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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.

A Million Stories

This past December as I was scrolling through possible Dragons courses to join, I asked myself “What could Bolivia have to offer.” I had heard of Carnival in Brazil, the Patagonia mountains of Chile, but nothing about Bolivia. Thankfully I pressed “Apply Now” and got to have a complete change in perspective.

The typical story you hear coming out of South American countries is that the Father works while the mother gathers berries, weaves, and takes care of the children. While this scenario can be found, it’s not what we have experienced since being here for more than a month and a half.

Just as we were about to leave Potosí, a group of widows contacted us and said they’d really like to lead a lesson for us, so with all of our belongings on our backs we walked up the steep city streets to their headquarter building. When I walked in I felt so much pity for these women who had lost their means of income. At first it seemed like some sort of support group. As the sun went down they told stories of how this terrible tragedy has helped them be empowered. I specifically recall one woman who told us that while her husband was alive she was very submissive. She stayed in the house and took care of the children, and mostly kept her mouth shut. Since he had died at a young age from dust of the mines she had to completely change her role at home. She got a job, takes care of her kids, keeps the house in order, and finally has respect her in her community. In her words “I wish my husband could see me now.” With 12 or so variations of this story I left that room looking at the women and seeing a group of people who had lost their loved ones, but survived and changed their life with no support from anyone except the women in the same situation. My thoughts were racing as we took a night bus from Potosí to El Alto. The family role formula I had in my mind had just been busted wide open, and I couldn’t wait to see what was next.

In El Alto we had our first partner homestay. Chris and I lived with a wonderful family. Jackie, Alex, and their 9 month old son, Alejandro. When the father came to pick us up I thought to myself “Oh that’s strange, maybe the wife is at home with their son.” We soon learned that Alex quit is job as a restaurant owner to take care of Alejandro while Jackie continued to be a private high school teacher. I asked him if that was difficult for him and he said no, “Jackie makes more money and honestly I’d rather spend time with my son.” (All in Spanish of course) As he played with the baby in his crib and cooked lunch I thought about how I never thought I’d see this kind lifestyle in Bolivia. Chris and I got to know their close knit family better and were so lucky to experience a home filled with so much love and happiness.

Now weeks and weeks later we are settled in to our month long independent homestay. The father, Ronaldo, works as a truck driver, and the mom takes care of their 3 children including one infant. On the first day I asked what they did for work he said “Oh my wife works, not me” and I took them seriously. They both preceded to laugh at me as if it were inconceivable that the wife be the breadwinner. I laughed to myself too because little did they know of the million stories in Bolivia.