As I was preparing to write this final post about my fall internship with UNICEF Bolivia, I looked back on some of my peers’ final blog entries, to gain some inspiration for what parting words of wisdom I should share here. Reading only a handful of posts was enough to remind me that the ending to my internship experience was not like many of my peers–if you haven’t already read my last blog post about leaving Bolivia three weeks earlier than planned, check it out here.
Of course, leaving earlier than planned meant that a lot of things were left undone. I didn’t get to conduct site visits for the Venezuelan migration project that I had been assigned only two weeks before my departure. I only made it onto 9 of the 10 lines of the teleférico (described in my third post here). I didn’t get to buy Laura a cozy pair of alpaca wool socks, like I had intended (she’s in warm Jamaica now though, so wool socks are probably the last thing on her mind). I only got to give good-bye hugs to three of my colleagues who live within walking distance of my AirBnB, and didn’t get any kind of formal exit interview or despedida at the office.
But despite all of those “undone” things, I still accomplished and learned a hell of a lot during my nearly ten weeks in La Paz (and the last two weeks of wrapping up internship deliverables from home)!
My time in La Paz reminded me that relationship building takes time. As a self-proclaimed introvert, I often think that it takes me longer than some other folks to make friends and feel like I’m part of a community. While there could be some truth to this, it’s also important for me to remember that community building doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s more likely to flourish the more that I share pieces of myself with my new community, which was a breakthrough I had after about six weeks in La Paz, when my co-worker asked if I’d be willing to cook a Mexican breakfast with her, for one of our weekly team breakfasts. I’ll admit that I was hesitant at first–what if I couldn’t find the right ingredients? What if they hate my cooking, or worse, my culture?! But this was an invitation I couldn’t say no to, so when our assigned Friday rolled around, we grocery shopped and cooked up a feast.
I had decided to make breakfast tacos–a breakfast staple in the South Texas-Mexican border community that I grew up in. At the beginning of our breakfast, I gave a quick explanation of our meal, during which I talked about the uniqueness of my home community of Laredo, TX, and passed around photos. When it came time to serve the food, I was definitely nervous to see people’s reactions. In addition to all of the compliments, smiles, and empty plates that made me content, it was people’s comments that I had clearly poured so much love into the meal that made this morning a highlight of my internship. Saying yes to cooking breakfast gave me so much in return: a content stomach, new friends, and a happy heart knowing that I shared a piece of my culture with people who truly appreciated it.
Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of my internship was having the opportunity to operate 100% in Spanish, both professionally and socially. While I consider myself a fluent, heritage Spanish speaker, I have always had major confidence issues with my Spanish abilities. This is largely due to growing up surrounded by native speakers (and being a perfectionist doesn’t help), so I’ve always felt that my Spanish isn’t “good enough”. I always thought that a longer-term immersive experience in a Spanish-speaking country could break this spell, so I’m truly grateful that I finally had this kind of experience in Bolivia! Spending ten weeks living and working in Bolivia finally taught me that my Spanish will never be perfect–I’m going to conjugate words wrong, I’m never going to know every single word I hear or read, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not fluent. Further, if I stumble over my words, or can’t find the perfect translation for the English word that’s in my head, the only person judging me is myself. Basically, I learned how to be kind to myself when I make mistakes, while reminding myself that it’s already pretty cool that I have these two languages floating around my head in the first place. These were lessons that I’ve yearned to learn my whole life, so I’m grateful to finally have internalized them through this experience.
Other random things that I learned about myself while living in La Paz:
- The good: Getting everywhere through a combination of public buses, the teleférico, and my own two legs, was a highlight of my time in La Paz–I love public transportation!
- The bad: I’ve internalized American over-consumptionism. The first time I ordered a “large” latte in La Paz, I was horrified when the “large” coffee ended up being smaller than my tiny hand. Then I was even more horrified by my reaction!
- The interesting: While it feels like a nice change of pace for a couple of days, working from home is not how I am most productive or happy. I thrive when I have a more regular routine that involves clearly delineated work and leisure times and spaces, which was just one of the lessons I learned from living through civil unrest in Bolivia.
I’m sure the reflecting I’ve done in this post is only the tip of the iceberg, and I’ll be unpacking what this experience means for me personally and professionally for many weeks and months to come. One thing’s for sure: living in La Ciudad del Cielo, working alongside Bolivia’s héroes de la niñez, and living through the aftermath of the 2019 Bolivian elections will be experiences that will always take my breath away (yes, pun intended).
I just want to end this blog post with a shout-out to the people who helped make this experience everything it was. Firstly, to my colleagues in Bolivia, especially Kathrín, Ana Lucía, Virginia, Adriana, Cesar, Carlos, Daniela, and María Andrea. Thank you for teaching me about Bolivia and all of the impressive work you’re doing to make the country a better place for children and families. A big thanks to Dr. GK for all of your support, especially when it was time to make some tough decisions. Also, thanks to the folks at International SOS and Penn’s International Risk Management for getting me home safely!
I also want to give a shout out to the people here at home, who help keep me grounded, regardless of where I am in the world:
- Mama, Papa, and Ale–thank you for supporting me in everything I do and for being excited to see every picture and hear every story. Thank you for being equally as fascinated as I was about the differences between our Spanish and Bolivian Spanish, the local cuisine, and the crazy high altitude.
- Mo–thank you for always making me laugh, and for being the best shoulder to lean on (even from afar), especially during the surrealness of my last two weeks in Bolivia.
- Suhina–thank you for talking through any situation with me, no matter how silly or complicated it is–you keep me sane in ways that only a best friend can.
- Mariel, Laura, Katie, Vanessa, Alexa, Lauren–thanks for reading every blog post and for being the greatest friends that give me things to look forward to when I came home.
And thank you all for following along my journey. As they say in Bolivia: ¡listo–chau chau, hasta luego!