent of all conversations. But as I walked out into the kitchen and I found them cooking soup. At the end of the meal I relearned my host sister’s name. For weeks after I kept my room spotless, which anyone who knows me at home or boarding school would have found bizarre, yet this life did not yet feel normal.
Over the weeks my Spanish got better, I started laughing at my own mistakes, I learned that my family always has soup before secondito, and that Timmy (our dog) really likes a pat before you enter the house. My host mom taught me how to wash my clothes outside and to plan for a day with enough water. Each morning I woke up a little less surprised to hear Spanish in the kitchen outside my room and turn on the tap to nothing coming out. Each day this life in Bolivia became a little more mine. The standard for my room gradually slipped back and I put photos of my family up on my wall. As I am writing this now, a huge spider is crossing my wall and I will calmly take my tea bag out of my cup and use it to capture the spider to release it outside. This is not a time to get away. This is my life. It is not just some “breath of fresh air.” Often, the air is not even clean such as when I run past the cow fields or my taxi truffi is bathed in the fumes coming from the back of a large truck.
This travel which we are on is full of tough and ugly learnings which are anything but refreshing. We have weekly charlas about colonization, sexism, destruction of wildlife, and privilege. We live these topics too. I see the advertisements on the street depicting white people while only 5% of the population reflects this image. My host sister, who is a radical feminist rapper, told me about death threats she has received for fighting against machismo. For almost a week, a brown cloud of smoke was visible in the closest National Park due to a run away fire from the slash and burn farming method. One night I had a conversation with my family about the privilege of water. The father of my house was a leader in the water war in Cochabamba. Here in Bolivia, we are living our education in a vivid and concrete way not taking a break from reality.
Travel holds the potential to shock a person out of their own bubble of life. One just has to fully embrace not only the amusing, new things of a place but also the lessons, the struggles, and the background. For me, Bolivia has changed my normal. It has changed my awareness of the variability of lives in this world. From helping indigenous Aymara women build greenhouses with their babies tied to their backs, to living with a family in a city so high in altitude that we saw our breath every morning when we woke up, to helping fishermen spend hours untangling nets next to a lake hugged by miles of snowy mountains, my understanding of what is regular shifted. I know when I return that I probably won’t feel ready to go back to normal activities. I know that I won’t think back to this time and think of all my hours here as a break from reality because this is my new reality. This new normal is powerful and will affect the way I see the world across my whole life.