The day I left for Bolivia, I was probably the only person in the Miami International Airport that was praying they didn't see their luggage in the baggage claim area. Miami was the third airport I had been in that day and my luggage was supposed to be going on my next flight with me to Cochabamba, Bolivia, South America. Since I had a four hour lay over in Miami, I decided to check the baggage claim area to make sure my luggage wasn't taken off the plane and left in Miami.
In three big, blue plastic containers, one big duffel bag with wheels, and one well-traveled suitcase, I had packed everything I could anticipate needing for the next ten months to teach English in a third world country. The Volunteers in Mission program through the United Methodist church put me in contact with a school run by the Methodist Church of Bolivia.
The city of Cochabamba sits in a valley between the Andes Mountains at an elevation of 8,400 feet. The school I worked and lived at, Instituto Americano, has 5,000 students. In the morning, there are approximately 2,000 students in grades pre-k thru 12. The school is private and those students pay tuition. In the afternoon, the school is open to the public and there are approximately 3,000 students and the government provides their education. The grounds of the school are covered with flowers, green lush grass, huge old, palm trees, pine trees with red berries, and beautiful poinsettia trees with deep, dark red flowers.
I taught three English classes in the mornings and five classes in the afternoons. My students taught more more Spanish then than I could ever remember learning in high school. They learned the colors, the numbers 1 to 30, the days of the week, the alphabet, approximately 40 vocabulary words, some animals, and memorized a book, and a song or two...all in English.
There were times I was amazed that I was living in a third would country. I looked at the teeth of my children and they were rotted out and black. Women and children pounded laundry in a sewage-choked river and lay the clothes on rocks and branches to dry. People wore clothes that were three sizes too big because that's all they had. Other people sat on street corners to beg for money. Nothing tugged at my heart and soul more than a motherless, seven year old street kid who would hold out this small, frail hand begging for a penny or two. Old, dead palm trees were used as brooms. Some people ate soup with their dirty, filthy, black, calloused hands because they didn't even have a spoon. I saw moms breast feed their three year olds because they couldn't afford food. Toilet paper was expensive and used by very few people.
Business men and politicians strutted around the plaza wearing their crisp, white dress shirts that were scrubbed by the day before by their servants. The military men and policemen carried clubs and sometimes tear gas and machine guns. Old ladies carried groceries and children in colorful, handwoven blankets wrapped around their necks. Some people made $25 a month working for the government. They were truly barely surviving. But then, on the other hand, I had email, could send my parents a fax, and saw the separation of the classes while the rich were driving VW bugs, Toyotas, Hondas, Explorers, and even BMW's. Bolivia is definitely a country of injustice where the government and rich people take advantage of the poor and treat them like slaves and servants.
I learned to look at the world with third world eye and gained a greater appreciation for my home, my life, my country, my language, and my education. The year I traveled in Up with People, I saw what American didn't have in comparison to Europe. While in Bolivia, I saw what American has and how fortunate America is in comparison to Bolivia and other third world countries.
I loved where I was and I loved what I did. For some reason, I knew that God sent me there and I always knew I had a calling to work and live in the mountains. I just thought it would be Colorado and never dreamed it would be Bolivia! Living in another culture was a challenge and brought new experiences everyday. Whether it was the craziness of the traffic and taxi drivers, to the government wanting to won more than they should; the prices of things; my students and their love; or the way they sold things on the streets and at the market...there was something or someone that made me smile and I would shake my head in amazement. Each day was a new day and I loved my life and truly had a sense of inner peace. Though we are from different hemispheres, different countries, different cultures, and speak a different language we al still have the same common, basic needs in order to survive life. We just have a different way about meeting those needs and need to learn to respect those differences.
I've always wondered why God created so many different languages and cultures. After traveling in Up with People, and having lived in Bolivia, I have begun to realize that if we were all the same we would fail to see the beauty in others' lives and life wouldn't be a challenge. The story in Genesis, "The Tower of Babel," has more relevancy to me now, more than ever. For some, differences in race, religion and culture cause arguments and hatred, that have even led to war. Those are the unenlightened who fail to see why God made us different and life hard. If life were easy and we had everything we thought we needed, we wouldn't have any difficult times when we need to turn to God and trust in Him.
Every time I had to face something new and hard in Bolivia, I said to myself, "G.B.W.M." God be with me. My faith and trust grew a lot during those long, hard, fearful yet peaceful, months...simply because God didn't make us all the same. And for that I am thankful!