Peru, Bolivia, and a Nonexistent Basement

Living in an Andean country has its challenges. Remember my little friend, Juan the Amoeba? Well, I just want to announce once and for all that he is 100% DEAD. I already suspected he had evacuated the premises, but now I know for sure. Juan, you and your family will NOT be missed!

Then there was the coup attempt, several attempted robberies, and the simple fact that living in a South American country — no matter how beautiful, no matter how sexy it sounds — isn’t always that easy. But sometimes the challenges have nothing to do with what’s happening on the “outside”; they spur from the personal choices we make, and the struggle to both give and take from these decisions.

Well, I’m not the only one who has tossed her hands up in the air, given up the comforts of home and taken on an adventure in the Andes. Today’s guest blogger, Julie, shares her honest mixed feelings about a deep-seated desire to uproot herself from both her American and Danish homes, while acknowledging that sometimes there’s nothing quite like watching a football (no, not soccer) game at a Massachusetts bar with old friends, and blueberry pancakes.

Contemplating Life and Moving into my Parent’s (nonexistent) Basement

By Julie.

In two weeks I’ll be finishing up a 7-month stay in South America, of which I’ve spent 3 months in Peru and 4 months in La Paz, Bolivia, working for a microfinance organization as part of my master’s studies. What a perfect time to do some REFLECTING! There’s a lot of stuff I could reflect about – the expectations I had before leaving and how the reality has matched up, what I’ve learned about the world of international development (and perhaps what role I want to play in it), how I’ve grown professionally or personally…

International dance festival a few hours outside Puno, Peru. Photo by Julie.

To provide some background – I grew up in the States, but a longtime fascination with my mother’s native Denmark lured me to the other side of the Atlantic at the age of 21. I have been based there ever since (approaching 5 years). On top of this, I am pursuing a career in international development, so naturally, I get these questions a lot: Where do you want to live when you grow up? Where are you going to settle down? Even if other people weren’t asking me, I wrestle with these questions on my own. And even if I told you right now where I thought I would end up, my answer would probably change tomorrow. Not only am I torn between the choice of living in the developed or developing world (where the work is naturally more interesting), but the Denmark vs. America choice also factors in.

These last 7 months have reminded me that there’s something truly special about being abroad, the people you meet and the friendships that develop (when I say being abroad, I am not including time spent in Denmark, though that is special too…in a different way). One of my all-time favorite social scenarios, one I encountered both when I backpacked through South America and again now, is being out to dinner with a huge group of people from all different countries, where I haven’t known anyone for longer than a few weeks or months (in the case of backpacking, it was more like hours).

Preparing Juanes (a traditional Amazonian dish) at a friend's grandmother's house in a small village down the river from Pucallpa, Peru. Photo provided by Julie.

That being said, a recent trip home to Boston for a friend’s wedding reminded me of a very different type of social interaction (or togetherness), one I definitely didn’t value enough during my angsty teenage years. I’m referring to the time spent with the people that were there to witness the sweatpants and matching turtlenecks, the mini-backpacks, and the braces and bushy eyebrows.

My “sheltered” upbringing in a small suburb of Boston always pushed me to seek opportunities away and abroad, but in my older (eh herm, wiser?) years, I’ve really come to appreciate the phenomenon of “this person has known me my entire life.” And holy crap there’s something comforting about spending a Sunday afternoon, tired and knowing you aren’t your most attractive nor coherent self thanks to the champagne in the bridal suite at 4 am, watching the Patriots game at a bar and realizing the people sitting in the booth with you know you better than anyone and don’t really care that you sort of look like crap. I’m not joking when I say that the week home left me thinking it was time to call it a day with all the traveling and move into my parents basement. (A decision slightly complicated by the fact that we don’t have a basement.)

Clients from the organization I was working with in Peru gather for all-day workshop. Photo by Julie.

After a week of battling snowstorms and catching up with friends, it was time to get back to my life in La Paz – the one that, during the previous week home, had felt like a distant dream. A distant dream that I questioned how badly I wanted to return to, knowing there were just a few weeks to go.  And on my first weekend back I managed to see every one of the handful of friends (I now realize) I’ve gotten so close to since getting here in early November.

That’s another thing about being abroad – these types of processes are mysteriously accelerated. I think it’s something about everyone being in the same position, strangers in a new country, and maybe we have more in common to begin with if we are in fact both drawn to living in La Paz.

Side note: There is something unsatisfying about writing a post about the friends I’ve met abroad and referring only to other foreigners (and mostly Americans). But unfortunately it can be difficult to meet and develop a relationship with the locals, especially if you are in a place for such a short time. And while I have met many Peruvians and Bolivians that I’ve gotten close to, this time around, the lasting friendships seem to be with Americans.

Coroico, Bolivia. Photo by Julie.

The underlying point about friendships old and new is simply that the existence of one reinforces the value and importance of the other and vice versa. I wouldn’t be happy if I only had friends I’d known short-term and I can’t imagine I’d be happy if I’d never met anyone new after my childhood. The same idea can be applied to the more general “being home” vs. “being abroad.”  I’m probably more capable of appreciating and enjoying time spent at home because I know that the abroad and the adventure is out there waiting for me, and I’ll be getting back to it soon enough. Likewise, I am better able to enjoy time spent away because I know there is a home (and delicious blueberry pancakes) waiting for me.

It reminds me of a very cruel and unreasonable ”would you rather…?” I once heard: Would you rather be in your home country and never be allowed to leave it or be outside it and never be allowed to return (but free to travel to every single other country in the world)? This presents a tradeoff that would make living a satisfying life very difficult for me… so I’m grateful that the chances of ever having to make this decision are very slim!

The view of the Illimani, taken from near Julie's office in El Alto, Bolivia. Photo by Julie.

So in the spirit of making grand statements about how the last 7 months have impacted me (in addition to the thing or two I’ve learned about microfinance), I’ve learned an important lesson about the life I want to live: Though I don’t know what country I’ll end up settling down in, I’ve identified the balance I’ll have to achieve if I want to be happy. So my next step? The simple and straightforward (ehrm?) task of achieving that balance.

Julie visiting with a borrower outside Cochabamba, Bolivia. Photo provided by Julie.

Julie is the sister of Tavel’s friend Erik from Bowdoin, and while the two have yet to meet in person, for years now they have enjoyed a Facebook friendship that has quietly blossomed into a blogging friendship. You can read more about Julie’s South American adventures on her blog, Julie’s Kiva Adventures.

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2 Comments

Filed under Bolivia, Contributor, Life Stuff, Peru, Travel

2 responses to “Peru, Bolivia, and a Nonexistent Basement

  1. Pingback: Links to Blog Posts Written by Yours Truly | Julie's Kiva Adventures

  2. Buena suerte! I think balance is the elusive key to the ultimate happiness in life. I loved La Paz, what a cool place to live!

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