1/23/2014: Pre-departure from Bolivia

Right now I’m sitting in my cozy hostel in La Paz, relaxing after a morning filled with exploration and people-watching. Tomorrow, I leave for Trujillo, Peru, to begin the last (already!) part of my gap year teaching English to kids living in a low-income part of the city via Horizon Schools Peru. So now, it’s time to reflect. My gap year is almost at an end, and the fact that I’m about to enter the very last phase of it makes this pre-departure blog extra important. What have I learned? How have I changed? What has Bolivia taught me, and what are my goals for Peru? How am I possibly going to get out of bed at 3 AM tomorrow to make my flight? These questions are bouncing around in my head right now.

I’ll start with what I’ve learned from Bolivia, and how living here has helped me to grow. Let me first say that often, I have found myself frustrated with the rural Bolivian way of life. This happens in every country I travel to – as a foreigner, it can be difficult to move past differing cultural values (in this case: punctuality, reliability, hard work) and simply accept a culture for what it is. But every country and every culture has something important and unique to contribute to the world, and the only way to find it is to stop comparing their culture to yours.

I was able to do that after a few weeks of vexation, and it was a very beneficial experience. I learned a lot from Rurrenabaque during the two months I lived there. Oftentimes, sitting at a breakfast cafe crowded with one or two-day tourists, people would extend their sympathy to me because “there’s nothing to do here!” They spoke the truth. There isn’t much to “do” in Rurre if you’re not looking to fork out a load of cash for a jungle tour. (I wasn’t – I spent plenty of time in the jungle doing medical work.) But these tourists were missing something. In the short time they spent in Rurre, they never got to really understand it. The point of living in a town like Rurre is not to have “things to do.” That’s not what it’s about. Living in Rurrenabaque is about friendship, family, safety, and peace. As one doctor in my clinic told me, “I live here because I want my children to be free.” She explained how unsafe La Paz, her hometown, can be for children. She told me how the community of a Rurrenabaque is so much closer and more positive than that of La Paz. How her son and daughter love playing outside. These are the reasons people live in Rurrenabaque, and because I stayed there for such a long time, I came to appreciate the town and its peoples’ way of life. That isn’t to say I wasn’t bored sometimes, or that I personally would like to live in a small town (I prefer cities). But I took the time to understand a bit about the Rurre culture, and I’m better for it.

I learned how to accept the world as it is, and how to make the most of what I have. I will leave Bolivia with more peace and less need for the constant stimulation we suburbanites tend to grow accustomed to. In the life that we live, there is so much fixation on “finding happiness.” So many people feel that in order to become happy or feel satisfied, we need things, both physical and not. Falling in love in the most amazing way. Finding a perfect soul mate. Earning more money. Being attractive and interesting. Reaching prestigious heights of success and achievement. Nearly every influence in our lives points to moving faster, becoming better, winning. Getting bliss. But that’s not real.

In this chaotic mix of pressures and desires and emotions, lots of us have forgotten that the path to “happiness” or contentment is inside ourselves. It does not come from external things. It comes from humility. It comes from moments of stillness and love. It comes from the ability to appreciate without wanting. I love achievement, I love progress, I love goals. They’re wonderful values that make the Western World what it is. But those things cannot bring peace. They won’t create the happiness that everyone is looking for. They are good things, but they aren’t the most important things in life. They’re outside, and happiness comes from inside. That’s something the people of Rurrenabaque seem to know better than us. The monks in Thailand knew it too.

As for Peru, I have four goals: I’ll make quality friendships, help the students as much as I can, continue to practice my Spanish, and eat a ton of delicious Peruvian food (guinea pigs, anyone?). Along the way, hopefully I’ll glean something valuable from Peru, and give something valuable in return.

So now that that’s all settled, I’m going to go eat lunch and mentally prepare myself for waking up at 3 AM tomorrow. Maybe I’ll peruse the alpaca sweater market outside my hostel. Wish me luck, have a great day, and thank you for reading.