Liz Engels is an Organizer for the SEIU living between Los Angeles, CA and Minneapolis, MN. We discussed her time living in Bolivia, where she studied, volunteered, and traveled.
Where did you travel?
I lived in Bolivia for seven months in 2012. I lived in the northern (rich) part of the Cochabamba for 3 months and the southern (poor) part of the city for 4 months. I also traveled to La Paz, Santa Cruz, Chiquetenia, Rurabake, and many other small towns. For the most part, I lived in Bolivia so I could learn Spanish. I took Spanish classes at a Catholic mission for my first three months, while volunteering with an organization called Maryknoll, then volunteered with a variety of organizations for the second 4 months.
Was it important to learn Spanish?
It was very necessary. English speaking is not at all common there. However, its a really great place to learn Spanish because the dialect, I’m told, is easy to understand and they speak slowly. I think that’s in part because Spanish is many people’s second or third language there since there are huge populations of Aymara and Quechua people.
What kind of research did you do ahead of time?
There are a number of good movies about Bolivia- Even the Rain is dramatic but does give you a picture of the problems with water and access to resources. I also tried to read travel books and Wikipedia. If you google you find a lot of blogs and tourist sites that are ok: http://viivalabolivia.blogspot.com/ for example.
Once there, I used Lonely Planet. It was good but the coverage for places to stay was not that in depth and you really need that there since most hostels and hotels are not online.
Where did you stay?
Hostels, hotels and homestay. The hostels were very very basic. Usually run by a family and very cheap- like $4 a night. Hotels varied a lot but in general for $30/night you could stay in a really nice place. I would not recommend going with the chains you see in La Paz for example like Radisson. You miss out on the family vibe that the independent hotels have and you don’t gain much in terms of better food or anything. I was in a homestay when I first arrived and I found the family to be very welcoming and that was a good experience.
How did you choose where you stayed?
In terms of Bolivia, you typically have to just go to the area where the hostels are and walk around till you find a nice place or a place that’s been recommended to you by other travelers. With some hotels you can book online, but it’s not common. You can also call them, but get very specific directions about how to call because the area codes aren’t listed.
What airline did you use?
BOA is the Bolivian Airline. It is easy and cheap and very comfortable. COPA is I think Panamanian and it is a really cheap fast airline. American Airlines is very dependable and their customer service for changing tickets etc is pretty good.
What 1-3 items were you most happy to have with you?
- A high quality water bottle. I had a Klean Kanteen that was lightweight and I carried it everywhere.
- Purses with really strong straps. It’s common for people to run up behind you and slash your purse strap to take it. I learned that the hard way but overcame this by getting a tiny purse (the brand was Le Sportsac) that only carried my phone and money but had very thick, doubled nylon straps. I physically held on to the purse as I walked through dangerous areas and had no problems with theft after that. I also had a more stylish leather purse with a chain strap that was good too.
- Warm lightweight layers. In the Altiplano (Cochabamba, La Paz, Potosi) it gets very cold at night, but very sunny and hot during the day. You are constantly putting on and taking off layers so having lightweight sweaters, down jackets etc are extremely helpful.
What do you like about traveling alone?
I like having to fully immerse with the people you meet. You have to reach out to strangers and become close with people you meet pretty quickly and that’s a good challenge. It also forces you to challenge your judgements of people and question your assumptions about yourself.
What do you like about traveling with women?
I have found that my trips with women have been very collaborative and intentionally good experiences. I have traveled with men and felt like I found serendipitous adventure but the space to talk and reflect on it was very different. I think traveling with women can also allow you to have access to more people and places because especially in a country like Bolivia, people might have fear or distrust for men, yet would welcome and support the women they see because they are seen or perceived as vulnerable or less off-putting. While that part of gender norms is frustrating it can also give you access to meet and be a part of a culture in a way that’s not always possible for men.
On a scale of 1-10, how safe did you feel throughout the country?
2. After a short amount of time I felt very unsafe. I often did not feel safe walking through the markets. I was robbed several times. There were many thieves that targeted Bolivians and gringos alike. I heard about many kidnappings and muggings. There were also many wild dogs that made it difficult to do daily activities I was used to, like running.
How much of your feeling of being unsafe do you attribute to being a woman?
A lot. I felt that as a woman, and particularly a foreign woman, I was constantly being hassled on the streets. I did not feel safe sleeping alone in my housing due to theft in my area and occasional cars that would follow me as I walked home. I was also robbed several times and I think that I was an easy target as a woman. There was also the discovery of a very serious sex trafficking ring when I was there in which 1,200 women went missing, so I was very concerned for the young Bolivian women in my neighborhood.
What could you do next time to feel safer? Places to avoid/things to bring/etc.
-I would wear backpacks and purses that had strong straps so that thieves couldn’t come up and slash your bags with razors.
-I would not carry anything valuable. Even credit cards are really unnecessary in the day to day– just bring cash. I would try to buy a prepaid phone like TracFone when you first get there.
– Never take an unmarked cab.
-Watch your drinks- people do pour you a lot of drinks and its part of the culture and thats fine, but don’t leave your drink out around because people do rufi people and then rob them.
-Cover up– I brought too many dresses that were short and shorts that were short. By the end I never wore them.
-Never walk alone in streets that are dark and vacant. Be mindful of how you show your wallet/purse when you’re in public.
-One trick with the dogs that was very helpful is that if they are coming up to you, you bend down and pretend to pick up a rock that you pretend to throw at them and they run away.
-Also I would take probiotics before your trip to combat the bacterial infections from food.
-Bring Ibuprofen for the altitude and start taking 4 Ibuprofen a day before you get there to help with the altitude. Also drink lots of water and caffeine when you arrive.
– I would not bring any electronics- you can use internet cafes and there are very few places with WIFI anyway–avoid carrying a tablet, laptop, expensive phone etc. Never make them visible if you’re out in public. I had a tablet in a coffee shop in La Paz and I was pursued to my hostel and into the shared bus to the airport. I was then robbed two hours later when someone cut a slit through two bags of by backpack and pulled out the tablet while it was in my arms. The person could only have known I had the tablet and exactly where it was if they were at the coffee shop. Just avoid it.
Why You Should Go
What is the most memorable story from your time there?
The first Friday of every month, Bolivians as part of the Quechua tradition (Quechua- an ethnic group pertaining to a certain religion and language group) make little bonfires called Koa, say prayers over them, burn herbs and coca leaves and other items as part of their hopes/aspirations for the month. While it is a religious tradition, the ceremonial part happens in the beginning and then the rest of the night people are together with music, food, and a huge bonfire making a party to celebrate. I loved both the more traditional Koas that I participated in as part of my volunteer mission and the parties that others threw to celebrate.
What was your favorite part of living in Bolivia?
The Bolivian people were my favorite part. They were so welcoming and the culture was so different than anything I’d ever experienced.
Photos by Liz Engels
Interview conducted by Evy Bround