As an International Security Studies major with a focus in Latin American Studies, I was thrilled to go on a trip to Bolivia, a country that I had lived in previously for nearly 7 years. It is incredible how our minds manage to remember select pieces of information from our past; sometimes forgetting about the poverty and immense differences in culture we face in a developing country.
Azacilo, Bolivia was dizzying. At almost 14,000 feet, my lungs, heart and body were prepared to collapse. Even a seasoned athlete would breathe heavily and feel the effects here. My team was crucial to making my survival a success. Although I ended up taking home pneumonia as a souvenir, I never imagined the WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Health), as well as general life skills I would also gain.
Our team of 3 students went to this community with the organization Engineers in Action. The community, Azacilo was a 4-hour drive from La Paz, the country’s capital and hospital might I add. We went on an assessment trip through the College of Engineering course, Immersion Experience taught by Dr. Chamberlain. Let me reiterate, I am an International Security major and not an engineer in any sense of the form. I have zero applied engineering experience but traveled on this trip as the official Spanish translator. When we arrived to the community, I immediately remembered how many amenities we take for granted on a daily basis, specifically our access to electricity, restrooms, showers and other general commodities. The trip was a true test of my strengths as a person, leader and ability to adapt in changing environments. Although Azacilo community members had access to clean water, which is a major portion of WASH, they do not have daily access to the personal hygiene protocols that most Americans have. Showers were generally taken weekly, after working 7 days for 14 hours daily in the fields planting potatoes. Money is rarely used, currency is literally useless in Azacilo; there is not one shop to spend your money in the community. With 26 families on the side of a mountain, you’d think there may be a small bodega but there is nothing. The closest place to spend your money is a one and a half hour drive to Achacachi. The people of Azacilo live their lives planting potatoes and harvesting beans to trade in exchange for clothes and essentials like rice and flour. Eating potato soup for 3 weeks was very difficult for me, because in reality it tasted like dirt, but there is no other option for these people, they know nothing different. Retirement isn’t an option, as the subsistence farming lifestyle requires you to work until you essentially die.
This experience was incredibly humbling and heartbreaking all in one. Each day I reflected on my experiences and I could have cried every day, seeing how these people live compared to my own life back home. The many conversations I had where community members offered me to marry their children, bring their babies to America or even stay in Azacilo to live with them warmed my heart but also broke it at the same time. What really impacted me was that after 3 weeks I would be returning home and the community’s life would return to normal, with no foreigners and no differences aside from the small impact we made. Our time spent working to analyze their soil, water and conduct a community survey was in reality just the requirements for our trip. The trip gave me the opportunity to connect with people I would not have otherwise gotten to talk to and learn about a world unlike anything I could actually imagine.
This trip, which was not explicitly Sooners without Borders sanctioned trip, was the experience of a lifetime. These culturally enriching trips teach you skills you never thought you’d learn about WASH, yourself and the world at large. Never be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone and go somewhere thousands of miles away with a foreign culture, different language and unfamiliar issues. Take the leap and let yourself gain experience for the future, which you can apply towards many of life’s situations.
Community Service & Fundraising Chair